In the mid 19th Century some 20,000+ Chinese people travelled to America to build the Transcontinental Railroad. Of course there was uproar at the thought of hiring Chinese workers to begin with, because racism. But then overseers realised that they could exploit them far more than American workers, paying only $26 a day for 12hour, 6 day weeks. It was the gold rush, so someone was making money. Imagine building a railroad in the 1850s. The conditions and work were deplorable. Even before then, but certainly during and in the years that followed, Chinese immigrants suffered unspeakable racism in the United States, including being subject to the The Chinese Exclusion Act which prevented them from applying for American citizenship until the mid 1940s (which imo sounds a lot like the UAE policy TODAY. Using immigrant labour to build a country's wealth with little to no return is not new or unique). If you are ever in San Francisco I highly recommend visiting the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum to learn more about Chinese history in California. It's one of the good museums. Own voices.
In this book Chang-Rae Lee speaks to the future not the past. On Such a Full Sea is heavily inspired by Chinese American history in California, with the over arching themes centred around characters living in Chinese labour camps in the US. Fan and others are enlisted to help rebuild a country in environmental ruin, disseminated by the activity of over industrialisation and ambivalence to the natural world by a ruling class (living in luxurious gated communities) benefiting from extreme economic divide. This book is a dystopian, political analogy. But this is also a love story. And a mystery. And a message.