The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies


Peter Ho Davies writes four takes on the experience of Chinese immigrants and their descendants in the US. 

First comes the horrific stories of Chinese people driven to journey to the Golden Mountain (the US) to escape their unspeakable lives in China. Much was familiar from previous reading I have done: daughters being sold into prostitution, the humiliation of men operating laundries ("women's work") when they fail to get rich panning for gold, men worked to death building the railroad. The strength of this section was the story of the man who by his determination makes a decent if humiliating life for himself. He eventually chooses dignity over comfort.

Anna May Wong was in fact an actress and celebrity for much of her life, as  you can read in Wikipedia here. While she escaped the ignominy of being the daughter of a Chinese laundry owner in Los Angeles, she could never kiss a white man on screen and was not eligible for the lead in The Good Earth. Davies writes about her visit to China in 1936, including her visit to the village where her father had moved to be with his Chinese wife and children. 

In 1982 Vincent Chin was beaten to death with a baseball bat in Detroit by auto workers who, thinking he was Japanese, blamed him for the shrinking US auto industry. His story is told by a friend who was with Chin on that night, celebrating Chin's upcoming wedding. The friend was told to "Scram" by Vincent as the attack began and he did so, thus making his own guilt in this event a complicating factor. The light sentence for the perpetrators motivated Asian Americans to organize and the auto workers were charged with violating Chin's civil rights. The substantial conviction was later overturned on appeal. 

The final section is the story of an author of half-Chinese descent focusing primarily on his trip to China with his wife to adopt a baby. After his first successful book, he finds himself struggling with the second. He has written about the very topics in the first three sections of this book, leaving us to wonder just how much of this section is autobiographical.

As with The Welch Girl, the issues of our identity is paramount. Do others define us or can we define ourselves? What can it mean to be "half Chinese," especially if you do not know that parent or language or culture? The role of our "otherness" in relation to the majority in a culture is a painful topic to us now, but as this book points out, it has always been all too troubling. 

Peter Ho Davies, The Fortunes, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, 288 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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