BOOK REVIEW EDITOR-IN-CHIEF ELLA KELLEHER WRITES – A Harvard senior obsessed with the beautiful, Will Chen is the perfect Chinese son: hardworking, handsome, and respectful. Except when he is offered an illegal job by a mysterious wealthy Chinese benefactor to steal back art pieces from heavily guarded Western museums that were looted from Beijing hundreds of years ago – that he finds himself unable to refuse. What’s more important, chasing your own “American Dream” or defending the eternal legacy of your people?
Will’s crew is as archetypally “Ocean’s Eleven” as it gets – and it’s exhilarating. Imagine a dazzling criminal lineup. First, we have the con artist: Irene Chen, Will’s faultless Duke University public policy major sister who can “talk her way out of any situation.” Then there’s Daniel Liang, a premed student with steady hands whose father works for the FBI. Then, of course, there’s also the getaway driver, Lily Wu – an angel-faced engineering major who drag-races at midnight. Finally, there’s Alex Huang: an MIT dropout, Silicon Valley software engineer who can hack her way into any computer system. Each crew member has a somewhat tortured relationship with each other and China, especially as members of the Chinese diaspora in America. But when Will asks them to join his heist, not a single member can turn him down.
Chinese American author, Grace D. Li, debuts spectacularly with Portrait of a Thief (2022). Currently a medical student at Duke University (not unlike the characters in her novel), one of Li’s aims has been to explain the triumphs and troubles of the Chinese diaspora through literature. The eternally binding strings of identity twist and tangle with the current of migration. Often, children of immigrants find themselves lost, straddling two very distant lands, deeply mired in the confusing question of, Which country deserves my loyalty?
The book starts off with a bang – or, should I say, a shattering of glass. Will Chen, an art history major, is at the Sackler Museum in Harvard while it is being robbed of its Chinese art. Amid the chaos, a business card is casually folded into his pocket by one of the cloaked thieves. Later, he finds out he has been chosen to assemble a specialized group of Chinese Americans to steal (or shall we say, return) five Chinese zodiac fountainheads that had been illegally robbed from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing long ago. All fountainheads had been dispersed among various overseas museums, divided by thousands of miles. The mission is simple but harrowing: Successfully complete five heists at five different museums, bring the fountainheads back to their rightful owners and receive fifty million dollars. The catch is that this ragtag crew is comprised of hotheaded college students chased relentlessly by the FBI. Were they doomed from the start?
The focus of this story is not the robberies themselves, although they are adrenaline-charging. Instead, this is a purely character-driven feast. All are tied together not only by mutual connections with Will Chen himself but also by their shared Chinese American experience – a unique conundrum of belonging to neither China nor America. As children who are too Chinese for America and too American for China, they feel pressure to meet familial expectations. Under the weight of their parents’ dreams for them, how can these new-world young adults find their way? Lost in the murky hollows of a generational identity crisis, they decide to carve out a path for themselves by hand using lock picks and ski masks.
As the group plans the first big heist at the Swedish Drottningholm Palace in stylish first-class flight cabins, each distinct and colorful personality butts heads and hearts. Alex and Irene dislike each other from the start – leading to a climax of steamy hatred that will undoubtedly take the reader by surprise. Daniel has eyes for Irene, while Will sketches the outlines of Lily’s sleeping face without her knowledge. Each character, in one way or another, has tried (admittedly futilely) to “make China love [them] back.” But, where their efforts failed, they at least have one another to rely on for love and support.
Li’s book chronicles a troubling concept: one of modern accepted Western imperialism. The idea that “what is ours is not ours.” The admired museums and beloved palaces that smatter the Western world with foreign jewels and treasures tell a different tale from what most of us grew up believing. These esteemed landmarks do not carry harmless collections of forgotten ornaments from distant, dissolved empires. Simply put, they house hordes of stolen, culturally invaluable art. We must ask ourselves: “Who could determine what counted as theft when museums and countries and civilizations saw the spoils of conquest as rightfully earned?” Looted art serves as a reminder of a lasting legacy, one steeped in the blood of countless nations. Is it so surprising that four headstrong college students recklessly tried to right these wrongs?
LMU English major graduate Ella Kelleher is the AMI book review editor-in-chief and a contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. She majored in English with a concentration in multi-ethnic literature.