It is the day of Locke’s annual Dragon Boat Festival, and the small California town is humming with anticipation as its denizens gather on the riverbank to watch the race. Suddenly, a rank–smelling fog descends, and the crowd is thrown into confusion as a small boat emerges from the murk bearing three Chinese women in tattered dress. At first, they are taken for “runaway prostitutes. Singsong girls, tramps” (p. 18), but Poppy See, the clairvoyant madam of the local brothel, senses that the new arrivals are not what they seem.
“Locke. A man’s town. The cruelty of laws has twisted the place into a Wild West throwback, where men outnumber the women twenty to one” (p. 65). Of the three passengers, Sai Fung is young and unmarried, and So Mai is assumed to be a widow. Almost immediately, the two turn the town’s bachelors into lovesick suitors competing for their favors. With no protectors and nothing beyond the clothes on their backs, they are taken to the home of the local Chinese preacher, Howar Lee. There, Corlissa, his “whitewife” (p. 203), cares for their basic needs and chaperones their courtships while grappling with her own deep unhappiness.
The third woman reveals herself to be Ming Wai, the wife of Richard Fong (née Fong Man Gum), the handsome manager of the popular Lucky Fortune gambling house. Like thousands of his countrymen, he had been enthralled by tales of life in America. Despite the fact that he is the older son—and was thus due to inherit his father’s factory—he dreamed of even greater wealth and abandoned his duties and young wife to emigrate. But Richard changed more than his name after coming to America. He sought “to remake himself all the way to the core” (p. 34) and is nonplussed to see Ming Wai and her old–fashioned bound feet in his new land.
Richard’s unease, however, is minor compared to the furor that Ming Wai’s unexpected appearance creates at the brothel. Although Richard has already exchanged Poppy’s favors for those of Chloe Howell, a young Caucasian prostitute, the older woman still pines for him. While Chloe feels only ambivalence toward Richard, he has become her sole patron and made it unnecessary for her to seek other clientele. His wife’s presence changes that, and—even as she explores a tentative relationship with Howard and Corlissa’s teenage daughter, Sofia—Chloe contemplates an escape.
Meanwhile, Poppy is suffering from more than just a broken heart. Since a childhood encounter with the unhappy spirit of a neighbor who drowned herself, Poppy has been burdened by visions. “Now she can hear the people crying out from their graves or back from the future” (p. 77), and she is certain that the three women are water ghosts who have come to Locke with malicious intentions.
Mesmerizing and emotionally nuanced, Water Ghosts explores the rippling effects of an inhumane immigration policy on the inhabitants of one small town. Seamlessly marrying ancient Chinese mythology and a buried chapter of American history, Shawna Yang Ryan announces herself with a masterful debut that marks her as a writer to watch.
Shawna Yang Ryan was born in Sacramento, California, and received her BA from the University of California, Berkeley, and her MA from the University of California, Davis. In 2002, she was a Fulbright Scholar in Taiwan. Water Ghosts, originally published as Locke 1928, was a finalist for the 2008 Northern California Book Award. She currently lives in Berkeley.
I did not become aware of the history of Chinese in California until I read Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior in college. I was pleased and surprised to find that part of the book was set in the Central Valley and Bay Area, places I was familiar with since I had grown up in Sacramento. That such richness lay in my own backyard was a revelation to me. Having grown up reading stories mainly set elsewhere, I was amazed to find stories set locally. I was inspired to explore the history of Chinese Americans in Northern California, and I recalled a small, quirky town I had visited as a child—Locke. When I began researching it, I discovered the history that had turned Locke into a bachelor community and created interesting gender and racial dynamics—men outnumbered women twenty to one, and a majority of the women in town were white prostitutes. It seemed an important story to tell, and fiction was a great medium for it.
Q. What made you choose the real town of Locke as the novel’s setting? Is the name itself significant?
Locke, on the National Register of Historic Places, is a small, two–street town located in the Sacramento Delta, about thirty miles south of Sacramento. Established in 1915 on land rented from George Locke, the town claims itself as the only freestanding town in American that was built and inhabited almost solely by Chinese. In its heyday, as many as one thousand people—of all races—would flood into Locke on the weekends for its restaurants, gambling parlors, brothels, and other kinds of entertainment. Now, about eighty people live in Locke.
Because Locke had always been at the periphery of my consciousness as I was growing up—something both familiar as a local tourist spot yet very unfamiliar—I was eager to delve into its history as part of my own self–education on Asian American history.
Q. For readers unfamiliar with the Chinese Exclusion Act, what are its most salient details as they pertain to your novel?
There was actually a series of laws that targeted the Chinese, starting with the Page Act of 1875, which was also the first federal immigration law. It prevented the immigration of convicts, Chinese men who intended to become contract laborers, and Chinese prostitutes. However, immigration officials had difficulty determining which women were wives and which were prostitutes, and relied on markers such as bound feet, or subjective and random indicators such as attractiveness.
In 1892, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. It banned the immigration of Chinese laborers and also prevented Chinese from becoming naturalized citizens. Nonlaborers, such as scholars and merchants, were allowed entry, but it was a lengthy and difficult process. The Scott Act, in 1888, barred reentry for Chinese who left the United States.
The Exclusion Act was designed to be in effect for ten years, but it was renewed in 1892 and 1902.
In 1913, the Alien Land Law prevented “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from owning land and property. Due to this law, the inhabitants of Locke rented the land beneath their homes and businesses. Because of the way the land in Locke passed hands over the years, it was not until 2005 that the citizens of Locke actually had an opportunity to purchase the land beneath their homes.
Finally, the Immigration Act of 1924 barred the immigration of groups “ineligible for citizenship.” This essentially ended all immigration from Asia until the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943. Water Ghosts is set in the wake of the 1924 Immigration Act.
