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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Critical Pedagogy: Octavia E. Butler and Ruthanne Lum McCunn Session Author and Literary Works: Ruthanne Lum McCunn

Ruthanne Lum McCunn

Author Bio

Ruthanne Lum McCunn was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown district in 1946, and was raised and schooled in Hong Kong. As a young girl, McCunn recalls being left out of kids’ groups because of her mixed ethnic background (Chinese and Scottish). But her isolation from children gave her access to gatherings of adult women who shared with her their stories and thoughts. “My writer’s voice really comes from the oral storytelling of my childhood,” McCunn once said. “Books were very hard for me to come by because we had no public library and books were very expensive, but everybody told stories. And I loved to listen to them.”

McCunn returned to California at the age of 16 to attend college. After graduating, she worked as a librarian and school teacher in Santa Barbara. In 1988, she published Thousand Pieces of Gold. The book won wide acclaim and was made into a film. McCunn has balanced her teaching and writing careers ever since.

McCunn has consistently drawn on her Scottish-Chinese heritage in both her fiction and nonfiction writing, and her well-received books — including Pie-Biter, Wooden Fish Songs, Sole Survivor, and The Moon Pearl — have all dealt with Chinese American themes. McCunn is as well known for her meticulous historical research as she is for her graceful writing; through her studies, she has uncovered stories that have helped to detail what we know about nineteenth century Chinese and Chinese American lives.

McCunn’s fiction focuses as much on the issues of women as it does on the experiences of Chinese and Chinese Americans. Wooden Fish Songs, for example, tells the story of Lue Gim Gong, a nineteenth century Chinese immigrant to America, from the perspective of three powerful women, one Chinese, one white, and one African American. The Moon Pearl, too, tackles gender issues by exploring the lives of the first women to work in the silk industry. McCunn has remarked that independent women, like the heroines of The Moon Pearl, are her inspiration: “I always remembered admiring [unmarried working women],” she says. “They walked tall. It always struck me that even though they were servants, they had more freedom than the wives they were working for.”

McCunn has won numerous awards for her work, including the 1997 J.F. McDonnell Award for Best Fiction for Wooden Fish Songs, the ChoiceOutstanding Academic Book Award in 1990 for her nonfiction work Chinese American Portraits, and the 1984 American Book Award for her children’s book Pie-Biter. She has also been an artist-in-residence at the Basement Workshop in New York and has taught at Cornell, the University of San Francisco, and the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Synopsis of Thousand Pieces of Gold

Thousand Pieces of Gold traces the life of Lalu Nathoy, later known as Polly Bemis.

The story begins with Lalu’s childhood in China, when she was the much beloved daughter of a well-to-do farmer. But as her father loses his income, Lalu’s life changes radically. She is faced with a choice: She can work as a domestic servant for a wealthy family far away, or she can unbind her feet and work with her father in the fields. Preferring to stay with her kin, Lalu unbinds her feet and begins working, but that solution doesn’t last for long. Lalu’s desperate father sells her to a horde of bandits who sell Lalu into a kind of sexual slavery. She finally is sold to a bar owner in the United States, where she is given the name Polly. Life is not pleasant, but Polly learns English and begins to earn her keep. Finally, after a neighbor wins her in a card game, Lalu is set free. She eventually marries the man who freed her, and spends the rest of her life caring for him and for her community.

Thousand Pieces of Gold focuses, in many ways, on the necessity of defining one’s own value. At the outset of the novel, Lalu allows her father to determine her worth in the world; she is delighted when he calls her his quianjin, his “thousand pieces of gold.” But as Lalu’s family falls on hard economic times, Lalu’s father is forced to value his daughter at a somewhat lower rate. The scene of her father selling her is one of the most poignant in the novel: “He reached out, hesitated, then looked up at Lalu, his eyes pleading for understanding. She twisted her face away — Behind her, she heard him snatch the bag and scoop up the spilled seed. ‘Two bags,’ her father begged. ‘She’s worth two bags of seed.'”

As Lalu continues to be traded — from the bandits to The House of Heavenly Pleasure, and from whoremongers to a bar owner in the Gold Mountains — she learns to set her own value, based not on her body but on her spirit. “You’re thin, but beautiful and sound,” a comrade from the auction block tells Lalu. “What does that change except my price?” Lalu replies.

McCunn’s novel raises numerous questions about the ways in which the politics of beauty are linked to the economics of prostitution, and it ultimately provides answers that are both thoughtful and significant. Even a thousand pieces of gold, McCunn suggests, are worthless compared to freedom.

