Denise Hamilton discusses Sugar Skull
As a cub reporter for the Los Angeles Times, I often
worked weekends. And on summer days when the mercury climbed into the triple
digits, one thing was sure: There would be a lot of murders.
People shot and stabbed and strangled each other in sleazy bars and hillside
mansions, strip malls, abandoned houses and parking lots. Often, there were so
many dead bodies clogging the news wires that the Times could barely mention
Unless they were rich or famous or had died in a particularly gruesome fashion
such as the toddlers killed in a spray of drive-by bullets meant for someone
else - the deceased didnt merit their own stories. There were just too many
murders and not enough room, and so most of them got folded as smoothly as egg
whites into cake into what we called the "murder round-up" that ran every
Usually, that meant calling the police and coroner and getting only the most
basic details age, occupation, residence, cause of death. Still, when you
had 40 murders in one weekend, that was one long litany of death.
I often wondered what exactly catapulted victims across the threshold of
celebrity or gruesomeness into meriting their own story and how harried city
editors made the decision to relegate someones life to several sentences.
Where was the justice in that? And what did it say about my profession,
assigning value to a persons life based on their "newsworthiness."
So Id sit there Sunday afternoon with my scraps of paper, pulling together
the "murder roundup" and trying to make sense of the citys senseless
mayhem. And I began to imagine how some of those murders might be connected.
Because heres the weird thing about LA. Its so huge and geographically
diverse, and yet people know each other across all sorts of improbable lines,
especially when secrets are involved. Reporters hear many tantalizing stories
they cant print, and its only when Hugh Grant gets caught off Sunset
Boulevard with a black prostitute or O.J. Simpson goes on trial for murdering
his wife that it becomes a story. And then all sorts of seedy and surprising
revelations trickle out, and we realize how swiftly the line can blur between
those on the street and those in hillside homes perched high above it.
"Sugar Skull" takes the reader into three very disparate worlds that end up
being connected in that improbable Angeleno way across frontiers of race, class,
money and geography. I examine this interlinked world through the prism of the
"sugar skull," a gaily decorated confection that many Mexican families lay
on the graves of departed relatives during the "Day of the Dead" celebration
that follows Halloween.
Sugar skulls also provided a handy leitmotif for delving into the citys vast
and varied Mexican-American community. Im by no means an expert in this
field, but after all, Southern California was once part of Mexico as Silvio
tells Eve in "Sugar Skull," and you cant walk around Los Angeles without
the strong sense that the two remain strongly linked. In addition, my husband is
Mexican-American, and while his experience is radically different from
Silvios, it nonetheless gives me a window into this world, as does my
understanding of Spanish. I realize that all too often, people are still judged
by what they look like, instead of who they are. Thats an issue that cuts
both ways, and it fascinates me.
In addition, I was haunted by a story I once wrote about a teen runaway from a
loving family who came to a bad end while hanging out with her street kid
friends. As I dug deeper into the story, I learned of a phenomenon in which
upper-middle class and wealthy girls sought out homeless "squatter"
boyfriends. It seemed to be the epitome of cool in a world that called for ever
more drastic extremes to shock ones long-suffering parents. The teen
characters in my story are quite different from the unfortunate girl I reported
on, but the tragedy inspired me to try to get inside teen heads and explore
through fiction the eternal lure of lifes darker side.
Lastly, my novels are a paean to Los Angeles itself, the city of illusions. In a
place where the klieg lights of Hollywood cast their allure and people remake
themselves every day, no one is who they seem. Like revelers at a Day of the
Dead pageant, were all wearing masks, costumed by our professions,
ethnicities and socio-economic status.
I have a sneaking suspicion that if Raymond Chandler were writing today, he
wouldnt focus on Hollywood and the citys westside and beach communities.
His plots would unfold deep in the sprawling suburbs and ethnic enclaves of
L.A., places that didnt even exist in his time, places where the third
generation Americans live next door to just-arrived immigrants in newly built
tracts and all sorts of terrifying and fascinating things can happen.
I read a lot of Chandler and Ross MacDonald when I first started writing
mysteries. Not because I wanted to write like them they were white,
middle-aged men who lived in a mainly white, middle-class homogeneous city more
than 50 years ago. But there was something in their tone that made me swoon, how
they made love to the city, held it up for inspection like a discerning lover,
noting all its outer loveliness, its quirky, non-traditional personality as well
as its flaws.
