Peter Ho Davies’s second novel, The Fortunes, is a beautifully crafted study, in four parts, of the history of the Chinese in America. Though it deals, of necessity, with racism in all its insidious forms, it does so with humanity, humour, self-deprecation and a hefty dose of irony. Each section — ‘Gold’, ‘Silver’, ‘Jade’ and ‘Pearl’ — covers a separate period in Chinese-American history.
‘Gold’ follows Ling, a half-white upwardly mobile immigrant, who arrives before the Civil War, starting as a laundryman and progressing to become the valet of one of the four big barons of the Central Pacific Railroad. On the way he falls in love with a prostitute, Little Sister, and has his queue cut off by a fellow Chinese to whom he has been attached in a race riot.
The loss of his hair triggers in Ling a desire to pass himself off as almost white — as a ‘ghost’ or a ‘devil’ — until he unexpectedly recovers his Chinese identity while accompanying his master, Crocker, in an attempt to break a strike of Chinese railway workers. It had been Ling’s quick thinking that had encouraged Crocker to consider hiring Chinese ‘coolies’ in the first place, when they had previously been assumed to be too weak for the job.
Ling later becomes a powder man (responsible for explosives on the railway), and ends his days as a bone-scraper, tasked with collecting up the bones of dead Chinese railway workers and sending them home to be buried alongside their ancestors.
‘Silver’ tells the story of Anna May Wong, the first Chinese movie star in America. Despite her high status as a Hollywood actress, in real life Wong encountered racism at every level. In Davies’s account, she somehow manages to transcend her environment through style and sheer force of will, but, on a visit to her father in Shanghai, she finds that she is neither one thing nor the other.