An American-born son of an aristocratic Chinese family struggles with the uncertainties of growing up torn between two cultures in a tough San Francisco neighborhood during the 1950s
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Gus Lee is the only American-born member of a Shanghai family. He grew up in San Francisco and attended West Point for three years until his failing performance in then-mandatory electrical engineering gave him the involuntary opportunity to become an enlisted man. After receiving his law degree from the University of California at Davis, he rejoined the army as Captain Lee and served as general counsel. He resumed civilian life to become a deputy district attorney in Sacramento, then served for some years as Director of Attorney Education for the State Bar of California. He is married and lives with his wife and two children in Colorado Springs. China Boy is his first novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
“Stunning . . . Lee vividly portrays cultural conflict . . . he reminds us of Maxine Hong Kingston, both in his style and material.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“China Boy forcefully fills a gap long neglected in American literature—the strong, authentic voice of an Asian-American male.”
—David Henry Hwang, author of M. Butterfly
“EXTRAORDINARY . . . a fierce and passionate song of triumph over an alien landscape . . . alive with energy, despair, willpower and great tenderness . . . It is an exciting experience.”
—The Washington Times
“Resonating with strong characterizations, evocative descriptions of San Francisco in the 1950’s, and the righteous indignation of abused innocence.”
“Gus Lee is one heck of a writer. He has a superb command of the language, of the lingo of the street and the Chinese-American argot.”
“COMPELLING . . . This is the Chinese-American experience as Dickens might have described it . . . vividly and intensely human.”
“CONVINCING . . . OFFERS A VIVID GLIMPSE OF CHINESE-AMERICAN LIFE.”
GUS LEE is the only American-born member of a Shanghai family. He grew up in San Francisco and attended West Point for three years until his failing performance in then-mandatory electrical engineering gave him the involuntary opportunity to become an enlisted man. After receiving his law degree from the University of California at Davis, he rejoined the army as Captain Lee and served as general counsel. He resumed civilian life to become a deputy district attorney in Sacramento, then served for some years as Director of Attorney Education for the State Bar of California. He is married and lives with his wife and two children in Colorado Springs. China Boy is his first novel.
To Mah-mee, for love; to Father, for guidance; to my stepmother, for English; to my sisters, for caring.
To those who encouraged my work, with particular thanks to Lee Hause, Ying Lee Kelley, Mary Ming Zhu and Maralyn Elliott, to Susan Leigh and Alfred Wilks; to my peerless agent, Jane Dystel of Acton & Dystel and to Arnold Dolin, Vice President and Associate Publisher, and Gary Luke, Executive Editor; to Mrs. Marshall and Captain Piolonik, my high school and West Point English teachers; to H. Norman Schwarzkopf, whose faith in callow youth is still valued; to Bill Wood; and to HMR and MTH, who set the standard for excellence.
To the men and women staff and volunteers of the San Francisco Central YMCA, who ministered for low pay and long hours to the needs of youth: Karl R. Miller, Tony Gallo, Bruce Loong Punsalong, Bobby Lewis, Sally Craft, Dick Lee, Ken Cooper, Pete Joni, Don Stewart, Keith Gordon, Dave Friedland, George Wong, John Lehtinen, Leroy Johnson, Harry Lever, George McGregor, John Mindeman, Art Octavio, Buster Luciano Weeks, Dan Clement, Sherwood Snow, Dan Moses, Ralph and Lela Crockett, Lola and her cafe, and my other teachers and coaches of youth whose names could not be held as closely as the lessons they imparted. And to Toos, wherever you are.
And, to the Central YMCA Boys Department on Leavenworth—a place where all youth were of the same color, and every lad could be a hero. A place now so desperately needed, and now so sadly closed.
Table of Contents
The sky collapsed like an old roof in an avalanche of rock and boulder, cracking me on the noggin and crushing me to the pavement. Through a fog of hot tears and slick blood I heard words that at once sounded distant and entirely too close. It was the Voice of Doom.
“China Boy,” said Big Willie Mack in his deep and easy slum basso, “I be from Fist City. Gimme yo’ lunch money, ratface.”
“Agrfa,” I moaned.
He was standing on my chest. I was not large to begin with; now I was flattening out.
“Hey, China Boy shitferbrains. You got coins fo’ me, or does I gotta teach you some manners?”
In my youth, I was, like all kids, mostly a lot of things waiting to develop. I thought I was destined for dog meat. Of the flat, kibbled variety.
In the days when hard times should have meant a spilled double-decker vanilla ice cream on absorbent asphalt, I contended with the fact that I was a wretched streetfighter.
“China,” said my friend Toussaint. “You’se gotta be a streetfighta.”
