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On Gold Mountain

Cover of On Gold Mountain

On Gold Mountain

The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family
by Lisa See
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Out of the stories heard in her childhood in Los Angeles's Chinatown and years of research, See has constructed this sweeping chronicle of her Chinese-American family, a work that takes in stories of...More
Out of the stories heard in her childhood in Los Angeles's Chinatown and years of research, See has constructed this sweeping chronicle of her Chinese-American family, a work that takes in stories of...More
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Description-
  • Out of the stories heard in her childhood in Los Angeles's Chinatown and years of research, See has constructed this sweeping chronicle of her Chinese-American family, a work that takes in stories of racism and romance, entrepreneurial genius and domestic heartache, secret marriages and sibling rivalries, in a powerful history of two cultures meeting in a new world. 82 photos.

Excerpts-
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    Foreword

    Fong See, my great-grandfather, left China in 1871 as a youngster, found prosperity on the Gold Mountain (the Chinese name for the United States), and lived to reach his hundredth birthday. Rising out of a mass of nameless Asian immigrants, he became one of the richest and most prominent Chinese in the country. He lured customers into his Asian art store by selling tickets to see a stuffed mermaid. He loved money, and had a childlike enthusiasm for fancy cars. He also had a way with women. My family always "knew" that Fong See had two wives. The marriage between Fong See and Letticie Pruett--my Caucasian great-grandmother--would go on to establish the See name. The second wife, a Chinese waif who had supported herself making firecrackers, was only sixteen when she married my great-grandfather, who was sixty-four at the time. This family always lived under the name of Fong. Altogether, Fong See sired twelve children--five Eurasian, seven Chinese--the last born when he was in his late eighties. This is the story of the Sees and the Fongs and how they assimilated into America.

    As a girl, I spent frequent weekends and most of my summer vacations with my paternal grandparents in Chinatown. We would pass through a moon gate guarded by two huge stone lions and enter the dark, cool recesses of our family's Chinese antique store, the F. Suie One Company, a gigantic mercantile museum that contained, among other things, porcelains taken from the royal kiln and floated downriver on sampans; altars pillaged from provincial temples; and huge architectural carvings shipped in sections to be reconstructed by Fong See's sons in one of his many warehouses.

    At lunchtime, Grandma Stella and I would walk up the street to a restaurant that must have had a real name but that we just called "the little place." Along the way we'd stop to chat with Blackie at the Sam Sing Butcher Shop, with its gold-leafed roast pig in the window. We'd stop in at Margaret's International Grocery and brose through the aisles with their salted plums, dried squid, and fermented tofu. At the restaurant, we'd go back to the kitchen to chat with the cook and watch as he packed up our order into cartons.

    Once back at the store, I'd go upstairs to the workroom, with its huge machinery and its pinups of sedate Chinese maidens, where my grandfather and great-uncle Bennie would be engulfed by dense clouds of sawdust and the din of saws. Bennie would invariably look at me wild-eyed and shout, "I'm gonna put you in the trash can." Terrified, I'd scramble back downstairs and my grandfather and uncle would wash up with Lava soap.

    After lunch, if I got bored--perhaps after playing in the mountains of straw packing, or climbing into the arms of a gigantic Buddha, or making a fort underneath one of the large altars--Grandma Stella would let me "help" her while she worked on the restoration of a coromandel screen. I might clean brushes or mix ink; sometimes she let me use my fingertips to press clay into the chipped areas. Or I might help my great-aunt Sissee as she dusted and polished her way from the bronze room to the art room to the room for scrolls and fabrics, and from one end of the main hall--which held exquisitely carved furniture--to the other.

    In the late afternoons, my grandmother and great-aunt Sissee would relax in wicker chairs in the back of the store over cups of strong tea. During that quiet and comfortable time they would reminisce about the past. They told intriguing and often silly stories about missionaries, prostitutes, tong wars, the all-girl drum corps, and the all-Chinese baseball team. They spoke about how the family had triumphed over racist laws and...

Reviews-
  • The Los Angeles Times

    "Astonishing....A comprehensive and exhaustively researched account of a Chinese-American family...that juggles such explosive elements as race, class, tradition, prejudice, poverty, and great wealth in new and relatively unexpected combinations."

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The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family
Lisa See
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