Ruthanne Lum McCunn, author

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The Moon Pearl
Wooden Fish Songs
Thousand Pieces of Gold
Chinese American Portraits
Talks by Ruthanne
Order Info. for Author Appearances

Biography of Ruthanne Lum McCunn

Ruthanne Lum McCunn is a writer of Chinese and Scottish descent whose award-winning work has been translated into eleven languages, published in twenty-two countries, and adapted for the stage and film.

Her first novel, THOUSAND PIECES OF GOLD, broke new ground in 1981 with the true story of a Chinese American pioneer's experiences as a slave and free woman in the Pacific Northwest. Acclaimed as a "stunning biography" by the Los Angeles Times, the novel was twice a Quality Paperback Book Club Alternate, made into a film, and selected by Washington State Library for Washington Reads.

All Ruthanne's subsequent books have likewise won acclaim. About her most recent novel, GOD OF LUCK, Phyllis T. Smith wrote in the November 2007 Historical Novels Review: "McCunn creates a world distant from us in both space and time, which seems absolutely authentic, and characters who are heartbreakingly real in their universal humanity." Alan Cheuse said on NPR's All Things Considered, "Its documented horrors, the devotion of a desperate wife, and the abiding hope of her distant husband held me captive from the start."

Now Ruthanne is again breaking new ground with CHINESE YANKEE, the true story of Thomas Sylvanus, born Ah Yee Way. Brought to America for schooling but enslaved in Baltimore, Thomas-only sixteen at the outbreak of war-ran to freedom in Philadelphia and enlisted in the Union Army. Although blinded in the war's first major campaign, he stayed in the fight. Moreover, when all the color guard had fallen in the bloodbath of Spotsylvania, he seized the regiment's colors, kept them flying. Captured in the final year of the war, he survived nine months imprisonment in Andersonville.

"I felt an immediate kinship with Thomas because we both come from Hong Kong," Ruthanne says. "I was also excited that despite the thousands of Civil War books, his life would give readers a completely new story, one that would be a page-turner."

Ruthanne's taught at Cornell University, the University of California at Santa Cruz, and the University of San Francisco. A co-founder of the Chinese Historical Society of America's annual journal, she served on its editorial committee for over twenty years. Ruthanne lives in San Francisco with her husband, Don, and two cats.

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The Moon Pearl

"The Moon Pearl is a stunning and inspiring tale of the courage, ingenuity and determination of girls to find joy in their harsh lives. Set in the nineteenth century and based on real life stories and interviews with silk workers and 'spinster' women of rural China, Ruthanne Lum McCunn's newest work is breathtaking in its historical mastery, spell-binding as she captures the triumph of the human spirit. The heartwarming stories of these girls made me laugh, cry and rejoice."

Helen Zia, author of Asian American Dreams
and contributing editor to Ms. Magazine

U.S. Publisher:
Beacon Press, Hardcover, September 2000
5-1/2" x 8-1/4", 336 pages, 0-8070-8348-8, $24.00

Author's Statement for
The Moon Pearl

During the nineteenth century, the Sun Duk district in southern China's Pearl River Delta was renowned for the quality of its silk and the independence of its women. Because silkworms demand round-the-clock care, the labor of every family member--including children as young as five--was needed, and the custom of footbinding was not practiced here. Furthermore, unmarried daughters were permitted to keep their earnings from reeling silk, and with economic independence possible, girls could--and did--resist marriage.

Where families hired married women with many children to recomb a bride's childish plaits into a matronly bun to signify her transition from girl to woman, daughter to wife (and hopefully mother of many children), marriage resisters combed up their own hair to signify their commitment to lives of self-reliance. The marriage resisters also made vows of lifelong spinsterhood. Since these vows did not preclude sexual intimacy with other women, some independent spinsters lived as couples. More often, they lived communally in spinster houses. In either case, it was not uncommon for them to take in unwanted girls and raise them as daughters.

