How I Came to Write “Just Like Really” — An Uncommon Chinese American Memoir.

A mountain lion stood behind me, less than twenty feet away. I saw its reflection in the locked glass doors of my studio at the Montalvo Center for the Arts in Saratoga. I fumbled with my keys in a frenzy to open the doors. I did not meet the lion’s eyes, but I could not forget its stunningly long brown tail as it flicked and curled, then disappeared behind a low rockwall. I was shaking when I got inside, feeling both fear and amazement. I had seen a mountain lion.

Wardrobe for the film "Seventh Sin," 1957

Wardrobe for the film “Seventh Sin,” 1957

A month-long residency at Montalvo was offered to local and international artists who were on the cutting edge of their disciplines. My discipline was playwriting, but I was the one on edge. My brother Warren, had suddenly died of congestive heart failure six weeks earlier,  and I had been diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer 18 months prior to his death. I felt acutely how everything could change in an instant, how little control one has over life. In my residency proposal to Montalvo, I had suggested I would rewrite my play Dragon, Tiger, Phoenix, about the spread of the SARS virus, but now my goal changed.  I no longer wanted to write about disease. I especially did not want to write about my disease. I wanted to write about what I thought I could still control—my past, my memories.

I didn’t realize then, as I embarked on writing stories about my Hollywood child performer past, how I would constantly be surprised by where my memories led.  How did I start performing on national television at age three, when in that very same year my dentist father was told that Chinese Americans could not buy property in a certain part of LA? How was it that my strict Chinese American parents allowed my sister Virginia, at age fourteen, and me, at age seven, to perform our nightclub act in a show with nudity on the Las Vegas Strip?

I hadn’t asked questions when I was growing up. I was too young to realize how unusual, how odd, how contradictory my childhood was, how strangely my life had unfolded. Whenever I had doubt, my mother would reassure me with “Don’t worry, you’re doing that dance just like really,” meaning I was as good or better than the original. I was often called the Chinese Shirley Temple.

Me and Mom at my NY opening 10-7-94

Me and My Mom at my NY opening, 1994. Photo by Lia Chang.

After my Montalvo residency, I thought I would find answers to my questions on an upcoming family cruise where I would be the cabin-mate and caregiver to my 94-year-old mother. My mother’s short term memory was highly suspect, but her long term memory remained keen. She had saved every scrap of paper, photos, reviews, and film clips that she could get her hands on regarding my childhood career and had attended nearly every opening night for the plays I’d written as an adult. She had many stories she told to relatives about her life as a stage mother, but when I asked her why she had allowed Virginia and me to perform in Las Vegas when so many parents thought it scandalous, she stared at me, smiled, and said, “Too late. You should have asked years ago.”

In an early draft, supported by a San Francisco Arts Cultural Equity Commission, I thought my childhood “inside story” of how I felt on studio lots, on stage and in a Las Vegas nightclub during the 1950s and 1960s when Asian American children were rarely seen in mainstream media, would become Part I of my memoir. My dialogues with my mom as her caregiver on our cruises would become Part II. She had taken care of me; I had taken care of her.

It was only after my memoir was awarded a Creative Work Fund literary grant that allowed the Center for Asian American Media to digitalize all the photos and film clips my mother had collected, only after my breast cancer had metastasized to my skull, that I realized that my childhood stories, my adult choices, and the mother-daughter dialogues  must be structurally interwoven. The dialogues with her were more than a sorting of memories and a source of humor. Our conversations revealed to me my mother’s tools for self-confidence, resilience, and reinvention that helped me negoiate the twists and turns of being a Hollywood child performer, to becoming a paleontologist, to choosing my career as a playwright, to facing my transition to cancer patient.

I have seen a mountain lion. I hope you enjoy my book.

Cherylene Lee