This paper examines the intimate histories of my grandmother and her sisters who had to navigate a very controlling Chinese patriarchal order while growing up in a racially charged southern town during segregation. As children of Chinese immigrant parents, the Lum sisters were uprooted from the safety of the ethnic ghetto of Chinatown in the late 1920s to the black neighborhood of Augusta, Georgia. Holding on to cultural tradition and values while pushing to carve their own identities, these coming of age girls were faced with challenges that compelled them to make decisions that would disrupt the cultural and racial structure they were confined by.
A few sisters who did not comply with expectations were seen as unruly under proper Chinese standards. But they were far from “sluts”. Moving away from the romanticized imaginaries of erotic representations of unruly Chinese women, these ordinary women’s stories of love and desire and the random fate of their arranged marriages disrupt narratives on Chineseness, gender roles, and racial constructs of America that complicated their position. I question who had control over these Chinese women’s bodies, how sexuality was treated in the early 20th Century Chinese American lives as neither prostitutes nor rule- abiding filial daughters. They are “broken shoes” of a different sort. Blurring the boundaries of cultural and racial purity that structured their lives, what do the selective memory of these silenced women reveal about women’s strength to resist control and their destined roles to create space for agency and desire?