Angels and Ghosts: Shawna Yang Ryan Event Recap

Speaking before the Asia Society Northern California, Shawna Yang Ryan, author of the critically acclaimed novelWater Ghosts, shared insights into how history and fiction become intertwined in her writing. Yang Ryan began by showing the parallels between her own family history against the characters in the novel, revealing that in both cases the political situation changed lives in dramatic--and sometimes surprising--ways.

While doing the research for her novel, Ryan also uncovered the history of her grandmother's wedding--a lavish extravaganza paid by her great-grandfather. Ostensibly an act of generosity, Ryan found that it was also motivated by a sense of immense guilt. As she described, her great-grandfather was in San Francisco during the Sino-Japanese War in the 1930s while her grandmother's family fled to Fujian. Assuming his family had perished, he remarried and went on with his life for the next decade, until a chance encounter with an old acquaintance revealed that his wife and children had survived. Returning to China to reunite with his estranged family, his guilt spurred the spending spree for his daughter's wedding.

Ryan used this as a model of outside political forces having immense impact on individual lives. A string of xenophobic laws against Chinese immigrants in the 19th and early 20th century created a population of Chinese men isolated from home and women. This prevented Chinese immigrants from having babies entitled to citizenship, ensuring their status as guest workers (American women who married foreigners also lost their citizenship). This also kept hours long and wages low for the Chinese workers, since they had no families to support. 

Another effect was that prostitution became a huge underground racket with Chinese women tricked or sold into being smuggled into the United States. To circumvent the strict immigration policies against women from China for prostitution, women passed through customs by memorizing fake histories, impersonating wives or daughters of legitimate merchants, or even simply passing through in large crates. Once landed, the women were brought to brothels (often little more than hovels) throughout San Francisco and the Bay Area, where they would have to work until they paid off their debt, or--more frequently--died.

All of this history comes into play in the Californian town of Locke, about 40 minutes south of Sacramento. Ryan explained the focus on Locke in 1928: primarily a town of Chinese bachelors, it was notable for its brothels staffed exclusively by white prostitutes. 

These settings--the town, the laws, the geography--all come into play, shaping the lives of Ryan's characters. At the center is gambling hall manager Richard Fong, who, trapped by immigration laws from seeing his wife Ming Wai for 10 years, soothes his loneliness with the young prostitute Chloe. That is, until his wife mysteriously appears aboard a boat with two other women.

Ryan concluded with a discussion with the issue of ghosts. While ghosts in the novel took on a rather literal meaning, Ryan sees many of the ghosts of Locke still haunting us to this day: Locke's historic buildings housing immigrant workers, now Mexican 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 we need to take an honest look at our past--the good and the bad--to inform our present and shape our future.