The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies

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They – all of them – are Chinese American now, not just because America has finally, begrudgingly, allowed them to be, but because China has closed to them.

I have been reading this book for a while. I borrowed it in December, read it a little, put it down and picked it up in between and amongst all those other books I read throughout these seven weeks. It’s a book that spans generations, so perhaps it is fitting that it crossed over from 2016 to 2017 with me.



The Fortunes tells the Chinese-American story. Four stories in particular. I guess you could describe it as a collection of four novellas.

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The first is Ah Ling (who is a real life but little known figure, as Davies explains in an interview) a young man who arrives from China in the 1850s to seek his fortune in San Francisco, which till today is still known in Chinese as 旧金山 (jiu jin shan or old gold mountain). He works for rail magnate Charles Crocker and his strength and ability to work hard (Chinese at that time were thought to be physically weak) convinces Crocker to recruit Chinese workers to build his railway.

 “unique among all immigrants, they were the ones who looked to leave, to take their wealth home with them. It offended settlers, this sojourner attitude, exemplified by the very bones Ling helped to send back to China”.

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Following that is a section devoted to real life actress Anna May Wong, a laundryman’s daughter who became the first Chinese-American film star, acting in Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Baghdad. Fascinatingly, at the time there was a law preventing her from sharing a kiss with an actor of a different race (even if they were in yellowface). The biggest disappointment of her career was in 1935 when German actress Luise Rainer was chosen to play O-Lan in the film version of The Good Earth. Rainer went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for that role.

Reviewers praised her as “naturally Chinese” and “an exquisite crier, without the need for glycerine.” She was possessed of a “porcelain pulchritude.”

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Then we learn about Vincent Chin, a young man living in Detroit who in 1982 was beaten to death by two autoworkers who mistook him for Japanese, who were blamed for the layoffs in Detroit’s auto industry. The two men were arrested but because of a plea bargain were sentenced to just 3 years’ probation. A federal civil rights’ case against the men found one guilty and sentenced to 25 years, but a federal appeals court overturned the conviction in 1984. This story is told from the perspective of Vincent’s friend, who was there when the beating happened, who was also chased by the two men, but who didn’t fight back.

The thing about racism, I always think, the worst thing, okay, is not that someone has made up their mind about you without knowing you, based on the colour of your skin, the way you look, some preconception. The worst thing is that they might be right. Stereotypes cling if they have a little truth; they sting by the same token.


The last section of the book follows a couple, the man half-Chinese, the woman white, who are in China to adopt a baby. John finds his own Chinese heritage called into question, feels ashamed that the other couples, who are not Chinese, know more about Chinese culture than he does, that he doesn’t know how to speak Chinese, although when he went to Caltech for college, he first learnt of the term banana:

meaning yellow on the outside, white on the inside, but he’d secretly welcomed its aptness. As far as he was concerned, his skin had always been something to trip on.

It’s all rather grim. The four stories (novellas?) are filled with this air of anger, disillusionment, bitterness and irony that fills these lives, these stories. There is humour, but of a rather uncomfortable sort,

“Chinese in movies aren’t inscrutable,” she lamented drily. “They’re unscrewable.” But in life the ban on mixed marriage made her the perfect mistress, one who could never expect to wed her lovers.

And I found myself learning a lot of racist jokes too. But let’s not repeat those.

There is no doubt that this is an important book. It opens eyes to these historical figures in Chinese-American history, which perhaps many of us do not know much of, or know of at all. It’s made me want to read more about this country I now live in, about these historical figures that Davies brings to life in this book.

This was the season of the sandlot riots, of The Chinese Must Go! The Chinese might have physically united the country by building a railroad across it, but now they were uniting it in another sense, binding the quarreling tribes of Irish and English, French and Germans, Swedes and Italians together against a common enemy.

We made them white, Ling thought.

 

A possible reading list

Unraveling the “Model Minority” Stereotype: Listening to Asian American Youth – Stacey J. Lee
Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White – Frank Wu
Asian American Dreams – Helen Zia
Strangers from a Different Shore – Ronald Takaki
The Making of Asian America: A History – Erika Lee

Comics check-in: Gotham Academy, Zodiac Starforce

Gotham Academy, Vol. 1: Welcome to Gotham Academy – Becky Cloonan, Brenden Fletcher, Karl Kerschl (Illustrations)

First the good news – the illustrations were awesome! It’s got a female main character! And her sidekick ‘Maps’ Mizoguchi is great fun too. It’s entertaining enough but the storyline was rather confusing (one of those where they land you in the middle of things and hint at events that happened in the past and I guess you’re supposed to put two and two together). I think I may have been misled (by myself probably) as I half-expected Gotham Academy to be a place where superheroes are made. Well, it’s not, it’s a prestigious school that just happens to be located in Gotham. And Batman makes an appearance here and there.

