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By Olivia Boler
Noe Valley author Ruthanne Lum McCunn can't get her mind out of the 1800s. That should be obvious to anyone even a tad familiar with her work, from her breakout novel Thousand Pieces of Gold to her children's book Pie-Biter. The first is based on the true story of a Chinese girl growing up in the 1870s who struggles to overcome slavery and build a life in the American Northwest. A movie inspired by the book, starring Rosalind Chao and Chris Cooper, was made in 1991. Pie-Biter is the engaging, funny story of a young Chinese laborer who loves to eat pies while laying track on the American railroads. "I grew up with no indoor plumbing," says Lum McCunn, 61. "The 19th century is my century."
Now comes Lum McCunn's seventh book, a novel for adults called God of Luck. Like her other stories, this one has its roots in the 1800s and is the tale of a young man, Ah Lung, who is kidnapped from his home in China and forced to work in the guano mines on the islands off Peru. It's also about his family, particularly his wife and twin sister, who set about trying to bring him home.
"Basically, I think of it as a love story," says Lum McCunn. "They're this couple who are torn apart through forces beyond their control."
Those forces stem from what has been called the "coolie trade," although Lum McCunn has given it her own, less offensive term: the Pacific slave trade. She explains that after many European and American multinational interests abolished the Atlantic slave trade--i.e., slaves taken from Africa--they turned to Asia and began kidnapping Chinese men for manual labor. "The companies even used some of the same slave ships they had used in Africa."
Lum McCunn was drawn to the story because she was not familiar with the Pacific slave trade (also known by its Chinese term "pig trade," she says, because the men were bought and sold like pigs). "I thought it was a part of history that deserved to be illuminated. And it lends itself to tremendous storytelling."
In fact, God of Luck is a fast-paced adventure story--as well as a passionate love story--that drops right into the action from the first chapter. Within the opening pages, Ah Lung, a peasant from a large family, is snatched while doing business in town and thrown into the cargo hold of a ship. He hopes his family will bribe the slave traders into releasing him. Instead, he finds himself traveling farther and farther away from his home.
Although her novel is set in the past, Lum McCunn says the subject matter resonates with worker issues around the globe in the 21st century. "Even in China today, there are factories in the large cities and a huge migration of workers [from the country] who are not migrating as families. They're being recruited to live in dormitories and work for minimum wage. You're lucky if you can go as a couple, because a lot of times you can't. There are also a lot of Chinese workers who are flown to Guam to work."
She also cites the plight of contract workers in the United States. "Corporations are hiring these people so they don't have to give them any benefits, like health insurance. And it's not just corporate America that's doing this, but universities. Adjunct professors have no job security, so this is happening to highly educated people as well as to those without any education. It's the same with the Pacific slave trade. Those kidnappings were indiscriminate, so that a wealthy, educated man was as much at risk of becoming a slave as a poor one. All the kidnappers wanted was a warm, breathing body."
Ah Lung's story also springs from Lum McCunn's personal history: her own great-grandmother was kidnapped and enslaved as a girl. During Lum McCunn's childhood--she was born in San Francisco's Chinatown, but lived in Hong Kong with her family from 1947 to '62--she knew women who had been slave girls themselves. "It was very much a part of my life, a part that I saw. I also saw people living on the streets, people working for minimum wage and separated from their families. Slavery has been a part of my consciousness my whole life."
Lum McCunn relishes studying 100-year-old topics. "Some people say they don't want to write about the past because of all that reading, but I like to read, so it's like a vacation. To me, research is just organized curiosity."
To research God of Luck, Lum McCunn "read through depositions given by the kidnapped men as well as the kidnappers who were caught. The papers are both obscure and easily accessible," she says with a laugh. Did she have to travel to the outer reaches of China or Peru for these documents? No. She didn't even have to fly to London or Washington, D.C., to read through parliamentary and American diplomatic papers documenting the slave trade. "Thanks to interlibrary loans, I could do it all from home," she says with a smile. "I even picked up the documents at the Noe Valley Branch Library. How easy is that?"
