Despite the tagline on the cover, this is not a traditional romance. The story is simultaneously revolting and intriguing, upsetting and riveting. In fact there is hardly any love to speak of, rather a lot of tragedy, and an array of decidedly nasty characters – pimps, wanderers, rapists, wheeler-dealers, miners and prostitutes in San Francisco of the 1860s. Even the main character, exotic courtesan Fusang, is not beautiful or charming by today’s standards, with tiny, contorted feet, wobbly fat and a habit of chewing and spitting melon seeds in stead of talking. Fusang survives kidnapping, rape, beatings and disease because she is utterly aloof:
“…deep down she really was free; she had the kind of freedom that rescue or salvation could never bring, the kind that nobody could ever give or take away.”
This puts a distance between her and an ordinary farm boy who falls in love with her and wants to save her. The contrasts between their worlds are mirrored in the differences and tensions between the resentful San Francisco establishment and the growing Chinese immigrant population. Yan contrasts the Taoist attitude of the majority of the Chinese, Fusang in particular, and their fatalism and passivity, with the zeal and possessiveness of the Americans, and, intriguingly, extends these observations to modern-day Chinese-American relations. Not an easy read, this, but well worth the effort.
About the author
Geling Yan (simplified Chinese: 严歌苓; traditional Chinese: 嚴歌苓; pinyin: Yán Gēlíng; born 1958) is a famous Chinese writer, author of several novels, short stories and screenplays. Much of her work has been adapted for film. She is currently represented by the Hong Kong-based Peony Literary Agency. Geling Yan is also the author of The 13 Women of Nanjing, about the Nanking Massacre, which formed the basis of a 2011 film, subsequently renamed The Flowers of War, directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Christian Bale and Shigeo Kobayashi.