Iris Chang is dead. So is Arafat

“Arafat is dead,” said Joe this morning. I shrugged. The whole world had been maintaining a unified bated breath, having last seen him in pajamas and a woolly cap being wheeled about in chair.

“Iris Chang is dead too.”
What. Oh no, is it one of those the ‘good die young from horrible diseases like cancer’ kind of thing?
“No. Suicide.”
Oh my god.

Iris Chang is one of my personal role-models. In having written not only “The Chinese in America”, but also the “The Rape of Nanking”, she embodied the concept “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

“The Chinese in America” is a must-read for any Chinese person in America, whether you’re a fifth generation descendant of a 1850’s Gold Rush coolie who speaks no Chinese, or a software engineer who arrived from Chengdu 6 years. It recounts the varied and disparate histories of different generations of Chinese immigrants in America, who all came here under different circumstances and conditions, and the book ties it all up beautifully. Each wave of immigrants are so different, they may not relate to each other very well. Yet within the three degrees of separation, each Chinese person in America might encompass all variances amongst his/her relatives. Like my family for instance.

We have great-grandfathers who came in the late 1800’s to work on the railroads. They couldn’t bring their wives and children, enduring lonely-bachelor lifestyles, missing their families, unlike immigrants from other countries, due to the Chinese Exclusion Act. That’s why sometimes there are such wide age gaps between Chinese American siblings….

Paper sons. We have older uncles who were paper sons, folks who would be known as Mr. Lee in English, but “CHAN Seen Sang” in Chinese. For them, Angel Island says it all, their Alcatraz.
– Examiner ” How many steps were there from the front door to the porch of your house?”
– “3 steps.”
No, not really, it was just the alibi, based on a built model they had to memorise. (I wonder if they were also asked “Name the three branches of the US government?)
If you flunked the test, because you said “4 steps”, like my grandmother did, you were sent back to China, humiliated.

My grandfather settled in the US by default after the Communist takeover of 1949; when he was ‘stranded here’ as a Ph.D chemical engineering student. For him and his fellow Chinese foreign students, it was marginally easier to adjust because they arrived here fluent in English. They had been part of the elite in China: college graduates. Being proud of their heritage, they often went by monnikers like C.Y. Yee or H.L. Wong. If they went by “Chang-Yu” or “Hua-Lu” most Americans would butcher the pronounciation of the name, or forget their names. But adopting an American name like “Charles” or “Henry” would be too much of a cultural concession. Going by initials was a compromise. (Well, that’s my theory.)

Many of my younger aunts and uncles came to the US for college in the 60’s. The post-war economic recovery in HK and Taiwan afforded them enough money to pay for passage over the Pacific by boat, and then through thrift , hard work and reduced tuition/generous scholarships for foreign students, they managed to graduate with not just bachelor’s, but masters’ degrees and even Ph.Ds. The late Chancellor Tien would be the archetypical example.

In the 70’s, a cousin of mine braved the sharks of the South China Seas and SWAM from the Guangdong coast to Hong Kong. Eventually, he made his way to the US, and found well-paying work in the booming manufacturing scene of 1980’s Silicon Valley. The Cultural Revolution had deprived him of a college education, but he took years of night classes. At the age of 47, he was the proud recipient of a B.S. from the SJSU, but prouder still he was of his only son who graduated from Cal with top honors and a job offer from Microsoft.

Parachute kids? Check. In the late 80’s/early 90’s my quartet of cousins and their mom were living in suburban LA, going to school, scattered K through 12. Their dad was working days, weeks in Asia, not hours in Pasadena. His commute was not by BMW, but CX, TG, or UA. My aunt was once invited over for tea by a kindly neighbour. “It must be hard, being a divorced single mom and raising 4 sons on your own . . .” Uh no, my aunt and uncle were about to spend their 25th anniversary on a trip to London.

Then in the 90s, we had more cousins who were college graduates from China who came for graduate school to the US through legal paperwork channels (China is still strict, but less restrictive about sending students abroad.) Many have stayed on and become engineers, financial analysts, basketball players, etc. They arrived as prototype yuppies, and have become full fledged professionals. Their experiences have more in common with, say, recent Indian immigrants to Silicon Valley (the NRI engineers), than say, my 60-year old paper son uncle, even if both are ethnically Chinese.

“The Chinese in America” ties everything together, and packaged it in understandable historic context. I think for many ABCs it helps explains a lot of things we knew bits of, but didn’t realise. Thank you, Iris. For that alone, you are an icon in Asian America.

But before that, she wrote “The Rape of Nanking.”
I attended her book signing at the Barnes and Noble in Jack London Square in 1998, and was really impressed by how strong and determined she was, and a bit highly strung. A writer and historian of such integrity. She was only a few years older than me, and she had accomplished such a great achievement, this book that would not let this atrocity lie forgotten in history. (As opposed to mere me, who had done little, but amble along the insignificancies of my life.)

I have to confess, it took me a long time before I picked up the book to start, because I was scared of the horrific things I would read about. But it was thoroughly researched and wonderfully written. It must have been tougher, and more demanding on her to write the book than it was for me to read it.

Several years ago, my chemical engineering granddad attended one of her speeches on the Rape of Nanking. He was so impressed, he painstakingly transcribed the whole speech from the tape he recorded of it.

In some of the news reports, it mentioned that she was doing research for another book on US soldiers fighting the Japanese in the Philipines during WW II, and had suffered a major breakdwon of depression recently. In dealing with such grim topics, it must be emotionally draining. More so, if you really got into it, like she probably did. Sadly, she is gone now. Rest in peace.

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One thought on “Iris Chang is dead. So is Arafat

  1. I picked up the Mercury this morning and was stunned by the news. Not that I am not familiar with her nor read her book. But was stunned that the death of an Asian author made the frontpage.

    I’m curious whether she coined the term “Rape of Nanking.” It’d seem unlike to me given her young career. If she does however, it’s shameful that it takes such long period of time to make visible of such Japanese atrocities.

    At anyrate, the new article this morning piqued my curiosity. I have the intention of checking out “Rape of Nanking” one of these days…

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