By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
Year of the Dog
By Henry Chang
Soho Press, Inc., 2008
From the outside, New York’s Chinatown may appear to be a united community filled with not just Chinese — both immigrants and American-born residents — but an array of individuals with many different backgrounds.
But NYPD detective Jack Yu from the Ninth Precinct knows better. Having grown up in the neighborhood, he knows that there is a difference between individuals with roots planted in Mainland China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan, especially when it comes to the local gangs.
“Year of the Dog” is told from various points of views. These views include Yu’s, as he gets called back to investigate various cases in the Fifth Precinct, despite having transferred out of Chinatown. We also see the view point of Tat “Lucky” Louie’s, Yu’s childhood friend and the dailo — boss — of the powerful Ghost Legion gang, as he tries to figure out who is robbing his businesses. In addition, we see Fong Sai Go’s point of view, a local Chinese bookie dying of cancer and trying to wrap up his affairs.
Chang jumps from one individual’s story to another and although some may cross paths, it’s not until the end of the novel that they all intersect. What I really enjoyed about this book is how readers are able to connect the dots among the characters, making them more eager to reach the end to see the resulting picture.
And that picture is not always a pretty one. Chang’s Chinatown goes beyond the restaurants and gift shops and delves into a world where racism and discrimination still exist. Illegal immigrants are not uncommon, and gang violence and prostitution are a way of life for some.
Chang’s characters are well-developed and you get to know them as the story unfolds. They’re not perfect. In fact, some are extremely flawed. But that’s what makes them human and that’s what will make the readers root for them.
The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed
By Michael Meyer
Walker Publishing Company, Inc., 2008
Traveling to a foreign country can be intimidating when you don’t speak the country’s language.
Moving to a foreign country when you don’t speak the language is even more intimidating — especially if that country is China, where almost every other person speaks a different dialect.
But Midwesterner Michael Meyer did exactly this in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. He moved as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Chinese countryside, and returned later to teach English at an elementary school called Coal Lane Elementary School in the Dazhalan, Beijing’s oldest neighborhood.
“The Last Days of Old Beijing” chronicles Meyer’s life as he immerses himself in the community. He chooses to live in one of the neighborhood’s best known hutong (lanes), rather than living in a newer apartment in another neighborhood. Meyer did not want to be known as a foreigner in the community, but as Teacher Plumblossom (a translation of the pronunciation of his last name). Many questioned his decision, but Meyer remained adamant. He lived in a run-down mansion in the middle of the neighborhood.
During his time in the city, Beijing was preparing for the 2008 Olympics, trying to modernize. As a result, the city tore down old neighborhoods to build high-rise apartments and strip malls. But the people in his neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods are reluctant to move and give up housing units — despite their meager size — that had been in their families for generations.
Readers can’t help but admire Meyer’s gumption in moving to a completely foreign place where it is clear as day that he’s a foreigner. He offers readers a rare, up-close glimpse of a city struggling between preserving its cultural heritage and entering the modern world. From school systems to city planning, readers learn the differences in Western and Eastern philosophies, which they would not get from the average travel.
The Weight of Heaven
By Thirty Umrigar
HarperCollins Publishers, 2009
“The Weight of Heaven” is heavy. It will weigh you down and in the end, it will make you stop and think about what you would or would not do in the name of love.
This is a journey that both the story’s characters and the reader will take.
“Heaven” is the story of Frank and Ellie Benton — a couple from Ann Arbor, Mich. — and the two years they spend in Girbaug, India after their 7-year-old son dies. With their marriage suffering in the wake of Benny’s death, the Bentons decide to accept Frank’s unexpected job offer halfway around the world with hopes that the change of scenery will give their relationship a fresh start.
Their fresh start doesn’t exactly come and their problems follow them across the Atlantic. The relationship becomes even more strained when Frank befriends Ramesh, their housekeeper and the cook’s young son, and begins mentoring him. What Frank sees as giving the boy opportunities he would never have otherwise, Ellie — and Ramesh’s father Prakash — sees as him replacing their son with a new, healthy, and living boy.
The story jumps from their time in India, to when they first met, to when they lose Benny. It is mainly told from Frank’s point of view, but it alternates between Ellie and, when they are in Girbaug, Prakash’s points of view as well.
Umrigar does nothing to sugarcoat the living conditions in Girbaug. It is filled with corruption, poverty, and an unforgiving social ladder. Her characters are real and they will break your heart. Some of their actions may even horrify readers because it forces the them to admit that if they were in their shoes and pushed to their limits like the characters in the story, the reader may consider doing the same thing. ♦
Samantha Pak can be reached at email@example.com.