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Chasing Hepburn : a memoir of Shanghai, Hollywood, and a Chinese family's fight for freedom / Gus Lee

By: Lee, Gus.
Material type: materialTypeLabelBookPublisher: New York : Three Rivers Press, 2003Description: xii, 532 pages : 24 cm.Content type: text Media type: unmediated Carrier type: volumeISBN: 140005155X.Subject(s): Lee, Gus | Novelistst, American -- 20th century -- Biography | Families -- China -- Shanghai | Novelists, American -- 20th century -- Biography | Chinese Americans -- Biography | Chinese American -- Biography | Families -- China -- Shanghai | Lee, Gus -- Family | Families -- China -- Shanghai -- Biography | Hollywood (Los Angeles, Calif.) -- Biography | Shanghai (China) -- BiographyDDC classification: 92 LEE
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Enhanced descriptions from Syndetics:

"Lee . . . has created a gripping and beautiful portrait of his family. . . . Chasing Hepburn is nonfiction, but it reads just as richly as any novel."-- Boston Globe

"Gus Lee brings to his first work of nonfiction the consummate storytelling skills that have always delighted us in his critically acclaimed novels. I promise you that you will be captivated by this epic story of two families who epitomize all that is rich and varied in Chinese culture."
--Ron Bass, screenwriter of The Joy Luck Club and Rain Man

Gus Lee takes us straight into the heart of twentieth-century Chinese society, offering a clear-eyed yet compassionate view of the forces that repeatedly tore apart and reconfigured the lives of his parents and their contemporaries. He moves deftly from recounting intimate household conversations to discussing major historical events, and the resulting story is by turns comic, harrowing, tragic, and heroic.

Chasing Hepburn is a saga that spans four generations, two continents, and half of Chinese history. In the masterful hands of acclaimed author Gus Lee, his ancestors' stories spring vividly to life in a memoir with all the richness of great fiction.

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Excerpt provided by Syndetics

