The Porcelain Thief is based on Huan Hsu’s meandering quest through his ancestral homeland in search of a hoard of precious porcelain that had been buried by his great-great-grandfather Liu Feng Shu as the Japanese advanced on their home town of Xingang, near the trading port Jiujiang on the Yangtze River, in 1938. The stars of the book are Hsu’s family members. Many were linked to the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) enemy and predecessor as rulers of China. The KMT’s leader, Chiang Kai-shek, fled across the Taiwan Strait in 1949 and never returned. At one family wedding in 1948, anti-CCP flags fluttered in the background.
Hsu himself is an ABC (American-born Chinese) and his upbringing understandably provoked identity issues, preoccupied as he was ‘with overcoming my own hardship of being Chinese and non-Mormon in Salt Lake City’. In China, however, he experienced a new variety of ABC awkwardness. ‘Every time I went out, I felt like I was in the middle of a family reunion, surrounded by backwoods relatives intent on embarrassing me in front of my fellow expats.’
In the course of his three-year quest, Hsu discovers the remarkable diversity of his Chinese relatives. At first, he works for his uncle Richard, a semiconductor billionaire whose boardroom meetings open with Christian prayer. Most staff in the office have chosen their own Western names: Superiority, Holy, Leaf, Shopping, Snoopy,