“The entry of the Asiatic as labourer, trader, and capitalist into competition in industry and enterprise not only with, but in, the Western world is a new fact of first importance?”
- Winston Churchill, 1908
The setting is the ramshackle capital of a mythical East African country; the unlikely hero a gentle Chinese Catholic grocer named Sam Fong, who immigrated to his new home long before Chinese Communism and Chairman Mao were thought worth much notice. Innocent of politics, oblivious to the confusion and chaos besetting this recently independent nation, Fong has been reduced to scraping a miserable living from a meagerly stocked store which offers to his African customers such items as skin lightener, Uncle Pompey’s Gripe Water and cans of Spam. A meek man to his business associates, Fong is an Oriental tyrant in the home, given to beating his compliant, gently astute wife, Soo, who in spite of it all, does what she can to help her beleaguered husband.
In a world where communication is at a minimum and where “survival of the fittest” is the rule, Fong bears the consequences of having been shoved to the bottom of the social totem pole. The Indians, from India, who are hated by the local African population, outfox Fong in business dealings and show a shrewd understanding of the black market. One of these, the wily Fakhru, fleeces Fong so adroitly that the bewildered Chinese believes himself in his deceiver’s debt and lives content with the improbable dream of one day being made rich by the wreck of the milk train from Nairobi.
In the meantime, he is set upon by two agents from the American government, intent on bringing “the good simple American Way of Life” to Africa. Bert G. Newt, Jr., and Mel Francey (“Jeepers creepers, try to forget that we’re American”), who make up the American team, compensate for their lack of diplomatic acumen with patriotic fervor, and wage a splendidly miscalculated campaign to put an end to Fong’s nonexistent Communist sympathies. “You’re jes yaller,” say the Americans and, at the other end of the political spectrum a real Chinese Communist, Mr. Chen, berates the guiltless grocer for failing to advance the Maoist cause: “You, Fong, are a running dog.”
Virtue is rewarded in the end, but not before the author has created a lovable non-hero and underscored brilliantly the foibles of a topsy-turvy world in which only the innocent loser can possibly win.