A2/Ypsilanti Reads 2008: The Eighth Promise

This is one of three titles under consideration for this year's Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Reads, which will focus on China and America: Bridging Two Worlds.

In the best tradition of The Color of Water comes a beautifully written evocative memoir of a relationship between a mother and son – and the Chinese immigrant experience.

In The Eighth Promise: An American Son's Tribute to His Toisanese Mother, author William Poy Lee gives us a rare view of the Chinese-American experience from a mother-son perspective. His moving and complex stories unfold simultaneously in his mother’s war torn childhood of China of the 1930s and ‘40s and then amidst the housing projects of San Francisco Chinatown and the counterculture of North Beach of the 1960s and ‘70s as told in two voices—the author’s own and that of his mother. The mother’s perspective provides a sense of tradition and culture as the author becomes completely American and then realizes that his simple Toisan farmer mother has been his greatest wisdom teacher.

It is a stunning tale of violent community turmoil including a murder implicating a close family member, injustice, fortitude, survival, and ultimately redemption. Already, this exquisitely wrought memoir is garnering rave notices.

William Poy Lee graduated with a Bachelors of Architecture, emphasis on urban design and planning from the University of California in Berkeley and completed his juris doctor degree from Hastings College of the Law, University of California. He has been a licensed California attorney since 1979 and has enjoyed a career as an international banking attorney with Bank of America and as an advertising co-principal serving Fortune 100 corporations. He now lives in Berkeley, California. The Eighth Promise is his first book.

What did you think of this book? Tell us!

Comments

Here is a comment submitted to the Ann Arbor District Library website:

Submitted by TriciaT on Fri, 09/21/2007 - 2:37pm.

ANN ARBOR /YPSI READS - My ranking of the three choices would be 1-RED AZAELA, it tells a real story about the time of several changes of the Chinese government and the world changes of sexual choices, 2- BRIDEGROOM STORIES, nice to have a selection of stories which can be discussed for difference of ideas and also a little humor is wonderful, 3 -THE 8TH PROMISE,


Here is a comment submitted to the Ann Arbor District Library website:
Submitted by calhounjw on Thu, 09/27/2007 - 7:19am.

The Eighth Promise was intriguing to me right from the start and the way its presented w/ both voices and perspectives makes it even more interesting...the other 2 are good but not as discussion provoking...at least for me. JW Calhoun


Here is a comment submitted to the Ann Arbor District Library by gail michaelis-ow on 9/27:

The Eighth Promise by William Poy Lee is the perfect book for a community read. All the important themes of modern day life are discussed in the book such as the importance of family, the immigrant experience and relationships between mothers and sons and between brothers. Every single person in my book club loved the book and felt that discussing it was one of our very best book club evenings; and we have meeting monthly for over fifteen years!


Submitted to the Ann Arbor District Library on 9/26:

As the author of The Eighth Promise, I am thrilled to be one of three finalist for the 2008 Reads. I already feel a winner to have been included in the company of Anchee Min and Ha Jin, and I am a fan of their work.

If the committee does select The Eighth Promise, I am happily available for appearances throughout the year as you see fit. As the organizer of the recent Dallas International Book Fair can attest, my ability to speak to diverse audiences about the bicultural sensibilities and ideas in The Eighth Promise moved the festival to, in her words, "...a whole new level."

Not surprising, because since childhood, my parents have always told me I am a Wah Kell -- or Bridge Person for both China and America.

with gratitude and delight -- William Poy Lee


Here is a comment submitted by Ken Wachsberger to the Ann Arbor District Library on 9/29:

As one who has read and written widely about the Jewish and Jewish-American experience, I was eager to read _The Eighth Promise_. I wasn't disappointed. In addition to being a fast read, it is an inspirational look at the first- and second-generation immigrant experience from the eyes of a community with which I was not intimately familiar. I feel now like I am. Finding similarities between two such different immigrant communities--the emphasis on family, on not forgetting one's roots, on the pressure to assimilate or not--I am reminded again that we of all communities are still part of the same whole."--Ken Wachsberger is the author of _The Last Selection: A Child's Journey through the Holocaust_, _Never Be Afraid: A Jew in the Maquis_, and "Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Growing Up as a New Left Jew."