Q. How many women were—like Poppy—brought over under false pretenses and forced into prostitution?
In 1870, 2,156 of the 3,536 Chinese women in California were prostitutes. In the settling of the West, prostitutes of all races made up a majority of the female population. It’s hard to know how many of these Chinese women were forced into the work under false pretenses.
However, the idea that Chinese women were being brought in and forced into prostitution was part of the narrative that lawmakers used to bolster their claims against the Chinese. Depicting most Chinese women as prostitutes allowed lawmakers to argue that the Chinese, both male and female, were depraved and diseased. This was the justification for the first of the laws targeting the Chinese, the Page Act of 1875, which was intended to prevent Asian prostitutes from entering the country. Five years later, the number of Chinese women entering the country had fallen below two hundred. The law—enforced by officials who saw little distinction between wives and prostitutes—ended nearly all immigration of Chinese women. Ironically, that created the very situation that lawmakers were trying to avoid. By skewing gender ratios in the Chinese population—resulting in “bachelor” communities—the demand for prostitutes grew. Furthermore, scholar Sheldon Zhang notes that the Chinese Exclusion Act led directly to a significant wave of human smuggling as people tried to circumvent the restrictions.
By 1920, the overall Chinese population in America had fallen to 11,000. Poppy’s path was perhaps less likely by then, but through her story, I hope to demonstrate the concrete effects of harsh (and abstract) immigration laws.
Q. Why did you set the novel in the year just prior to America’s Great Depression?
The 1920s—the Jazz Age—is generally thought of as a time of great freedom and wealth. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby exemplifies the mood of the era. However, not every American experienced that version of the 1920s. By setting the novel in 1928, I could position the story between the 1924 Immigration Act and the Great Depression—and thus portray the tension that existed between the zeitgeist of the country (I had fun writing the Fitzgerald–inspired chapter where Chloe goes to New York) and the actual experience of immigrants living in rural areas under very different circumstances.
Q. Water Ghosts is a novel with no heroes and no villains. Did you consciously set out to craft it this way?
Crafting real, nuanced characters was very important to me, especially as I thought about the stereotypical ways I’d seen Asians characterized in fiction. Writing requires some amount of armchair psychology—understanding people’s motives and actions—and I had realized that even the people we find “evil” have some discrepancies in character. People have villainous moments and heroic moments and it is the accretion of these that make us human. I hoped to create a story of real people struggling in real ways under somewhat surreal circumstances.
Q. At what point did the law preventing the emigration of Chinese women change and what precipitated it?
The law regarding not just the immigration of Chinese women but of all Chinese was changed in 1943, with the signing of the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act of 1943, also known as the Magnuson Act. The act also allowed Chinese to become naturalized citizens. The context of the repeal was China’s friendly relationship with the United States during World War II, and it set the Chinese in opposition to the “enemy Japanese.”
Q. Do you feel that the Chinese immigrant’s road to Americanization has been bumpier than those of other races?
Every new population entering the United States, from the Irish to the Italians to the Chinese and so on, has experienced difficulties in the process of “Americanization” and I’m hesitant to compare experiences. However, many have pointed out that while groups such as the Irish could disappear into “whiteness” and express their ethnicity as an option, Asian Americans always wear their “difference.” In fact, one of the common tropes in movies and books is the Asian American as a perpetual foreigner.
A similar attitude applied to the Chinese as well. The original Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the only law to explicitly target a group based on race; the premise for the act was that the Chinese were considered “inassimilable.” Furthermore, the Geary Act of 1892 required Chinese to carry residency papers with them at all times, and at any moment or place, authorities could stop them to check their papers. However, even today, we see other ethnic groups being targeted in similar ways. In sum, I’d say immigration, for any group, has always been and may always be a complicated issue in America.
Q. You preface the novel with a quote from Toni Morrison, and John Beckman compares you favorably to Steinbeck. Who are some of your literary influences?
I’m such a wanton reader. I read almost anything and everything, and it’s a rare book that I don’t like. We get so many different things from books—advice, inspiration, entertainment—and every book I read fulfills some role for me. However, there are certain writers I turn to as literary models. Toni Morrison is definitely one of them. I first read her in high school, at a point in my life where I was finding few female role models. Her work helped me see possibilities for writing as a woman, as a person of color, as a magical realist. Don DeLillo is another writer whose prose breaks my heart and inspires me to be patient enough to sit and parse out sentences. Finally, the humanism, the beautiful prose, deep empathy, and unabashed politics of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has helped me keep in mind that an earnest respect for the human experience is the soul of great fiction.
Q. How are Chinese ghosts different from those in the West? You left some room for ambiguity in Water Ghosts—do you believe in a spirit world?
In both Western and Chinese beliefs about ghosts, there is an underlying idea about unfinished business and unsettled souls seeking acknowledgment from the living. However, Chinese ghosts are also often linked to ideas about ancestry and ritual. The Festival of the Hungry Ghosts, or “Ghost Month,” an event depicted in Water Ghosts, is still observed in many places in Asia. During this month, people set out food offerings and burn incense and symbolic money for the ghosts that supposedly roam among the living during this time. This is also a time to remember and appease the unhappy, wandering “hungry” ghosts who have no descendents to honor them. These remembrances are also a guard against potential bad luck. For me, these rituals represent a symbolic way to recognize and respect the past.
I’ve never seen a ghost (though I was sure I had when I was living in an old gambling hall in Locke during my research!), but I’m open to the idea that they exist. Some members of my family—very grounded, rational people—have had supernatural encounters. I definitely believe that many things exist beyond our realm of everyday perception. I certainly hope so!