Young Ah Ling, son of a prostitute and white man, lands in 1860s California and navigates his way through the laundries of his Chinese heritage and the railroads of the white men; never quite at home with either people. Years later Anna May Wong; Hollywood’s first Chinese film star, must take seductress roles and cannot kiss a white man onscreen – visits China, and her father, and feels alien. Years later again, Vincent Chin is murdered in a bar because he looks Japanese. And years later again, half-Chinese writer John Ling Smith visits China to adopt a baby girl.
Though in style this book was like a fictionalised documentary, it got me completely. I was hooked on every story, and so enjoyed the experience of entering into each of the four worlds it portrayed. And I think the fictionalisation probably made the points the more poignant: we were taken intoworlds and saw different themes and ideas that run through the whole thing. Like being offered the proof rather than the conclusions. I really enjoyed it!
Probably my favourite section was that of Hollywood actress Anna May Wong. Possibly because she was a women, but her world intrigued me the most; the strange balance of her being so admired and yet so ostracised. It was also interesting because she was a real person I could research to look her up and find out some more. But each character was real, complex, interesting and conflicted in their own way, and in ways that tied them all together.
Her section was sadly the shortest: I did think it a shame that there wasn’t another woman shown to us, and that the woman we do know is in many ways extraordinary rather than the norm. But there is only so much space and time.
Each section was written in a different style, and though I can’t really remember them now, it certainly added to the experience. It has almost the effect of being four novels stuck together, but because they are together we can see the trends and themes running through them. Though I was often sad to leave the section I was reading behind, I did really enjoy each part.
The subject was brand new to me. I had never even thought about Chinese people in America particularly, and certainly didn’t know that they were so instrumental in the railroads, nor what ostracism they come up against. Though, obviously, I would far rather it hadn’t happened, I was pleased to learn more about this people and their history.
I really enjoyed this book. More female representation would have been great, but otherwise it was extremely well executed.
Thanks so much to Sceptre and to BookBridgr for my review copy. Your kind gift has not affected my hard and critical heart. Though I did obviously love this book!