Black Cat
Black Cat
Black Cat

White Ghost Girls

by Alice Greenway

“A sensual, haunting story of sibling love, danger and infatuation with the unknown. . . . This is a brave and artful book, not less powerful for its economy, but perhaps even more so because of it.” —Vendela Vida, New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Page Count 192
  • Publication Date February 20, 2006
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-7018-7
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $13.00

About The Book

Two sisters—one theatrically bold, one cautious. Two Chinas—one ancient and timeless, one modern and urgent. Two romances—one wordless, one clamorous. One summer in Hong Kong. One soaring literary debut.

Summer 1967. The turmoil of the Maoist revolution is spilling over into Hong Kong and causing unrest as war rages in neighboring Vietnam. White Ghost Girls is the story of Frankie and Kate, two American sisters living in a foreign land in a chaotic time. With their war-photographer father off in Vietnam, Marianne, their beautiful but remote mother, keeps the family close by, frightened of losing her husband to a mistress or the addiction of war itself.

Although bound by a closeness of living overseas, the sisters could not be more different–Frankie pulses with curiosity and risk, while Kate is all eyes and ears. Marianne spends her days painting watercolors of the lush surroundings, leaving the girls largely unsupervised, while their Chinese nanny, Ah Bing, does her best to look after them. One day in a village market, they decide to explore—with tragic results.

Immersed in the heat and color of Hong Kong, a city shimmering between sea and sky, it is a world of fishermen, junks, and unexplained bodies floating up in the sea, of plotting rebels, temple gods, and ghosts.

In Alice Greenway’s exquisite gem of a novel, two girls tumble into their teenage years against an extraordinary backdrop both sensuous and dangerous. This astonishing literary debut is a tale of sacrifice and solidarity that gleams with the kind of intense, complicated love that only exists between sisters.

Tags Literary


“A sensual, haunting story of sibling love, danger and infatuation with the unknown. . . . This is a brave and artful book, not less powerful for its economy, but perhaps even more so because of it.” —Vendela Vida, New York Times Book Review

“Greenway is a remarkable young writer who vividly evokes Hong Kong’s sights, smells, and sounds . . . in poetic, finely detailed prose. What’s more, she seems to have remembered every single charged emotion from adolescence and filters them all through the sisters’ fierce, complex relationship. A heartbreakingly beautiful debut.” —Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist (starred review)

“An auspicious debut sensitively and impressionistically evokes adolescent turmoil. . . . Greenway vividly conjures up the fears, passions and fantasies of a teenager against a heart-rending political background. Assured, sensuous and brilliantly colored.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Brilliantly wrought . . . A compelling, heartbreaking, and original first novel. Highly recommended.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“A gut-wrenching exploration of the complexities of sisterly love, delivered with vividness and poignancy. As you close the book, you will find yourself—like the narrator—haunted by events of a summer long ago.” —Judy Fong Bates, The Washington Post

“Gorgeously sad first novel”The place and its politics are as strange and seductive, lush and frightening, as the beginning of adulthood. Greenway captures the world around the girls in glorious, full-throated detail.” —Sarah Blake, Chicago Tribune

“[A] marvelous first novel. Greenway’s evocation of place and time, as well as her rich, lyrical overlay of Chinese culture, are written in a clean, confident style. Like a good poem or short story, its brevity compresses ideas and imagery into an elegant, memorable package.” —Irene Wanner, San Francisco Chronicle

“A story laid out with care, visceral in its detail of Hong Kong’s colors and sounds and smells, and authentic.” —Alan Moores, Seattle Times

“As haunting as it is evocative . . . Sensuous and disturbing . . . What gives the novel its remarkable bite is the fraying of the protective, competitive realm of the sisters.” —Betsy Willeford, Miami Herald

“Astonishingly pitch-perfect and sensual . . . Greenway plunges us right into a low-to-the-ground exploration of the smells, sights and corners a child can experience more easily than an adult. . . . Greenway has accomplished an almost magical feat by bringing us so close to a place and time fraught with danger and beauty. . . . You will become submerged in this novel. It is that good.” —Karen Thompson, The State (Columbia, SC)

