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book review,  Books

The Paper Daughters of Chinatown by Heather B. Moore – A Book Review

My historical fiction binging continues, and this one is yet another based on a true life store. The Paper Daughters of Chinatown by author Heather B. Moore is one of the most compelling historical fiction books I’ve read this year.

I was provided an advanced copy from Shadow Mountain Publishing; all opinions are my own. This post contains some affiliate links that may earn me a commission if you purchase through them.

Details and Synopsis

The Paper Daughters of Chinatown by Heather B. Moore – A Book ReviewThe Paper Daughters of Chinatown by Heather B. Moore
Published by Shadow Mountain on September 1, 2020
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Biographical, Women
Pages: 384
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Based on true events, The Paper Daughters of Chinatown is a powerful story about a largely unknown chapter in history and the women who emerged as heroes.

In the late nineteenth century, San Francisco is a booming city with a dark side, one where a powerful underground organization-the criminal tong-buys and sells young Chinese women into prostitution and slavery. These "paper daughters," so called because fake documents gain them entry to America but leave them without legal identity, generally have no recourse. But the Occidental Mission Home for Girls is one bright spot of hope and help.

Told in alternating chapters, this rich narrative follows the stories of young Donaldina "Dolly" Cameron, who works in the mission home, and Mei Lien, a "paper daughter" who thinks she is coming to America for an arranged marriage but instead is sold into a life of shame and despair.

Dolly, a real-life pioneering advocate for social justice, bravely fights corrupt officials and violent gangs, helping to win freedom for thousands of Chinese women. Mei Lien endures heartbreak and betrayal in her search for hope, belonging, and love. Their stories merge in this gripping account of the courage and determination that helped to shape a new course of women's history in America.


What I Liked About The Paper Daughters of Chinatown

I appreciate when a book introduces a piece of history that I knew little to nothing about. That this is a part of history here in the U.S. is both heartbreaking and horrifying. Heather B. Moore is a fantastic writer of historical fiction. I appreciate how well-researched and detailed the story is. (Moore shares additional facts in the afterword and chapter notes that follow the conclusion of the story. They are well worth a read.)

The Paper Daughters of Chinatown is both heartbreaking and inspiring. The story of the young Chinese women brought to the US with the promise of marriage, only to be sold into prostitution was heartbreaking. It was inspiring because of the work Donaldina Cameron and The Occidental Mission Home for Girls in San Francisco did for these women.

Set in San Francisco in the late 1890’s through the early 1900’s, this is a story about the human trafficking of Chinese women. At that time in US history, Chinese women could immigrate if their father or spouse were already in the US. The tong brought women (and girls) illegally to the US with the promise of a husband, using false papers and a very well memorized background to fool immigration – thus the title of the book. Once here, however, they learned there was no waiting husband. Once here, the tong sold these women into prostitution, and often sedated them with opium to make them compliant.

The book alternates between the stories of two people: Donaldina “Dolly” Cameron, and a fictitious character Mei Lien, a “paper daughter” of the book’s title. Donaldina’s story tells the tale of how she came to work at the Occidental Mission Home. It also tells of the risks she and her coworkers took rescuing Chinese prostitutes and slaves from a criminal group referred to as the tong. Mei Lien is brought to the US under false pretenses. Her story is simply tragic and made me angry. It provides a vivid first-hand picture of what some of the women endured.

This is a character-driven story, and Moore does a wonderful job with both the main characters and supporting characters. I was emotionally drawn to all the characters: Dolly, for her bravery and dedication. The girls rescued from the tong for both what they endured and how they helped the other girls and women who came to the school. What they had to endure was both enraging and heartbreaking.

I also appreciated how Moore told a story that was, quite honestly at times, brutal and heart wrenching without giving graphic or gratuitous details. Sometimes in a story based on a person’s life story, the details are flat and dry. This is not the case here. She has painted a picture that is vivid and made Dolly Cameron a three-dimensional character.


The Paper Daughters of Chinatown really stuck with me long after the last page was turned. (And it is a page-turner!) It’s not a light read, but it is a powerful read, and a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. It’s truly a story that needed to be told.


If You Like Historical Fiction, May I Recommend:

I JUST finished Jane Kirkpatrick’s Something Worth Doing, another character-driven historical fiction novel based on the life of suffragist Abigail Scott Dunaway, a woman who worked in tandem with Susan B Anthony, but one I bet you’ve never heard of.

Another historical fiction book that is one of my recent favorites is Dragonfly by Leila Meacham. This is set during WWII and is a pretty epic novel. I can’t recommend it enough!

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