Two sisters, two remarkable lives
By Lavonne Leong
Special to The Advertiser
By Lavonne Leong
"A Thousand Miles of Dreams: The Journeys of Two Chinese Sisters" by Sasha Su-Ling Welland; Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, $24.95
In the first chapter, author Sasha Su-Ling Welland recalls growing up in St. Louis, the daughter of a Canadian father and a Chinese mother who called herself a "Hoosier" first and an "Oriental" second. It wasn't until she went to college in California, she says, that she found a single term for what she was: hapa haole. "I began a mission to become a real hapa, whatever that might be, instead of a fake, not one who was just passing."
That mission to claim her ethnic heritage led, as it has for many other American descendants of immigrants, back to the mother country. "A Thousand Miles of Dreams" is the fruit of her decade-long quest, a double biography of two Chinese sisters — Shuhao and Shuhua, Welland's grandmother and great-aunt — who were born near the turn of the 20th century.
The daughters of an imperial scholar and his fourth concubine, the two sisters grow up privileged in precommunist China, an exotic, intrigue-filled world familiar to readers of Jung Chang's "Wild Swans" or any of Amy Tan's novels.
Ling Shuhao, the author's grandmother, leaves it all behind in 1925 to attend medical school in Cleveland. Arriving in the U.S. during a crackdown on Chinese immigration, Ling Shuhao renames herself Amy Ling and embarks on the long road to American assimilation.
Her sister, Ling Shuhua, stays behind, and, if anything, her life is even more remarkable. In Beijing, she makes a name for herself as a writer and artist, beginning a celebrated affair with the nephew of Western modernist icon Virginia Woolf. Later, living in England as a political refugee and encouraged by Woolf and other members of the Bloomsbury group, she publishes an autobiography in English, "Ancient Melodies."
This book, along with the oral histories that Welland, an anthropologist, collected from her grandmother, are the central pillars of "A Thousand Miles of Dreams."
There's just one problem for Welland: the two sisters' stories almost never match up, either with verifiable documentation or with each other. This fact is what makes her book what it is: not just an exercise in ancestral nostalgia, but a contemporary coming-of-age story in which the author traces her long search for the truth about her family's past.
That Welland almost never finds easy or vanity-gratifying answers — for instance, the Chinese "ancestor portraits" she has proudly treasured all her life turn out to be generic fakes — only makes the book more intriguing. Writes Welland: "Truth, whether that means getting things right or getting everything down, will never seem easy again." Anyone who has delved deeply into the conflicting accounts of family history will know the feeling.
"A Thousand Miles" is lucky in its timing; we in 2007 are well-placed to appreciate Welland's careful approach. The James Frey scandal and others like it have left readers scratching their heads about whether the memoirs and histories they read are true. Welland deftly sidesteps this question by putting her evidence on the table, warts and all, and leaving it to the reader to decide what to believe.
Hawai'i residents will find the depiction of life as an immigrant Chinese in other parts of the world fascinating because it is so foreign; the author didn't taste fresh lychees until she was well into her teens. But this story of two very different independent women, the hard choices they made as strangers in strange lands, and the descendant who found her own story in uncovering theirs has an appeal that crosses state lines.
Although "A Thousand Miles of Dreams" has its faults — it is a little too long, and the prose is occasionally purple — it will interest lovers of biography, memoir, family histories, immigrant histories and fictions, and histories of women. Welland skillfully navigates the murky waters of memory, exaggeration, cultural misunderstanding and transformed identity, with both a scholar's critical eye and a granddaughter's desire to believe.
Lavonne Leong, of Honolulu, is a freelance writer and editor.