What does Chinese American history look like? Because American history so often focuses on the narratives of straight white men, many people have no idea. Peter Ho Davies’ novel, The Fortunes, is not only a primer in a part of history glossed over in textbooks but a smart, beautifully written short story collection.
The first and longest story chronicles the life of Ah Ling, an ambitious immigrant in rapidly growing late-1850s California. Ah Ling crosses the ocean to make his fortune in gold mining and takes a job working at a laundry; although he falls in love with the woman working alongside him, he hates his job, yearning to save up enough money to leave and go prospecting. Opportunity arrives in the form of Charles Crocker, a train magnate who likes Ah Ling’s laundry work and hires him as a valet. Ah Ling rises up in the world, making more money working as a servant than he ever could prospecting, but he remains Crocker’s lapdog, a model Chinese person who never questions his employer and always does an exemplary job at work. Through his career’s many twists and turns, Ah Ling questions his ideas of family and success and struggles with representing his entire race and nationality as the only Chinese American man near the top of the financial ladder.
Next in the book is the remarkable story of the first Chinese American film star, Anna May Wong. Born into a family of immigrants in Los Angeles just after the turn of the century, Wong gets her start by hanging around film sets and eventually snagging a role as an extra. She quickly becomes a household name, though still continually snubbed and passed over for roles because she’s Asian. In less than a hundred pages, Davies paints a picture of a brilliant but frustrated woman; Wong gets fame and glory on the silver screen, but she never has a family of her own, and she’s always a step behind the white movie stars, forced into stereotypical Chinese parts and prevented from kissing white love interests onscreen because of the racist Hays Code. However, Davies also shows a selfish social climber, choosing to portray caricatures and using her sister as a pawn in order to further her career. No matter the view of her, Anna May Wong is a complex and dynamic figure, and her story is my personal favorite in the book.
In the third part of The Fortunes, Davies recounts the murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man in the ’80s who is beaten to death by two white men who blame Asians for the decline in the Detroit auto business. This section is very different from the other three in the book. For one, the story is told not by the historical figure himself, but through the eyes of Chin’s friend, who was at the scene of his murder. The big difference, though, is that instead of one Chinese American person deliberately defining what it means to be Chinese American to white Americans and Chinese alike, this story is about the Asian American community coming together and choosing how they want to be represented themselves.
The fourth and final part of the book reads as a pastiche of the three previous ones, with references to the Gold Rush, Anna May Wong, and the Vincent Chin murder sprinkled through it. It’s also the only story with a fictional protagonist. In it, the biracial writer John Smith travels to China with his wife to adopt a baby in the present day. He has mixed feelings about adopting a daughter, as well as with claiming Chinese identity for himself. This story wraps the other three up nicely while still leaving the reader thinking about all the questions they raised.
I loved The Fortunes. As someone who loves history, especially American history, this book helped satisfy my craving for more knowledge of the complicated, messy story of our country. But don’t be put off if history isn’t your thing; the characters are interesting and three-dimensional, if not always sympathetic, and Davies will keep you invested in them from beginning to end. Well-written, concise, and politically timely, this book should definitely be the next on your reading list.