Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies

In this four part novel, Peter Ho Davies explores what it means to be a Chinese-American.  Three of the four parts are based on historical figures, while the fourth is based on an experience thousands have had.  The book starts with the story of Ling.  He is sent to America from the poverty that is all he has ever known to make his fortune.  He starts off working in a Chinese laundry but over time, he catches the eye of Charles Crocker, a wealthy San Francisco man who is building part of the transcontinental railroad.  After employing Ling for several years, Crocker decides that he is an example of the Chinese laborer and exactly what the railroad needs.  That starts the massive import and use of Chinese laborers to build the railroad.

In the second part, the life of Anna May Wong is described.  Anna was a famous actress at the junction of the transition from silent to talking movies and was the first Chinese-American actress to make a career in the industry.  She knew them all, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Orsen Welles and others.  She was feted from coast to coast and made the headlines everywhere she went.  But she was denied the right to marry a man not of her ethnic background by the laws in California and her fame only went so far.  When it came time to cast an actress in the groundbreaking role in Pearl Buck's The Good Earth, a role everyone said she was born to play, she was passed over and a German woman was given the role and made up to appear Chinese.

The third part explores the murder of Vincent Chin in the 1980's in Detroit.  He had gone with friends to a strip club for his bachelor party.  While there, he got into a scuffle with two white men, men who felt their jobs had been taken away by the success of Japanese imports.  They never considered that Vincent and his friends weren't Japanese, but instead Chinese, seeing only 'other' and holding a grudge against any Asian.  The night ends with the murder of Vincent and then there are years of attempts to bring the men to justice and have them pay for their crime.

The last part describes the experience that many American couples have, that of going to China to adopt a baby girl.  During the strict One Child policy years, many Chinese families left their girl babies at orphanages and hoped to have a son instead.  These girls were available to the extent that there were actual tours of couples who were all going to China to adopt.  The novel looks at this concept through the eyes of a couple who are on such a tour.  The husband is of Chinese descent himself while the wife is of Irish descent.

Readers of The Fortunes will have much to consider.  There is the fact that most Americans don't see a difference between Asians whose backgrounds come from different countries, seeing them all as outsiders and asking even those whose families have been here for generations, 'Where are you from?'  There is the expectation that all Asians are good at math and science and that all are expected to obey family norms.  The thought that America is never quite considered their native land but only an immigrant experience is one that most white individuals never have to think about.  Peter Ho Davies is the son of a Welsh father and Chinese mother and was raised in Wales.  He is currently on the faculty of the University of Michigan and his first novel, The Welsh Girl, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  This book is recommended for those interested in the immigrant experience and readers of literary fiction.  

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