If Gus Lee’s first novel really were a novel, readers would find it an implausible mix of dynastic romance, melodrama, fairy tale, and old-fashioned boy’s story. In China Boy, a dispossessed aristocratic Shanghai family fleeing war-torn China for San Francisco; a beautiful, superstitious mother sheltering her frail American-born son in a tough black neighborhood; the mother’s early death; a wicked white stepmother; a scholarly uncle who speaks in Confucian maxims; the boy’s ordeal by street-fighting and his ultimate triumph.
Fortunately, however, Lee isn’t making any of this up. The book is an engaging memoir in the guise of a mediocre novel. The acknowledgments give it away, as does H. Norman Schwarzkopf. Stormin’ Norman, who was Lee’s teacher at West Point, appears here as ”H. Norman Schwarzhedd,” a ”big, beefy American…with a deep sense of honor, of integrity.” The lameness of this disguise is of a piece with the decision, perhaps the work of some commerce-minded agent or editor, to market China Boy as a novel. But once you realize that it’s nothing of the sort, the same lameness amounts to a seal of authenticity. What might seem shopworn or calculated as art becomes convincing as life, since anything can happen in life — even happy endings.
Lee, a former deputy DA in California, calls his family Ting here. Before emigrating to the U.S. in 1944 they occupied a palatial Shanghai mansion with a small army of servants. Until his father became a soldier, the men of the family ”had not worked since the discovery of fire” — his grandfather had devoted his life to opium, concubines, and calligraphy. With the Communists closing in, the family realized that it was all over for them in Shanghai and that their future lay in inscrutable, machine-happy America. Lee makes some comedy out of the cultural cross-purposes — his mother believed with equal passion in ancient Chinese spirits and modern American refrigerators and drove the family car with Taoist insouciance.
Everything in the book is seen from the point of view of the author as 7-year-old boy (called Kai here), and if the portrait of his doomed mother is particularly affecting, the portrait of the stepmother who replaced her — a martinet from Smith College — is especially appalling. She disapproves of children, especially children who fall short of Philadelphia Main Line standards of manners and grammar. She smashes Kai’s favorite toys, destroys his mother’s Chinese keepsakes, and beats him before pushing him out into the street to be beaten in turn by the neighborhood bullies. His father is apparently too stunned by his luck in acquiring a blond American wife to notice, but he finally sends Kai to take some boxing lessons at the YMCA, and this becomes the boy’s path to manhood and baptism by all-American violence. The chasm between the stubborn, exquisitely obsolete Chinese world in Shanghai and the brash, improvising, predatory American one is the most impressive thing about this account of a boy’s attempt to bridge it. B