one Who Will Marry You Now? The future shifted when the clan ladies failed to break my mother's tiny feet. From then on, her life was guided by the good and the bad of that day. She would grow up to be a dreamer who married a rogue, a woman who laughed easily whenever she thought of how her big, unbound feet had saved four females and caused us to become Americans. The story begins when she is three. She is the Only Daughter of the House of Tzu. Cherished by all, she loves easily. Servants pamper her to chase away the tiniest frown, tickling her toes to hear her sweet laughter. All of heaven, from Lei Tsu, the three-eyed father of thunder, to T'u Ti, the dwarfed, puckish local deity, honor this sweet child. She is Little Missy Da-tsien, granddaughter of a great man, and she smiles at all people and loves all gods. Surely she will win a rich husband and make fruitful sons, multiplying clan wealth and making everyone except herself crazy with happiness. If I look into the distance of my family's past, I see fireflies flitting in the fields as low angles of soft afternoon sunlight fill the upper rooms of the great house. It is the hour of late tea in the pleasant autumn of 1909, just before the entire world will change. Da-tsien has been denied her nap to make her slow and pliable, so now, instead, she's quick and cranky. Lao Chu, the burly chef, and his robust white-jacketed cooks bang hot black iron woks in clouds of sizzling steam to produce a sumptuous second meal of the day for forty mouths and eighty chopsticks. The neatly dressed house staff anticipate the good dishes, enjoying the textured scents that promise a satisfying meal. Rich homes of this era have housemasters, majordomos. In the crossings of oceans and the tides of time, our domo's name has been lost. He's remembered as a blunt man with keen eyes, a harsh voice and a neat mustache that would bristle for dramatic emphasis. He had little to do since the Tzu jia--the clan of the Tzus--stopped doing trade and making money. The basic social unit in China is the family. Chinese families are not nuclear with parents at the center--they are vertical and horizontal, with ruling elders and the dead ancestors earnestly watching from above and, not infrequently, from below. These are the jia, the clans--lacking in privacy, prosperous in community, robust in support and rich in conflict. The Tzu jia was once part of the bustling pharmaceutical Yangtze River herb trade. It was like being in medicine before managed care. Business was so good that the majordomo bragged about it. But gods listen and punish pride. The big words floated upward to heaven with the kitchen-stove smoke, drying up rain clouds and creating droughts that killed Tzu-land crops and caused starving pirates to raid their herbal boats for the last vestiges of the produce. Now, instead of making business, the clan cruises on old profits and the domo gambles with Ah Tsui, my mother's amah, a personal maid who will attend her until one of them dies. Ah Tsui is a round and full country girl who is quick to criticize imperfection and to remember cards. When cards run towards her luck, she snorts through her nose like a young mare in spring; when they don't, she grinds her molars. Later, Amah will comfort her little girl. Amah's the laziest and most superstitious member of the nonworking house. She's been eating Lao Chu's cooking since Da-tsien's birth, but her sudden, bloodcurdling midnap howls at invisible spirits still make the others jump as if T'sao T'sao, the devil, had stuck a kitchen knife into their bottoms. Ah Tsui is plagued by spirits that try to dig their way into her clothing to find secret hidden coins and old, sequestered food. She heats a tub of warming and healing mineral waters to soothe her baby girl. Anxious servants watch the majordomo and the amah play cards as the mineral waters cool, dishes sizzle and hot spicy aromas lace the air. Soon it will happen. Screams will fill the house, chasing away all good thoughts. Pain for the sweet little girl, their precious Da-tsien, the one with the laughter of heaven. Some will cry; most will lower their heads. Hot food will help. They wait uneasily, cleaning their teeth and nails. The frowning men are more nervous than the women, who are unusually quiet. The gentry ladies have been preparing all day, complimenting one another loudly, laughing abruptly, eating too much, joking about wine-drinking men and slow servants. They are steeling themselves. They look at Taitai, my maternal grandmother, my mother's mah-mee, the conductor of the house's feelings, for guidance. Taitai is a short, fine-featured woman in a comfortable silk cheongsam, loose enough for doing work. She has so much burning clarity in her left eye that tricky merchants lower their heads, not crazy enough to bargain with so much heat. Today her eye is sharp and feral. Finally, Taitai nods and the household ladies take her