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A New Novel Uncovers the Secret Lives of Chinatown

Vanessa Hua’s debut novel is a clear-eyed glimpse into the hidden worlds of Chinatown.


Lisa Elley, San Francisco Chinatown (2014)

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Photo: Courtesy of Ballantine Books

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It’s a brisk morning as Vanessa Hua strolls through Chinatown’s living room. At least that’s what the East Bay writer calls the San Francisco park otherwise known as Portsmouth Square, where elderly Chinese people gather daily to crowd around card games, chat, or simply melt into the surrounding white noise of Cantonese and Mandarin conversations. The square is used as a common area of sorts because most of the park-goers live in dorm-style single-room occupancies, Hua says. That’s just one of many invisible aspects of the paradoxically well-known neighborhood.

In Hua’s luminous debut novel, A River of Stars (August 14, Ballantine Books), the park serves as an entry point into contemporary Chinatown life. A riveting tale of survival and motherhood, the book doubles as an honest and much-needed portrait of the present-day neighborhood via its web of characters—both privileged and disenfranchised, sleazy and compassionate—all of whom have come there to seek refuge and build a home.

A River of Stars centers on Scarlett, a Chinese factory manager who, after becoming pregnant during an affair with her married boss, is sent off to America so the child can obtain U.S. citizenship. She lands in a secret maternity home in Los Angeles, where she meets a Chinese teenager named Daisy who’s also expecting. Together they flee to San Francisco, where they attempt to blend in and survive in the vast, suffocating, gleaming, grimy world of Chinatown. Or, as Hua writes, the world of “bubbling tanks where catfish bobbed and gasped, the markets pungent with bitter greens and oranges…the stores selling hell money and incense to honor the dead.”

Walking out of Portsmouth Square and into Chinatown’s bustling streets, past window displays of roast duck and the trinket layouts of Grant Avenue storefronts, Hua and I trade the disparate family histories behind our own American-born Chinese selves. “This neighborhood, the stories we’re sharing right now about our families, and even the characters in my novel—being Chinese is not monolithic,” says Hua, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist who, as a prizewinning reporter, spent years covering the Asian diaspora, including Chinese populations as far-flung as Panama. “One of the things that I hope the novel reflects is just the multiplicity of what the Chinese experience is.”

In Hua’s telling, the modern Chinese immigrant’s tale is not one of a submissive model minority. It’s a tale of the tenderhearted cook, the cunning profiteer, the fierce mother. It’s a lot like Portsmouth Square: the whole human experience, hiding in plain sight.

Originally published in the August issue of
San Francisco 

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