Anti-miscegenation laws—laws prohibiting interracial marriage and relationships—plagued the United States and were a part of the American fabric for centuries, some lasting until the 1960s. Tom Lin frames his debut novel, The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu, around this issue as the eponymous protagonist of the story was married to a white woman until her father and the local law enforcement put an end to it. Ming Tsu is now out for revenge. He’s also an assassin by trade.
Lin is hardly the first to reframe the Western as something other than blunt-spoken white men in big hats. Stacey Lee and C Pam Zhang have written novels featuring Chinese characters in the Wild West. Gene Wilder starred in “The Frisco Kid”, a film about an orthodox rabbi on horseback. And more than a century ago, Puccini set his romantic opera “The Girl of the Golden West” in this milieu. Nor have Chinese, Native Americans or others been entirely absent from Westerns, but they have almost always been in supporting roles, usually without much in the way of agency. Lin’s characterization of Ming Tsu puts a Chinese man in the role of a hero. As an assassin with two hundred notches in his belt, Ming certainly exhibits agency, especially when it comes to the folks who broke up his marriage.
While the novel is a repositioning of a classic American story, it’s also a tribute to the American West itself.
Ming was born in the United States, and because he was adopted by a white man after his mother died in childbirth and his father couldn’t care for him on his own, he—reflecting the dilemma of many contemporary second-generation Chinese-Americans—speaks no Chinese. As a result, he doesn’t identify with the Chinese laborers when he’s sent to work on the railroads after his father-in-law has him banished from his home and wife in California. Yet while on this work crew, Ming comes into contact with an older Chinese man who can tell the future. Nicknamed “the prophet”, this man joins Ming on his revenge spree.
The pair meets up with a traveling magic show made up of a diverse cast of characters each with a unique supernatural trait. One can make others forget the past, one is a ventriloquist, and another can set herself on fire and not burn. When Ming and the Navajo, named Notah, talk about the ringmaster, they discuss white settlers:
“But the ringmaster’s your friend,” Ming said, “ain’t he?”
“I count no white man among my friends.”
Ming got to his feet and dusted his trousers. “Wise.”
Notah placed a hand on Ming’s shoulder. “In time you may need my services,” he said. “All men wish to forget.”
Ming shook his head. “Not me.”
Ming cannot forget or else he won’t be able to get back to Ada. This unwillingness to forget can also be seen as an allegory for the history of the Chinese in the American West and how Americans as a whole should remember the thousands who toiled—many of whom died—to build the railroad connecting the coasts and physically uniting the country. The prophet speaks to Ming about the land:
The land beneath them belonged to those who would remake it in their own image, who by crossing and recrossing its breadth would come to understand its contours, its character, what remained when the day was done. The land remembers only what labors it has born, the prophet said, and even those whose work became gray and thin in the minds of those who labored, still the land bears witness to their memory.
While the novel is a repositioning of a classic American story, it’s also a tribute to the American West itself. A doctoral student in English at the University of California, Davis, Lin has traveled these roads himself: the land is clearly just as essential to the story as is Ming.
They crossed into the lengthening shadow of Antler Peak in the annealing afternoon heat of the third day. At the foothills of the range they followed strange markings in the stones to a shaded pit beneath a blackstone bluff and there they found water pooling cold and clean, just as Ming’s copied map had promised. Railroad surveyors always did careful work. The horses watched parched and anxious while the party filled their canteens and only then were the animals allowed to approach the pool and drink and in a matter of minutes they drained all that remained in the small wellspring.
The book is filled with passages like this. Due to the distance between the towns on the route Ming travels—with nothing but the land in between—the story often feels languid, which of course is the allure of any number of Westerns. Yet at the same time, Lin builds the tension as Ming tries to outsmart and outgun his opponents, all while moving closer to Ada and resuming married life. But Ming isn’t just a perfect shot. He also uses a sharpened railroad stake to take out his enemies, sometimes sticking it—in a literal sense—to the people who have treated the Chinese, Mexicans, and Native Americans so poorly.
Ming can’t forget and Lin won’t let us forget either that Chinese were, not least through their work on the railroads, themselves a major part of the American fabric. In doing so, he has created a dreamy Western landscape starring a sympathetic protagonist—bloody railroad stakes and all.