Jenny Tinghui Zhang, a Texas-based Chinese American writer, holds an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Wyoming, and she is now a prose editor at The Adroit Journal. Her first novel, Four Treasures of the Sky, reveals storytelling skills both vast and specific, bringing shadowy history to light while also displaying a remarkable talent for sensory detail.
Zhang was inspired to write this incredible story after receiving a request from her father, a man of boundless curiosity who has explored nearly every inch of his adopted country. Once Zhang completed the book, her father returned to the site where the novel’s finale occurs.
In 2014, my father was driving through the Pacific Northwest for work. One evening, while making his way through Idaho, he passed a small town called Pierce. His headlights caught a historical marker on the side of the road. He saw, in those lights, the words “Chinese Hanging Tree.” The marker detailed an event in 1885 when five Chinese men were hanged by white vigilantes for the alleged murder of a local white store owner.
My father carried that story with him all the way back to Texas. During one of my visits home, he told me about the marker and asked if I could write it into a story so he could figure out what really happened. His research online had yielded few results, he lamented.
I took the request as a joke. My father has always entertained many curiosities. He’s an Aquarius, a perpetual fixer, a man who reads books about the universe and math and string theory for fun. When he was a child, my father had the kind of mischievous and inquisitive energy that eventually matured into a certain genius. He refused to sit and ride the bus, preferring to hang off the back and balance on the bumper. He played clever pranks on his parents. In high school, he joined the high jump team—back when the conventional jumping form was to do so headfirst.
When my parents immigrated to Oxford, Mississippi, for graduate school in the early 1990s, there was no room for that kind of man. They lived in a cramped one-bedroom apartment in the married graduate student housing section on the Ole Miss campus, just down the way from the fraternities. They attended classes and worked multiple jobs that paid as little as $2 an hour. And they tried to raise me. Our tenure in America and the fulfillment of their American dream—all of that would be hopeless without a job following my parents’ graduation, the responsibility for which rested on my father’s shoulders. At one point, he flew out to San Jose, California, for the trial period of a job that had the potential to turn into a permanent position. My mother and I waited in Oxford, hoping that this would be the one. He called and spoke about the weather, how the job was going, the mountains that braced the city. I was always worried he wouldn’t make it back home.
In the end, my father got that job. His company moved us to Austin, where we upgraded to a nice two-bedroom apartment right across from the Barton Creek Mall. When my mother and I visited him at his office, my father proudly showed us the break room, where we could grab handfuls of free coffee creamer and play pool. He looks unstoppable, I remember thinking as I watched my father hold court in that break room.
A few years later, that same company let my father go in a series of layoffs. I came home from school one day and was confused to see him already there. “Your dad got laid off today,” he told me, smiling wide. It was a maniacal kind of smile; there was no joy behind it. Over the next two years, my father would stay rooted at the computer, scrolling through job sites and updating his resume. When the phone rang occasionally, he would leap up to take calls from recruiters. I always felt an oppressive hope during these calls—maybe this would be the one. But things never worked out for him, whether it was because he lacked the skill set, or the English, to make the final rounds.
With our finances and my college attendance on the line, my father accepted a job at Time Warner Cable as a field technician. He spent his days driving around Austin and climbing poles, helping old ladies with their cable boxes, fixing wires and signals. It wasn’t the job he dreamed of having with his engineering degree, but it was something.
My parents moved out of Austin years ago, but I remain here. When they come visit me, my father always speaks about the city with a familiarity that can only come from having crawled every inch of it, for better or worse. Your dad did a job there, he tells me about Montopolis, Anderson Lane, Travis Heights. The gated neighborhoods of West Austin. The now-gentrified pockets of East Austin. I wonder if he is telling me, or reminding himself.
Today my father has a different job, one that takes him all over the United States—places that most folks only ever pass through to reach their final destinations. His job is to seek out these forgotten, overlooked places in order to determine where the signal for his company’s radios falters.
It sounds lonely and excruciating to me, and I often worry about his safety out in these primarily rural areas, but my father loves it. His job has allowed his curiosities to grow, unrestricted by the walls of a cubicle. He makes pit stops to inspect strange roadside attractions, takes pictures of the mountains in Oregon, orders beers at steakhouses in Virginia. He shares these artifacts and stories with me and my mother, leading us down long, meandering thought experiments of what really happened and wouldn’t it be funny if. When he is out there, driving through the endless fields, hills and forests, I know that there is all the room in the world for the kind of man he is, the one who was put aside in my family’s desperation for a stable foothold in America.
It was this exploration that led him to that historical marker in Pierce. Just another pit stop. Another curiosity along the way. My father asked me to write out the story of what happened, and I did. It turned into my debut novel, Four Treasures of the Sky. I took the story he told me and worked my way backward to an imagined beginning. What I didn’t realize was that the story was not really about what happened in Pierce. It turned out to be about a girl named Daiyu who is kidnapped from her home in China and shipped across the ocean to America before making her way back home through the American West.
This journey is not without struggle, as you can imagine. Faced with the threat of bad men and women, anti-Chinese racism and the question of fate, Daiyu pushes forward, traversing strange landscapes and lonely days. Her journey takes her to places I have never wandered, but places I imagine my father has and will. Perhaps unconsciously, I am thinking of him when I think of her.
Right before the COVID-19 pandemic, my parents decided that they would start traveling more for pleasure. They went to Rome—the first trip abroad they’ve ever taken in their 30 years in America, not counting all the trips back to China to care for their parents. We were never able to travel much during the years when my father didn’t have a job, but for the first time, they could imagine Paris, London, Washington, D.C. They wanted to visit New York City, having worked there as a delivery runner and a hostess during their grad school years. This time, they would experience it as tourists, not two people trying to survive.
When the pandemic hit, all of those dreams disappeared. Instead, my mother began accompanying my father on his work trips. It’s a good deal: When my father is done with his job assignment, he turns into a tour guide of sorts, taking my mother to the roadside attractions, national forests and waterfalls he finds on Google Maps. My mother is a good adventure partner. They wander together, propelled by my father’s curiosities.
Last summer, my father got another job assignment in Bend, Oregon. My mother went with him, and after the job finished, they drove over to Idaho, to Pierce. I had begged them not to—I was afraid that they would be attacked, given what was in the news lately. But my parents went anyway. They walked through the town, all 0.82 square miles of it, and documented their journey, sending me videos and pictures of the historical markers, the inns, the fire department, the old courthouse. They walked to the woods nearby, back to the historical marker that started it all.
In the videos, taken by my mother, my father walks ahead, charting the course for the Chinese Hanging Tree. The forest floor is lush and verdant. The pines shoot upward. My father overcomes hills, skips down valleys, cuts through the trees. He is wearing a pale blue polo and baseball cap. His hands are at his waist. When they reach the site of the hanging, my parents stop. The camera points upward, to the ceiling of branches and leaves, and what little sky can manage its way through. It catches my father in this shot: He is looking around, breathing hard.
“It’s just here,” he murmurs. There is no sentimentality in his voice, no grand gesture of reunion. Just acknowledgment and the respect of observation. The true pleasure of his exploration, I realize as I watch the video, is in sharing it with those he loves. His stories are not simply just thought experiments; they are reminders that no matter where he is, he is always thinking about us. In a way, Four Treasures of the Sky is my attempt to tell him a story, too.
The camera points back down, this time stopping at my father. “Now that we’ve seen it,” he says, “we can go.” He turns, plodding his way through the brush, making his way toward whatever curiosity comes next.
Zhang’s author photos by Mary Inhea Kang