Ah Ling: son of a prostitute and a white ‘ghost’, dispatched from Hong Kong as a boy to make his way alone in 1860s California.
Anna Mae Wong: the first Chinese film star in Hollywood, forbidden to kiss a white man on screen.
Vincent Chin: killed by a pair of Detroit auto workers in 1982 simply for looking Japanese.
John Ling Smith: a half-Chinese writer visiting China for the first time, to adopt a baby girl.
Inspired by three figures who lived at pivotal moments in Chinese-American history, and drawing on his own mixed-race experience, Peter Ho Davies plunges us into what it is like to feel, and be treated, like a foreigner in the country you call home.
Ranging from the mouth of the Pearl River to the land of golden opportunity, this remarkable novel spans 150 years to tell a tale of familial bonds denied and fragmented, of tenacity and pride, of prejudice and the universal need to belong.
The Fortunes is divided into four sections – Gold, Silver, Jade and Peral. Each section is set in a different time and features a real-life individual, although the stories themselves are works of fiction. I did find some links between some of the stories – these were subtle, and I wasn’t sure if it meant that all the stories were linked, and that I just missed some of the clues along the way, or if I was looking for something that wasn’t there. I don’t think it matters, as each of the stories within The Fortunes could easily be read as a standalone.
Thematically, there are more obvious links, as they all feature Chinese immigrants in American seeking to make their way in the world. I thought that this was handled with great sensitivity, and no country or race was shown to be better than another. Indeed, all four of these characters find that they feel isolated from both elements of their heritage, and don’t quite fit into either society as well as they would like. The author doesn’t make any overt requests for tolerance (with the possible exception of the third tale, which I’ll come on to), but I thought that this made the book all the more poignant, and it’s a book with as much relevance to our own time as to those in which it’s set.
I called out the third story here, as this features Vincent Chan, an individual who (in real life) was killed by two men in Detroit because they thought he looked Japanese, and the importation of Japanese cars hit the manufacturing industry in Detroit hard, with layoffs and closures of factories (I’m not justifying their behaviour here, I’m just providing the context). Given this, I think that this tale does stand out as being a more direct look at the violence that can come with extreme prejudice, although all of the characters are looked down on in their tales by those around them.
I’m sure that readers will have their favourite tales, but mine was the first story, which focuses on Ah Ling and is set in the 1860s and the Californian gold rush. I found the second story in particular to be a little difficult to follow as it consists of very short scenes and moves around in time. As it features Anna Mae Wong – the first Chinese film star in Hollywood – I expect that this is meant to mimic the way in which a film is put together – scenes are shot out of sequence, and broken down into smaller parts for filming, but it did make the story a little difficult to follow.
I picked up The Fortunes after hearing Peter Ho Davies discuss his novel at this year’s Hay Festival, and I’m so glad I did – this is an enjoyable read, and looks at the prejudice that is as rife today as it has ever been.