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Spotlight: Madam in Silk by Gini Grossenbacher

Spotlight: Madam in Silk by Gini Grossenbacher

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San Francisco,1849. Despite her objections, twenty-year-old Ah Toy and her servant Chen voyage from China to San Francisco with her husband who dies on board ship. With little cash and bound feet, how is she to find employment in the Gold Rush town? Since she is the only Chinese woman there, she opens a “Lookee Shop,” catering to miners who pay in gold dust to see her exotic beauty. As her notoriety grows, so does her attraction to the devoted policeman, John Clark. Yet should she put her faith in one man? Will their love survive despite her frightening encounter with Sydney Ducks, threats from rival madam Li Fan, and a tempting offer from Henry Conrad who promises her wealth and security? Armed with her mystical beliefs of the inner dragon and Goddess Mazu, Ah Toy faces much more than the journey from the ancient ways in China to the new world in America. In fact, she must find the true source of courage in a life or death struggle for her own fate, justice, and dignity. Based on page-turning accounts about the life of Ah Toy, one of San Francisco’s most legendary madams.



[ Do Not Forget Me ]

That same afternoon’s sunlight bathed Ah’s second story room. She stepped onto her balcony and stood at the railing. A mix of black-jacketed men scurried down below. Sunny days and clear nights chased away the rain, and on these clear nights a starlit canopy lit up the bay. The upstairs breeze rustled her hair and caressed her face. What a change from her former ground-level shanty where she used to hear every outside footstep through the thin walls. 

Her house. The sound of that made her pause. She planned that each of the girls would have their own spacious room on the second story of the new dwelling. Along with Chen’s smaller room next to Ah’s, a total of five bedrooms completed the second story plan.

Chen attended to her needs, dumping her chamber pot, laundering her clothes and helping her select the most appropriate outfit for the occasion. He made it his special duty to massage her feet at night with an oil mixed with camphor, cloves, and menthol. His gentle touch erased the cares of the day. He dusted and polished her jewelry collection, now growing larger, a sign of her wealth. But more than all that, he remained her trusted confidante, her anchor on this quaking soil. 

She spotted Chen’s tall form moving in the familiar mix of Cantonese men’s black jackets and round-toed shoes down below. His queue flew behind his brisk steps. “Chen?” she called.

“I went to the Post Office in Portsmouth Plaza.“ He looked up. “Mail for you, si tau po.” He held up a brown envelope.

Ah met him in the downstairs parlor. She took the letter. “Do I see a corner of the envelope peeled away? Were you spying?”

A grin played across his face. “I must admit, I was curious.” Then he drew himself up straight. “But I am always by your side—evil men and evil spirits will not get past me.” 

“Chen it is I who protect you. We need each other in this strange country.” She basked in the warmth between them.

Wonder tinged his voice. “I am most grateful for the honor.” He tilted his head and smiled.

She patted his hand. “Now you must go have the new cook prepare the evening meal. Our new girls are too thin. We must fatten them. Have cook prepare the roast duck with orange sauce. Lots of fat in the gravy. I need their thin legs softer for men to rest upon.”

“As you wish.” He pushed his cap up on his head. 

She grabbed the ivory handled knife from the side table, and opened the envelope, then sat on the edge of the settee. The scrawling letters floated across the page of white paper that bore the sheen of expensive vellum.

Monterey, California

January 15, 1850 

Dear Mrs. Toy,

Nary a day passes that I do not think of your lovely features. I am very lonely now in the midst of men’s affairs. Unfortunately, some large matters call me back to Canton again, yet I wish to see you before I take my leave for China. I will be on board ship in San Francisco harbor on February 13, and I would very much like to have you dine with me. 

I know that San Francisco streets are rough, and I do not want to venture far from the ship. Thus, I will send a wagon to your address Elizabeth gave me, and you may meet me at the Excelsior Restaurant. Gold spoons, quite civilized. My ship’s Captain told me the vegetables come from the Sandwich Islands. I shall meet you there at 1800 hours. Since you will be unable to contact me before that date, I shall wait for you for one hour at the Excelsior. Should you not appear, I will figure you have declined my invitation.

Very much looking forward to your presence.

Your humble servant,

Henry Conrad

She folded the letter and sat back on the settee. She must think. February 11th was New Year’s Eve, followed by the celebrations of New Year’s Day. Henry’s invitation for February 13th crowded her busy schedule, yet—. This was the year of the Dog, an auspicious sign. A dog’s arrival symbolized good fortune. Perhaps Henry would bring the luck she welcomed. 

The soft, hovering notes of the guqin came from upstairs. She imagined Yee sitting upright on the bedroom chair, plucking the stringed instrument, her eyes closed in concentration. The girl played well; her fingers created soft, thoughtful harmonies that filled the house and drifted out onto the street below.

Ah ran her finger across the smooth paper. A series of questions leaped into her mind, in tune with the soft notes of Yee’s guqin. Even though Henry might bring good fortune, how would he fit into her life her in the Bay City? Did the Daileys think he would rescue her? What was wrong with the path she was choosing for herself? 

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About the Author

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California author Gini Grossenbacher was a successful high school English teacher until she abandoned grades and term papers, choosing to write historical novels instead. Now she leads small writing groups and coaches other writers. She loves researching the history behind her novels, and enjoys traveling to the setting where they take place. Her hobbies include needlepoint, nature walks, and Scrabble. She lives in the Sacramento Valley where she grew up, east of San Francisco.

For more information, please visit Gini’s website. You can also find her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, and Goodreads.


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