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Dreaming in Chinese: Henry Chang's Chinatown Trilogy

I could not resist when our local library offered free lessons in Mandarin Chinese but, sadly, I was not an apt student. On the other hand, the lessons led me indirectly to the books of Henry Chang and to an immersion in "otherness" that I have not often experienced. The sense of place in Chang's novels --Chinatown Beat, Year of the Dog, and Red Jade -- is extraordinary. New York's Chinatown is a place like no other, except perhaps for its cousins in San Francisco, Seattle, and other points along the Chinese diaspora.Detective Jack Yu, NYPD, works the Fifth Precinct, in Chinatown, a world peopled by the Ghost Legions, and the Hip Ching and On Yee tongs. Aggressive Fukienese newcomers push hard against the territory of the Toishanese and Cantonese old-timers. It seems that just behind the inviting hubbub of tourist Chinatown is a world of criminality and menace. Gambling parlors, drug dens, and brothels hide behind ordinary storefronts. Powerful triads in Hong Kong and Taiwan use local businesses to launder dirty money.Henry Chang grew up in Chinatown and he describes its dark side in vivid, almost pulsing, detail. Yet his books tell another story, one which pierces the armor of Jack Yu's cynicism. It is the story of the dreams which propelled generations of Chinese to America in search of a better life, ". . . sons and daughters of the Celestial Kingdom (who) . . .lived their own lives by their own set of cultural rules."

In Chinatown Beat, Johnny Wong dreams of parlaying his one-car limo service into a commercial empire. Mona, one of his clients, dreams of freedom from her abusive lover, Uncle Four, the local Hip Ching leader. She murders Uncle Four, steals a cache of gold and diamonds belonging to the tong, and coolly sets up Johnny Wong for the shooting. The consequences of the theft reverberate through all three books. The Hip Ching will chase Mona to the ends of the earth to extract revenge.In Year of the Dog Bo Jan, a devout Buddhist, dreams of bringing her young daughter to America, but she must first pay off the snakeheads--traffickers in human cargo--for her own passage here. She befriends a lonely older man, Sai Go, who is dying of cancer. The kindness they share changes both their lives. Jack Yu's fury at anti-Chinese prejudice reawakens at the horrific murder of a young Chinese delivery boy in the projects.Both Jack Yu and a Hip Ching enforcer named Paper Fan chase Mona across the country in Red Jade, the last book of the trilogy. A brilliantly paced cat-and-mouse game ends on a pier in Seattle with Jack wounded and several gangsters dead. Mona's fate is tantalizingly ambiguous: she jumps off the pier and is last seen struggling toward the pilings.When Jack dreams it is often about his childhood friends, Wing Lee who died in a teenage gang fight, and Tat "Lucky" Louie. Lucky is a thug, a rising power in the Ghosts. He taunts Jack and tries to corrupt him. Most of all Jack thinks about his father, whose recent death has unleashed grief and regrets. Pa, a man revered for his honesty and generosity, toiled for years as one of Chinatown's laundrymen, "slaves to the eight-pound steam iron."Pa's own dreams are revealed after his death in a note he leaves for Jack: "The long shadow behind me (is). . .of our many ancestors. You, my son, are part of that unseen shadow that precedes me, the shadow of my descendents. There is no grandchild . . .that I can see. You have the responsibility to make that shadow as long as the one behind me. . .Remember where you came from . . . who you are."Father and son had age-old clashes. Jack wanted Pa to move from Chinatown to more comfortable digs. Pa thought Jack was becoming "too American." When Jack visits his father's grave, he brings the ceremonial incense sticks, paper money, firecrackers, and mao tai,Chinese liquor, to pour on the grave. As he sets everything ablaze in a bucket, he begins a litany of all the things he is sorry for: for not becoming a doctor or lawyer, for Pa's not getting rich, for no big house in the south of China. He keeps repeating sorry, sorry, sorry, assuming the burden of Pa's unfulfilled dreams.The three books are rich with Chang's love for Chinatown and those who live there. Food is love in many cultures, and Chang delights in Chinatown's pungent cuisine. He strews the pages with exotic-sounding fare: dao foo, guk bo cha, gee cheung fun, foo jook, bok tong go, cheng dao. He is immensely proud of Chinese traditions and reverence for family. If he writes about criminality and violence, he mitigates with portraits of people living ordinary lives who dream of something better. When Jack Yu worries about the immigrants' poor command of English, it is Henry Chang remembering how readily such people are preyed upon. He is disturbed by the fear and unease which the Chinese feel about their neighbors in the projects. Billy Bow, a tofu merchant and close friend of Jack's, jokingly wonders why the Chinese have no NAACP to protest injustice on their behalf.In the end, Jack Wu sees Chinatown as a very personal history. Now the Chinese are free to make their own way in America, free of the time "when old Chinese bachelors were hemmed in by racial hate, denied their families, forced into doing women's work, to clean, to cook." Pa, after a lifetime of loss, stayed in Chinatown not out of "narrow-mindedness" but out of love for Jack and for things Chinese. It would be lovely if Henry Chang writes Pa's story for us some day.

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Thanks for the introduction to Henry Chang. I think Mandarin and Cantonese require more diligence, patience, and self-discipline than the typical American language taster is willing - or, perhaps, able - to accord them. I, too, failed to learn much from my night-classes Mandarin.

David, you are correct about the language difficulties. I could not grasp the tonalities, the way some words ended on an up note and others on a down note. We had a teacher Skyped-in from Beijing whose English I had difficulty understanding. Nonetheless, it was fun. I even recognized some of the Chinese words in Henry Chang's books.

Duoxie, ni gei wo zheiwei Zhang xiansheng wencai de jieshao, or in other words (since I'm really just showing off) many thanks for introducing me to Mr. Zhang's literary talents. I've never heard of either him or his books, but will certainly look him up. (Mandarin, incidentally, isn't likely to get you very far in New York's Chinatown, or indeed any of the Chinatowns of the diaspora, since most of its members come from non-mandarin regions, particular Canton and its environs.Too bad you can't buy the books with a dish or two of the food he describes.

Nicholas, how long did it take you to feel comfortable listening to and speaking Chinese? Do you read and write it, too? Academic pursuit, other necessity, or mostly personal pleasure?I've not given up on the idea of eventually learning Chinese. Is five years a reasonable time frame for first fluency? Traditional or modern characters?From glancing at the reviews at amazon.com, I gather that one is likely to enjoy Henry Chang's writing more for the milieu than the story, but that should be plenty. The first volume's on the iPad waiting patiently in the queue.