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[287] In the Shadow of the Cypress – Thomas Steinbeck

“The difference is that the Chinese were bright enough to assimilate themselves into other cultures without demanding that those around them adapt to Chinese standards and practices. You stay alive a whole lot longer that way. It’s a Chinese principle to contribute to, and not denigrate, potential markets.” [Part 3, 171]

Reminiscent of life described in Cannery Row, In the Shadow of the Cypress veers off to the direction that gives some essence of a literary mystery and thriller. The novel is told from three points of view that span over a century: that of Dr. Charles Gilbert, a professor at Stanford in 1906, that of Dr. Lao-Hong, a Harvard-educated man who takes an active role in the Chinese community, and that of Charles Lucas, a graduate student at Stanford in the present. At the center of the book to which these narratives converge is a mystery of unique Chinese artifacts—an ancient jade seal and a plaque inscribed in a trio of languages lost to all but scholars of antiquity.

The obvious motive aimed at driving the Chinese from China Point so that property values adjacent to that location would find parity with the rest of Pacific Grove. [Part 1, 56]

Dr Gilbert’s journal entries reveal confirm existence of such artifacts which were presented to him. Chance has placed control of those treasures in the hand of outsiders, as an Irishman who worked for him first discovered the milky-pink jade under a cypress by accident. Given the adverse time for the Chinese, who are marginalized and slighted, the Chinese are not ready to share the secret before it could be proved that they must have come to California prior to the Europeans. Dr. Gilbert infers that some dangerous impasse must have taken place between the Irishman and the Chinese, who are organized into social halls (tong) by way of triad system, regarding the secret discovery.

As the representative of the powerful Three Corporations in San Francisco in 1906, Dr. Lao-Hong, who embraces values of east and west, is to balance conflicting claims over the artifacts that would respect the local people and town where the treasures are discovered, the local halls and the clan, and the interests of motherland. The communities, as Steinbeck’s thoughtful description has limned, are ruled but also divided, by duty to their ancestors.

As much as Dr. Lao-Hong wished it were otherwise, he knew full well that if the Three Corporations didn’t take charge of Zhou Man’s treasures, some other cadet-level tong would pounce on the opportunity to gain the artifacts . . . [Part 2, 90]

Which brings to the most intriguing part of the book. About a century later, after anyone who might know the whereabouts of the treasures has deceased, a young scholar stumbles upon Dr. Gilbert’s diary and paper rubbings of the treasures. Charles Lucas enlists the help of a Chinese linguist to decipher the meanings of the inscriptions. As the pair undertakes research for the truth with cutting edge technology, the intrigue multiplies. Steinbeck weaves an intriguing tale with the mystery of 15th century artifacts and offers a sympathetic look at a hidden culture.

246 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]