Cover image of "Four Treasures of the Sky," a novel about an unwilling Chinese immigrant

For millions of White Americans, the 19th century was an era of expanding opportunities. Settlers steadily pushed back the Western frontier, and the Industrial Revolution gained momentum until, by century’s end, the United States boasted the world’s most productive economy. But for African-Americans, Native peoples, Chinese immigrants, and for anyone else—Irish, Italians, and Jews—who simply seemed “different” to the country’s majority population, the experience of life in America was often harsh beyond measure. Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s moving novel, Four Treasures of the Sky, illuminates one of the most overlooked of those experiences. She tells the long-hidden story of the Chinese men and women who came across the Pacific, willingly or not, to work the mines and railroads, the laundries and the brothels.

The story of an unwilling Chinese immigrant

Zhang’s novel opens in 1882 in the port city of Zhifu, China. There, in a marketplace, a 13-year-old girl named Lin Daiyu is kidnapped. She has been masquerading as a boy for months because her parents were arrested for some unknown offense, and she fears discovery and arrest herself. But her captivity by the kidnapper is worse. For a year, she is kept confined to a tiny room where she is taught English. And at the end of the year, she is stuffed into a coal bucket and shipped to San Francisco. There, Lin Daiyu is put to work in a brothel. At length, when she finally escapes, there is much worse to come.

Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang (2022) 321 pages ★★★★★

Photo of miners in 1880s Idaho, including several Chinese immigrants
Thousands of Chinese men like those on the right above worked in mines in Idaho and California during the last half of the 19th century. More famously, they also did much of the construction work on the Western railroads. But some opened businesses such as general stores, laundries, and restaurants.

A cast of unforgettable characters

Four Treasures of the Sky is full of unforgettable characters. Lin Daiyu herself, of course. Jasper, her smooth-talking captor working for the Hip Yee tong. Master Wang, the calligrapher in Zhifu for whom Lin Daiyu was his best student. Violin teacher Nelson Wong in Pierce, Idaho. Leslie Lum and Lee Kee Nam, partners in a general store there. Daniel Foster, the competing store-owner, and Pierce City Sheriff Bates. In weaving together their stories through Lin Daiyu’s eyes, Jenny Tinghui Zhang paints a compelling broad-brush portrait of the Chinese immigrant experience in 19th-century America.

About the author

Photo of Jenny Tinghui Zhang, author of this novel about an unwilling Chinese immigrant
Jenny Tinghui Zhang. Image: Mary Kang

In an author’s note and an interview following the Audible edition of this novel, Zhang tells the intriguing story of how she came to write this book. In 2014, she writes, her father chanced upon a historical marker on the road near Pierce, Idaho. It commemorated the spot where five Chinese men had been lynched by vigilantes in 1883. The author was in college at the time and soon forgot the incident after her father related it. But five years later, in her final year working toward an MFA, she decided to use it as the entry point to writing her first novel. Four Treasures of the Sky was the result.

Her website reveals additional details. “Jenny Tinghui Zhang is a Chinese-American writer from Austin and author of Four Treasures of the Sky (Flatiron Books). Her work has appeared in Apogee, CALYX, Ninth Letter, Passages North, wildness, and The Rumpus, with essays in HuffPost, Bustle, The Cut, and HelloGiggles, among others. She is a Kundiman fellow and graduate of the VONA/Voices and Tin House workshops, and holds an MFA from the University of Wyoming.”

For another outstanding novel about 19th-century Chinese immigrants, see Straw Dogs of the Universe by Ye Chun (A deeply moving immigrant story set in the 19th century).

This is one of The 20 best books of 2022 and the 10 best historical novels set in America.

You’ll find the larger context of the racism exposed in this novel in Asian American Histories of the United States by Catherine Ceniza Choy (An Asian American history book focused on the present).

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