little daughter upstairs. She'll be a famous beauty, they remind one another--a fabled bride who'll make sons with long luck, old money, perfect faces and big male organs. They encourage one another because hurting this child will be hard, harder than any other in their long experience. They close the doors and windows, locking out a sun fatigued by its hot work for Mr. and Mrs. Tu-di, the Chinese gods of the earth. The mister and missus are heavenly white-haired elders who manage agriculture for the best farmers of the earth. The missus is careful, ensuring that the soil is fertile, but the old man can be forgetful, allowing torrential floods or accidentally kicking away the clouds of rain from sun-parched fields. Some of the women will later recall that they glimpsed ominous shadows of evil fox spirits dancing on the waters by the house, and that the outside air seemed tomblike, leaving a bad weight on the heart. On the canal, a lonely dirt farmer on a bony raft calls out his last wares with hopeful notes--cheap, half a copper for all that's left! But none of the pretty ladies in swishing high-necked silk gowns appear on their balcony of Shi Shr er, Lucky Seventy Two Way, to clack their long nails on the mahogany railing. He calls again, mournfully. The women take deep breaths. They softly caress the little girl's cheeks, brush her dark hair, gaze into her immense round eyes and soothe her with cooing words, "Shiaobaobee, Shiaobaobee, Little Precious," while removing her tiny silk slippers. Kind Auntie Gao reclines the child on the padded tabletop. She caresses the girl's feet, warming the ligaments. The girl smiles, then jerks as Auntie bends the four smallest toes, stretching the joints, leaving the largest to stand like a lonely sentinel, watching the fate of the others. There are many methods for binding feet. In the backcountry, toes can be bent with increasing pressure for months. But this is Soochow, the city of elegant women, and the technique is brutal. When joints are loosened and warm, Auntie will nod and one of the ladies will sharply pinch the girl's ear to distract her as Auntie snaps the toes, making the sound of fried grasshoppers in a sizzling-hot wok. As the girl shrieks, Auntie will send her soft thoughts, then break the big toe and, with steady pressure, tightly bind all five to the body of the foot with a pure white bandage, fifteen palms long. This will bend the foot under itself. Her little niece will scream and fight as pain fills every nerve in her body. The pain will ebb as she gasps for air, recovering some chi, her inner strength, and then Auntie Gao will break the toes of the other foot. The pain will persist through adolescence, ebbing and cresting while other bones fail and the foot dies and the skin with it as the girl matures into womanhood. Of course, some girls will perish from infections, and others will be crippled. It is the Soochow way. The canals that grace the city replaced arable soil, and now beautiful feet replace country feet. This is life and the commandment of beauty. It's a blessing for wellborn girls to be groomed for rich men, their tiny, inviting feet held by diminutive shoes. In other times and lands, alternative parts of the female body will be emphasized or encased in other challenging interventions. This is the era of crippling feet, of hamstringing the liberty of girls for the pleasure of male eyes. It is a time of strengthening gentry clans by producing sons, for sons determine a clan's destiny and ensure survival for five thousand years. Sons serve elders in this world and care for the dead in the next life. Only sons warrant clan memory tablets and are able to survive against capricious gods who control weather, fertility and fortune. When Auntie Gao was little, her clan women botched the binding, breaking the wrong bones and inducing a purple fever that stunted her growth and cost cash in doctoring and remedial fortune-telling. Her right foot grew at a bad-luck angle, ruining her future as a bride and cloaking her house with a spiritual darkness. Because the women had tsa guo, "dropped the pots" with her, Auntie grew into a small, limping woman who deserved her angry husband with the sour heart. But her victimization as a wife made her sensitive to the needs of others. She became a top foot-binder in Soochow, the city of picturesque canals and lovely ladies. Wearing Taoist black and a kind look, she calmed the unhappiest girl and quickly and neatly broke toes to create beauty and to help clans. Auntie has a small face framed by tightly coiled black hair. She looks older than her twenty-six years. She dearly loves her three-year-old niece, taking her time, warming up the precious foot as she breathes deeply to collect strength for the snapping of bones. She says a quick prayer to Guan Yin, the female goddess of mercy and male children. May good luck and healthy sons come from this hard day! Da-tsien