Of course my library only has volume one so I don’t know if I will read more of this series!




El Deafo – Cece Bell

I’ve been wanting to read this for a while now but never seem to have picked up this comic, which is aimed at middle grade kids. It’s based on the author’s own experience growing up hearing impaired, the result of a brief illness. Cece has to use a Phonic Ear which helps her hear her teacher – not just in the classroom but everywhere, from the teachers’ room to the bathroom. It’s like having a superpower. It’s a fun story for all ages and touches on many universal issues like being different, making friends, fitting in.

Zodiac Starforce: By the Power of Astra – Kevin Panetta, Paulina Ganucheau (Illustrator)
So. Much. Fun.

Teenaged girls who have cool outfits and magical superpowers that seem to have something to do with their zodiac signs. And best of all, great diversity! The artwork is just candy-coloured awesomeness. Is there more? Can there please be more?

Ann Tenna – Marisa Acocella Marchetto

Whereas this one. It was just not for me. I didn’t like the style of the artwork. And the main character is the star and owner of a gossip site, known for her hidden cameras. I guess it has to do with all this fakeness of the world and whatnot but I wouldn’t know as I gave up on it. I have better books to read!
Sabrina

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Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Vol. 1: The Crucible – Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Robert Hack (Illustrations)

Ok I was not expecting this bloody and very dark story at all. The Sabrina in this story is Sabrina the Teenage Witch and while I didn’t read the comics, I definitely watched the TV series with Melissa Joan Hart (yeah you did too). Sabrina, as you may know, is a half-witch, her mother is mortal and her father a witch. She lives with her two aunts and a cat named Salem. So that part is pretty much the same. Then throw in lots of gore and blood, the undead and what not, and illustrate it all in that very macabre and heavy sepia-toned artwork by Robert Hack, which somehow amps up the 60s period setting and the ominous mood. It’s horror at its best, so definitely not for those of the faint of heart.

Top Ten Tuesday: Recent underrated reads

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Ten Underrated/Hidden Gem Books I’ve Read In The Past Year Or So

Marriage Material – Sathnam Sanghera

This is an epic tale of family, love, and politics, spanning the second half of the twentieth century, and the start of the twenty-first. Told with humour, tenderness and insight, it manages to be both a unique and urgent survey of modern Britain by one of Britain’s most promising young writers, and an ingenious reimagining of a classic work of fiction.

The Sundial – Shirley Jackson

Most people know of Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and of course, her most famous short story, The Lottery. But I would like to add this book, set in an old sinister house, and the occupants within are convinced that the world is coming to an end and that they have to close themselves off from the world. The paranoia! The wit of Jackson! The creepy old house they are in! Just brilliant.

Half a Lifelong Romance – Eileen Chang (my review)

A love affair set in Shanghai. A story of class differences. Beautiful and cinematic. Many know of Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City and Lust, Caution, and I definitely recommend this one too.

Memoirs of a Porcupine – Alain Mabanckou (my review)

I mean, what other book are you going to read that’s narrated by a porcupine?

Harbinger –  Joshua Dysart (Writer), Khari Evans (Artist), Lewis LaRosa (Artist), Ian Hannin (Colourist), Mico Suayan (Cover Artist)

Faith first made her appearance in the Harbinger series, kind of like the X-men. The main character Peter is a powerful psiot who’s being recruited by philanthropist and fellow harbinger, Toyo Harada, to the Harbinger Foundation where he can learn to control his abilities. Of course Harada is not the man he seems. Peter is a flawed character and hard to like, but that’s where Faith comes in, she’s fun and it’s so easy to see why she got her own spin-off. I just adore Faith and while the Harbinger series is a lot more ‘doom and gloom’ than the Faith series, I’m really glad I read it!

 

Master Keaton – Naoki Urasawa, Takashi Nagasaki, Hokusei Katsushika (Creator)

This manga by Urasawa is such a delight. Keaton is an Indiana Jones type character, but, wait for it, he is an insurance investigator! Ok before you stifle a yawn, the stuff he investigates is quite fascinating, and he’s armed with an archaeology education as well as his experience as a former member of the SAS! Such a great manga series.

The Song Poet – Kao Kalia Yang (my review)

I know I’ve talked about this book a lot, but it really deserves every mention (it still only has 152 ratings on Goodreads!). Go read it!

Genius – by Marc Bernardin, Adam Freeman (writer), Afua Richardson (artist)

Riveting and action-packed comic.

