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.