cries under the cresting pain, calls out to young Auntie Gao--Please stop! She begs for Ah Tsui, her amah, but Amah's gone! She reaches for Mother--Mah-mee helps them! She can't hear Mah-mee's encouragements, her justifications, her descriptions of fine young men with old money who will be pleased with the results of today's tears. The girl squirms to fight free, but she's pinned to the table by a phalanx of women, and she screams pitifully, her cries echoing through the three floors of the Chinese mansion. She weeps to heaven, and some women bite their lips as others show teeth and blink back tears. The house's gray mouser cats perk pointed ears and sedately take cover. Downstairs, Ah Tsui freezes, her round face wrenching in pain. She prays to Guan Yin, apologizing for her laziness, her weaknesses. Since birth, Da-tsien has been taught all about the goddess of mercy. Guan Yin is strong and heals all hurts, Ah Tsui promised my mother. Da-tsien, a child who has never known hardship or privation in a household of kind women, begs Guan Yin to come as a bright-winged phoenix from the sky to rescue her. She cries needfully at the ceiling, but no one comes. Desperately, she screams for Baba, her father. They smile tightly. Her mother breathes, "Ssss, be strong." Auntie straightens the foot, the toes protesting, bending them. Da-tsien's baba, my maternal grandfather, is a silly man given to reading foreign books, catching unneeded fish and babbling foreign thoughts in his sleep. It's a fact, they say, that if he keeps dozing with foreign books in his lap, he'll absorb the White Devil tongue and become a follower of the Christian god who smacks his lips as he devours children. The women make fun of Baba, but they like his kind heart and quiet voice. They appreciate these qualities more than beauty. In China, a woman's freedom from total male dominion of her words and actions comes only from kind men. Baba loves his library. Books, unlike his wife, are open and shut and susceptible to being read at a gentlemanly pace. Peace, unlike criticism, invites sleep, so he naps in a room lined with quiet texts. His favorite spot is a kind French chair that replaced an unforgiving, hardwood cherry Kiangsu seat that was designed by the enemy of happy backs. Perhaps he dreams that his little daughter has caught a fish. Her screams cascade down the grand staircase to bounce off the domed ceiling and he jerks awake, his book--Balzac?--tumbling onto a thick Tehrani carpet. He is tall with a full head of jet-black hair, a long, straight nose, a handsome, rectangular face, large eyes, thick hands and broad shoulders rounded by years of good reading and zealous fishing. His thoughts resemble the movements of his bearlike body--slow, hesitant, reflective. Little Missy! Foggy from sleep and foreign thoughts, he finds himself bounding up the stairs, abandoning his well-earned reputation for inaction and caution, a reputation that allows him to avoid family squabbles and the tiring monetary frictions of gentry clan management. He moves well for a big man, but his sprint up the stairs alarms the servants--only the uneducated are authorized to exert physical effort. Panting, he enters an upper room. The women are dressed up with red cheeks, fine clothes and coiffed hair in a riot of shining peach, azure, burgundy and sea-green silks. Black-gowned Auntie Gao is at the center of the group, her hair fallen over an eye. He thinks: A party! The household ladies in one place, closely packed, looking so young. They gawk as if they were men and he were a woman who had stumbled into the strictly male-only ancestral hall. Unknowingly, he has crossed a closed border few men have seen. His daughter is struggling on the table. So, this is how they do it. She's scared . . . this is wrong, very wrong. . . . He fumbles for a word, any word. "No?" he tries. This is new for them, Old Father giving orders, even orders that come like questions, so they shrug and go back to work. The girl cries furiously and tries to twist free as her toes are bent farther and farther. Baba hisses and thinks, shaking his right hand as if a bee had stung him. They are not obeying him. Think! He's not a physical man. He slams the door, hard, roars, "STOP!" Everyone jumps, including him. One woman falls on her bottom. A man yelling in this house of women is unheard of! They're panicked, especially Auntie Gao, who knows the warning signs of male rage. She winces, her tender heart stopped, ready for hard blows. "Ayy! Keep going, Sister!" shouts Da-tsien's mother, holding her heart. "Sahhhhh, Husband! You scared us! Why do you say stop?" she asks with her great frown of many wrinkles and her one ferocious eye. From the Hardcover edition. Excerpted from Chasing Hepburn: A Memoir of Shanghai, Hollywood, and a Chinese Family's Fight for Freedom by Gus Lee All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Reviews provided by Syndetics

