Shawna Yang Ryan, author of “Water Ghosts.”
Shawna Yang Ryan, author of “Water Ghosts.”

It looks the same today as it did almost a century ago, like the abandoned set of an old Western movie, with two story buildings and wooden sidewalks. This is tiny Locke, located in the Sacramento Delta in California. Founded in 1915, it has the unique distinction of being the only town in the US founded and built by Chinese for Chinese.

Shawna Yang Ryan’s debut novel “Water Ghosts” is set here in the 1920s during Locke’s heyday, in the aftermath of the Immigration Act of 1924, which stopped immigration from Asia. Originally published as “Locke 1928” in a limited-edition run by El Leon Literary Arts, the novel seamlessly blends together history with ancient Chinese superstitions to tell a tale of mystery and intrigue that begins with the unexpected arrival of three strange, bedraggled Chinese women out of the fog. The women’s arrival deeply affects all in this small town and stirs up old passions, particularly for Richard Fong, the handsome manager of the Lucky Fortune gambling parlor, and estranged husband of Ming Wai, one of the newly-arrived women. Through the eyes of a handful of colorful town residents, Ryan skillfully tells the story of these ghostly women and how they come to bring Locke to its knees, almost destroying it.

The women’s presence ensnares the town in throes of longing and highlights the multiple layers of life in this immigrant bachelor community. Ryan’s prose is rich in detail, while remaining sparse. Hints of homosexuality sit alongside the unusual (and true) fact that the town’s brothels were staffed by Caucasian women because its founders wanted Locke to be a family-friendly community and forbade Chinese prostitutes. Through this lens, Ryan presents a fascinating subversive power and social structure through gender hierarchy and racial privilege.

It makes sense then that the novel is driven by an emotional narrative instead of a traditional linear narrative. Ryan effectively intersperses flashbacks throughout which hinge perfectly on a character’s memory or element of their life from the previous chapter. She hopes that these key pivotal moments in characters’ lives will serve to “pull the reader into experiencing the story rather than reading the story” by helping them to better understand the characters’ psychology.

While the absence of quotation marks makes it a little confusing at times to follow conversations, it lends to the novel’s dreamy quality and the characters’ ephemeral states of consciousness. There is also a veritable “small town” feel to the book, which manages to capture the stifling feeling that can be felt in rural, tight-knit communities, enhanced by gossip circulating like air.

In the end, what’s left unsaid is just as important as what is on the page. Water Ghosts helps shed light on an important part of history slowly fading away and missing from mainstream American textbooks. Today, Ryan says, “Locke has a population of about 80 people, mainly Latino farm workers, some Caucasian artists and others who work in the Delta. There are very few Chinese who live there now.” The older generation has died out and younger Chinese Americans moved out as they became better educated, seeking city life and better job prospects. A native of Sacramento, she wants more people to know about Locke and hopes Water Ghosts will help promote it, as a way of saving it.

Historical fiction may be Ryan’s niche. She is currently working on a novel set in Taiwan right after the Nationalists come over, about a woman whose father becomes a political prisoner.

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