Karen Kao


Song Anyi is on the road to Shanghai and freedom when she is raped and left for dead. The family silence and shame that meet her courageous survival drive Anyi to escalating self-harm and prostitution. From opium dens to high-class brothels, Anyi dances on the edge of destruction while China prepares for war with Japan. Hers is the voice of every woman who fights for independence against overwhelming odds.

This elegant novel breaks barriers with its brutally honest account of the courtesan culture in 1930s Shanghai. In a searing portrayal of women as commodities, we trace the journey of Song Anyi, a rebellious young woman thwarted by her conventional family, the social mores of the day and the war with the Japanese that is about to engulf China.

The girls here are so young. One of them twines her fingers into mine, her hand so small I could crush it. There are more of them in the ballroom, standing well outside the pools of light that demarcate the dancing from the sitting, the illusion from reality.

Out of print

SKU: 0018 Category:

About this book

Karen Kao is the child of Chinese immigrants who settled in the United States in the 1950s.

As a young lawyer in Washington, DC, she fell in love with a Dutchman. Karen moved with him to Amsterdam. Unfazed by a new language, culture and legal system, she launched a second career as a high-flying corporate lawyer.

In 2011, she abandoned the law for a third career: a return to her love of writing and the stories she heard as a child of Old Shanghai. She writes: ‘My heart belongs to Shanghai. It’s the star of my novel.’

Kao is a former student of Lan Samantha Chang from the Paris Writers Workshop (2013) and of Yiyun Li at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference (2016).

ISBN: 978-0-9935997-0-5
Published: April 2017


“The human need for intimacy and understanding is apparent on every page.”
—The Contemporary Small Press

“Mercilessly brutal, terrifying, compelling. The real power of this novel lies in the gradual unveiling of brutal realities… Karen Kao is a master of the Noir.”
— Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang, author of The Woman who Lost China

“No Old Shanghai novel […] has gone into the devastating psychological after-effects of sexual assault as deeply as Karen Kao does in her debut novel.”
— Los Angeles Review of Books

“Political events take a backseat in this very personal story of fatally flawed characters.”
— Historical Novel Society

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