Adeline Yen Mah couldn't have written her autobiography while her stepmother was alive.
To do so would have forever cut her ties with the woman whose love and approval Mah spent a lifetime seeking. The woman who also made her childhood in China a living hell.
But now her stepmother is dead. And Mah, 60, is resigned to the betrayal that led to her being excluded from inheriting any of the family's fortune--estimated at $30 million.
In telling her story, the retired Huntington Beach anesthesiologist has defied the Chinese ethos that "family ugliness should never be aired in public," she has been ostracized by her siblings and, most surprising to Mah, has created an international bestseller.
"Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter" (John Wiley & Son) tells the story of Mah's unhappy childhood. When her mother died shortly after Mah's birth, the stage was set for a string of hurtful family ties. She was shunned by her wealthy businessman father and mistreated by her brothers and sisters. Her beautiful young Eurasian stepmother made the evil stepmother in "Cinderella" seem like Mary Poppins.
But Mah's story is also about a resilient child who finds solace from her bleak home life by excelling at school and finally pleases her indifferent father when she wins first place in an international play-writing competition. Sent to a prestigious boarding school in England at 14, she goes on to study medicine and ultimately finds success and happiness in America.
"Falling Leaves" is set against a backdrop that stretches from Shanghai to Orange County. It became a bestseller in England, where it was first published early last year and has since hit bestseller lists in Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. It was to Hong Kong that her father and stepmother fled in 1948 as China was being lost to the Red Army--a move they made after abandoning their 10-year-old daughter in a Catholic boarding school in northern China.
"Falling Leaves" hit U.S. bookstores this month, with advance praise, among others, from author Amy Tan, who calls it "poignant proof of the human will to endure."
"Falling Leaves" has not been released in mainland China, but it is available in both English and in a Chinese translation by Mah in Hong Kong, where it was a No. 1 bestseller.
Thomas Wortham believes the book's international success is not only because it is "a well-crafted piece of work," full of drama "and almost fairy-tale qualities," but because Mah's story provides a rare look at a Chinese family.
"I grew up during the Cold War in the '50s, in which the Chinese were an anonymous mass of people and the idea that they had the same human feelings, the same family problems, as we had was fairly foreign," said Wortham, 54. "So I think to people of my generation, we do read to find out what life was like behind that curtain and you find out it's a life, fortunately or unfortunately, that's not terribly unlike life lived elsewhere in the world."
Seated in the living room of her waterfront home in Huntington Harbour, Mah says she never dreamed she was working on a bestseller during the four years it took to write her book. "I just wanted to tell my story," she says. "I was compelled to tell my story. But the amazing thing is, somehow, it has struck a chord."
Mah says she has received "wonderful letters, mostly from younger women who applaud me for speaking the truth and revealing to the world the inferior status of the Chinese daughter."
Mah's brothers and sisters, who were given pseudonyms in the book, aren't applauding her.
"My half-sister Susan called me to castigate me," Mah says. "Actually, she comes out very well in the book, I think. She was very brave for having the courage to break free from her own mother [Mah's stepmother], which none of us had the courage to do. But she's not happy because she's very prominent in Hong Kong society, and she sees the book as a slur."
But seeking revenge wasn't the point of writing the book, Mah says. "I wanted this to be a universal story showing abused children and giving them a beam of hope so that they can transcend their sorrows and transform them into a source of creativity, courage and compassion," she says.
Mah's great-aunt was one of China's early feminists--as a child in the 1880s she refused to have her feet bound and she later founded the Shanghai Women's Bank. As a strong, independent woman in her own right, Mah built a successful career in medicine as chief of anesthesiology at an Anaheim community hospital.
After a first marriage that ended in divorce, she married Bob Mah, now professor emeritus of microbiology at UCLA. They've been married 26 years. Although she told him about her early days in China, she spoke little about her childhood to her children: Roger, 30, a Los Angeles doctor, and Ann, 22, who works for Beacon Press in Boston.
"I didn't think they would understand," Mah says. "In fact, Bob had a hard time understanding it himself."
She has overcome her reticence.
"Really, this is wonderful to be able to talk about it in such an open way after having repressed it for so many years," she says, spreading out old black-and-white photographs of her relatives on the coffee table.
There are no pictures of Mah's mother, who died two weeks after giving birth to her fifth child in the port city of Tianjin in 1937. All pictures of her mother were destroyed.
