Monday, September 23, 2013


Title: Canton Elegy: A Father’s Letter of Sacrifice, Survival and Enduring Love
Author: Stephen Lee
Publisher: Watkins Publishing
Publication Date: October 1, 2013
Genres: Biography, Memoir
Reviewed by: Margitte
Source: NetGalley
Margitte’s rating: 5/5


Stephen Lee's grandchildren knew him as a humble grocer. Beneath his humble exterior, however, lay one of the most extraordinary stories of the twentieth century. 
Lee was born in Canton, China in 1902. As a teenager he was sent to live with relatives in San Francisco. He attended college at Iowa State and later transferred to UC Berkeley where he was one of the first Chinese-Americans to receive a degree. The widespread racism of the time prevented Lee from landing a job in his chosen field of finance, so he burned his papers and returned home to China.
With the clouds of war gathering, Lee, an anti-communist, found work in the accounting and logistics office of the Cantonese Air Force where he quickly rose to Colonel and comptroller. In 1929, after securing his position, he married a local beauty named Belle and in 1930, his first child, Amy, was born. 
When the Japanese pushed south from Manchuria in 1936, the Cantonese Air Force was merged with that of Chiang Kai-shek's and Lee was forced to flee with his wife and four children to Hong Kong. There Lee took a job with the Canton Trust Company. On the eve of the bombings at Pearl Harbor, the board of the Canton Trust made the fateful decision to send Lee to Kwelin to set up a new office. After Hong Kong fell to the Japanese, Belle and the children were force to flee on foot to Kwelin, which became a three hundred mile, six-week ordeal of hunger and hardship.
In 1943, Kwelin was evacuated and the Lees were once again on the move. Forced to play the part of refugees, the Lees moved up river, eventually landing in the small village of Foo-Luke outside of Chungking. There Stephen was invited to teach accounting at the local university. But tragedy soon struck again when a sudden flood nearly washed the family down the Yangtze River.
After the war, the Lees returned to Canton where they found that their home had been converted into an auto repair shop by the Japanese. Undaunted, Belle set about rebuilding it while Stephen helped return the city to civilian rule. By 1948, however, the Communists were bearing down on Canton and Lees were compelled to relocate again.
In 1955, the Lees fled for a final time--to America. Back in San Francisco, Lee found that attitudes towards Chinese immigrants had not changed much since he first left there 30 years before. 
Canton Elegy is a love story, an adventure, and an intimate portrait of one family's struggle to survive. Stephen Jin-Nom Lee, his beautiful wife, Belle, and their four young children, braved famine, flood, corruption, and the devastation of war, on their journey to America.
Written so that his grandchildren might one day understand the quiet man who ran the local grocery store, Canton Elegy has all the action of a Hollywood blockbuster. From the 300-mile journey Belle and the children take on foot, to the night when Stephen stands at his window watching Canton burn, Canton Elegy describes events with an artist's sensibility and a poet's heart.


"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

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 granfather 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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