Recently I finished reading an advance copy of Canton Elegy by Stephen Jin Nom Lee. It is one of the most beautiful memoirs I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a LOT of memoirs. I wrote about Canton Elegy in April 2012 when I saw an article about how the handwritten, English-second-language pages were kept in an attic, waiting long after Lee’s death until . . . a grand-daughter and her writer-husband from overseas came to visit. Howard Webster was enthralled with what he read and the resulting book will be released this week.
Well, I was enthralled, too. Stephen Lee wrote a long letter for his children—the story of his life until his firstborn child graduated high school and left for the U.S., the rest of the family soon to follow. He wanted them to know what he and his wife had gone through and to “speak to, comfort and inspire my children, grandchildren and their children in a time when my name is just a memory carved in a tablet of stone on a grassy hillside.” Mostly he wanted his children to know how much he loved them, and his love shines through like a star in the night of his story. He died in 1970, Howard Webster was given the manuscript to read in early 2012.
Jin Nom Lee was born in China in 1902 and his father died soon after. At age six, Lee’s grandfather took him away from his mother to be educated in the U.S. Despite a college degree from Berkeley, Stephen Lee could find no job but menial work and so returned to China. Racism was rampant in the U.S. then. In China he was a successful banker with a civilian job with the Cantonese Air Force, a dangerous association as communist forces sought to overthrow the government. Civil wars were interrupted by WWII and the Japanese invasion and continued afterwards until Chinese communists took over. So much danger in this book! Lee’s wife fled the Japanese army in a harrowing 300-mile journey on foot with four young children to reach her husband sent to open a new bank branch in a safer location. Enemy soldiers, starvation, killing floods, and vicious Red Guards keep the story riveting, but the prose is eloquent and often poetic, sincere and hopeful. Many times I paused to take in what had happened, or paused to soak in the beauty of the words and the wisdom for the generations.
Every child should be so lucky to receive a gift of story and life learnings from a parent! Stephen Lee speaks to his children from the beyond. How wonderful for them to know their father, though he worked long hours and may not have been forthcoming with words, loved them deeply . . .
“That’s why this manuscript is important. I want it to be a gentle golden thread of memory to connect us, to remind you that you, my children, were, and always will be, loved. The love I have for you is a single thread of shimmering, unbreakable certainty.”
I am thankful that Howard Webster knew how to get Stephen Lee’s words published. Read this book! Its words will pierce your heart and live in your mind.