My L.A. is not their L.A. -- its a bustling, vibrant, chaotic, clashing
millennial world capital where violence and lust and greed bubble over daily in
the papers and TV news shows, where the first world lives cheek by jowl with the
third, where a motley collection of underground tribes eke out a living well
below the radar of average, middle class folks. My jumping off point is where
all those words collide.
Thats the landscape Eve probes with her pen. Being a journalist gives Eve
and me an unlimited passport into the city. With her dogtags and notebook,
Eve gains entrée into the most rarified strata of society that of power
brokers and blue blood - all the way down to homeless Latino transvestites who
bathe in the L.A. River. To Eve, as to me, we are all linked. And its only
when someone is killed unnaturally that we begin to trace back the threads to
see where it all connects.
The Jasmine Trade - How Fact Inspired Fiction by Denise Hamilton
It was summer of 1989 and revolution was in the air. I was a Los Angeles Times
reporter living in Budapest, filing fevered missives back to my paper about the
cultural and political changes sweeping the region. When I returned to Los
Angeles that fall, everything seemed pale and insipid compared to what I had
just witnessed. Even worse, the Times was sending me to a new suburban posting
-- in the San Gabriel Valley.
It was a move I undertook with some trepidation. Wasn't the Valley one big
Ur-suburb, crammed with light industry, ethnic malls and tract homes? As I
pulled out my Thomas Brothers Guide and flipped through its pale pastel grids,
anxiety began to gnaw with little cat teeth. Rosemead, Duarte and Alhambra. El
Monte, Walnut and Diamond Bar. I had seen signs for these towns while hurtling
past on the freeway, bound for somewhere else. Now they would be my
This was not the L.A. that I knew and cherished, the worlds so vividly drawn
by Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West and Joan Didion. This was not the L.A. of
Steven Spielberg or David Hockney or Wolfgang Puck. This was an uncharted
landscape that lay very, very far east of La Brea. Nobody power-lunched in the
San Gabriel Valley. Nobody lunched at all, probably. They were too busy working
to pay off the second mortgage on those cookie cutter homes.
Baldwin Park, Temple City, Arcadia. The pages laid out by Les Freres Thomas
continued apace. I flipped to Pasadena, the one city I had visited. Its
syllables gave me succor, conjuring up a pearl-strung maiden aunt who trails the
scent of violets. Pasadena was home to Greene and Greene architecture and the
Rose Parade, Arroyo Culture and good college prep schools. I pictured myself
sitting at some Italian cafe in Old Town, dipping an almond biscotti into my
double latte as I interviewed the mayor about his progressive city planning
The reality was more disconcerting. Our editorial office was halfway to San
Bernardino in a city called Monrovia, wedged inside a shopping center buttressed
by "anchor" tenants Toys R Us and Mervyn's. There was Italian food,
alright, if Round Table Pizza counted. My colleagues drove 10 miles back to
Pasadena to savor an overpriced cup of Starbucks coffee. By 9 a.m. on summer
mornings, the bony spines of the San Gabriel Mountains were already obscured by
a thick brown haze. They were a scrubby and desolate range from which bears and
mountain lions streamed down to ogle and sometimes attack the inhabitants of
houses gouged from the hills. Each year, flash floods and icy ridges claimed a
few more. You wouldn't think such things could happen so close to the city but
they did. Nature demanded its pound of flesh. It was only we who called it
But natural curiosity soon overcame my initial apathy. In the dead space
between interviews and board meetings, I cruised the wide avenues. Soon, I felt
I had stumbled onto the set of 20 quirky art films, all shooting at once.
There was Rosemead Boulevard, a location scout's wet dream, with its kitschy
1950s diners serving up chicken-fried steak and industrially breaded shrimp.
After dinner at one of these joints, I imagined retreating to my space-age
bachelorette pad at the Kon-Tiki apartments, lit nightly in glamorous red and
blue to accent the banana-plant-and-wooden-canoe decor.
There was the "Golden Triangle," the heavily Asian communities of
Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights and Walnut that clustered around the Hsi Lai
Buddhist Temple at the base of the foothills which would later become
notorious in the Democratic fundraising scandal.