The Makioka Sisters – Junichiro Tanizaki, Edward G. Seidensticker (Translator) (my review)

Why haven’t more people read this Japanese classic? Go read it! And hey, if you’re doing the Read Harder challenge, it fits in the “classic by an author of colour” category!

Flight – Oona Frawley (my review)

This book only has 45 ratings on Goodreads! It is definitely deserving of a wider audience. Set in Ireland in 2004 as a referendum on citizenship approaches, Flight discusses among other things, immigration, citizenship, and is beautifully written.

Have you read any of these books? 

It’s Monday and I’m reading Hidden Figures

 

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It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is a place to meet up and share what you have been, are and about to be reading over the week. This meme started with J Kaye’s Blog   and then was taken up by Sheila from Book Journey. Sheila then passed it on to Kathryn at the Book Date

At first I was going to say nothing much happened last weekend. But I remembered – hey we went to Din Tai Fung! And I wrote about it too. Other than that though, the husband had to do some work at home. We hung out around our town. That’s about it. He also has to work today (MLK Jr Day) but the kids are off school. 

 

 

Currently…

 

Reading:

 

 

 

Watching:

Catching up with the three nuts of The Grand Tour!

Listening:

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Lab Girl

Eating:

We just had The Habit for lunch – I had the Portobello mushroom burger and we shared sweet potato fries and tempura green beans, which I just cannot stop eating!!

Drinking:

Green tea

Cooking:

Chicken drumsticks and roasted cauliflower, maybe with some couscous

I also picked up some more hamachi kama (yellowtail cheek). It’s easy to roast in the oven and just needs a good seasoning of salt, and before eating, a squeeze of lemon. We eat it with rice and vegetables. And the kids love it.

Also something else I picked up from the Asian supermarket was a premix for soon tofu, the Korean tofu soup. Also bought a variety of mushrooms to go along with it. Hopefully it tastes good!

Browsing:

Deb at Kahakai Kitchen makes what sounds like a delightful lemon posset

30 crime reads written by women (Lit Hub)

This recipe for pork floss biscuits made my mouth water (Bake for Happy Kids). I even picked up some pork floss from the supermarket to try making it soon. The Lunar New Year is coming up soon and it’s tradition to have some sweets and cookies around – usually for guests who visit. Although we won’t have guests visiting (no family here), I’m still gonna bake something!

Why more writers should talk about money (The Atlantic)

Last week:

I read:

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Volume 2: Squirrel You Know It’s True – Ryan North (Writer), Erica Henderson (Artist)
X – Ilyasah Shabazz, Kekla Magoon
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie

I posted:

You Can’t Touch My Hair

2016 releases I didn’t get to (but plan to)

Weekend eating: Din Tai Fung

Weekend eating: Din Tai Fung in San Jose

Din Tai Fung opened a branch in the Bay Area last year and after ridiculous lines, they decided to make it reservation-only except for counter seating. And even today, when it’s been open for more than six months, a weekend seating still requires booking a month in advance. Luckily it’s easy to do on Yelp. It does require a credit card number but they won’t charge you unless you don’t turn up.

In case you’ve not heard of Din Tai Fung, they originated in Taiwan. The founder Yang Bingyi was born in China and moved to Taiwan where he worked at a cooking oil shop. Business slowed when tinned cooking oil became more common so he and his wife started selling xiaolongbao and it became so popular that they eventually turned it into a xiaolongbao restaurant. The first Singapore branch (franchised by BreadTalk Group) opened in 2003. And there are now 19 locations in Singapore! In comparison, there are 4 in LA, 1 in Orange County, 1 in the SF Bay Area, 2 in Seattle. 

And at the restaurants, you get to see the dumpling making in action. It is not easy – they make about 20 a minute!
We lucked out on a great time slot on Saturday at 11.15, were promptly seated and made sure to order our favourites like the xiaolongbao, pork chop fried rice, soy noodles and taro xiaolongbao. Also ordered some sliced chicken noodles for the 3yo who declared he  wanted rice and noodles. There are plenty of Din Tai Fungs all around Singapore but I think there may be different items on the menu here in California like the stirfried rice cakes. Before this one in Bay Area opened, we had previously been to the ones in Glendale and Orange County down in Southern California. Both require lots of patience. I always remember that we had arrived at the Glendale outlet around 2 or 3 something on a weekend and still had to wait 45 minutes for a table.

So I kind of like the reservation system in the Santa Clara branch. One just has to remember to go online a month in advance, that’s all! 😛

The tofu noodles – I didn’t like this as much as I usually do at other places. Most of the tofu noodles I’ve eaten are sliced thin, but these seem to have been extruded, probably to look more like noodles, but I feel like its too soft this way.


