When slavery was abolished in many of the European colonies in the middle of the 19th century, there was a shortage of labor. Latin American planters, particularly in the Caribbean, turned to China for an alternative source of labor. They used deception and intimidation to induce Chinese workers to immigrate to Latin America. This practice became known as the "coolie trade," and
it expanded during the 1840s and 1850s.
The laborers signed contacts based on misleading promises; some were even kidnapped, and some were victims of clan violence whose captors sold them to coolie brokers.
Still others sold themselves to pay off gambling debts. The terms of the contract were often not honored, so many laborers ended up working in Peruvian guano pits or on sugar plantations. Like slaves, many were sold at auction, and most worked in gangs under the command of a strict overseer.
This fascinating period forms the core of Ruthanne Lum McCunn's God of Luck, an absorbing blend of history and realism and a terrifying and ultimately heartbreaking tale of two lovers who are irrevocably split and flung to opposite sides of the world. Ah Lung and his wife of six years, Bo See, live an idyllic life in the small village of Strongworm. Family silk farmers by trade, they spend most of their days plying their merchandise in the market town downriver.
Ah Lung's twin sister, Moongirl, cautions her brother to be vigilant as there are "foreign devils" rumored to be buying prisoners and employing pirates to kidnap unwary fishermen by raiding costal villages for men capable of heavy labor.
Just as Ah is about to return home, he's approached by two hard-faced strongmen who seize him by the arms and legs and accuse him of owing debt.
Ah tries to fight his captors but is bound and gagged. He's thrown into the bottom of his kidnapper's boat, the charge of debt a deliberate hoax. Vowing to Fook Sing Gung, "the God of Luck", to help restore him to his life with Bo See, Ah's anxious prayers to little to alleviate his situation as the captive of these "man-stealers" and the captains of the foreign devil-ships who are without pity.
Eventually shackled and thrown into line with other men, Ah is herded ashore to the Macao hiring hall to face the will of iron-faced Magistrate Bau, who tries to seducing the crowd of men with generous terms and promises of wealth. The
magistrate, however, has no intention of relinquishing Ah and the other men to their families. The hiring hall is a sham, and the iron-faced Magistrate is merely
a corrupt puppet for the autocratic captains of the devil-ships.
Forced to sign his life away, Ah is finally posted to work in the guano fields of Peru, his longing for Bo See his only solace as he tries to survive on a stinking and overloaded slave ship that takes him farther and farther away from his beloved wife and true love. Bo See is devastated when husband is kidnapped, and again and again her eyes scour the water looking for the shape of her husband's head, the curve of his shoulders, perhaps silhouetted on the deck of a sampan, "her heart flying out to meet him."
With her narrative unfolding in alternating chapters, McCunn brings to life the plight of both Ah Lung and Bo See as she anxiously
awaits her husband's return, turning to her delicate silken threads in order to maintain her family's fragile financial independence.
But it is in her descriptions of the broken and blood-soaked slave ship mutiny that the author truly excels: "the flashes of swords, axes and cleavers, and the men steadily locked in battle, madly slashing and hacking while their captors endeavor to shut out the advance."
Ah is forced to endure stench and stink, sleeping in berths with no partitions, the water constantly slapping the hull, an ultimate captive of the devil ship and the
muttered curses of his fellow prisoners, the harsh heaving, "the fetid heat and flesh, and the clank of the slosh buckets." Ah is in fact no different from a silkworm progressively spinning its own coffin.
As much as he wants to believe he can yet break out of the darkness and fly free, he fears
that he will die in the service of his masters.
In the end, Ah must also endure much heartbreak and suffering, even in the dunghills of Peru where he labors, choking on guano-laden mist
and plumped up in "fatting houses," run by greedy speculators who purchase buyers' leavings on the cheap in the hopes of selling them later for profit.
This novel ultimately delivers a potent message of man's inhumanity to man and the power of faith and the triumph of love over adversity, as well as highlighting a little-known but intriguing period in Chinese history. Will Ah eventually be able to escape from the clutches of his kidnappers? Only time will tell as his heart "rocks with the scow under his feet" while he "races into the inescapable light," and finally, perhaps, into the arms of his beloved Bo See.