Most of all, there was the San Gabriel Village Square, an anomaly that only
the Pacific Rim fantasy aesthetic of Los Angeles could have produced. Built in a
Spanish Mission style, with dusky peach tones, the three-story shopping center
catered almost exclusively to the growing Overseas Chinese community. On
occasion, a looky-lou gringo like myself would wander through, bug-eyed at the
panorama of this Asian Disneyland, but we were the exception.
At San Gabriel Village Square - a name that developers clearly hoped would
evoke a more bucolic time - you could gorge on Islamic Chinese food, buy
designer suits from Hong Kong, pick out live lobsters for dinner and $700
bottles of French cognac for dessert and take out a $1 million insurance policy
on your cheating spouse. I half-expected to see Jackie Chan hurtling off the
balcony of the Ranch 99 market wearing his trademark grin, with scar-faced,
gun-wielding gangsters in hot pursuit.
Eventually, this shopping center came to symbolize the changes I saw
transforming the once-staid San Gabriel Valley as thoroughly as a major
earthquake. On the Richter scales of culture, language and finance, the Big One
was advancing city by city through this inland basin. Like a stealth Act of God,
it toppled familiar landmarks and squeezed out those who clung blindly to an old
world order that had already been pronounced extinct. In their wake came
settlers who built new monuments and refashioned the basin in their own image.
Sometime in the late 1980s, Monterey Park became the first continental U.S. city
with a majority Asian population, but others weren't far behind. Traditionally
WASP-y enclaves such as San Marino are now almost half Asian today, as is
master-planned Walnut on the region's eastern rim. Drive along Valley Boulevard,
the main Asian commercial thoroughfare, and you'll see as many signs in Chinese
There is a historic continuum to all this that strikes me as inevitable.
Hadn't the Gabrieleno Indians - a peaceful and semi-nomadic people who gave
their name to this arid land - been swept away 150 years earlier by the Spanish
land grantees, whose beautiful daughters were in turn assimilated through
inter-marriage with WASPS from the Eastern Seaboard? What goes around comes
One sweltering day when the heat rising from the asphalt was enough to
trigger hallucinations, I experienced an epiphany. I was as much a foreign
correspondent here as I had been in Central Europe, and that's exactly how I
should cover it. My turf began just 10 miles east of downtown, but it was light
years removed from the monolithic towers of corporate America. With its 1.3
million residents, the Valley was a bubling brew of new immigrants and
old-timers, small business and multi-million dollar shopping centers. All the
big West Coast cities were morphing into 21st century Pacific Rim capitals, but
in the San Gabriel Valley, the future had already here. If this place had an
ethos, it was "Welcome stranger. Come live among us and prosper. The region had
always been blessed with a diverse business base. Now it was adding
entrepreneurial immigrants and investment from the booming Asian economies,
becoming a banking hub for the Overseas Chinese as well as a growing number of
Vietnamese, Malaysian, and others. While much of Southern California foundered
in recession, the San Gabriel Valley thrived.
With all apologies to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick, I
believe the future of Los Angeles does not lie in the teeming vertical
claustrophobia of decaying urban centers. Rather, it is under construction today
in quiet hillside suburbs where the last empty spaces of the Wild, Wild West are
meeting and fusing with an even wilder East. Here, big American developers
wouldn't dream of breaking ground until their feng shui consultants have vetted
the land and signed off on blueprints. Here, every blond-haired, blue-eyed sales
agent in the new master-planned communities knows why the phone number on her
business card ends in a triple eight - that's the luckiest number in Chinese
numerology. Here, Latino workmen have become adept at installing built-in woks
and storage cupboards for 50-lb. bags of rice.
This is a world that is only now seeping into American letters and cinema. It
is too nascent, too unformed. Yet while unique to Southern California, it also
transcends time and place the way our favorite parables always have. If Raymond
Chandler were writing today, he'd send Philip Marlowe to investigate the
disappearance of a Hong Kong businessman with a beautiful young wife whose El
Monte computer chip factory was robbed of silicon-encrusted chips worth their
weight in gold. The Midwestern extras who yearned for Hollywood oblivion in
Nathanael West's Day of the Locust would be recast today as survivors of Pol
Pot's killing fields now living above a Vietnamese noodle shop in Alhambra. And
instead of chronicling white hippie culture in San Francisco, Joan Didion might
hunker down in a Monterey Park nightclub with Hong Kong's "golden
youth," whose parents have shipped them across the Pacific for safekeeping
in advance of the British Crown Colony's return to Mainland China.
