British author and academic Peter Ho Davies’s historical novel The Fortunes
(2016) is presented in the form of four interconnected short stories. Each tale features a character of Chinese descent, three of whom Davies based on real people, as they attempt to navigate the world in their respective eras, resulting in a generation-spanning saga of a larger immigrant family. The Fortunes
won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction, and The New York Times
named it a Notable Book.
The first part of the book, "Celestial Railroad," centers on Chinese orphan Ah Ling, the biracial son of a white man and a Chinese prostitute. After his mother dies, he is sold, at the age of 14, to a laundryman in America. He arrives in San Francisco and works at Uncle Ng's laundry, dreaming of someday amassing a fortune. Little Sister works alongside Ling at the laundry, a job she balances in addition to her second career as a prostitute. Ling falls in love with Little Sister, but she won't have sex with him without receiving payment. Charles Crocker, a railroad tycoon who frequents the laundry, hires Ling as his personal servant. With his first earnings, he takes Little Sister on a date. She tells him that Ng is her father and essentially her pimp. Soon, Ng sells Little Sister to another elderly man. As Ling continues working for Charles, he realizes that Charles only wants him as a sort of token Chinese employee, someone to smooth over his image and relationship with his Chinese railroad workers. But as Ling gets to know the workers, he finds he fits in with them, so he quits his job as a servant and works on the railroad far from San Francisco. Later, he takes a job as a bone collector, collecting the bones of the Chinese workers who died on the job and sending them back to China. When Ling finally earns enough to return to San Francisco, he reconnects with Little Sister, now the madam of her own thriving harem. She sleeps with Ling at long last—and does not charge him.
In the second portion of the book, "Your Name in Chinese," real-life classic-film legend Anna May Wong takes centerstage. As a little girl in Los Angeles's Chinatown, Anna loves the movies. She dreams of being an actress one day, but her father does not approve and often becomes violent. Anna's talent as an actress, coupled with her determination and her willingness to use the casting couch to her full advantage, launch her career in the film industry. She reaches a level of fame unheard of for a Chinese actress up until that point, but she never achieves true star status. Directors typically cast white actors in "yellowface" to play Asian characters. And once the motion picture code goes into effect, preventing depictions of interracial love, Anna's career falters, since she cannot be paired with a white actor, nor are any Chinese actors bankable box office draws. Anna goes to China to film a documentary but feels lost there, disconnected from the culture and language. She returns to America and eventually makes peace with her father. Her Hollywood career ebbs and flows, and she wonders about what, if any, impact she has had on public perceptions of the Chinese. When she sees some of her physicality in Madame Chiang, First Lady of China, she sees that she has indeed made a difference.
The third story, "Tell It Slant," is presented by a never-named narrator who witnesses the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982. Vincent grew up in China, but a Chinese American couple in Detroit adopt him. He and the narrator are childhood friends. Two white men murder 27-year-old Vincent after they mistake him for Japanese; they think the Japanese auto industry is stealing jobs from American automakers in Detroit. In a case of mistaken identity, Vincent's murder becomes a symbol of the corrosive effects of racism and ignorance. The narrator deals with his own guilt over not preventing the murder. The experience shapes the way he sees himself—and the United States.
The last story, "Disorientation," is about the writer John Ling Smith and his wife, Nola. They go to China to adopt a baby. Because of China's one-child-per-family rule, the country has a number of baby girls in need of homes. John has trouble sleeping the night before the adoption event. The trip has not been a smooth one; because John is half-Chinese, other families on the adoption trip expected him to speak the language and know things about Chinese culture. However, he neither speaks Chinese nor has a connection with the culture, and this weighs heavy on his mind as he gets out of bed and goes down to the hotel bar. There, he talks to a prostitute named Pearl, and he learns of the difficulties faced by many Chinese women. The next day, John and Nola learn their daughter has died, and now they must accept a new child, which they do. When they return to the hotel, they run into Pearl in the lobby. She wishes them well on the adoption and informs them she is going to America to start over. John and Nola decide to name the baby Pearl.