A Daughter Returns Again to Her Roots


“Falling Leaves,” Adeline Yen Mah’s poignant memoir of growing up as the outcast child of a wealthy family in China, was a surprise international bestseller when it was published in England in 1997 and in the U.S. a year later.

The retired Huntington Beach anesthesiologist has returned to her roots with a version of her story aimed at readers ages 12 and older.

“Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter” (Delacourt; $16.95) covers Mah’s life up to age 14, when she was sent to boarding school in England.


Mah says she was blamed by her father and four older siblings for the death of her mother, who died shortly after giving birth to her.

Her father ignored her and her malicious Eurasian stepmother treated Mah and her older sister and three older brothers like second-class citizens in their luxurious Shanghai home. They were given rice gruel and salted vegetables for breakfast while their father, stepmother and their stepmother’s two children ate bacon and eggs, toast and fresh juice. Instead of the latest Western fashions worn by their stepmother’s two children, Mah wore hand-me-downs and her brothers donned old-fashioned Chinese robes.

Mah, however, received the brunt of her stepmother’s disfavor.

Sent to a convent boarding school in northern China when she was 10, she was forbidden, under her stepmother’s orders, to leave the school or have visitors; she spent holidays alone. And while she yearned to receive letters from her beloved aunt and grandfather--her only allies in the family--no letters ever came. Later Mah discovered that her stepmother intercepted Mah’s outgoing and incoming mail.

But it was at school that Mah discovered herself, following her aunt and grandfather’s advice that she could do anything she wanted in life if she excelled academically.

Says Publishers Weekly: “That Mah eventually soars above her circumstances is proof of her strength of character. The author re-creates moments of cruelty and victory so convincingly that readers will feel almost as if they’re in the room with her.”

“Chinese Cinderella” was published by Penguin Australia in New Zealand and Australia in August and by Penguin UK in England and Hong Kong (where it’s a bestseller) in September. The book arrived in American bookstores in October.


Recently returned from a 2 1/2-month promotional trip that took her to Australia, Taipei, Hong Kong, London and New York, Mah said she wrote “Chinese Cinderella” in response to the many letters she received from young girls who had read “Falling Leaves” and identified with her unhappy childhood.

Because she wrote her first book for adults, Mah said, “I was surprised they were reading ‘Falling Leaves,’ let alone writing to the author. Then I realized a lot of girls really would like to discuss their problems with their parents, but if [their] parents are the ones abusing [them], they have nobody to turn to. So they wrote to me, and many of them told me things from their lives that they never had discussed before.”

In reading the letters, Mah said, “I realized what I went through [as a child] was by no means unique. There are so many divided families--stepparents, multiple stepparents--that a lot of children are feeling discrimination and [a sense of] being unwanted.”

Mah said she wanted to write “Chinese Cinderella” to encourage these children to believe in themselves.

“I think it is extremely important for the unwanted child to have a sense of self-worth, because each child who is unloved feels herself to be ugly, devoid of charm, and whenever she opens her mouth she knows it is not something welcome.”

In rewriting her story for young adults, Mah said, she wanted to tell it from a different angle than she took in “Falling Leaves.”


“I wanted to compare my life at home with my life at school because I think a lot of children behave very differently at home compared to how they behave at school,” she said. “For the first 14 years of my life, I never opened my mouth when I had dinner with my parents at home because I knew whatever I said would not please them. Whereas at school, they nicknamed me ‘Chatterbox’ because I wouldn’t shut up. All the feelings I never had a chance to express at home came rushing out at school.”

Mah, 62, said writing for a younger audience was essentially the same as writing for adults.

“My belief is a writer tries to erase the boundary between feelings and expression. That’s the function of any artist: We try to project our emotions in our work. That’s what I tried to do in ‘Falling Leaves’ and the same for ‘Chinese Cinderella.’ ”

In writing “Chinese Cinderella,” Mah, the mother of two grown children, said she has a message for all children.

“For those who are lucky enough to have a mother, you should appreciate her and know that probably no other woman in your life will give you the type of unconditional love that your mother would,” she said.

And for those unlucky enough not to have a loving mother, Mah said, “I hope this book will encourage them to believe in themselves and transcend their abuse, transcend their loneliness and transform it into a source of courage, creativity and compassion.”