One day several years ago, I stood in front of a big brick house in San
Marino. It was the type of place that a successful bank president might own.
Instead, two teenagers lived here alone, unless you counted the elderly Chinese
housekeeper who didn't speak English.
I was here to learn more about these kids, part of a phenomenon so widespread
in the San Gabriel Valley that it had a name: Parachute Kids. Typically, the
entire family would fly over from Hong Kong, Seoul or Taipei to establish a
foothold in the U.S. as a hedge against political or economic uncertainty at
home. The parents would buy a house in an affluent neighborhood, enroll the kids
in school, then jet back to Asia to keep running the family business. Some left
behind nannies. Others, like the ones I would call Jonathan, 18 and his sister
Zoe, 14, were on their own. Parenting was done by fax, international phone calls
and occasional visits when Dad was in town on business. "We've been
on our own so long that we really don't know what it's like to have
parents," Jonathan told me, staring at two large screen TVs. One was tuned
to a Chinese satellite channel. The other to MTV. Just like the two lobes of his
brain, I thought, wondering whether he ever heard static as the circuits
"Inside our hearts, we are Chinese, he responded. "We respect
traditional Chinese values. But now we live in America. And it gets expensive
buying computer games and going out to eat. My parents give me $3,000 a month
but sometimes it's not enough. If they're going to dump me here, the least they
can do is give me a lot of money."
He searched my face for confirmation. Don't you think so? Gone was the cocky
teenager of a moment past. He appeared a child playing at adulthood. The brown
eyes stirred conflicting emotions in me. On one hand, I ached to think of the
emotional burden that Jonathan's culture placed on the thin shoulders of its
children. Yet who was I to impose my notions of Western propriety, when so many
native-born teens with parents succumbed to gangs and drugs? Later, a
youth counselor at the Asian Pacific Family Center in Rosemead told me that
alienation, lack of parenting and loneliness ate away at youngsters like
Jonathan. While many went on to college and careers, others joined Asian youth
gangs like the Wah Ching, the V Boys or the Black Dragons, working as hired
muscle for older gangsters from the triads, formal organizations with rules and
hierarchies dating back to 16th century China. When these kids fell, they fell
hard. Parents sitting in safe old Taipei had no idea of the scary stuff that
lurked in our nice American suburbs. They thought it was a movie setting. If so,
it was a John Woo movie, not American Graffiti. Guns and no roses, and 1,001
ways for a kid to go bad, when he's 16 and hurting deep inside.
Much later, I left San Marino and spun down Valley Boulevard, wrapped in a
cocoon of cool air and swirling Chinese pop music that Jonathan had given me.
The mellifluous sounds glittered at the edge of my consciousness. On the street,
people moved in slow motion under neon signs lit with Chinese characters. In
front of a tiny restaurant, a man with a stained white apron and chef's hat
squatted on his haunches, smoking a cigarette. He held the white stub between
his thumb and forefinger and inhaled deeply. I dangled between two worlds on a
thin filament and felt it fray. When my story about parachute kids
appeared in the coveted "Column One slot of the Times, it won an award and
was reprinted around the world. ABS, Sixty Minutes, Montel Williams and a slew
of other media called, wanting me to give up my parachute kids. I told them to
go do their own reporting. But I found myself wondering where Jonathan and Zoe
were at night and what would happen to them tomorrow, next month, in two years?
What were their parents like? Their lives back in Asia? What if they hooked up
with the wrong people? What if, what if? And even as I went on to the next big
story, I felt frustrated with the limitations of journalism. I wanted to imagine
what happened to these kids long after I had filed my story and gone
Instead, I headed east on Interstate 10 each morning and watched the
skyscrapers of downtown LA recede in my rear-view until they shrunk to the size
of a glittering toy. Somewhere near Monterey Park, the familiar signpost
disappeared altogether, and I knew I had crossed some invisible demarcation
point. I was back in the San Gabriel Valley.
