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PENGUIN BOOKS
FALLING LEAVES
Thought to bring bad luck because her mother died giving birth to her, Adeline Yen Mah was discriminated against by her family all her life. Falling Leaves is both the moving story of how she survived that rejection and an enthralling saga of a Chinese family, from the time of the foreign concessions to the rise of Communist China and the commercial boom of Hong Kong.
Author’s Note
This is a true story. Much of it was painful and difficult to write but I felt compelled to do so. I continue to have deep feelings towards many members of my family and harbour no wish to hurt anyone unnecessarily. I have therefore disguised the Christian names of all my living siblings, their spouses and their children. However, my parents’ names are real, so are all the events described.
website: www.adelineyenmah.com
FALLING LEAVES
RETURN TO THEIR ROOTS
Luo Ye Gui Gen
THE TRUE STORY OF AN UNWANTED
CHINESE DAUGHTER
ADELINE YEN MAH
PENGUIN BOOKS
Dedicated to my Aunt Baba, whose unwavering belief in my worth had sustained me throughout my tormented childhood. And to my husband Bob, without whose love and support this book could not have been written
PENGUIN BOOKS
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London, WC2R 0RL, England
Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA
Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia
Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2
Penguin Books India (P) Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi – 110 017, India
Penguin Books (NZ) Ltd, Cnr Rosedale and Airborne Roads, Albany, Auckland, New Zealand
Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London, WC2R 0RL, England
www.penguin.com
First published in Great Britain by Michael Joseph 1997
Published in Penguin Books 1997
99
Copyright © Adeline Yen Mah, 1997
All rights reserved
The moral right of the author has been asserted
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
ISBN: 978-0-14-195783-8
Contents
Acknowledgements
PROLOGUE
CHAPTER 1 Men Dang Hu Dui: The Appropriate Door Fits the Frame of the Correct House
CHAPTER 2 Dian Tie Cheng Jin: Converting Iron into Gold
CHAPTER 3 Ru Ying Sui Xing: Inseparable as Each Other’s Shadows
CHAPTER 4 Xiu Se Ke Can: Surpassing Loveliness Good Enough to Feast Upon
CHAPTER 5 Yi Chang Chun Meng: An Episode of a Spring Dream
CHAPTER 6 Jia Chou Bu Ke Wai Yang: Family Ugliness Should Never be Aired in Public
CHAPTER 7 Yuan Mu Qiu Yu: Climbing a Tree to Seek for Fish
CHAPTER 8 Yi Shi Tong Ren: Extend the Same Treatment to All
CHAPTER 9 Ren Jie Di Ling: Inspired Scholar in an Enchanting Land
CHAPTER 10 Du Ri Ru Nian: Each Day Passes Like a Year
CHAPTER 11 Zi Chu Ji Zhu: Original Ideas in Literary Composition
CHAPTER 12 Tong Chuang Yi Meng: Same Bed, Different Dreams
CHAPTER 13 ? You He Bu Ke?: Is Anything Impossible?
CHAPTER 14 Yi Qin Yi He: One Lute, One Crane
CHAPTER 15 Fu Zhong You Yu: Fish Swimming in a Cauldron
CHAPTER 16 Pi Ma Dan Qiang: One Horse, Single Spear
CHAPTER 17 Jia Ji Shui Ji: Marry a Chicken, Follow a Chicken
CHAPTER 18 Zhong Gua De Gua: You Plant Melons, You Reap Melons
CHAPTER 19 Xin Ru Si Hui: Hearts Reduced to Ashes
CHAPTER 20 Fu Zhong Lin Jia: Scales and Shells in the Belly
CHAPTER 21 Tian Zuo Zhi He: Heaven-made Union
CHAPTER 22 Si Mian Chu Ge: Besieged by Hostile Forces on All Sides
CHAPTER 23 Cu Cha Dan Fan: Coarse Tea and Plain Rice
CHAPTER 24 Yin Shui Si Yuan: While Drinking Water, Remember the Source
CHAPTER 25 Yi Dao Liang Duan: Sever This Kinship with One Whack of the Knife
CHAPTER 26 Wu Feng Qi Lang: Creating Waves Without Wind
CHAPTER 27 Jin Zhu Zhe Chi, Jin Mo Zhe Hei: Near Vermilion, One Gets Stained Red; Near Ink, One Gets Stained Black
CHAPTER 28 Jiu Rou Peng You: Wine and Meat Friends
CHAPTER 29 Wu Tou Gong An: Headless and Clueless Case
CHAPTER 30 Kai Men Yi Dao: Opened the Door to Salute the Thief
CHAPTER 31 Yan Er Dao Ling: Steal the Bell While Covering Your Ears
CHAPTER 32 Luo Ye Gui Gen: Falling Leaves Return to Their Roots
Index
Acknowledgements
To Jon Halliday and Jung Chang, for their support, friendship and introduction to Toby Eady.
