THE EIGHTH PROMISE
AN AMERICAN SON'S TRIBUTETO HIS TOISANESE MOTHER
RED STAR REVIEW: "...remarkable memoir, mother and son, in alternating chapters, tells the story of their life in San Francisco's Chinatown from the 1950s to the present. Fans of Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston shouldn't hesitate to embrace this formidable matriarch and the son she taught to cook her chi soups. "
NEW DISCOVERIES UPON RE-READING
Alice Walker recently reread The Eighth Promise & delighted me with this praise:
"It’s as if I never read it. What a truly wonderful gift of a sharing. Powerful, soulful, real, liberating.
I’m so glad I was drawn to re-immerse.
You are a sly and wonderful writer."
Later, Alice shared aspects of Toisanese family-clan values positively useful for the challenged American family institution.
Professor Emeritus Roger T. Ames, Dean of East-West Philosphy, and THE premier western expert on Confucianism shocked me with his insights of living Confucianism in my American life:
"The tension in Confucianism has always been between deep and abiding loyalty to the family and polity on the one hand, and the obligation of remonstrance against injustice on the other.
I found Confucianism’s courage to action and family resilience captured in this poignant account of transmission of Toisan values from Chinese mother to her third generation American-born son. The ancient Confucian values are all here.
The moral imperatives of Confucianism emerged out of China’s Warring States period, a 250 year era of chaos, slaughter, and death in which the common people suffered endlessly. The tension in Confucianism has always been between deep and abiding loyalty to the family and polity on the one hand, and the obligation of remonstrance against injustice on the other.
But then maybe I should not be surprised. Just as 2,500 years ago, it was the trails of injustice that forged Confucian philosophy, William Lee from this working class immigrant family was able to find his strength to rise up against a racist America not in the local water, but from his mother’s Qi soups and the living waters of her Toisan wisdom."
MEMOIR AS NARRATIVE SAGA
William Poy Lee's coming-of-age story spans his mother's 1930-40s war-torn Chinese village to his own 1960-70s San Francisco Chinatown-North Beach of civil rights protests, anti-Vietnam War clashes, and the counter-cultural explosion.
Mid-way, it turns into a stunning tale of violence, injustice, fortitude, survival and triumph as the author, like the Continental Op in Dash Hamett's Red Harvest, careens and bluffs his way through the "Poisonville" of his once idyllic and now blood-drenched Chinatown. He seeks to free his unfairly jailed brother and to expose the deadly combine of Chinese organized crime, corrupt police, and their youth thug hitmen.
Through it all, in prison visits, on the streets of San Francisco, and in their hearts, his mother's steady ancient Toisanese practices of compassion keeps the family centered in their spiritual humanism of the ancient millennial Toisan ways - of staying human, moral, and free in the worse of times.
MY OWN RE-DISCOVERY AND REGRET
I have come to feel guilty that my father's voice was not in every third chapter: a trio and not just the duet of voicing between mother and me. After all, we are more impressed with our parents' personality traits then we realize. Some traits bless us, others handicap us.
But intellectually, it was mom who fully embodied the humanistic-spiritual sensibility of Toisan and as transmitted in our millennial Tang Dynasty lineage. Factually, it was mom who carried us through the worst of times, Richard's wrongful conviction and 13 years in a California prison. In contrast, dad was paralyzed, mute, and mostly pretended that it didn't happened.
Artistically, it was these truths that decided the duet of mom's voice and mine and the narrative arc.
Dad was Toisan interrupted, as I named one chapter dedicated to him. Too, he turned his back on China and never visited it again after the revolution. Dad's story is another kind, of a decent man who belived 100% in the American Dream, but was ultimately frustrated by the American Apartheid of his time.
Too, I was still angry at my Dad during the writing of the memoir, at his off-and-on again emotional abuse throughout our lives, at his earlier physical abuse of mother and his then young first two sons. But I wasn't able to sort this all out until these last few years.
I can cleanly write about Dad now, but it would be a different kind of story, perhaps better written as a novel about men like him.
But periodically, I fantasize that one day I might just sit down and rewriteThe Eighth Promise this way.
A Memoir in 2 Voices
"Confucianism’s courage to action and family resilience are all here.
William Lee rose up against a racist America - a strength sourced not from the local water - but from his mother’s chi soups and the living waters of her Toisan wisdom."
Roger T. Ames, Professor & Dean of Comparative East-West Philosphy, Peking University, Beijing, China