The Lost Daughter of Happiness
Geling Yan
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Buy *The Lost Daughter of Happiness* online The Lost Daughter of Happiness
Geling Yan
Hyperion East
276 pages
April 2001
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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In her novel The Lost Daughter of Happiness, Geling Yan presents a heartbreaking account of life during San Francisco's Gold Rush era, full of sadness, love, desire and hatred, all centering around the mysterious Fusang, a Chinese prostitute based upon an actual historical character.

Curled Up With a Good BookPromised and married to a husband she's never met, Fusang is kidnapped from her tea-growing village in the mountains and shipped to San Francisco. While many of the other young women die in the holds, Fusang survives the ordeal, and is sold into a brothel, becoming one of many young women lining the windows of Chinatown. Elevated by her beauty and amiable nature, Fusang becomes tremendously sought after and loved, sparking great controversies and battles. She becomes enamoured by the young son of a wealthy Californian, who saves her from dying, and is forever haunted by her face. The other figure in this tragic love triangle is Da Yong, a renowned criminal who may or may not be Fusang's intended husband, but who is nevertheless obsessed with owning her. After an insane evening of rioting, Chris and Fusang are parted irrevocably, while Da Yong struggles with his emotions after Fusang's violent rape by white men on a rampage through Chinatown. Ultimately, the novel reaches a bitterweet ending, and despite the thousands of young prostitutes who died very young, Fusang survives into old age, creating an unforgettable story of one woman's perseverence in the face of great despair.

The tenuous connections between love and ownership are very much at issue in this novel. While the love between Chris and Fusang is wrought with desire and forbiddenness, he ultimately fails to cast off society's expectations and laws forbidding interracial marriages. Fusang's relationship with Da Yong, though based largely on his commodification of her, seems more genuine and binding, transforming both characters in fundamental ways. The author does not fall into the trap of making her villains two-dimensionally bad, but fills all of her characters with breathtaking complexity.

The novel is also an excellent portrait of Gold Rush San Francisco, depicting the poverty, prostitution, and racial hatred with horrible clarity. The novel details a San Francisco fraught with racial tension between the newly arriving Chinese and the Americans, often erupting into violence and murder. What is interesting is the hatred possessed by the whites of the Chinese ghettos and prostitution rings -- things which they themselves had a part in creating. Particularly horrifying is the life of the Chinese prostitute, both objectified and villified, living short lives filled with terror.

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.(2)
The anti-Chinese attitude is further examined by the narrator's voice, which presents the story as a collection of imaginative detail gleaned from historical fact. As a fifth-generation Chinese immigrant, the narrator of the novel explores the parallels between Gold Rush era prejudice and the modern world with its neo-Nazi hatred running rampant on talk shows.

Filled with a beautiful prose style and an excellent layering of the present upon the past, The Lost Daughter of Happiness is a wonderful novel, as well as a captivating historical portrait.

© 2001 by Kristy Bowen for Curled Up With a Good Book

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