This is a story about strength of family and friendships, heartbreak, perseverance, and personal tragedy. The setting is 1898 in the sleepy village of Sanhou, China. Seventeen-year-old Shu Wei, in his role as Town Scribe, makes a disastrous mistake, raising the ire of some crooked town counselors. His father’s business is burned to the ground by one of the villainous counselors in retaliation. To make matters worse, a tribunal of these counselors is called that summarily banishes his family from the town, including his father and sister. Sensing their lives are at risk, they decide to emigrate to San Francisco’s Chinatown. On the trip over, Shu Wei encounters the counselor-arsonist on board the ship who threatens his life if he doesn’t meet his demands to investigate his suspicions about his co-leader of a Tong in San Francisco.
The intrigue, mystery, and tension that follow grow deeper as Shu Wei wrestles with a hostile world. Meanwhile, various members of the community rally by Shu Wei’s side, trying to stabilize the fragile remnants of his confidence and honor. A Chinese American newspaper offers him a job as a cub reporter where he collaborates with a woman colleague on the paper. She befriends him, tutoring him in the ways of reporting and photography—a very suitable arrangement in his eyes.
But now, Shu Wei finds himself struggling to satisfy both the demands of the newspaper and the Tong—effectively acting as a double agent. His reporting and fragile allegiance to the Tong require him to assimilate into the ranks of the underground. His life constantly in danger, Shu Wei uses his new skills as an investigative reporter and photographer to attempt to root out the web of evil in the Tong.
Meanwhile, his sister, Shu Lan-lan, is hired by a woman who runs the Occidental Home, a refuge for girls who have been abused by their captors. One of the rescued girls becomes a cause célèbre after Shu Wei’s story appears in the newspaper. This only rankles the Tong further and an all-out war is declared against the newspaper and the Occidental Home.
In a secondary plot, Shu Wei and his sister discover some valuable jewels and papers in the backyard of their host’s store where they are staying. Through research at a local pawn shop, it appears they belong to a French woman who was slain several years ago. Shu Wei pursues an intricate path of potential leads in an attempt to uncover the murderer.
In this coming-of-age saga, Shu Wei builds on his roots as a Town Scribe and follows his dream of becoming a reporter. Using the implements of a free press, he restores honor to his family and finds a renewed sense of self-confidence. Even Jack London and Mark Twain lend their timely support. Where will his next adventures take him?