By Cherylene Lee (San Francisco, Longevity Press, 2015)
This is a surprising and solidly-written memoir by playwright, poet and short story writer Cherylene Lee, focused on the bedrock of Chinese-American culture – family. What makes this an “uncommon” Chinese-American memoir is Ms. Lee’s very uncommon childhood career as a performer on early television shows from the 1950s and 1960s, including Playhouse 90, The Dinah Short Show and The Gene Kelly Spectacular, the last one a variety show in which the five-year-old prodigy danced with one of America’s most beloved hoofers. She went on to play roles in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s production of The King and I, on TV series such as Bachelor Father, McHale’s Navy and Dennis the Menace, and in the films Flower Drum Song and the John Ford-directed Donovan’s Reef. She also was in the national touring cast of A Chorus Line for nearly a year.
All of these joyous and entertaining experiences are bookended between more sobering fare: the 52-year-old Lee being diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer, and the passing of her indominatable mother, Holly Rose Lee, at the age of 97. This is the stuff of real life, told in clear, straightforward prose that showcases the astonishing resilience and resourcefulness of a family forged by fire. And like any good story, this one is populated by a cast of finely rendered characters, one of whom is Bessie Loo, “the first female and first Asian agent" in Los Angeles.
“Thin, elegant, and determined … Bessie Loo drove a Thunderbird, wore white leather driving gloves, and was always immaculately dressed,” Lee writes. She was responsible for booking Cherylene’s older sister Virginia on the Mickey Mouse Club as an Honorary Mousketeer (a Chinese-American could never be a Regular on the all-white 50’s Disney show), and remained a loyal ally of the “Lee Sisters” for years to come.
But most prominent in Ms. Lee’s life, and in this story, is her mother Holly Rose Lee. “Before her father’s death, my mother had been known for her bobbed-hair beauty, her 18-inch waist, her distinctive trilling laughter, and her popularity with boys. After her death, she was known for her willingness to do grueling domestic labor, her ability to cook immense amounts of food for the family, her ingenuity in finding bargains, and, of course, her popularity with boys.” As a mother of two childhood stars, she also subscribed to Variety and the Hollywood Reporter to keep up on the gossip and news about TV shows and movies that might provide opportunities for her talented daughters.
On the surface a book about a young woman learning to deal with having been known as the “Chinese Shirley Temple,” at its core Just Like Really is a powerfully moving mother-daughter story (the title comes from a phrase used by her irrepressibly optimistic mother to express affirmation and approval of her children). Lee moves masterfully between childhood adventures on various sets of Hollywood sound studios and lavish Las Vegas stages, and two late-life cruises with her aging and increasingly forgetful mother. Now an accomplished playwright, Lee’s cruise ship dialogues convey the angst of a daughter simultaneously battling cancer and caring for the woman who unflaggingly supported her through a gauntlet of life’s challenges. Against the backdrop of shopping trips in Dubai and other ports of call and her mother’s passion for onboard gambling, these dialogues reveal the sustaining strength of familial love when it’s given – and taken – in style.
The final dialogue between daughter and mother takes place in the cardiac room at Glendale Memorial Hospital, where Holly Rose is facing life’s final curtain call. At 97 prone to delusions, Lee’s elderly mom thinks she and her cancer-fighting daughter are on another ocean cruise together. Her loving, creative daughter does nothing to disabuse her of this.
“I like that this room is so bright,” her mother comments about the window of her hospital room. “I can see the sky. But I can’t see the ocean. Do we get to gamble tonight?”
“You gamble every night, Mom. It’s always a crap shoot here.”
“Maybe we should see the show first. I like shows.”
“You always liked shows. You’re a very good audience. The best there is.”
“Are you going to gamble with me?”
“For as long as I can, Mom. For as long as I can.”
Unlike some Hollywood child stars, this one clearly grew up.