To my agent Toby Eady, for his faith in Falling Leaves from the very beginning.
To Irene Andreae, for her skilful editing.
To Susan Watt and Anne Askwith, for their sympathy and advice.
To our children Roger and Ann and our nephew Gary, for putting up with me during the many years it took to write Falling Leaves.
To Nien Cheng and Lynn Pan, for their generous encouragement towards a first-time author unknown to them.
PROLOGUE
Hong Kong, 19 May 1988
It would not be quite truthful to say that we were all together for the first time in nearly forty years. Each of us, severally and separately and sometimes stealthily, had gathered before but there had always been a common denominator of absence. Today it was Father.
Susan, our youngest sister, well-known socialite and wife of billionaire banker Tony Liang, was also absent. She had not been invited to Father’s funeral or to the subsequent will reading. Her name was left out in the obituary published in the South China Morning Post. ‘Joseph Tsi-rung Yen,’ it read, ‘dearly beloved husband of Jeanne Prosperi Yen, father of Lydia, Gregory, Edgar, James and Adeline, died on 13 May 1988 peacefully at the Hong Kong Sanatorium.’
That very morning, Father had been buried at the Catholic cemetery in North Point, on the east side of Hong Kong Island. Now, at four thirty in the afternoon, we were assembled at the impressive law offices of Johnson, Stokes & Masters on the seventeenth floor of Prince’s Building in Hong Kong, for the reading of his will.
We waited nervously in the conference room around a large, oval table with a polished granite top. It gleamed, like the matching granite floor, in the afternoon sunlight that flooded through huge windows from the harbour. Lydia, my oldest sister, moved close to me and placed her right arm protectively around my shoulder. My three older brothers, Gregory, Edgar and James, sat sombrely next to each other. Louise, James’s pretty wife, gazed solicitously at our French–Chinese stepmother whom we called Niang, a Chinese term for mother. She sat with her solicitor at the head of the table; a cloud of cigarette smoke floated from her gold cigarette holder, tightly clutched between meticulously manicured fingers. The room seemed enormous and I felt sick with grief.
He had been a very wealthy man, my father, someth
ing of a risk-taker but certainly one of Hong Kong’s more successful businessmen. Escaping from Shanghai in 1949, he had started an import and export company, then diversified into manufacturing, construction, trading and property, and had even listed a company on the highly competitive Hong Kong stock exchange. James and Niang had managed his financial affairs when he became too ill to deal with them himself.
Niang was immaculately dressed in an expensive Parisian black silk suit. On her lapel was a large diamond brooch which matched the glittering diamond on her finger. Her dyed jet black hair was carefully coiffed above her broad forehead. From a black alligator handbag she extracted a pair of glasses in designer frames which she put on her nose. She nodded towards her solicitor, who now handed us each a copy of Father’s will.
He cleared his throat and said, ‘Your mother, my client Mrs Jeanne Yen, has requested that you don’t turn the page for the time being. I shall explain the reason later.’ He began to read the first page with each of us hanging on his every word. I felt as if I was seven years old and living back in Shanghai.