I had a new beat now and I drove the Valley's streets, looking for the heart
of the Asian community. But what I searched for didn't exist, except as an
abstract idea. The pulse was too diffuse, just like the fluid, ever-changing
stretches of neighborhoods I visited on daily assignments. There was no single
Asian community. There were numerous groups divided by culture, language,
politics, class and ethnicity. Some were poor, living in overcrowded tenements
where the smell of cooking oil mingled with car exhaust and curled around the
heads of playing children. Others were middle class, working two jobs and
praying their children would get into UCLA. Still others, like Jonathan's
family, would be considered wealthy in any culture.
One day I sat cross-legged on the thin carpet of a two-room shack in a poor
suburb, listening to a former colonel from the South Vietnamese army recount why
he beat his eight-year-old son. The boy in question, who had purple bruises up
and down his legs, sat in his father's lap and laughed delightedly as the father
"We were only trying to discipline him the way we knew," the
bewildered father explained to a Vietnamese-American caseworker for the
Department of Children's Services, clearly mortified by the idea that he had
done something wrong. "We want him to grow up to be a good
American." Meanwhile the good Americans they wanted to emulate looked
upon the newcomers as threats to the social order. Residents of the affluent and
WASPY suburb of San Marino did not understand why the extended Chinese family
that moved next door wanted to chop down the venerable oak tree that had spread
its shade over the lawn for almost 100 years. Yet it never occurred to the
Chinese family that their neighbors objected to their removing a tree whose
proximity to the front door blocked the good energy, or ch'i, from entering and
circulating throughout the house. When each side got up at the San Marino City
Council to throw out terms like "owners' rights" and
"environmental protection," they weren't arguing about a tree but
about a way of life.
As Asian immigration radiated outward in concentric circles from Monterey Park,
the culture wars moved to new staging grounds. In 1994, they hit the suburb of
Temple City, where the battles grew so pitched, the fever so hysterical, that
nine Asian owned bridal shops in the city became the target of unfounded rumors
that they were fronts for prostitution. That year, a candidate running for the
Temple City Council promised to shut down the "plague" of bridal shops
if elected. He lost, but the sentiments he espoused lived on among the patrons
of Pie 'n' Burger, a dwindling remnant of Americana amid a growing Asian
commercial strip on Temple City Boulevard.
"They're buying us out of our community, our city, our own golf
courses," complained one local white businessman over pie and coffee as
others grunted in assent. "Why don't you buy my house so I can move to a
white part of town?" another suggested with venom.
The next night at dinner, I sat at Tung Lai Shun, the Islamic Chinese
restaurant in the San Gabriel Village Square. The place was packed and noisy,
with chopsticks clicking against plates in percussive counterpoint to the
boisterous conversations. The restaurant hostess wore a long white robe and a
hejiba wrapped under her chin, like a nun's wimple, taking reservations on a
Families filled big round tables. Businessmen leaned forward over smoked
eels, transacting deals. I wanted to eavesdrop, the trade of all writers. But a
formidable barrier separated us. My Achilles heel was this: I spoke no Chinese.
I closed my eyes and tried to understand the fear that can grip people when they
feel their way of life threatened, when they see their schools and neighborhoods
change beyond recognition within fewer years than it takes for a child to
complete elementary school. In places like San Gabriel Valley Square, the
security guards were white and the patrons Asian. In places like these, I begin
to understand how minorities felt each day navigating through mainstream white
culture. In places like these, I realized how easy it was to lose one's
moorings, to become The Other. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by a cultural
vertigo. What if I couldn't get back in my car and drive home to my own
neighborhood? What if I saw the sparkling blue water of Victoria Bay in Hong
Kong instead of the parking lots of San Gabriel when I opened my eyes? What if I
never heard English spoken again? Would that bother me? After the initial
novelty wore off, it just might. I paid my bill and went home to Silverlake.
Each night, the voices of the San Gabriel Valley replayed like a broken tape
loop in my brain, clicking and whirring in a multitude of languages. They were
the voices of fear, resignation and hope. A microcosm of our society. A glimpse
into an unwieldy future. Soon after that, I started writing fiction.
Copyright Denise Hamilton 2001. Reprinted with the permission of Denise