Stephanie Jones: Book Review - The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies

Publish Date
Thursday, 20 October 2016, 12:19PM

Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” prefaces Peter Ho Davies’s story of identity and cultural dissonance, The Fortunes. As an epigraph it is an eight-word container of multitudes: an outdated epithet for people of Asian heritage; a reference to the author’s pronouncement that the presence of real Chinese-American figures in his novel makes it no less a work of fiction; a nod to Chinese as a language of puns and homonyms. Davies’ devotion to unifying themes, and his determination to draw parallels between characters real and imagined, knit together four novella-style stories spanning more than 150 years, and expose the gravest experiences of Chinese people in the United States.

In the beginning, ships brought fit and industrious young men to California to join the gold rush of the 1860s. Getting rich in the promised land was no easier for migrants then than now, and ideas about race, as ever, lacked nuance. Ah Ling belongs to the lower-caste Tanka, a “reviled tribe” of fishermen, opium smugglers and prostitutes, and just as Chinese arrivistes find their class distinctions disintegrating before the hostile faces of the new world, Ling’s mixed heritage, as the son of a Chinese mother and white father, gives him no advantage.

Davies plunges the reader into Ling’s new life of fierce work and mortal danger. He labours in a Chinese laundry amid brothels which serve the population’s surfeit of men, and endures racist taunts and beatings from the “ghosts”, the white men who revile his image and what it represents. More than a century after the experiences of men like Ling, a young Chinese-American man, Vincent Chin, will be beaten to death in Detroit by two white American auto workers who took him for Japanese. Davies revives this seminal moment in Asian-American history while showing, through the eyes of an imagined friend of Chin’s, how casual and stupid most violence is.

Ling’s neighbour is a prostitute who calls herself Little Sister and becomes the often chilly recipient of his lonely attentions. She mocks him for doing women’s work and scorns the Chinese men who “only brought their women here so someone could be lower than them . . . You left us the only job you couldn’t do for the ghosts.” The Chinese were unique among migrants to America for their “sojourner attitude”, a desire to return home with the wealth they accrued – another reason for citizens and settlers to take offense.

Like Vincent Chin, Anna May Wong lived a real life from which Davies takes a flight of imagination. The first Chinese film star in Hollywood, her early success was straitjacketed by the introduction of the Hays Code, which forbade the portrayal of interracial relationships on-screen (even as white actors in yellowface were de rigueur). However, all her rumoured lovers, from Vincent Price to Marlene Dietrich, were white, and Douglas Fairbanks called her the “Chink in my amour”. Her most famous movies were denounced as “ghost films” and banned in China.

Davies’s scouring of film history hardens the edges of the chasm between Chinese and white American culture even as characters such as Ah Ling and John Ling Smith, a biracial man adopting a baby girl from China, attempt to straddle both demographics. Smith is an alien in his ancestral land, which he’s never before set foot in; his looks prompt others to defer to him, and he has to confess he speaks no Chinese.

On the death of her son and the gross injustice which followed it, Vincent Chin’s mother abandoned the city where she raised him, and returned to her homeland of China, from which he was adopted. The instinct to return home can never be excised, even with new names and decades of life in a new place. As Dickinson decreed, Davies tells the truth, with a subversive, knowing slant which leaves us much the wiser.

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