Lost Daughter of Happiness
By Geling Yan
Published by Hyperion East
April 2001; 0-7868-6654-3; 288 pages
This is who you are.
The one dressed in red, slowly rising from the creaking bamboo bed, is you. The embroidery on your satin padded jacket must weigh ten catties; the parts stitched most densely are as hard as ice, or armor. From a distance of one hundred and twenty years, I am amazed by the needlework, so thoroughly beyond me.
Let me raise your chin a bit here, and bring your lips into the dim light. That's it, just right. Now I can see your whole face clearly. Don't worry -- others will just find exotic the face you consider too square. To the novelty seekers of your day, your every flaw was a distinction.
Now turn around, just like all those times on the auction block. You're used to the auction; that's where pretty whores like you come to know their worth. I found pictures of those auctions in some books about Chinatown -- dozens of female bodies, totally naked, their beauty in sharp relief against the surrounding gloom.
You're nothing like the other girls on auction. First of all, you lived past twenty. This is a miracle. I looked through all one hundred and sixty of those books and you were the only one to live so long. The other girls in your line of work started losing their hair at eighteen, their teeth at nineteen, and by twenty, with their vacant eyes and decrepit faces, they were as good as dead, silent as dust.
But you're nothing like them.
Don't be so eager to show off your feet. I know they're less than four inches long: two mummified magnolia buds. I'll let you show them later. After all, you're not like that woman who lived at 129 Clay Street from 1890 to 1940 and made her living putting her four-inch golden lotuses on display. Several thousand tourists a day would shuffle reverently past her door, looking at the way her dead toes had been broken clean under and now curled into the soles of her feet. Most of them came from the more genteel East Coast, though some even came from the other side of the Atlantic, just to pay homage to a vestige of antiquity on a real live body. In the deformity and decay of those feet, they could read the Orient.
I know who you were: a twenty-year-old prostitute, one of a succession of three thousand prostitutes from China. When you stepped upon these golden shores, you were a fully grown woman. You had no skills, no seductive charms, not a trace of lust in your eyes. People could sense your distinctive simplicity the moment they met you. In an instant, you could make any man feel as if it were his wedding night.
So you were a born prostitute, a good-as-new bride.
On a summer day in the late 1860s, there's a rather large girl standing in a barred window on a narrow lane in San Francisco's Chinatown, and that's you.
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 here 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.
Some call us fifth-wave Chinese immigrants.
You're wondering why I singled you out. You don't know that foreign historians wrote about you in these one hundred and sixty histories of the Chinese in San Francisco that no one else has bothered to read. These writers are totally serious when they say things like: "When the famous, or perhaps we should say infamous, Chinese prostitute Fusang appeared in all her finery, gentlemen were so stirred they could not help but doff their hats to her." And: "The consensus on this Chinese prostitute, considered such an anomaly, confirmed that she was essentially the same as her Western counterparts and showed no anatomical abnormalities."
You know I too am auctioning you.
You turn around again, and now I see the huge bun at the back of your head, with a hairpin of white jade and a garland of pink silk flowers starting behind your left ear and looped down around half the bun. Several years from now, the depths of this bun will hide a brass button belonging to Chris, that white boy.
The first time he saw you, when he first thought of buying your services, he was only twelve.
Let's take a look at you from the very beginning. Very good: The hazy distance between us has thinned and all of a sudden you're right here.
Your fourteen-year-old colleagues instructed you to "market" yourself: If you don't get work, Fusang, you won't get supper and you'll be whipped naked. Your juniors in the field considered you worthless -- you didn't know how to sell yourself; you didn't know how to make eyes at the men outside the window.
The histories describe this marketing in detail:
"Chinese prostitutes employed their own unique ways of attracting customers: 'Nice Chinese girl, hey mister, come on in and see, your daddy he just go out! . . .' 'Two bittee lookee, fol bittee feelee, six bittee doee! . . .' 'Chinese girly, fresh off boat, good girly, only thirty cent! . . .' Every now and then, moved by such explicit language and cheap prices, someone would turn back, pause, and pick out one of those children, one much like the next."
