A Synopsis from Harper Collins - Ten-year-old Gim Lew Yep knows that he must leave his home in China and travel to America with the father who is a stranger to him. Gim Lew doesn’t want to leave behind everything that he’s ever known. But he is even more scared of disappointing his father. He uses his left hand, rather than the “correct” right hand; he stutters; and most of all, he worries about not passing the strict immigration test administered at Angel Island.
The Dragon’s Child is a touching portrait of a father and son and their unforgettable journey from China to the land of the Golden Mountain. It is based on actual conversations between two-time Newbery Honor author Laurence Yep and his father and on research on his family’s immigration history by his niece, Dr. Kathleen S. Yep.
EW: What was the impetus to write The Dragon’s Child?
LY: My niece Kathleen retrieved my father’s records from the National Archives and there was an interview of him at age 10. How many of us get a chance to hear our parents as children? It was a magical moment that got me interested in writing the book. We also found a photograph of grandfather as a houseboy in an Irish family and a vouching letter that he worked there.
During the entry interview, how you answer the questions is important. It’s not just being right, but whether you are nervous, and having a stutter as my father did must have been hard.
My family’s files contained over 400 pages, including previous and subsequent interviews with grandfather and father’s brother on the household and farm animals. It included exacting details, touching little things like schools didn’t provide desks. Much later in a conversation with me, my father recalled how pink the buildings looked in Macau, details that children would notice.
The Maritime Library was also very helpful as they tracked the exact departure and arrivals of ships. From the librarian, I learned that steerage had three bunks to one tier, similar to Angel Island and from eBay, I obtained ships’ diagrams that were also helpful.
EW: Your niece is the co-author. How did you collaborate?
LY: Kathy had ideas and I had ideas, but we followed the transcript of the interview. The work was more than putting words on paper; it was more about capturing the ones you love.
EW: You capture the bittersweet qualities of life in your book, i.e. the optimism of your father, the bitterness of Wart Man, and the strictness of the teacher Uncle Jing. How did you come up with these characters?
LY: The characters in the book were from the old timers I knew from Chinatown. I remember a laundryman named John, who taught my father how to make kites. I used to go shopping with my grandmother who used to take hours because she would stop and say hello to people she knew.
EW: Are there particular challenges in writing for young adults?
LY: You can’t flimflam kids. Problems have to be put in concrete terms, not existential crisis like who am I? Situations have to be real and visceral for the audience.
EW: What do you want kids to take away from reading the book?
LY: The older I get, the more I understand what my father went through. He had a strong sense of duty, determination and courage. I admire his not shying away from hard tasks. He and my mother had courage to make a better life for us. He took a risk to take over a store in the Western Addition (a traditionally African American neighborhood in San Francisco) and put me and my brother through college. He was a good storyteller in his own right.
EW: Do you have any thoughts about how to make Angel Island more visible in America’s consciousness?
LY: We adapted Dragonwings for the stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and the Lincoln Center in New York. Back East, the audience and the actors only knew of Ellis Island. It’s important to make people realize that the Chinese who came to San Francisco were more than statistics but were human beings. In telling my father’s story, Kathy and I tried to show readers that each immigrant from the “huddled masses” had a story to tell. You need to hear about the human story and about what America meant to the immigrants at Angel Island. The way to do that with kids – and I say this after 30 years of visiting schools – is to make them realize that the immigrants have the same fears and questions that kids do, especially the most basic questions of all: “Who am I?”
Interview with Kathleen S.Yep, co-author of The Dragon’s Child
By Eddie Wong
EW: What was it like working with your uncle?
KY: Laurence helped raise me and my siblings. When I was in elementary school, he gave me Wonder Woman comics and showed me Godzilla movies . He encouraged me to read and to imagine. So, as adults, it was humbling and exciting to co-create something bridging his literary point of view and my Asian American studies view of our family history
EW: How did you do the research?
KY: I was an ethnic studies major at U.C. Berkeley and connected with the Roots program at the Chinese Culture Center. I asked my 93 year old grandmother for any leads and she came back with a letter with grandfather’s name and a document number. I talked with the Chinese specialist at the National Archives and Records Administration at San Bruno and he came back with a stack of old folders that had mildew smell. I flipped open the file and saw a photograph of my grandfather as a terrified young boy and I just cried. Through these papers I met my great-grandfather and my great uncles for the first time. The files included maps of villages in China, photographs of San Francisco before the earthquake and the transcription of their interrogations. One of the most moving things was seeing my grandfather’s chunky handwriting a child and to imagine what he was feeling as he signed his name to the paper, unsure of his future.
EW: Describe the process of collaboration.
KY: My uncle, in many ways, defined the field of Asian American young adult literature. He won the Laura Ingalls Wilder lifetime achievement award in children’s literature and his books are required reading for California students. And, yet, he really defined the process as a collaboration. It was humbling to work with and learn from him. We looked at the interrogation process itself to seek out the dramatic scenes. As we exchanged drafts and combined our comments, we kept on thinking about the social significance of a single experience and achieving this through plot, dialogue, or character development, such as my grandfather’s stuttering.
EW: What do you want young people to take away from the book?
KY: Young people, hopefully, will relate to the challenges my grandfather faced and to how people find strength and courage under challenging circumstances. The story provides a way to identify with the characters and compare it with current examples of detention. And, hopefully, readers will be inspired to explore the extraordinary things their family has experienced and done—just as we did with our family’s story.