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Belle Yang painting

Carmel Valley 2004 is one of Belle Yang's works

January 10, 2005

New children’s book by alumna writer/artist Belle Yang tells moving tale of immigrant experience

By Scott Rappaport

A remarkable new book by UCSC alumna Belle Yang taps into the hopes and fears all immigrant children must experience when they try to grab hold of the American dream.

Photo: Belle Yang

Writer/artist Belle Yang has written a children's book based on her own experiences. Photo: Laning Yang

book cover

Drawn from Yang’s own saga of coming to San Francisco from Taiwan at the age of seven, Hannah Is My Name tells the story of a Chinese family’s new life in a brightly illustrated 32-page children’s book published by Candlewick Press.

Told entirely from the child’s point of view, it’s a wonderfully upbeat tale that describes the obstacles faced as the family members adapt to a new way of life and anxiously wait for their green cards to avoid deportation.

Yang herself adapted well to American academia, earning a 4.0 grade-point average in high school and accepting a Regents Scholarship to attend UCSC in the late 1970s. Although she eventually earned a B.A. in biology, her life was changed forever when she spent her junior year abroad studying in Scotland. While traveling through Spain, Yang realized that she had fallen in love with the art, architecture, museums, and galleries of Europe.

“I was always very good at art but thought it would be my hobby and not my life,” said Yang. “As an immigrant, my parents had hoped for me to have a stable career in medicine. But I found my voice because I was really strong in the arts, and not necessarily as a scientist.”

Upon her return to the United States, Yang finished her degree at UCSC and went on to study at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, as well as the Institute of Traditional Chinese Painting in Beijing. She traveled throughout China and was particularly enthralled by Hunan Province and the Gobi Desert. “I think China defined my style,” said Yang, “particularly the folk art which is bright and cheerful. It’s fun and whimsical, whereas traditional Chinese painting is very restrictive because each brushstroke must be perfect from years of studying calligraphy.”

Yang spent three years exploring art in China, but returned to her parents’ home in Carmel Valley after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. “I had seen friends in China who weren’t allowed to write or paint, so when I came back, I made a vow that I’d make use of my freedom,” Yang noted. But following her parents’ advice, she agreed to stay with them for one year in order to decide what to do with her future.

“One night there was a power failure, so my father began telling stories,” Yang recalled. “When the power came back on, I immediately wrote down the story and painted a painting to go with it. I soon asked my father for more stories about his childhood. So I began to write more down and make more paintings.”

Yang would eventually send some of these vignettes with paintings to a friend she had met in Beijing, who happened to be the wife of the ambassador to China. Eventually her work ended up in the hands of Amy Tan, the acclaimed author of The Joy Luck Club. “She wrote me a really nice letter and said she could help me when I was ready to be published,” Yang said. “Two years later, I finished my collection of stories and paintings and sent it to her. She gave it to her agent, and he sent it to Harcourt Brace.”

The result was Yang’s first book, Baba: A Return to China Upon My Father’s Shoulders, published in 1994 and widely reviewed in major newspapers across the country. The Los Angeles Times called the book “captivating…rich in humanity…lavishly illustrated and lovingly narrated… evoking the sights, sounds and motions of a lost childhood.”

Yang followed up with another book in 1996, The Odyssey of a Manchurian, the story of her father’s flight from civil war as a young man in China. And she recently finished the third book of this trilogy that has yet to be published--a story of old China through the eyes of her great-grandfather.

Recalling her days as a student at UCSC, Yang had high praise for a class she took from UCSC professor Dilip Basu titled Modern Chinese History--crediting it as “a life-altering course because it made me realize how deeply rooted I was in Chinese culture.” She also noted that her first book was used in a freshman core course at Porter College and turned into a play by UCSC theater arts professor Kathy Foley. Called The Flight of the Monkey King, the play was performed on campus in 1994.

Over the years, Yang has experienced more than her share of trials--she was seriously stalked for five years by an ex-boyfriend and later suffered from an inexplicable immune disorder that sent her to bed for nearly four years. But today Yang is healthy again, working on new projects and doing publicity for her new children’s book. She recently spoke with representatives from the Los Angeles Unified School District about including the book in their bilingual program.

“My philosophy is that whenever I’m uncomfortable, I say to myself--‘don’t resent it, pay attention, there’s a story here,’” Yang noted. “Negative experiences have always made me pick myself up again and push harder.”

“It’s nice to be older,” Yang added. “I feel happy to be 44 and alive. I only want more time to write and paint.”

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