This comment was send to the Ann Arbor District Library by James Kuai on 10/2

The Eighth Promise is a wonderful book I would recommend to everyone. First of all, I came to this country as an International student and now working at a company. America has been super nice to us, waiving tuitions, giving stipends, organizing us and taking us to various activities, and granting us jobs after we graduate. I really had no idea of another America that has been so harsh and unfair to Chinese people, especially after we contributed so much to the country’s constructions. After reflecting on the book, I peeled this book into several layers:

1. A personal story. From a humble origin, early education and active involvement in high school and the Chinese American Civil Rights movement, to fight for Richard’s justice, to your professional achievement later and your eventual pursuit of heart, not money, I saw a picture of a true MAN, a capitalized man with confidence, determination, curiosity and penetrating insights about the world and society.
2. A family story. It is a family history that has been repeated over and over again because of American Exceptionalism. People came here looking for freedom and opportunities. Before long, they would find that although America is generous, there are plenty of obstacles ahead. First, because they are not born here, their English and the understanding of American culture is not as deep as natives, which greatly hampers their job prospects; second, they may not be able to continue their former career path, especially if they are in the liberal arts or political area; third, their choice of marriage partners is limited. Today, there are still hundreds, if not thousands of Chinese come to US everyday to start new lives. Many of them, as your father, are sacrificing their quality of living for a better tomorrow for their children.
3. Chinatown’s story. I have been to a couple of Chinatown on both coasts, but never bothered to pursue the understanding of their histories and origins.
4. A struggle of “model minority”. After I came to the US in 2002, I came to understand the stereotype of Chinese Americans as good at math and sciences, geeky, lots of engineers, thrifty and reserved. What really interested me was the authour's choice to fight the gangs and the legal system after he believed Richard was framed, how brave that was! He were promising and intelligent at that time; he could use that few years to pursue some big goals in your life and change the system later, like being the attorney general of California or getting into politics. And he would know the chance of winning the fight was slim. But he did anyway. After he eventually failed, it was his Taishanese tradition that made him reconcile with the system.
5. Story of Taishan people are the epitome of early Chinese pioneers.

All in all, although I believe the other books also represent good quality and life experience, it is William Poy Lee's book that I think should win the contest.

Thanks!


This comment was received by the Ann Arbor District Library on 10/2. It was sent by Helen Chin Schlichte

The early settlers to Boston's Chinatown came from Toisan. Many came with the thought of returning so that family members could learn Chinese language and culture and experience living in the land of our roots. Some did return to attend school for a few years and then return to Boston to settle in laundry and restaurant businesses.

Eighth Promise helped us relive many childhood memories. How we relished reading Poy Jen's recollections and her recipes for the soups to make us better.

Many Boston families own Eighth Promise. We found it so real, so engaging. It's a great read. Once I started, I could not put it down. And I continue to refer to it. My copy is a well marked one.


This comment was received by the Ann Arbor District Library on 9/29. The comment was sent by William Poy Lee.

I had let fans know of my selection as one of three finalists. Anyway, to my surprise a Professor Emeritus at Nanjing University, Jiangsu Province, PRC wrote this to me. I think he means for me to forward it to you to post. Please let me know if that's appropriate.

Professor ZZ -- as his close friends call him also toured the United States to interview modern American poets, from Gary Snyder to Alan Ginsberg, all whom are profiled in his classic Chinese language book by that name.

Thank you -- William Poy Lee, Author of The Eighth Promise

----- Original Message -----
From: Ziqing Zhang
To: William Lee
Sent: Saturday, September 29, 2007 7:05 AM
Subject: Reply from Zhang Ziqing -- The Eighth Promise Promo signs out for the Season

I wish it would not be my arbitrary conclusion when I regard William Poy Lee as the first Chinese American writer who emphasizes the virtues rooted deep in the Chinese culture by highlighting the image of a good young man different from that of Wittman Ah Sing, a beat, in Tripmaster Monkey, or Kai Ding, a tough boy, in China Boy, or Ulysses, a beatish young guy, in Gunga Ding Highway. I am much touched by his act of cooking the chi soup for his mother, a typical Chinese filiality, shown in the end of William’s memoir. The good young man carries on the virtues from his mother who has inherited them from his grand mother in China. It is a contribution William has made to the canon of Chinese American literature.--- Zhang Ziqing, Professor of English of Nanjing University, Nanjing, and Guest Research Fellow of Chinese American Literature Research Center of Beijing University of Foreign Studies, Beijing


Here is a comment submitted to the Ann Arbor District Library website from Lora Jo Foo of California:

I write to encourage you to choose William Lee’s “The Eight Promise” as the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Reads for your theme, China and America: Bridging Two Worlds.

I have waited many years for this book. Other Chinese-American authors have focused on old world China with their rich and sometimes exotic characters and if an American-born Chinese appears on their pages, they lead rather dull and uninteresting lives. There are very few published Chinese-American male writers. And, in addition, few write about growing up poor so the American reader may think we all grew up to be gold metal gymnasts or violin prodigies. Lee is the first author to write about growing up poor in a federal housing project in the heart of San Francisco Chinatown, from a Chinese-American male’s perspective, and about the multi-faceted personalities and rich lives of the Chinatown raised American-born Chinese he grew up with. In addition, Lee’s work captures for the American reader not just old world China through his mother’s voice, but through his own voice, the experience of growing up between two cultures here in the U.S.

