Q&A with Bruce Edward Hall
How did the idea for TEA THAT BURNS first come to you?
|Bruce Edward Hall|
My father kept bugging me to write the history of my Chinese family. I had just written Diamond Street, a book about a little town in upstate New York that basically lived off prostitution and illegal gambling for 100 years or so, and my father wanted me to write something “decent.” (Ironically, Diamond Street is about whores, my Chinese family name is Hor, and my asst. editor’s name was Hoar. Is that sick, or what?) Anyhow, I didn’t want to presume that our family was interesting enough to have a whole book written about them, so I just avoided the whole subject — that is, until my editor at New York Magazine wanted a piece from me about Chinatown. I made it personal, a sort of walking ghost tour, talking about what Chinatown means to me in terms of family legends I had heard as a child. Well, everybody loved that article (it was reprinted in the HarperCollins college textbook, A Reader’s Repertoire), and then my father started in again and… well, it sure is galling to admit that your father is right about something.
How did you go about researching your book?
Basically, all I had were vague family legends. I had no firm dates, no documents, not even any pictures except one family portrait taken just before my grandmother died in 1925. No one was even sure what my great-grandparents’ or even my grandmother’s names were. But little by little, information trickled in. A friend of a friend of a friend happened to live in the village my family had left 125 years before, and sent us three generations of our family tree taken from ancestral tablets and old peoples’ memories. (When distant cousins there heard of our existance, we got a two-word message; “Bring Money”). And then the Chinese-American scholar and author, Prof. Betty Lee Sung, told me about a treasure trove of thousands of Chinese immigration documents that she had discovered and was in the process of cataloguing for the National Archives in New York. Somehow I managed to find immigration interviews for my grandparents’ generation, and then my great-grandparents’, describing their lives in China and in New York. I began to see how my great-grandfather equivocated to immigration officials in order to maintain his precious “merchant” status (without which he would have been deported), and how the Feds suspected my grandfather of being a Tong member (he was Chinatown’s favorite bookie, after all). I began searching through all kinds of paper documents in libraries, archives, and private collections, finding references to our family in books and newspapers (my great-grandfather’s activities as a Tong “fixer” described in an 1897 book; The New York Times reporting the 1928 arrest of my great-uncle after getting into a fight with a white customer at the speakeasy where he worked). I interviewed all sorts of old people who knew my family. And then one day, I stumbled quite by accident on a photograph of my great-grandfather, dead since 1919, and whose face no one remembered. A shiver went right up my spine. He looked like my uncle — like my father — like me.
TEA THAT BURNS is both a family history and a history of a neighborhood. Why did you choose to use your family’s story as the spine around which to wrap the story of Chinatown?
Ultimately I still had the feeling that it would be presumptuous for me to assume that anyone would want to read a book about my family. By the same token, people have a horror of reading what they fear will be a dry history of a place. By using my family’s experiences as a framework upon which to hang the story of the evolution of what we now know as Chinatown, I felt like I could make the whole thing more interesting, more novelistic, if you will. History, after all, is just a compilation of personal stories.
|TEA THAT BURNS: A FAMILY MEMOIR OF CHINATOWN
Chinatown exists as both a notion and a place, as an idea rooted firmly in the American imagination as well as a neighborhood populated by real people and with a real history. Can you talk about the differences between the two and why those differences matter?
All my life I have listened to silly people say stupid things about Chinatown, like expressing fears of getting shot in a Tong war, or having their children kidnapped as they walked down Mott Street, or most commonly, of being served the meat of stray dogs and cats in their beef-with-vegetable dinner combo. They commonly assume that my third-generation Chinese-American father is not an American citizen, express surprise that I speak English without an accent (I’m Eurasian and from Connecticut), and are always shoving Korean menus under my nose and asking me to translate. We aren’t seen as people. It makes me crazy. And then I write about generations of Chinese fleeing poverty and chaos only to struggle to make it in a hostile “promised land” and I hear the same people express surprise that our tribulations were just like their own ancestors’ and I feel like I’ve made some small inroads into broadening their minds. Well, mostly. I’ll never forget meeting a member of a famous American aristocratic family, who wrote a book about her great-grandfather’s scandalous life as a drunk and a pedophile. He ended up being the victim in one of the most sensational murders of the early 20th century. When I told her that I, too, was writing about some of the illicit activities of my Chinese ancestors (a bookie, a Tong member) she smiled coldly and said through her teeth, “Yes, well that sort of thing is quite common among the immigrant population, isn’t it?” I never could read her lousy book without feeling like I was going to throw up.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’ve just finished a children’s book about kids in Chinatown in the 1920s, and have written a few more articles about Chinatown and contributed to a book about Asians in New York City. I’ve also started a book about the gay kings of England, but may divert into a sort of historical travelogue about my mother’s Scottish-American ancestors. I mean, I’ve just found out that a great-great grandmother’s name was Narcissa Pocahontas McConnell. That’s enough to get me started.
My last question is one which we ask all our authors. Simply, Why do you write?
I like telling stories. People are forever remarking that bizarre things always seem to happen to me, but that’s just not so. I just find the story in everything. And writing it all down keeps me from having to repeat myself — or bore crowds of people at dinner parties.