The best-selling tale of star-crossed love, based on the true story of Aimee Liu's grandparents -- a Chinese Scholar- Revolutionary and an American teacher, whose courtship blooms during the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and whose life together spans the Warlord Era and the beginning of WWII in China.
The Historical Figures Behind the Story
For the history-minded, the names of the true life characters on which this book is based are:
- LIU YU-CHEN (My Great Grandfather) Viceroy of Canton, circa 1860
- LIU CH'ENG-YU (My Grandfather), also known as Liu Yu-sheng, also known as Don Luis, 1875-1951
- JENNIE ELLA TRESCOTT LUIS (My Grandmother)1877-1971
- The children of Jennie and Don/Liu Ch'eng-yu:
BLOSSOM Luis; MAURICE Liu; LOTUS Luis; HERBERT Luis
Harriet Pile, of the University of East Anglia
Interviews Aimee Liu about Cloud Mountain :
Q. You mentioned in your 'author's note' that, although impossible at times, you tried to be historically accurate. Was this partly because of a need to educate your (presumably predominately Western-and sadly relatively uninformed) reader with regard to China's
history? Did you also wish to highlight to the reader quite how racist and prejudice both nation's were/are with one other? ('yellow peril'/exclusion acts, Citizenship problems, forbidden marriages/affection etc. -e.g., that Hope loses her citizenship until she renounces Po-yo?)
A. I'm afraid my primary reason was more personal.
Cloud Mountain, though fictional, stands in for a history of my father's family. My primary reason for writing it was to pierce the mystery that always surrounded my father's early life and to answer the persistent question of how his American mother came to marry his Chinese father and stay with him through the chaos of the WarLord Era for more than thirty years. I wanted to understand my father's exceedingly contradictory personality, and that meant facing the layers of bigotry, both in the US and in China and from the Brits in Shanghai, that had shaped him. I always write to learn, both through research and through the writing process itself. I'm not really interested in just making things up. When I try to do that I lose interest, perhaps because I don't have sufficient confidence in my own imagination. I need the anchor of facts in order to write through fiction to the truth (or what feels like truth). I'm especially interested in exploring facts that aren't widely known, and when I got into the history of turn-of-the-century chinese-Caucasian marriage and the period of Chinese history before WWI I realized I was writing stories that most Americans knew nothing about. It would be a terrible disservice to portray that history inaccurately.
Q. There is also a comment in this introductory note that the included poems are adaptations of your grandfather's verse. Is there any particular reason
you did this - what benefit do you feel this inclusion of his personal writings had upon your novel? (These were beautiful, by the way, I was particularly enamored by the one that began Book Two - I have written it up for my wall.)
A. The poems were a lucky find in the UCLA library. They offered a dimension of my grandfather I couldn't get any other way. In his writings he did not come at emotion directly -- only indirectly. I found clues to explain his motives for marrying my grandmother, and the poems were arguably more direct than his prose. At least the metaphors seemed clearer to me. I could imagine their metaphoric meaning more easily than I could parse his historical allusions. Since I never knew my grandfather I had to use whatever I could find.
Q. You mentioned that "Cloud Mountain" incorporates versions of stories told ... by family members.'
Would you be able to tell me how much of these stories inspired your work, how much you relied upon them and what effect you felt such an inclusion had upon the novel as a whole?
A. I wouldn't have a book without those stories! I had to pry them out -- ours is not a family of natural storytellers. But they gave me the incidental details, the clues to motivations and personality and emotion. About 75% of the novel is made up of scenes I gleaned from my family's memories, photographs, scrapbooks, documents, or letters. The rest is pieced together from historical circumstances and other firsthand accounts. I used my imagination to enter the scenes and characters, but I made up very few of them from whole cloth.
Q. History's facts and dates aside, how much imagination do you feel you had to use to conjure up such a convincing story that is based upon your grandparents? What importance, other than 'filling in the gaps' do you feel imagination plays in novels such as "Cloud Mountain"?
A. Imagination allows an author to walk in a character's shoes, to touch the teacups and hear the sound of anger.
It allows me to interrogate a character's motivation and follow the consequences of actions through to the bitter end. It also allows the necessary liberties to keep the plot moving. Jin's character, for example, was largely imagined and helped add suspense and intensity to the actual history. Imagination gives an author license to go full bore into what might have been, given the evidence, without worrying too much whether it actually happened.
