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1930s Shanghai, the setting for The Dancing Girl & the Turtle, was an era of opium smoke, elaborate dance halls and glamorous women in cheongsam.

Book review: The Dancing Girl & the Turtle makes Fifty Shades of Grey look like light bondage with its tale of Chinese prostitution

Karen Kao’s debut novel about a beautiful girl from the countryside trying to make her way in 1930s Shanghai stands apart from similar efforts with its disturbing twists, shocking violence and great ending

Joyce Lau

The Dancing Girl & the Turtle

by Karen Kao

Linen Press

4/5 stars

Hookers with hearts of gold have undeniable appeal as characters. They are sensual and risqué, while also sympathetic and socially poignant. Unfortunately, they have also become as stereotypical as the girl bound to the railroad tracks in old Hollywood films. The challenge for any emerging author is to make something new of this old story.

Karen Kao does just that, with her debut novel The Dancing Girl & the Turtle an impressive entry in a long line of exotic, erotic novels starring Chinese prostitutes – from The World of Suzie Wong in 1957 to Lotus in 2017.

The book is set in 1930s Shanghai, an era of opium smoke, elaborate dance halls and glamorous women in cheongsam. Into this world steps Song Anyi, an innocent girl from the countryside who, rather predictably, is pale, slender and unusually beautiful. Her recently deceased parents were silk vendors who catered to the rich, leaving her as a lone orphan who (rather conveniently) also has fine fashion sense and ballroom dancing skills.

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Setting off for the bright lights of Shanghai, Anyi is almost immediately set upon by a band of Chinese soldiers who gang rape her and leave her by the roadside to die. She drags herself to the home of her affluent aunt and uncle, who nurse her back to health and try to find a suitable Shanghai husband for her.

Up to this point, The Dancing Girl follows convention, and could easily have turned into another story about a poor young woman making her way in the world. But the book is far stranger and more disturbing than that. And it is what Kao does with the rest of the novel that sets her apart as an interesting new voice.

The Dancing Girl is told in short segments, which switch between the voices of various eccentric characters. The “turtle” in the book’s title refers to Cho, the aunt and uncle’s hapless, spoiled dandy of a son, who is in love with Anyi. Also vying for her attention is Tanizaki Horuki, a mysterious Japanese agent. Meanwhile, one of the strangest characters has to be Auntie Wen, a dowdy, middle-aged, blind masseuse, who turns out to be an S&M pimp.

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One thing that sets The Dancing Girl apart from similar books is its shocking violence, both sexual and otherwise. It does not gloss over the physical horror of rape or prostitution – or the long-term damage it does to Anyi, who suffers trauma, hallucinations and self-harm until the end. There are scenes in The Dancing Girl that make Fifty Shades of Grey look like light bondage.

There is a great twist of an ending, but Kao is smart enough to leave a few threads hanging – The Dancing Girl is already set to be the first of a series of four books, “The Shanghai Quartet”.