When I came across Pam Chun’s historic novel, Money Dragon (Sourcebooks, 2002), I was anxious to read it. This book stood out to me (and not just because it’s from my publisher) because it’s set in China and Hawaii 100 years ago.
Lau Ah Leong, or L. Ah Leong as he was known in Honolulu, was born in a Guangdong village near the Fujian border. He moved to Hawaii in the late 1800s and opened a grocery that earned him enough riches to purchase real estate in Hawaii and China. In fact, he built several regal compounds back in China even though he would spend most of his life in Hawaii.
Ah Leong was traditional, but knew how to work both the Chinese and American systems. He had several wives, some of whom lived in China and some in Hawaii. When the US took over Hawaii, life as people knew it in Hawaii (which had allowed men to have up to seven wives) suddenly changed. And with this change came a ton a family conflict in the Lau household(s).
Phoenix, the wife of L. Ah Leong’s eldest son with his first wife (this wife being the giant, 6-foot tall Dai-Kam), was beautiful, traditional, and increasingly independent once she arrived in Hawaii to marry her husband, Tat-Tung. The story is sometimes told from her perspective and sometimes in the third person. Phoenix is also the grandmother of the author.
Although the Money Dragon was the legendary L. Ah Leong (whose name is still prominent in Honolulu’s Chinatown), the conflicts in the story primarily revolved around the women: first wife Dai-Kam and the other wives, both in Hawaii and back in China, as well as the daughters-in-law, including Phoenix.
Lisa See wrote a back cover blurb for this novel, and now I can see why. Money Dragon is similar to See’s family memoir, On Gold Mountain (Vintage, 1996), but just focuses on a couple of generations. It’s also a rich story and one that vividly portrays late 19th century/early 20th century Hawaii and China.