Once upon a time, when there was still gold in California, a China man paddled across the Pacific in his rowboat. He was from Kwangtung (now Guangdong) Province, near Canton, a land of legendary seamen and adventures. Maybe he was tried of waiting for a foreign ship, or perhaps the passage was too expensive.
So one day, says a version of the story, he nosed his sampan out of the Pearl River and into the sea.It was a six-month voyage in a boat that could be swamped by one wave, but he made it: There are still memories in San Francisco's Chinatown of a smiling man landing on the beach, ready to make his fortune on the Gold Mountain.
Or maybe it was six men (the stories are not clear). Maybe it was no one, but only a myth, talk-story, a way of summarizing the adventurous spirit of many men from China.
Maxine Hong Kingston was born into a house furnished by such legends. She grew up in Stockton, Calif., the first native child of immigrant Chinese parents , and she learned dragon myths, demon stories, and tales of superhuman strength as other children absorbed Bugs Bunny cartoons. In her mind, China was just off the California coast, an almost palpable presence.
"Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fit in solid America," she said in "The Woman Warrior," her highly praised first book, published in 1976.
"You feel you have saddled the Tao dragon," New York Times critic John Leonard wrote of it, "and see all through the fiery eye of God."
In Kingston's new work, "China Men," as well as "The Woman Warrior," reality, legend, and dream are combined into words that attempt to bridge two cultures. The books are neither fiction nor fact, but a sort of verbal tribal history.
"Somebody suggestd to me that we needed a new word for what I'm doing, but I don't have one. Maybe I'm writing talk-story. That could be a way of putting it. My characters, who are based on fact, all tell each other stories of their lives."
She is a small woman, with wavy black and silver hair. Sitting regally in a wicker chair, she talks in a slightly singing voice.
"Talk-story is an oral tradition where people pass on mythology, legend, poetry. And part of it is just passing on what happened during the day. Another aspect is that each story changes from day to day, in the telling. The listener changes and the speaker changes and the situation changes. I want to capture that changeable quality in writing."
"China Men," for instance, relates two versions of her father's arrival in America: one in which he sailed into New York Harbor, crated like cargo in the hold of a ship, and one in which he was born in San Francisco, an immediate legal citizen.
"That's the way many immigrants tell their own lives, in several versions: legal and illegal. It's a proud story when they say, 'I was born here, and I'm not an immigrant at all.'"
Her words trail off, in the manner of someone whose public poise was attained through hard practice. Like many first-generation Americans, there was a time when she had to search for a sense of native identity. This personal search is most visible in "The Woman Warrior," which won the National Book Critics Circle award for best nonfiction of 1976. Subtitled "Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts," the book outlines the problems of being a daughter caught between two cultures, the Chinese, in which a female word for "I" is "slave," and the American, in which women can have a life of their own.
She wrote, "When I visit the family now, I wrap my American successes around me like a private shawl: I amm worthy of eating the food. From afar I can believe my family loves me fundamentally. They only say, 'When fishpull in girls,' because that is what one words come out of my own mother's and father's mouths; I looked at their ink drawing of poor people snagging their neighbors' flotage with long flood hooks and pushing the girl babies on down the river. And I had to get out of hating range."
Kingston and her siblings often rebelled against the small strangenesses of their parents' Chinese upbringing. They were embarrassed at jumping over a pile of burning leaves after some frightening experience, to "scare away the fear"; they shrank at the sound of their mother's loud voice in public places; they hid from exotic foods, medicines, and chores at home by burrowing "littl nests for themselves in closets and underneath stairs."
But even as they wore jeans and ate hamburgers on the sly, the silk robes of an ancient homeland rustled in their minds. Kingston dreamed of being lifted by a white crane to a mountain where she would be trained as a woman warrior, like Fa Mu Lan, a girl who was a famous soldier in one of her mother's stories. She and the rest of her brothers and sisters talked of wars, emperors, and ghosts.
They listened to their mother's talk-story of the To Keung School of Midwifery, where she is convinced she spent one night in a haunted dorm being sat on by a ghost.
"I was listening to the dogs bark far away,'" Mrs. Kingston recounts. "'Suddenly a full-grown Sitting Ghost loomed up to the ceiling and pounced on top of me. Mounds of hair had its claws and teeth. No true head, no eyes, no face, so low in its level of incarnation it did not have the shape of a recognizable animal.'"
Undaunted, their mother defied the ghost by ignoring it, reciting her day's lesson until it went away. Today, Maxine Kingston says she has no doubt about the truth of this encounter.
