It’s a testament to Lauren Hilgers’s rich and absorbing Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown that the patriot of her title, a Chinese activist and immigrant named Zhuang Liehong, comes across as frustrating and, at times, downright infuriating. But Zhuang is also determined and dreamy, suspicious and generous — he becomes real to us, in other words, an inextricable combination of noble and naïve ... Hilgers has written a penetrating profile of a man and much more besides: an indelible portrait of his wife and their marriage; a canny depiction of Flushing, Queens; a lucid anatomy of Chinese politics and America’s immigration system. Such a comprehensive project could have easily sprawled across a book twice as long, but Patriot Number One stays close to the people it follows, in a narrative as evocative and engrossing as a novel.
Ms. Hilgers’s book begins like a Cold War thriller. It’s 2013, and Mr. Zhuang is contemplating desperate means for escaping China, including crossing the Pacific by fishing boat to Guam. But his actual journey to the U.S. is an anticlimactic plane trip with his wife by his side, each bearing passports and visas, in the company of a tour group. The interest of their story isn’t in physical adventure but in the window it opens onto what real-world immigration is like ... Patriot Number One is a well-researched, informative look at the realities of Chinese immigration. It also depicts one man’s battle to figure out who he is. I don’t know if Ms. Hilgers planned it this way, but this is what I liked most about her excellent book.
Hilgers is a thoughtful chronicler with an eye for telling details about the Wutan uprising, the revealing upbringing of Zhuang and Little Yan, and their complicated, sometimes-tense marriage. She also vividly tells readers about the challenges facing immigrants ... Ultimately, Patriot Number One is an eye-opener. It's startling but heartening to realize how much of a beacon the US still is to the rest of the world when so many Americans of different stripes feel our nation is deeply flawed and our rights too limited.
What emerges in Lauren Hilgers’ quietly emotive Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown is the distance between expectation and reality in the modern immigrant experience ... Escaping all that is what brought Zhuang to America, where he found different hopes and hardships — the regular ones found by all immigrants. The country doesn’t need Trump to make the immigrant experience strange and discomfiting. Hilgers shows how difficult yet vital it always is.
Hilgers, a longtime China-based journalist who met Zhuang while reporting on the unrest in Wukan, is a gifted writer and reporter whose talent for observation shines through the book’s opening chapters ... Despite Hilgers’s intensive reporting among a handful of inhabitants in Flushing, she never delves deeply into the place itself. We never learn the geography of its avenues, the rhythm of its daily life, its sounds and smells at street level ... Like many journalists who write about this group, Hilgers avoids stating some uncomfortable truths ... The most compelling characters in Patriot Number One are the people on the margins of the story.
Patriot Number One is less a China book than a case study and a reminder that immigration succeeds when one is surrounded by family ... In many immigrant families, it’s the wife and mother that becomes the backbone of the family and Hilgers’s book demonstrates this very clearly ... Hilgers goes deeper into this dynamic of hard-working wives and slacker fathers and shows that it was common among the Chinese activists in Flushing: most of the wives supported their husbands. While withholding judgement, Hilgers explained that Zhuang felt that his manhood was at stake when it came to accepting certain jobs ... One or two case studies don’t allow one to draw conclusions about immigration policy, but books like Hilgers’s show the determination and resilience of new immigrants.
...a nuanced portrait of a vibrant working-class immigrant neighborhood ... This excellent book makes a powerful argument for why the U.S. should always remain a place of sanctuary, benefiting immensely from those who arrive from other shores.
Hilgers’s narrative intercuts between the dramatic rebellion in Wukan and a vibrant portrait of Flushing’s Chinese diaspora built around fine-grained character studies drawn with equal parts empathy and humor. The result is a quintessentially American story of exile and renewal.