Secrets of a Chinese family revealed in 'Falling Leaves'

January 24, 1999
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

They say that an unhappy childhood is a writer's capital.

"If that's true, I am rich indeed," said Adeline Yen Mah.

Mah spoke at UC Davis on Wednesday night, the first in a series of women writers invited by the Women's Resources and Research Center to raise money for the Davis Community Clinic's Teen Outreach Program.

Mah is the author of "Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter," first published in London, 1997.

It is Mah's autobiographical account of her childhood (she was born in 1937) and the continued unhappy relations with her family into adulthood.

China is a country filled with stories of displaced families, poverty and death. So what makes Mah's story different? First, she wrote it. That in itself is an accomplishment, considering her upbringing.

"For the first 14 years of my life I don't recall offering a single spontaneous remark at dinner with my parents," she said. "I felt worthless and ugly and hoped only to go unnoticed."

Second, her family was immensely rich and occupied a powerful position in society first in Shanghai, later in Hong Kong. After Mah won a writing contest at age 14 she summoned the nerve to ask her father to send her to a university. That marked one of the few times Mah stood up for herself and it paid off. She was studied medicine in England and later accepted a job in the United States. Until the publication of "Falling Leaves," Mah worked as an anesthesiologist at a hospital in Orange County.

"It is rare for a Chinese person to write about family as frankly as I have," said Mah. "I have incurred the wrath of my siblings and have been ostracized. But how can things change if no one speaks out?"

Mah's mother died shortly after giving birth to her daughter. Mah never saw even a photo of her real mother. All photos of her were destroyed when her father married a French-Chinese woman. This woman, Mah's stepmother, was a cruel woman, there's no doubt. And when she died in 1990, it was Mah's turn to speak out.

(Another writer, the Chinese-American Gus Lee, followed a similar course. He wrote his best-seller, "China Boy," only after his stepmother died.)

"When she died I knew I had to write about my childhood, which was marred by sorrow and travail," said Mah. "My book is dedicated to all unhappy children who transform their lives as adults and emerge from victimization and passivity. I hope it will help other women."

Mah's childhood was not marked by beatings, starvation or sexual abuse. She was abused emotionally. The only loving figure in her life was her father's older sister, a spinster aunt.

Mah said writing the book was excellent therapy, bibliotherapy.

"I came to understand, with stunning emotional power, what used to be hazy and mysterious," she said. "It's as if I adjusted the lens of a microscope and suddenly everything was in focus."

But even as an adult she was made to suffer. Her stepmother cut her out of her will, denying her any part of the family's $30 million estate. Her brothers and sisters betrayed her by not revealing this secret in advance.

Mah had to decide whether or not to contest the will. "The best way to win is by not fighting," she concluded. "Money was not the issue." Instead, she wrote.

"And the success of this book has been a surprise to me and my publisher," she said. "Falling Leaves" had an initial print run of 3,000 copies. Today, it has sold more than 400,000 copies.

"I am in the last third of my life," she said, "but I am content because my book will live on after me and maybe it will help change some lives after I am gone."

Fortunately, Mah is happily married today and has two grown children. She is enjoying her new career as a writer.

It's no surprise to find out that Mah's favorite children's book was "A Little Princess" by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the story of a lonely rich girl.

"It is my dream to write a book for children," Mah said. She also is writing a book on Chinese philosophy.

"Falling Leaves" is not yet available in China but Mah said negotiations are taking place.

Mah also warned any would-be biographical writers that they run the risk of alienating family and friends with whatever they write. And, finally, she admitted that some scars can never be erased.

"If my stepmother came to me today and said, 'I am not dead, stop this book,' I would do so," said Mah. "You want approval at any cost."

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books [ Click Here ]

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