“Rich as they are, the sensuous and disturbing descriptions are secondary to Greenway’s story. What gives the novel its remarkable bite is the fraying of the protective but competitive realm of the sisters who jostle for their father’s attention.” —Betsy Willeford, the Times of Trenton

“A novel that uses lyrical prose and intricately sensual detail to tell a complicated story of illicit excitement, impulsive transgression and ill-fated adventures.” —Ada Tseng, Asia Pacific Arts (UCLA)

“She not only brings alive her characters but also uses vivid word choices–much like sparse, crisp brush strokes of a Chinese painting–to bring to life the Hong Kong of her memory.” —Beth Kanter, Pages

“Greenway is a beautiful writer, offering us a cinematic portrayal of adolescence in an alien world.” —Ghlas Ferguson, Books Quarterly

“The reader’s every sense is engaged, thanks to a poetic and lushly detailed description of the exotic setting. Reading White Ghost Girls feels like drifting, fear-filled, through a foreign land within a sultry dream while being pierced through with Kate’s emotions: love, jealousy, passion, loss and longing. Highly recommended.” —Terry Miller Shannon, Bookreporter.com

“Slim and lyrical debut novel . . . In Hong Kong, the heat is on.” —David Lau, Time Asia

“Fresh and sensual . . . Vividly written . . . Always manages to be marvelously descriptive without being remotely overwritten.” —David Robinson, The Scotsman

“Greenway’s writing is sharp, and her rendering of the febrile atmosphere well done. . . . The air of unease and the political tensions apparent in the background lend it an extra dimension.” —Jerome de Groot, Time Out London

“An admirably concise economic novel of growing up, growing apart, and the end of innocence.” —Choice (UK)

“Taut, exquisite, elegiac . . . White Ghost Girls is about the personal and the political in a meaningful way, and with her poised descriptive prose, controlled storytelling and deep characterizations, Greenway offers a new, compelling and painful view of the upheavals in the Far East in the 1960s.” —Laurence Phelan, The Independent on Sunday (UK)

“Promising debut novel.” —The Sunday Tribune(UK)

“A haunting first novel written with the craft and grace of a master. Don’t miss it!” —Isabel Allende

“Alice Greenway’s White Ghost Girls is a stunning debut—ferocious, sensual, witty, elegantly wrought. The scene is Hong Kong circa 1970, and the girls are expatriate teenagers navigating adolescence and violent political upheaval all at once. But the true subject of the book is neither adolescence nor political but longing, and the grief that follows. This short novel can be read at a sitting and, once read, is unforgettable.” —Ward Just

“Alice Greenway’s White Ghost Girls is a ravishingly beautiful novel about sisters and about memory and about loss. And, as only true works of art can do, in focusing on the personal story, it brightly illuminates a great political and historical issue: White Ghost Girls gives us an utterly surprising and deeply resonant view of the American war in Vietnam. Heartbreakingly beautiful, richly sensual, this is a truly exciting debut novel by an extraordinarily talented new writer.” —Robert Olen Butler

White Ghost Girls is so rich with detail and so charged with the colors and flavors of Hong Kong in the shadows of the Vietnam War that it’s not only a great read, it’s an olfactory experience. Scents both sweet and pungent leap off the page, lending a poignant backdrop to the story of Kate and Frankie, two sisters coming of age in a part of the world undergoing a wrenching transformation. Alice Greenway captures the innocence of her young narrator with a voice that echoes with hard-earned wisdom, heartbreak, and love for a time and place.” —Meghan Daum, author of The Quality of Life Report and My Misspent Youth

“White Ghost Girls is a lovely book, graceful, poignant and precise. It’s about memory and love and homesickness, and how war will tear a family apart from afar.” —Roxana Robinson, author of A Perfect Stranger: And Other Stories

“Alice Greenway’s sensuous prose is exhilarating and her command of her heartbreaking story is total. White Ghost Girls is an original and beautiful novel, startling in its power.” —Beth Gutcheon, author of Leeway Cottage

