Book review: Chinese Yankee by Ruthanne Lum McCunn

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 November, 2014, 11:11pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 November, 2014, 11:11pm

Chinese Yankee
by Ruthanne Lum McCunn
Design Enterprises of San Francisco

Award-winning writer Ruthanne Lum McCunn grew up in Sai Ying Pun and her books often focus on the struggles of what she calls "Chinese pioneers with compelling stories". For her sixth novel, Chinese Yankee - to be published on US Veterans Day (November 11) - she recreates a compelling true story that sheds light on a little-known aspect of American history.

After years of research in the US and China, McCunn has assiduously pieced together the life of a Hong Kong orphan named Ah Yee Way, who finds himself fighting in the American Civil War via the vicissitudes of life.

It's not common knowledge, even in the US, but there were 58 Chinese combatants in the civil war. One of them was this young Hongkonger taken as a child to the US in the mid-1850s for schooling but who instead was enslaved in Baltimore. At 16, having adopted the western name Thomas Sylvanus, he ran away to join the Freedom Army, and fight for his own freedom and for the abolition of slavery.

McCunn says she felt an immediate kinship with Sylvanus because they are both from Hong Kong and, while this is a story told with emotion. it is by no means an idealistic or romantic jaunt through 19th-century America. McCunn resists over-elaborate embellishment and deep characterisation in favour of simply recreating this young man's interminable struggle with physical suffering, injustice and racial bigotry within the context of a bloody civil war and its aftermath.

Period magazines of the time were rife with negative images of Chinese, and the widely used school text, Peter Parley's Universal History, proclaimed Chinese as "rat-and-dog-eating liars addicted to cheating". McCunn (herself of Chinese-Scottish descent) is not squeamish about confronting the casual racism endemic in 19th-century America.

That Chinese soldiers won acceptance, even admiration and respect in white regiments - with three (including Sylvanus) earning promotion to corporal - is testament to their determination, though their valour in wartime only earned them decades of exclusion in peacetime.

McCunn's unadorned style and natural storytelling ability suit the subject matter well and she drags the reader mercilessly through Sylvanus' battles with slavery, Confederate troops, blindness, internment in the Andersonville prisoner of war camp, abuse from racist bigots, and apathy from thoughtless bureaucrats. Her antipathy for war - which can be traced to her childhood playing in the rubble of war-ravaged Hong Kong - makes her battle descriptions harrowing, with more emphasis on suffering and chaos than valour and heroism.

This is an extraordinary story that still resonates 150 years later. With her empathy for the central character and her engaging and accessible prose, McCunn is ideally qualified to tell the tale.