Lee's third novel moves action to DMZ in Korea

May 5, 1996
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

Former Davis resident Gus Lee, who now lives in Colorado Springs, will be back in town Friday at 7:30 p.m. to give a reading from his third book, "Tiger's Tail" (Knopf, $24, 1996).

In a recent phone interview, Lee talked about all three of his autobiographical novels, beginning with "China Boy" and "Honor & Duty."

"I've been very lucky in that I've been able to rely on the experiences that fate provided in order to have writing material both in terms in plot and character," he said.

" 'China Boy' was a story about my family in China before immigrating to the United States during the war and then (after we settled in the U.S.) my own attempts to become a successful African-American male youth in the Panhandle of San Francisco.

"I was dramatically puny and a grand physical coward -- and myopic -- and as naturally gifted in sports as a donkey...it was a tough set of assets with which I entered the neighborhood."

This pint-sized, 7-year-old Chinese kid found himself in the middle of a very tough neighborhood in 1953. Lee's salvation came when he learned how to box at the local YMCA. It seemed like a strange hobby and I asked him why he got interested in it.

"I was no more interested in boxing than dying by any other form of physical confrontation ...the boxing gloves were bigger than my head and weighed more than my body...but I was sent there by my father and by a man in the neighborhood who felt that if I did not get boxing lessons I would get killed," he said.

Lee says all children need to believe that they're "keepers in the game" and the attention he got from coaches and teachers gave him the courage to go on and become an American. This isn't an exaggeration. He was five when his Chinese mother died and his pampered life as Chinese first son came to an end. The rest of Lee's childhood was dominated by his father's second wife, an evil American stepmother if ever there was one.

With the fullness of time, Lee is still able to look back on his childhood and label the treatment he received as completely abusive. His stepmother died in 1975 and after that Lee began writing down childhood stories, good and bad, for his own children.

"I would not have written 'China Boy' had my stepmother been alive," he said.

"Honor & Duty" is the sequel to "China Boy." In it, the Gus Lee character named Kai Ting goes to West Point and finds to his surprise that it is a Chinese institution in Western dress, committed to the ancient saying: "Subdue the self and honor the rituals."

Lee and Kai Ting adapted to life at West Point with ease.

"This is the best I've ever had it," Kai Ting told his fellow plebes during hell week. But the goals of honor and duty eluded the West Points cadets.

"My class developed a cheating ring," said Lee. "And West Point has the strictest honor code of any place I've ever known. This became the core of the story."

Lee, who wasn't involved the scandal, had his own academic problems at West Point. He flunked out before graduation. He completed his military obligations and came to UC Davis where he attended King Hall School of Law, earned a law degree, and worked in the Army Judge Advocate's Office. He was assigned to Korea to investigate reports of recruiting malpractice in the Far East. This story became the violent thriller "Tiger's Tail" with a new character, Jackson Kan.

With the creation of this new character Lee said he finally became a novelist, a free writer, no longer shackled by his alter ego Kai Ting in "China Boy" and "Honor & Duty."

"I've been asked if Kai Ting will be back," said Lee. "And, yes, I still owe him a capstone for the trilogy. But I haven't formalized it yet."

In the meantime, enjoy meeting Jackson Kan on the DMZ of Korea in 1974. And get ready to see the movie sometime in the future.

"The movie deal has already been signed," said Lee.

Lee said his two big jobs in recent years have been writing and being there for his two children. He and his wife, Diane, want to make sure that their children understand the influence of China on their lives, too.

"We took them on a trip to China," said Lee. "We took them to Shanghai and showed them the house where their grandmother and grandfather lived and their own ancestral home, now home to 16 families.

"I think they were amazed...not only because the standard of living in China is so much lower...but because they saw how much higher the cultural and spiritual standards are than we have here. People in China are so caring and so generous."

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