Sunday, November 16, 2014

On Gold Mountain by Lisa See

Source of book: I own this.

This is hardly a book I would have just picked up off a library shelf. I discovered it through an interesting series of events. First, our family went with some friends to the Autry Museum for a field trip. For those not from the Los Angeles area (my hometown), the Autry is a museum of “Western Heritage,” which means that it has rotating exhibitions on a variety of topics related to the American west, from the Native Americans to the golden age of the Western movie. (One of the coolest permanent exhibits is Gene Autry’s fantastic collection of classic guns.) 

A couple of Colt single actions from the collection.
The top one belonged to Theodore Roosevelt. The bottom one to Doc Holliday.

When we visited, one exhibit (sadly now being replaced with a new one after 14 years) was an interactive exhibit on the See family, a Chinese American family that rose to prominence in Los Angeles in the early 20th Century. The exhibit had its genesis in Lisa See’s book, On Gold Mountain. My wife noted the title, and picked it up when it appeared at Costco last year.

 My two oldest kids at the See Family exhibit, 2012.

Lisa See was already a reasonably successful author before writing this book. She is also the daughter of novelist Carolyn See, and the two shared a pseudonym for a series they wrote. However, it was On Gold Mountain that brought Lisa to prominence.

On Gold Mountain is the story of See’s family, centering on the story of her great-grandparents. Fong See came to the United States in the 1800s and built a life and a business. He married Lettice Pruett, a young woman of Swedish descent, and the two of them founded a family. The Sees became fixtures in LA’s Chinatown, and their children and grandchildren would likewise make their marks.

The central story in the book is that of Fong See and Lettice Pruett. Their meeting, romance, success, and the eventual destruction of their marriage and its fallout are the makings of a great story, full of tenderness and tragedy. But the story doesn’t begin or end there. Lisa tells of five generations of the family, from her great-great grandfather to her own generation, and all the good and bad that happens throughout a 100 year time frame. In addition to the stories of her family, she also tells of others who were close, from the actress Anna May Wong to her grandfather Eddie See’s fellow artists and their families. Their stories are fully human. See doesn’t pull any punches, but portrays the events and people in an objective, unflinching manner. The result is a thoroughly engrossing tale, and unforgettable characters.

It was hard to decide what to include in this review, because there are so many interesting themes and quotes. It would be tempting to try to give a summary of the plot, but that would take many words, and I couldn’t do it justice anyway.

I at least want to share the story of Fong See and Ticie. Fong See came to the United States seeking his fortune. He set up shop in Sacramento and was experiencing moderate success, when I red haired young woman walked into his store and insisted that he hire her. He was reluctant, but she eventually won out. She had recently arrived from Oregon, where she had left from an unpleasant family situation. She had hoped to find a new life in California, one way or the other.

Eventually, Fong and Ticie fell in love. This gave rise to a problem, because interracial marriage was not legal in California (or much of anywhere else in the United States) in 1897. At that time, a Mexican marriage wasn’t really available, so they did what they could. They hired a local lawyer to draw up a contract, essentially the equivalent of a marriage. They then lived as husband and wife for the next couple of decades in open defiance of the law.

Twenty years and five children later, they had moved to Los Angeles and established a booming retail business. Fong’s knowledge of China and his sources of goods combined with Ticie’s command of English and her inherent “trustworthiness” to white Californians to make a perfect partnership.

Things went wrong on a trip to China. Fong became increasingly aware of his wealth and status among his fellow Chinese, and also of the fact that his wife failed to meet the standards of submissiveness that Chinese culture expected. Ticie, frustratingly, refused to be seen as an inferior subordinate, and expected nothing less than equality. Things came to a head when Fong tried to leave one of their young sons with relatives in China. Ticie, who had carefully brought some of her own money along, left for California, taking the children with her. Fong retaliated by finding a much younger wife to replace Ticie. This, predictably, did not sit will with Ticie, and the two separated. Fong would have a second family with his other wife, and Ticie would pine after him for the rest of her life, even as she held the family together and continued her half of the business without him. 