The first record of self-combing was in 1837, and the practice flourished in Sun Duk for 100 years. Although it spread to the neighboring districts of Poon Yu and Nam Hoi, it wasn't ever as prevalent. Similarly, when the silk industry went into decline in the early part of the twentieth century and independent spinsters in Sun Duk left to work in Singapore and Hong Kong, girls in these cities emulated them, but their numbers never became significant.

As a girl in Hong Kong in the 1940s and 50s, I was familiar with independent spinsters who were laboring as servants, and I was deeply impressed by their courage in resisting long accepted norms, their ability to lead lives in which they governed themselves. Their example allowed me to believe that I could too and gave me the strength to leave Hong Kong for America in 1962 at the age of 16.

From books, newspapers, movies, and Americans living in or passing through Hong Kong, I had some idea--albeit much of it false--about the future I might make for myself in the United States. Even so, it seemed as elusive and impossible to grasp as the moon pearl. But for girls in early nineteenth century Sun Duk, a life of independent spinsterhood would have been completely unknown, and in the 1990s, I began to wonder how the first independent spinsters were able to conceive lives of self-rule. I also wondered how they were able to win acceptance, admiration, and respect in Sun Duk in the 1830s when spinsters, same-sex couples, and single women who wish to adopt children continue to be marginalized in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

By the 1990s, however, the independent spinsters of my childhood had either died or retired to spinster houses, vegetarian halls, and old people's homes in China. Fortunately, interviewers from the Hong Kong Museum of History and the National Archives of Singapore as well as a handful of academics had preceded me in seeking the answers to some of these questions. Moreover, I was able to interview four elderly selfcombers in Shiqiao, who spoke frankly of their own experiences and those of their sisters and friends.

From this research, I realized that what made life possible for the independent spinsters was their recognition that independence and community were not exclusive states. And, looking back on my thirty plus years in America, I could see this was true of my own life. My understanding was greatly deepened, however, by a near fatal car accident in 1995: for many months, I was bedridden then wheelchair dependent; yet my community of family and friends made it possible for me to continue living and working much as I had before my accident.

All the independent spinsters interviewed--whether by others or myself--had the example of those who preceded them. Of necessity, then, THE MOON PEARL--which tells the story of the first girls to comb up their own hair and make vows of spinsterhood--is a work of my imagination. The ceremonies, cultural beliefs, and practices depicted are those of nineteenth century Sun Duk though. And even today the pursuit of the moon pearl continues the world over.

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Wooden Fish Songs

"Historical fiction with a flourish. The story of Lue Gim Gong, a 19th century Chinese immigrant-cum-horticultural innovator, comes alive through multiple narrators: mother Sum Jui, white spinster Fanny, and African American cook Sheba. The novel succeeds at placing Asian immigrant experiences within a framework of race, class, and gender issues."

A. Magazine

U.S. Publisher:
Beacon Press, Bluestreak Paperback, 2000
5-3/8" x 8", 384 pages, 0-8070-6229-4, $14.00

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Thousand Pieces of Gold

"THOUSAND PIECES OF GOLD, by Ruthanne Lum McCunn, is the true story of a Chinese-American pioneer woman who overcomes poverty, footbinding, and slavery to build a life of relative freedom in the American Northwest. From Shanghai to San Francisco, Lalu Nathoy's courageous journey is an important contribution to the history of Asian pioneer women on the American frontier."

Ms. Magazine

U.S. Publisher:
Beacon Press, Bluestreak Paperback, 1988
5-3/8" x 8", 312 pages, 0-8070-8317-8, $13.00

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Sole Survivor

"This is a fictionalized account of the true story of Poon Lim, a second steward and the only survivor of the British ship Benlomond, which was torpedoed on November 23, 1942 off the coast of South America. McCunn beautifully recounts Lim's 133 days of survival on a wooden raft--the longest recorded survival story in modern history.... Fictional or not, this book should become a classic in sea survival. Highly recommended."

Library Journal

U.S. Publisher:
Beacon Press, Trade Paperback, 1999
5-3/8" x 8", 240 pages, 0-8070-7139-0, $12.00

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Chinese American Portraits

"A fine collection of 150 historic photos interspersed with 17 biographical essays on individual Chinese Americans and their families. The text is divided into Pioneers, Generations, and Contemporaries. excellent social history. The range of the photos and the text is broad. For all libraries."


