Doc­tor-nov­el­ist ex­plores WWII, wins literary prize

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By AMY HE in New York


An­drew Lam didn’t take the typ­i­cal route to be­com­ing a nov­el­ist.

He stud­ied mil­i­tary history and US-East Asian re­la­tions as an un­der­grad­u­ate at Yale Univer­sity, and was “avidly pas­sion­ate” about learn­ing about World War II in great de­tail. He can re­cite in­for­ma­tion about the Dixie Mis­sion, D- Day and the Bat­tles of Mid­way and Guadalcanal with great de­tail.

But the 38-year-old Lam, who grew up in cen­tral Illi­nois, also had a dad who was a car­di­ol­o­gist, and grow­ing up, he saw how much his dad loved and found his work ful­fill­ing.

“It wouldn’t be un­com­mon for strangers, these el­derly peo­ple, to stop us at the mall or on the street and thank my dad for sav­ing their lives or the lives of their loved ones,” he said.

“Those were re­ally in­deli­ble im­pres­sions on me as a kid. I ba­si­cally said to my­self — and it’s a cliché — I love help­ing peo­ple, I love in­ter­act­ing with peo­ple. So I de­cided to go to med­i­cal school.”

Lam went to med­i­cal school at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia. He wanted to be a sur­geon and he loved learn­ing about the eye, he said, so he got train­ing in oph­thal­mol­ogy and reti­nal surgery at the Wills Eye Hos­pi­tal, where he also served as chief res­i­dent.

Still he re­mained fas­ci­nated with World War II history and re­search­ing the thou­sands of Amer­i­can sol­diers who served in China. And so his novel

was born. Set in the 1940s, the book is about the friend­ship be­tween an Amer­i­can lieu­tenant and a Chi­nese guerilla leader. The Amer­i­can, David Parker, learns about the Dixie Mis­sion — a group of Amer­i­can sol­diers who go to Ye­nan to help Mao’s army and one of the first US ef­forts to es­tab­lish re­la­tions with the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party — and joins it. There, Parker meets an of­fi­cer, Lin Yuen, who is at first an­noyed by the pres­ence of an Amer­i­can soldier, but the time the two men spend fight­ing shoul­der-toshoul­der help them forge a strong, how­ever un­likely, friend­ship.

The sto­ry­line is based on re­search Lam had done in col­lege when he got to bet­ter un­der­stand Amer­i­cans’ in­volve­ment with the Chi­nese guerilla fight­ers fight­ing against the Na­tion­al­ist Party and the Ja­panese at the time.

“The Amer­i­cans started hear­ing about these ef­fec­tive guerilla fight­ers who were of course fight­ing Ja­pan in north­ern China, and they said, ‘ Hey, the en­emy of our en­emy is our friend. We need to get these guys out, and maybe even start sup­ply­ing them with weapons, be­cause the Na­tion­al­ists are hoard­ing our sup­plies and selling our stuff on the black mar­ket. Our al­lies are not re­ally do­ing any­thing to help the war ef­fort,’ in their opin­ion,” Lam ex­plained.

Many of the Amer­i­can sol­diers who went to China were spe­cial for­eign ser­vice of­fi­cers who knew Man­darin and Chi­nese cus­toms be­cause they were sons of mis­sion­ar­ies who had lived in China. The US GIs were “re­ally im­pressed” by the Com­mu­nist sol­diers’ loy­alty and mo­ti­va­tion.

But those Amer­i­cans would even­tu­ally be pun­ished for ad­mir­ing the Chi­nese: they wrote fa­vor­able re­ports about the Com­mu­nists but “this was not what a lot of peo­ple in the State Depart­ment wanted to hear”, Lam said.

These re­ports would go on to haunt the Amer­i­can sol­diers and dur­ing the McCarthy era many of the men who had served would have their ca­reers ru­ined be­cause they were ac­cused of be­ing Com­mu­nist sym­pa­thiz­ers.

“They were re­port­ing hon­estly on what they saw and they’re kind of un­sung Amer­i­can he­roes. These men — like John Pa­ton Davies and John Ser­vice — served with honor, but were per­se­cuted,” Lam said. “And it was too bad.”

Lam’s novel re­cently won the Best Book Award for fic­tion from the Chi­nese Amer­i­can Li­brar­i­ans As­so­ci­a­tion, an af­fil­i­ate of the Amer­i­can Li­brary As­so­ci­a­tion. The as­so­ci­a­tion fo­cuses on books that are re­lated to China or writ­ten by Chi­nese and Chi­nese-Amer­i­can au­thors.

also won the 2015 In­de­pen­dent Pub­lish­ers Book Award for mil­i­tary fic­tion. Lam said he is in the process of ne­go­ti­at­ing film rights.

“It’s al­ways a thrill for me be­cause my whole point as an au­thor is to try to con­vey parts of history that de­serve to be more well known but aren’t nec­es­sar­ily that well known,” he said. “The part of the war in China re­ally isn’t that well known, com­pared to the other parts in Europe or the Pa­cific. Ev­ery­one knows about D-Day or Mid­way, but lit­tle do peo­ple know that tens and thou­sands of Amer­i­cans served in China.

“I feel like it’s part of the For­got­ten Theater. So it was re­ally great to get this recog­ni­tion be­cause I know that a lot of peo­ple who may not know a lot about this history or this as­pect of the war will get to know more of it from the book,” he said.

Lam lives in Mas­sachusetts with his fam­ily and works as a retina sur­geon at a pri­vate prac­tice called the New Eng­land Retina Con­sul­tants. He is also an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Tufts Univer­sity.

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