"There are probably villages in China where everybody really sees ghosts," she is convinced. "I believe there are people today who see them and don't question that they do see them. My son sees them, even though I don't. It's not a cultural thing, because he doesn't even speak Chinese. He doesn't even look Chinese. When he was younger, just walking along, he saw a little man sitting on a fence. It had a crown on its head, and a big mouth that opened and opened."
She speaks with no special emphasis, as if she were saying that her son saw a bird instead of a ghost. Her manner conveys her belief in separate realities, and in a world where dragons, spirits, and giants can exist in one country and be impossible beings in another.
"It seems to me there are certain places where people see things.People become psychic when they connect with the location.I think it's usually a place where the ground isn't covered with cement and weighted down with buildings. It has to be a natural place."
Besides treating ghosts as if they were a fact of existence, her writing often reflects an un-Western concept of time -- treating it as something to be squished, stretched, and bent around corners.
"In the Chinese language, time goes down and around. People say "the down week, meaning 'the next week.' When Americans say 'the next week,' it sounds like we're going up and up and up. The Chinese think of time as going in circles, because in a way linear thinking is the opposite of nature. Nature is run by cycles."
While "The Woman Warrior" centered on the trials of being female and bicultural, Kingston's new book, "China Men," is about the adventures of men in search of riches and experience. for the laboring farmers of China, America was the Gold Mountain, where nuggets lay on the street like pebbles and women wore cloth spun from silver.
"What I am doing in this new book," she says, "is claiming America."
She tells of her father dancing through Manhattan in a $200 suit, admiring himself in store windows and hubcaps; and of Ah Goong, her grandfather of the Sierra Nevada, whose muscle helped push the railroads through mountains. There is Bak Goong, a great- grandfather, who learned to cough-talk because the white demon foreman prohibited chatting; and great uncle Kau GOONG, a fearsome man rumored to have been a murderer in Cuba and a second-story burglar in New York. Cousins, brothers, uncles, men; they begin as mere sojourners, earning money in three-year trips and returning to China.
"I think the main reason these men came was that in the last few centuries China has had so many famines and wars that people were forced to go look for some place where they could sustain themselves. But also I think they had a spirit of adventure that's everyone."
Although battered by expulsion laws and prejudice, they become citizens, but still claim America through innumerable small strategies that cushion the transition between cultures. They spend evenings with taxi dancers, build dragons for New Year, dig holes in the earth, and shout to their loved ones at home: "Hello down there in China!," "I've been working hard for you, and I hate it," "I miss you," "I don't even look Chinese anymore," "I want to be home."
And they work, sweating over trouser presses at 2 in the morning, tunneling through granite at a foot a day.
Maxine Kingston's hands move slowly over the wicker table.
"I'm trying to show how our ancestors worked with their hands. We all came from physical laborers, people who are close to the earth. I think this book celebrates physical labor. We forget because we're all white-collar people now and we use our minds. I wanted us to remember our bodies, where we came from. In that way we notice what we're doing when we're just working at our white-collar jobs.
"It's the same theme, we're doing whitecollar work and [our ancestors] did real work. It's almost like saying, 'They paid their dues so they could talk.' But where are our stories? Where are the stories of modern people? We have to figure out what is the meaning of these lives that don't have the great tragedies of the past. We have to figure out how to make our lives meaningful. And this is really an important problem, because violence and warfare are so exciting. Peace is boring. How are we going to make peace interesting?"
Her ancestors, fired by the need to search for experience, came to claim a country that has often denied the Chinese right to citizenship. an eight-page section in "China Men" lists the various expulsion acts passed against Asians in the 19th century -- a body of law horrifying today. But she claims that in the United States it is still difficult to be Asian and indigenous.
"Today, most of us look at a black person and assume he's an American. It has nothing to do with Africa. But we [Chinese] are not seen that way I think many people look at us and think that we're foreign and don't belong here."
But her work is not foreign. It is inextricably American -- Chinese-American. John Leonard writes that "fiction, memoir, dream, epic, or elegy -- whatever Maxine Hong Kingston is writing, it is certainly art. Four years ago I said, 'The Woman Warrior' was the best book I'd read in years. 'China Men' is, at the very least, the best book I've read in the four years since."
Her husband, actor Earll Kingston, arrives to fetch her for a trip to Washington. With a polite leave, she is gone, a woman with the physical neatness of delicacy, and an arresting vision of what it means to shape a culture by grafting old ways onto a new world.