Gum Moon: A Novel of San Francisco Chinatown

Written by Jeffrey L Staley
Review by Valerie Adolph

Gum Moon, Cantonese for ‘Golden Gate,’ indicates the setting for most of this illuminating novel about the slavery of Chinese girls in San Francisco from late in the 19th century to the early 20th century. It follows Chun, later called Maud, from her sale at the age of three in 1898 to her early teens.

Chun’s mother is forced by poverty to sell her to a brothel owner where Chinese girls sold into slavery must serve men. Chun is too young for this, but even at age three, she must work, often beaten and always hungry, cleaning the house. But there are missionary societies funded by congregations in the eastern U.S., who struggle to save as many young Chinese girls as they can. In a dangerous manoeuver Chun is liberated.

She is re-named Maud and raised and educated among a group of Chinese girls in an environment of white people where she learns English and becomes literate, Christian, and a skilled pianist. However, when their large house is destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, the girls face a terrifying trek to safety. Soon afterwards they form a choir and head east to raise money to build a replacement house. Travelling by rail they tour the northern U.S. with one teacher and Chun/Maud as accompanist. This tour, with all its ups and downs—including a meeting with President Roosevelt—is told mostly in a young girl’s voice.

This is fiction, but it’s based on the experiences of a relative of the author and on missionary society records. I found it an engrossing read but not a comfortable one. The story, from the filth and debauched cruelty of the brothel, to the President’s office, to the boredom of a child on a long train ride, is told with honesty and perception. Highly recommended.