I thought a “streetfighta” was someone who busted up pavement for a living. I was right. I used my face to do it.
I had already developed an infantryman’s foxhole devotion; I constantly sought cover from a host of opportunities to meet my Maker. I began during this stage to view every meal as my last, a juxtaposition of values that made the General Lew Wallace Eatery on McAllister my first true church. Its offerings of food, in a venue where fighting was unwelcome, made my attendance sincere.
The Eatery was a rude green stucco shack. On one side was a bar named the Double Olive that looked like a dark crushed hat and smelled like the reason Pine Sol was invented. On the other flank was an overlit barbershop with linoleum floors in the pattern of a huge checkerboard.
The Eatery’s windows were blotched mica of milky greased cataract, its walls a miasma of fissured paint, crayoned graffiti, lipstick, blood, and ink. I always imagined that Rupert and Dozer, the Eatery’s sweaty, corpulent cooks, were refugees from pirate ships. They had more tattoos than napkins, more greased forearms than tablecloths. They were surly, they were angry, they were bearded and they were brothers, bickering acidly over what customers had ordered, over the origin of complaints or the mishandling of precious change; enemies for life, and so angered by countless hoarded and well-remembered offenses experienced and returned that no one would consider even arguing inside the Eatery, lest the mere static of disagreement spark a killing frenzy by the angry cooks.
“Flies, please,” I said to Rupert, who was the smaller, but louder, sibling.
“Fries! Crap! Boy, how long you bin in dis country? You bettah learn how ta talk, an’ you bettah have some coin, and don be usin no oriental mo-jo on me. Don job me outa nothin!” His voice churned like a meat grinder that had long been abused by its owner.
The Lew Wallace Eatery’s proximity to dying winos and artistic kids, its daunting distance from the Ritz, its casualness in differentiating dirt from entree—all were of no consequence to young folk who had tasted its fries and salivated to worship them again. Inside, food was ample, aromas were beguiling and my scuffed and badly tied Buster Browns were drawn like sailors to Sirens.
The Eatery was central to the nutrition of the Panhandle, but it failed to draw critics from the papers, gourmets from other nations, or gourmands from the suburbs. Passersby in search of phones, tourists seeking refreshments, the disoriented hoping for directions would study the Eatery’s opaquely cracked windowpanes, the cranky bulk of its grill managers, and steadfastly move on. The Eatery had not been featured in the convention bureau’s brochures. The Panhandle was the butt end of the underbelly of the city, and was lucky to have plumbing.
San Francisco is possessed with its own atmosphere, proudly conscious of its untempered and eccentric internationalism. With grand self-recognition, it calls itself “the City.” It is foreign domesticity and local grandeur. It is Paris, New York, Shanghai, Rome, and Rio de Janeiro captured within a square peninsula, seven by seven miles, framed by the vastness of the Pacific Ocean and the interior half-moon of satellite villages rolling on small hills with starlight vistas of Drake’s Bay.
The City’s principal park is the Golden Gate, a better Disneyland for adults than anything Walt ever fashioned. It has aquaria, planetaria, stadia, museums, arboreta, windmills, sailing ships, make-out corners, Eastern tea gardens, statues, ducks, swans, and buffalo. The park runs east directly from the Pacific Ocean for nearly half the width of the City, traversing diverse neighborhoods as blithely as a midnight train crosses state lines.
The Panhandle is where Golden Gate Park narrows to the width of a single block. It looks like the handle of a frying pan, and is almost in the dead center of the city. On this surface I came to boyhood, again and again, without success. I was a Panhandler. Panhandler boys did not beg. We fought.
A street kid with his hormones pumping, his anger up, and his fists tight would scout ambitiously in the hopes of administering a whipping to a lesser skilled chump. That was me. I was Chicken Little in Thumpville, the Madison Square Garden for tykes. It was a low-paying job with a high price in plasma. I had all the streetfighting competence of a worm on a hook.
Streetfighting was like menstruation for men—merely thinking about it did not make it happen; the imagined results were frightening; and the rationale for wanting to do it was less than clear.
Fighting was a metaphor. My struggle on the street was really an effort to fix identity, to survive as a member of a group and even succeed as a human being. The jam was that I felt that hurting people damaged my yuing chi, my balanced karma. I had to watch my long-term scorecard with the Big Ref in the permanently striped shirt. Panhandle kids described karma as, what go around, come around.
“Kai Ting,” my Uncle Shim said to me, “you have excellent yuing chi, karma. You are the only living son in your father’s line. This is very special, very grand!”
