Supporters gather in Del Mar for launch of local author’s book of memoir poems

By Diane Y. Welch

The atmosphere was buzzing with excitement as friends, supporters and aficionados of the written word gathered on June 11 at the Parish Hall at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Del Mar to celebrate the launch of “Chop Suey and Apple Pie,” a book of memoir poems authored by local resident Mai-Lon Gittelsohn.

The book is a collection of Gittelsohn’s poetry that represents her life as a fourth generation Chinese-American. The 20 pieces, which according to one fan, “embody a beautifully expressed selection of memories that contain and share the flavors of this wonderful culture,” give a first-hand account of her growing up in Oakland and Berkeley and the diverse area of El Cerrito where Gittelsohn’s parents ran their restaurant “Violet Wong’s Dining Room.”

The couple introduced Chinese food — such as the popular Chop Suey dish created especially for the American palate — to the Bay Area locals in 1945, said Gittelsohn. But Albert and Violet Wong understood their customers and were considered culinary pioneers when they offered American food, too. “My mother prepared the Chinese food and my father the American food,” said Gittelsohn. One of the most popular dishes on the menu was apple pie.

At the book signing event Gittelsohn offered both to her guests after a rare showing of a segment of a 1916 silent film, which was directed and produced by her aunt and starred her mother. The backstory of the film is a rich tale of determination and ingenuity and its rescue from certain obscurity — as the aging celluloid began to break down into yellow dust — is compelling.

Because of her limited budget Gittelsohn’s Aunt Marion – through The Mandarin Film Company – wrote, directed, starred in and made the costumes and scenery for the first Chinese silent movie produced in the U.S.: “The Curse of Quon Guon: When the Far East Mingles with West” released in 1916.

“She cast my mother in the leading role,” said Gittelsohn. The film, a love story, had an all-Chinese cast with Chinese sets and elaborate Chinese costumes.

The movie was not picked up by a major distributor resulting in the film company’s bankruptcy, but the reels of film stayed in the Wong family and several were rediscovered after Violet’s death in 1982.

“Through the help of the Chinese Historical Society in San Francisco we were put in touch with Arthur Dong, who was on the board of governors for the film academy. He was very excited about the film and sent a car with a refrigerator to pick up the reels,” Gittelsohn recalled. Dong is an award-winning documentarian and film producer.

The film fragments were restored by members of the Academy Film Archive in 2006, placed in the National Film Registry and catalogued at the Library of Congress. It was this surviving footage that captivated the guests at Gittelsohn’s book launch and also served as some of the inspiration for the poems inside the book which she read aloud.

Gittelsohn teaches memoir writing to seniors through the San Dieguito Adult School. Many of her students — who take her class repeatedly — were present at the June 11 event. “Mai-Lon’s classes fill up immediately so we know that we have to sign up at midnight when registration opens to get a place,” said Persephone Roland-Holst, a writer from Rancho Santa Fe. “We share our life stories with each other, it’s very personal, it’s very special.”

A graduate from the University of California Berkeley, Gittelsohn taught elementary school in the Del Mar Union School District for 23 years. She received her MFA in creative writing from Oregon’s Pacific University in June 2012.

Her poetry book is published by Finishing Line Press and came about when she was one of its winners in the “New Women’s Voices Chapbook Competition.” It is Gittelsohn’s first published book but her poems have appeared in various anthologies.

Visit to find out more about the book or to buy a copy.