‘This is the last will and testament of me, Joseph Yen, of No. 18 Magazine Gap Road, No. 10a Magnolia Mansions, Victoria, in the colony of Hong Kong,’ he began. There followed the usual phrases about revoking all wills and codicils made previously. Father then appointed his wife Jeanne Yen to be the sole executrix of his will. ‘And give devise and bequeath to her my entire estate whatsoever and wheresoever.’ Should Niang not survive him, the solicitor continued, then James would be the sole executor and trustee of Father’s will.
The solicitor had already reached the bottom of the page. He now coughed nervously and said, ‘It is my duty to inform you that I have been instructed by your mother, Mrs Jeanne Yen, to tell you that there is no money in your father’s estate.’
We stared at him in astonishment. No money? All eyes turned to Niang, our stepmother. She gazed at us one by one. ‘Since there is no money in the estate,’ she said, ‘there is no need for you to go on reading the will. There is nothing there for any of you. Your father died penniless.’ She held out her hand and slowly, reluctantly but obediently, each of us handed over his or her copy of Father’s will without reading the next page, exactly as we had been instructed.
No one said anything. The prolonged silence carried an uneasiness as we looked expectantly at Niang for an explanation.
‘None of you seem to understand,’ Niang said. ‘Your father’s will is meaningless because he had no money in his estate.’
She stood up and handed all the copies of Father’s unread will back to the solicitor. The will reading was at an end.
No one questioned the legitimacy of Niang’s actions, or turned the first page to peruse the next. Baffled and bewildered as we all were, we accepted Niang’s command. We had no idea in what manner Father had wished to dispose of his fortune or how he had foreseen the future of our family.
Father had been a man of great wealth and substance. Why did we each hand back Father’s unread will as if we were mindless robots?
In order to explain our collective docility that afternoon, I have to go back to the very beginning. A Chinese proverb says that luo ye gui gen (falling leaves return to their roots). My roots were from a Shanghai family headed by my affluent father and his beautiful Eurasian wife, set against a background of treaty ports carved into foreign concessions, and the collision of East and West played out within and without my very own home.
CHAPTER 1
Men Dang Hu Dui
The Appropriate Door Fits the Frame of the Correct House
At the age of three my grand aunt proclaimed her independence by categorically refusing to have her feet bound, resolutely tearing off the bandages as fast as they were applied. She was born in Shanghai (city by the sea) in 1886 during the Qing dynasty when China was ruled by the child emperor Kuang Hsu, who lived far away up north in the Forbidden City. The pampered baby of the family, eight years younger than my grandfather, Ye Ye, Grand Aunt finally triumphed by rejecting all food and drink until her feet were, in her words, ‘rescued and set free’.
Shanghai in the late nineteenth century was unlike any other city in China. It was one of five treaty ports opened up to Britain after the First Opium War in 1842. Gradually it burgeoned into a giant intermediary between China and the rest of the world. Strategically situated on the Huangpu River seventeen miles upstream from the mighty Yangtse, the city was linked by boat to the inner western provinces. At the other end to the east, the Pacific Ocean was only fifty miles away.
Britain, France and the United States of America staked out foreign settlements within the city. To this day, amidst the new high-rise buildings, Shanghai’s architecture reflects the influence of the foreign traders. Some of the great mansions, formerly homes of diplomats and business magnates, possess the stately Edwardian grandeur of any fine house by the River Thames at Henley in England or the Gallic splendour of a villa in the Loire valley in France.
Extraterritoriality meant that within the foreign concessions, all subjects, be they foreign or Chinese, were governed by the laws of the foreigner and were exempt from the laws of China. Foreigners had their own municipal government, police force and troops. Each concession became an independent city within a city: little enclaves of foreign soil in treaty ports along China’s coast line. China was governed not by written laws but by the rulings of magistrates appointed by the emperor and her citizens traditionally viewed these mandarins as demi-gods. For roughly one hundred years (between 1842 and 1941) westerners were perceived throughout China as superior beings whose wishes transcended even those of their own mandarins. The white conquerors were treated with reverence, fear and awe by the average Chinese.
