Originally published by The NY Times
PATRIOT NUMBER ONE
American Dreams in Chinatown
By Lauren Hilgers
325 pp. Crown. $27.
“Most immigrants, Chinese and otherwise,” one such transplant tells Lauren Hilgers, “come to the end of their lives telling two stories, one set in their country of origin, and one set in the United States.” In “Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown,” Hilgers tells the story of a Chinese immigrant couple through dual narratives of departure and arrival. In the first, Zhuang Liehong, a 30-year-old fisherman’s son and tea shop owner, and his wife, Little Yan, come to Flushing, Queens, in 2014. The second, related largely in flashbacks, recounts Zhuang’s campaign to expose illegal government land sales in his native village of Wukan on the coast of southern China, an effort that spawned demonstrations and drew international news media attention. These two threads unspool in parallel. It’s a canny strategy that heightens both dramas — one a fight against the Chinese Communist Party, the other against equally implacable American institutions like the United States immigration services, the English language and the New York real-estate market.
Hilgers, a longtime China-based journalist who met Zhuang while reporting on the unrest in Wukan, is a gifted writer and reporter whose talent for observation shines through the book’s opening chapters. Zhuang, she writes, is “meticulous about his appearance but always slightly out of style. His crooked teeth gave away a childhood spent in poverty, but he was not self-conscious about them. … He smiled relentlessly in the face of danger or embarrassment.” Flushing, for newcomers, is full of face-losing opportunities: They are constantly scolded — for jumping off a city bus before their stop, tipping too little, wearing the wrong shoes to driving class and lacking a credit history. Little Yan finds work at a nail salon for $50 a day, but Zhuang holds out for a higher position that befits his status, one that he can boast about to his friends back home. He obsessively monitors the protests in Wukan, networks with journalists and contemplates writing a book. Little Yan isn’t always impressed. “Women can’t dwell on injustice or past humiliations,” she muses. “Women aren’t allowed the same amount of outrage.”
As they navigate their new home, we get fascinating glimpses of Flushing Chinatown’s subcultures: the English classes and driving schools, the nail salons and industrial-scale dim sum palaces, the underground banks and immigration lawyers and asylum scams. It’s a world whose residents cannot read a map but navigate the city by Chinese grocery stores. Who knew that the Woodbury Common outlet mall in upstate New York was the center of a thriving transnational business in smuggled polo shirts? Or that many Chinatown churchgoers fake their faith in order to help their political asylum applications? Hilgers’s deep reporting and relationships grant her access to a world that is almost completely unknown to outsiders.
But just as she prepares readers to plunge down this rabbit hole with her, she shifts her focus to a narrow circle of activists. These include Tang Yuanjun, a veteran dissident who heads one of Flushing’s Chinese Democracy Party branches, and other outspoken critics of the regime. Zhuang is pulled into their orbit, joining protests and political meetings. He flits from one job to another without finding steady work, waiting on the results of his asylum application while living off his wife’s salary and their savings. In the last quarter of the book, a violent crackdown in Wukan endangers his family there and turns him into a full-fledged activist in exile — finally, a position befitting his status.
As the China narrative swamps the American one, “Patriot Number One” loses sight of the mass of Chinatown immigrants who care nothing of politics. It’s a lost opportunity to explore one of the fastest-growing immigrant enclaves in the country, a place that has long been isolated from outsiders because of language barriers. Despite Hilgers’s intensive reporting among a handful of inhabitants in Flushing, she never delves deeply into the place itself. We never learn the geography of its avenues, the rhythm of its daily life, its sounds and smells at street level. Chinatown remains a blurry backdrop, a view from the No. 7 train.
As “Patriot Number One” unfolds, its focus on Chinese democracy activists comes to feel like a distraction. Their desire to seek justice and expose corruption may be admirable, but it puts them out of step with many of their countrymen, for whom pragmatism is a governing principle. Like many journalists who write about this group, Hilgers avoids stating some uncomfortable truths. The qualities that often define political dissidents — a single-minded focus on justice, isolation from larger society and a slightly delusional sense of their own importance — can make them unable to compromise, work with others or relate to the concerns of the ordinary people they claim to speak for. These tendencies have sometimes made them ineffective, even irrelevant to the society they are trying to improve.
The most compelling characters in “Patriot Number One” are the people on the margins of the story. Little Yan switches jobs and industries; she enrolls in night school to study English and medical record-keeping. Her friend and classmate Karen Xie, a college graduate from a provincial Chinese city, works a dizzying string of seemingly downwardly mobile jobs — print-shop employee, manicurist, maid — in pursuit of financial security. These women accept compromises and adapt to their environments; they practice English and interact with foreigners. They are making it in America, and America is remaking them. Little Yan challenges her husband, and refuses to quit her job when he asks her to. Karen discovers inner reserves of toughness and recites her job-interview English phrases as if they were mantras: “I am a positive person”; “I know housekeeping is a physical job, but I am young and I play tennis.”
Zhuang and his fellow dissident exiles hold fast to their principles. Theirs is a black-and-white world, where the truths are self-evident and unchanging. But the gray areas are always more interesting.
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