The Paper Daughters of Chinatown: Adapted for Young Readers from the Best-Selling Novel

Authors: Heather B. Moore and Allison Hong Merrill

Rating: 1 star

Publication date: April 11th, 2023

Genre: Historical fiction, young adult, middle grade

Format read: Print

StoryGraph Summary Excerpt: Based on the true story of two friends who unite to help rescue immigrant women in the most dangerous corners of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the late 1890s. 

Find the Book: StoryGraph | Goodreads | Bookshop

Thank you to Shadow Mountain for sending me an Advance Reader Copy! 

Content Warnings: slavery, physical violence, sexual assault, victim shaming, substances

In 1882, the U.S. government passed The Chinese Exclusion Act, a federal law that barred Chinese laborers from entering the country. Though this act was not the first legislation targeting Chinese immigrants, it was “the first law that prevented an entire ethnic group from migrating to the United States of America.” The exceptions to this class and race-based act included diplomats, merchants, academics, and the children of native-born American citizens. 

The law forced significant changes onto Chinese communities in the country—it separated families, closed down businesses, and reinforced the anti-immigrant, xenophobic, and classist beliefs of many white Americans. The discriminatory law exacerbated the wave of racial hostility and resulted in more anti-Chinese immigration legislation. Horrifyingly, it wasn’t repealed until 1946, and it was only in 2011 that the U.S. Congress formally apologized. 

Cameron and Tien Wu stand together holding a book

Photo credits: Cameron House

I wonder if that late apology, combined with history curricula that needs updating, is one of the reasons so many people don’t know about this crucial period of history. This adaptation of The Paper Daughters of Chinatown picks up in 1893, eleven years after the legislation and others had passed, making it impossible for Chinese workers and children to move to the country. These exclusionary laws led to the system of “paper sons” and “paper daughters”, Chinese children who were unlawfully brought to the States using fraudulent documentation showing that they were related to family members already in the country.

This story is initially told from the perspective of six-year-old protagonist Tai Choi, later renamed Tien Fuh Wu. She is based on Tien Fuh Wu (also spelled “Tien Fu Wu”), the real-life anti-human trafficking pioneer who was sold to become a child domestic servant or a “mui tsai”. Prior to this, Tien Fuh Wu lived in the Zhejiang province of China with her formerly affluent family including her father, who sold her into servitude to pay off his gambling debts. In this adaptation, Tai Choi is made to believe that she is visiting her grandmother, so the early chapters follow her as she goes from confusion about what is happening to a somber acceptance of her new life. It was extremely sad to read the juxtaposition of this little girl hoping for new, fun experiences, with the yearning for her mother and for home. It was even more heartbreaking to think about the real lives of Tien Fuh Wu and others who had similar experiences. 

I appreciated that the book reminded me to consider crucial questions that are often missing from discussions about immigration. These questions are stated thoroughly and profoundly in Re-Imagining Migration’s Learning Arc (which I encourage you to read if you’re interested): 

  • Why do people leave their homes? In what ways do societal, political, and environmental forces/challenges influence the decision to migrate?
  • How do borders impact people’s lives? How do the visible and invisible borders that people encounter shape their lives?
  • What are the rights of people with an uncertain status?
  • Lastly, to add one of my own questions to this conversation: How might existing systems play a role in influencing migration? 

In chapter seven, Tai Choi is rescued from a dangerous situation and brought to a safe house called “Occidental Mission Home for Girls” (now known as Cameron House). Right after this, besides a few chapters from Wu’s POV, the primary storyteller becomes Donaldina “Dolly” Cameron, based on the real-life missionary and advocate. Having initially joined the home as a sewing teacher, Cameron took over as superintendent two years later. In addition to teaching religious studies and housework skills, she organized social events, fought courts to secure legal guardianship, and bravely got women out of dangerous situations. Cameron worked together with Tien Fuh Wu and Chinese aides to disrupt trafficking and support thousands of vulnerable Chinese immigrant girls and women. Cameron was said to be a kind, determined person, as well as a pioneer in the field. While these traits are on display in the book, we also see uncomfortable moments, such as Cameron failing to understand that not everyone in her care is okay with being hugged or touched at all.

Having said that, this retelling treads into problematic territory because it portrays Cameron as a savior, without doing due diligence to those who were under her care and crucial to her success. The story places too much emphasis on rescue missions and on Cameron being a mother figure without actually giving us everyone’s perspectives. Even when we do get to read chapters from Tien Fuh Wu’s perspective later on, the writing style is dry and descriptive rather than emotionally compelling like the beginning chapters. Wu and Cameron were said to be partners, but this book doesn’t give Wu or the other girls in-depth credit (maybe some time skips to Wu being older would have helped). It doesn’t adequately discuss the support provided by Chinese aides, including Tien Fuh Wu—the aides worked with law enforcement, ran the homes while Cameron was away, and provided translation support during hearings (Cameron never learned the languages despite living in Chinatown for 40 years). This pitfall was magnified by the focus on Cameron’s sadness for the girls, rather than actually fleshing out the girls’ experiences and struggles, and how Cameron might have tried to understand them outside of her pity. Despite being allegedly supportive of Chinese cultures, Cameron still prioritized Anglo-American customs. To quote Annie Cameron Reller, Cameron’s great great grand niece, “The residents were provided with safety and security, but were also expected to pray daily and confine themselves within the Mission’s Western expectations.”

Tien Wu

Having said all that, while I appreciate the authors’ good intent, the execution leaves much to be desired. This is also because the target audience is unclear, even though the book says it’s intended for “young readers”. is it middle grade or YA? The unfocused, uneven writing is not as compelling as it could have been had it known exactly who it was for. At times, it feels like the writing is intended for a ten-year-old and at other times, for a sixteen-year-old. Though there are poignant moments that reflect childlike innocence and its loss, they are built up and then resolved too quickly. The shift into a true understanding of the situation is not represented well—the language is quite advanced and there are many leaps in thinking that might not be intuited by middle-grade readers. The story might be more suited for teenagers, but either way, I would not recommend this book to anyone looking to learn more about this part of history. 

Good intentions aside, this book is all tell and no show. It’s disappointing that we don’t get to dig into the full complexities of the time period and the survivors’ experiences. This adaptation and the original book could have been a great opportunity to highlight not only Tien Fuh Wu and Donaldina Cameron but also their colleagues, and their collective efforts to fight slavery and sex trafficking. As part of this, it could have emphasized the significance of Chinese and white women working together at the time. It could have also encouraged readers to draw more deliberate connections between this part of history and the broader anti-racism work that we must continue, especially as anti-Asian sentiment still runs rampant in our communities. Unfortunately, this book falls into the trap of many historical fiction stories, centering white saviorism as well as deeply uncomfortable power dynamics. 

Thanks for reading! If you’re interested in learning more, check out these resources: