William Poy Lee’s memoir paints a tender picture of a mother-son relationship set against a larger, and rougher, view of what it took to survive and thrive in San Francisco’s Chinatown of the 1950s through the civil rights and Vietnam eras of the ’60s and ’70s. Told through two voices, mother and son, it conveys the thoughts and experiences of a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant (FOB) and an American-born Chinese (ABC).
William is an ABC. Born in 1951 into a working-class family (his father was a restaurant busboy), he goes to Berkeley, becomes a lawyer, lands a good position in a bank, and hustles through his early life “racing this marathon in overdrive.” In 1995, he comes to a dead stop, searching, he says, for meaning in his life. “And that’s when I completely opened up to my ancient past in another land and culture.” His mother, his “greatest wisdom teacher,” becomes his guide. The result is The Eighth Promise: An American Son’s Tribute to His Toisanese Mother, Lee’s first book.
Poy Jen, of course, is the FOB. She begins her story with recollections of life in Suey Wan, a tiny village in southern China, where she lived before coming to America as a young bride in 1949. Never fluent in “American,” she speaks through her son’s delightful translations. We learn how her “clan sisters” solved village disputes by “speaking-round-and-round” and how her mother hid her and three other young girls from Japanese soldiers. She describes the “gop, gop, gop” of chickens pecking, the “ji-ji-ja-ja” of gossiping, and the “tawk-tawk-tuie—that’s the noise vegetables should make when you eat them.”
On the night before she leaves for America, she makes eight promises to her mother, including finding suitable husbands for her sisters, teaching her children the Toisan dialect, and cooking “Ch'i energy soup” for the family’s health. It is the eighth, “to instill compassion for all in my children,” that becomes, for William, the foundation of a life worth living.
William’s village is different. “I enjoyed an idyllic, wondrous childhood in the heart of a big city,” he says. He introduces us to Benny Beltran, a Filipino American who operated Benny’s Smoke Shop; Danny the Wop, the local beat patrolman; and blond, big-haired Molly, who spent her days at Sam’s Cleaners & Alterations: “In an era when interracial coupling was taboo, Sam and Molly’s unusual, undefined, and very public pairing was silent courage.”
From kindergarten, where he pledged allegiance to “the Uni-ked Steaks of Amal-lee-ka,” to Berkeley and then law school, William makes his parents proud. When second son Richard gets caught up in Chinatown violence and is convicted of murder, William spends 13 years fighting the system, speaking out, in vain, against racism, the police, the judge, the gangs, and Chinatown’s elders. The family pulls together, visiting Richard religiously until his release in 1985. They make the best of it, even sharing Chinese home cooking with the prison guards.
William’s angst consumes nearly a third of his book. Angst is very ABC, but not very FOB. William’s mother warns: “If I were you, I wouldn’t talk about those things in your book. You’ll bring those bad things back. . . . No one needs to relive that again.”
But he remains resolute: “On this I differ from Mother, and so I disobey her warning. . . . This is the American part of me, especially the denial-is-bad California sensibility. . . . For although Toisan ways were not the keys for unlocking the American legal system, they served a more important purpose: They held my family together unbroken through many of America’s harshest changes, and when we finally broke, they mended us.”
The Eighth Promise is an unusual coming-of-age story, an insider’s look at the immigrant experience in the rough—yet joyful—world of San Francisco’s Chinatown. It’s a remarkable read.
Carol Simons is executive editor at AARP Bulletin. She lived in Asia for 20 years.
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