Geling Yan

"The Lost Daughter of Happiness"

(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer AUG 11, 2002)

"You have a strange name: Fusang. You're not from the Canton Delta, so your price is 30 percent higher than those girls with names like Pearl, Silky or Snapper, who had a hard time proving themselves unsullied by foreign sailors on shore.

Now look at me, a writer in the late twentieth century. You want to know whether the same thing brought me to Gold Mountain. I've never known what made me take that stride across the Pacific. We've all got ready answers -- that we came for freedom, knowledge, wealth --- but really we have no idea what we're after."

Supposedly it's all true. Once, in the late 1860's, a young Chinese woman is told that the husband she has never met has sent for her, and so she allows herself to be drawn to the shore. By the time she realizes the kidnapper's intentions, it is too late, and she is taken aboard a ship bound for San Francisco. There, she ends up being auctioned off and made into a prostitute.

Read excerptHer first customer is Chris, then 12 years old, and although during his visit he doesn't consummate the deal, so to speak, he finds himself utterly entranced by her, and will become one of only two men who Fusang really seems to remember. The other one is Da Yong, who eventually buys her. He is a crime lord, who carries daggers dipped in poison and sells his naked photograph as a talisman. Chris is white, sometimes childish and foolish; who as he develops thinks that he hates the Chinese even though he loves Fusang. He is a part of the law-abiding citizenry, but it's not until he gains distance he can think and resolve to himself the type of person he really is. Da Yong is his opposite, a con man who has changed his name many times, he finds himself equally intrigued by Fusang, and it will change him in unpredictable ways.

Then, we have Fusang. I have never met a woman quite like her in my readings. She is so calm and accepting. When she is kidnapped, she is the first girl to ever not put up a fuss; she eats what she is given. She is like a sponge, in that she takes it all in, she bends and envelops with out any complaint. Some might think that this is a sign of some sort of retardation, but I don't think so...I think it is a sign of strength and perfect self-awareness. She understands that in her position, to abide is better than to fight.

One of the most striking things of this novel is the narrative. Part of it is in the voice from the excerpt above, where the author actively speaks with Fusang. She uses these moments to both forward the plot and to explain to Fusang what is happening. She also uses it to discuss herself, her times. In these moments she speaks with us about the racial tensions between the calm and gentle seeming Chinese and the White people whose anger at not being able to fathom their actions caused hatred. She also points out that the Chinese, despite this gentleness, could be extremely ruthless with their own kind, selling them to slavery, killing sometimes with out thought, and that some of the Whites wanted to make things better, and had good intentions, even if these intentions did not always work. These points make the book feel more balanced, more honest. She also examines her own life and reasons for her desire to know the truth about this beautiful prostitute who became the most infamous of her kind.

In between these passages, we visit the main people of the story in a normal narrative, a wise decision because the normal, "story" narrative both breaks up and adds to the passages of her musings. The regular story also transports us to the time of the tale, and we visit our main characters and get to see their actions first hand. When she goes back to her talks with Fusang, they add to each other, feed each other, because then she is able to comment on the happenings and apply them to the themes that she is trying to discuss through the story. Mainly, I think, she is speaking not only of history and how it bends the facts and wipes away details, but to contrast Fusang's immigrant experience with her own, and realizing that in some ways, they aren't much different.

The imagery is lovely and exotic; I felt that I had been given a real taste of the culture and life of those times. Yan created some beautiful scenes, that, like Fusang, envelope the senses and change us.

An enigmatic and unusual figure, Fusang will haunt imaginations for years to come.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 8 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Lost Daughter of Happiness

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About the Author:

Geling YanGeling Yan was born in Shanghai and joined the People's Liberation Army as a dancer at age twelve. In the late 1970s she began writing as a war correspondent covering the Sino-Vietnamese border war. Her first novel (of five to date) was published in China in 1985. In 1989, following the massacre at Tiananmen Square, she left China for the United States and earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago. Two of her works have been made into films, including Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl, directed by Joan Chen. A collection of her short fiction has been published in English translation. She has won many awards, both in China and the U.S. She now lives in San Francisco.

Cathy Silber is an acclaimed translator of Chinese literature who teaches at Williams College. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014