The historical fiction novel The Paper Daughters of Chinatown (which has been adapted for young readers) by Heather B. Moore and Allison Hong Merrill (Shadow Mountain, April 2023) is based on the lives of two women, Donaldina Cameron and the young Tien Fu Wu. Dolly was a young charismatic woman hoping to help the unfortunate in turn-of-the century San Francisco, and Tien Fu Wu was a young Chinese girl who had been sold into slavery and sent to America. With Dolly’s determination to save the Chinese “paper daughters” in slavery, she and Tien Fu became friends who worked together to rescue and educate the girls in Chinatown.
I had heard of “paper daughters” before, and I learned more from this book. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), it was not easy for Chinese people to immigrate to the USA, unless they had family already located here. To get around this, people would become “paper daughters” to another person: that is, a child only on paper. Unfortunately, as The Paper Daughters of Chinatown so sadly illustrates, so many young women thus arriving in America were put to work as mui tsai, or household servants. As the discerning adult can imagine, this likewise includes many young women sold into prostitution.
The book alternates between the point of view of Tien Fu Wu (who had been sold to pay her father’s gambling debts at age six) and that of Dolly Cameron, who came to the Christian charity home in Chinatown in 1894, innocently hoping to help the young girls. Although the book does illustrate Tien Fu’s childhood, the majority of the book focuses on the developing bond between the determined Miss Cameron and the bitter and hesitant ten-year-old Tien Fu.
After I read this book, I was touched to read that these two women truly worked together throughout their lives as true friends, and Tien Fu was even buried next to Miss Cameron. In the novel, I liked seeing Tien Fu’s transformation as she learned to trust, find her own worth, and love those around her who likewise needed help healing. Also, the story subtly emphasizes the role of Christianity in the charity work as well as a part of the children’s eventual transformation into capable members of society.
If I’d change anything, I’d simply like a little bit more, especially as an “additional information” note to the book. In the afterword, we do learn that we did not know Tien Fu’s original name, since she was so young when she left China. I also wanted to know which of the difficult “adventures” that Miss Cameron faced were true, and if Tien Fu’s first friend as mui tsai in China likewise was based on a real person. The coincidence of these two meeting up in San Francisco 10 years after their first meeting felt a bit too convenient. That said, it was revealing to see that even this supposedly “privileged” slave girl, who was given an education and special care as a child, was only educated and brought up to likewise become an abused teen (prostitute) in America.
The middle grade novel I read rarely uses the word prostitution, mentions opium abuse only in passing, and tones down the details of the physical abuse the children and young women had received, thus making this book a suitable book for older middle grade and teen readers. I imagine that the original adult version of this book is heartbreaking in its further detail. The theme is dark and difficult. But human trafficking is still an issue. While it is a disturbing issue, this historical account of the issue in the 1890s Chinatown in San Francisco is an important look into just one of the many underbellies of American history and even today.
I received a review copy of this book for consideration.