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[429] God of Luck – Ruthanne Lum McCunn

” That man-stealers were without pity I did not doubt: only people without a grain of human feeling would act like beasts of prey. To beg my kidnappers for mercy, then, would be a waste of spit. ” (10)

I am not aware of human trafficking to the Americas back in the 19th century in China. This history of Chinese diaspora is vividly told, with breathtaking urgency, in the critical intervention of McCunn, who is an Eurasian and lived in Hong Kong for 16 years. I read God of Luck all in one sitting, completely drawn in to the story of Ah Lung. Born Yuet Lung (moon dragon), he is the youngest son in a family of silk producers. He is kidnapped and forced into slavery on a guano island in Peru. His wife, Bo See, knows he was kidnapped but never gives up hope that he will return, for they have yet to bear children. Over time Bo See seems to withdraw to a melancholy solitude at silkworm house.

When attacked, men complained of burning heat although their skin felt clammy cold . . . None of those felled survived. Death, though, came swiftly. In truth, were it not for my family, I would have welcomed it. (146)

The book is very minimal in scale, with short chapters that alternate between Ah Lung and his wife’s narration. They seem to connect in spirit as their thoughts, if put together, contribute a dialogue. A good deal of the novel depicts Ah Lung’s horrifying sail to Peru after he falls victim to a hoax. He endures being shackled in an overcrowded ship’s hold, survives a failed mutiny, a shipboard fire, and a cholera outbreak, before being disembarked and forced to mine on a Peruvian island.

In truth, these are not punishments but tortures which pleasure the devil-king, and more than one digger has been pushed beyond endurance into madness. (171)

God of Luck is a very simple story but with complex historical elements. It reveals the little-known coolie trade to Peru. The main hero endures back-breaking labor in a foreign land with the sadness and determination of a wife and family back home. I do wish McCunn has elaborated on the wife, whose rearing from a traditional family seems very tantalizing. The book has an epic sweep, provoking reader’s outrage at the subject matter, but lacking psychological depth, which undermines the plot’s tension.

238 pp. Soft Cover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Author in the House

Crouching tiger, hidden dragon among us. Neither does she bare her teeth like a tiger nor is she bestowed with power a dragon in Chinese mythology. She is Ruthanne Lum McCunn, author of God of Luck, a novel about coolie trade in Peru, which was gifted to me by the author herself. Speaking fluent Cantonese with perfect tones (each Cantonese sound has 9 tones that in many cases distinguish the meanings of characters), Ruthanne puts many of us in shame, as we Chinese manage only with some sort of pidgin English with smatterings of Chinese words. For a long time she’s known as the American lady who speaks perfect Chinese and with whom we exchange stories of growing up in Hong Kong. Often a lighthearted question would lead to a very facetious reply. She’s totally amiable and kind. In fragments of conversations over months Ruthanne let on more biographical information than I can imagine.

Ruthanne Lum McCunn is an Eurasian of Chinese and Scottish descent. Born in 1946 in San Francisco’s Chinatown, she grew up in Hong Kong, where she was educated first in Chinese and then British schools. In 1962 she returned to the U.S. to attend college. Her grandmother was Chinese, thus the linguistic and cultural root planted in her. I cherished talking with her, and listening to her reflections on Hong Kong before my time. If you just listen to her talk alone, you would never realize she’s Eurasian. She talks like locals, using colloquial expressions and slang. It’s just wonderful to discover a published author among the coffee shop clientele—who speaks your native language! Is there a better way to start the new year with an autographed book from the author herself?