Readers of Laurence Yep’s Golden Mountain Chronicles, which relate the stories of some nine generations of one Chinese-American family and their friends from the mid-19th century to the early 21st, come away from the experience with a rich sense of history and family. It’s no surprise to learn that Yep’s sense of history and family is equally strong and expansive.
Yep won a 1976 Newbery Honor for his second book, Dragonwings, which tells the story of Moon Shadow Lee, newly arrived on the Golden Mountain in 1903 to live in San Francisco’s Chinatown with his father, Windrider, an aspiring aviator. The seed of that story was planted when Yep was in college, pursuing an independent study about Fung Joe Guey, a Chinese man who flew over Oakland for 20 minutes in 1909. In a telephone conversation, Yep explained how Dragonwings was “written in reverse” from that scene, when he stepped back to imagine how the event may have come to pass. It’s a process he’s used throughout his writing life.
Yep’s fictional Chinese-American family is as varied as any real-life one, and they live through some wild times, from an anti-Manchu rebellion in Kwangtung province through building the transcontinental railroad, the San Francisco earthquake, the Great Depression, and the 60s through the newest waves of Chinese immigration from post-Maoist China. Each story started with an event discovered over a lifetime of finding “bits and pieces of Chinese-American history” in libraries and a relationship: “a genuine bond between two characters.”
It’s that twining of history and family—whether blood or found—that seems to define Yep. When we talked, shortly after the new year, he had recently fielded questions from two great-nieces who are independently interested in learning more about their forebears and was looking forward to a private reunion of the first cast of his theatrical production of Dragonwings. His own family includes first-generation grandparents in both San Francisco and West Virginia, where they forged connections with white Americans strong enough that his grandfather’s employer became his father’s “Irish godfather” and his mother had an adopted “Grandma” in her family’s landlady, Miss Alcinda. They were storytellers on both sides, regaling younger generations with family stories. ”You know that phrase, ‘to see someone’s face glow’? Well, that’s what it was like to see my aunts and my uncle talk about West Virginia.” And with younger generations of Yeps now, he says, “there’s a game they play, trying to figure out who are the heroes in my books—and especially trying to figure out who are the villains.”
He was a homesick doctoral student studying William Faulkner in Buffalo when he began Dragonwings, admiring how Faulkner “took his town of Oxford, Mississippi, inside his imagination” and made it Yoknapatawpha. “I felt something similar with the Chinatown that I knew in San Francisco before they lifted the immigration quotas,” Yep said. “It was very small, and you had to be careful what you did even if your parents weren’t around, because there was someone who knew your parents. When I took Chinatown inside my imagination, it peopled itself.” Dragonwings grew from one book to 10 because just as “in the Chinatown that I knew, everyone knew one another, it was the same thing in the Chinatown of my imagination: My characters knew one another too—it might be by marriage, it might be by friendship. I would tell students that Windrider and Moon Shadow just began telling me about their friends and family.”
If his books are grounded in Chinese-American history and peopled at least in part with versions of the characters he knew as a kid, they are just as influenced by science fiction. “Getting my library card was like getting a key to the universe,” he recalls. “I loved books with blue rockets on the spine,” particularly Robert A. Heinlein’s. He credits his knack of dislocating readers from their reality and relocating them in his books’ realities to science fiction. Getting a reader to believe they are an extraterrestrial is not so different from getting a reader to believe they are a 19th-century Chinese-American boy laboring in a Wyoming coal mine. Yep grew up in an African-American neighborhood of San Francisco and spent much of his time at school or with relatives in Chinatown, so “Homer Price and his doughnut machine were as strange as Robert Heinlein’s books about Mars. Reading about white suburbs where every kid had a bicycle—that seemed alien to me. [The experience] was just an extension of what I felt every time I got on and off the bus in San Francisco.” Just as Heinlein could “in the space of three paragraphs…create a character with whom you literally traveled across the galaxy,” Yep has made it his mission to do the same.
It doesn’t take long talking to Yep to learn his boundless enthusiasm for knowledge and discovery. Having grown up at a time when American curricula had no interest in Chinese history, that enthusiasm has served him well in ensuring that future generations have some sense of its richness. “I just love gathering little odd bits and traces of Chinese history,” he says. Previous tidbits have become whole books or small, wonderful moments inside those books, as in the three old Chinese men Cal meets on the Western plains in Dragon Road who have repeatedly gambled their respective businesses (a laundry, a store, and a restaurant) away to one another so many times they have forgotten who owned which in the first place. He likens his process to Tolkien’s metaphor of the Cauldron of Story; indeed, at any moment a new tidbit might burble up—about a Chinese-American cowboy on the Nevada rodeo circuit, the lottery that Chinese men played hoping to earn money to get back home, or the Chinese merchants who dealt in African shells before Idi Amin ejected them from Uganda—ready to become a story.
I hope we get to read them.
Vicky Smith is the children’s editor.