Chapter 12, Ragtag Boy Scouts, poignantly shows us that poverty and the blending of the two cultures. Too poor to pay the fees to join the Boy Scouts, William and his friends form their own unofficial Boy Scouts troop, only to find that their parents cannot afford to pay for the official Boy Scouts uniform. From out of the mothballs, his mother pulls out the uniforms of the Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese National Army which she inexplicably brought with her many years back when she first immigrated to America. William and his troop discover to their delight that the uniforms of Chiang’s ragtag army of often underfed teenagers fit their own child-sized bodies just fine.

Few know that San Francisco’s Chinatown is the second most crowded community in the U.S. We learn this when we learn that William contracts tuberculosis and must spend nine months in the TB ward of SF’s General Hospital where for the first time he lives with and makes friends among a cross section of the children of SF’s working class – Mexican, Irish, Italian and African American.

I very much appreciate that William wrote this book. I grew up in the federal housing project kitty-corner to his federal housing project. I contracted TB in junior high school also. And like William, I became a radical and an attorney to right the wrongs and injustices inflicted on working poor immigrants. William has written our story. The story of growing up Chinese-American and poor, drawing on the strengths of our dual American and Chinese cultures, and overcoming adversity to be who we became.

Again, I urge you to choose this original and valuable book for your community read.

lora jo foo, author
Castro Valley, California


This comment was received by the Ann Arbor District Library:

Both The Bridegroom by Ha Jin and Red Azalea by Anchee Min are available in a recorded format from the Washtenaw County Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled so that people registered with our library will be able to participate in Ann Arbor Ypsilanti Reads. At this point, The Eighth Promise by William Poy Lee is not available in a recorded format. I would like to urge the committee to select one of the titles that is available to our consumers. We will then be able to read the selected title for our January 2008 Book Lovers Club.

Thank you for your consideration.

Margaret Wolfe
Librarian Coordinator
Washtenaw County Library
for the Blind & Physically Disabled


Having read just the brief introductions, I believe "The Eighth Promise" is probably the easiest for ordinary Americans to understand, as it has part American history, part of Chinese history, with a comparative perspective. This might be the most appropriate book of the three to introduce the Chinese culture. The other two books are from a distinct historical period, which is hardly representative of the Chinese culture and history, just like World War II can not represent the German culture. In fact, it is exactly during this "cultural revolution" period that much of the Chinese traditions are abandoned. Much like the Germans, who are still struggling to comprehend how people let all that happen during WWII, the Chinese are also still reflecting what exactly went wrong. Therefore, I believe it would be more beneficial to introduce this period in the Chinese history after the readers are exposed to the basic chinese culture first.


Here is a comment received on the website from Lucie Tsangarakis on 10/9.

The Eight Promise touched my heart and soul deeply. The bridge between our two cultures is vividly described in a contemporary setting. It is a reconciliation of old traditional Toisanese values and new Americanized ones. A battle between the fight or acceptance of old and new and the wisdom to balance the doubts and insights it creates.
Above all it reflects the universal message of compassion.
This memoir makes me want to visit China even more and study its philosophies.


This comment we submitted to the website by Rita Mah on 10/15 -

Of the three books, The Eighth Promise hits the target on the theme of CHINA AND AMERICA: BRIDGING THE TWO WORLDS. William Poy Lee, through his own voice and his mother's voice, recalls the memories of the struggles in China and America in a such powerful and eloquent writing. I have shared this book with many friends and co-workers, who also raved about how they enjoyed The Eighth Promise and how it renewed their intest in their cultural experiences. For readers of Chinese descent, it activated the recall of all those childhold memories. Williams Poy Lee's vivid concise colorful memories gave clear explanations and renewed meaning to all those traditions, gatherings, chi-soups, clan-sisterhood, Chinese terms, and the experiences growing up in America. The Eighth Promise has renewed our cultural heritage both in China and in America which many of the American-born Chinese have forgotten. For others from different cultures, they praised The Eighth Promise for renewing their interest in learning more about their cultural roots. The Eighth Promise inspired me to follow William Poy Lee's calendar of events on http://www.theeighthpromise.com. I have attended at least 7 of his readings in different communities, and in all of the events William Poy Lee has intrigued the audience with readings from different segments of his book. The Eighth Promise is a RARE treat for all readers and a great inspiration to connect to your own individual roots again. The Eighth Promise is the living memoir of CHINA AND AMERICA: BRIDGING THE TWO WORLDS. THANK YOU and KUDOS to William Poy Lee for renewing our spirit in our roots in China and America. The Eighth Promise is the WINNER in all of our hearts!


The Eighth Promise would be a great read for young and older readers. Its format is unusually and compelling: the chapters alternate between the "voice" and perspective of Poy's mother and his own voice/perspective. It's also a fascinating look at a young man's changing perspective on his own cultural heritage, from his early rebellion against "old ways" and resistance to learning Mandarin, to his high school/college activism, to his dedication to free his brother from prison, to his gradual understanding, after listening to his mother's taped stories, of how her "old ways" (values and traditions) had helped him deal with the challenges in his life.