The adjective “Chinese-American” will rarely, if ever, conjure up images of red hair. But Lisa See, author of New York Times bestsellers like Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love, is Chinese American in the most redheaded sense of the term — her almost Irish appearance belies her rich cultural and family history.
See’s American saga began when her great-great grandfather came over from China to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. He went back but then her great-grandfather, Fong See, came and stayed.
“He eventually became the godfather and patriarch of Los Angeles’ Chinatown,” she says. “So today in Los Angeles I have about 400 relatives. Some look like me but a majority are still full Chinese.”
She traces her familial odyssey in her book On Gold Mountain, a nonfiction work that recounts 100 years of this little-recorded history.
“It really was the first book that took a look at Chinese-American history,” See says. “But it looked at it through the eyes of one family.”
Instead of following characters like in The Joy Luck Club, which gave an American audience a broader (and some would say stereotypical) glimpse into Chinese culture, she used authentic history, a theme that can be seen throughout her other novels.
“Chinese-American writers are very much criticized because something isn’t ‘Chinese’ enough or not authentic enough,” See says.
On Gold Mountain, however, gave her street cred with critics. “I’ve gotten different awards: Chinese American Woman of the Year, the Chinese American History Makers award, but the one that meant the most to me, that told me I had really been accepted, was I got to be a judge for the Miss Chinatown pageant.”
In college she was a Modern Greek Studies major, which she says taught her the “pleasures and surprises” of research.
“I don’t go in search of things,” she says, “It’s sort of like I stumble across them.
If I come across something insignificant, I tuck it away in the back of my mind and brood, kind of like a percolator.”
Her fictional novels, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love, use narratives that follow historical fact and research based on these “stumbles” to reveal hidden or lost stories about women.
“When you’re really following actual history, real life is strange and messier than fiction, so for a writer it’s nice,” she says. “We tend to learn history in terms of wars and dates but history is what happens to actual living people.”
For Snow Flower and the Secret Fan she takes the reader to 19th-century China, a place where women, complete with bound feet, were kept illiterate and isolated.
“I reviewed a book about foot binding and there was a four- or five-page mention of a secret lan guage,” See says. The language was nu shu, a form of writing that women developed in these remote areas of China, and she used this fact to tell a story about the bonds of female friendship.
“I wasn’t even really thinking it would be a book,” she says. “I had this passion to find out more. A lot of people will go to a movie or play tennis in their spare time but I live pretty near UCLA and I would go over to the research library to see what I could see.”
The same thing happened with Peony in Love.
“It’s not like I was looking for something,” she says. “It just kind of came my way.”
The Lincoln Center was set to mount the Chinese opera, The Peony Pavilion, all 25 hours of it, for the first time in 200 years, but the Chinese government wouldn’t let the singers, costumes and props leave the country. Because of her background, Vogue asked her to write a history about the opera, and that’s when she came across the tales of the lovesick maidens.
“The belief was that the words of the opera were so powerful that they would cause maidens to die,” she says.
In China, women could read but were not allowed to see the opera, which tells of a girl who falls in love with a man in her dreams. The main character eventually dies of lovesickness, but not before she leaves behind a portrait of herself to be discovered by her dream lover. Eventually her dream lover finds her and brings her back to life.
In Peony in Love, a young betrothed woman, Peony, becomes obsessed with the opera and a man she meets during a staging of it in her father’s garden. She becomes lovesick and spends her days writing about love and the meaning of life in the margins of the opera, hoping that her stranger will one day read these words and find her. In the end she wastes away and dies, only to discover that the stranger she loved was really the man she was supposed to marry. She spends the rest of the novel as a spirit in the Chinese afterlife, looking down on her stranger and provoking his future wives to com plete her commentary on The Peony Pavilion.
See finds love, history and family to be major themes in all of her works. “The thing is we experience a lot of emotions, but love is the one thing we all long for, the one thing we all want and need,” she says. “Love evolves and changes over time. We have one word to describe this emotion, but in Chinese they have many, many different words. Like gratitude love, respectful love, mother love…”
See also wants us to look to the past when we think we’ve changed or gotten past certain things.
“Things that have happened in the past, secrets and tragedies, have a trickle-down effect that affect the whole family,” she says. “That happened in my own family. We may not know what those things were but they do have an effect on us. They make us the people that we are.”
Lisa See speaks 7 p.m. Thursday at the Mercantile Library. $20; $15 for members.
“A lot of people will go to a movie or play tennis in their spare time but I live pretty near UCLA and I would go over to the research library to see what I could see.” — Lisa See