“A lyrical, dreamlike novel . . . I loved the symmetry of this book, and the myriad, beautiful details that brought the era to life. Though the atmosphere is political, the story is deeply personal, about one family’s hunger for love and closeness, eerily underscored by a war that exacted a similar toll on the landscape and people of Viet Nam.” —Gina Webb, Tall Tales Books, Atlanta, GA

White Ghost Girls is the story of Frankie and Kate, two American sisters, the daughters of a photojournalist who is covering the Vietnam War. Living with their mother in Hong Kong, they watch not only the war unfold in Vietnam, but, also, the Maoist Cultural Revolution. Greenway’s descriptions of places, of feelings and emotions, of all family members are captivating.” —Susan Weaver, Broad Street Books, Portsmouth, VA, Book Sense quote


2006 Los Angels Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction
Longlisted for the 2006 Orange Prize
Selected as a 2006 Washington Post Book World Most Favorable Reviews title


What can you give me?

Can you give me a back alley, a smoke-filled temple where white-hooded mourners burn offerings and wail for the dead? The single chime of a high-pitched temple bell? The knocking of a wooden fish?

Can you give me hot rain, mould-streaked walls, a sharpness that creeps into my clothes, infests my books? The smells of dried oysters, clove hair oil, tiger balm, joss burning to Kuan Yin in the back room of a Chinese amah? The feverish shriek of cicadas, the cry of black-eared kites? The translucent green of sun shining through elephant ear leaves?

Can you give me a handful of colored silk? An empty pack of cigarettes? A tape recorder? Narrow, stepped streets, balconies hung with shop signs, laundry strung on bamboo poles, rattan birdcages? A ripened pomelo split open? The chalky bone of cuttlefish?

Can you give me my father’s hand in mine, Frankie’s in the other? Then take everything and go away?

Because if you can’t, it’s not enough. And if you can, I might leave anyhow. I’ll head for cover. Disappear in jungles of triple canopy.

Out in the harbor, at the end of summer, fishermen feed the hungry ghosts. They float paper boats shaped like junks and steamships. One is double-prowed like the cross-harbor Star Ferry which plies its way back and forth between Hong Kong and Kowloon, never having to turn around. The fishermen load each tiny paper boat with some tea leaves, a drop of cooking oil, a spoonful of rice, a splash of petrol before setting it afloat. Boats for the lost at sea, for the drowned. They hire musicians to clang cymbals. Children throw burning spirit-money into the waves.

This summer, the one I’m going to tell you about, is the only time that matters. It’s the time I’ll think of when I’m dying, just as another might recall a lost lover or regret a love they never had. For me, there is one story. It’s my sister’s—Frankie’s.

“Touched you last,” Frankie taunts. She runs out across the beach. Arms waving, shouting Indian war whoops, she plunges into the warm, green waves. Dares me to follow. Shaking off the stupor of the heat, I dash out after her.

Inside our shack, it’s hot and close. Rank smells of sea salt, mould, sand. Air so wet, it trickles down the creases of our skin. Pools collect in the bends of our arms, behind our knees. Waves lap. Cicadas shriek. Barnacles and snails, stranded above the tide line, clamp tightly to rocks.

Frankie feeds me roe she’s extracted from the belly of a purple-spined sea urchin, the way the boatman Ah Wong has taught us. I lick the soft yellow eggs off her finger. The taste is raw and salty-smooth. It’s how explorers, castaways survive: Magellan, Columbus, Crusoe, eating the flesh of wild sea turtles, mangy gulls. Sometimes we dive for rubbery black sea slugs. Frankie squeezes one, shooting me with a film of sticky innards. It’s the creature’s only means of defense. It takes them a full year to rearm.

We’re already too old for this, our games of castaway. We take them up self-consciously. Construct our shacks of flotsam and jetsam: rope, tin, fishing-net, Styrofoam, driftwood. Drag our finds back from rocks along the shore, step barefoot on crusty barnacles, rough granite, through tidal pools harboring crabs and limpets. At the back of the beach, sharp vines clasp at our skin: vitex, rattlebox, morning glory. They criss-cross our ankles with scratches and scabs. Calluses grow thick on the soles of our feet. Startled, an ungainly coucal crashes through the undergrowth. Its echoing, whooping cry sounds like a monkey rather than a bird.

