Book: 'Canton Elegy' by Stephen Lee Jin-nom and Howard Webster

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 5:17pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 5:17pm

Canton Elegy: A Father's Letter of Sacrifice, Survival and Love
by Stephen Lee Jin-nom & Howard Webster
Watkins Publishing
4 stars

Mark O'Neill

"The story you are about to read will have to make do for the conversations we never had … I thank God for the loan of the four souls that were given into my care."

So reads the prologue of Canton Elegy, the moving autobiography of Stephen Lee Jin-nom written in 1955 as a record for his four children and the children they would have in the future. He wanted them to know the extraordinary life of a quiet man who ran the local grocery shop.

After his death in April 1970, the manuscript sat in an attic in the family home in San Francisco, California. It was during Christmas 2011 that the autobiography was read by Howard Webster, a Briton married to Julianne Lee, one of his grandchildren. They were visiting to present their newly born twins.

"Even though English was not his first language, I thought it quite beautiful and moving and in places utterly harrowing," says Webster, a writer, photographer and film director who lives in London. "It is a love letter to his kids. It is a very unusual thing."

After their return to Britain, Webster began editing the book and showed it to his literary agent.

Born in a village in Zhongshan, Guangdong province, in November 1902, Lee was sent to the US by his grandfather in 1910 after the death of his father.

He graduated with a degree in economics from Berkeley but could not find employment in California because of racism.

In April 1927, he burnt his American papers and returned to China. His skills as an accountant led him to become comptroller of the Chinese Air Force, with the rank of colonel. He married Belle, a woman from Guangzhou; they had four children. After he left the military in 1936, he became assistant general manager for a bank, the Canton Trust Company. He worked in Guangzhou and kept his wife and young children in safety in Hong Kong.

In early December 1941, his company sent him to set up a new office in Guilin; his wife and children remained behind.

The Japanese captured the colony. "The thought of my little ones starving and dying without me was beyond bearing. I fell to my knees on the hotel room floor and prayed. When I woke the next morning, I was lying on the floor still in my clothes. I had fallen asleep praying," Lee wrote.

The next chapter is a gripping account of how Belle and the four children survived looting and hunger and made a 520-kilometre journey by foot to Guilin, with two other couples. "They slept wherever they could, in an abandoned hut or shelter or lie on the roadside, hungry and huddled together for warmth."

The journey took six weeks. Lee marvelled at his "astonishing" wife. "The strength to even attempt that journey with four children, little or no money, some trinkets to barter with, and just the clothes on your back was beyond my comprehension."

Their odyssey had only begun. They evacuated to Chongqing and moved to Guangzhou after the war. When the Communist army approached in the spring of 1949, they had to leave their elegant house in Guangzhou and fled to Hong Kong. The Communists confiscated their house and land; their savings had been wiped out by the war.

The book has a straightforward narrative style, with great attention to detail. The family was the heart that gave Lee the strength to survive his ordeal. It is a well-written and moving story, which gives the reader a vivid description of these traumatic years of China's history.