China Boy, 1991
Honor and Duty, 1994
Tiger’s Tail, 1996
No Physical Evidence, 1998
Chasing Hepburn: A Memoir of Shanghai, Hollywood and a Chinese Family’s Fight for Freedom, 2002
The Chinese American writer Gus Lee became known as a novelist with a gift for telling strongly autobiographical stories. He was born Augustus Samuel Jian-Sun Lee. His parents had emigrated to the United States during World War II, when the Chinese troops of Chiang Kai-shek were being routed by the Communists. His father was a well-educated military officer whose ancestors had been farmers. His mother came from a family that cherished education and religion. Lee was born two years after their arrival in San Francisco. Five years later his mother died, and his father remarried an American citizen from Pennsylvania. Gus Lee’s childhood was marked by the difficulties of coping with a new mother with significantly different, more Western ways, as well as by those of adapting to a neighborhood in the rough “panhandle” section of San Francisco.
In his first novel, China Boy, Lee describes some of the problems of a young boy, Kai Ting, as he tries to deal with his demanding stepmother and a predominantly African American neighborhood whose criminals and street toughs are intimidating to the young Chinese American boy. To avoid the constant beatings he was taking on the streets, Ting becomes a member of the neighborhood YMCA, where he learns to box and wrestle while developing his muscles with weights. Soon he is able to hold his own in street battles, even becoming somewhat intimidating to others through his husky physique. Lee has stated that his life was significantly improved by the influence from the teachers he met at the YMCA.
Upon returning home, however, he was often caught between two cultures: His mother had always wanted him to grow up in the Chinese culture, whereas his stepmother wanted him to become Americanized. Moreover, his father wanted him to follow his footsteps and pursue a military career. Lee did eventually enroll at West Point Academy.
Lee’s second book, Honor and Duty, tells a fictionalized version of the author’s life at West Point. Kai Ting, Lee’s alter ego, is exposed to demanding physical activity, harassment of incoming students, and the sometimes prejudiced view of his peers toward a Chinese American. Again, just as in his childhood neighborhood, he had to prove himself worthy to those who thought he was inferior. Yet at West Point, though there were physical challenges, he was not faced with the cultural and psychological challenges that had marked life with his family. Once Lee had proved himself the equal of the others at West Point, he felt at home there and a spirit of camaraderie took over.
One of the major subplots in Honor and Duty involves an illicit ring of students who manage to get the answers to an important examination. When Kai Ting finds out about the cheating he feels compelled to adhere to the West Point honor code, which demands that each student be strictly honest and that none may knowingly protect a student who cheats, even if that person is a best friend. He forces himself to report the cheating to the authorities, despite the fact that he has learned that some friends are involved. Some of his other friends never forgive him.
Lee himself encountered other difficulties at West Point when his weakness in math endangered his scholastic standing. Even with the help of tutors he was unable to overcome his problem and consequently had to drop out. Lee’s only failing grade thus prevented him from achieving his father’s goal for him, in addition to taking him from the place where for the first time he had felt at home.
After this failure, Lee spent one year as a drill instructor at Fort Ord. Then, with the help of his friend General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, he entered the University of California at Davis, where he received a degree in political science and history. Soon afterward, Lee began working toward a law degree, while at the same time working with minority students. After attaining his law degree, Lee returned to the Army as a judge advocate general, investigating various problems within the military.
Shortly after his marriage, he decided to leave the military career he had planned so as to be able to devote more time to his family. The years between 1980 and 1989 were difficult ones, for he and his wife, Diane, lost their first child, Jessica, at the age of eleven months. During this time Lee fulfilled a training program for prosecutors, but by the time two more children had been born, Jena and Eric, he lost his job as a result of a restructuring maneuver. It was only then that Gus Lee turned his attention to writing novels, focusing first on his parents and his early struggles growing up with two differing cultures.
Lee moved into more strictly fictional territory with Tiger Tail, a thriller set in 1974, in which the Chinese American protagonist, Jackson Kan, uncovers the plans of a mad army colonel, stationed in South Korea, to provoke nuclear war with North Korea. Although Tiger Tail was not well reviewed, it showed Lee turning to use his legal training as source material for his writing as well as his divided ethnic loyalties. The legalistic side of Lee’s authorial personality also shows in No Physical Evidence, a straight courtroom drama that some reviewers likened to those of Scott Turow.