Lisa See Shares Stories of Living in Chinese-American Community

Old, family fables of by-gone Chinese traditions, myths of “paper sons” sent to a New World and reflections on China City in California inspired author Lisa See’s novels about Chinese History and Culture. See discussed her acclaimed novels at the twenty-second annual Asian Arts Festival, this past Friday.

See said she tries to portray Chinese culture and history in her novels, from reflecting on stories she was told as a child growing up in California.

“China City was a place that meant so much to me growing up as a girl and now there is not a single brick left—it has been wiped off the map of Los Angeles, California,” said See.

See was influenced by her grandparent’s antique store in China City since it was meaningful place for her during her childhood.

“My grandparents would go to the back of their antique store in China City and tell these stories to me. I can still vividly remember the smell of teak and the incense combined with the voices of these people who loved me unconditionally.”

“You think it’s easy to write these books and go to those really emotional places? It’s hard. My readers pushed me and gave me the courage to be in the room with my characters.”

China City was designed to present an authentic Chinese community in Los Angeles, but shut down after the passage of Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned all Chinese immigrants with the exception of diplomats, students, ministers and merchants.

See also drew on an old family story to better illustrate Pearl and May, the main characters in her recent novel, “Shanghai Girls,” who are thrust into arranged marriages.

“We had a lot of arranged marriages in my family. For example, in 1932, my great-uncle took his entire family back to China on a business trip. Dad’s today will give their kids a little money for souvenirs. Instead, my great-uncle said, ‘As long as we’re here, let’s get you boys wives,’” said See.

“My parents were divorced when I was three and we moved around a lot, so this store was a place that was really secure and solid in amidst of an unstable environment.”

See also said that in order to develop her more recent novels, she had to research “paper sons,” a group of illegal Chinese immigrants who were smuggled into the United States following the chaos of missing birth and death records in the wake of the 1952 and 1954 California earthquakes.

See said, “I like to write about stories that are lost or purposefully left untold until finally there comes a point when I can say ‘yes, I write what I know. I feel pretty strongly that I’m giving them their voice. I work really hard to make sure their voices are accurate and true.”

See’s tenth novel, “Dreams of Joy,” will be released on May 31, 2011 and is the sequel to See’s 2009 bestselling novel, “Shanghai Girls.” The series is a fictional reflection of two sisters’ arranged marriages and emigration from Shanghai to Los Angeles.

“I thought her childhood stories brought a lot of life and color to the presentation. In particular, I thought her story was striking because she doesn’t look Chinese, but is so involved in Asian heritage,” said Emily Fang ’13.

Rebecca Sykes, Associate Head of School, said, “Her lecture was really engaging. It was fascinating to hear the Chinese and family histories interwoven.”

“I felt that it was really impressive that she worked so hard to learn from her family members. It was sad and poignant when she talked about returning to the places her family had lived and worked,” added Sykes.