‘Patriot Number One’ provides a lacking look at realities of immigration

Collyn Burke

Overfilled with factual information, “Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown” lacks a cohesive story.

In “Patriot Number One,” journalist Lauren Hilgers tracks the life of Zhuang Liehong and his wife, Little Yan, two Chinese immigrants attempting to create a new life in America. Zhuang and his wife fled to America to escape persecution after Zhuang helped instigate what would later be known as the Siege of Wukan.

Through Zhuang and Little Yan’s life, Hilgers paints an intimate portrait of the struggles of being a modern day immigrant in the United States. As Hilgers recounts how Zhuang and his wife arrived with little money and no friends,  she exposes the reader to the dim reality of life trying to work while undocumented, providing brief excerpts with statistics on sex work in Chinatowns and mistreatment in nail salons. Throughout the story, Hilgers also weaves in brief looks into the lives of other immigrants and the history of Chinese immigrants as a whole. 

While Hilgers provides an abundance of knowledge on life as an immigrant, democratic uprisings in China and how one seeks asylum in the U.S, the sheer amount of information contained within the 336 pages of the book becomes overwhelming, and the book reads more like an incredibly long article than it does a narrative. While every detail of Hilgers’ research is thoughtful and necessary, it is presented in such a frank way that it lacks flow with the main story. “Patriot Number One” would have been better off had Hilgers breathed more life into the story of Zhuang and Little Yan and allowed their story to present the facts of immigrant lives. Instead of reading as a compelling story, the book reads as a collection of research notes and flashes of a story, ultimately lacking coherence.

While what we get of Zhuang and Little Yan’s life feels brief, the parts that are there are beautiful and heartbreakingly honest. Perhaps it is because Hilgers writes Zhuang and Little Yan so well that everything else falls short. Hilgers manages to capture the two so well and without dramatic embellishment that they completely carry the book. The intimacy she has with these two people gives the reader the most honest picture of modern day immigrants one can achieve without being an immigrant themselves. 

Another pitfall of “Patriot Number One” is that it attempts to follow too many stories, and in doing so, tells them all poorly. In addition to Zhuang and Little Yan, Hilgers touches briefly on the lives of other Chinese immigrants whose paths cross with the couple. These stories, while interesting, detract from our main story and ultimately don’t add much.

Hilgers also finds herself diving into lengthy stories about village dynamics in China, the history of Chinese immigration and the Tiananmen Square protests. Each of these anecdotes are well-researched and intriguing, but they are inserted with little regard for organization. 

Every included detail is interesting and beautifully written, but the story lacks cohesion. The reader is given an overload of information without knowing what to look for — there is no end goal other to inform, making “Patriot Number One” a difficult read. Overall, “Patriot Number One” includes many great pieces of a story but hinders reader engagement through its structure. Had Hilgers focused solely on the journey of Zhuang and Little Yan and allowed their lives to tell the story the book would have been a knockout, but unfortunately for the reader, she did not. 

  • Page Count: 336
  • Score: 2.5/5