Mama Fang held everyone’s wallets, passports, and their cash in the safe in her office, part of her pledge to take care of every detail. That meant Scarlett couldn’t pay for the fare and couldn’t leave the country. And if she asked Boss Yeung for a ticket, he’d refuse.
Scarlett Chen becomes pregnant by her lover and owner of the factory she works for, Boss Yeung. A self-made successful business man with three daughters and a wife yearns for what men in China want, an heir, a son to carry on his success. Daughters always end up being more like their mothers, belonging to them, then to another family. “When told they were having a boy, Boss Yeung had bowed his head and clasps his hands to his mouth, speechless.” When an ultrasound reveals Scarlett is carrying a treasured boy, he sends her to America so that his son will be born free, with every opportunity Americans have, a limitless future! Scarlett knows that she can’t risk telling her own Ma, who works at a family planning clinic that she, an unmarried woman, is pregnant. Not when one-child policies are enforced, pregnancies tracked. She would lose her job, the very job that despite its bitterness, afforded Scarlett and her mother a living, survival.
Through an arrangement with Mama Fang, who has her own entangled history, Scarlett stays at Perfume Bay with other expectant mothers eating terrible food, fighting with other women and thinking about Boss Yeung and her child’s future. Then a new sonogram gives her shocking news that she fears will change any love Boss Yeung has for her ending his support, it is vital she escapes before she gives birth, or the future she imagined will go up in smoke. One night she escapes, only to discover teenaged Daisy, another unwed mother, in the van she steals. Daisy, born in America but returned to Tawaiin when she was 2 months old, is suffering her own broken heart, kept from her child’s father William whom she met in Teipei during a summer language program. She wants nothing more than to get a message to him, being kept apart by her parents. What if, however, he never really loved her as much as she believed? Daisy is educated, and seems priveladed but her own reason for running is just as desperate. Despite their differences, both of their fates hinge on their cultures and the demands of others- both need each other desperately. In a sense, Scarlett mothers Daisy, and does everything she can with an interesting cast of characters to keep their American dream alive. It takes more than intelligence and hope, it takes humility and hard work, and the aid of strangers, a sort of make-shift family. They begin with nothing, invisible to people in San Francisco, fighting for their place within the community of Chinatown, where not everyone is eager to aid their own people. Old Wu and Scarlett build a unique relationship, which I really enjoyed more than her relationship with Boss Yeung. Scarlett using her own terrible cooking to persuade Wu to help her is funny. Always appeal to a man’s ego. Who knew food cart wars could be so dangerous, but when you’re hiding and can’t call attention to yourself for fear of deportation, well… Something that made me laugh and cringe with its pettiness was the flyer placed next to her food cart, a picture of her with wet hair, a photo of a blurry rat beside her and the accusation of ground rodent meat. You have to laugh at the inventiveness of street competitors, maybe as cut throat and fierce as big businesses.
Mama Fang isn’t one to crumble nor fall when any of her businesses collapse. Naturally Boss Yeung is shocked to find out the state of the place he had sent his lover, and find her missing. Mama Fang’s back story is maybe more heartbreaking than both Scarlett and Daisy’s. A woman as strong as her always has more ideas waiting in the wings, always several steps ahead of the game, the only way she has survived for so long. Boss Yeung has his own story of betrayal, and his daughter Viann born to a successful father has her own goals, certainly it doesn’t include being usurped by a bastard son? Everyone has secrets, rich and poor alike, each trying to outmaneuver equally wily foes. What if one’s enemy is a lover, family or best friend?
The criminal acts expose how immigrants in desperation put their trust, all their money and faith into the hands of dubious people. How those with power manipulate and abuse those with none. Certainly the world is full of opportunists that target immigrants as cash cows and see them not as real people escaping horrifying bleak futures. You can’t outrun those with money and power, despite what continent you are on. Each person wants nothing more than to build a life for themselves and their family, and even if people like Scarlett’s Ma or even Mama Fang don’t agree with the morality of their job, sometimes there is no choice but to comply. Whether it’s Boss Yeung coming up from nothing to become a wealthy man in his own country, or Scarlett changing the trajectory of her own life, each changed their fate. The ending is not quite as I expected, I think I expected more shock after all the build up but it’s a solid novel. There were slow periods but things always picked up. This is a story about cultural obligations and the immigrant experience, which is varied and can end in tragedy or glorious fortune. It’s strange to think about the lives of others, continuing alongside our own, that remain invisible for the most part. A River of Stars is just one such experience, a drop in the ocean of many.
Publication Date: August 14, 2018