Novel about the first Chinese immigrants to Canada, escaping war and famine in China in search of a better life. The year is 1880 and the story begins with a wealthy businessman (Cheung) and his son (Wing) on a ship to British Columbia. Their plan is to make a business selling supplies to railroad workers, but they discover that the local population is racist against the Chinese, who are discriminated everywhere and are constantly in fear for their lives. The locals hate the Chinese who are willing to work for much lower wages than them, and attempt to drive them back to their home country.
Despite the anti-Chinese sentiments, many Chinese were still allowed into the country because their labor was needed to build the railroad. Without the railroad, British Columbia would have likely joined the US since it was so remote from the rest of Canada, so it was of vital strategic importance. Soon after arriving, Wing gets kidnapped and forced to work on the railroad, and Cheung abandons his business plans and becomes a railroad doctor so he could search for his son. Halfway through the novel, Cheung pauses his search and embarks on a quest to travel to California and dig up the bones of his father who died some years earlier during the gold rush.
Overall, the historical details are well-researched, with many real people and events referenced in the novel. The actual story was mediocre and it felt like it was structured primarily to deliver historical information, and the plot and storytelling was secondary. For example, characters spontaneously start giving history lessons to each other in a conversation. The characters are flat and not believable, like Wing’s love interest, a Jewish girl that he met on the ship, who has no other qualities except being in love with him. Everyone including strangers who he’s never met inexplicably goes out of their way to help out the main character, even white and native people. It’s not a great novel, although it’s decent for understanding the history of early Chinese immigrants to Canada.