‘The Lost Daughter of Happiness’ by Geling Yan is largely narrated by a writer who tells the readers the tale of an infamous Chinese prostitute. Fusang is tricked and trafficked into San Fransisco’s flesh trade and many men die squabbling over her but the beautiful, strange woman has eyes only for one white boy much younger than her.

While Geling Yan’s decision to use a literary device wherein the narrator directly addresses the protagonist was interesting, it doesn’t really hit a chord. The narrator lives in the present (perhaps in the 21st century), whereas Fusang was about 20 when she first set foot on American soil in the 1860s. So it often feels like the narrator is talking to a corpse who has no idea someone is talking about them. Had there been a better link between the two, maybe the narration would’ve worked well.

There are two main characters in this novel, each of them is described like legendary figures from some folk tale, which means they are slightly one-dimensional. Fusang is elevated to a pedestal, like an angel who fell on Earth to be defiled, raped by lusty men. She never screams, complains, or utters a word unless necessary, silently suffering and taking each man who comes to her with a smile. It’s hard to read her mind, she is an enigma to the reader, but oftentimes it’s implied there is nothing to read, she is blank slate who doesn’t ponder upon anything and has wholeheartedly accepted her fate as a prostitute pushed around by scheming pimps. You are conflicted as a reader on whether to admire her stoic resilience to survive or pity her for relinquishing her free-will.

Then there is Chris, her white-boy, who is only 12 when he finds himself enamoured by 20-year-old Fusang while walking around Chinatown. It’s the 1860s, so it wasn’t uncommon for curious adolescent boys to try cheap Chinese whores whose services would cost as much as candy. The story spans decades, following how Chris and Fusang’s lives are intertwined with each other, like star-crossed lovers who can never have a happy ending. Or can they?

Geling Yan paints a vivid picture of the racial tensions and poisonous hatred the Whites harboured against Chinese immigrants. And Fusang symbolized one of the worst Chinese exports – cheap prostitutes luring young white boys. But as a book that promises to be an epic tale of forbidden romance, ‘The Lost Daughters of Happiness’ doesn’t provide a satisfactory love story.  Fusang, Chris are obsessed with each other in very different ways and that obsession turns into a twisted tragic joke towards the end, a twist which should’ve been like a stab in the gut, but felt hollow.   

It’s a 3/5 from me.

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