Customer Reviews: On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family
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on March 9, 2001
I must admit that I was a little (all right, very) skeptical when I first saw this book several years ago. I resisted buying or reading it only because I didn't believe that a part-Chinese (1/8 to be precise)American could do a good job in telling the story of "the" Chinese-American experience. In many ways, I was stereotyping the idea of what Chinese-American is. I was thinking of a Chinese-American as one who is ethnically 100% Chinese but is culturally American and that would preclude someone like See. Well, I was wrong. This author, Lisa See, convinced me that her family story is truly a Chinese-American one. No, let me rephrase, her story is an "American" one.
Now that I've read and enjoyed the book, I am especially surprised, pleasantly, at how honest and real her portrayal of the characters are. I know these are real people and the stories are real but to me their stories read like fairy tales an so they become characters. Their stories are so unusual that had See not done such a good job in writing it, they would have been unbelievable.
One of the reasons that it is a really good book is the way the author presented the facts -- with stories and photographs. It is a well documented, well researched, and well written book.
I could also attest to the veracities of the historical events and personal dramas that were described in the book because my own family's history had very many of the same events, trials and tribulations are similar to hers. And since I do read and speak Chinese and I am knowledgable about the customs of the Southern China district where her great-grandfather came from, I can also say that her description of the cultures (including family practices, language, etc...) are extremely accurate. And they are accurate not to the point of patronizing or insulting, but straight forward in the way it happened. This style of writing I admired enormously.
I think Ms. See did a great service not only to her own family, but to the Chinese-American experience as well. This book really does serve as a documentary to all of the Chinese American immigrants who had come to the country in the last 100 years or more. It is a record of history. It can probably be used as text book for a history class.
The book is well written in many ways. One of the way is that is very personal and yet readable, even for people not from her family. It is about people, culture, history, family, love, triumph, politics, business, relations, and much more. I highly recommend it.
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on September 10, 2002
Born into a predominately Cantonese family, Lisa See is surprised when as a young girl, her chinese uncles point at her and describe "white ghosts, like you". Surprised, she realized she appeared white, but felt chinese. Surrounded by her older relatives, she listened to their stories and became determined to capture their memories. Approached by her elder female aunties, they expressed a desire to document the family history. As the primary family members became aged, Lisa took up the rewarding challenge to pen the history of the incredible See family.
This is truly a beautiful book. Ms. See has an obvious talent for research and her efforts were rather astonishing when one reads the history of her ancestors. Not only does she historically account for chinese immigration to the states, but details the events and cultures of life in China. Tracing back to the time of her grandfather See-Bok's early years, Ms See writes about her family that turns out to be more than a page turner.
The family is entertaining, intelligent, strong and industrious. Her grandmother is the star of the novel. A pioneer white christian woman, she is abused by her own family and escapes a life of servitude forced on her by them. In a central californian town, she talks herself into a job at a chinese underwear factory that caters to prostitutes. The chinese owner eventually proposes to her despite significant social complications. This is the beginning of one of the most important chinese families in America and their contributions to the art world and their personal tales of challenge and love in the early Los Angeles years.
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on June 20, 2000
This biography of the author's family history back to China is enjoyable and complex. She traces her large family from one of her ancestors who came to America during the 1860's. She handles the numerous story lines well and the pedigree chart at the beginning is very valuable in helping the reader keep track of her family. The author also does a good job of incorporating her family into the times they lived in. We see her family not in isolation from the world, but as part of world and local events. This adds humaness and closeness to the people in her story. She is non-judgemental and attempts to handle "family skeletons" with tact, although you get the feeling that her version of some events isn't what some family members believe, And she seems to have the "I'm grandpa's favorite grandchild" attitude which doesn't neccesarily hurt the book, but you wonder how her relatives felt about the book. Although the book is long, the story keeps you interested. Defintley a must read.
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on July 2, 2008
There's not much magic realism or mystic exoticism about this blunt, detailed, multi-generational history of an immigrant family. If you're looking for a novel, you'll find that Lisa See has written several. I repeat, this is a history, and it will be of interest chiefly to historians and other social scientists, professional or arm-chair.

Ms. See's great-great-grandfather arrived in America in 1867. The shabby treatment that he and other Chinese immigrants received is part of American history, but here in this book it becomes more vivid because See includes the reader in her "family album." Suffice it to say that the Fong/See family shrugged off indignities, worked hard, brought kinfolk to share the work despite arbitrary and unfair hurdles, took root in America, and succeeded more or less to the measure of their immigrant dreams. So it was with my mother's immigrant family from North Europe, and so it has been with every immigrant complement to America's cultural universality. Quite a few of the Fong/See second-comers spent time at the detention center of Angel Island, as described in the book "Island" which I reviewed a few days ago.

The drama in this history of the branching See family - what makes this book memorable - is a love story, the secret and perilous marriage of Fong See, the son of the 1867 immigrant, to a woman of European heritage, Letticie Pruett. Interracial marriage was illegal for decades in California, as in many states, and the penalties were a lot more severe than mere annulment. The Fong See clan ran the risk of deportation, and the couple had reason to fear ostracism and personal violence.