The xiaolongbao were light and flavorful. We sometimes order xlb at another Shanghainese restaurant we eat at, and their version is quite good too but definitely not as thin as this one.


Pork chop fried rice. The fried rice at DTF is always good and I love the high egg to rice ratio. We ended up bringing half of it home and the 3yo requested it for his dinner.

The steamer basket behind is of the pork and shrimp siu mai. I had always wondered about their siu mai which is also available in Singapore but now that I’ve tried it, I don’t think I’ll order it again. It’s like a xlb at the bottom and the skin stretched up to crown the shrimp. But the skin in the middle is thicker, possibly to give it more support to the dumpling, so it wasn’t as good as I thought it would be.

We really enjoyed the sliced chicken noodle soup, which was simple but really delicious, well-cooked noodles and nice and soft chicken and lots of vegetables like carrots, bok choy and sliced bamboo shoots. Wish I had remembered to take a photo of it!

The three-year-old’s favourite part of the meal was probably the lychee slush.

And the five-year-old’s was the taro xiaolongbao. The taro is sweetened and mashed and wrapped in the dumpling dough and steamed. So it’s a sweet purpley and slightly sticky xiaolongbao. He probably ate five of them!

As we were nearly done with the meal, the husband wondered, should we just make another reservation now for next month? But of course when I checked the Yelp reservations, the only time slots for Saturday – FOUR weeks from now – was 1015 and 245. And similar odd times for the Sunday! I’ve made a note on my phone’s calendar to remind myself to check next week!

 

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Weekend Cooking at Beth Fish Reads is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, beer, wine, photographs

You Can’t Touch My Hair

Here’s where I admit I hadn’t heard of Phoebe Robinson before I saw this book..wherever it is that I saw this book..on one of your blogs, on Litsy, Instagram? I definitely saw it very many places before deciding to download it.

So who is Phoebe Robinson? She’s a comedian, a host of a podcast called 2 Dope Queens, and a series on YouTube. All of which I hadn’t heard of or seen. I’m obviously not current and modern and young and up to date enough to know all these things! Maybe you are!

But you know what, it didn’t matter.

It was such a fun, funny read that also made me sit up and learn a great variety of things.

Like just how difficult it is to be a woman of colour in the entertainment industry. In the aptly titled chapter ‘Casting Calls for People of Color That Were Not Written by People of Color’, made up but inspired by what she’s seen in real life such as the African-American Principal “nice-looking, personable, but not too dark”, which was explained because of the special effects and lighting. To which Robinson retorts

“If the BBC can light Idris Elba for Luther so he looks like a delectable blueberry tart from Giada de Laurentiis’s kitchen, then y’all can light a garbage ad that’s going to air during the Jane the Virgin commercial breaks.”

In a collection like this there will be essays that make you sit up and go, yessss finally someone wrote this. And there will be others that might not sit so well with you but I kinda reckon that’s still pretty ok as long as Phoebe Robinson is writing it. I mean I could do without all the abbreviations like J/K. That might just be me. But abbreviations aside, she’s just such a delight to read, in her very conversational tone. For instance when she’s ranking the members of U2, or talking about doing her laundry at her parents’ house or ordering for two (for one) from McDonald’s. I mean, she’s even making want to go and investigate her podcasts. Me, who has no time to myself to even finish listening to an audiobook.

But she is at her best when she talks about race and racism.

“But as a nation, we are far from the “everyone holding hands in racial harmony” that we assumed would happen once Obama was ushered into office. In fact, throughout the Obama years, there had been, at the very best, resistance to change, and at the very worst, a palpable regression in the way the country views and handles – or more accurately, refuses to handle – race.”

She is not one to mince her words or to call out people for their racist behaviour.

“First of all, people need to stop acting like racist behaviour only happens within a three-block radius of Paula Deen’s house. Ignorance exists everywhere, including liberal bastions like New York City.”

My favourite chapter is where she writes letters to her 2.5-year-old niece Olivia, who is biracial.

“…lean into your “girlness”. Throw it in people’s faces that you are fully embracing everything they think is a flaw. Eat, cuss, laugh, feel, dance, fight, dress, think, love, and tell your story like a girl, which means do everything you intend to do with no regard for how people want you or expect you to behave.”

Now that is an awesome aunt.

This was just such a delight to read.

(Also if Jessica Williams, Robinson’s work wife who also wrote the foreword to this book, has plans to write a book, I would definitely want to read it. Does she? Anyone?)