Library Journal Review

In his first nonfiction book, novelist Lee (China Boy) writes a lively memoir that centers on the life of his family in Shanghai during the Chinese civil war. Lee's parents, T.C. Lee and Da-Tsien Tzu, broke with Chinese tradition and arranged their own marriage. In their courting years, watching first-run movies in Shanghai in the early 1930s, they were attracted to strong-willed actress Katharine Hepburn and recognized each other's determination to be independent. T.C. Lee, a hyperactive person who chose a mobile career in the Chinese military and befriended the wealthy T.A. Soong, met Hepburn and became romantically involved with other American actresses in Hollywood. In the meantime, while raising their children and still living with her in-laws and parents in China, Da-Tsien Tzu became devoted to Western Christianity and eventually "walked across China" during the Japanese occupation with three of her children to reunite with her husband in California in the 1940s. Lee reveals how his parents struggled to mesh American and Chinese images and values. Recommended for large public libraries.-Peggy Spitzer Christoff, Library of Congress (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publishers Weekly Review

Lee, author of four autobiographical novels (China Boy; Honor and Duty; etc.) opens his first nonfiction work with the distressing story of his mother Da-tsien's foot-binding in 1909 China. The women about to break the child's toes whisper terms of endearment. Suddenly, as often happens in this rewarding, ambitious memoir, a dramatic turn pushes Da-tsien's life in an unexpected direction: she's rescued. Her father, who can't bear her screams and has been influenced by foreign books, puts an end to the ritual. Lee writes that he assembled the "fractured clan stories" he was raised on to produce this family history, and although a sheaf of letters from his deceased father helped, he found it necessary to create "bridges" with "imagined details." In this respect, his experience as a novelist helps, and his writing is a constant pleasure of vibrant detail and effective dialogue, from his retelling of his parents' interactions with underworld gangsters in 1920s Shanghai to his depiction of their enthrallment with Katharine Hepburn, which eventually leads them to America. Lee's most remarkable skills, however, are his ability to deftly move between the personalities of his family tree and the family's intimate moments, and his observations of Chinese cultural history. When, for example, his grandmother fears Da-tsien's unbound feet will bring destruction upon the family, Lee so carefully explains the social forces pressing down on her that, although relieved for his mother, readers will find themselves worrying along with his grandmother. Photos. Agent, Jane Dystel. (On sale Jan. 14) Forecast: Advertising and publicity to West Coast markets, blurbs from the San Francisco Chronicle and the book's characters' eventual arrival on the American side of the Pacific should make this popular among Californian readers. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

The violent opening scene is unforgettable: Da-tsien, a screaming three-year-old baby girl in Soochow, China, in 1909 is being held down to have her tiny feet broken in the traditional foot binding ceremony. Her kind, scholarly father rescues her just in time, but after that her mother viciously rejects the daughter with great big feet ("Who will marry her now?" ). Da-tsien grows up in Shanghai to reject an arranged marriage when she is 14 and to choose as her husband the glamorous young rogue Zee Zee, from across the street. The couple falls in love watching American movies together, romanticizing Katharine Hepburn, who represents independence and glamour, far from the restrictions of Chinese tradition. And yet, what's most devastating is that this brave, liberated Da-tsien still feels bound by her "destiny" to produce a son, and she bitterly rejects her second daughter as viciously as her own mother rejected her. Meanwhile her restless husband wants adventure, and he continually abandons his family to the violent upheaval of China's civil war and the unspeakable atrocities of the Japanese World War II occupation, until, finally, Da-tsien walks on those strong feet thousands of miles out of China with her daughters, and chases her husband to California--where they do have a son, Gus Lee, who honors her now in this book. His mother died when he was five, but he draws on told and retold family stories to write her memoir, and it reads like his acclaimed autobiographical novels, setting the personal revolution against the sweep of war. The history is powerful, and so are all the ironic, intimate connections at the heart of the story, the haunting portrait of a tempestuous marriage and a brave woman warrior not yet free. --Hazel Rochman

Kirkus Book Review

Award-winning novelist Lee (No Physical Evidence, 1998, etc.) tells the story of his parents' childhoods, courtship, and unconventional lives in China and America. When Tzu Da-tsien was a child, her father rescued her from the traditional foot-binding ceremony, forever excluding her from the sort of advantageous marriage expected of a woman of her aristocratic background. The Chinese Revolution was soon to put an end to these customs, but even so she continued to flout tradition, spurning an arranged marriage and falling in love with the equally unconventional Lee Zee Zee, poor but dashing, an aspiring pilot whose father had frittered away his family fortune on opium and concubines. After meeting in gangster-ridden Shanghai, the couple must survive the power struggles between the Communists and the Kuomintang, the Japanese invasion, and Zee Zee's own ambivalence at being caught in a conventional marriage, which causes him to leave home frequently, first to serve in the Chinese Air Force and then to go to Hollywood to seek out his favorite actress, Katharine Hepburn. Lee tells his parents' story with gusto-perhaps too much at times. He seems determined to cram in as much family history as possible, with the result that the thread of the narrative occasionally threatens to disappear in a welter of unrelated anecdotes (particularly at the beginning, where he bounces hyperactively between stories of each parent's family). In addition, the writing is often clumsy, uneasily mixing contemporary American slang, Chinese words, and a stilted form of English meant to represent formal Chinese. Nevertheless, the vanished world of traditional China and the chaos of its post-Revolutionary era are brought vibrantly to life, and Lee's affection for his parents shines through despite the occasional rough patch. Awkwardly written but rich in detail: a uniquely personal perspective on one of the most fascinating and tumultuous periods in history.