A picture of her stepmother taken in the '40s shows a strikingly beautiful woman, Mah says. To strangers, she was the epitome of graciousness. But at home, she routinely bullied and occasionally beat her five stepchildren while her own two children, Mah writes, were "the pampered ones, the empress' son and daughter: favored and privileged."
Mah believes there was an element of racism in her half-French, half-Chinese stepmother's contemptuous treatment of her stepchildren, who called her Niang (another term for "mother"). Niang, who gave all of her children European names, grew up in the French concession in Tianjin, where she learned to speak perfect French and English. Throughout her life she identified herself as French.
Mah bore the brunt of her stepmother's resentment.
"Whenever I was in front of her, I was made to feel like nothing, beneath contempt, worthless," she says.
Because her mother died after delivering her, Mah was considered bad luck for bringing death to the family. But she was also a girl in a country where daughters are considered inferior.
But that doesn't explain her stepmother's malicious streak toward her. An angry Niang once glared at Mah and said, "The problem is that you have bad blood from your mother. Nothing will come of you! I don't think you deserve to be housed and fed here. I think you belong in an orphanage!"
When a group of friends from school dropped by the house to give 10-year-old Mah a surprise celebration party for being named class president, her stepmother demanded to know who the noisy "hooligans" downstairs were. She forbid her stepchildren to visit friends or have friends visit them.
When Mah explained why the children were there, Niang slapped her face so hard her nose bled. She then commanded Mah to tell her friends to leave. Her father later ordered her to unwrap the small gifts her friends had given to her and throw them away.
Indeed, her father was as unfeeling as her stepmother toward Mah. He once tested his German shepherd's progress in obedience school by setting Mah's new pet duckling several feet in front of the ferocious dog and commanding him to stay. The mangled duckling died the next day.
Mah's siblings, following their parents' example, generally treated her no better. Her three older brothers once rewarded her for her excellent report card by offering her a glass of orange juice, which she drank and immediately spit out: They had mixed their own urine with the juice.
The only real warmth Mah says she felt as a child was provided by her beloved grandfather Ye Ye and her Aunt Baba, who shared a room with her.
To separate Mah from her aunt and grandfather, who were accused of providing "a cocoon of permissiveness" for Mah, her father and stepmother sent her to a convent boarding school in northern China.
Forbidden to leave the school or have visitors, she spent holidays alone. To further isolate her stepdaughter, Niang arranged with the nuns to have all of Mah's incoming and outgoing mail sent to her, Mah says.
Although she was reunited with her family in Hong Kong in 1949 after her stepmother's sister rescued her from the boarding school in the wake of the Communist victory in China, Mah continued to feel a sense of hopelessness.
"I wanted to escape," she says, "but I could see no way out."
The way out came in 1952, when she was sent to boarding school in Oxford, England.
As she made her own life, Mah continued her childhood quest to be accepted by her father and stepmother.
Although she feels she achieved that before her father's death in 1988, that feeling was shattered after her stepmother died two years later. In her will, her stepmother delivered Mah her final rejection: "In no event is my daughter Adeline Yen Mah to receive any portion of my estate."
Mah was crushed. But it wasn't her share of the family's fortune she wanted from her stepmother.
"I wanted her approval," she says. "That's what I wanted all my life. Very much I wanted her to love me. I didn't feel any warmth from her, and I'd be terrified of her, but I yearned for her, and I never got over that."
After her stepmother's funeral, Mah found a cache of poison pen letters from her sister Lydia to their stepmother that were, Mah writes, "filled with lies and venom, inciting Niang to hate me."
Devastated by her stepmother's final rejection and her siblings' betrayal, Mah fell into a deep depression. When it lifted after two years, she began writing her book, ultimately quitting her hospital job.
It took her four years to finish "Falling Leaves," which comes from a Chinese proverb that says falling leaves return to their roots.
Both Mah's daughter and son have read only parts of their mother's book; it's been too difficult to read all the way through, they say.
Mah is now writing a children's version of her story. It will end when she is sent to boarding school in England at 14. There, the nuns refused to comply with her stepmother's demand to have all of Mah's incoming and outgoing mail sent to her in Hong Kong. The first letter Mah received was from her Aunt Baba, who told her a children's story Mah had never heard before--the Chinese version of "Cinderella."
"She was so happy," Mah recalls. "She said, 'By escaping to England you have become my Chinese Cinderella.' "