55 pages 1 hour read

Peter Ho Davies

The Fortunes

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2016

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Summary and Study Guide


The Fortunes (2016) is a historical novel by British author Peter Ho Davies. Written in the form of four interconnected stories, it details the experiences of various groups of Chinese immigrants and their descendants in the United States. Three of the four stories are based on real, historical figures, and together the narratives form a vast, multi-generational portrait of Chinese American communities across time and in various regions of the US. The four stories take as their source material, respectively, the first wave of Chinese American immigrants who travelled to California to work on the construction of the US railway system, the life and career of Chinese American film star Anna May Wong, the brutal murder of Vincent Chin, and the impact of China’s one-child policy on international adoptions. The novel as a whole delves deeply into anti-Chinese racism, assimilation, and the way that Chinese American identity and communities have been shaped by historical events in both China and the United States. The Fortunes was the recipient of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction as well as the Chautauqua Prize and was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

This guide uses the 2017 paperback edition by Mariner Books, an imprint of Harper Collins.

Content Warning: The source text contains descriptions of anti-Asian prejudice, offensive pejoratives in reference to Asian Americans, and the n-word.

Plot Summary

The first part of the novel, “Celestial Railroad,” depicts the first wave of Chinese immigrants to the United States through the story of Ah Ling, the biracial son of a Chinese sex worker and a white man. Ling is orphaned at a young age and ends up in the care of a man who sells him to Uncle Ng, the owner of a Chinese laundry in the United States. Uncle Ng also employs Little Sister, a sex worker who is ultimately revealed to be Ng’s own daughter, whom he forced into the profession. Ling immediately becomes infatuated with Little Sister in spite of her scathing disregard for him and general mistrust of Chinese men. Although Ng is initially a trusting and lenient boss, Ling dreams of making his fortune in gold mining and longs to leave the laundry where the work is difficult and Ling is subject to anti-Chinese discrimination along his delivery route. While making a delivery, Ling meets Charles Crocker, a wealthy railroad magnate who offers Ling a job as his personal valet. Because of his work for Charles, he is able to start visiting Little Sister as a paying customer, and the two begin a relationship that, although transactional, is not without connection. Ng eventually sells Little Sister, and Ling realizes that Charles Crocker values Ling only as a liaison between himself and his Chinese workers, many of whom are unhappy with their working conditions. Ling quits working for Crocker and takes a lower paying position on the railroad. After the completion of the railroad, Ling works as a bone collector, gathering the remains of Chinese workers who died during the completion of the project in order to send them back to China. At the end of the story he runs into Little Sister. She is now the madam of her own establishment. She and Ling have sex, but he is struck by her callousness. Although she herself had been sold into sexual slavery by her father and deeply resented him for it, she now employs several of her own daughters as sex workers.

The second story in the novel, “Your Name in Chinese,” focuses on the life and career of famed actress Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American woman to achieve stardom in Hollywood. Anna is born to Chinese immigrant parents in Los Angeles and falls in love with the film industry as a young girl. She is subject to anti-Chinese prejudice even during her youth and is struck by the respect and awe with which people treat actors and actresses. She wants to pursue a career in film in part to experience this kind of admiration. Her father, who runs a laundry, does not support her desire to become an actress. Actors and actresses have low social standing in China, and he feels that such a move would cause their family to lose face. Anna, however, is determined, and her perseverance eventually enables her to break into the industry. She becomes the foremost Chinese American actress of her day, but her roles are limited by anti-Asian sentiment, by the restrictive Hays Code, which bars representation of interracial relationships on screen, and by the practice of assigning the roles of Asian characters to white actors and actresses. She travels back to China to make a documentary that she hopes will resuscitate her career, but she feels a distinct sense of cultural dislocation. Upon her return to the United States, she resumes her career, and although she is still successful, anti-Asian prejudice remains rampant in Hollywood. She dies of cirrhosis not long after an Oscar is awarded to an Asian man for the first time.

The third story, “Tell it Slant,” narrates the tale of Vincent Chin, a real-life Chinese American man murdered by white auto workers in Detroit. The men, angry at the way that Japanese car sales had begun to surpass those of American cars, assumed that Chin was Japanese and set upon him as he was celebrating his bachelor party at a local strip club. The story’s unnamed narrator had been a friend of Chin’s during their school years and was present at the bachelor party on the night of Chin’s murder. The men are initially given a slap on the wrist, and it is only later that the case is reopened and tried as a hate crime. The narrator recalls his friendship with Chin, who although he had been born in Hong Kong and seemed “more Chinese” than the narrator himself, had been more popular at school and better accepted by their peers. Still, the two had been the target of racist taunts at school, and the narrator is not surprised that the anti-Asian sentiment he knew to be festering in the United States exploded into an act of such senseless violence. Chin’s mother had even returned to China after her son’s murder, and the narrator still feels guilty over his inability to prevent his friend’s death.

The fourth story, “Disorientation,” tells the story of a Chinese American writer named John Ling Smith and his wife Nola who decide to adopt a Chinese baby. They are in their mid-thirties and Nola has not been able to bring a pregnancy to term without miscarriage. Because of China’s one-child policy and patriarchal preference for boys, there is an overabundance of female infants up for adoption in Chinese orphanages. The two travel to China along with a group of other parents who have adopted Chinese infants, but the trip is not without difficulty, especially for John. He and Nola have been struggling in their marriage as a result of their unsuccessful attempts to have a child. Additionally, because John is Chinese American (though his father was white), the rest of the parents in their group expect him to have better Chinese language skills and more of a connection to China’s history and culture. John feels a sense of disorientation in China, believing that he is neither fully American nor fully Chinese. Unable to sleep on the night before the adoption, he slips out of their hotel room and goes down to the hotel bar. There, he meets a sex worker named Pearl and pays her for conversation. The next morning, John and Nola find out that the baby they were supposed to have adopted has died, and they instead return home with a different infant. On the way back to the hotel they run into Pearl in the lobby, and although Nola questions John about who she is, John feigns ignorance. Later that night, John and Nola decide to name their new daughter Pearl.