American History through Chinese and Chinese-American eyes.
Peter Ho Davies The Fortunes is a mainly American set account of the Chinese American experience, told through 4 different viewpoints, over more than 150 years, starting with the building of the railways, opening up Goldrush routes in California in the 1860s, and ending with the experience of wealthy childless couples in the market for unwanted babies from less wealthy nations – in this case, as a result of China’s ‘One Child’ policy, and the less favoured status of girls.
Ho’s book is extremely well written, but, covering as it does the experience of what it means to be an immigrant – or even to be second generation, but of mixed ethnicity, – it is a remarkably depressing and distressing read, particularly at this time of turmoil and casual, not to mention not-so-casual, evidence of racial hatred and distrust as part of the water table.
The Fortunes (which has a title page subtitle of ‘Tell It Slant’) is beautifully structured in four sections. Each story is set in a different time and place, seemingly disconnected though there are nods to the previous experiences, and 3 of the stores feature real people, though Ho Davies makes it clear this is a fictionalised interpretation. There is a satisfying framing device.
The first section, Gold, is the story of the railroad and the Goldrush. Ah Ling is the son of a ‘saltwater girl’ a prostitute from Hong Kong and a ‘white ghost’, her probably British protector. The reader is battered from the start from everyday racism – both within China itself, as Ah Ling is a Tanka, reviled by the Han Chinese, and then, after he is sold to be a laundry boy to ‘Uncle Ng’ in San Francisco, the blanket racism towards ‘chinks’. We are reminded also, that whatever the experiences suffered by men, the status of Chinese women was even lower. Racially abused, sexually abused. The laundry Ah Ling works at is also a brothel, and Ah Ling, as a young boy, has his eyes opened by ‘Little Sister’ – who of course lacks even her own name, described only by family relationship:
How can you hate your own people”
“How? I tell you how! You know who sold me to Ng?” She paused to catch her breath. “My father! You know why? So he could send a brother to Gold Mountain to make the family fortune.” She nodded heavily. “That’s right. Chinamen love gold more than girls.
Silver follows the story of Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American film star from the 1920’s onwards, whose career covered both silent film, talkies and stage. This section is structured almost like a silent film, with short chapters with headers in capital letters, as if they were scene titles
THE ROLE OF A LIFETIME
Turned down for the role of a lifetime – O-Lan in The Good Earth, a Chinese female lead; how many of those will she ever see? – and turned down for a white actress. It’s a public humiliation, a famous snub. A loss of face, she’s still Chinese enough to think.
She’d been tipped for the role in the press for years; “born to play it,” they said. It was what she’s been waiting for all this time. But she’d known she wouldn’t get it as soon as they cast Paul Muni, Scarface himself, in the lead. The Hays Code forbade the portrayal of interracial relations on-screen, even when white actors were playing in yellowface.
Jade, the third section, is based on the story of Vincent Chin:
if you remember it a all, if you were around in the eighties, say, what you remember is a Chinese guy being beaten to death in Detroit by two white auto workers who mistook him for a Japanese. This at the height of the import scare, when Japanese manufacturers were being blamed for the collapse of the Big Three U.S. auto companies.
Maybe you remember it happened outside a club where the Chinese guy – actually a Chinese American named Vincent Chin – was celebrating his bachelor party. Maybe you remember he was buried on what should have been his wedding day.
But perhaps you thought it was just an urban legend, a bad joke come to life
The final story, Pearl, concerns a middle class couple, Chinese American John Ling, teaching university students, and his wife Nola, also a teacher, in their mid-thirties, with a history of difficult and failed pregnancies. They are part of a group of other couples with similar difficulties, going to China to adopt a baby.
Ho Davies, one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, is British born, to Welsh and Chinese parents, though he now lives in the States and is also a University lecturer in Creative Writing.
This is, as stated at the beginning, an emotionally difficult read, but a recommended one. He writes very well, his characters are clearly delineated, and complex. It left me with lots to think about, and distressing matters to feel about, particularly within the context of many world events, at this time, and a resurgence of ‘populist’ parties with simplistic foci for ‘blame’
I received this as an ARC from Amazon Vine UK. It will be published on 25th August in Hard Cover and on Kindle in the UK, but curiously, Statesiders will have to wait until September 6th for HardCover or Audible, with, at the moment, no Kindle version listing. Curious, because Ho Davies now lives in the States, and this is set for the most part there.