THE PAPER DAUGHTERS OF CHINATOWN, by Heather B. Moore and Allison Hong Merrill, Shadow Mountain, April 11, 2023, Hardcover, $18.99 (ages 10 and up)
The Paper Daughters of Chinatown, by Heather B. Moore and Allison Hong Merrill, follows the rescue of immigrant women and girls in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the late 1890s.
When Tai Choi leaves her home in the Zhejiang province of China, she believes it’s to visit her grandmother. But despite her mother’s opposition, her father has sold her to pay his gambling debts. Alone and afraid, Tai Choi is put on a ship headed for “Gold Mountain” (San Francisco). When she arrives, she’s forced to go by the name on her forged papers: Tien Fu Wu.
Her new life as a servant is hard. She is told to stay hidden, stay silent, and perform an endless list of chores, or she will be punished or sold again. If she is to survive, Tien Fu must persevere, and learn who to trust. Her life changes when she’s rescued by the women at the Occidental Mission Home for Girls.
When Dolly Cameron arrives in San Francisco to teach sewing at the mission home, she meets Tien Fu, who is willful, defiant, and unwilling to trust anyone. Dolly quickly learns that all the girls at the home were freed from servitude and maltreatment, and enthusiastically accepts a role in rescuing more.
Despite challenges, Dolly and Tien Fu forge a powerful friendship as they mentor and help those in the mission home and work to win the freedom of enslaved immigrant women and girls. —Synopsis provided by Shadow Mountain
First written for adults by Heather B. Moore in 2021, The Paper Daughters of Chinatown is based on true events from late 19th century San Francisco. During that time, an underground organization bought and sold young Chinese girls and women into prostitution and slavery. Known as “paper daughters,” because of the fake documents used to gain entry to America but leave them without legal identity, these girls and women generally had no recourse. The only spot of hope came from the Occidental Mission Home for Girls where they were educated and kept safe.
For this new version of The Paper Daughters of Chinatown, Allison Hong Merrill has joined forces with Moore to adapt the text to a younger audience. Given that so much of the original content focuses on trafficking, forced prostitution, physical and mental abuse, the writers needed gentle hands. And they’ve done well. Together, they’ve toned down the detail while retaining the heart of the original.
At the center of The Paper Daughters of Chinatown are Tien Fu Wu and Dolly Cameron. Their story unfolds through alternating chapters.
Tien Fu’s story begins when she is just 6-years-old. Her confusion and heartache at being sold, and the unimaginable conditions she faced are heartbreaking. Despite facing numerous indignities, she pushes through.
Dolly’s story begins with her arrival at the Occidental Mission Home. She is motivated by her faith and belief that all people should be treated equally. Her willingness to risk everything for the girls is admirable.
While Dolly is well researched and fully realized, I found myself more interested in the Chinese girls and wanted more. It’s likely there was less source material for them, but I would have felt a stronger pull if the story had been told completely from a Chinese perspective.
Criticism aside, The Paper Daughters of Chinatown is a compelling read that would work well in conjunction with classroom lessons and is appropriate for older middle readers, ages 10 and up.
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