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New Book Chronicles Chinese Family's Fight for Freedom

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in the United States. While best selling novelists like Amy Tan have chronicled the experience of Chinese American women, Gus Lee has been doing the same from a male perspective, starting with his acclaimed novel China Boy. Now he's written his first work of non-fiction. It's called Chasing Hepburn: A Memoir of Shanghai, Hollywood and a Chinese Family's Fight for Freedom. It's a story about how far his family ranged over the twentieth century from the Chinese provinces to war torn Shanghai to the American movie capital of Hollywood, California. Nancy Beardsley asked Gus Lee what inspired his new memoir.

GUS LEE: Truly it was my father's stories. I've been writing novels, but they're all autobiographical. And I made them fiction because my father had not given me the stories of his life and my mother's life. My mother died when I was young. So it was really the gift from my dad that allowed this story to be. The bridging, the imagination, was in dialogue.

NANCY BEARDSLEY:The book begins with your mother's refusal, together with her father's support, to have her feet bound, violating time honored Chinese tradition. Why did this become such an important theme in her life?

GL: A woman's small feet were a sign of status, because if your feet had been broken as a little girl, that meant you were an aristocrat. You didn't have to work in the fields or work in the kitchen. Her mother's job was to prepare my mother for marriage, and by having large feet, the mother knew that her chance of pairing her daughter with a good family was wiped out.

NB: So she married your father. What kind of a match was this?

GL: Not a good one. My mother's family were scholars, and that was the absolute apex of Chinese society. In Imperial China, the smartest and most learned people in society were the rulers. My father's family was nouveau riche, new money. The status was very low.

NB: And what about their two personalities?

GL: Well, they were both very passionate people, and I think it was that passion and that sense of newly expressed independence that occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century in China, as China came out of empire and struggled to become a republic. My mother was a woman of principles, and my father was a man of adventure and expediency. So when you combine a woman of high integrity with a guy who's just looking to go 3,000 miles an hour, you're going to have lots of collisions and unfortunately for my mother, lots of heartbreak, until in the middle of World War II, he decides he will romance the great Katherine Hepburn in Hollywood. And my dad was connected enough and bold enough to actually pull this off. So he does get to meet Kate Hepburn. But to do so of course means he has emotionally as well as financially broken with my mother and my three sisters in Japanese-occupied China.

NB: And once again it was your mother who proved to be the truly daring one. Would you explain how she escaped from China?

GL: Yes, this is again a very delicate, pampered young woman. And for a woman so raised to seek to walk out of China and ride in a horse cart with her three girls across the Asian land mass, across the Himalayas to reach India and then to cross the Pacific - the how of it ultimately was because she bargained with God, that God would get her to her husband and give her the long promised son that had not yet appeared.

NB: And those unbound feet were what saved her?

GL: Exactly. Without those big, flapping feet, in the words of her mother, she could not have even contemplated the trip.

NB: Chasing Hepburn suggests that America itself held out a very glamorous, magical image for your parents. How much did their lives in America live up to that image?

GL: Well, I think very close. The reality and the expectations really shook hands with each other. It's interesting because my parents were wealthy in China, and in America we were quite poor. But in America there was freedom, and in America there was peace, and to land in America in 1944 and realize that the Japanese could not reach you here and that this was a land that was not being bombed, this was paradise.

NB: After your mother died, your father would remarry and then he would have one last great romance, in a twist no novelist could have thought of, with Amy Tan's mother. Would you describe that?

GL: Amy's mom, Daisy, had seen my father at a talk show where Amy and I had spoken, and Amy said, 'Oh, my mother thinks your father is very cute.' And I said 'No, no, no. He may be cute, but he's really just heck on women.' And I of course lost. We eventually saw the two of them meet, and it was instantaneous chemistry, a 76-year-old woman and an 84-year-old man. But sadly my dad's inner nature eventually emerged, his anger, his controlling ways, and they eventually parted. So my dad's last chance and Daisy's at it was proved to be, her last chance at having relational happiness were lost.

NB: How did writing this book give you a new perspective on both the mother you weren't able to get to know that well and the father who caused you a lot of pain in your life?

GL: It's interesting that I saw my mother in simpler terms and I saw my father in more complex terms. My mother's sense of family was so commanding. And I think that's due to the great affectionate nature of her father. My father took many losses, and those losses unfortunately defined him, just as my maternal grandfather's love for my mother defined her.

NB: And do you think there were forces on both sides of the family that helped eventually turn you into a writer?

GL: Oh, absolutely, My mother was a great storyteller. My dad was a storyteller, although the older he got and certainly by the time I arrived, he stopped telling them. And the sense of adventure, Chinese storytelling tradition is about strength, courage and beauty. And my mother had the beauty, she had the strength, and my father's side had a lot of courage. So it's good stuff for storytelling.