The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies


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.


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”.


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.”


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