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A Spirit Uncrushed

Hot autobiography by a retired Huntington Beach anesthesiologist defies Chinese tradition to tell of an unwanted daughter whose siblings and stepmother poisoned her childhood. But the cruelty was overcome.

March 12, 1998|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Adeline Yen Mah couldn't have written her autobiography while her stepmother was alive.

To do so would have forever cut her ties with the woman whose love and approval Mah spent a lifetime seeking. The woman who also made her childhood in China a living hell.

But now her stepmother is dead. And Mah, 60, is resigned to the betrayal that led to her being excluded from inheriting any of the family's fortune--estimated at $30 million.

In telling her story, the retired Huntington Beach anesthesiologist has defied the Chinese ethos that "family ugliness should never be aired in public," she has been ostracized by her siblings and, most surprising to Mah, has created an international bestseller.

"Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter" (John Wiley & Sons; $24.95) tells the story of Mah's unhappy childhood. When her mother died shortly after Mah's birth, the stage was set for a string of hurtful family ties. She was shunned by her wealthy businessman father and mistreated by her brothers and sisters. Her beautiful young Eurasian stepmother made the evil stepmother in "Cinderella" seem like Mary Poppins.

But Mah's story is also about a resilient child who finds solace from her bleak home life by excelling at school and finally pleases her indifferent father when she wins first place in an international playwriting competition. Sent to a prestigious boarding school in England at 14, she goes on to study medicine and ultimately finds success and happiness in America.

"Falling Leaves" is set against a backdrop that stretches from Shanghai to Orange County. It became a bestseller in England, where it was first published early last year, and has since hit bestseller lists in Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. It was to Hong Kong that her father and stepmother fled in 1948 as China was being lost to the Red Army--a move they made after abandoning their 10-year-old daughter in a Catholic boarding school in northern China.

"Falling Leaves" hit U.S. bookstores this month, with advance praise from author Amy Tan, who calls it "poignant proof of the human will to endure," and Publishers Weekly, which says Mah's "unadorned prose is powerful, her insights keen and her portrait of her family devastating."

*

Seated in the living room of her waterfront home in Huntington Harbour, Mah says she never dreamed she was working on a bestseller during the four years it took to write her book.

"Oh, no, no, no," she says with a laugh. "I just wanted to tell my story. I was compelled to tell my story. But the amazing thing is somehow it has struck a chord."

Mah says she has received "wonderful letters, mostly from younger women who applaud me for speaking the truth and revealing to the world the inferior status of the Chinese daughter."

Mah's brothers and sisters, who were given pseudonyms in the book, aren't applauding her.

"My half-sister Susan called me to castigate me," says Mah. "Actually, she comes out very well in the book, I think. She was very brave for having the courage to break free from her own mother [Mah's stepmother], which none of us had the courage to do. But she's not happy because she's very prominent in Hong Kong society and she sees the book as a slur."

But seeking revenge wasn't the point of her writing the book, Mah says.

"I wanted this to be a universal story showing abused children and giving them a beam of hope so that they can transcend their sorrows and transform into a source of creativity, courage and compassion. That is very important to me."

Mah's grand aunt was one of China's early feminists--as a child in the 1880s she refused to have her feet bound, and she later founded the Shanghai Women's Bank. As a strong, independent woman in her own right, Mah built a successful career in medicine as chief of anesthesiology at an Anaheim community hospital.

After a first marriage that ended in divorce, she married her husband of 26 years, Bob Mah, now professor emeritus of microbiology at UCLA. Although she told him about her early days in China, she spoke little about her childhood to her children: Roger, 30, a Los Angeles doctor, and Ann, 22, who works for Beacon Press in Boston.

"I didn't think they would understand," Mah says. "In fact, Bob had a hard time understanding it himself."

She has overcome her reticence.

"Really, this is wonderful to be able to talk about it in such an open way after having repressed it for so many years," she says, spreading out old black-and-white photographs of her relatives on the coffee table.

There are no pictures of Mah's mother, who died two weeks after giving birth to her fifth child in the China port city of Tianjin in 1937.

All pictures of her mother were destroyed. Mah's stepmother saw to that.

"She was," Mah says, "a very jealous woman."

And, as vividly depicted in her book, a cruel, vindictive and ruthless woman.

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