Adeline Yen Mah : biography
Adeline Yen Mah () is a Chinese American author and physician. She grew up in Tianjin, Shanghai and Hong Kong, and is known for her autobiography Falling Leaves. Currently, she divides her time between southern California and London. She is married to Professor Robert A. Mah with whom she has a daughter, and a son from a previous marriage.
Adeline Yen Mah was born in Tianjin, Republic of China on 30 November 1937, to Joseph Yen (Yen Tse-Rung), a businessman, and Ren Yong-ping, an accountant. She had an older sister, Lydia (Jun-pei) and three older brothers, Gregory (Zi-jie), Edgar (Zi-lin) and James (Zi-jun). She has stated in Falling Leaves that that she did not use the real names of her siblings and their spouses to protect their identities but she did, however, use the real names of her father, stepmother, aunt and husband, while referring to her paternal grandparents only by the Chinese terms ‘Ye Ye’ and ‘Nai Nai’ .
Yen Mah also writes of her Ye Ye’s younger sister, whom she calls either ‘Grand Aunt’ or ‘Grand Uncle Gong Gong’, and cites as founder and president of the Shanghai Women’s Bank. Chinese Cinderella, photo insert p. 1. , Yan Shuzhen and Huang Qiong-Xian founded the now-defunct Shanghai Women’s Commercial and Savings Bank in 1924.
When Yen Mah was a year old in 1938, Joseph Yen became infatuated and married a half-French, half-Chinese 17-year-old named Jeanne Virginie Prosperi. The children referred to her as Niang (娘 niáng, another Chinese term for mother), and she is called so throughout the whole book. They had two children, Franklin and Susan (Jun-qing).
Her legal birthday is 10 November, as her father did not record her birthdate and instead he gave her his own (a common practise prior to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949). Two weeks after her birth, her mother died of puerperal fever and according to traditional Chinese beliefs, Yen Mah was branded as ‘bad luck’ by the rest of her family.
Allegations of child abuse
In her second book, Chinese Cinderella, Yen Mah details the emotional and physical abuse she suffered in childhood and her attempts to gain her father’s approval and love. Yen Mah writes that Prosperi would abuse her and the rest of the family, including Prosperi’s own daughter Susan, all the while doting upon Joseph and their son Franklin. Yen Mah’s third brother, James protected her from some of their stepmother’s actions, although in Falling Leaves it appears that her main refuge from Prosperi was her father’s older sister, Aunt Baba (T: 姑媽, S: 姑妈). Throughout her childhood, she was emotionally supported by her paternal grandfather and paternal aunt. When her father became wanted by the Japanese, he left Tianjin for Shanghai. Soon afterward, her stepmother and half-brother followed, and then her grandmother Nai Nai died from a massive stroke. Yen Mah also talks about the terrifing feeling and not daring to disobey her Niang.
Yen Mah further recounts that she was severely punished whenever she disobeyed her stepmother’s strict rules, such as attending a friend’s birthday party. When she was elected class president at Shengxin Primary School in Shanghai, Yen Mah’s friends came to her house, with congratulatory gifts. She was summoned to her parents’ room, where Prosperi beat her until her nose bled before commanding her to ask her friends to leave. Joseph then made her open the presents and then throw them in the trash bin, and in a fit of rage, Prosperi sent Yen Mah back to St Joseph’s Primary School (now the Tianjin no. 21 Middle School) in Tianjin.
Shanghai and Hong Kong
When her father and stepmother were ready, Yen Mah and her full siblings went to Shanghai and moved into their father’s house along Avenue Joffre. Two months later, her aunt, Ye Ye, and Susan arrived (the former two delayed moving to observe the hundred days’ mourning period for Nai Nai). When Susan arrived, she was too young to recognise her mother, Prosperi, who thus beat her soundly in frustration. Yen Mah intervened, leading Prosperi to declare that she would never forgive her.