Then again, it’s in our nature to gather, to scavenge. My mother hoards tubes of paints, charcoal pencils, erasers, inks, pens. Stores them in art boxes and Chinese baskets piled in her room with hard blocks of watercolor paper. My father keeps war relics in his darkroom, treasures my mother doesn’t like to see: slivers of shrapnel he dug out of his leg, a grenade pin, a smuggled AK-47 stashed under the basin. A string of tiny temple bells that jangle on the door so you have to open it slowly, carefully, if you don’t want anyone to hear you. A thin, tattered Vietnamese–English dictionary.

Secretly foraging, Frankie and I discover the Vietnamese words for nationalism and People’s Democratic Revolution, dialectic materialism and exploitation. We find words for blood transfusion, guerrilla warfare and napalm. A bomb exploded and killed many people: Bom nô gi ´êt ch ´êt nhi`êu ngu’ò’i. Words for utopia, không tu’o’ng, and sexual intercourse, gió’i tính. We pronounce them phonetically, like witches’ spells. We look at the pictures my father’s taken. Photographs of war.

Secret sisters. Shipwrecked sisters. Viet Cong sisters is what we call ourselves.

Frankie’s back is strong and dark. She ties her long brown hair in two braids. Although our mother pleads with her to wear a top, she swims only in cut-off shorts. Maybe she’s not ready to grow up. More likely, she wants to upset our mother. Her breasts are already full and round, like mangosteens. They bounce when she runs. Voluptuous is the word McKenna used when he and my father last came out of Saigon. It made my mother wince.

Me, I am thinner, leaner. Miró or Giacometti, my mother calls me. My hair is fair and cropped like a boy. It mats to my head with sea salt. I wear a threadbare blue-and-white bikini, hiding pointy, childish nipples. My skin is sunburned. When my father takes photos of me, I stare straight at the camera. I am twelve, nearly thirteen.

“Come, Kate,” Frankie calls me from the sea. I sprint. Feet, knees, legs fly across the sand, batter through the warm water. A wave rises up and slaps hard against my chest, then sweeps back, scratching my ankles with island sand, pulls as if to drag me down. I dive.

Underwater, it’s cooler, quieter, green-blue. Purple-black sea urchins cling to rocks. Rough-skinned starfish stretch their arms in every direction. Fish dart past, swept along by the wash of waves. A pink sea anemone shudders fleshy tentacles. I hear the throbbing whine of a boat engine, an ancient kaido ferrying passengers to Yung Shue Wan, on the opposite end of Lamma Island.

Frankie grins, swims off; her arms pull broad, strong strokes, skimming the sandy bottom. I swim as fast as I can, knowing I won’t beat her. Hold my breath until my chest aches, then kick to the surface, gasp in air. Frankie is faster, bigger, stronger. But she’s also more needy. She needs my participation, my surrender in order to assert herself.

Breathless, I flip over. Floating upward, I dip my head back so the water licks my forehead. My eyes squint in the sun. From here, our shack looks like one of the squatter huts that catch fire or collapse down the muddy slopes of Hong Kong in sudden landslips.

Or maybe it’s a Cubist painting in one of my mother’s art books: a collage of forgotten items tacked on a cork-board.

The Chinese believe dragons lie curled asleep under these hills. Construction of new roads, the digging of foundations for apartment buildings can cut into the creatures’ flesh. The earth bleeds red ochre. Then the great beasts must be appeased, offerings made, to avoid disease, bankruptcy or sudden, unexplained death. These bare, knobby hills are a dragon’s vertebrae, spinal humps that might plunge under at any time, sucking us down with them.

All Hong Kong’s islands look this way. Their forests cut down for firewood and shipbuilding. Their fertile valleys flooded at the end of the Ice Age, leaving steep mountains jutting out of the sea.

Reading Group Guide

1. In what ways does the narrator see herself and her sister as “castaways” and “secret sisters, shipwrecked sisters, and Vietcong sisters” (p. 4)?

