During the Great War, 140,000 Chinese laborers were recruited to work in England and France in order to free up men in those countries to fight. Janie Chang uses this corner of history as the backdrop of her new historical novel, The Porcelain Moon. While the two characters at the center of the story—a young Chinese woman named Pauline Deng and a French woman named Camille Roussel—are fictional, Chang indicates in her author’s note that many of the landmarks and other details of the Chinese labor camps she writes about are based on real places.
Pauline is orphaned at a young age after her parents die in an automobile accident and is taken in by her uncle Louis. She moves from Shanghai to Paris a decade before the war when her uncle and cousin Theo set up an antique store called La Pagode, a real shop dating back to the late 1920s. The Dengs take their time getting used to their new city.
During their first weeks in Paris, the three of them lived in a small hotel, a pension de famille, while her uncle looked for a building suitable for both store and home. Sometimes Theo and Pauline went with him, trailing behind as he inspected one building after another, accompanied by an estate agent and a translator hired through the Chinese consulate in Paris. More often than not, one or two men from Paris’s small community of Chinese merchants also joined them, curious to meet the new arrivals and eager to offer opinions.
Louis finds the perfect building on the Rue de Lisbonne for both La Pagode and their home. The Dengs establish their new business in Paris and a decade later the story jumps to Noyelles-sur-Mer, a rural town that faces the English channel. It’s there that Chinese workers would be employed three years into the war.
On a fine April afternoon in 1917 the first Chinese laborers arrived on the train from Calais. They formed rows of four on the platform and then marched smartly through town, following a British officer to the new camp. The entire population of Noyelles—women, children, and old men—rushed out to see them. Children ran alongside the impromptu parade.
Louis wants Theo to return to Shanghai to marry the woman betrothed to him years earlier, but in order to delay this inevitability, Theo finds work as a translator in the British Chinese Labour Corps, which ran this outpost in Noyelles. He meets a young married woman named Camille in Noyelles and falls into a dangerous affair with her. At the same time, Pauline is pursued by a creepy Chinese national named Mah while her interests instead lie with a young foreign correspondent named Henri Liu.
Camille has her own ties to China, although nefarious. She grew up surrounded by almost as many Chinese antiquities as found at the Dengs’ La Pagode. Her father Auguste had been in the military in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion.
When Auguste’s troop was dispatched to rescue European civilians and soldiers inside the International Legations, under attack by Chinese Boxers and the Imperial Chinese Army, he had been told they would be fighting barbarians. But everything he saw, the architecture and gardens, the exquisite craftsmanship, the private libraries, told him otherwise. They were plundering a civilized society.
And plunder they did. Auguste went to confession as soon as he could, but the priest assured Auguste he was just doing his duty as a soldier and that what he took from Peking was simply “spoils of war”. Auguste was haunted by this all his life and made his own confession to Camille while he was on his deathbed.
Other parts of the story also take on a Hollywood ambiance, as most of the loose ends seem to be resolved by the end of the book. Even so, Chang’s storytelling is compelling because she combines this cinematic story with an overlooked part of the Great War.