Legal cases were tried before a Chinese magistrate but presided over by a foreign consular assessor whose power was absolute and whose word was final. The local populace was further humiliated by being barred from ownership of, or even free access to, many of the most desirable sections within their own city. Discrimination, segregation and abuse coloured most inter-racial dealings, with westerners viewing the Chinese as their vanquished inferiors. All this was bitterly resented.
Immediately south of the French Concession in Shanghai, my great-grandfather owned a tea-house in the old walled Chinese city of Nantao. These Chinese quarters, or the Old Town, were packed with low, dense buildings, small bustling markets and wandering alleyways overhung by colourful shop signs. Business was successful in spite of fierce competition from mobile stoves on bamboo poles, road-side stands and modest one-room cafés. When Grand Aunt was seven years old, her father relocated his tea-house to a more fashionable site in the International Settlement, formed by the merging of the former British and American Concessions. He then moved his entire family into a house a few streets away, in a quiet residential neighbourhood within the French Concession.
The French laid out gardens, apartment blocks, office buildings and tree-lined avenues which were given the names of French dignitaries. These boulevards became thick with café strollers and imported motor cars intermingling with wheelbarrows, rickshaws and pedicabs. Shanghai began to be known as the Paris of the Orient, though Grand Aunt always claimed that Paris should be called the Shanghai of Europe.
Grand Aunt’s older siblings received little formal education, but they did learn to read and write at a private teacher’s home. The youngest of five children, Grand Aunt was an afterthought. When she came of school age my great-grandfather had prospered. He enrolled her at the fashionable and expensive McTyeire Christian Girls’ School, run by American Methodist missionaries. She was the first child in the Yen family to be given a foreign education.
By that time, Shanghai had become the centre of China’s trade and industry. Opportunities were limitless. Grand Aunt’s eldest brother had established a successful business manufacturing spare metal parts for rickshaws, pedicabs, bicycles and some of the more modern household appliances. He was to die young, probably from syphilis, for he succumbed to
the three vices common to Chinese men at that time: opium, gambling and the brothels. Leisured women also gambled and took opium, but discreetly at home. Grand Aunt’s second brother set up a thriving import–export tea business but he, too, became infected with venereal disease and was unable to sire children. Her sister had an arranged marriage and died from tuberculosis. Her third brother, my grandfather Ye Ye, was softspoken and gentle. A devout Buddhist, he was tall and slender, with poetic leanings and gentle ways. He disliked the required Manchu male hairstyle of shaving the brow and braiding long hair into a single queue. Even as a young man, he kept his head clean shaven (the only permitted alternative), wore a round skull cap, and sprouted a neatly trimmed moustache. Determined not to follow his brothers down the slippery path, he proved to be far more able than either of them.
While at McTyeire, Grand Aunt developed a lifelong passion for riding. She became fluent in English, was baptized as a Christian and made many western friends through her church. One of these, a fellow member of the Anti-foot-binding League, gave her a job as a clerk in the savings department of the Bank of Shanghai. During the twenty years that she worked there she learned every aspect of the banking business and was made manager of her division.
Grand Aunt never married. In those days, daughters could still be legally sold or bartered. A wife was often treated as an indentured servant in her husband’s household, especially to her mother-in-law. If she failed to bear a son, one or more concubines would be brought in. Remarriage for widowers was routine but considered unchaste for widows. Most men of means routinely visited brothels but a woman who was unfaithful to her husband could be punished by death.
I remember Grand Aunt as a tall, imposing figure, treated with great esteem by every member of our family. Even Ye Ye and Father deferred to her every wish, which was remarkable in a society where women were disdained. Out of respect, we children were instructed to call her ‘Gong Gong’, which meant Grand Uncle. It was common practice for high-achieving women within the clan to assume the male equivalent of their female titles.

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