2. How are Kate and Frankie different, physically and temperamentally? How do these differences influence their relationships with their parents? “Frankie is faster, bigger, stronger. But she’s also more needy. She needs my participation, my surrender in order to assert herself” (p. 5).

3. “Hong Kong would be safer than Saigon; an old-fashioned British enclave, he called it. That was before the trouble started this summer” (p.12). What is ironic about their parents’ efforts to keep the girls safe from the horrors of Vietnam? Why are Kate and Frankie obsessed with war games and following the events in Vietnam?

4. What is the picture of the war in Vietnam as it emerges in the book? What about America’s role, and their father’s?

5. How is Marianne, the mother, portrayed? Are there multiple facets in her daughters’ perceptions of her? How does her art reflect her efforts to keep order and civility in her family’s life? Churchgoing and tea parties? “I feel my mother wrap herself in it, the charm and comforts of the colonial era” (p. 29). What is her relationship with her husband? Does it change by the end of the book?

6. The father, too, is a complex person. Is he a good father? What are his strengths? His limitations, from Kate’s point of view? Is Kate fair in her evaluations of him? Do you as a reader empathize with him as the book goes on? Explain his deep attraction to Vietnam. “It’s hard for him to remember us sometimes. He loves Vietnam so much” (p. 49).

7. What is the role of Ah Bing? As Amah is she an alternative mother figure for them? What kinds of worlds does she open? What are her memories of Mao and the Cultural Revolution? “Ah Bing knows we’re no longer safe. From Mao. From dead bodies. From ourselves. We’re changing too fast. We can’t be trusted” (p. 18). How well does Ah Bing know the girls?

8. “The Chinese believe dragons lie curled asleep under these hills. . . . The great beasts must be appeased, offerings made, to avoid disease, bankruptcy or sudden, unexplained death” (p. 5). Death pervades the story from the beginning. Consider the shark threat in the harbor that turns out to be a body. “We’re caught, rapt, unable to look away. It’s as if we expect the body to roll over in the sea and speak, tell us her story” (p. 8). What is “the sudden change in everything” (p. 11) after they see the remains of the woman in the water? What are the deeper implications for their mother?

9. How does Ah Bing’s temple on Lantau Island compare to the English church, St. John’s? What does the whole temple world mean to Ah Bing? How is Kate particularly influenced by what she sees there? At one point she prays to the goddess of mercy: “Can you help me, Kuan Yin? Can you protect me from dead bodies floating up in the sea; from the Viet Cong hiding in the hills; from my body changing; from the lychees I carried, from Frankie?” (p. 133).

10. Describe the events on Lantau after Frankie induces Kate to run ahead of Ah Bing toward the temple. Kate says, “It’s because I’m good at this. That’s why they don’t see me, run out and stop me. I’ve been in training. Hiding out. Playing Viet Cong with Frankie. . . . Camouflage, secrets, deceit, they’re second nature. It’s because I’m gwaimui, white ghost girl. I can make myself invisible, hide behind my white skin” (p. 62). How has the whole story so far been funneled into this one catastrophe? How is Kate’s loyalty to Frankie instrumental in her actions?

11. The whole spirit world of Chinese traditions is a rich one. Can you recall specific details? Think of lighting joss sticks, fortune-telling, tending ancestor tablets so “they won’t become hungry ghosts’ (p. 7). Think of the mother carrying her baby in a special red scarf on her back . . . and the drugged moths considered to be spirits. Other examples?

12. Why does Kate have such trouble talking to someone about Lantau and the lychees? Even Frankie doesn’t want to hear. “I think my mother doesn’t want to know about me if I’m bad. It’s why she doesn’t look” (p. 74). How do the lychees continue to define Kate for herself in the book? Who, finally, is the one person she is able to tell? And why?