U.S. Publisher:
University of Washington Press, Trade Paperback, 1996
8-1/2" x 11", 176 pages, 0-295-97552-0, $18.95

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Pie Biter

"PIE-BITER was the nickname given to a young Chinese immigrant whose love for pies became legendary when he worked as a laborer building railroads. This is the true story of Hoi, who grew from a skinny adolescent into a strong young man, successful in his own business. This tale is written in the folk tradition of John Henry, Paul Bunyan, and Pecos Bill and is complemented by wonderful color illustrations."

The Bloomsbury Review

U.S. Publisher:
Shen's Books, Hardcover, 1998
Trilingual: English, Chinese, and Spanish
11-1/4" x 9-1/4", 32 pages, 1-885008-07-4, $15.95

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Talks by Ruthanne Lum McCunn

A former grade school librarian and teacher, Ruthanne Lum McCunn has taught at Cornell University, the University of California at Santa Cruz, and the University of San Francisco. Although she is now a full time writer, she frequently lectures at schools, universities, libraries, and community organizations.

A Slide Presentation

In this vivid illustration of the diversity within Chinese America, Ruthanne Lum McCunn tells the stories of Yung Wing, who graduated from Yale in 1854; Alaska frontiers woman Mary Bong; Pacific Northwest packer Pie-Biter; Mary Tape, who fought for her daughter's right to a public education in San Francisco; Arlee Hen, one of Mississippi's many Black Chinese; Florida's plant wizard Lue Gim Gong; Louisiana's sheriff Harry Lee; Brooklyn's Poon Lim, who holds the Guinness World Record for survival at sea; and many other fascinating individuals. The images come from family albums and research collections, and the stories capture the detail and texture of the Chinese American experience past and present.

Using Letters to Reclaim Lives

Ruthanne Lum McCunn illustrates with slides the role of letters in researching her books--both fiction and nonfiction--on the experiences of Chinese in America.

A Mixed Race Reading of Chinese in America

Ruthanne Lum McCunn reveals how being a woman of mixed race and American born but raised in Hong Kong has impacted her work--from her choices for research to publication and beyond.

Challenges and Responsibilities

Ruthanne Lum McCunn discusses the combination of organized curiosity and exciting detective work required to research the experiences of Chinese/Americans in the 19th century. In particular, she explores the researcher's responsibility when more than 100 years have passed, crucial documentation has been destroyed, and she is challenged with conflicting eye-witness testimony, hard evidence, and opinions that are completely divergent.

Case Studies

With her own novels as case studies, Ruthanne Lum McCunn examines her use of oral history and written documentation in researching the lives of Chinese on both sides of the Pacific and the choices she makes in weaving together fact and fiction and exploring race, class, and gender.


With her own books as examples, Ms. McCunn debates the perils and rewards of using historical fiction to convey the experiences of Chinese in America.

Ten who Served

That Chinese participated in the Civil War is not widely known. Ruthanne Lum McCunn tells the stories of ten combatants--Union and Confederate--whole lives she has reconstructed through painstaking primary research.


Ruthanne Lum McCunn shares the incidents in her childhood that made her decide on a career as a writer and how she goes about her work--from getting the initial idea for a story to the book's publication.

The Chinese Ingredient

Ruthanne Lum McCunn began researching and writing about the Chinese in America while creating curriculum for her students in the San Francisco public schools. In 1979, she turned her curriculum materials into her first book, reclaiming history and rewriting the American experience. In American Hotpot: The Chinese Ingredient, McCunn discusses her motivation for reclaiming the lives of Chinese pioneers and their significance for us today.

