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The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies

The Fortunes (2016)

by Peter Ho Davies

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Dull. The book sounded incredibly promising. A look at the Chinese-American experience though four different stories. Three of which were based on real people. The book is divided into four segments, each focusing on the stories of Ah Ling (who came for the Gold Rush), Anna May Wong (the first Chinese film star in Hollywood), Vincent Chin (who would be killed by two disgruntled auto workers who mistook him for being Japanese) and John Ling Smith, a half Chinese man who looks at his heritage when he goes to China to adopt a child.
The book was a struggle. As other reviews say, the premise was quite promising and there is certainly heart at the look for these examinations of the lives of these individuals. Everything from feeling alienated to the outright racism to the struggles of trying to make it in what was sometimes a strange land/world where representation can be difficult (see Wong and Asians in general in Hollywood). But it is not just quite there.
The writing is exceptionally dull. Overall I thought the stories (especially the first one) were far too long as a whole and could have been cut down considerably. There was just impetus to keep going. The writing struck me as stodgy and plodding. The language itself isn't beautiful, but simply trudges along. I also just couldn't care for the most part about these individuals and depending on which story I was not feeling especially inclined to read what happened next.
Even with the story I was most familiar with (Vincent Chin) I just didn't think the author did it justice. Chin's tale is actually told through the eyes of a friend (that Chin is murdered is not a spoiler if you have heard of the incident) and it was disappointing that the author really didn't do his story justice. Obviously there was only so much the author could do since these were based on real people but I didn't like his approach of viewing this through the eyes of his friend, who struck me as entirely too self-pitying and not of interest.
I really wanted to like it especially since this was one of those books that seemed to be getting a lot of buzz (I initially found out about this from another author who I like). But in retrospect the book ultimately feels incredibly empty. Maybe others would like this book more but I wouldn't recommend it. Back to the library. ( )
  acciolibros | Feb 11, 2018 |
In the stories of 4 Chinese Americans, Peter Ho Davies has create a story of the Chinese in America. The stories can be read as stand-alone books, as there is no relationship between the characters, but by picking and choosing what you read, the meaning of the books will be missed, that of not fitting in. ( )
  brangwinn | Feb 5, 2017 |
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 ( )
1 vote RealLifeReading | Feb 4, 2017 |
Davies, Peter Ho. The Fortunes. 9 CDs. unabridged. 2016. 10 3/4 hrs. Brilliance Audio. ISBN. 9781531824365. $29.99.

Davies (The Welsh Girl) deftly weaves together four stories of the Chinese American experience to create a rich tapestry of what it takes to find acceptance in oneself and in one's country. A nineteenth century laundry worker, a Chinese film star, a friend of someone killed in a hate crime, and a half-Chinese man looking to adopt a Chinese baby; tell their stories of life in America and how their "Chinese-ness" has helped defined their American experience. Their stories are all uniquely different, yet uniquely the same; racism, questions of identity, the need for acceptance, the need to be "all-American" surface in all four stories. Raw, witty, honest, and unflinching, The Fortunes manages to capture the heart of growing up Chinese American in this powerful novel. Impressively narrated by the talented, James Chen, who brings an authenticity to the story with his numerous accents and reserved, yet powerful telling of the story. Davies proves that he's a masterful storyteller in this emotionally gripping novel. - Erin Cataldi, Johnson Co. Public Library, Franklin, IN ( )
  ecataldi | Jan 7, 2017 |
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It was like riding in a treasure chest, Ling thought.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0544263707, Hardcover)

From the author of The Welsh Girl comes a groundbreaking, provocative new novel.

Sly, funny, intelligent, and artfully structured, The Fortunes recasts American history through the lives of Chinese Americans and reimagines the multigenerational novel through the fractures of immigrant family experience.
Inhabiting four lives—a railroad baron’s valet who unwittingly ignites an explosion in Chinese labor, Hollywood's first Chinese movie star, a hate-crime victim whose death mobilizes Asian Americans, and a biracial writer visiting China for an adoption—this novel captures and capsizes over a century of our history, showing that even as family bonds are denied and broken, a community can survive—as much through love as blood.
Building fact into fiction, spinning fiction around fact, Davies uses each of these stories—three inspired by real historical characters—to examine the process of becoming not only Chinese American, but American.

(retrieved from Amazon Sat, 16 Apr 2016 13:19:54 -0400)

"The family institution is revered in Chinese culture, but the historical reality of Chinese Americans has seen family bonds denied, fragmented, or imperiled. [This book] uses this history from the bachelor society of the gold rush era to laws against interracial marriage to the recent wave of adopted baby girls to create a portrait of a community whose line of descent is broken, yet which has tenaciously persisted, as much through love as by blood ... [Davies] uses each of these stories--three inspired by real historical characters--to examine the process of becoming not only Chinese American, but American"--… (more)

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