Thirteen year-old Young Fu and his mother must move away from their farm in central China after his father dies and move to the city of Chungking (now spelled Chongqing. Young Fu and his mother have never been to the city before. While he is full of excitement and looking for adventure she is afraid of all the strange customs of the city and the foreigners who live there. Young Fu is apprenticed to Tang, a master coppersmith. The book is set in the 1920s a turbulent time for China it is after the fall of the Imperial government and factions are vying for power.
Chinese traditions are introduced to the reader through the eyes of Young Fu including crooked streets to catch and confuse evil spirits, payment of debt on New Year’s Day, the debate over whether a priest should be called or a doctor for a sick family member. The reader travels with Young Fu as he grows up and goes from apprentice to journeyman, or an experience craftsman. The book is told by stories of events that happen to Young Fu and usually there is some new experience or knowledge that he gains though sometimes it is by making costly mistakes.