Kai Ting is the only American-born son of an aristocratic Mandarin family that has fled China in the wake of Mao's revolution. Woefully unprepared for life on the streets of San Francisco and speaking a patchwork of Chinese and English that no one but his relatives comprehends, Kai spends a blissful early childhood with his sophisticated older sister and his wonderfully eccentric mother. But Kai's idyl comes to an abrupt end with his mother's death. Suddenly plunged into American culture by his new stepmother, a Philadephia society woman who tried to erase every vestige of China from the household, young Kai desperately searches for somewhere to belong. Warm, funny, and deeply moving, China Boy is a brilliantly rendered novel of family relationships, culture shock, and the perils of growing up in am American of sharp differences and shared humanity.
When we first meet Kai Ting, the seven-year-old hero of this compelling, autobiographical first novel, he has just been ground into the pavement by the neighborhood bully--the most recent incident in a long series of calamities. Kai Ting is the youngest child but the only son of high-born Chinese parents who, before his birth, fled China's Communist revolution, leaving their wealth behind. Kai Ting was born in the San Francisco ghetto where his family had relocated in the mid-1940s. Survival in this urban jungle is made all the more difficult for him by severely impaired eyesight and ``a body that made Tinker Bell look ruthless.'' His mother, once his sole refuge from the ruffians on the street, has died of cancer, and his father has married a WASP who cannot abide anything Chinese--especially her husband's children. Their father turns a blind eye as his wife locks the children out of the house during the day; Kai Ting's return at night with bruises and torn clothes becomes an excuse for a second beating, this time at home. Redemption does come, after a fashion, but it is hard-fought and painfully won. This is the Chinese-American experience as Dickens might have described it, peopled by many rogues and a few saints. Lee's characters--blacks, Hispanics, whites and Asians--tend to extremes of good and evil, but, vividly drawn and intensely human, they are never stereotypes. His story is a primer on how to keep body and soul together in a world that is as gritty as the streets of his hero's neighborhood and seems often dangerously out of control. 50,000 first printing; Literary Guild selection; author tour. (May)