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For Lisa See, Los Angeles' Chinatown was always like stepping into her past

The 'Shanghai Girls' author says the neighborhood informed her new book.

May 31, 2009|Lisa See | See is the author of six novels and one book of nonfiction. She lives in Los Angeles.

Lisa See's sixth novel, "Shanghai Girls" (Random House: 314 pp., $25), comes out this week; she is also the author of the superlative family history "On Gold Mountain." As she has long acknowledged, the Chinese heritage of her father's family has been a significant influence on her life and work.

Yet in "Shanghai Girls," See is inspired by another influence: that of Los Angeles' Chinatown. On the occasion of the novel's publication, we asked her to write about the relationship between the neighborhood and her book.

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Almost all writers write about place. Los Angeles writers are no exception. Walter Mosley, Michael Jaime-Becerra and Janet Fitch, to name a few, capture the intimate details of very specific neighborhoods. Sometimes the sense of place is so strong that the natural topography, the streets and what's on them, become as fully realized as a living, breathing character. The neighborhood I write about is Chinatown. Yes, a lot of my novels take place in China, but those stories wouldn't -- couldn't -- have been written if not for Chinatown.

I lived with my mother, Carolyn See, when I was growing up. We moved eight times before I turned 9, so Chinatown, where my paternal grandparents and my grandfather's brothers and sister worked in the family antiques store, became home base for me. To my eyes, Chinatown didn't change. More than that, my Chinese American relatives didn't move or change either. Rather, they were very much stuck in the past. It was a past that entranced me when I was a child; it's a past I long for every day, and one I got to write about in "Shanghai Girls."

"Shanghai Girls" is about two sisters who leave China and come to Los Angeles in arranged marriages in 1938. There were four Chinatowns in Los Angeles at that time: New Chinatown -- with its neon lights and gaily painted buildings on Broadway; City Market Chinatown -- for produce sellers and their families; Old Chinatown -- comprised of the few buildings that survived the demolition required to build Union Station; and China City -- a tourist attraction bordered by Ord, Spring, Main and Macy streets. Pearl and May, my fictional sisters, live in the Garnier Building in Old Chinatown, where the Chinese American Museum is today, and they work in China City.

China City was supposed to be an "authentic" Chinese city, but was pure fantasy and stereotype. It was surrounded by a miniature Great Wall and built out of sets left over from the filming of "The Good Earth." Visitors could ride rickshaws down the Passage of One Hundred Surprises, nibble on Chinaburgers or drink pirate grog at the Chinese Junk Cafe (constructed from the old set for "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife"). For all its wacky charm, China City was an ill-fated place, which is how I came to be connected to it. Much of it burned less than a year after it opened. It was rebuilt only to catch fire again 10 years later. In 1949, China City closed. Within a few years, my family moved their antique store, the F. Suie One Co., into China City's last remaining large building.

As a little girl, stepping into the store was like stepping into another time and place. Two large marble lions flanked the moon gate, where every day my grandfather rolled a rickshaw out to the curb to attract customers. The long central hall was edged by what had once been some of China City's little stores and kiosks. There were upturned eaves, an old wishing well and the remnants of a goldfish pond.

The store itself was filled with Asian antiques, with separate rooms for bronzes, textiles and ceramics. It was a beautiful place filled with extraordinary objects and redolent of teak, moth balls and incense, but I was afraid of the warehouse, which was dark and seemed to have shadowy things lurking in the corners. I also got nervous whenever I had to go to the workroom with its roar of saws, gorgeous Chinese calendar girls advertising this or that Chinatown cafe on the walls, and clouds of sawdust. My grandfather and great-uncles were partly deaf and missing fingers because they didn't use safety equipment.

My parents were in graduate school back then and they seemed very smart. But my Chinese relatives had a different kind of knowledge that still impresses me. My great-grandfather was a south China peasant. This meant, among other things, that his children were raised to be frugal. They knew how to turn an empty 5-gallon soy sauce can into a dustpan or make and use asphalt to "antique" baskets to sell as curios. They also knew what was important: food and family, maybe in that order.

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