There's a sheaf of family photos in the center of the book. There's a snapshot of Richard See - fourth generation, I believe - with his buddies in Levis and Pendletons, getting ready for a fishing trip. Then there's Lisa herself as a girl in Chinese silks, but gasp! Lisa has wide European eyes, long blonde hair, and freckles!

My mother's sister and her Norwegian-American husband Jim, the last of my Minnesota kin to live on a homestead farm, came to visit me in San Francisco in the 1970s. One evening I took them, with other relatives and friends, to a Chinese restaurant. Jim is not what you'd call loquacious; he was sitting with his back to the room and paying more heed to the talk at other tables than to us. Just behind him, a family was talking about visits to colleges, arguing the merits of Cal Tech versus MIT. Jim got curious and turned around - discretely? oh yeah! - to see what the family looked like. Then he gaped at me and whispered "them folks are Chinese!" "Well," said I, "what do you expect in a Chinese restaurant?" "But they're speakin' English!" quoth he.

The heart and soul of Lisa See's history of her extended family is exactly what my uncle didn't understand. The Chinese who came to America were not insidious strangers and inscrutable menaces to European American culture. They were just plain folk.
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on March 1, 2003
As a Chinese American myself, I've read "China Boy" (Gus Lee) and Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan) before picking up this book without too much expectation, what happened next was two days of non-stop reading, after the first few pages, I simply couldn't put it down, the pages turned themselves.
As a Chinese American myself, I've read "China Boy" (Gus Lee) and Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan) before picking up this book without too much expectation, what happened next was two days of non-stop reading, after the first few pages, I simply couldn't put it down, the pages turned themselves.
At the center of it, there was the meandering main plot of Fong See and Ticie See's beautiful and complex interracial love story
spanning three quarter of a century with cultural, traditions, prejudices (on both sides) racism, entrepreneurship, minority immigrant experience weaving together to form a compelling and surprisingly optimistic epic and quintessential "American" story.
All through the book, author's family pride, heartwarming optimism comes through like a ray of sunshine lighting up the struggles, the failures and failings, the successes as well as heart wrenching losses of three generations illuminating the See family's incredibly enduring love and support for each other.
The only thing that could've made this book even better is some of the extraneous details could've been left out, they were a little long winded (especially the last scene of Lisa's visit to China) and at times distracting from the main plot. But I understand what Ms. See was trying to accomplish with this book are two fold, first and foremost it is an autobiographic family history book and there is the temptation to include all the researched details to preserve as family history, on the other hand she probably wanted to write it in a novel style to make it an easy and enjoyable read. Short of split the writing into two books, there is no easy way to accomplish both objectives without two styles interfering, but I have to say Ms See has done an admirable if not remarkable job considering the epic nature of the story itself.
Ms. See deserves major accolades for this fascinating and moving historical book.
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I wish I had read this book first. I read Lisa's Flower Net and enjoyed it so much that I looked to see what else she had written. Finding On Gold Mountain (thanks, Amazon) I became immersed in the life of the author and her family. I have read so many stories of Chinese families in Mainland China and Taiwan, but this is the first I have read of the Chinese American experience. It is doubly interesting because of the marriages between Chinese and Caucasians, and how they resolved their cultural differences during a time when China itself was undergoing so many cultural changes. I highly recomend the book for its content and for its excellent narrative style.
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on November 27, 2005
What a glorious, fascinating, informative, wonderful book. I was entertained, and I learned, at the same time. Just the kind of book I like. All about one Chinaman and his family in America - the Chinese term being "on gold mountain". What a story! Very well written, never lost my interest. What incredible, and often sad, lives these people led! And if Fong See had not had the guts to marry a white woman, none of his empire would probably ever have been established. But he did, and it was. Purveyor to Hollywood stars and movie sets, they moved in many circles. How truly different the Chinese culture is. I had more a sense of its difference in this book than in any other I've read about China, including Bao Lord's book. And they aren't all portrayed sympathetically, either.
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on July 12, 2011
This is a fabulous book - as it says, a 100-year odyssey of author Lisa See's fsmily. I had read all of her other books but somehow missed this one. It describes the discrimination and hardships of the Chinese brought to the US to work on U.S. railroads, under the most severe conditions, to a personal level. Her family's perserverance & foresight in achieving success in spite of all their trials & tribulations is truly remarkable. Being from Los Angeles and having often visited Chinatown (present location) & a beautiful Chinese wedding there, it is easy to place the family in their various locations and undoubtedly I have unknowingly interacted with one or more of the descendants. A must read for anyone interested in Chinese history.
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on July 28, 1997
Lisa See, in describing the journey of her family over one hundred years, also takes the reader on a literary journey.
I have read many auto-biographical and semi-auto-biographical accounts of the Chinese diaspora and Lisa's book is amongst the best. We can read her book as an adventure and also as a history. A history about which she must be proud. This book has inspired me to write about my own family, who made a similar journey, over a hundred years ago, but in Australia
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on January 17, 2000
Unlike most "biographies with detailed historical descriptions", See was able to weave an interesting storyline with a detailed historical background. She does not bore you to death with details of historical facts. I enjoy her unbiased intepretation of the family events and the unfolding of the characters and their distinct personalities. The photos were fantastic. Considering that she is 1/8 Chinese and has lived in a western culture, her interpretation of the Chinese culture is most admirable.
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