I picked up Peter Ho Davies’ “The Fortunes” because I had read a brief review that said it was a fictionalized account of one of an event that stunned me at the time and has stayed with me over the years.
In 1982, the year I graduated from high school and not all that far from where I lived, a young man named Vincent Chin was beaten to death outside a strip club in a Detroit suburb by two autoworkers. The men were upset, so the story went, that they were out of work because of the surge in sales of Japanese-made cars. They took out their anger on Chin, who was at the club celebrating his bachelor party. Chin, though, was Chinese, making his death that much more senseless.
The Chin case is just one of four sections of “The Fortunes” that examines the experience of Chinese in the United States. It’s a history tarred with racism that is rarely acknowledged. Davies’ fascinating novel shines a bold, unblinking light on the experience and left me thinking.
Ho starts this examination of the Chinese diaspora in the 19th Century with the story of Ling, a Chinese immigrant, sold and resold into poverty to employers who abused him. As many a plucky immigrant, he wants to show the world that he—and by extension all Chinese—are as good as the whites who mock them, even as they praise their skills (laundering and opium dealing) and use their young daughters as whores.
Ling’s ticket out of poverty comes when he is taken on as a valet for a railroad baron. He’s so impressed with Ling’s work ethic, he gets Ling to recruit other Chinese to work on the railroad crew. From his relatively cushy position, Ling comes to see that the Chinese weren’t hired for their abilities or to help them out. They were hired because they were cheap. They were given the most dangerous jobs and fewer benefits than the white workers, and made fewer demands that whites.
Ling’s journey is that of many immigrants: From hope to despair, from being ashamed of his heritage to embracing it. It’s fast-paced and fascinating.
From there, Davies move to a completely different story, that of Anna May Wong who, in the 1930s became the first Chinese American movie star. (Quick, name another one. I can’t either.) Roles available to Wong at the time were dragon ladies and spies and concubines and while Hollywood rules did not allow her to kiss a white man on screen, she was the plaything of countless members of Hollywood royalty. To put a fine point on it, Wong was a third-generation American. She lobbies hard to play the lead role in a film version of Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth,” and is devastated when it goes to a German actress in heavy makeup.
When America tires of her exoticness, she visits China, only to be shunned there, as well. This sad tale of wasted talent feels unfinished, as though it was an outline. This is important because, in the last section, Davies focuses on a story of a Chinese American writer who reflects that his novel about Wong never became anything more than notes.
The Chin section, told by one of his friends who was with him that night, is included because it was the beginning of an Asian American identity movement.
The final section, in which a Chinese American author who has grown away from his culture visits China with his white wife to adopt a daughter. Lost between two worlds, he struggles to find emotional footing that reconciles the Chinese features of his face with his American heart. It’s a somewhat disappointing ending because there aren’t many likable characters in this section.
Davies doesn’t ever get preachy in the book—the Chinese are often depicted as their own worst enemies, perpetuating stereotypes to avoid unwanted attention from the white Americans. He merely presents the complexities of identity with no judgment. That’s what makes it all the more powerful.