God of Luck- Ruthanne Lum McCunn (book review)
It would come as a shock to most Americans to learn that slavery did not end with our Civil War and the thirteenth amendment. In fact, some one million Chinese slave laborers were brought to the Americas through what the Chinese called the “Pig Trade” from 1850-1900. Most of the men were kidnapped and died either on the passage over or while working under horrific conditions in Latin America cutting sugar cane, harvesting guano, clearing jungles, or mining. As someone who has tried to follow the history of the overseas Chinese, I knew nothing to little about this iteration of the slave trade until I read Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s God of Luck, a fictionalized version of this shameful episode. The book is especially timely because the intercontinental trade in slave labor did not end with the Chinese “Pig Trade”, it still exists in various forms in different parts of the world including the United States.
For the last twenty five years, the San Francisco-based McCunn has filled a unique niche as a historical novelist. While most historical novels dramatize well-documented events and people (think Doctorow’s Ragtime or Gore Vidal’s Burr ), McCunn has specialized in exploring material that escaped the history books. McCunn’s first two novels rescued Lalu Nathoy (Polly Bemis) and Lue Gim Gong from historical obscurity. Nathoy was a Chinese woman who came to California as a slave yet found a way to lead an independent life in the American west (A Thousand Pieces of Gold). Lue Gim Gong was an agronomist who arguably saved the Florida citrus industry after being brought to North Adams, Massachussetts as a strikebreaker for a shoe factory (Wooden Fish Songs). Her third novel, The Moon Pearl, chronicled a little known 19th century Chinese women’s cooperative that achieved economic and social independence by using their natural advantages in cultivating silk worms, ironically one of the symbols of Chinese civilization. The group even worked out the institution of same-sex marriage more than a hundred and fifty years ago. God of Luck is the fourth installment in McCunn’s continuing documentation of the creativity, courage, and tenacity of real ordinary people. In the process, she has given ordinary Asians of the 19th century a face.
God of Luck is nominally a sequel to The Moon Pearl in that Ah Lung and Bo See, the married couple who take turns narrating the story, come from the same community of silk cultivators. Ah Lung is kidnapped by the slavers when he goes to the market in the city. Bo See works with the silk worms as she tries to figure out a way to rescue her husband. One of the book’s most effective metaphors comes from the fact that silk worms are sensitive to agitation. Bo See spends much of her portion of the narrative planning ways to reunite with her husband rather than giving in to accumulating panic and despair. Her capacity to continue working with the silk worms dramatizes the fact that these men were ripped away from real families, families who often were not passive victims. Bo See is all at once tenacious, cunning, and devoted, further underscoring the cruelty of the traders. One of the book’s ironies is that Bo See and Ah Lung honor the Chinese God of Luck, but they don’t really depend on his intervention.
McCunn describes Ah Lung’s ordeal vividly and at many points movingly. Her descriptions of the slave ship (many of the ships used in the “Pig Trade” were the same vessels used in the African slave trade two decades earlier) and her portrayal of the experience of the captives and captors alike feel like the product of experience and direct observation. This is no accident. McCunn used thousands of pages of Chinese, Peruvian, and European primary sources including hundreds of pages of court testimony to get the details right. God of Luck provides a wealth of original information about how the trade was made to look like voluntary-contracted labor, how the men ate, slept, lived and died on the passage to the Americas, and how the captives frequently fought back and mutinied.
Once Ah Lung lands in Peru, he is forced to collect guano on a rocky island in the midst of thousands of screaming sea gulls, unbearable heat, overpowering odors, and a frightening death and disease rate. In the meantime, his captors make him “work off” the cost of a passage to which he never agreed. McCunn’s picks up one of the more ironic aspects of the captivity, the overseers are former black slaves. The “Pig Trade” involved, possibly for the first time in history, people from all the continents. It’s the shadowy precursor of what we now call the emerging “Global Economy” with its dependence on what amounts to internationalized slave labor. Like his wife, Ah Lung is no victim. He uses his wits and chooses his moments carefully.
One reviewer of God of Luck misguidedly complained that the story does not build to a climax. McCunn does not seek to write conventional page turners. When the “adventure” aspect of the story is rooted in fact as it was in Thousand Pieces of Gold, she is quite capable of making the “plotlike” elements fly. McCunn honorably refuses to divert the reader with a heroic plot filled with dramatic coincidences and feel good happenstance that either couldn’t or didn’t happen. In short, she refuses to treat her subjects as a ride at Disneyland or as a draft for a movie script. Instead, she has offered up a long overdue memorial to their courage, resourcefulness, and suffering unembellished by the literary equivalent of special effects. I also have to say that the kidnapping, abuse, and death of hundreds of thousands of people is dramatic enough for my taste and much more authentically riveting.
This is not to say that she doesn’t often write beautifully, but on the continuum of the historical novel it’s fair to say that McCunn chooses history. As a result, all four of her novels stand as more or less definitive chronicles of otherwise neglected aspects of the experiences of the Chinese in the Americas. To her, the real drama is the fact that her subjects and their experiences deserve to be remembered and honored on their own merits. God of Luck is not only a fine addition to McCunn’s body of work as arguably the most prolific Chinese-American fiction writer of her generation, it deserves to be read and discussed widely in the context of the plight of the millions of people working in dismal conditions across the world.
note: For the sake of disclosure, it's been my privilege to know Ruthanne Lum McCunn personally for some fifteen years. Not only is she one of the most prominent (deservedly so) Asian-American novelists going, she's a gracious and generous friend (something of a rare combination with successful writers and artists :}) I'm not sure if she'd take this as a compliment, but my own fiction writing was very much influenced by her interweaving of dramatized events with documented social history.