Writers from China's diaspora 'I HATE TO WRITE, but I'm a good gabber,' says Betty Lee Sung, the author of seven books, including Mountain of Gold, the first history of Chinese in the US by a Chinese-American. 'When I was a student and term papers were assigned, I'd ask, 'Can I give mine orally?' and the teachers loved it.' Sung graduated from the University of Illinois in 1948. Professional jobs open to Chinese - even those who'd done as well as Sung - were few and far between. 'One day, I heard that the Voice of America was desperately looking for Chinese recruits,' she says. 'So, I went over and the guy said me, 'Can you write?' and I said 'No, I can't. I hate to write.' But they needed someone to write scripts for their broadcasts to China and they were offering twice what I was making at the clerical job I had, so I said I'd give it a try.' The next thing the gabby graduate knew, she was writing four scripts a week. Although she turned 80 last October, Sung has the vigour and enthusiasm of someone two or three decades younger. 'I'm not typical of the Chinese-Americans of my generation,' she says cheerfully, as she puts a cup of tea in front of me at her apartment in Manhattan's Chinatown. 'I saw that the traditional ways of behaving didn't work and rebelled against them. 'I especially hated the way Chinese favoured boys over girls. My mother always put the best parts of any meat dish in a separate bowl for my brothers, while my sister and I had the inferior pieces. Well, I'd always reach over and grab something from my brothers' bowl and prepare to run because I knew my mother would hit me. I think she must have hit me almost every day,' Sung says with a small smile. Although she was born and grew up in Washington DC, Sung has a stronger connection to China than many Chinese-Americans because her parents took the entire family to their native district, Taisan, in Guangdong, during the US Depression. 'I have vivid memories of that time,' Sung says. 'I attended the girls' school there for five years and would spend my free time wandering about and following my relatives around when they went up to the mountains to cut grass for fuel or to harvest potatoes. I was curious about everything.' The family returned to the US when Japan invaded China in 1937. 'We were bombed every day for a year. When we heard guns shooting, the day the Japanese approached, I remember my sister shivering and saying, 'We gotta run! We gotta run!' But I didn't want to go.' Sung credits her early exposure to China with giving her both a pride in being Chinese and an identification with China that she might not otherwise have had. 'That's why I got as angry as I did when I saw how inaccurately Chinese were depicted in the books and articles I found when I first began researching the history of the Chinese in the US. Chinese were described as eating rats, smoking opium, heathens, coolie labourers and so forth. These were not the people I knew and I thought these erroneous images needed to be corrected.' One thing the stay in China failed to accomplish was to make Sung any more of a dutiful Chinese daughter. 'When I wanted to go to college, my father said, 'No, you can't do that. I'll find a nice husband for you and you'll get married.' I said, 'I'm going anyway,' and he said, 'Well then I disown you.' So I went ahead, applied to a couple of colleges, accepted a four-year scholarship to the University of Illinois and washed dishes at a rooming house to support myself.' Sung was one of only two female Chinese undergraduates - which wasn't such a bad thing. 'There were about a hundred overseas Chinese male students, along with two or three American-born Chinese, and they were all taking maths or science. Anyway, the ratio of Chinese girls to boys was 100 to two, so I was having the time of my life. I was carefree, taking courses, and had dates on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.' After graduating, Sung married her first husband, an overseas-Chinese from Nanjing, and moved to New York. Mountain of Gold was written after the Voice of America relocated to Washington DC, and while Sung was working at 'low-level editorial jobs' and raising four children. To write Mountain of Gold, Sung incorporated research she'd done for her Voice of America programmes with existing literature on Chinese in North America. 'It took 10 years to find a publisher because in those days you could only submit your manuscript to one publisher at a time. 'Well, it's an interesting book,' editors would say to me. 'But does anyone really want to read a book about Chinese American history?' I got about 15 or 16 rejections until it finally came out.' Perhaps it was just as well that Mountain of Gold's publication was delayed because when it appeared, it was at the dawn of the ethnic consciousness movement. The book became a classic and led to Sung's 22-year affiliation with the City University of New York and to her current position as chair of the Asian American Research Institute, an independent research organisation she persuaded the university to fund four years ago. If Sung has any complaints or concerns it's that Asian-Americans may become complacent about their victories of the past few decades. 'When Mountain of Gold came out, people would come up to me and say, 'Oh, I could have written that book.' My reply would be, 'Well, then, why didn't you?''