The writer Lisa See takes readers on a trans-Pacific journey in her latest novel, Dreams of Joy.
The book is a sequel to See's 2009 novel Shanghai Girls, which tells the story of two sisters, Pearl and May, who live through the turbulence of 1930s China and escape the Japanese invasion and occupation of Shanghai. They reach Los Angeles Chinatown, where restrictions on immigration have led to networks of fictitious relationships, with so-called "paper sons" claiming the right to immigrate based on forged documents.
The relationships often created real bonds as the immigrants formed family groups and struggled to survive in a new country.
The success of China's communists in 1949 created a crisis for some Chinese Americans. Many were hostile to the new government, but See says others, especially among the young, were sympathetic.
“Actually, there were a lot of Chinese going back to the People's Republic of China at that time, 90,000 in one year from Fukien [Fujian] Province alone," noted See. "But also a lot of other people who weren't Chinese, who were going to China kind of inspired by what was going on there, or even hoping to start a business.”
Once there, it was not easy to get out, and some who returned to China, both Chinese and Westerners, became victims of the political turmoil.
In the late 1950s, the government under Chairman Mao Zedong imposed sweeping changes that wreaked economic havoc.
This is the backdrop for See's story, as Joy, the young Chinese American woman, returns to a homeland she has never known against her family's wishes, and her Chinese-born mother, Pearl, follows her.
“Her delicate eyebrows, pretty nose and full lips register absolute astonishment at seeing me. Her eyes widen and become even brighter. Then I see not happiness, sadness or even anger that I'm here. It's worse than any of those. The cool shadows of indifference fall over her features. She stares at me but doesn't say a word.”
Lisa See has written several best-selling novels with Chinese-related themes. She says those themes have special appeal for her.
“I'm part Chinese. Your listeners can't see me, but I have red hair and freckles, so I don't look very Chinese, but I did grow up in a very traditional Chinese American family. I live in Los Angeles and today in Los Angeles, I have about 400 relatives, of which the majority of them are still full Chinese, and then there's this spectrum with me on one end - there are about a dozen that look like me - but this spectrum all the way up to the majority being full Chinese,” noted See.
See says she is also part Irish and that like most Americans, she celebrates her ethnic heritage.
“I think all of us here in the United States, we all had someone in our families who was brave enough, scared enough, dumb enough, crazy enough to leave their home country to come here," added See. "But there is a still a part of us that is tied to our original homeland, and we all share in that feeling no matter where you came from.”
See is already working on her next book. It concerns a nearly forgotten part of Chinese American culture from the 1920s through the 1940s, when Asian American entertainers performed at night clubs in cities like New York and San Francisco, popularly known as the Chop Suey Circuit, named after the Chinese dish that became a standard in American Chinese restaurants.
She says the entertainers were billed as Asian American versions of popular singers and dancers of the day.
“It's like the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the Chinese Sophie Tucker, the Chinese Frank Sinatra, the Chinese Bing Crosby," See explained. "They all kind of were billed that way because that was so immediately recognizable to a customer.”
See says that novel will offer yet another glimpse of the Chinese American experience.