Fong and Ticie See with their children in 1914.

The tale is one of a clash of cultures and expectations - and also of a clash of eras. None of the See’s sons would marry Chinese women, although their daughter married a traditional Chinese man against his mother’s wishes. (The See boys would have to marry in Tijuana. It wasn’t until the third generation - 1948 - that interracial marriages would be legalized in California.) Ticie would, in many ways, adopt a Chinese identity, from dress to cuisine. She would remain in Chinatown, and run the store and a restaurant, and continue to be a part of that world, rather than the white world. However, she could never bring herself to be the submissive, subordinate, and servant wife she was expected to be. Fong’s other wife would be that woman, prematurely stooped and aged from long hours of menial service and backbreaking labor, rarely leaving the house, and devoting herself completely to serving Fong.

Ticie was a strong woman, competent, hard working, and sure of her own value and worth. She also made sure that she retained enough power to protect herself and her children when necessary. As she advised her daughter-in-law when she was engaged to Lisa’s grandfather, “I don’t know, Stella. I love my son very much, but you should always keep a little money for yourself.” This is advice I fully intend to give to my own daughters.

In this sense, the book has a very feminist flavor. Since the children all continued to be closer to Ticie than Fong, they and their descendents grew up around her rather than him. Their stories show more of her point of view than his. Also, Lisa sourced much of the book from the women of the family, who were eager to tell their stories.

Another major theme of the book is the discrimination and outright persecution that the Chinese faced when they came to the United States. It is all too easy to forget what the Chinese immigrants have done for our country. They largely built the western half of the transcontinental railroad. They built most of the levees that keep the flooding at bay in the Sacramento and American River delta. They did the laundry and cooked the food for decades. As any California can tell you, the high-quality take-out restaurant was practically invented by Chinese Americans. Today, we can take for granted the availability of excellent and inexpensive food from all over the world because they first brought foreign food to the mainstream in California.

I could quote pages and pages from this book about the discriminatory - and indeed cruel - laws enacted to keep the Chinese out, and send the ones here back to China post haste. Even worse, though, are the things that were said about them. In fact, they parallel so much of what continues to be said about Mexican immigrants today, it is uncanny. The words used are dehumanizing. Diseased. Lazy. Of low morals. Dirty. The “weaker races.” Nothing really changes. Just the group to which fear and loathing is directed. This book would be worth it just for the history.

Lisa See’s experience as a novelist shines through in this book. She has an eye for detail, an ear for dialogue, and a knack for bringing family stories to life. This is no mere memoir or vanity project. Lisa’s family requested that she write the family story, and many from all sides of her family - even the children of Fong’s other wife - fully embraced the book as an authentic tale of the Chinese-American experience.

If one of the benefits of reading is the building of empathy - and I believe it is - this book is an excellent opportunity. It is both exotic and unfamiliar and yet universal and human. There are no perfect characters. Everyone has flaws. And yet, all are portrayed in a sympathetic and charitable light. Life happens. Good and bad happen. Mistakes are made by everyone. And yet, life goes on, and love happens. It is messy and heartwarming and frustrating and real.

Note on names:

Technically, Fong is the last name, not the first name. However, the Sees ended up going with the mistake on the immigration papers, and used See as the last name. I have used “Fong” to describe Fong See, to distinguish him from the rest of the See family. Fong’s second family would use Fong as the last name.


  1. This books sounds really good. Ticie must have been an amazing woman. Thanks for the review. I think I would have bypassed this book as well.

    You may not need to pass Ticie's advice on to your daughters. They may be the ones making the money. It's a growing trend.

    1. I think you are right about the trend in breadwinning. With women graduating college in greater numbers, the long term outlook should lean toward either equal earnings or even higher earnings for women. Of course, this has its own issues. One reason I work to raise my sons to be able to do housework and care for children just like my daughters. Flexibility of roles is likely to be necessary for them.