Questions of race and identity remain valid today

Peter Ho Davies' The Fortunes is a multifaceted rumination on Asian-American identity, encompassing the goldrushes to the present day.

Peter Ho Davies
Hachette New Zealand


Peter Ho Davies is a British-born novelist and short story writer of Chinese and Welsh descent and this novel, his second, is concerned with the changing perceptions of race and identity for Asian Americans since the goldrush times.

Divided into four sections, each in third-person, the book opens with its lengthiest tale, which centres around Eurasian immigrant Ah Ling, who has come to California to seek a better lifestyle.

With a white man for a "father'' and a Chinese prostitute as his mother, he realises that his state of what is essentially fatherlessness in China is to be "poorer than the hungriest peasant''.

Thus he immerses himself in the new land, in a laundromat/brothel environment, a place of dubious betterment. At another time employed in the service of locomotive entrepreneur Charles Crocker, an historical figure, he is treated relatively well yet feels part of the "chinoiserie'', as if likewise to be collected, polished and put on display. Meanwhile, daily, he (like other Chinese immigrants) is tormented and humiliated in the streets.

The sections, interesting and well-written, nevertheless feel disjointed as a narrative. However, the most absorbing aspect is that they are grounded in real events and situations which might be surprisingly unfamiliar to some New Zealanders.

The second section portrays historical figure Anna May Wong, who was considered the first Asian female film star. With friends in Leni Riefenstahl, Marlene Dietrich and many other contemporary high-fliers, Wong was nevertheless continually overlooked on account of her ethnicity.

As the novel recounts, Wong was passed over for a European actress in a Hollywood film featuring a Chinese protagonist, the former being thought "too Chinese''. Exasperated by the anti-miscegenation laws and type-casting, Wong still held out in making her mark for non-white actresses in this industry.

The third, slim, section is also historical, and with the darkest individual focus. Set in Detroit, it reimagines the murder of young Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death in the early 1980s. Prosecuted unusually at a federal level as a hate crime, this case set a precedent for the pan Asian-American movement gathering force.

The fourth section is more general, broadening the focus to look at present-day intercountry adoption of Chinese orphans.

Colloquially referred to as "Gotcha Day'', in the spirit of casual Americanness, this was thought distasteful by some of the potential adoptive parents for its possessive connotations.

As "prospective'' rather than "expectant'' parents, these couples sense the awkward gap that will always haunt: to what degree are the babies to assume a new, all-American identity, and what will be the place of their Chinese birth culture?

The Fortunes raises provoking questions and in-depth analyses around themes of individual and collective identity, discrimination and overt bigotry in modern-day and earlier America.

While the form is not the strongest point, individually the four pieces each investigate a detail or narrative strand rooted in its historical past.

Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.

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