The manservant of a railroad baron. The first Chinese-American film star. The witness to a racially motivated murder. A mixed-race man adopting a child from China. These are the four characters whom Peter Ho Davies calls upon to represent 150 years of Chinese-American experience in The Fortunes, a novel that brings to life a history that is both a part of, and stands apart from, the story of America as a whole.
I knew very little about Chinese-American history before picking up this book; by its end, I was amazed that Davies was able to tackle so broad a subject in a single book, albeit one that is divided into four distinct sections, each with its own plot.
The first section of the book follows the life of Ah Ling, an immigrant laundry worker who goes on to become personal valet to a rail baron. His story encompasses the first major wave of Chinese immigration, and therefore exposes the origin of much of the specifically anti-Chinese racist discourse that still lingers to this day. Stumbling upon an anti-Chinese rally one day, Ling notes:
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.
Ling’s story is by far the longest in the book, and given his role within Chinese American history, I can appreciate why. That being said, I did feel like it went on a little too long; running to twelve chapters and 133 pages, it could almost be a novel in its own right.
By contrast, Anna May Wong’s story feels like it is over before it has begun. Told in brief vignettes, this section relates the actress’s first trip to China, as she escapes Hollywood to visit her father. Of all the sections in The Fortunes, Wong’s felt the most memorable, the short passages seemingly reflective of the scenes Wong would act in, her public persona masking her private struggles. At one point she tells her sister that, no matter what is wrong with her,
I just tell myself I can always get through it for another few seconds. And I do. That’s how I bear it. One take at a time. You can always make it to the end of the scene.
The third section centres on the murder of Vincent Chin in 1980s Detroit, as told by his unnamed friend and witness. Entitled “Tell It Slant”, after the Emily Dickinson poem, his story is a brilliant blend of bleak, self-deprecating humour and unreliable narration. Despite the speaker’s assumptions, I had not heard of Chin’s murder, but it was hard to read it and not draw parallels to the ongoing activism against both hate crime and the subsequent leniency shown towards its perpetrators.
While the first three stories are based on real people, the fourth is presented as being entirely fictional. John Smith, son of a Chinese mother and American father, goes to China with his white wife with the aim of adopting a daughter. Of all the sections in The Fortunes, this one was the most challenging for me, not least because of its metafictionality. Like Davies, Smith is a mixed-race professor and author, having attempted to write about the Transcontinental Railroad, Anna May Wong, and Vincent Chin. His narrative is also peppered with references to the earlier stories: the elephant toy they intend to give to their daughter, their name choice(s) for her, the appearance of a bus driver named Ah Ling.
This metafictionality was a little jarring to me at first, but upon reflection I can appreciate what Davies is doing with this final section, and the book as a whole. By presenting John Smith, ostensibly a fictional character, on a par with three real-life figures, The Fortunes emphasises how history itself is a constructed narrative. There is no perfect telling of history; like Wong’s performances or the “slant” retelling of Chin’s murder, history is inevitably biased. American history is generally biased towards a pro-white, pro-Western version of events. The Fortunes seeks to counter that bias by telling things from a Chinese American perspective, and, like any historical narrative, it is impossible not to “tell it slant.”