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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Guest Review: Canton Elegy by Stephen Lee



Canton Elegy by Stephen Lee
Review: Canton Elegy - Stephen Jin-Nom Lee and Howard Webster - October 2013

"I want my heart to have a voice so I can love you louder"

This first words in this epistolary memoir took me by total surprise. A father who worked as a grocer in America, wanted his children as well as grandchildren to know how much he loved them and what it took to make their lives better. So he decided to write them his lifestory in the form of a letter.

This memoir was written by Stephen Jin-Nom, who was born November 27, 1902, in the Dai Waan village in Zhongshan, China. He grew up without a father in his paternal grandfather's house and was encourage by his grandfather to go to America for a proper education. He was the only child and only lived his first eight years of his life with his mother before he was sent away, accompanied by his Little Uncle, to live with Uncle Lee Tay in California. He would not see his mother again for many years.

On the way to his uncle's rented farm, they were on the ferry when it started raining. He was standing on the deck, alone, so very young and homesick at that moment, because he heard his mothers words when she told him back at home about the music in the rain. "Can you hear the music they (the raindrops) are dancing to? Not everyone can hear it, but it is there if you listen hard enough and your heart reaches out for it. It will always be there, Ah Nom, telling you that your mother will always love you."

Then my mother would pull me close and hum quietly, rocking me back and forth in her arms, and I would fall asleep imagining a great symphony of music playing across the Dai Waan river for the thousands of tiny raindrops to dance to. Watching the rainfall come down all around the ferry, I could still hear her voice telling me to listen to the music. I hoped she still stared out across the river at home when it rained and thought about me."

He graduated with a degree in economics from Berkley but was unhappy that the words in the American Declaration of Independence - life, liberty and pursuit of happiness - only applied to Caucasian citizens, because discrimination towards everyone else prevented highly qualified immigrants from getting the jobs they were qualified for at American institutions of learning. It was unacceptable to him that John Locke, the English philosopher to whom those words in the Declaration were attributed to, was also a principal investor in the Royal Africa Company involved in the slave trade.

To combat racism, the Chinese immigrants believed firstly that it could be done with education, and secondly, it should be met with impeccable manners, wit and style.

"There was one thing that Cheong was deeply suspicious of and that was the ascot tie. While he understood its appeal, he said that it belonged to the wardrobes of charlatans, roués and scroundels. Ascot wearers could be wonderful luncheon companions and raconteurs, yet were not to be trusted with unmarried sisters, your fine wine collection and certainly not your checkbook."

He learnt the hard way that the American Dream was a myth. He tore up his American papers and returned to China.

Despite his uncle's warnings, he was determined to live in a place where doors were not constantly slapped close in his face simply because of where he was born. Although he anticipated some trouble with China being on the brink of a civil war, he never could predict the intensity of the suffering the people would have to endure. He met his wife, Belle, had four children( Amy, Huey, Rudy and Yvonne), worked as a highly respected Air Force comptroller with the rank of a colonel, a banker, as well as a professor teaching economics.

But he never foresaw what he and his nuclear family would have to endure. From the Chinese civil war, the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Second World War, to the Cultural Revolution: his country was turned upside down by warlords, politicians, corruption, fraud, vandalism, poverty, famine, and inhuman acts of violence. He and his family lived a life of constant migration, fleeing the horror of it all and barely surviving.

When he finally ended up back in the USA working as a grocer, he decided to write his children and grandchildren a letter to tell them how much he loved them and how much he cared.

He passed away on April 25, 1970. This memoir would be co-authored a few decades later by his granddaughter Julianne Lee's husband, Howard Webster, and published as a book.

I was left with many questions, like: how was it possible that this unbelievable kind, compassionate, highly intelligent man, with his family, could endure all these incredible experiences and not break down, while so many millions of people all over the world in much less challenging circumstances could simply not rise above it? What made Stephen Jin-Nom different?

"Hatred, like a bush fire, ultimately consumes those who propagate it, leaving nothing but scorched, barren earth behind in their hearts. Love, the greatest of reckless endeavors,inspires men to greatness in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds."

It is an incredible tale of hardship, but also kindness; of heartbreak as well as hope; of deep sorrow and intense joy. It is one of the most inspirational stories I have read in a very long time. I highly recommend this book to EVERYONE! In this book, horror is not a book genre for bored people seeking extreme excitement, horror was a real way of life!

I am changed. Undoubtedly. 




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