At a horrific, life-changing moment, a Chinese immigrant in the United States under a false name and false pretenses thinks of some wisdom his mother had given him. He is about to be separated from his hand as two thugs drag him to a table saw, he remembers his mother’s aphorism: “Trust rock, she told him. Break fear upon rock. … Go toward fear. Trust fear. Steer toward rock.” She told him this as she was preparing to sell him to an illegal immigration ring in the U.S.
So the young man, who must make payments to his mob boss for the right to live, sustains himself at this ghastly moment. And Steer Toward Rock becomes the aphorism by which this novel’s characters must live if they want to find meaning, family, and happiness. Impressive for its sustained obliquity, Fae Myenne Ng’s book brought me into the Chinese culture in San Francisco’s Chinatown like no other book ever did. She stretches this culture taut across a frame of trans-Pacific exploitation and racketeering. We learn of the purchased boy from China whose name becomes Jack Moon Szeto, a multiple falsity rooted in a scheme to allow illegal entry to Chinese immigrants. Before confessing his status to the American authorities, he becomes another link in the illegal and oppressive chain. He must take a bogus bride purchased for him from China, but here he finds companionship and eventually fathers a fiery, headstrong daughter.
This entire history leads to the daughter. This is really her story – how she hasn’t steered toward the rock of honesty in her love life, but does free her father from the tangled, fear-ridden narrative of his past by shepherding him through the naturalization process.
I love the conversations between the Chinese men in San Francisco. They holler at each other, tease each other, voices seemingly raised at all times; they want to get each other’s goats. Through it all, though, there is honesty, good will, humor, and bemusement at life.(Jack himself exhibits wisdom unusual in one his age; his almost every statement, every piece of advice for friends and family drips with ancient Chinese wisdom.) This banter, with its glimpse into Chinese culture, is a major delight here, and worth the price of admission all by itself. I could have wished for a more-closely-described San Francisco, but this may have been absent by authorial intent. She tells her story obliquely, until roughly the last quarter of the book, when the daughter’s character takes center stage and the narrative takes on greater concreteness. Until then, though, the story is told as though through a mist, becoming visible like Victorian homes on a foggy day in San Francisco.
It would be hard to top this book’s intent look at the San Francisco Chinese culture, or its treatment of the Hon Pak confession program, pursued in the 1950s by U.S. Immigration authorities as a sort of bait-and-switch tactic to get better records on Chinese and other immigrants. The family histories feel all too true, and the saga of exploitation all too consistent with the world’s ever-present greed.