Dhe American history has recorded several chapters of violent oppression, one of which has only recently come to public attention: the anti-Chinese violence of the nineteenth century. The history of Chinese immigration is closely linked to the industrialization of the United States: tens of thousands of people came from China to the western United States, primarily to work in gold mines and to build the First Transcontinental Railroad. Today it is certain that without the Chinese workers, the completion of this huge construction project would never have been possible. But recognition for their work or the respect of Americans did not benefit the Chinese minority in the nineteenth century. Instead, an anti-Chinese movement was formed, which mobilized agitation and violence against the Chinese and was thus successful.
The first legal manifestation of this racist violence was the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which banned the immigration of people of Chinese nationality. This law was the first restrictive immigration law in the United States, marking the end of the open immigration country. But even before the Chinese Exclusion Act, anti-Chinese violence was legalized in the country through case law. In 1854, the California Supreme Court ruled in People v. Hall that testimony from a Chinese man in court is not sufficient to convict a white man of murder. This development led to the Rock Springs racist massacre in Wyoming in 1885, in which 28 Chinese died and fifteen were injured.
Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s “Five Lives” is about this violent period of American history. The suggestion to deal with this topic came to the author by chance, as she describes in the appendix of her book: While passing through a town in the north-west of the United States, her father discovered a sign that referred to the “Chinese Hangings” and asked his daughter to investigate the background of this event. The result of the research is a novel of around four hundred pages, which is also the debut of the author, who was born in Changchun, China and grew up in Austin, Texas. Writing about the history of anti-Chinese violence, Zhang said, was important to her because it is still invisible to many Americans, even though there are continuities of this racism.
An analogue clan of bodies and stories
With “Five Lives”, Zhang proves her talent for telling a successful story based on a real historical event and political motivation. Daiyu, the narrator and protagonist of the novel, begins with her own kidnapping and subsequent kidnapping. When she is accused of theft by vendors at a Chinese fish market, a man appears and claims that Daiyu is part of his family. Surprised and perplexed that someone wants to help her, Daiyu plays along and follows the strange man. He asks her if she’s hungry and announces he’ll take her to a noodle kitchen. “We keep walking until I don’t know where we are, and when we stop walking, I realize we’ll never get to the noodle kitchen.” Instead, the man puts Daiyu in a barrel and showers coal on her – a cruel means of camouflage so that she could be taken undetected by ship to San Francisco to be held as a forced prostitute in a brothel in Chinatown.