Sunday, July 24, 2011

Book #85: On Gold Mountain

On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American FamilyTitle: On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of my Chinese-American Family
Author: Lisa See

A few years ago I read one of Lisa See's books and commented on my blog "I don't understand this woman's fascination with China-- she's not even Chinese." At which point several of my readers said, "Oh, but she is. You have to read On Gold Mountain." It took me a while to get around to it, but I'm glad that I finally tackled this book, which does, as its title sort of indicates, resemble a mountain. It's not that long, but the type is really small and the margins are narrow. My husband was reading the new ESPN book at the same time and his book was 700 pages but I think it had half as many words as On Gold Mountain.

Anyway, in On Gold Mountain, See starts with the story of her great-grandfather Fong See, who came to America (Gold Mountain) in the late 1800s and made it big. By late middle age, he'd had at least three wives (some simultaneously, in the old Chinese fashion), more than a dozen kids, and the most prosperous and well-regarded antiques stores in Southern California. He was a complicated, somewhat frustrating figure, and it's not surprising that he became a legend in the family.

Although I enjoyed the story of Fong See, what I was really interested in, as an outsider with a vested interest in Chinese culture, is the women of On Gold Mountain. Fong See's second wife (he was married to a prepubescent girl when he was a teenager in China) was a red-haired American who came to Fong See when he was running a factory to make underwear for prostitutes and told him to hire her because she could help him with his business. A business partnership turned into a marriage, and the couple had half a bunch of children. One of those children (Lisa's grandfather) also married a redhead and the story continues with Lisa's grandfather, the third or fourth son, trying to carve out a space for himself where the larger-than-life personalities of his father and older brothers won't restrict him. I thought it was really interesting that the women who married into the See family (the name taken by the American wife, the other wife's children were known as Fongs) were so drawn into the family circle and the culture that they were willing to give up their own natal culture to be part of it. See's grandmother and great-grandmother definitely considered themselves Chinese, despite their red hair.

So I guess it's not surprising that See is only 1/8 Chinese by blood, but she identifies strongly with Chinese culture. I saw the inspiration of many of her different books in both her family members and the friends they had in Chinatown. I also have some hope that we'll be able to get a little bit of Chinese in us as we add our new daughter to our family.

1 comment:

joolee said...

i loved On Gold Mountain! just finished Dreams of Joy, the sequel to Shanghai Girls - they are both FABulous. and yes, you can see so much of her family history/heritage in her stories. i'm very much a fan of See.