With a Chinese American Gunslinger, He’s Challenging the Whiteness of Westerns

By Alexandra Alter

Tom Lin is making his debut with “The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu,” a novel that has drawn comparisons to Cormac McCarthy and “True Grit.”

“I wanted to write a character who was unarguably American, whose belonging to the land was totally above question,” Tom Lin said, “and yet as he goes through the book, he’s continuously confronted by a society that wants to other him and reduce him.”
“I wanted to write a character who was unarguably American, whose belonging to the land was totally above question,” Tom Lin said, “and yet as he goes through the book, he’s continuously confronted by a society that wants to other him and reduce him.”Credit...Jenna Garrett for The New York Times

Ming Tsu, the bloodthirsty outlaw in Tom Lin’s surreal new Western, has a lethal superpower: His victims, blinded by their own bias, don’t realize he’s a threat until it’s too late.

In one grisly scene, he confronts his nemesis, the head of the Central Pacific Railroad Company, 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 laborers as he draws his revolver. “Ain’t you recognize 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 $10,000 bounty on his head, is the one dispensing justice to his oppressors.

For Lin, who is making his debut with the novel, “The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu,” writing a Western with an Asian American hero was a way to rehabilitate the genre, by centering 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 in a phone interview this month from his home in Davis, Calif. “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 on Tuesday, 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 idealization of white male colonists.

Some of these new, unconventional Westerns retain the genre’s classic elements — the raw and hostile beauty of untamed landscapes, wagon trains, gunfights, gold prospectors and pioneers — but populate them with characters who have rarely figured in Western lore.

Tom Lin’s debut novel “The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu” is out on June 1.

Anna North’s novel “Outlawed,” an feminist alternative history set in the Old West in the 1890s and published earlier this year, is both a playful homage to classic Westerns and a critique of how they depict gender. The novel’s heroine, Ada, flees a patriarchal society that values women solely for fertility, joining a gang of nonbinary outlaws who follow a charismatic, gender nonconforming leader called “the Kid.”

“Historically the Western has been this super masculine genre — the male cowboy, the male rancher, the male outlaw,” North said. “It’s a genre that was ripe to be reinvented or mined. There’s something interesting and powerful about these myths, and it can be fun and liberating to play with that and create something that’s your own.”

Other writers are exposing the way that Westerns frequently feature Native and immigrant characters as generic villains or victims, if they appear at all. Téa Obreht’s 2019 novelInland,” set in the American West in the late 19th century, featured an unorthodox cowboy: an immigrant from the Ottoman Empire riding a camel instead of a horse, whose supernatural abilities include the ability to sense the feelings of the dead.

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 made up to 90 percent of the work force 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, 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-nominated 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 civilization 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.”

Image“As a kid, sometimes I would think, Gosh, I wish I wasn’t Chinese,” said Lin, who was born in Beijing and grew up in New York. “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.”
“As a kid, sometimes I would think, Gosh, I wish I wasn’t Chinese,” said Lin, who was born in Beijing and grew up in New York. “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.”Credit...Jenna Garrett for The New York Times

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, who was born in Beijing and moved to Flushing, Queens, with his parents when he was 4, got the idea for a revisionist Western when he was studying at Pomona College. After seeing Joshua Tree and the Mojave Desert, he started thinking about the mythology surrounding the American West and how it had scarcely evolved since it was popularized through pulp fiction and later by novelists like Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. Even newer iterations of the genre, set in space or in the future, struck Lin as stale.

“I began to realize that they kept on rehashing the same themes of settler expansion or white male dominance, and that these different takes on Westerns weren’t actually fundamentally different,” he said.

With “The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu,” Lin followed some tenets of the genre — there are saloon shootouts and escapes on horseback — but veered into what some call the “weird West.” The novel opens as Ming, the son of Chinese immigrants, flees across the Utah desert after shooting a railroad recruiter, one of several men who have wronged him and are now on his hit list. As he makes his way to California, he falls in with a traveling troupe of magicians with supernatural powers.

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.”