Gus Lee's autobiographical novels, "China Boy" and "Honor and Duty," were so real and deeply felt that I eventually forgot they were fiction. Now, Lee has written "Chasing Hepburn," an epic family memoir so vivid and dramatic that readers eagerly turning the pages will forget that it's nonfiction.
Lee opens with two gripping and unforgettable family stories. In the first, his mother is an infant whose feet are about to be broken and bound in the cruel tradition of ancient China that persisted into the past century. Her soft-hearted father cannot stand the screaming, however, and plucks her away from the indignant women, who are sure he has now doomed the baby to a bad marriage and a lifetime of humiliation because of her "big feet."
The second also concerns the practice of foot binding. It is the story of the "bravest wife," the first wife of Lee's paternal great-grandfather, who could not flee in the Taiping revolution (eerily reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution 100 years later) because her bound feet made her totally unsuited to be a quick-moving refugee. To save her husband, who will not leave her behind, she commits suicide by throwing herself down a well.
Thus, Lee sets the stage for two families that eventually will be bound by the marriage of Lee's mother, Tzu Da-tsien, and his father, Lee Zee Zee. The family stories leading up to their meeting are both interesting and enlightening, but it becomes a little hard to follow the relationships.
Readers should not worry about getting bogged down here. Once the lovely and independent minded Da-tsien (who has been promised by her parents to a kindly middle-aged gangster) and the stormy, rebellious Zee Zee meet, sparks fly, and the story kicks into an overdrive gear that Zee Zee's noisy motorcycle never approached.
Lee's parents are the perfect vehicle to examine the thirst for modernity by the Chinese people. The couple spend much of their time sneaking out to see American films - particularly those starring Katharine Hepburn, whom they consider the ultimate modern woman.
Zee Zee and Da-tsien incorporate nearly every aspect of 20th century Chinese life between them. They post notices for radical student groups, but Zee Zee's best friend and benefactor is T.A. Soong, the brother of the woman who would become Madame Chiang Kai-shek.
When Chiang slaughters the student radicals, the couple are spared; although he became a prominent Nationalist officer, Zee Zee never forgave Chiang for his actions.
While most of his friends join the Communists, Zee Zee, a bomber pilot, concocts a brilliant plan to kill Mao Tse-Tung, only to have his superior nix it, claiming Mao is irrelevant. But for all his notions, Zee Zee is still a traditional Chinese man, ignoring his children and acting as though the wife he so fervently wooed is now merely his property.
Da-tsien embraces Christianity, especially the idea of a God who demands monogamous marriage and that husbands love their wives. But frustrated that she constantly produces daughters, she makes sacrifices in various temples hoping to bear a son.
There are more contradictions. She longs for modern respect for women but shuns her younger daughters for not being boys. She incorporates Christianity and Western notions of personal freedom into her life but still kowtows to her husband's family and hedges her bets by paying tribute to her old gods.
Sent to America on a promotional tour for the Nationalists during World War II, Zee Zee actually meets and flirts with Hepburn, only to be warned off by Spencer Tracy.
Meanwhile, Da-tsien frantically is trying to get her family out of Japanese-occupied Shanghai because she is convinced that American actress hussy is going to steal her man.
Lee not only relates much of the history of China in an incredibly entertaining way but also explores its philosophical underpinnings. He examines the universal appeal of American pop culture and the positive force for freedom that it can be. Plus, he shows how Christianity can be a modernizing and liberating force in a Third World situation.
But this is not primarily a history book - "Chasing Hepburn" is a deeply felt story of two remarkable people. While Lee is candid about their faults, he honors his parents with its telling.
Lee is a criminally overlooked American author who could be considered the Amy Tan for the male market.
"Chasing Hepburn" is an incredibly entertaining book with Lee's mother as the dominant character that should attract every reader of "The Joy Luck Club" - and then some.
Filled with revolution, forbidden romance, war, intrigue, Hollywood dreams and the struggle of one family to join the modern world on its own terms, this book is captivating, memorable and enlightening.