“The Fortunes” by Peter Ho Davies

How do you forge an identity for yourself if—depending on how you look at it—you are either half this nationality and half that nationality, or both this nationality and that one, or neither this nationality nor that one? And what sorts of relationship does fiction bear to fact? The Fortunes explores such questions through the lives of four Chinese Americans, one a figure only glimpsed in history, two of them well-documented historical figures, and one of them invented from scratch. All four of them are here treated as characters in linked novellas that build to a novel, and all of them are intimately, and movingly, realized.

These four lives, spanning from the middle of the nineteenth century to the recent heyday of adoptions by Americans of baby girls from China, are presented in four parts: “Gold”, “Silver”, “Jade”, “Pearl”.

The Fortunes, Peter Ho Davies (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September 2016; Sceptre, August 2016)
The Fortunes, Peter Ho Davies (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September 2016; Sceptre, August 2016)

“Gold”, for Gold Mountain, follows the story of Ah Ling, the son of a Tanka whore and one of her white clients, who travels from Fragrant Harbour to California, where, after a stint as a laundryman, he becomes the valet to a powerful railway baron, Crocker. Crocker relies on a mainly Chinese workforce to build his railway, and when the workers strike, he attempts to use Ah Ling as a go-between to persuade them back to work. But Ah Ling leaves his job as Crocker’s valet, and instead hires on the line. Crocker is an historical figure, and Ah Ling was apparently his valet, although it seems he was remembered before this book only as a footnote to his employer’s biography.

“Silver”, for the silver screen, retells the story of Anna May Wong who was the first Chinese-American movie star. She was generally typecast as Dragon Lady or Butterfly, and in 1935, was turned down for the role of O-Lan in the movie version of Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth—the role went to the white actress, Luise Rainer. “Silver” sees Anna May travelling for the first time to China, to try to assimilate this horrible blow.

“Jade”, for a jade charm, a little carved elephant, concerns Vincent Chin, who, in 1982, was killed in his hometown, Detroit, by two whites who mistook him for a Japanese—they thought the Japanese were responsible for economic woes, in the local auto industry. Chin’s murder became important in the struggle by Asian Americans—not just Chinese Americans—to resist racism. Chin wore a jade elephant charm on a chain around his neck.

“Pearl, is for a baby girl, newly adopted by an invented childless American couple, John Ling Smith and his wife Nola, who’d intended to adopt another girl entirely, and who give her the English name “Pearl.” John’s late father was white, but his mother, now resident in the US, is Singaporean Chinese. John, who only speaks English, looks Chinese, but he’s not Chinese, an ambiguity, or a duality, that much occupies him as he thinks about becoming a father to a Chinese girl whose own identity will likewise be in flux, once she is removed to America.


This is a novel to be enjoyed line-by-line. From the opening, Ho Davies’ prose is arresting:


It was like riding in a treasure chest, Ling thought. Or one of the mistress’s velvet jewel cases. The glinting brasswork, the twinkling, tinkling chandelier dangling like a teardrop from the inlaid walnut ceiling, the etched glass and flocked wallpaper and pendulous silk.


That comparison of a luxurious train carriage, to a treasure chest I thought wonderful—exactly right. Likewise, the clever play on “chandelier” so the reader sees at once both the chandelier hanging from the inlaid walnut ceiling, and also chandelier earrings glittering against the velvet of one of the mistress’s jewel cases.

Such delights are scattered throughout the whole novel. Again, from “Gold”: Ling “Watched the dusk come down on the mountains like the lid of a pot.”

From “Silver”, after we’ve learnt that Anna May Wong was originally called Wong Liu Tsong:


Wong Liu Tsong means ‘Frosted Yellow Willow’. (Anna May’s) father asked her once what Anna May meant. ‘Me’ She said, simply.


And a few pages later, when, as a child, Anna May is an extra in a film, and she can’t find herself on the screen:


It was like looking in a mirror and not recognizing yourself. What good was the silver screen if it didn’t reflect you?


From “Jade”, at Vincent’s family grave:


The sod over Vincent and his father is a shade greener than that over his mother’s more recent plot, like jade that darkens from wearing.


Ho Davies craft is further evident in the broader structure. Various motifs recur throughout, they include: laundries; railways; elephants; the names Ling, Little Sister / Mei Mei, Anna May and Pearl; adopted children; mixed-race children. “Silver” is written in short sections, like movie frames, which build to present the story. In “Jade”, subtitled “Tell it slant”, Ho Davies does indeed tell it slant; it is written as a first-person narrative from Vincent’s unnamed friend, who fled when Vincent was attacked. “Gold” and “Pearl” are written in the third person, featuring Ah Ling’s and John Ling Smith’s points of view, respectively.

In “Pearl”, John wonders how, in the future, Pearl will think of him and Nola:


Will she resent them for taking her from a resurgent East (at the start of the Chinese century) to a fading West (at the end of the American one)?


That is an excellent question, and one any reader is bound to ask now that more than fading, the West seems in terminal decline, especially following the recent American election. The blurb for The Fortunes says it is: “a rallying, hopeful vision of what it might mean to be an American.” To me, reading it, in Singapore, after Trump’s victory, it read more like an elegy for a vision of what it might once have meant to have been an American, but perhaps no longer does: to be someone who could have come from anywhere, but could feel their way to finding a self, and a sense of belonging, in the new country, despite having to grapple numerous problems and obstacles, including racism.

That I was reading The Fortunes in Singapore also left me feeling I had probably missed all sorts of references to the nuances of racial politics in the States—although of course Singapore is a city where questions about race, identity, and inclusion, including Chinese identities and inclusion, are just as relevant as they are in America.

Wherever you find yourself, The Fortunes combines history, with elements of the multi-generational novel, with a lyrical and moving exploration of cross-cultural exchange, both at the societal level, and in the lives of individuals. Read it for the prose, for its probing of the boundaries between fact and fiction, for the sense of entering the characters’ lives, and for its challenging explorations of the ways that politics intersects with questions about identities, personal and communal, and also of how any of us conjures for ourselves, a self.

Rosie Milne runs Asian Books Blog. She lives in Singapore.