This book by Peter Ho Davies chronicles the Chinese American experience through the eyes of four characters: Ah Ling, an immigrant to California during the construction of the railroad; Anna May Wong, a Hollywood film star; an unnamed friend of Vincent Chin, beaten to death in Detroit in 1982 by two men who thought he was Japanese; and John Smith, who is in China for the first time to adopt a daughter. Each story could exist in isolation—in fact, they are told in different styles and voices—but there are links between them, mostly thematic ones.
All of the main characters are grappling with identity in one way or another. Ah Ling is half white and half Chinese, and he doesn’t feel comfortable in either world. Although he eschews Chinese society for a time, giving up growing a queue and adopting Western dress, he questions that decision and perhaps his own complicity in the suffering of his fellow Chinese. Anna May Wong works in stereotypes—Butterfly or Dragon Lady—and is considered too Chinese for the Chinese role of a lifetime in The Good Earth. Yet when she goes to China, she’s too American. Vincent Chin’s friend suffers from survivor’s guilt for Vincent’s death, and he grapples with the many layers of racism involved in the crime. And John frets about becoming a father and is self-conscious about being the only Chinese American among a group of white parents adopting Chinese babies.
Davies packs a lot into each of these narratives, much of it rather subtle. It’s something I remember about his earlier book, The Welsh Girl. The characters’ feelings are not always easy to discern, largely because the characters themselves are so uncertain. It’s a tricky thing, to show characters’ dilemmas without spelling out their entire interior monologue from beginning to end. I think Davies was mostly successful at bringing readers into their situation, although I often felt distant from the characters. John, in the final story, felt the most vivid to me, but that may be because of the modern-day setting and the way each story built thematically on the previous ones, making the final story a culmination of several strands, rather than something new.
Each of these stories seems like it has potential to be a complete standalone book. In fact, Ah Ling’s story is about the length of a novella. But I think they may be stronger together. Combined, they show a fuller picture of the Chinese-American experience that any one of them would alone. And they show how certain elements of that experience remain consistent across generations.