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Special Sales for Author Appearances

The Moon Pearl, Sole Survivor, Thousand Pieces of Gold
Beacon Press policy:
40% discount for ten plus copies - returnable
Purchaser pays all freight
Contact Person:
Kathy Daneman
Beacon Press
25 Beacon Street, Boston, MA 02108
Phone: (617) 948-6584
Fax: (617) 723-3097

Chinese American Portraits: Personal Histories 1828-1988
University of Washington Press policy:
40% discount for ten plus copies - returnable
Purchaser pays all freight
Contact Person:
Marcy Pirsch
University of Washington Press
P.O. Box 50096
Phone: (206) 543-4050
Fax: (206) 543-3932

Pie-Biter (A Trilingual English/Chinese/Spanish Edition)
Shen's Books policy:
40% discount for ten plus copies
50% discount for twenty-five plus copies
Purchaser pays all freight
Nonreturnable except by special arrangement with
Maywan Shen Krach
Contact Person:
Author Appearance Sales
Shen's Books
40951 Fremont Blvd., Fremont, CA 94538
Phone: (800) 456-6660

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Vita of Ruthanne Lum McCunn

1007 Castro Street, San Francisco, CA 94114
Phone: (415) 282-8813


Best Fiction, J. F. McDonnell Award, 1997, Wooden Fish Songs, Women's Heritage Museum
Distinguished Achievement Award, 1991, National Women's Political Caucus
Outstanding Academic Book, 1990, Chinese American Portraits, Choice
Best Book, 1985, Nonfiction Adventure, Sole Survivor, SW Booksellers Assoc.
American Book Award, 1984, Pie-Biter, Before Columbus Foundation

Writer: 1979 to present
Lecturer: Graduate Writing Program, University of San Francisco. Summer 1993, Spring 1996
Asian American Literature, Cornell University, Spring 1989
Creative Writing, University of California, Santa Cruz, Spring 1988
Guest Artist: Artist-In-Residence, Basement Workshop, NYC, 1984
Teacher: High School English
Junior High School English as a Second Language
Gifted English and Chinese Bilingual/Bicultural
S. F. School District, 1974-78
Harding Elementary School, Santa Barbara, CA, 1970-73
Librarian: Harding Elementary School, Santa Barbara, CA, 1969-70

Books: The Moon Pearl. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000
Wooden Fish Songs. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000
Sole Survivor. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999
Pie-Biter. Arcadia: Shen's Books, 1998.
Chinese American Portraits: Personal Histories 1828-1988. Seattle: Univ. of Wash. Press, 1996
Chinese Proverbs. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1991
Thousand Pieces of Gold. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989
An Illustrated History of the Chinese in America. San Francisco: Design Enterprises, 1979
Articles: "Reclaiming Chinese America: One Woman's Journey," Amerasia Journal, Spring 2000
"Chinese in the Civil War: Ten Who Served," Chinese America: History and Perspectives, 1996
"What Makes a Library," The Main Story, 1995
"Lue Gim Gong: A Life Reclaimed," Chinese America: History and Perspectives, 1989
"Chinese Americans: A Personal View," School Library Journal, 1988
"Chinese American Literature: An Overview," Yihai, 1985


The above books have been translated into one or more of the following languages:
Chinese, Danish, French, Finnish, German, Greek, Mongolian, Norwegian, and Portuguese.
The above books have been adopted as texts in courses on
Women's Studies, U.S. History, Literature, Ethnic Studies, Asian American Studies.


Publications Committee, Chinese Historical Society, 1985-current
Essay Contest Committee, Chinese for Affirmative Action, 1997
San Francisco Council of Neighborhood Libraries, 1993-1994
Fiction Contest Committee, San Francisco Bay Guardian, 1991
Essay Contest Committee, California Assn. of Bilingual Education, 1991
Advisory Committee, Zellerbach Fund, Voices of Liberty Project, 1988-1990
Panel of the California Arts Council, 1990, 1991
Board of Directors, Chinese Historical Society of America, 1987-88
Committee of Management, Chinatown/North Beach YWCA, 1982-87
Advisory Board, Asian American Women's Anthology, Asian Women United, 1984-86
Advisory Board, Chinese Women of America Exhibit, Chinese Culture Center., 1980-82
Panel, Legal Compliance Committee, California State Board of Education, 1980
Panel of the California State Library Services Board, 1979
California State Committee for Evaluation of Textbooks for State Adoption, 1977-79
Notable Asian Americans
The World Who's Who of Women
International Authors and Writers Who's Who
U.S. Writers, Editors and Poets
Contemporary Authors
Education: B.A., University of Texas, 1968
Elementary and Secondary Life Teaching Credentials, 1969, 1974
Languages: Cantonese and English

