Reimagining westerns with a Chinese-American gunslinger

Writer Tom Lin is making his debut with The Thousand Crimes Of Ming Tsu.
Writer Tom Lin is making his debut with The Thousand Crimes Of Ming Tsu.PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - Ming Tsu, the bloodthirsty outlaw in Tom Lin's surreal new western, has a lethal superpower: His victims, blinded by their own bias, do not realise he is a threat until it is too late.

In one grisly scene, he confronts his nemesis, the head of the Central Pacific Railroad Co, who forced Ming into servitude for a decade. His old boss has been on the lookout for Ming since his escape but fails to notice him in the crowd of Chinese immigrant labourers as he draws his revolver.

"Ain't you recognise me?" Ming says, before pulling the trigger.

His killing spree, exacting vengeance on the rapacious railroad barons and corrupt, racist lawmen who have exploited Chinese workers, follows a classic western trope of a hero seeking redemption through violence. But Lin subverts the formula: Ming, a ruthless assassin with a US$10,000 bounty on his head, is the one dispensing justice to his oppressors.

For Lin, who is making his debut with The Thousand Crimes Of Ming Tsu, writing a western novel with an Asian-American hero was a way to rehabilitate the genre, by centring the story on people who helped build the West but have often been erased from its mythology.

"My hope was that readers would become immersed enough in the time and the landscape that I could try to do this sneaky substitution of the traditional western hero for this Chinese-American assassin," Lin, 25, said from his home in Davis, California.

"I wanted to write a character who was unarguably American, whose belonging to the land was totally above question, and yet as he goes through the book, he's continuously confronted by a society that wants to 'other' him and reduce him."

Ming also takes advantage of his white enemies' racial blind spots.

"He's invisible because no one really chooses to see him," Lin said.

Set in Utah, Nevada and California in the 1860s, The Thousand Crimes Of Ming Tsu, which Little, Brown is publishing, has drawn comparisons to Cormac McCarthy and True Grit. It joins a growing canon of alternative westerns that reinvent old myths about the American West with stories that explore the relationship between the frontier and American identity and interrogate the genre's idealisation of white male colonists.

Lin's book is among the new westerns that explore the lives of Chinese Americans and immigrants, who have largely been omitted from the cultural history of the West. Chinese immigrants accounted for up to 90 per cent of the workforce on the Central Pacific railroad line, but they were often exploited and denigrated, and were later banned from gaining citizenship by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Jenny Tinghui Zhang, a Chinese-American writer from Austin, Texas, set her forthcoming debut novel, Four Treasures Of The Sky, against the backdrop of the Exclusion Act. It follows a girl named Daiyu who is kidnapped from China in the 1880s and taken to the American frontier, where she tries to find a place in the face of anti-Chinese sentiment and violence against immigrants.

"We're beginning to question a lot of the foundational, overly simplistic mythologies about the country, and the western as a genre seems like a perfect vehicle to challenge those," said C Pam Zhang, whose Booker Prize-longlisted 2020 debut, How Much Of These Hills Is Gold, is set during the Gold Rush in a fablelike version of the West where tigers roam.

Zhang, who grew up reading Little House On The Prairie, said she wanted to write a frontier adventure story that explored the loneliness of the immigrant experience, and the clash between civilisation and wilderness. In How Much Of These Hills Is Gold, two orphaned Chinese-American siblings, one of them transgender, set out with a stolen horse in search of their fortune and a burial place for their father.

"It's an unfinished genre," Zhang said. "It's a genre that is imperfect and inherently full of these contradictions."

When Lin started working on The Thousand Crimes Of Ming Tsu, he wanted to write about a Chinese-American hero who feels connected to the land but alienated by white people who treat him as an outsider.

"I remember as a kid, sometimes I would think, 'Gosh, I wish I wasn't Chinese'," he said. "It wasn't because I wasn't proud of my culture. It was simply because I felt that it was the only thing preventing me from becoming an American, from becoming one of the people who belong and whose identity is not questioned.

"I think I wanted to have Ming also work through those questions of who decides when he's an American."

Lin said he's excited to see what other novelists bring to the genre, now that more writers are moving beyond its outdated conventions.

"Westerns have never really died out," he said, "but I think they're definitely coming in for a revival."