2009-06-18 / Front Page

Family history plays part in author's books


Lisa See Lisa See JACKSON — The Harmony Chapter of the Brandeis University National Women's Committee recently continued a tradition of inviting an author to speak at its annual book and author luncheon.

On May 28 at the Oyster Point Hotel, Red Bank, the club members welcomed Lisa See, whose latest book is "Shanghai Girls."

See is also the author of "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan."

The author was welcomed by Chairwoman Hope Lewis and Co-Presidents Beverly Grush and Ilene Garlock.

"Lisa See has always been intrigued by stories that had been lost, forgotten or deliberately covered up, whether in the past or happening in the world today," Grush said in her introduction of the author. "In addition to writing books, Lisa was the PublishersWeekly west coast correspondent for 13 years. As a freelance journalist, her articles have appeared in magazines and book reviews around the country."

See was the winner of the 2001 National Woman of the Year award given by the Organization of Chinese American Women, and in 2003 she was the recipient of the Chinese American Museum History Makers Award.

As See began her remarks, she said, "Why do I write about China? I don't look Chinese."

Reflecting on her family history, See said her great-great-grandfather came to America from China to help build the Trans-Continental Railroad.

"He was supposed to work hard, earn money and send it back to China, but he found women and gambling, something that continues in our family, even today," the author said.

"As a result, my great-greatgrandmother, who was so poor, would carry people on her back from village to village to earn money for her children," she said.

At the age of 14, See's great-grandfather came to the United States and settled in California. At the age of 30, in the 1880s, he had his first business. Along came a young lady from the East who begged her greatgrandfather for a job, and he hired her to model the firm's product, fancy underwear. They fell in love and decided to get married, See said.

However, California laws prohibited Chinese and Caucasians from marrying until 1948, and it was also against the law in 28 other states until 1965, the author told her audience.

"Chinese could not own property in California until 1948, and it was also against the law on the federal level for Chinese to become naturalized citizens until 1943," she said.

"They went to a lawyer who drew up a contract as a partnership, and they eventually moved to Los Angeles where they started, in the early 1900s, a Chinese antique store, which is still in business. But they never married," See said.

By 1919 See's great-grandfather had be- come very wealthy. He returned to China with the family, built a western-style hotel, bought several factories and built the type of house he could not have in the United States.

Much of the history of See's family is contained in her first book, "On Gold Mountain: The One Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family."

"Today, in Los Angeles, I have about 400 relatives, of which there are about a dozen who look like me. The majority are full Chinese, and there is a spectrum in between," she said.

See said a lot of research has gone into her writing. She said she did not know anything about topics, such as a secret language, 17th-century life, Chinese women who were writers, or the global trade to make Chinese herbal medicine.

"I did the research, went to China and spent time in archives until I could write what I knew," she explained.

Her books are about relations and emotions: love, joy, hate, envy, friendships, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, and things she has personally experienced.

She said "Shanghai Girls" is about two sisters who leave Shanghai in 1937 and go to the Chinatown section of Los Angeles for marriages that were arranged. She said the book is the closest to her heart of all the books she has written, and that she hopes it will speak to her readers' hearts as well.

Funds raised at the luncheon will go to medical research at Brandeis University for Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.

Members of the Book and Author Luncheon Committee were Lita Diamond, Harriet Eisenberg, Shirley Fried, Dee Ganz, Morrine Greene, Judy Harris, Hedy Kaufman, Wendy Korenstein, Sheryl Kramer, Ruth Paskin, Nesha Parry, Marie Santoro, Sue Shapiro and Lorraine Sulkowski.

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