13. As Kate tries to understand her family and her world, is she a reliable narrator? She tries to delve into her mother by looking at her paintings: “My mother’s paintings are nostalgic, suggestive. They conjure a mythical past, an alternative present, one my father would be happy to indulge in if it wasn’t for the war. A world she’d like us, her children, to believe in too” (p. 80). How is the idealized China related to the idealized old English colony? “Not this other China gone mad, slamming its doors to the West, cutting off pigtails, sending bodies down the river” (p. 81). Kate sees a further connection between Marianne’s ethereal paintings and her mothering. What is it?

14. How does Kate roll Vietcong and Red Guard war games into her assessment of her own family dynamics? Give examples (see pp. 91–92).

15. One of the big differences between Kate and Frankie is their attitude toward sex. Discuss this difference. What are Ah Bing’s ideas on the subject? Why is Frankie drawn to seek sexual thrills with someone like Humphries? Is it merely part of her reckless personality? Is some other need propelling her? How well does Kate understand her sister’s behavior?

16. Since the father is a photographer, is it odd that there are almost no photographs of his daughters? Why not? What does one of the few photographs, taken by their mother, reveal about the two, dressed in cotton sashed dresses? “It’s a testament to my mother’s strength of will that she gets us to church in this heat. The power of her sudden need to rein us in, dress us, render us up for God’s inspection” (p. 20).

17. On his rare trips home the father’s bedtime stories as he lies on his back on the floor are of Mao, Ho Chi Minh and General Giap, Genghis Khan and Marco Polo. Is this his effort to share his world of journalism? His trying to teach the girls to take their world seriously? What is the contrast with his Saigon Duck stories later in the book? “Saigon Duck’s a magic duck, enchanted. A feathered Shaharazad spinning stories to postpone the day her head will be chopped off” (p. 45). Does Kate inherit this gift for storytelling?

18. What does the deaf boy mean to Kate? He has a name, Fish Tze, but she always calls him “the deaf boy.” Why, do you suppose? How does their relationship change in the book?

19. Is it the nature of a teenage girl to swing wildly as she judges her parents? ‘maybe it’s unfair the way I remember it. Maybe I’m too hard on my father. Maybe my memory exaggerates. Maybe he knew everything. He just couldn’t help us. Like we couldn’t help him. He hides in temples, behind his camera lenses, like I hide in the dark from Frankie, don’t answer questions, pretend to be asleep” (p. 99). Is it necessary on some level for children to protect parents to keep some coherence in their idea of family? To create a myth of safety?

20. Greenway creates menace from the beginning of the book. Midway, in a flash forward, we know some disaster is to befall Frankie. Is there a growing inevitability about Frankie’s pell-mell behavior? Her mother says, “She’s too wild, too unruly” (p. 105). Ah Bing, of course, agrees. “Why does she have to be so demanding, so selfish, so present?” (p. 107). Could anyone have done anything different to protect Frankie?

21. How is the defection of the deaf boy’s artist father a revelation to Kate? How does she draw an analogy with her own family? “I thought you had to take care of everyone. I didn’t know you could choose” (p. 120). Is Kate’s deduction on target?

22. How does Kate and Frankie’s relationship change when their father is home? What is a defining moment when he tries to take Kate’s picture? How is this event one more in a series of disillusionments in Kate’s story? What are other times of loss of innocence for Kate? She started by saying this was to be Frankie’s story. Is it? Is it rather both their stories? “I want to tell Frankie to stop. It’s not worth impressing this boy. . . . You don’t need George or Humphries or Pym. Can’t you see, we’ll survive on our own. We’ve got the clothes under Ah Bing’s bed. We’ve got our shacks of flotsam and jetsam. We’re secret sisters. We don’t need a father. We don’t need to tell anyone anything. . . . I can’t stop her from what she wants” (p.139). Do you think Frankie feels as much a sister as Kate does?

23. How do you explain the last chapter, which stands as an epilogue written many years later? Is it Kate’s epilogue only? “After all these years, this is all I want: a wooden stool, a bowl of rice, an army canteen, a secret comrade, the whooping cry of wild gibbons” (p. 168).

Suggestions for further reading:

The Whiteness of Bones by Susanna Moore; Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore; The Lover and The Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras; A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes; The Monkey King by Timothy Mo; The Language of Threads and Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama; The Sea of Trees by Yannick Murphy