Ying Chang Compestine revisits the Cultural Revolution

Regan McMahon, Chronicle Deputy Book Editor

San Francisco Chronicle, Thursday, October 4, 2007

Growing up in Wuhan in central China during the Cultural Revolution, Ying Chang would look longingly at the gold-framed picture of the Golden Gate Bridge on the living room mantle.

It was a gift her father, a surgeon, had received from a visiting San Francisco doctor who had taught him in medical school. Not only a precious family treasure - tucked behind a photo of Mao Zedong to conceal it during raids of their apartment by the Red Guard - it was also a symbol of freedom and beacon of hope, a place her father promised to take her.

"I always had this dream, San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, always in my mind like heaven," says Ying Chang Compestine, 43, now married to an American software engineer she met at the tail end of graduate school at the University of Colorado, where she'd gone on scholarship when she left China 20 years ago. She saw the bridge for the first time when she came to San Francisco to do research for her master's thesis in sociology. Her father finally saw it just before he died in 1997, a year after her mother passed away.

"Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party," Compestine's fictionalized memoir of growing up during the Cultural Revolution, which is being cross-marketed as a young adult novel and adult fiction, opens with the bridge-picture story. "If my father could see me, he would be so happy and proud. This was his dream. This is really the book from my heart to remember him."

She reflects on her journey over tea and Chinese pastries in the kitchen of her modest ranch-style house with a white picket fence on a quiet street in Lafayette. She, her husband and bilingual son, Vinson, now 13, settled in the quiet East Bay town after relocating from Boulder, Colo., three years ago. She says she worked on "Revolution" for seven years, but it didn't come together until she moved here.

"I think it's symbolic that I wasn't able to finish this story till I was next to the Golden Gate Bridge."

Compestine's writing career began two months after her son was born, when she was still a junior college sociology professor but missed China, so she wrote a cookbook: "Secrets of Fat-Free Chinese Cooking" (1997). The title of her novel, taken from Mao's famous statement about how building the new China requires hard work and sacrifice, is ironic given her prominence as an ambassador of Chinese cuisine.

She has published three Asian cookbooks and was the food editor for Martha Stewart's Body + Soul magazine. She is the spokesperson for Celestial Seasonings tea and Nestlé Maggi Taste of Asia product line. A frequent TV guest, she taped her own 20-episode cooking show this year, in Chinese, for Phoenix InfoNews, known as the Chinese CNN. She also lectures on healthy Asian living, cooking and culture on cruises, a career stream taking her to Rome for the first time next year.

Compestine is a force of nature, brimming with creative energy, yet relaxed and refreshingly down to earth. She climbs up on a stool to get a visitor ripe figs from her laden tree, insisting, "They're so sweet. You must try them."

Spontaneous and bright-eyed, she seems to have a wellspring of inner joy that bubbles up into an infectious laugh. She ticks off her accomplishments, popping up to pull down her many books from the shelf or call up her Web site ( www.yingc.com) and click on a video of her cooking show or an item about her winning a badminton championship three years ago in Colorado. "I beat all the 20-year-olds!" She lays out her feats unabashedly yet without arrogance, as one might present tasty dishes one had made for a banquet.

In addition to cookbooks, Compestine has written eight children's picture books on Chinese-flavored subjects such as noodles, chopsticks and kites. She wrote her first one, "The Runaway Rice Cake" (2001), after her parents had passed away. "It was Chinese New Year's time, and I really missed China," she recalls. "I thought I would give anything I have if I could just have one more meal with them. So I sat down and wrote this Chinese story to remember them."

Her latest, "The Real Story of Stone Soup," came out this year. She just sold another, "The Singing Wok," and is finishing a new cookbook this month.

"All my life, I've loved food, because I never got enough," says Compestine. "For so long, everything was rationed." She learned to cook from her grandmother by following her around the kitchen "because I wanted to get to the food before my two elder brothers."

She says "Revolution" "in many ways is autobiography," the main difference being that she has two brothers, while protagonist-narrator Ling is an only child.

The story begins in 1972, when she is about to turn 9, with cozy scenes of Ling's father teaching her English and ballroom dancing. (Compestine met her future husband by asking him to dance when she saw him swing dancing. "It's hard to find a person who knows ballroom dance, but I was very happy at least he knows swing dance. So we do a lot of that.")

The book follows Ling through three years of oppression, starvation and depravation, in which friends and neighbors are publicly denounced as enemies of the state. Her father is forced to work as a janitor at the hospital and then imprisoned. (Compestine's father was jailed for two years.)

Ling is called a bourgeois pig at school because her parents are doctors. Her mother practices traditional Chinese medicine and is a stern taskmaster, just like Compestine's. The author says after she became a mother in the States and read a history of the Cultural Revolution, "I thought, I would probably be just as crabby as she was if my husband had been taken away and I had to worry about where I'm going to get money to feed my children."

This is gritty reading for kids (recommended age is 10 and up), yet the book has earned rave reviews. It is riveting for adults as well. In her spare, lyrical style, Compestine vividly portrays a world turned upside down and viscerally conveys how it felt to a child caught up in it, knowing nothing of politics, only that suddenly she went from being well fed to hungry, from having friends to being despised by classmates and loved ones who embraced Mao's teachings.

A key character in the book, Niu, is the son of neighbor Dr. Wong, who is sent to a labor camp. After his mother is hauled away for crimes such as having an "anti-revolutionary" electric fan, Niu moves in with Ling's family, then is taken away, "re-educated" and returns to denounce Ling's father and have him arrested.

"My own brother did that," says Compestine, who is nine years younger. "For years, my father was very hurt and I was very angry. I kept thinking, 'How could you do that to my parents?' I never bought into the system. I never believed in it. I always, even as a little girl, had a lot of questions."

Compestine tries to get back to China every couple of years. On her last visit, she had a long talk with her brother and forgave him when he described how he and his brother had suffered. Because of who their father was, they never got to go to high school or college, "so all their lives they were just average factory workers. Neither achieved what they could have achieved."

Her publisher, Henry Holt, just sold foreign rights to "Revolution" in the United Kingdom and Australia. Compestine hopes one day it could be published in China. But perhaps it's still too soon.

To get a signed copy to Dr. Chang, the 85-year-old doctor on whom the Dr. Wong character is based, she wrapped it in dresses for her niece and had friends bring it in their luggage.

"I didn't want to go through the mail," she says. "I wanted to be a little careful. I don't know what would have happened."

Ying Chang Compestine: 5 p.m. today. Orinda Books, 276 Village Square, Orinda. (925) 254-7606. 3:30 p.m. Saturday. Capitola Book Cafe, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. (831) 462-4415. 7 p.m. Nov. 2. Books Inc. Opera Plaza, 601 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. (415) 776-1111.

E-mail Regan McMahon at rmcmahon@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle