The Fortunes

Written by Peter Ho Davies
Review by G. J. Berger

This four-part literary blend of fact and fiction powerfully lays out the Chinese-American experience. In the 1860s, Ah Ling, son of a “ghost” (white man) and Chinese prostitute, is sent off to California. Starting as a laundry worker, he rises to head valet for a railroad baron, then becomes an expert in construction site explosives and a grave digger to unearth the bones of dead countrymen and send their remains home.

In the era that straddles the making of silent films and major Hollywood productions, Anna May Wong becomes the first Chinese Hollywood film star, but she has to watch white actresses land parts that would have been perfect for her and is never allowed to kiss a white man on screen. Vincent Chin, a true-life American track star, is murdered by two auto workers who mistake him for Japanese at a time when waves of Japanese auto imports rout those coming out of Detroit.

Part IV tells the modern-day story of John Ling Smith (half-Chinese) and his American wife, Nola, picking up their adopted baby from an orphanage in China. They do not speak Chinese, and this is their first trip to China.

Davies blends the larger themes of race bias and capitalistic oppression with intense details—spittle for spray starch while ironing, a baby girl grabbing Nola’s finger, thereby charmingly selecting the couple the baby wants to adopt her. Davies’ prose often deserves to be read out loud and slowly. While each of its four parts could be developed into a fuller stand-alone novel or historical narrative, The Fortunes will grab most readers and hold onto them long after they have turned the last page.