Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

'Water Ghosts' Blurs Lines Between History and Fiction

Shawna Yang Ryan, author of Water Ghosts, in San Francisco on August 10, 2010. (Asia Society Northern California)

Shawna Yang Ryan, author of Water Ghosts, in San Francisco on August 10, 2010. (Asia Society Northern California)

All of this history came into play in the Californian town of Locke, about 40 minutes south of Sacramento and the setting for Water Ghosts. In the 1920s, Locke was primarily a town of Chinese bachelors, and notorious for its brothels staffed exclusively by white prostitutes. Here, history and fiction combine. As Ryan stated, "The theme is the same. It's the separation of Chinese men who came to America, and the women they left behind in China."

At the center of Water Ghosts is gambling hall manager Richard Fong. "The story of Richard Fong and the story of Locke," Ryan explained, "are webbed into this matrix of the sometimes contradictory immigration laws of America." Prevented by immigration laws from seeing his wife Ming Wai for 10 years, he soothes his loneliness at the brothel run by Poppy See, a Chinese prostitute-turned-madam. There, he develops a relationship with young white prostitute Chloe—until his wife mysteriously appears aboard a boat with two other Chinese women.

Ryan concluded her remarks with a discussion of ghosts, which also figure prominently in her novel. While ghosts in the novel took on a rather literal meaning, Ryan sees many figurative ghosts of Locke still haunting us to this day, "ghosts of the legacy of those years": Locke's historic buildings housing immigrant workers, now Latino instead of Chinese; Arizona's HB1070 law requiring proof of citizenship; the fact that Asian women are still being tricked into prostitution. Ryan states that America needs to take an honest look at its past—the good and the bad#8212;to inform its present and shape its future.    

Reported by Carlos Cajilig, Asia Society Northern California

This program was co-sponsored by the Chinese Historical Society of America.