Spring Flower: A Tale of Two Rivers is the autobiography of Jean Tren-Hwa Perkins.
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Jean was given up for adoption to a missionary couple, Dr. Edward Perkins and her wife during the terrible famine of 1931. The book is a first-hand testimony of the dramatic events that have marked China’s recent history. Richard edited his mother’s memoir, Spring Flower: A Tale of Two Rivers Book One (April 2021, Earnshaw Books, Hong Kong), available on amazon.com.
Why did your mother decide to tell her story?
From the day we landed at JFK Airport in New York from Shanghai in 1980, via Tokyo, someone was always asking my mother to write her story down in a book.
My mother’s American cousin, Evelyn Perkins Ames (“Evvie”), poet, author, and wife of the chairman of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, was the first to encourage her to write. Another time, my mother and I were attending a holiday celebration at MIT around 1981, sponsored by a group of Americans fascinated by Mainland China, which had just reopened to the West. Among the attendees were a few dozen visiting scholars from China. Both the American hosts and the Chinese scholars were taken by my mother’s stories and her journey. The word “book” came up a lot, and some felt it could be written as a fairytale for children.
That wasn’t enough to convince my mother, though. Then one day, while we were still living in Boston, during one of our regular trips to New York, she and I were sitting along the Hudson River, and she asked me who would read a biography about an ordinary person. I reminded her that many people seemed to find her life fascinating, but that didn’t move her. Then, she said, and I paraphrase, “I could have died many times over, but somehow I lived because of many brave and wonderful souls. Perhaps writing a book would honor them. Yes, this might be my life’s calling.” I kept these words in mind while completing her writings. This book is not really about Jean Tren-Hwa Perkins’s life as much about those around her through it all.
How long did it take her to create this volume? Where did she start writing?
My mother began collecting and organizing materials and documents—letters, photos, journals, essays, and chronologies—in 1982. The letters were mostly by her mother (Georgina Phillip Perkins) from China to family members in Yonkers, New York, describing their life as missionaries. Georgina, my grandmother, had a great camera and took nearly all the photos in the book. Essays and chronologies were written mostly by my mother’s father, Edward C. Perkins M.D. And all of it was preserved through two generations in the Perkins family, from her cousin Mrs. Ames down to Evvie’s daughters Olivia and Joanie. Evelyn’s son, Ned, and Ned’s wife, Jane, also wrote a thorough and informative chronology of Dr. Perkins’ life.
I was in high school at the time, and out of boredom, I’d occasionally helped her. Many of the archived envelopes and folders have my youthful handwriting on them. And in 1987, while I was still in college, Katie Louise Ploeg, my own adopted American mother and the younger sister of the two Ploegs mentioned in the book, gave me a complete collection of photos. She took care of my grandmother, Georgina, when she was dying of cancer in 1961.
Mother began jotting down outlines and fragments of stories with a pen and a legal pad in 1984. She also bought a high-end Panasonic typewriter with correction tape and a tiny, scrollable LED display window that showed twenty characters at a time. Although the Macintosh was introduced in 1984, my mother never learned to use a computer. After handwriting her initial recollections, she used that typewriter for the rest of what she wrote. I used this wonderful machine frequently before my mother began typing in earnest. At the time she began writing, we were living on Beacon Hill in Boston, close to Mass General Hospital, the Charles Street Red Line Station, and the Charles River, where Mother and I jogged together on Sundays along the riverside path. My mother loved to run. As she explains in the book’s introduction, deciding where to begin the story took her a while to figure out, and finally, she began with the day she was born. These are the opening words of her first draft: “Once upon a time a long, long time ago in a town nestled on the northern banks of a river called Yangtze River….”
She did most of her writing between 1985 and 1992 and stopped writing altogether around 1994. Then in early 2014, I promised her I would complete her memoir. I thought my promise could allow her to give up the unwinnable battle against dementia and leave this world in peace. It may have worked, as she died shortly after that. I spent the next three years organizing her files and photos, building a website, reading eight different drafts of various chapters, and retyping, compiling, and editing them.
I worked on and off for the next five years and came up against the limits of my capacity. Although I write science papers as a chemist, this was the first memoir I’d tried coauthoring. At this point, there were more than 500,000 words. Thankfully, my cousin Olivia (Evvie Ames’ daughter) knew an editor, and I engaged Arnie Kotler, who lives in Hawaii. Together it took us another eighteen months to complete the book and connect with Graham Earnshaw, the founding publisher of Earnshaw Books in Hong Kong. Book One was released by Earnshaw Books this month, in April 2021. The process will have taken nearly forty years by the time Book Two is published.
The book is full of personal episodes from Jean Perkins’ life. Was it painful for her to have to go through these memories?
I think it was extremely difficult for her because it’s been a tumultuous journey for me to complete these writings. The word tragedy has been a common response from readers so far. Her mother’s letters helped refresh her memory, but most of the stories in the book come directly from my mother’s memory. I believe that each word she typed took its toll on her.
It can be punishing to be immersed in the past, dredging up difficult encounters. If my mother were alive today, she would undoubtedly remind me that the pain she felt was a small price to pay to honor these people she (and I) encountered. Some days, I am not so sure it’s a small price.
What was the status of women in China in 1931?
