Steer Toward Rock

By Fae Myenne Ng

The Short Take:

Filled with pain and yearning, this novel breaks your heart as it opens your eyes to life in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the 50s and 60s. Yet ultimately it is a poetic testament to the power of love, sacrifice, and the freedom that comes when you abandon fear.


I must admit I read the first chapter three times (it’s only three pages long) trying to wrap my head around the complexities expressed in those few words. I need not have worried — that chapter expresses the heart of a story you do not yet know. A story that is well worth the reading.

The central human character of this book is a Chinese immigrant, Jack Moon Szeto, who enters this country through fraudulent documents. But the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Chinese Confession Program, both U.S. entities, drive the conflicts, decisions, and emotions of this richly nuanced novel.

Ng’s eloquent use of metaphor and simile help invite you into a world that is entirely Chinese, yet irrevocably altered by this, the Flowery Country. Her language helps explain the mindset behind Chinese loyalty and respect, which are largely alien to Americans in the 21st century.

The above mentioned American policies were driven by a fear of Communism and its possible importation through Chinese immigrants. The unintended consequences are the destruction of both families and trust in a society that highly values both. I couldn’t help but see the parallels with both our current immigration policies and our attitude towards people of the Muslim faith.

The poetry of much of its language gives exceptional power to Steer Towards Rock. It does not beat you over the head. It steals into your soul.

A Little Plot:

Jack Moon Szeto immigrates to America posing as the son of Yi-Tung Tzeto, who is every bit a gangster. This “paper relationship” side-stepped the strict immigrations restrictions of the time. In America, Jack lives in fear of discovery as well as in his “father’s” financial debt. Yi-tung tells him where to work and even who to marry (another paper relationship to provide a mistress for Yi-Tung).

Jack falls in love and dreams of starting a family. Knowing the arrival of his paper wife would prevent that, he decides to confess to the illegitimacy of his immigration, naming everyone he knows who is connected in the process. By choosing love over the law, Jack hopes to find the happiness he years for. The results are much more complicated.

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