Excerpt from The Lost Daughter of Happiness by Geling Yan, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Lost Daughter of Happiness

by Geling Yan

The Lost Daughter of Happiness
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2001, 288 pages
    May 2002, 288 pages

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The Lost Daughter of Happiness

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.'

From The Lost Daughter of Happiness, copyright (c) 2001, Hyperion Press. Reproduced with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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