Being a famous Chinese-American is an ‘impossible burden,’ says author

Chinatown in San Francisco

Chinatown in San Francisco

Being a famous Chinese-American is an ‘impossible burden,’ says author

17 August 2016

By Jemimah Steinfeld

What do Ah Ling, the first Chinese to work on the transcontinental railroad, movie star Anna May Wong and murder victim Vincent Chin have in common? The simplest answer is that they’re Chinese-American. But it’s more than that. All of them have come to represent the Chinese-American community in some way.

“It’s an impossible burden,” says Peter Ho Davies, author of The Fortunes, which reimagines the lives of these key historical figures. Ling, Wong and Chin – they are all weighed down by an expectation that even as individuals they can still speak for many.

“The answer is no one can, but one still has to,” he explains.

Perhaps this is why Ho Davies has written the book. He too might feel that burden. Ho Davies, who grew up in Coventry in the UK, is the child of a Welsh father and Malay-Chinese mother. He has lived in Singapore and Malaysia, before settling in the US for over two decades. The Fortunes features a fourth character, a fictional Chinese-American from today, who draws on Ho Davies and some of his experiences.

Speaking on the phone to Ho Davies ahead of his talk at Asia House next week, he explains how a central theme in his writing is about “trying to understand who we are.”

Ambiguity is one reading. Ho Davies says: “Whenever we think about hyphenated identity it bespeaks a choice, either that you are Chinese or that you are American. You’re asked to pick a side.”

He believes this choice is a lose-lose situation – any side people choose will expose them to criticism.

“But we don’t have to be this or that and the middle is not a mix of the two. Rather it’s a new thing.”

This new thing can be seen in the fortune cookie. The book’s title, The Fortunes, is a play on several concepts. First the idea of immigrant communities coming for success, nay fortune. Then the notion that Chinese communities specifically are concerned with the concept of luck, be it good or bad. Finally, there’s the playful reference to the fortune cookie.

“It’s a clichéd signifier of the Chinese community. It is neither truly American, nor truly Chinese. It’s a middle ground between Chineseness and Americaness. In essence it’s Chinese-American – a new thing.”

Ho Davies wants to reclaim the fortune cookie by re-situating it in a more nuanced cultural context.

“I’m interested in the idea of reclaimed epithets,” he says, citing several words and names that have been re-appropriated by communities and groups as a way of challenging the status quo and empowering people. It is time that the fortune cookie is celebrated rather than shunned, he says.

Ho Davies is certainly well placed to empower the fortune cookie. He’s a very impressive figure within the literary world. Educated at both the University of Manchester and Cambridge, he started making waves in 1998, when his first collection of short stories was published. The Ugliest House in the World went on to win the John Llewellyn Rhys prize and the Macmillan Silver Pen award. His second collection, Equal Love, was published a few years later and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Soon afterwards he was named one of the Granta Best of Young British Novelists in 2003, alongside Zadie Smith. He continued to rise up the literary ranks and in 2007 his book The Welsh Girl was nominated for the Man Booker prize.

“I wrote The Welsh Girl to explore that part of my heritage. Having written that book it seemed logical to turn to the other half of my identity,” he says.

And yet it was not always apparent that Ho Davies would write on the Chinese-American experience per se.

Initially his focus was narrower. He wanted to explore the transcontinental railroad. He explains how he was struck by the “sheer continental scale” of the US.

“As a Brit we think of our country somewhat differently, as smaller.”

The transcontinental railway was an example to him of America’s enormity – a line so long that you can spend days on it. This appealed to him, as did the idea of the Chinese building the line from the West and the Irish building it from the East, “in a race of sorts.”

But life always takes unexpected twists and turns. Whilst researching for that idea, Ho Davies came across the figure of Ah Ling. Ling was clearly impressive; he was the personal servant of Charles Crocker, one of the main men behind the railroad, and impressed Crocker with his efficiency to such an extent that Crocker recruited more Chinese. Despite these credentials, Ah Ling appears as a mere appendage to Crocker in his research.

“He seemed like a fascinating figure – one that notionally exists, but whom not much is known. He’s a gift for the historical novelist,” says Ho Davies.

From Ling, Ho Davies then moved to Anna May Wong and The Fortunes started taking shape.

In the process of researching the book, Ho Davies travelled the route of the transcontinental railroad several times by train and car. The latter was essential as many parts of the railroad are no longer in use and not that easy to reach.

He also walked the Great Wall, tracing the steps of the fictional Chinese-American character. It is these experiences that provide texture in the book, not to mention authenticity.

Ho Davies, who is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Michigan, sites many literary influences – it’s a long list. There are two that particularly stand out though – Kazuo Ishiguro and Timothy Mo. These men were hugely influential during Ho Davies formative years.

“I thought – here are these guys. They’re young and Asian. As a teenager they gave me permission,” he says.

The Fortunes will be published by Sceptre Books in London on Thursday 25 August. Peter Ho Davies is talking about the book ahead of publication with journalist Arifa Akbar at Asia House on Monday 22 August. Click here for more information on the talk and to purchase tickets.