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Articles About the Author
Breitmeyer, Melinda. "Panning for a Thousand Pieces of Gold."
East/West. March 7, 1984.
Chin, Kathryn. "If you are Honest to History...."
International Examiner, March 5, 1986.
Fehr, Catherine. "Biography Shortens 'China Doll' Image."
Sacramento Union. November 22, 1981.
Fowler, Carol. "Amerasian Credited with Three Books."
Contra Costa Times. September 25, 1983.
Gok, Forrest. "Ruthanne Lum McCunn: a Commitment to Historical Truth."
East Wind. Spring/Summer 1986.
Hamilton, Mildred. "Revealing Rich History of Chinese-Americans."
San Francisco Examiner. December 8, 1985.
Hong, Terry. "Ruthanne Lum McCunn: Writer, Teacher."
Notable Asian Americans. Gale Research, 1995.
Keller, Nora Cobb. "McCunn Won't be Boxed in by Definitions."
Honolulu Star Bulletin. July 26, 1993.
Minor, Denise. "Author Ruthanne Lum McCunn Recovering from Accident."
Noe Valley Voice. October 1995.
Parkinson, Nicola. "Ruthanne: Eurasian and Proud of it."
South China Morning Post, Hong Kong. March 4, 1983.
Ronch, Ronn. "With a Writer's Multiple Viewpoint."
Honolulu Advertiser. July 21, 1983.
Raskin, Jonah. "McCunn Gives Voices to the Unheard."
Santa Rosa Press Democrat. June 4, 1995.
Seto, Mary. "An Interview with Author Ruthanne Lum McCunn."
Sampan, Boston. January 1982.
Stein, Ruthe. "Inside Look at Growing Up As an Outsider."
San Francisco Chronicle. September 21, 1983.
Stix, Harriet. "Author Leads, Writes about a Double Life."
Los Angeles Times. September 25, 1983.
(Unknown.) "Amerasian Author Draws on Both Cultures in Producing Her Books."
East/West. March 7, 1984.
(Unknown.) "Hoi may Become Pure Americana."
Associated Press. November, 1984.
(Unknown.) "How Lalu Became Polly--and Helped Build America."
South China Morning Post, hong Kong December 3, 1981.
Villamor, Erlinda. "Story about Chinese Seaman's Survival is Metaphor for Life."
Ashbury Park Press. November 3, 1985.
Wright, Becky. "Remembering Gold in a Chinese-American Heritage."
Santa Cruz City on a Hill. March 3, 1983.
Articles About Thousand Pieces of Gold the Movie
Chu, Janet H. "Film and Multiculturalism: Erasing Race in Nancy Kelly's 'Thousand Pieces of Gold.' "
Changing Representations of Minorities East and West.
Edited by Larry E. Smith and John Rieder,
College of Languages, Linguistics and Literature.
Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii, 1996.
Donnelly, Kathleen. "A Heroine in 1800s Idaho: An Indomitable Spirit Inspires
Book and Movie."
San Jose Mercury News. July 7, 1991
Hesford, Walter. "Thousand Pieces of Gold:Competing Fictions in the
Representations of Chinese-American Experience."
Western American Literature. Vol. XXXI, No. 1, Spring 1996.
Articles About WOODEN FISH SONGS: A Concert Reading
Clarey, Kathey. "It was Tough Work, But Author Finally Made the Cut."
The Fresno Bee. January 31, 1997.
Eng, Christina. " 'Fish Songs" Goes from the Page to the Stage.."
The Oakland Tribune. February 10, 1997.
(Unknown.) "An Immigrant's Story: Author McCunn Brings her Fiction to the Stage."
The Santa Cruz Sentinel. May 9, 1997.
(Unknown.) "Don't Even Utter 'Break a Leg!' to Wooden Fish Song Author."
The Hanford Sentinel. February 6, 1997.

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