Audio Clip with Ruthanne Lum McCunn

Why did I write about Lalu Nathoy? Because it’s so easy for us in this country to think about all the terrible things that are happening over there, in China, or over there in Afghanistan, or in Somalia, or Bosnia, or any other part of the world. Everywhere except for here. And I wanted to show that after the Civil War was over, after the emancipation proclamation when African American slaves were free, Chinese women in this country were still in slavery

Q & A with Ruthanne Lum McCunn

How did you start writing Thousand Pieces of Gold?
I first came across [Lalu Nathoy’s] story when I was researching the lives of Chinese in Idaho for an earlier nonfiction book called An Illustrated History of the Chinese in America. I came across her story in a book called Idaho Chinese Lore by Sister Alfreda Elsensohn — it [included] just a few pages about her. But I immediately knew that I wanted to find out more about her and write an entire book about her because she brought out so many things about American history that we don’t actually know about, generally, in this country. And also because, to me, she was such an extraordinary person in her own right. There are many people who survive incredible hardships, and she certainly did. But to survive with your capacity for compassion for other people intact and not to turn hard and bitter yourself is, to me, extraordinary. And that was what drew me to her and to want to find out more about her.

Is there something about your experience that led you to write about Lalu (who later changed her name to Polly Bemis)?
I grew up in Hong Kong and didn’t come to America until I started college. There were family stories about my great grandmother having been sold into slavery, so this was emotional terrain for me. And so I could identify very strongly with Polly’s story, and the answers really just leapt off the page at me. I had much, much more information about her life in Idaho, and yet, I couldn’t relate to that at all; in fact, I had a really hard time with that entire part of her life. And again, the reason was because of my own personal involvement and emotion.

How did you research Thousand Pieces of Gold?
A lot of people think research is really boring. But to me, it’s wonderfully exciting because I’m an intensely nosey person, and to me, research is just organized curiosity. It’s just going after what you want to know. So I wrote to historical societies, libraries, archives all over the Pacific Northwest, asking for information about her. And back came a lot of newspaper articles, a lot of memoirs from pioneers who had written about themselves, and [also] about Polly Bemis because they thought that she was so special. There were also lots of photographs because she loved to have her photos taken. There was a particularly wonderful thesis that was written by a woman who had done a lot of interviews with pioneers from that time period. And so I had all this information that I could work from.

Unfortunately, all the information was about her life in America. There was very little about her life in China. We know that she was born in northern China, that she was sold by her father at a time of great drought, that her feet had been bound and then unbound, that she had been brought to America via Shanghai [and] auctioned off in San Francisco for $2,500. So I decided to find out as much as I could about life in China, northern China, at that particular time period. I found out what crops they planted, when they were planted, what tools they used, what the villages were like there at the time, what the flora and fauna was like … The answers to those questions actually came out in the research, and it became like joining the dots.

Did you interview people?
The first person that I went to interview was the daughter of the woman who had taken care of Polly during the last days of her life. And I had all my questions, and I started asking her all the things that I wanted to know. And she was like a deer frozen in the headlights — and totally silent. And I thought, “Oh, I’ve got all these other interviews to do. If she doesn’t start talking soon, I’m really going to be up a creek.” And so I started being even more intense, and she was backing off even more. And then my husband started talking about the weather and sun, and I kept kicking him and I was so irritated. And then I saw that the woman was relaxing as he was chatting her up. And then he gradually came around to the questions that I wanted, because he knew them all because that’s all I talked about. And so I really learned how to do an interview without coming on too strong and to let people talk for themselves.

And this was a really, really valuable lesson because one of the many questions that I had was …about [how], after her husband Charlie died, [Polly] had given the deed to their property to the men who lived across the river so that they would build a cabin for her and they would help her out by shooting game …so that she could continue to live on the river. At that time, it was against the law for Chinese to own property. So how was it possible, I asked myself, for her to have the deed? And yet everybody said that [she did]. And when I actually did a search for the deed, I couldn’t find it. Still, people insisted, “Oh yes, it was a deed.”

Well, during one of the subsequent interviews that I went to — it was [with] a man by the name of Johnny Carey, and [he] was the brother of Gay, who had a little girl who had lived with Polly at the last part of her life. And Johnny got together a whole bunch of other pioneers — some of whom had known Polly, some who had not — and they were just talking about old times, and I was just listening to them talk, the same way that I used to listen to my family talk when I was a little girl. And as they were talking, I realized they were talking about mining and about mining claims. And apparently, if you make a mining claim, then you are actually entitled to the acreage around the claim. And I knew that Chinese could own mining claims, and I thought to myself, “Is it possible that it wasn’t a deed? Is it possible that it was a mining claim?” This would certainly help answer a lot of other questions I had. Charlie must have been afraid that he wasn’t going to be able to hang onto that land. He could have bought that land. He had the money for it. But then Polly wouldn’t have been able to have it. And so …he had put in a mining claim so that he could protect her and the property. And that served her in good stead because she outlived him, and had it not been for that, she wouldn’t have been able to hang onto that property.

