There's a moment in Peter Ho Davies' novel The Fortunes in which a Chinese immigrant to America, a teenage boy named Ling, experiences a painful epiphany. He's been working as a valet to Charles Crocker, the 19th-century business magnate who first began employing Chinese workers as railroad workers. (Crocker's colleagues initially thought him crazy; they believed the Chinese were ill-suited to such backbreaking labor.)
Crocker made his decision after being impressed with Ling's physical prowess, and the young man was initially flattered, feeling "vindicated" after the businessman tells him "You're a credit to your race." But Ling soon realizes his satisfaction was misplaced: "His pride was founded on proving Chinese men equal to, if not better than, whites. Now it turned out they were just cheaper. The same as Chinese food, Chinese laundry, Chinese whores, Chinese lives."
The experience of being Chinese in America is the major theme of The Fortunes, a beautifully constructed novel told in four disparate though loosely-linked parts. The section on Ling opens the novel, and it's breathtaking. The son of a Chinese mother and white father, Ling comes to America after being sold by his uncle. He starts working in a laundry shop before becoming the personal assistant to Crocker (who, like many characters in the book, was a real person).
It doesn't take a long time for Ling to realize that he's despised by the white workers who believe Chinese immigrants are stealing their jobs. At one point, he attends a meeting about "The Chinese Question," where an Irish immigrant angrily addresses the crowd: "So why are [the Chinese] hired? Because they work for less — less pay, less food, less dignity. And what does that make 'em? Less men!"
The history of America is littered with instances of people of color being treated as "less than" whites, a point Davies makes in the second section, a fictionalized life story of the actress Anna May Wong. A Los Angeles native, Wong had to fight for every role she got, as well as the ones she was denied. "Everyone comes to Los Angeles to be a star," Wong's character says. "I was born there, but you could say I still came farther than most."
Davies' portrayal of Wong's career is sympathetic, but never sentimental. She's incensed after being turned down for the lead role in the 1937 film adaptation of The Good Earth — the part is given to a white actress, a common practice at the time. When she realizes that she'll never become the world-famous celebrity she aspired to be, she's downcast: "Not a star, then. A star gives off its own light. Another celestial body, a moon, reflecting others' light." It's a stunningly sad moment in a novel that's full of them.
The third section is the most affecting of the novel. It concerns the 1982 slaying of Vincent Chin in Michigan by two white men who mistook the Chinese American man for Japanese; they blamed Japan for the decline of the U.S. automotive industry. Told from the point of view of Chin's friend, present the night of his killing, it's a chilling look at the event that galvanized the nascent Asian American movement. "And their coming together — Chinese and Japanese, those old enemies, as well as Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino — marked the start of a pan-Asian political movement," Davies writes. "You could say it's when we became Asian American. Two drunk white guys couldn't tell us apart, and we realized we were more alike than we'd thought."
Davies does a masterful job tying the strands together in the novel's final section, about a biracial author who goes to China with his wife to adopt a child. The author has considered writing about Anna May Wong, about Vincent Chin, but keeps getting bogged down in questions of his own identity. In college, Davies writes, the writer had "first heard the derogatory 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."
The last several paragraphs of the book are revelatory. Davies writes with a rare emotional resonance and a deft sense of structure; it's hard not to be in awe of the way he's composed this complex, beautiful novel. The Fortunes is a stunning look at what it means to be Chinese, what it means to be American, and what it means to be a person navigating the strands of identity, the things that made us who we are, whoever that is.