I was special. I was trying to become an accepted black male youth in the 1950s—a competitive, dangerous, and harshly won objective. This was all the more difficult because I was Chinese. I was ignorant of the culture, clumsy in the language, and blessed with a body that made Tinker Bell look ruthless. I was guileless and awkward in sports. I faced an uphill challenge with a downhill set of assets.
I was seven years old and simpler, shorter, and blinder than most. I enjoyed Chinese calligraphy, loved Shanghai food, and hated peanuts and my own spilled blood. It was all very simple, but the results were so complicated. God sat at a big table in T’ien, Heaven, and sorted people into their various incarnations. I was supposed to go to a remote mountain monastery in East Asia where I could read prayers and repeat chants until my mind and soul became instruments of the other world. I had a physique perfect for meditation, and ill-suited for an inner-city slum.
God sneezed, or St. Pete tickled Him, and my card was misdealt onto the cold concrete of the Panhandle, from whence all youth fled—often in supine postures with noses and toes pointed skyward.
Some who survived became cops, but more became crooks. We played dodgeball with alcohol, drugs, gambling, sharp knives, and crime. As children, we learned to worry about youth who held hidden razors in their hands and would cut you for the pleasure of seeing red. We avoided men who would beat boys as quickly as maggots took a dead dog in a closed and airless alleyway. The compulsion to develop physical maturity long in advance of emotional growth was irresistible. It caused all kids, the tough and the meek, the tall and the small, to march to the same drum of battle.
It was a drum tattoo that was foreign to the nature of my mother, but all too familiar to her life. This beat resonated with the strength of a jungle tom-tom in my father, but it ran counter to the very principles of his original culture and violated the essence of his ancient, classical education and the immutable humanistic standards of Chinese society.
Almost to a man, or boy, the children of the Panhandle became soldiers, until the Big Card Dealer issued a permanent recall, with the same result. Noses up.
As we struggled against the fates, Korea was claiming its last dead from the neighborhood, the ’hood, and Vietnam and every evil addiction society could conjure were on the way.
My family arrived in San Francisco in 1944, in the middle of the most cataclysmic war the planet had ever suffered.
The family called the trip to America Boh-la, the Run, which is like thinking of the Hundred Years’ War as a pillow fight. The Run was a wartime journey across the Asian landmass, from the Yellow Sea to Free China, to the Gangetic Plains of India, across the Pacific Ocean to America.
Even today, this journey would be a hardship. In 1943, it was a darkly dangerous, Kafka-like venture into the ugly opportunities of total war. A million extremely hostile enemy soldiers blocked the thousand miles of twisting river road from Shanghai to Chungking. From there, with a major assist from American aviation, my family continued to India, and from India, with the help of the U.S. Navy, to the United States. It is the type of exercise where one hopes for more than a cold beer at road’s end. Since I was born in California, I missed the trip.
My family was not built for the road. My eldest sister, Jennifer Sung-ah, was fifteen. She was already tall, with long slender bones and a chiseled high-cheekboned face for which fashion models pray. She possessed unimpeachable status, for she was the Firstborn. She was resourceful, but was also a patriot, and experienced deep conflict in leaving China.
Megan Wai-la, my second chiehchieh, or older sister (tsiatsia in Mandarin), was twelve, and possessed of a charming and mirthful spirit. Megan Wai-la was as beautiful as the elegant Jennifer Sung-ah, but was poorly dressed. She possessed the strength of iron, for her pleasant disposition had been formed without the benefit of enduring care from our mother. Mother had, of course, wanted sons. A first daughter, with some good fortune, could be endured. But two daughters! This augured bad luck, and Mah-mee passed this ill fortune to the little baby girl who could be blamed for not being a son. Worn, secondhand clothes in a wealthy family were symbolic of a powerful devaluation.
Janie Ming-li was four, and enjoyed the dual status of being unbearably pretty as well as a near casualty of the diseases of China. She was at an age when crying was normal, but in a situation where a cry at the wrong time could draw a soldier’s gunfire.
In 1943 my mother and sisters were alone in a world at war. All they had to fear were Japanese Imperial troops, brigands, typhus, dufei: bandits, rapists, thieves, deserters, and the unclean. My father was a Nationalist Chinese Army officer and joined the family in San Francisco after V-J Day.
“Earth, wind, water, fire, iron,” said my mother. “This is what makes the world. I think I am earth. I crossed it, and became it, in the Run. I look at my fingernails, so clean, and still see the earth’s dirt in them. Farmers’ hands have soil embedded in the pores, so they are l...
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Book Description Dutton, New York, NY, U.S.A., 1991. Hardcover. Book Condition: Very Fine. Dust Jacket Condition: Very Fine. 1st Edition. NEW COPY. Dust jacket protected by removable Brodart cover. Bookseller Inventory # 000005
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