It Began With a Family Secret

Scarlet Cheng is a frequent contributor to Calendar

A dozen years ago, writer Lisa See was asked by an elderly aunt to record the story of their family--one of Los Angeles’ prominent Chinese dynasties. The family had always been private, to the point of secrecy about its past.

“On one hand it was due to arrogance and on the other hand shame,” See explains in her leisurely drawl during a recent interview, “and that’s how things were for 100 years. A lot of what happened in the family was illegal, a lot of it was sad and tragic.”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 11, 2000 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 11, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 10 words Type of Material: Correction
Name--Writer Lisa See’s name was misspelled in a headline last Sunday.

How her great-grandfather Fong See came to this country from China and how he stayed here, for example, was managed through faked documents--a common enough immigrant ruse. How he left one wife in China, married a white woman here, then went back to China and married a 16-year-old when he was 64 was, well, a bit more uncomfortable.


Aunt Sissee died two months after she began to reveal such secrets to See, but other relatives came forward to offer their testimony, as if to honor the aunt’s intentions. At first, See thought only to use the material for an “extended, 10-page Christmas card” to be sent to the family at large. In the end, it was far too good a saga to keep among themselves--the drama of Fong See, a determined young man of 14 who left his Chinese village for America in 1871, then built an empire starting with ladies’ underwear and ending up in Chinese antiques.

In 1995, “On Gold Mountain” was published by St. Martin’s Press and became a national bestseller. In it, See weaves together private legacy and social and political history, tracking discriminatory anti-Chinese laws and attitudes and the way Fong See and his family were buffeted and challenged by them.

This month and next, her book, now considered one of the landmarks of Chinese American literature, will spawn two more productions: an opera in a new community-based series sponsored by Los Angeles Opera, opening this week, and “On Gold Mountain: A Chinese American Experience,” an exhibition opening in July at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage.

While See’s story forms the basis for the opera and the exhibition, each looks at the material through different lenses, if not objectives. The opera distills the dramatic high points, pivoting around a till-death-do-us-part love story between Fong See (sung by Ge-Qun Wang) and his white wife, Letticie “Ticie” Pruett (Shana Blake Hill). The exhibition is far more comprehensive and less romanticized--750 documents and objects borrowed from more than 50 local and national lenders help tell the story not only of Fong See and his descendants, but also of the larger Chinese diaspora in the United States over the last 200 years.


See’s book chronicles a complex tale.

When Fong See came to California in 1871, he was seeking his father, who a decade earlier had made the journey to “Gold Mountain”--where, it was said, nuggets littered the streets. By the mid-1890s, the enterprising son had set himself up in a store in Sacramento and found an equally enterprising partner in Ticie Pruett. Pruett, as family legend has it, walked into the store one day and began selling Fong See’s wares with great success. When they decided to marry, they had to draw up a contract, because marriage between whites and “Mongolians” was illegal. Later, they moved to Los Angeles, branched out into curios and antiques under the name F. Suie One and had five children.

Then, in 1919, Fong See returned to China, now wealthy enough to build a mansion, a hotel and factories. As was not unusual for such a well off man, he decided to buy himself another, younger wife. When he returned with her to Los Angeles, Ticie insisted on a divorce. She and her children would continue to prosper with F. Suie One--right down to the present-day generations.


Peter Hemmings, founding general director of Los Angeles Opera, was one of the many fans of “On Gold Mountain.” It was just the right property, he thought, to launch a pet project of his--”Voices of California,” designed to turn L.A. stories into community operas. (Also projected for the series are operas about Latino and Native American experiences.) The idea was to combine professionals and amateurs in staging an original work, along the lines of L.A. Opera’s successful school outreach program.

“We find more interest in the convention of opera if we’ve been involved,” Hemmings says. “I have devoted a lot of my energies to outreach because we have to have an audience in the future.”

The “Voices” project took off last year when $300,000 came from Creative Kids Education Foundation, based in Los Angeles. See would write the libretto. Nathan Wang, a television and movie composer, was signed on to write the music, and Andrew Tsao, a television director whose live staging of “Julius Caesar” on the steps of City Hall in 1998 caught many an eye, to direct.

Paring down See’s 100-year history was their first order of business.

“The challenge was that it was a massive piece, and this would just get lost if we didn’t make it personal and human,” says Tsao. “I was looking for a single narrative to hang a framework on that would help us find the story we were telling.”

“We looked at the book and thought about the emotional elements,” says See, who has been an opera fan since college. “Opera is about emotions, and music is about emotions. Instead of telling a story through words, I had to think about telling the story purely through emotions, and then it started to fall in place for me.”

Through a series of discussions, the collaborators distilled the basic themes. In the end they arrived at an opera basic.

“We kept going back to the idea that at the core of this was a love story,” Tsao says. When Fong See and Ticie finally overcome all objections to their marriage, they sing, “Destiny is strange and wondrous/Our love will triumph over small minds.”

However, in another opera convention, their love will be thwarted--ultimately by Fong See’s male pride.

