After exploring the Welsh side of his ancestry in his debut 2007 novel “The Welsh Girl,” Peter Ho Davies felt that it was only right to explore his Chinese half. On Sept. 6, the United Kingdom-born author, who moved to the United States in 1992, released his second novel, “The Fortunes,” which explores the meaning of being Chinese American from the 1800s to present day.
“I’m half Welsh on my father’s side and half Chinese on my mother’s,” Davies told NBC News. “’The Welsh Girl’ was a book written to try to explore that part of my heritage, to try to understand it better and find my own place within Welsh culture. Having written that, it felt very natural to turn my attention to the other side, my Chinese heritage and what it means to me to be Chinese. As I’ve now lived in the U.S. for half my life, it seemed natural that it would become an exploration of the Chinese-American immigrant experience.”
Davies does not delve into his own family tree in “The Fortunes,” instead presenting a fictional narrative broken down into four separate parts with separate protagonists, each covering distinct periods of Chinese-American history. The novel is anchored with characters based in history and connected by Davies’ narrative.
“There were lots of gaps,” Davies said. “The gaps are why the fiction exists”
Starting with early Chinese immigration to the West Coast during the California Gold Rush in the 1860s, "The Fortunes" begins by following Ah Ling, a young boy sent to the U.S. to earn money to send back home. A son of a prostitute, Ling is bi-racial and struggles to find his place among other immigrant workers and Americans, as he moves from laundromat to Central Pacific Railroad, where he works for to the historical rail baron Charles Crocker.
“It felt like that was going to be the whole narrative,” Davies said. “A novel about the Chinese working on the transcontinental railroad. But as I did research, different names kept coming up, and there was this sense that a number of these figures shared roles as representatives of the Chinese, or Chinese Americans.”
As representatives, Davies noted, the characters “often become a martyr for a political cause,” a theme demonstrated in Ling’s story by a widespread anti-Chinese sentiment, caused by the influx of immigrants providing a cheaper alternative for laborious work. Growing ethnic discrimination at the time led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, banning Chinese labor migration and therefore making inclusion difficult for any second generation Chinese set to become American citizens.
Anna May Wong, the second character encountered in ”The Fortunes,” is one of those born to Chinese parents in the States. Well-known as one of the first Chinese-American actresses, the novel's Wong finds herself in a world where she is unable to kiss white men on Hollywood screens — due to anti-miscegenation laws — and at the same time, witnesses her films and starring roles banned from Chinese theatres.
“I found her life experience to be very poignant in the sense of being perceived differently in two places,” Davies said. “But also being an outsider in two places. The Chinese think she should be American, the American think she should be Chinese.”
The last two sections in the book jump into contemporary eras, first with the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin in Detroit. The story of Chin's death at the hands of two autoworkers who were eventually convicted of manslaughter and did not serve prison time and how it galvanized the Pan Asian-American movement is told through the eyes of one of Chin's friends.
The final section focuses on a half-Chinese author who travels to China for the first time to adopt a baby amid embarrassment of not knowing any Chinese language.
“They all struggle in their roles as representatives,” Davies said. “How does one as an individual represent a larger collective, when you’re likely to be subject to criticism from both sides.”
“Do I feel myself to be Chinese-American? I certainly do in some ways,” Davies continued. “But Chinese-American in all kinds of individuals’ ways. I think we all have a cross amount of identities to bare within ourselves. I’m less about the either-or and more about the both.”