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Unbound Spirit

Unbound Spirit: Letters of Flora Belle Jan

Introduction by Judy Wu
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Unbound Spirit
    Book Description:

    This volume collects the letters written over a thirty-year period by a second generation Chinese American woman, Flora Belle Jan (1906-50). Her writings illuminate the inner life of a sensitive, unconventional, and ambitious woman--an exceptional Chinese American flapper, writer, and journalist._x000B__x000B_Born in California to immigrant parents, Jan grew up resisting her parents conservative Chinese values as she internalized American culture. Throughout her relatively short life, she studied literature at Berkeley and the University of Chicago, raised three children with her husband Charles Wang, and worked as a journalist in both the United States and China. Her closest friend, Ludmelia Holstein, a daughter of German immigrants from Russia, was the recipient of the letters collected in this volume._x000B__x000B_While living in China, Jan wrote about how her gender and nationality complicated her uneasy adjustment to Chinas foreign yet familiar culture, and she reflected on her roles as a wife, mother, and career woman. Describing encounters with in-laws and servants, marital problems, and competition for newspaper jobs, her letters record her personal struggles in an environment of political turmoil in the 1930s and 40s._x000B__x000B_Written during the years 1918-48, these letters offer unique insight into the situation of educated, middle-class, professional Chinese American women in the early twentieth century. Literate, candid, and charming, they convey the intellectual curiosity and perspicacity of a vivacious and ambitious woman while tracing her engagement with two different worlds.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09156-8
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Editorial Note
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. xvii-xxiv)

    This book of letters by Flora Belle Jan records in remarkable detail the experiences of a second-generation Chinese American woman, whose life spanned almost the entire first half of the twentieth century. Born in Fresno, California, in 1906, she grew up resisting what she perceived as the conservative upbringing by her Chinese immigrant parents as well as the outdated social conventions of American society. Instead, she became a flamboyant flapper and aspired to be a journalist, poet, and fiction writer. As soon as she could, Jan moved away from the agrarian county seat of Fresno to seek greater opportunities in...


    • 1 One’s True Friend
      (pp. 3-8)

      Flora Belle Jan’s parents, Jan Suey Ming (also known as Jan Chong)¹ and Yen Shee (née Dow Gee), originally from the Chungshan District near Macao, were part of the Chinese diaspora that sent thousands of emigrants from southern China to many parts of the world.² Jan Chong was twenty-two years old when he arrived in San Francisco in 1892.³ Six years later, Dow Gee reached San Francisco.⁴ She was fifteen years younger than Jan Chong. Following their marriage and the birth of their first two sons, Munn Ching and Munn Hee, born in 1904 and 1905, they moved to Fresno,...

    • 2 Wild to Go
      (pp. 9-16)

      The next group of letters are about young love, poetry, and publishing; work at the Lyceum Theater; jaunts to San Francisco, Selma, Dinuba, Bakersfield; meeting friends from Hanford; a lavender voile dress; and dances and flirtations. Almost all of Flora’s social activities in nearby townships were with Chinese Americans, who made up about 1 percent of the population in the area. The 1920 census showed that several hundred Chinese Americans lived in Bakersfield and Hanford.¹ However, Flora’s parents disapproved of her wild exuberance. In one letter, upon returning home after being away for two weeks, she wrote that her mother...

    • 3 All Chinatown Is Horrified
      (pp. 17-34)

      During her first semester at Fresno State College, Flora’s flair for imaginative writing was immediately noticed. She became literary editor and feature story writer of the campus paper, The Collegian, and also worked on its news staff.¹ She also helped to launch The Trailmaker, an annual publication of the Chinese Students’ Club in Fresno.² In March 1924, Flora began writing feature stories as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner. It was an important assignment for a seventeen-year-old upstart. She wrote several stories about Chinatown characters³ before the job was ended. One of her poems was published in The Campus,...


    • 4 A Plunge into Domesticity
      (pp. 37-51)

      At age nineteen, Flora Jan traveled by the Southern Pacific train from Fresno to Chicago in late December of 1925. She had left in some haste, partly because she was eager to begin a new life outside of California, and partly to escape turmoil at home. There would be no Christmas celebration because her three-year-old sister Fern was fatally ill. During the first three months of 1926, she wrote five letters to Ludmelia, reporting on her demanding schedule of studies at the University of Chicago and off-campus part-time work. She was lonely at first, but soon became involved with Charles...

