As anti-Chinese prejudice rears its ugly head in the United States, more palpably and consequentially than it has in living memory, it is worth remembering that Chinese have been in America for generations. C Pam Zhang’s debut novel of Chinese immigrants who came for the railroads and the gold rush, How Much of These Hills is Gold, is a haunting tale of family, home, and belonging.
Ma longs for China. She arrives in California (known as gam saan, or “gold mountain”) with 200 other hopeful immigrants under the false promises of riches. She meets Ba, who is hired as a liaison between the immigrants and the railroad bosses, and learns from him that the hills are not made of gold after all and that the Chinese have been tricked into coming to the US to build the railroads. Ma asks Ba to take her back to China as soon as they earn enough for passage. They have two girls a year apart; Ma speaks Chinese to Lucy and Sam and draws the character for tiger on each of their new homes as they move around the area.
Ma’s tiger is like none other. Always eight lines: some curved, some straight, some hooked like tails. Always in the same unchangeable order. Only if Lucy squints, looks away, watches from a slant, does the tiger that Ma draws flicker, for a moment, like a real tiger.
Money doesn’t come easily. Ba works grueling hours in the coal mines after making his start as a gold prospector.
Even when Ma put her foot down and insisted they make an honest living through coal, little changed. From coal mine to coal mine their wagon crossed the hills like a finger scraping the barrel’s last taste of sugar. Each new mine drew men with the promise of high wages, but those wages fell as more men arrived.
Both siblings attend school with children of other coal miners, but soon Sam leaves after the other students bully them for being Chinese. There’s something else Sam doesn’t like about school; she feels more at home doing physical work with her father. Ma dies in childbirth along with her stillborn baby boy and shortly after that Sam stops wearing dresses and cuts her hair. Sam is quick to fill the void of the lost brother.
Where’s my girl? Ba said, looking round the shack at the end of the day. Sam hid quiet as Ba searched, playing a game that was theirs alone. Finally Ba roared, Where’s my boy? Sam leapt up. Here I am. Ba tickled Sam till tears sprang to Sam’s eyes. Apart from that, Sam quit crying.
Lucy and Sam aren’t even teenagers when Ba dies, leaving them orphaned, on their own in the rural West, with little to live on. The siblings’ fate is sealed by their gender: there aren’t many options for teenage girls in the Wild West, especially when they look different from almost everyone else and one is transgender.
Somewhat disconcertingly, Zhang interpolates what she calls “pidgin Mandarin”—rendered in an anachronistic 20th-century pinyin—into the dialogue. If Lucy, Sam and Ma spoke Mandarin, they would be most unusual, since most of the 19th-century immigrants hailed from southern China and spoke, more than anything else, Cantonese. This matters—especially to the Cantonese, especially now.
It’s nonetheless a heartbreaking story, and a very necessary one that’s long overdue.