The Lost Daughter of Happiness: A Novel


Los Angeles Times bestseller--now in paperback.

A "sensuous and disquieting new novel" [New York Times] from one of China's most acclaimed novelists, the award-winning screenwriter of Joan Chen's film Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl.

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 novel chronicles the lives of the main characters ...

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Los Angeles Times bestseller--now in paperback.

A "sensuous and disquieting new novel" [New York Times] from one of China's most acclaimed novelists, the award-winning screenwriter of Joan Chen's film Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl.

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 novel chronicles the lives of the main characters over decades against a backdrop of social turmoil--the anti-Chinese hysteria that plagued San Francisco.

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Editorial Reviews

Washington Post
A beautifully published novel meant to be bought by Asian and Caucasian alike.
San Francisco Chronicle
Geling Yan . . . writes with such haunting imagery that the reader is gently drawn into her world . . . the novel works.
Travel & Leisure
At turns both poignant and brutal, the novel captures both the era's intense desire for a better life and the atrocities against outsiders who dared to break the rules.
Carolyn See
How personally are we supposed to take impersonal injustice, and for how long? Geling Yan rants against today's "mean, critical faces of Customs and Immigration" bureaucrats, and complains that the wealth of Chinese Americans "builds up the way dust does, barely." Finally: "We have no outlet for our hatred and rage." No street corner on which to lament. Only, in this case, a beautifully published novel meant to be bought by Asian and Caucasian alike.
Washington Post
Philip Gambone
The Lost Daughter of Happiness, handsomely translated by Cathy Silber, is both a conversation across centuries and a deft exploration of the wondrous and sad inscrutability of the human heart.
New York Times Book Review
Ha Jin
Geling Yan stands as an eminent writer from the Chinese diaspora. The Lost Daughters of Happiness is an ambitious, eloquent, and unique book.
San Francisco Chronicle
With simple but powerful prose, Geling Yan evokes electrifying scenes of great cruelty and sensuality.
New York Times
A conversation across centuries and a deft exploration of the wondrous and sad inscrutability of the human heart.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Yan, who fled her native China after the Tiananmen Square massacre, counts herself part of the "fifth wave" of Chinese immigrants to California. In this potentially intriguing but flatly told novel, she tells the story of a "first wave" forebear, Chinese prostitute Fusang, who became a celebrity in 1870s San Francisco. Kidnapped from her village in China to be sold as a prostitute in "Gold Mountain," as the Chinese immigrants dubbed San Francisco, Fusang distinguishes herself through her extraordinary serenity, which many take for slow-wittedness. Once in the U. S., she runs afoul of her madams by refusing to hawk herself aggressively to potential customers. Despite Fusang's reserve, she attracts a slew of devoted lovers, including Chris, a "little white devil" who is only 12 when he first purchases Fusang's services. Chris tails Fusang around San Francisco's Chinatown and follows her adventures over the next four decades. After prompting a bloody battle between two suitors, nearly dying of tuberculosis and being healed by the Christian ladies of the Rescue society, Fusang is stolen by the charismatic Chinese gangster Ah Ding, who changes his name to Da Yong to elude his enemies. The fugitive pair encounter the sordid splendor of Chinatown, witnessing slave auctions and mob riots and enduring attacks by threatened whites. Fusang is a real historical figure about whom little is known; Yan's account does little to clarify Fusang's motives. Such opacity creates an intriguing mystery, but lack of resolution frustrates the reader. Yan's detached, dispassionate tone contributes to the sense of unreality pervading her narrative. (Apr.) FYI: Yan, a former journalist whose first novel was published in China in 1985, wrote the script for the movie Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In this first novel, a young Chinese woman named Fusang is kidnapped and sold into prostitution in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. Based on an actual historical character, she is here presented through the sometimes distracting voice of the imagined writer, a descendant of Chinese immigrants, who compares impressions of Fusang's time with her own. Fusang is especially appealing in her simplicity and beauty, and she is loved and pursued by two different men a young, well-to-do white man, Chris, and a charismatic Chinese criminal, Da Yong. Her story reveals a brutal and lawless time and place when the Chinese were a despised group. Though the historical setting is intriguing, Fusang never becomes a fully realized character, and it is unclear whether she survives her ordeals through the power of her personality or a lack of intellect. Purchase only where there will be a strong interest in the subject. Cathleen A. Towey, Port Washington P.L., NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The life of San Francisco prostitute Fusang ("the famous whore responsible for the city's bad reputation") is surveyed in this curiously flat novel by the Chinese expatriate author of the exquisite story collection White Snake (1999). It's set during the Gold Rush of the 1870s, narrated by both an omniscient author and an unnamed "writer" who addresses Fusang directly—a device that leads to moralizing, redundancy, and excessive summary. Yan has done her research but despite several vivid characters (notably the two very different men who love Fusang), the protagonist is made so representative of the fate of a generation of "lost daughters" that she never comes fully to life. As a result, a story that cries out for reader empathy instead leaves the reader frustrated and unmoved.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786887576
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • Publication date: 5/22/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 278
  • Sales rank: 282,688
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Geling Yan was born in Shanghai and began writing in the late 1970s as a journalist. Her first novel was published in China in 1985. Following the Tiananmen Square massacre, she left China for the United States. Since then she has written many short stories, including one that was made into the award-winning film Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl. She lives in San Francisco and Africa.
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Read an Excerpt

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. 

on'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

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. 

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. 

P>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: 

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

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Deep historical look at nineteenth century Chinese immigrants

    Though the California Gold Rush was over two decades ago, many Chinese immigrate to Gold Mountain as they call San Francisco in hopes of making a fortune. However, not all the Chinese living in San Francisco voluntarily crossed the Pacific. For example Fusang was kidnapped in her homeland and brought to California where she was sold to serve as a prostitute used by many white males. <P> Only twelve, Chris finds Fusang¿s aloof detachment quite attractive and begins to obsess over the Oriental woman. This begins a lifetime in which Chris watches Fusang as her life unfolds mostly in a negative way over the next forty or so years. <P> THE LOST DAUGHTER OF HAPPINESS uses a real person (Fusang) to provide a glimpse at the American mistreatment and prejudice towards the first wave of Chinese immigrants. The historical setting is quite deep and enhances an intriguing plot. However, Fusang, though a genuine person, never comes across as real to readers. They never understand her motives in spite of following along side Chris forty years of her life. The same is said of Chris who is a fictionalized account of a prostitute follower, but his motives seem contrived. Geling Yan shows much talent especially in describing the era, but the inability for the audience to feel anything towards Fusang leaves the plot a bit short and disappointing. <P>Harriet Klausner

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