See takes advantage of historical roots in 'Flower Net'

December 21, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Now here's an interesting new thriller: it's Lisa See's "Flower Net" ( HarperCollins, 1997, $24) and in it she has law enforcement agencies in China and the United States working together to solve a crime. Smuggling, immigration, romance, government secrets and family secrets all add up to a complex plot in See's first work of fiction.

If her name is familiar to you, it may be because you read "On Gold Mountain," a memoir of her Chinese-American family focusing on her great-grandfather, Fong See, a dirt-poor Chinese peasant who came to America and first settled in Sacramento.

"My great-grandfather manufactured crotchless underwear for brothels - that was our family's glorious beginning in America," said See. Much of her research for the book was done in Sacramento where excellent archival records of his business and government interviews with neighbors still exist.

Fong See did very well in America. He had four wives, was the first Chinese to own an automobile, and lived to be 100. He made his fortune not in underwear but in curios and antiques and moved down to Chinatown in Los Angeles where he settled, making frequent trips back to China. In 1982 the antique store moved to Pasadena where it remains today selling and renting out Chinese furniture for movie sets.

Through the years, the See family intermarried. Lisa See is only one-eighth Chinese. If the name sounds familiar and you didn't read "On Gold Mountain," it may be that you know of her mother, writer and reviewer Carolyn See.

"My mother is a writer," said Lisa in a recent phone interview, "so I grew up in that environment, hearing about that business. And my father's an anthropologist. It's my father's side of the family that's Chinese. I spent a lot of time when I was growing up in Chinatown and at the antique store."

She also attended and graduated from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles in the late 1970s.

"My mother was teaching there and the tuition was free," she said. "I majored in modern Greek studies. Of course, it had nothing to do with my life, but it probably did reflect my interest in history."

See was convinced that she never wanted to marry, have children or write. She wanted to travel.

"I didn't want to write because it's not an easy life," she said. "You have to be willing to face a lot of rejection, you have to work hard, and, let's face it, editors can be very nasty people."

She wanted to be a costume designer but after one week in that field she decided creating headdresses for the MGM Grand was not going to be her life's work either.

"So I went to Europe for two years," she said. "The irony is, then I got married and had two kids." Her sons are both teenagers now and helped supply her with some of the more grisly details needed for "Flower Net."

She also worked for 13 years as the West Coast correspondent for Publisher's Weekly and isn't afraid of a little hard work.

"I still write 1,000 words a day," she said. "Even when I'm on tour." She said "Flower Net" will be out in paperback this summer.

And as an additional irony, the work of her non-Chinese husband, attorney Richard Kendall, takes her to China regularly. His clients have included businesses owned by the Chinese government and some aspects of his more interesting cases have found their way into her fiction.

"I try to go back to China every year," she said. Her next trip is planned for this spring and she also is working on a sequel to "Flower Net."

"The difference will be that the new book, 'The Interior,' will be more about the interior of China. You know, one in six people on the planet is a Chinese peasant."

She describes her work as highly plot-driven and has been doing research on American businesses operating in China. She finds that fiction is a comfortable writing vehicle, too, because as her plots unfold she can also take the time to write about history, politics and the economy.

See has traveled to her ancestral village in southern China and plans to visit her relatives there again many more times.

"I just think: 'There but for the grace of God go I,' " she said. "It was a profound experience."

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