Q. Throughout "Cloud Mountain", you use several modes to tell the story (poems, personal letters from one key character to another, telegrams, diary entries and news paper articles.) There is also a shift between a general more omniscient narrator to moments (notably at the beginning and end) when only Hope narrates, bringing it back to being 'her' story. Recognizing that I am asking a rather simple question in the hope of a complicated response(!)- what do you feel these various narrative techniques add to the story as a whole?
A. Primarily, they helped me connect to Hope as a more rounded woman, and they gave me a variety of tools to enter her character. I found it very easy to slide into her voice when writing the letters and articles (most of which were actually based on my grandfather's writings),
and when she was writing to Sarah I could include a different kind of intimate detail than in the third person sections. What Sarah would want to hear was different than what Cadlow would want, or what Hope would relate looking back. So it gave me a way to get into Hope's head at different ages and to reveal her relationships without describing them. Letters and news articles also gave me a very immediate entry into the history, to truncate the long distance lens and make it present and personal.
Q. Maxine Hong Kingston said that, in "China Men", she was 'writing the biography of real people,' which enabled her to tell the actual truth; making the lies, hopes, anxieties and heroic talk-story of her characters as important, if not more so, than what they actually did. This is in spite of the fact that she had to imagine such thoughts, based upon what she had been
told and what she remebered from these stories.
What are your feelings toward this approach of 'imaginatively remembering' and telling the 'real' story and do you think you used this technique throughout
"Cloud Mountain"?(e.g., were Hope's diary entries anything like this?)
A. I'm not sure I feel comfortable calling such writing nonfiction. I know Maxine, and I know she wrestles with these genre categorizations. Cloud Mountain is imaginatively researched rather than remembered -- since I wasn't born when all this happened and I never
knew most of the characters. Still, it is very definitely a blend of fact and fiction. The largest
departure, however, in my book is from my grandmother's true character. At least as I was told, my grandmother was far less fond of China and far more bitter about her years there than Hope was. The real history wore her down. I wanted to honor the courage and spirit she had in marrying my grandfather, breaking all those taboos, facing history, and keeping her family safe through the many harrowing tines she lived through. But I also wanted to honor the many other adventurous western women who traveled to China and married Chinese men and sallied farther out into the country than my grandmother did. Hope is really an amalgam of my grandmother and those other spunky souls. Since my grandmother left almost no writings of her own, I relied on other women's journals, articles, and books quite heavily.
Q. And, lastly, what happened after Hope went back to China at the end?! Did she stay?!(I know that these are inappropriate questions but I so often wish I could secretly know more than the ending!) I suppose I will just have to dutifully join the rest of your readers and never know...!
A. I am planning now a sequel to Cloud Mountain that should answer this question. I hope to get down to writing it next year. The short answer is that she remained in Los Angeles until her death in the 1970s.
From the Los Angeles Times, April 18, 2006
The Quake that Toppled Taboos and Built a Family
By Aimee Liu
AMONG THE MANY aftershocks of the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 is one that I am observing this centennial week with equal measures of gravity and gratitude. Just six weeks after the disaster, a wedding party that included four Chinese men and their American brides set off from the Oakland train depot, prepared to violate California law. That small band of romantic rebels included my grandparents.
My grandfather Liu Ch'eng-yu was then 31. He had come to San Francisco three years earlier by a circuitous route. The only son of the late viceroy of Canton under the Qing Dynasty, Ch'eng-yu was classically trained as a poet and scholar, groomed to serve in government. But in his headstrong teens he had resolved instead to overthrow China's imperial system. When his plot to blow up a local armory was exposed, he narrowly escaped beheading. He fled to Tokyo, where he fell under the sway of Sun Yat-sen.
Ch'eng-yu became so enamored with Western-style freedom that he cut off his queue, the pigtail that Chinese men were required to wear as a show of submission to their Manchu rulers. He traded his scholar's robes for waistcoats and a bowler. In 1903, he stood up at a New Year's party and called for democracy in China, causing the Japanese and Manchu officials who were present to lose face. Sun arranged for my grandfather to move on to San Francisco, where he would edit the revolutionary newspaper Ta T'ung Daily.
