I love me a good Western. Tom Lin’s The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu follows one Chinese-American man, raised by an old sourdough mentor, after his parents leave him in a California orphanage, to become a deadly gunslinger, as he fights to return to the white woman he loves. Ming has a list of five men he needs to kill before he can be reunited with his girl, Ada. After Ming kidnaps a prophet who can see the future from a railroad work gang, the journey skews decidedly weird and even stranger when a circus full of superpowered freakshows hires Ming to accompany them across the state of Nevada. Most hired guns don’t ride with telepathic children or fireproof women, but actual history of the American West serves more like a guideline than a source anyway.
The white people who inhabit the West Ming travels through refer to him, inevitably, by his race, even though he encounters a diverse group of people, including not only Chinese, but also Mexicans and Navajos. Still, he clearly feels like he’s living in a white man’s world. He doesn’t even speak Chinese, having been raised by an English speaker. This otherness leads Ming to feel more at home with the circus, where otherwise he sticks out like a dark silhouette against the sunset.
Ming wanders through the world of the stylized violence of the West. The West can be home to so many stock characters, but the blend of fantasy and Western builds a tense cast for him to overcome. As a result, his actions run a hook through the reader’s attention and draw it through every gunfight, avalanche, or pitiless desert.
Even as he battles the physical as well as fantastic elements though, Ming finds himself confronting the racism inherent in the circus itself. Pacific islander Proteus, who performs as the troupe’s mimic, looks down on Ming, as well as the Mexicans and Navajos. A Navajo stagehand who manipulates memories only does so for white people, whom he refuses to count as friends or trust. The white ringmaster assumes that Chinese people will automatically relate to Ming, who has the mannerisms of any American cowpuncher, and does not fit in with them. Ming has to wrestle these prejudices down, if they want to have a chance of surviving the hostile desert.
Perhaps the biggest puzzle of the circus lies with the fireproof woman, Hazel. Hazel can catch on fire, but come away unscathed. Her act is that she gets set on fire and her clothes all burn off. She develops an attraction to Ming, which inevitably pains him as he remembers his lost Ada. However, why Ming should be attractive remains a mystery. His greatest skill is combat. Hazel perhaps appreciates Ming for protecting the troupe, but she throws herself at him while refusing to reveal her past life, or even much of her inner life. Women remain a mystery to Ming, but not in an “aw shucks” kind of way, rather as a piece of humanity he can never quite grasp.
Ming’s journey through the American West brings the stunning vistas and thrilling gunfights that define the genre. However, it also takes a serious and timely look at racism and prejudice against the need for survival in harsh elements. For Ming, racism provides the biggest and possibly unending threat to his happiness.
Four out of five stars.
Page count: 289
Favorite quote: “When the dead men had at last been unearthed from the rockslide they were wrapped each of them in thin shawls and buried in the next fill: five thousand tons of rock and sand and gravel used to bridge the most beautiful ravine Ming had ever seen.”