the observer Sat 02 August 2008
In Sanniu's Chinese village, girls are called 'chopsticks', boys 'roof-beams'. Unlike sturdy roof-beams, chopstick girls are so disposable that Sanniu's parents have named her and her five sisters only with numbers: Sanniu means 'Three'. Following Three and her sisters, who arrive as painfully naive, wide-eyed newcomers in the big city of Nanjing, Xinran evokes the multiple, layered cultures and customs of modern China with bright, memorable detail and empathy for her characters. An imagined version of the lives of three real people, the book is light and hopeful, but its afterword suggests the troubles as well as the successes of life in the People's Republic. When Xinran tried to track down the model for one of her chopstick girls, she found the teahouse where the woman had worked closed for 'selling banned books'.