“I was struck by the notion that here was a man who travels from his home village at age 14 to cross an ocean,” Tsao says, “journeys down the coast of a foreign continent, finds his father, continues on, defines himself as the patriarch of an entire expatriate community--and years later has difficulty crossing the street to address what matters to him most.”

That is, the wife he had alienated and yet--according to the story--most loved. That scene now serves as the climax of the work.

Wang was mindful of his brief to compose an opera appealing to a wide audience. “So I thought I’ll try to make it very accessible, and for me that means lyrical,” he says. To that end he has, he explains, written the score more as musical theater than grand opera, and incorporated pieces of waltz, ragtime and big band to move the story quickly through the century. Although the music has been composed to the 12-note scale common in the West, he is including three Chinese instruments to lend the music Eastern flavor.

For each production, sets and costumes will remain the same, as will the six principal singers and half the orchestra. However, supporting roles, the chorus and the other half of the orchestra are coming from the Asian community--music students, community choruses and the like--in Los Angeles and Orange counties. The idea is to give nonprofessionals a chance to learn from professionals and to perform in public.

Admittedly, See, Wang and Tsao are themselves novices when it comes to creating an opera. (Conductor Leland Sun has been an assistant conductor for L.A. Opera since 1996.) But, as See says, “it’s also new for L.A. Opera to be doing it this way--as a community opera. It’s never been done before” in North America.


Even before the book came out, See had written a four-page proposal for an exhibition based on the research she was doing. Her agent sent it off to several museums in Los Angeles, and the Autry quickly expressed interest. After a longer proposal was presented, they committed to the project, with See and her cousin Leslee Leong as guest curators and Michael Duchemin as in-house curator.

“Interpreting Chinese American history is fundamental to our understanding of the American West,” says the Autry’s executive director, John Gray. “We want to recognize that Chinese American contributions extend far beyond construction of the first continental railroad.”

“Michael wanted to keep it about the family and Los Angeles--very little has been done about Los Angeles’ Chinatown,” See says, “but I was always pushing for the larger story, California, the West, the whole country.” See’s view won out.

To prepare, they looked at public and private collections around the country, and through books, photographs and documents in libraries and archives from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. In the end, about half of the photographs and memorabilia, the art and the artifacts came from See or Leong.

The exhibition is arranged chronologically through seven themed spaces--starting with “The Journey to Gold Mountain,” the background of why so many left China in the 19th century and how they managed to get to the U.S.

The building of the railroad will be part of the exhibition (Fong See’s father was an herbalist for the railroad crews), some parts of Los Angeles’ Chinatown circa 1900--where Union Station is now--will be reconstructed. The exhibition won’t skirt the dark side. Turn-of-the-century Chinese American communities were dominated by single men, and See wryly refers to the section called “Bachelor’s Society” as “gambling, opium and prostitution put into context.”

The show ends with “Traditions & Transformations 1950s-2000,” a kind of compendium of the quick progress made in the status of Chinese Americans during the second half of the 20th century, from the raised consciousness of Yellow Power in the ‘60s and ‘70s to the contributions of Chinese to high-tech, entertainment, sports (martial arts) and medicine (acupuncture and herbal remedies).


In the storage area of the Autry Museum, See points out specific objects on a table of items being cataloged for the show. “Let me show you this,” she says, her eyes lighting up. She slowly turns the yellowing pages of an oblong signature album from Dragon’s Den, which was a restaurant that her grandfather Eddy, Ticie’s fourth son, ran in the basement of F. Suie One in the 1930s.

“That’s Anna May Wong,” she says. “She used to come all the time. Growing up, I loved all the stories about the people who would come to the restaurant.” Other habitues included Peter Lorre, the Marx Brothers and even Walt Disney.

Some of the issues of the past are literally embodied in See. Eddy See married a white woman, Stella Copeland. Their son and Lisa’s father, Richard, was thus one-quarter Chinese. Lisa’s mother, writer Carolyn See, is white. Lisa grew up a red-haired, freckled kid, raised partly by her grandparents in the Chinese community surrounding F. Suie One. As she wrote in her book, “Though I don’t physically look Chinese . . . I am Chinese.”

It still pains her that she is not completely accepted as Chinese by that community.

“I’m an outsider,” she says, “I’ll always be an outsider.” On the bright side, she believes that status helps her to be a bridge between the two cultures. “That’s the key--by always being a little on the outside, maybe people are more willing to listen, more willing to share.”

Through these projects, one senses that she is making peace with her own share of history. *


“On Gold Mountain,” L.A. Opera “Voice of California” production, Friday and next Sunday, 8 p.m., Saturday, 2 p.m. Japan America Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St., $10-$20. (213) 680-3700; and June 16-17, 8 p.m., and June 18, 3 p.m., Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine, $10-$20. (949) 854-4646.


“On Gold Mountain: A Chinese American Experience,” Autry Museum of Western Heritage, 4700 Western Heritage Way, July 23-Jan. 1. Admission: $7.50; $5, seniors and students; $3, children. (323) 667-2000.