by Laurence Yep
Laurence Yep’s mother, whose maiden name was Lee, the same as the family in DRAGONWINGS, was born in America to Chinese parents; her family owned a Chinese laundry. His father was born in China and came to San Francisco when he was ten. He (Yep’s father) lived with an Irish friend in a white neighborhood, then opened a grocery in an African-American neighborhood. He was also a maker of beautiful, elaborate Chinese kites. Laurence Michael Yep was named by a jealous older brother, who named him Laurence after a saint who died a particularly horrible death, roasted on a grid. Yep says he was the neighborhood’s “all purpose Asian. When we played war, I was the Japanese who got killed…when the Korean war came along, I was a North Korean Commuist.” He went to a bi-lingual school for Chinese students in Chinatown, where he was called a “dumbell,” because he didn’t speak Chinese. His high school was mostly white, so he was the outsider again. Like a lot of outsiders, he turned to reading and, in high school, to writing. He sold his first story for a penny word when he was eighteen. He has a PhD in English, and has taught writing and Asian American Studies.
Laurence Yep says, about DRAGONWINGS, “I have tried to make some of these dry historical facts become living experiences. At the same time, I have tried to be reasonably faithful to the period…. At the same time, it has been my aim to counter various stereotypes as presented by the media…. I wanted to show that chinese-Americans are human beings upon whom America has had a unique effect. I have tried to do this by seeing America through the eyes of a recently arrived Chinese boy, and by presenting the struggles of his father in following his dream.”
The story begins in 1903 and runs through 1910. Moon Shadow’s father left home before the boy was born to work in America and send money home. Immigration would not allow wives to immigrate, for fear the men would settle in America. Only merchants who owned a thousand dollars worth of property were allowed to bring their wives over, and those women had to be kept locked away, for fear they would be kidnapped by Chinese gangs and sold into prostitution in another city. The Chinese called Americans “demons,” and they called America “the Land of the Golden Mountain.”
All Moon Shadow knows about his father is that he makes wonderful kites.
When Moon Shadow is eight, his father sends for him. A “cousin”–meaning a man with the same last name–escorts him to San Francisco, where he meets his father for the first time. San Francisco is a dangerous place for Chinese people–just like everyplace else in America. The “white demons” claim the Chinese men are taking their jobs; they form mobs and roar through Chinatown, breaking windows, looting, and sometimes killing. Moon Shadow’s grandfather was killed for fighting back when a gang of men tried to cut off his queue. Sometimes they hung men from lamp-posts by their queues. Boys threw rocks and garbage at them.
Their best refuge, even though it was a vulnerable one, was Chinatown, where the buildings looked like the buildings at home and they could group together for security. Within Chinatown, there were district associations, which offered aid to people from a certain district in China–as if we were to go to China and have the address of an Indiana Aid Society, where anyone from Indiana could go for help. There were family clan office, which would help anyone of a certain name. And there were companies.
A company was a business organization; three men own the company business where Moon Shadow’s father (and now Moon Shadow) works. The other members of the company are wage-earners, but they are expected to save up and buy into the partnership.
Every Chinese man may have many names in his life; a family name, a name he’s given at birth, a childhood name, new names to suit new circumstances. Moon Shadow’s father’s name is now Windrider. He explains why he took that name: One night, he dreamed he stood before the Dragon King, who seems to know him and calls him Windrider. The king has been wounded, and has called Windrider to him in a dream to heal him, which he does. Windrider believes absolutely in the truth of this dream, and Moon Shadow believes it, too. He says there is something very dragonish about his father, meaning something proud and fierce, kind but insistant on justice.
Moon Shadow works in the laundry and goes to a school in Chinatown for the children of the Chinese people. He goes out with his father to deliver and collect the washing.
Windrider is fascinated with machinery, and has a way with it. He has built a crystal radio set and an electric light, using bamboo filaments. One day, he reads about the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawke. From that moment, he is determined to fly, as he did when he was a dragon. The only other thing he wants as much as he wants to fly is to bring his wife to join him in America.
Black Dog, a member of the company who has become an opium addict, catches Moon Shadow on his way back to the company with money he has collected from the laundry’s customers. Black Dog robs the boy and beats him unconscious. When Windrider finds out, he goes to fight Black Dog; another man interferes, and Windrider kills him.
Windrider and Moon Shadow leave Chinatown. They get jobs, and rent a room over the stable from a “white demoness” who befriends them. She and her niece help Moon Shadow learn to read English. He writes a letter to the Wrights, telling them that his father reads books about flying and wants to build a flying machine of his own. Orville writes back, sending charts and diagrams, and a correspondence develops between Windrider and Orville Wright.
When the great earthquake and the fires that follow it destroys most of the San Francisco, all the Chinese people are rounded up and marched from one camping ground to another, until most of them slip away to other cities. The ones that are left gather their courage and point out to the city fathers that they own 1/3 of Chinatown outright, and must be allowed to rebuild like everybody else. They can’t be legally refused.
Windrider and Moon Shadow rent a barn on an old estate outside of town. They each get jobs, and Windrider studies books and newspaper articles about flying, studies charts and diagrams, builds models, and at last begins building his flying machine, which he calls Dragonwings. The materials will cost money, and the time spent in building will be time lost in earning, so the dream of flying will delay the dream of reuniting the family. When Windrider finally writes his wife about his dream of the Dragon King and his dream of flying in this life, she writes back, telling him she believes in both dreams and is proud of him.
Finally, Dragonwings is finished. There is enough money left to pay one month’s rent and food; Windrider plans to hire a team of horses to pull Dragonwings to the top of a hill, and charge spectators to watch him fly. Who should show up but Black Dog, the man who robbed Moon Shadow in Chinatown. He holds a knife to Moon Shadow’s throat, and forces Windrider to give him the money they need for rent, food, and hiring the horses. The landlord tells them they’ll have to leave, and the dream seems over. But Mrs. Whitlaw, the “white demoness” who befriended them in San Francisco, is friends with their new landlord and has been keeping tabs on them. She finds out about their trouble and tells their old company. The company pays the rent and shows up at the barn, ready to see Dragonwings fly. They only have one horse, so they hitch him to the plane, and join him in harness.
They get Dragonwings to the top of the hill. Windrider climbs aboard, and it flies. He makes a couple of circles, as high as twenty feet above the ground. When he comes in to land, though, a bolt snaps, and a propeller flies off. Dragonwings crashes. Windrider breaks a leg and a couple of ribs, and the plane is wrecked.
The company offers him a full partnership, which he will repay at no interest. With a partnership, the demons will allow him to bring his wife over, and his final dream will come true.