You didn't hawk yourself. Whenever a man looked at you, you smiled at him, hesitantly at first, and then so wholeheartedly you made him feel you were wild about him and perfectly content with your life.
It was probably your smile that made these men realize you were no ordinary goods. Someone slows before your window. Bigger and taller than most, you rise from the creaky bamboo bed. The slight delay in your movements makes you seem almost dignified.
People could forget for a moment that you were a caged prostitute for sale.
This is what you were like when you first arrived in San Francisco. I certainly won't let people confuse you with any of the other three thousand whores from China.
Copyright © 2001 Geling Yan
In the late 1860s, a young woman named Fusang is kidnapped from China and sold into prostitution in San Francisco's Chinatown. Chris, her first customer, is twelve years old. For weeks, he has spied on her; now, he meets the object of his obsession and can only gaze at her, stunned by her beauty.
The Lost Daughter of Happiness is an epic and moving love story of individuals intoxicated with one another and yet repeatedly separated by prejudice and mistrust. The relationships are full of passion and rage, and the novel chronicles the lives of the main characters over decades against a back-drop of social turmoil -- the anti-Chinese hysteria that plagued San Francisco.
Fusang is an extraordinary character, both powerful and resigned; Chris finds himself torn between the security of his staid, white world and the sensual allure of hers. And then there is the gangster Da Yong, who is rumored to carry daggers dipped in ancient poison, who wears a ring on every finger, and who sells his naked photograph, which is used as a talisman -- evil to ward off evil. He enters Fusang's life with brutal force, but when his world and Chris's eventually collide, both men turn out to be far different than they seemed.
Geling Yan, one of China's most acclaimed novelists, plays with familiar "exotic" imagery, such as bound feet and incense smoke and opium dens, in startling and ironic ways. She creates scenes of intense eroticism that will remind readers of Marguerite Duras's The Lover. She tells a riveting story that is both inevitable and surprising. And she employs a modern narrator who actually speaks to the characters about what has changed in the world -- and how much hasn't.
Written in a haunting voice that explores the present's bitter truths through the prism of the past, The Lost Daughter of Happiness is a mesmerizing and provocative work of fiction.
Yan stands as an eminent writer from the Chinese diaspora. Her fiction
has gained a high reputation in and outside China. The Lost Daughter
of Happiness is her major novel, which combines myth and history and
opens a new perspective on the American immigrant experience. It is an
ambitious, eloquent, and unique book."
Yan's extraordinary novel is a dream enfolding a nightmare, and a nightmare
lightened by dream, a delicate love story between an American innocent
and a Chinese prostitute, set in the brutal world of Gold Rush San Francisco.
And it is much more. The Lost Daughter of Happiness is finally
a contemporary immigrant's testament to the Adam and Eve of a poisoned
erotic epic bursting with intelligence, forbidden emotions, and disregard
for easy answers, The Lost Daughter of Happiness bravely unearths
the secret fantasies and complex obsessions which pass between races,
and between the sexes. With a work which suddenly makes terms like 'sexism'
and 'racism' seem oddly quaint, Geling Yan has written the first great
Yan is a courageous and immensely talented writer. Through a masterful
interweaving of history and imagination, she has dared to face down the
twin monsters of racism and sexual slavery, exposing both their vulnerability
and, alas, their persistence. The result is one of the most unusual love
stories I have ever read, in which the paradoxes of the human condition
shimmer like threads of gold in a rich brocade."
Amazon readers rating: from 4 reviews
Geling 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 and published her first novel (of five to date) in China in 1985. In 1989 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. The Lost Daughter of Happiness is her first novel to be published in English and in other languages worldwide.
Cathy Silber, the translator, teaches Chinese language and literature at Williams College. She is at work on a book about literature written in nüshu, the Chinese women's script.