California Dreaming

In the aftermath of the wildly successful launch of The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, I thought I might run a serious risk of post-partum depression. What better antidote than to embark on a book tour? Or, as The Mamas and the Papas would say:

I’d be safe and warm, if I was in LA.

And so I went. The tour ran from San Diego to Los Angeles, up to Marin County and through Silicon Valley. I met book clubs, read in public and allowed myself to be feted up and down the California coast. Who knew  people would come to listen to me talk about myself?

the tour starts

We had no advance team or camera crew. It was me and my husband a/k/a the sherpa. Frans drove. He carried the books. He stood at the back of the room and waved his arms whenever my voice got too soft or the talk too long.

Book tour stop #1
San Diego Chinese Historical Museum. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Our first stop was the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum. I’ll be speaking there in the fall and wanted to get the lay of the land. I learned that the city fathers had lobbied for Chinese workers to connect the railroad to Los Angeles. After construction was completed, Chinatown subsided into a collection of laundries, saloons and whorehouses. The museum is now a fixture of the Gaslight District, a prime tourist destination in San Diego.

Book tour stop #2
Ramona Convent main drive. Photo credit: Karen Kao

The next stop was Los Angeles, my home town. There, I reconnected with my alma mater, Ramona Convent. With the place itself: the Main Drive where I learned to roll my first joint. With my former civics teacher and now President, Sister Kathleen Callaway. And with some of my classmates, sweethearts every one of them, who demanded to know all about my book.

executive order 9066

At the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, I learned about the long history of Japanese immigration to the United States. From the early days of pineapple plantations in Hawaii to fishing communities all along the West Coast, the Japanese-American experience seemed peaceful until Executive Order no. 9066.

Book tour stop #4
Queen of Manzanar, Photo credit: Karen Kao

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, anti-Japanese sentiment reached fever pitch. By 1942, 120,000 residents and citizens of Japanese descent would be herded into internment camps like Manzanar, Tule Lake and Heart Mountain. There was none of the romance as depicted in Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson. Instead, you see the ceiling-tall stacks of suitcases, the tar paper shacks, the toys and the broken dishes. All the heartbreaking attempts to create a sense of normalcy despite unjust incarceration.

It’s impossible to ignore the echoes of that racist-driven Executive Order. They resonate today in the form of a Muslim Ban. #NeverAgain

exclusion act of 1882

Book tour stop #6
Chinese Historical Society of America. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Race is America’s original sin and there is no period of US history that does not bear its stain. Executive Order No. 9066 is one example. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is another. After years of working on railroads like the one that connected San Diego to Los Angeles, Chinese laborers were no longer welcome. The Exclusion Act barred new laborers from entry. Those already in the United States could no longer become naturalized citizens.

Book tour reading
CHSA reading. Photo credit: Frans Verhagen

That history was on display at San Francisco’s Chinese Historical Society of America. Some of those exhibits related directly to my family’s experience, like the Boxer scholarship my grandfather received to study in the US. During my reading at the CHSA, I talked about the life my grandparents led after fleeing China.

Book tour stop #5
Mao by Andy Warhol 1972. SFMOMA. Photo credit: Karen Kao

They were members of a vibrant Chinese community in San Francisco. They celebrated weddings at Old St. Mary’s Church and banquets at the old Imperial Palace on Grant. And attended service at the Calvary Presbyterian Church where my grandfather was proud to be elected its first Oriental board member.

in the land of milk and honey

Book tour stop #5
Larkspur book club. Photo credit: Frans Vehagen

In Marin County and Silicon Valley, I spoke to book clubs. And they spoke back, questioning choices I had made and asking for more, more, more. Did I design the scenes of violence as percussive? (No, but I like the term.) Is Song Anyi an analogy for China? (No, but I am signalling ahead to the Rape of Nanking.) Did I make costume sketches for my characters? (I wish.)

Book tour stop #7
Redwood Circle Book Club. Photo credit: Frans Verhagen

There were sugar-fueled afternoon sessions and alcohol-drenched evening events. It was more fun than I’ve ever had on a work trip. Could it be because I was only seeing friends?

last book tour stop
The Mod Squad: Part Two. Photo credit: Frans Verhagen

New ones I had met only last summer at the Napa Valley Writers Conference. My best friend from grammar school who showed up at the CHSA reading. But the best surprise of all was the reunion of the Mod Squad. That’s what we called ourselves, back in the day, when we were new hires at our first law firm. Here we are together again after 30 years. How do you repay friendship like that?

the tour ends

Now all that’s left of my book tour is a stack of novels on prominent display at Book Passage in Sausalito. It’s a little gem of an independent book store perched on the wharf in Sausalito. The water’s dappled light makes waves on paper.

DeYoung Museum: Summer of Love. Photo credit: Karen Kao

I’m raring to return. October seems like a long time to wait for my next US book tour. What can I say? I’m a California girl.