May Lin de Chezelles’ mother used to tell her: “Write this down about today because tomorrow, all this is going to change.” Susan Loke, a character in May Lin’s book, does the same. Yellow Mountain was released under Clink Street Publishing in London. Susan records the copious stories told to her by her father, especially accounts of how he planned the family’s peaceful exodus from Imperial China after the Communist Revolution.
The escape from their homeland took two years to plan because Ming mandarin Loke Wang-Lei wanted to bring his two wives, 12 children and a host of maids, cooks and nannies, as well as luggage and various treasured items.
They were transported in sedan chairs from Suzhou to Canton before sailing across the South China Sea to Singapore. From there, the family made their way up to Taiping and settled in a big house with lotus ponds and a view of the hills. On that boat out of China, Loke and Susan, his youngest and favourite child, formed a unique bond that strengthened as he created a different life in an alien country.
The family’s journey from China to Malaya forms the bedrock of Yellow Mountain, “a piece of biographical fiction” adapted from the translated diaries of May Lin’s mother. Sitting on the verandah of their Taiping home, the latter would wax lyrical about Huangshan, Suzhou’s Yellow Mountain, Chinese history and the different dynasties. She often explained why her father, an astute and erudite gentleman of Han lineage, was exasperated by the chaos around him and the dire future ahead and decided to flee the country he loved for the unknown.
Grandfather was optimistic and had great fortitude, the author says. Her mother’s love for him surmounted the difficulties they faced in their new circumstances. In time, he began to seek her company and counsel as he learnt new skills and took advantage of the opportunities that came
Yellow Mountain is a story about one woman’s adoration and love for her father and her affection for her own teenager. The book’s narrator poses questions May Lin would have asked her mother, a dazzling, wise and wonderful companion.
“She taught me to understand the Chinese and how to be a Chinese woman. We spoke in Cantonese, Hokkien, English and sometimes Malay [because] there were no translations for so many things, especially habits and etiquette. Knowing I would probably go away to a Western university for my further education, she taught me to be comfortable within myself.”
The stories Susan relates in the book are based on May Lin’s
mother’s diaries and those her grandfather wrote down. “I used 15% of them. The rest are probably too political. My grandfather was 94 when he died. I cannot even remember him but he’s such a big man in my life because my mother never stopped talking about him.”
“Yellow Mountain is basically her story. I think I got her voice, her emotions,” explains May Lin.
This is her second book, after To Weep with One Eye, published in 2000. “It’s about the French aristocrats — I was married to one. It’s all sold out and I don’t want to reprint it, mainly because I personally think it was not a good book. It was written in anger.”
She waited 22 years to write Yellow Mountain only because work kept her busy. “I’m still a consulting economist for China. I’ve been an economist forever. I have expertise on the Chinese but it’s fast growing beyond the model that I had built.”
May Lin pauses, then continues. “To write a book, you need imagination, even if you have the facts right in front of you. You need to project your imagination and bring them to life. It’s like telling a story: You can tell it flatly by reading it, or you can put your own emotions into it. It takes a lot of courage to do that.”
She believes age is another factor. “So much of my life when I was younger was spent looking to the west. It is only now that I am older that I’ve started to appreciate China. A lot of it is appreciation for [historian-cum-writer] Ban Zhao, who said the reason China will survive is because it keeps its culture. Chinese culture is very much about the family, and the woman is the cornerstone of the family because she proactively respects the man.
The family is very much the cornerstone of the village. The village is very much the cornerstone of the province and the province is the cornerstone of the nation, May Lin says, linking the dots. “I like that idea. I wouldn’t have liked it if you had asked me 20 years ago; I was very feminist and independent back then.”
She shares how, whenever her late husband said something to her, she’d agree with him. “And there was peace. You know what I mean? Then I’d go off and quietly do whatever I wanted. Because that is the clever way.”
May Lin spent one and a half years researching Chinese history before writing Yellow Mountain in five months. The hardest part was pitching it — deciding which stories to use from the many her mother left behind when she died at the age of 88. “I hope I have chosen the right ones. A lot of the stories were very political. I am still a close friend of the PRC (People’s Republic of China) and I didn’t want to offend. But I have managed to talk.
“This is very much a woman’s book. I am honest. It’s not feminist at all. It’s just from a woman’s point of view.”
The book is also her way of telling her son, who is half English and half Chinese, that there is more to China than it being a communist country. “I wrote it for him. He’s read it. He likes it. He’s 46. I’m old, very old.
Her age is a no-tell but she relates that during a recent visit to the dentist, someone looked at her birthdate and asked, what’s your secret? “I said, very easy — three things: keep busy, eat properly and always be in love.”
She was first married to an Englishman for 13 years. Her second marriage, to a French count, lasted 37 years. “Now I have a boyfriend. Romantic? Yes, I know,” says May Lin, an Anglophile by virtue of her British education who now lives in London and Paris.
“My mother and I are both romantics. Therefore, the huge amount of poetry she left me. She would take a very long poem and pick out the very sweet part — I loved that.”
Would she write her own story, eventually? “No. Everybody would have liked to read a love story, I know, but I just think it’s so personal. Anyway, I am not dead yet. Maybe ask me in 10 years, when I am old, grey and full of sleep. That’s [William Butler] Yeats.”
This article first appeared on Dec 19, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.