Lum McCunn is a big fan of the local library, and will give a reading and book-signing at Cover to Cover Booksellers on Sept. 8 (3 p.m.), that is being sponsored in part by the Friends of the San Francisco Library. Portions of book sales will benefit the Noe Valley Library Campaign.
The author herself, who has lived on Castro Street with her husband Don McCunn for over 30 years, readily admits that she frequents the library's bookmobile when it makes its stop on Elizabeth Street each Monday and Wednesday morning. "I schedule my life around the bus!" she laughs. "They've been great about bringing my [reserved materials], even though sometimes I have a lot."
From God of Luck by Ruthanne Lum McCunn
No sooner were we pigs assembled then six more devils crowded onto the stern deck. In the lead was a bloated sausage whose skin was almost as red as the hair bristling above his sea-green eyes, springing out of his oversized ears and nostrils, covering his head and jowls, the backs of his meaty hands. From the way this red devil swaggered, I thought he was the captain. But the interpreter, a muddy-faced mess of tics and twitches, told us the red devil was second-in-command of the ship. The colorless, clean-shaven reed with no neck and a head that listed to one side was the ship's doctor, the three barefoot devils common sailors, the Chinese in black-gummed silk our headman.
"Swineherd, you mean."
Were it not for the puff of breath on the back of my neck from the man behind me and the muffled snorts of those nearby, I would have mistaken this comment, quiet as it was bitter, for my own imagining. There was no mistaking Red's snarl, though, and the interpreter, despite his tics and twitches, spoke distinctly, his translation in three dialects rising above birdcalls, the persistent eerie rumbling, the myriad noises from boat traffic and the devils clearing the main deck.
"Take off your clothes, including your hat and shoes, and put them on the deck. Those of you with belongings, place them on the deck as well. If you have your queue coiled around your head, release it so it hangs down your back."
Stuffing my silver dollars into my mouth for safekeeping, I started unbuttoning my jacket. Around me, men shed their hats and jackets and uncoiled their queues. Those who'd made purchases in the pigpen set down their bundles.
None that I could see reached for his pants' wide waistband. Nor would I. Since Moongirl and I had become too old for Ma to bathe us together in our courtyard, no one had seen me naked out in the open. Why would I degrade myself by stripping for this devil?
"Cooperate fully," the interpreter urged. "Any man the doctor finds diseased, addicted to opium, crippled, or too young or too old for labor will be set free."
A doctor--even one with a crooked head--could surely make those determinations while we were clothed! One glance at the morose graybeard's withered skin revealed his age, and from my neighbor's sunken eyes and hollow cheeks, it was obvious he was an addict.
Red, roaring so loud he shut out all else, clamped his meaty hands over the ears of the closest captive and lifted him into the air. Stunned by the devil's strength, I almost choked on my silver dollars. The interpreter twitched over to the swineherd, who looked on expressionless as Red, still roaring like an angry bull, dashed the poor sod onto the deck, ripped off his pants.
Burning inside now as fiercely as out, I stared at the deck to spare myself and my fellow captives the worst of our shame--dropped my pants. As I stepped out of them, then my sandals, onto scorching planks, I saw the men in front of me doing likewise. I also saw the doctor's form-fitting trousers and leather shoes hurry past the first row of bare legs and feet while Red circled each captive.
Every one of these men jumped, some with shocked gasps, many with furious belches and hisses. Fearful of what the devil was doing, I clenched my teeth against the moment he'd reach me.
The silver dollars mashed against the roof of my mouth, my tongue, and my gorge rose in protest at their weight, their unpleasant metallic taste. But there was nowhere else to hide them. The sailors were ransacking our clothes and bundles, sending silver dollars and strings of coppers flying, along with chopsticks, tobacco, pipes, tongue scrapers, preserved fruit. One of these devils, an oaf with eagles and stars painted on his forearms, was even sneaking coins into his own pockets....
...Suddenly meaty fingers were probing my armpits, tearing at my hair, poking into places where only Bo See's hands belong. Shaken to the core, I would have lost my dollars had it not been for my tightly clenched jaws.
Then the fingers were pinching my nostrils, twisting them, and my mouth burst open, spewing coins.
Printed with author's permission from God of Luck, by Ruthanne Lum McCunn, Soho Press, Inc. (New York, 2007).