Book Review: “On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family” by Lisa See
I was born to my Chinese mother and Caucasian father in 1964, three years before the United States legalized interracial marriage nationwide. My mother recalled that people stared when she and Dad took me out in the carriage. The Civil Rights Act had only just passed, outlawing segregation between the races in schools and public places. Mom said that people on the street would look at her and Dad and then discreetly or not so discreetly try to look into the carriage to see me.
So when I discovered Lisa See’s book, On Gold Mountain, the cover of which features a photo of her interracial Great-Grandparents in the 1910s, I knew I had to read it. The book describes 100 years of the author’s family history. It centers on Fong See, the author’s Chinese great grandfather, and his Caucasian second wife, Lettice (Ticie).
Fong See was one of the few who realized the dream of coming to America and becoming wealthy. Many others left China with the same vision and fell prey to loneliness and cultural isolation, losing their earnings to gambling and prostitution. Fong See became the richest man in Chinatown and was recognized by the City of Los Angeles.
The book is a fantastic work of historical research. I appreciate what it must have taken for Ms. See to unearth such detailed stories on generations of family members. I truly enjoyed reading this unique story of one man’s quest for the American dream in the late 19th century and how that set in motion the wheels of fate for his descendants.
I found the story of Ticie particularly compelling. For a Chinese man to marry a Caucasian woman at that time is already surprising. The story of how they met and came to love each other was inspirational in terms of Ticie’s grit and daring as a young woman. I was heart-broken when Fong See’s love did not evolve past the confines of his cultural upbringing.
I also enjoyed the stories of his children by that marriage and how they navigated their lives as biracial men and women when that both limited and enhanced their social sphere. It restricted all of their friendships as children. However, in youth, the eldest sons ironically found themselves the objects of female lust from Caucasian women inflamed by movie star images of Rudolf Valentino. By contrast, when their sister, Sissee, fell in love with a Chinese man, her future mother-in-law strenuously objected to the alliance. She felt that Sissee was too white and wouldn’t culturally fit with their family.
I particularly liked the story of the fourth son opening the Dragon’s Den restaurant during the Great Depression. The author describes it beautifully.
“Sometimes — perhaps just once in a century, if a family is lucky enough — there comes a time that appears perfect. It lives on in dreams and memories. It’s seductive to children and grandchildren who wish they could have been there. It’s a time filled with exotic and interesting people dressed in exquisite clothes, who speak in the sultry voices of romance and intrigue. It’s a place where people use ivory cigarette holders, drink, and act elegant, and nothing bad ever happens to them. It’s a place that’s mostly found in the movies, but for a few short years it became the domain of Eddy See and his cohorts.”From “On Gold Mountain” by Lisa See
I love the youthful enthusiasm of Eddy, his friends, and his sister, how they use each of their strengths and talents to create something greater than themselves. They end up pulling off what seems impossible — a successful restaurant during desperate times that attracts Hollywood visitors, including Chinese movie star Anna May Wong.
If you love studying period movies’ background scenery, you will enjoy the depth of details. If you prefer faster-paced action, you may find yourself skimming some parts. Still, as a work of Chinese-American history, On Gold Mountain is invaluable, and I cared about the principal characters.
Notably, the book inspired an opera of the same name. Ms. See wrote the libretto and Nathan Wang composed the music. It will be performed by Los Angeles Opera in the 2021/22 season.
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