Friday, March 27, 2015

Literary Luncheon with Lisa See

Author Lisa See
Appearances can be deceiving.  And so it was with Lisa See, a best-selling author known for her works of historical fiction about the lives of Chinese women. First, I'll state the obvious.  Ms. See's appearance is as all-American as can be, which is not what most people expect. Nonetheless, her interest in Chinese culture and history comes directly from her own family history. (More to come on this.) Second, when I watched Ms. See signing books, she was all business.  She moved the line along with a signature and a quick smile, which left me with the impression that her talk might be a bit on the dry side. I could not have been more mistaken.

Shoes worn by Chinese women
whose feet had been bound
Within moments of taking the podium, Ms. See had the audience in the palm of her hand.  She also had a show-and-tell item in the palm of her hand, compliments of a woman attending the event whose grandparents had been missionaries in China.  Ms. See held up a tiny shoe, not much larger than a forefinger.  It was an actual shoe worn by a woman whose feet had been bound.  Like most people in the audience, I had read Ms. See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a book in which the practice of foot binding plays a role.  Trying to imagine these women's feet and actually seeing their shoes are two entirely different things, however.  (Note:  The picture here shows three shoes held in a TSA-approved size of baggie.)  The scene was now perfectly set for Ms. See's talk.

Ms. See began with a quick--but fascinating--overview of her heritage.  Her great great grandparents lived in China, where her great great grandmother made a living by carrying people on her back from village to village.  Ms. See's great grandfather Fong See emigrated in the 1880s to Sacramento, where he worked in a factory that made crotchless underwear for brothels.  (Their motto was "fancy underwear for fancy ladies.")  He built a mercantile empire and became the godfather/patriarch of Los Angele's Chinatown.  He was a powerful man in many ways.  He had four wives in his lifetime (at least two were concurrent), and he fathered a child when he was in his 90s.  (Before the days of Viagra, Ms. See pointed out.)  One of those wives was a white woman, a union that contravened the laws prohibiting marriages between Caucasians and persons with more than one-quarter Chinese blood. Ms. See herself grew up in Chinatown as part of an extended 400+ person Chinese-American family. 

With this background, Ms. See introduced China Dolls, her latest bookThe novel deals with the relationship between three female friends, a dynamic that Ms. See has witnessed firsthand.  Ms. See's mother has two lifelong girlfriends and, according to Ms. See, "On any given day, one of them will be on the outs." Her observation confirms research done by NASA into the "correct" number of astronauts to send into space. (The decision was two astronauts rather than three in order to prevent situations in which two people would gang up against the third.) 

My favorite booksellers (Serena and Cathy
from Copperfish Books) were on hand
The women in China Dolls meet at the Forbidden City Nightclub in San Francisco in 1938.  You may have heard of the Borscht Belt, an area of the Catskills known as a vacation spot for New York's Jewish community. Comedians, singers, dancers and variety acts (of the likes of Milton Berle, Rodney Dangerfield, Carol Channing and Sammy Davis, Jr.) would take their acts on the road to the Borscht Belt.  The Chop Suey Circuit was the Chinese equivalent with its own entertainers (who were not so flatteringly referred to by reference to the Caucasian performers; i.e., the "Chinese Fred and Ginger" or the "Chinese Frank Sinatra.") 

While researching her book, Ms. See had the chance to talk with a number of women who performed on the Chop Suey Circuit.  One interviewee was a 91 year old former dancer who still teaches Jazzercise. Another was a woman named "Mai Tai" after whom the drink is purportedly named. (I'm not sure what her act was, but her favorite all time costume was made from 15 yards of monkey fur.)  Ms. See's website has extensive information about the background for China Dolls that includes videos of her interviews with three women who performed at the Forbidden City Nightclub.  (Click here to check it out. FYI, there is a similar section on Dreams of Joy.)

Thanks to the Friends of the Punta Gorda Library for bringing such a wonderful speaker to our little town.  I am now officially primed for Book Expo, which is coming up in May.  So many books, so little time. 


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