|NH: Your new book, CHINESE YANKEE, is based on the real life of Ah Yee Way, a young Chinese immigrant who fell into slavery and fought for his freedom in the Civil War. How did you learn about him?
RLM: Through the miracle of the internet! Years ago, I had written about the lives of ten Chinese Civil War combatants for a historical journal. A synopsis of that essay was posted on an early, and now defunct, website that served as a forum for people interested in the topic. It was through that site that I was contacted about the discovery of the Chinese Yankee's grave by a Vietnam Veteran with a passion in history. The name on the grave is the one Ah Yee Way enlisted under: Thomas Sylvanus.
|NH: How did history manage to overlook Thomas and the other Chinese soldiers? They certainly weren't inconspicuous.
RLM: During the Civil War, newspapers sometimes remarked on the presence of Chinese combatants, especially those who still combed their hair in the traditional queue. But their numbers were so small - only a few hundred Asian Pacific Islanders among nearly three million combatants -- that almost every one of the Chinese soldiers, like Thomas, believed himself the only one. And historical accounts left them out.
|NH: How difficult was it to unearth the details of his life, either as Ah Yee Way or as Thomas Sylvanus?
RLM: I already knew that in researching any Civil War combatant, the first thing is to get the man's military record from the National Archives. I also always look for a man's pension record because that's where the most personal information can be found, and I really lucked out because while not every veteran applied for a pension, Thomas did. In fact, it was in his pension record that I found his Chinese name: Ah Yee Way.
Pension records are really a starting point. From the information in Thomas's file, I was able to do research in Baltimore, where he was enslaved; Philadelphia, where he first enlisted; New York where he enlisted a third time; and Indiana, Pennsylvania, where he settled. It took me seven years to research and write the book!
|NH: You've made a career of writing about the unsung Chinese who've been a significant part of the American landscape. Are you always actively on the look-out for them?
RLM: I'm still always alert for new discoveries. But I used to make it a point to go to new archives whenever I was on the road. That was how I first discovered there were Chinese who served in the Civil War. Thirty years ago, a photograph of one fell from a file onto my lap in a Hartford, Connecticut archive.
|NH: Your first unsung Chinese hero was a woman - Polly Bemis, the main character in THOUSAND PIECES OF GOLD, the novel of yours that was made into a film. She was what we'd call a desperation-slave - sold by her own family for food and then brought as a slave to the United States to serve as a prostitute in the West's mining camps. But a Chinese man in the South?
RLM: There are people who claim Polly Bemis wasn't a slave. And it's true that although she was purchased for prostitution, she escaped that particular fate. But she remained in the clutches of the man who bought her off the auction block for $2,500, so she didn't consider herself free, and neither do I.
Similarly, some might dispute whether Ah Yee Way was enslaved. But he stated very clearly in a sworn affidavit that he'd been brought to America for an education and then fallen into the hands of a Dr. Sylvanus Mills, who gifted him to his slaveholder sister. Ah Yee Way was too young and new to the country to resist. But by the time the war broke out, he was almost sixteen, and he ran north to join the Union Army.
|NH: You've written about slavery in your book GOD OF LUCK, too. Why?
RLM: My Chinese great grandmother was sold into slavery and ran away to freedom. She ran a second time when her husband took a second wife. Growing up listening to stories about her, I came to understand that a person could be enslaved even if that person wasn't "legally" a slave. This distinction isn't always recognized. That's why I wrote about contract labor in GOD OF LUCK. The book is about men who were coerced, duped, or kidnapped into digging guano in Peru under circumstances so harsh few could hope to survive the terms of their contracts. We know that contract labor is pervasive in the world today, and even if the conditions for some of these laborers are not life-threatening, how free is that person if economic circumstances have coerced them into accepting a contract for their family's survival?
|NH: You're of Scots ancestry, as well as Chinese, but you identify more as Chinese. Why is that?
RLM: I grew up in Hong Kong living with the Chinese side of my family in a Chinese neighborhood with Cantonese as my first language. So it's only natural that my fundamental sensibilities are Chinese.
|NH: You also identify with the oppressed, the underdog. Hasn't the emergence of China as a world power if not the political and financial success of Chinese San Franciscans softened this?
RLM: My feelings for the oppressed and the underdog arise solely from my sense of fairness. As Virginia Woolf said, "There's only one thing wrong with privilege, it's that not everyone has it."
|NH: What was it like growing up in Hong Kong - looking not at all like the people in your family or neighborhood?
RLM: At the time it was always isolating and alternately hurtful and humorous. But I've never once wished I was anything else and have always been grateful for my Hong Kong family and my 15 years with them.
|NH: In the small Western Pennsylvania community where your Chinese Yankee settled after the war, didn't he also stand out as racially different?
RLM: Yes. And, like other Chinese living in communities where they were the loner or one of a few, Thomas both benefitted and suffered. On the up side, he escaped the horrific violence against Chinese in the West Coast. But he suffered intentional and inadvertent discrimination nonetheless. For example, there were people in the town who never called him by name but "Chinaman." And even friends attributed his poor sight to his eyes being "Chinese shaped," not a war injury.
More positively, he enjoyed community among other veterans. He also succeeded in making a loving home with his second wife and children.
|NH: Given his disabilities, though, Thomas had great difficulty supporting his family. What kept him going?
RLM: His character. For one, he wasn't a quitter --not in war, and not afterwards. Though his eyesight was seriously impaired, he didn't just stay in the fight, he kept his regiment's flag flying through the butchery of Spotsylvania. Then he endured nine months imprisonment in Andersonville. That same grit, that same sense of responsibility, saw him through the post-war difficulties of supporting his family. Fellow veterans helped a lot, too.
|NH: You write very realistically about the battles Thomas fought in. They're gory and nightmarish. You also provide unusual detail about the mechanics of battle - loading, firing and reloading rifles in the middle of chaos. Where did you get this expertise?
RLM: I'm far, far, far from expert. But I felt it was really important for the reader to know what fighting was like for the ordinary soldier, and I was very lucky that a great many ordinary soldiers wrote honestly about their experiences. It was interesting to me to see the difference between the letters they wrote at the time and the reminiscences published years later, the former being, in my opinion, far more true to what they experienced.
I was also lucky in the many articles and books that have been written about this war. And I was extremely fortunate to have some very patient teachers: The National Park Service personnel at the battlefields who talked me through battles as well as re-enactors who helped me with the mechanics.
Showing the consequences of war was really important to me, too. And the diversity of reasons that spurred the soldiers to fight. That's why I chose to write the book from multiple viewpoints.
|NH: Who, besides Civil War buffs, would be interested in reading this story?
RLM: What I look for as a reader is a compelling story with credible characters that I will care about, emotions that are true. I also want what I read to open up my mind to something fresh, whether it's a new time or place or people-or, even better, different points of view. That's what I try to accomplish as a writer.
So, to answer your question, I'd say any reader looking for those same qualities would be interested in reading CHINESE YANKEE.
|NH: Do you have a favorite character among all the real men and women you've brought to life?
RLM: I favor each one for different reasons, and from readers' letters, it's clear that is true for them, too.