Information About Key References

Treaty Regulating Immigration from China, 1880
This treaty stated that the government of the United States could regulate, limit, or suspend the immigration of Chinese laborers to America, but that it could not absolutely prohibit immigration. The treaty applied only to Chinese going to the United States to find work as laborers.

Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
This Act suspended the immigration of any Chinese laborers to the United States for 10 years. The Act was only applicable to new immigrants; those Chinese laborers already in the country were allowed to stay, but were required to carry and display on demand legal documents verifying their right to be in the country.

Beginning a thousand years ago in China, women (frequently at the urging of men) pursued the ideal known as san zun jin lian (the “three-inch golden lily,” or golden lotus, as it is also called), which was the custom of breaking and binding the feet into the shape of a pointed lotus bud. Contrary to general belief, foot-binding was not begun in infancy. A girl’s foot had to be quite well developed before it could be worked with to achieve the desired shape and size. By the time the practice was outlawed in 1911, millions of Chinese women had endured the unimaginable pain of the foot-binding process, and in doing so had sacrificed forever their ability to move about freely and normally.

Suggestions for Applying Other Theories to Thousand Pieces of Gold

Thousand Pieces of Gold ccan be taught using a reader-response approach by having students compare the film version with the novel. The teacher can have students begin by watching a short opening section of the film. They can explore their initial reactions in conversation and in their journals, noting their observations, curiosities, and questions. Students can then move to the book and explore the relationship between the film and the textual material. The class should alternate between the two over a period of several days, writing and discussing their impressions of both in relation to each other, and refining their responses as they progress.

Students can also use the film as the basis for an inquiry into the process of adapting a book into a film. They can write to producers, directors, and screenwriters with questions about the process. They can compare notes, focusing on how theoretical or philosophical ideas are translated from one form to another, and discussing practical information about writing. Students can then adapt a short story of their choosing into a film using a camcorder (or whatever equipment the school or students have available). If the technology is not present, they can adapt the book into a play.

A cultural studies approach to the book might involve an exploration of the popular culture in rural Idaho or China during the era in which the book is set.

Author and Literary Works

Works by the Author

McCunn, Ruthanne Lum. An Illustrated History of the Chinese in America.San Francisco: Design Enterprises of San Francisco, 1979.
This accessible, visual story details the experiences of Chinese Americans from the time of the first immigrants to the present day.

—-. Pie-Biter. San Francisco: Design Enterprises of San Francisco, 1983.
In this children’s book, McCunn tells the story of Hoi, a Chinese immigrant with a great love of pies.

—-. Thousand Pieces of Gold: A Biographical Novel. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988.

—-. Wooden Fish Songs. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.
This novel tells the story of Lue Gim Gong, a Chinese immigrant, as related by three women of different ethnic backgrounds.

—-. Chinese Proverbs. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1991.
This bilingual book presents centuries of Chinese wisdom.

—. Chinese American Portraits:Personal Histories, 1828-1988. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996.
The text provides a wide variety of biographical essays, all accompanied by black-and-white portraits.

—. The Moon Pearl. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.
This novel tells the tales of the independent women who worked in the silk trade during the 19th century.

—. Sole Survivor:A Story of Record Endurance at Sea. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.
This true story relates the 133-day lost-at-sea ordeal of Poon Lim, the only man who survived the torpedoing of the British ship Benlomond by a German submarine.

Film and Video

Thousand Pieces of Gold. Maverick Picture Company, 1990.
This film version, also written by McCunn, starred Chris Cooper and Rosalind Chao.

Works about the Author

Chin, Kathryn. “If you are Honest to History….” International Examiner, March 5, 1986. Discussion of McCunn and the issues at stake in historical fiction.

Gok, Forrest. “Ruthanne Lum McCunn: a Commitment to Historical Truth.”East Wind, Spring/Summer, 1986.
Interview and article.

Hamilton, Mildred. “Revealing Rich History of Chinese-Americans.” San Francisco Examiner, December 8, 1985.
Consideration of McCunn in context of other writers of historical fiction.

Keller, Nora Cobb. “McCunn Won’t be Boxed in by Definitions.” Honolulu Star Bulletin, July 26, 1993.
Interview and review.

Parkinson, Nicola. “Ruthanne: Eurasian and Proud of It.” South China Morning Post, March 4, 1983.
Biographical article.

Raskin, Jonah. “McCunn Gives Voices to the Unheard.” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, June 4, 1995.
Interview and article.

Seto, Mary. “An Interview with Author Ruthanne Lum McCunn.” Sampan, January 1982.

Stein, Ruthe. “Inside Look at Growing Up As an Outsider.” San Francisco Chronicle, September 21, 1983.
Interview and article.

Stix, Harriet. “Author Leads, Writes about a Double Life.” Los Angeles Times,September 25, 1983.
Interview and article.

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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School


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