By 1931, the status of women in China had significantly improved compared with the nineteenth century. Chinese girls and women could attend school and pursue professions such as teachers, nurses, and doctors. Gender-discriminatory practices did continue, though, especially in rural areas.
I believe one of the most appalling crimes against humanity of the past 200 years was the brutal oppression wrought by colonialism. The industrialized West enslaved the rest of the globe while extracting resources from their lands. These atrocities had unintended consequences that affected First World nations’ world views and how these nations continue to act toward those they oppressed. During the same colonial/imperial period, Christian missionaries showed the world the best of Western civilization, bringing medicine and modern education to impoverished, famine-and-disease-stricken, war-torn countries like China. The missionaries’ collective efforts also helped bring awareness and appreciation of women’s power in China.
Your mother was born during the catastrophic flood of 1931 that killed millions of people. In the book, how do national events reflect on her personal history?
As you know, the 1931 Yangtze River flood was one of the deadliest natural disasters of the twentieth century. War and famine were already ravaging China, and the country was incapable of dealing with a disaster of that magnitude. It was the Western missionaries and the Red Cross who came to the rescue.
In this context, her birth family could not raise her; they were simply too poor, and it was a blessing that she became part of the Perkins family. That was one of those moments she had in mind when she said she was lucky to be alive. The flood also served as an overture for her unique life: Her first day on earth was amid a catastrophic natural disaster.
In 1942, she arrived in the United States. What were her first impressions of the country? What were the main difficulties she encountered?
America was every bit the paradise she’d imagined! Because she had been raised in China by American parents, though, her transition to the new culture and environment was, it seems, almost seamless. She already spoke English as well as the American kids. It was almost like a military child born overseas coming home.
Consequently, she didn’t write much about difficulties living in Yonkers. Nor did she feel racially mistreated, albeit discrimination against Asian Americans during WWII was pervasive. I’m not ruling out that she might have mentally blocked out negative experiences in America. But when she had to move from her parents’ house in Yonkers to smaller accommodations in South Yonkers and transfer to a new high school, she was completely lost, as she was when she left America to return to China, via India, on V-E Day 1945. I’d say she felt more at home in America than anywhere else in the world, including China. That irony is on full display in Book Two, which will be released in 2022.
In 1949, Chairman Mao took control of mainland China. How did her life change?
Things didn’t change that drastically when Mao Tse-dung took control of Mainland China. The scenes had been far more dramatic when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded my mother’s town of Kiukiang in World War II. Despite the tense and fearful anticipation of the Communist takeover, everything appeared calmer and more orderly than it had been under Chiang Kai-shek’s National Republic regime. If there were any changes to my mother’s immediate surroundings, they were subtle and manageable at first. Her father’s Water of Life Hospital stayed open and functional, and my mother continued to attend the same high school, completing her senior year. Most importantly, my mother was still living with her family at home, which may have given a false sense of normalcy.
But with the onset of the Korean War—a conflict between the U.S. and China—things turned ugly quickly. Her American parents had to flee China, even without fetching my mother from college, and anti-American fever burned across the land. From my mother’s perspective at the time, the Korean War was what destroyed everything. Her family was the most important pillar of her life, as she could live anywhere so long as her parents were near. Of course, anti-Western imperialism and anti-Americanism, and cultural destruction were coming, and it was just a matter of time. But the Korean War sped up the process.
What changed with the outbreak of the Korean War?
For my mother, the Korean War was a turning point in her life because she was permanently separated from her parents. I learned about her feelings when we watched M*A*S*H* together, a classic TV sitcom that mesmerized her.
The Korean War took place at the onset of the Cold War and cemented the reality of the split between the Soviet Union and China on the one hand and America and its allies on the other. The war became the first major battle between these ideologies. While respecting the military bravery on both sides and the horrible civilian “collateral damage,” my mother felt it was one of the most meaningless wars in human history. For starters, she found it ridiculous that Korea, still a Japanese colony, was divided at the end of World War II by the ally victors without asking the Korean people how they felt about it.
With its communist leader Kim Il-Sung, the North came under Soviet Union’s trusteeship, while America oversaw the South. When an overconfident Kim led his Korean People’s Army and crossed the 38th parallel, thinking both Stalin and Mao Tse-tung had his back, America and a highly biased UN intervened for the South, even though it was led by an equally ruthless dictator, Syngman Rhee. With the ever-increasing fear of communism, preserving South Korea and its strategic importance in the Pacific was not enough. The American-led UN forces pushed the war front to China’s doorstep. And Mao gladly accepted the challenge, still fuming that the Americans had assisted Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic Government in the Chinese Civil War. He wanted to show the world that his new China, even with undernourished, war-fatigued, tattered peasant-soldiers, could match the vastly superior, modern U.S. military forces. And he was not deterred, even when realizing Stalin would stand by and watch.
We all know what happened. A slaughter-fest turned into an ugly stalemate that involved two dozen countries on a tiny peninsula where none of the major opposing sides lived or spoke the language. It was an internal conflict between Korea’s North and South and had nothing to do with East and West but became an international battle for supremacy at the expense of millions of young men my mother’s age on both sides.
The war was really between China and America, and my mother, a nineteen-year-old college freshman, was caught in the crosshairs. The war ended my mother’s privileged life and charmed childhood. It was an extreme wake-up call, and she had to grow up fast.
When will the second volume come out?
The second volume is being edited, and we hope it would be available by early 2022.