Gus Lee came back to Davis earlier this month to talk about his first novel, "China Boy," a wonderful 90 percent factual account of his boyhood.
Lee grew up in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. For those of you unfamiliar with The City’s geography, that’s not Chinatown.
"I was the only Chinese kid on a black street," Lee recalled. "I was a smudge on the concrete, weak and wimpy. My father sent me to the YMCA boxing program when I was 7. I was hoping they would tell me I was too small, too weak, too blind."
They didn’t. Instead, the Y became an important part of Lee’s life for the next 10 years and there he learned how to fight. He later attended West Point (but did not graduate) and later still attended King Hall School of Law at UC Davis where he earned his law degree. He practiced law, served in the military, lived in Davis with his wife and two children, and took a job as an executive with the State Bar Association. He was, even before he published his first book, a success by any measure.
He attributes his personal success to a lesson he learned at the YMCA: "Honor all persons." Develop this habit, he says, and you will develop a moral character. By learning to do the right thing, you will become trustworthy and desirable.
Lee feels so strongly about the need to honor all persons – not just those who look like you – that his next book (after four novels) will be a nonfiction work on leadership and moral development. He then envisions a return to memoir and plans to write about his late father.
"Now my cousins are telling me the real story (about him)," he said. "He was a rogue. ‘China Boy’ was not the real story. The next one I tell will be written without the constraints of Confucian silence."
Lee was born in 1946, the only American-born member of a Shanghai family. During World War II his father deserted the family (Lee has three older sisters). But his mother, a most modern and determined Chinese woman, did not take to being abandoned. She went after her erstwhile husband. She took her three children across enemy-occupied China and boarded an American naval vessel for the voyage to California. China and the United States were allies, and Lee’s father had connections with the U.S. military. The family was reunited, perhaps none too happily, at the train station in San Francisco. Two years later, Lee was born. Five years later, his mother died.
"China Boy" came about many years later when Lee decided to write a family journal, to tell his mother’s story for his young daughter, Jena, who is now 17.
When he began writing his book he had no idea it would someday be published.
"A first book is a blessed thing," he said. "It should represent writing for the pleasure of writing not for an agent or because of a contract."
Lee said his connections to the California landscape made his book possible "Without Northern California I wouldn’t be the person I am today," he said, reflecting on the cultural diversity of San Francisco and Golden Gate Avenue.
But California nearly killed him, too.
After his book was published, Lee became a hot item.
"We had moved from Davis to Burlingame where we lived in a house with a a half-million dollar mortgage," he recalled. He was working at the State Bar while trying to deal with myriad requests to speak at inner-city schools in San Francisco. He was a rarity, a male minority novelist. He also was trying to write in his free time. The successful life was becoming difficult.
It was Lee’s wife, Diane, who proposed that the family move to Colorado. "It was my turn to follow her to the land of her dreams," Lee said. And at the same time, Lee decided to write full-time. So far, he’s made it work. The Lee family has lived in Colorado for six years now and although he still calls California home, he’s happy in his new state, too.
But none of his subsequent novels has been as moving and wonderful as "China Boy," not even his latest novel "No Physical Evidence," a courtroom drama based on Lee’s experiences as a trial lawyer. Maybe his move to non-fiction will be the book to look for. Or maybe it will be the book after that, his return to memoir. Whatever Lee does it will be worth a close look.
To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books at discounted prices [ Click Here ]
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