Peter Ho Davies’ new novel, The Fortunes, tells four stories of Chinese Americans over their long collective history in the United States.
The first and longest is about Ling, the fictional servant of the very real Charles Crocker, one of the empire builders who built the Central Pacific Railroad and the transcontinental railroad link from the Pacific up through the mountains to that place in Utah where the golden spike was struck. In Davies’ telling, Crocker got the idea to import Chinese laborers to build the line from the industriousness of his servant. Like other immigrant populations, the Chinese railway workers sent their money back to their homeland. According to The Fortunes, “What distinguished the Chinese from the rest was that they didn’t mean to stay.”
But many did stay in the U.S., and racist reactions to them proliferated–a theme central to the middle stories of Davies’ novel. “Your Name in Chinese” slightly fictionalizes the life of Anna May Wong, the first Asian American movie star from the early twentieth century. She was an admired actor but was usually relegated to secondary ethnic roles. She was denied the lead role of the Chinese woman in the film of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. Instead, a European played the role in yellow face, winning an Oscar for her performance. In Davies’ retelling, Wong reflects on her role in Hollywood: “She isn’t a star, she thinks later. Or an actress. But something in between. The first Chinese star, they call her, and it’s the qualifications that are crucial. First, Chinese. A star may play only him- or herself, but she is supposed to play a race.”
The third story retells the horror of Vincent Chin’s death near Detroit in the 1980s. Chin was the Chinese American man who was beaten to death outside a strip club when two autoworkers attacked him with a baseball bat. They blamed Japan for the collapse of their industry and assumed Chin was Japanese. Davies tells the story from the point of view of Chin’s friend, who escaped the beating and who has tried to understand it ever since.
In the final story, this troubled history finds a focus in the life of a biracial man who, with his wife, goes to China to adopt a Chinese girl. John is filled with ambivalence about the adoption “industry” and the way it takes advantage of China’s one-child policy. He carries the weight of his own experience of prejudice and stereotype as an Asian American. But all of this, even while recognized and resisted, becomes both more important and less paralyzing in the new family that begins to take shape in the office of a Chinese orphanage.
Peter Ho Davies has found a way to write history and the experience of race in America in a way that forces us all into a necessary conversation even as it moves us deeply with the experience of its characters.
Davies reads from The Fortunes at Nicola’s Books on Sept. 8.