There was just one problem: The Chinese Exclusion Act, which had been in effect since 1882 (and would not be repealed until 1943), forbade Chinese to enter the United States. Exceptions were made only for merchants with an established record of doing business in the U.S. or for students enrolled in American schools. All other Chinese were treated as laborers who "endangered the good order" of society and were denied entry.
Sun pulled strings to get Ch'eng-yu a student visa. My grandfather would bang the drum of China's revolution by night and attend classes at UC Berkeley by day. But to succeed, Ch'eng-yu needed tutoring in English. The university directed him to another student, Jennie Ella Trescott, then 25, single and living in a boarding house near the college.
Jennie was a slender strawberry blond with luminous blue eyes. Her majestic air belied her origins as the only child of pioneers, born in Fort Dodge, Kan. Her mother died of diphtheria when Jennie was 2. Her father failed first at cattle ranching and then at selling snake oil from a traveling medicine wagon. He loved his daughter but could not support her. She might have married, but Jennie was as headstrong as Ch'eng-yu. She preferred independence.
This did not mean that she was immune to the lure of men or of luxury. Much later, she would tell her daughters how her dapper and passionate Chinese pupil impressed her with descriptions of Beijing's Forbidden City and the cache of emeralds, rubies and gold his father had amassed during his service as viceroy. Jennie became enthralled. The contradiction between Ch'eng-yu's modern dress and politics and his exotic ancestry only made him more intriguing to Jennie. They joked that if she came with him to China, he would make her his "American princess."
It was an unlikely scenario. He belonged to a despised minority in California. Interracial courtship was taboo. Marriage between Chinese men and Caucasian women was against the law in most of the West. I believe it took an earthquake to make my grandparents' union possible.
On April 18, 1906, across the Bay Area, all social conventions and laws were suspended. Streets cracked open. Houses split in two. Fire engulfed downtown San Francisco, forcing thousands to take refuge in Golden Gate Park or escape by the boatload to Sausalito or the East Bay. In the havoc, no one noticed or cared that a single white woman accepted the protection of a Chinese man. Memories and documents conflict, but from what can be pieced together, Jennie landed in a tent city, with Ch'eng-yu standing guard.
Chinatown, and with it the offices of Ta T'ung Daily, was reduced to ashes. University classes were suspended. The quake left both Jennie and Ch'eng-yu homeless, but it also left them, at least temporarily, liberated.
The nearest town where a Chinese man could marry a white woman in 1906 was Evanston, Wyo. To get there required a three-day journey on the Union Pacific. They would not be able to ride in the same car or class, and yet Jennie couldn't travel alone without opening herself to danger and humiliation. Ch'eng-yu solved that problem by finding six other couples to accompany them. In a surviving photograph taken en route, my grandfather appears by far the most confident of the group's four Chinese grooms.
In Evanston, the Las Vegas of the Old West, the turnaround time for a certificate of marriage was just 24 hours. The couples witnessed each other's unions on May 29. Leander C. Hills of the Presbyterian Church certified that the marriage was legal under Wyoming law. In the eyes of the United States, however, Jennie was now Chinese. Federal regulations would not permit her to reclaim her citizenship until 1932.
My grandparents lived together between two continents for nearly 30 years. First, they returned to San Francisco and lived for a while on the outskirts of Chinatown, where my Aunt Blossom was born. Then, in 1911, my grandfather's dream of a new republic in China was realized by Sun and his followers. Ch'eng-yu took his "American princess" and 3-year-old daughter to Shanghai, where he served as China's first senator from Hupei Province. By 1921, Jennie had given birth to three more children. My father was their eldest son.
It took an earthquake to bring my grandparents together. A war — and their own limits — pulled them apart. Over time, Ch'eng-yu became more and more devoted to China; Jennie never gave up her American loyalties. When Japan invaded China in the 1930s, Ch'eng-yu reluctantly sent Jennie and the children to California, while he retreated with the Nationalists to Chungking.
Ten years ago, I had a friend search the Kuomintang archives in Taipei, and we learned that my grandfather died in Wuchang in 1953. My grandmother lived for another 20 years with her youngest daughter in the Hollywood Hills. Jennie never remarried.
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