    • 5 Life Gives Me a Heartache
      (pp. 52-66)

      In spite of the economic depression engulfing the country, Flora and Charles continued with work and studies and family life. They were both active in the Chinese Club, which met every Sunday. Flora was elected club president, and also edited and wrote for the literary section of the Chinese Students’ Monthly

      There was always need of additional income to supplement Charles’s earnings from weekend jobs while he carried a full course load at the University of Chicago. Flora modeled at the American Academy of Art for $1 an hour. Later in the year she obtained a full-time job at the...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • 6 Paying for the Follies of My Youth
      (pp. 67-102)

      It was economically important to Flora Jan to have a job, preferably a writing job. From the autumn of 1929 to May 15, 1931, she worked at the Epworth League, which published educational material for the Methodist Episcopal Church. Amid much routine work, Flora managed to introduce writing for their publication, the Epworth Herald. Her letters to Ludmelia Ralston provided her creative writing outlet as well as the social and emotional continuity Ludy always represented. Flora discussed everything from office politics to personal relations and health. She also asked Ludy to engage an attorney to obtain her birth certificate. This...


    • 7 I Prefer American Shoes
      (pp. 105-127)

      Flora Jan and her husband Charles Wang and their son Hanson arrived in China in July of 1932. After a brief stay in Shanghai they traveled to Kaifeng, the capital of Henan¹ Province in north China, to stay at the home of Charles’s parents. For Charles it was a reunion with his family after being abroad for twelve years. During his absence, his older brother, Guang-di Wang (also known as Fei-gung Wang), had married and sired four children. In the patriarchal tradition it was expected that the eldest son and his family would live with his parents and follow the...

    • 8 A Straw in the Wind
      (pp. 128-173)

      During the 1930s, the political and economic conditions in China would become increasingly unstable as the opposing forces of Mao Tse-tung and Chiang Kai-shek established separate territorial control, while Japan moved to occupy northern and central China.¹ However, in 1933, when Flora Jan arrived in Peiping with her husband Charles and son Hanson, life seemed promising even though the Japanese had surrounded the city. The capital city of 1.6 million people was the cultural and political center of China. It was the seat of the country’s preeminent universities and the finest medical facilities. A lively international community, representing all the...

    • 9 Chasing Mirages
      (pp. 174-219)

      After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, it became unsafe for Americans to remain in the northern part of China, occupied by Japan and governed by the puppet government of Wang Jing-wei.¹ Chiang Kaishek led the government of Free China to join the Allies in World War II. The capital of Free China was established in Chungking (Chongqing) in Szechwan province,² a fertile region near the headwaters of four major rivers, including the Yangtze, and noted for high mountain borders. The province was known as China’s rice bowl. Its products included rice, cotton, beans, tangerines, sugarcane, silk, bamboo, medicinal herbs,...

    • 10 I Have Been Loyal to China …
      (pp. 220-246)

      After the surrender of Japan to the United States in August of 1945, Chiang Kai-shek moved the Nationalist government to Nanking. There was a mass exodus of personnel from Chungking. Flora Belle Jan traveled alone to Shanghai in December 1945, and within weeks found employment in the editorial department of the Shanghai Herald. Her husband Charles brought their younger daughter Fiore to Shanghai in March of 1946 after finally receiving authorization to lead a government delegation of eight men to the United States. Their son Hanson had enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent to Nanking.

      Their older daughter...

    (pp. 247-248)

    Flora Jan and her two daughters, Fleur and Fiore, arrived in San Francisco on February 21, 1949. The homecoming was a moment much longed for by Flora. But the reunion dinner with her family members, who had all moved from Fresno to San Francisco, was formal. The estrangement of many years could not be overcome in a short time. Her father and older brother Munn spoke very little. Her sister Muriel railed against her for deserting the family to seek her own career. But brother Clarence and sister Bessie were warm and welcoming. Bessie invited Flora and the girls to...

    (pp. 249-254)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 255-260)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 261-264)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 265-267)