Published by Riverhead Books
Publication date: June 24th 2014
Genres: Cultural, Fiction
Jean Kwok is back with Mambo in Chinatown, another tenderly crafted novel about the assimilation process for Chinese immigrants in America. This time we’re absorbed into the life of Charlie Wong, a twenty-two year old woman, who, as the novel begins, is working as a dishwasher in a restaurant where her father is the master noodle-maker. When she has the opportunity to take another job as a receptionist in a dance studio she does so in memory of her mother who was a famous dancer in Beijing. This is despite the fact that Charlie herself is awkward and self-conscious and is considered by several family members to be slow witted because she has such a difficult time reading and keeping numbers straight. When these traits land her in hot water at the dance studio she is pushed into teaching brand new students for one class where it is discovered that she excels at putting the beginning students at their ease.
Mambo in Chinatown flows like the best fiction but offers so much more with its insights into the pressures felt by first generation immigrants as they try and navigate their way through a new world while still firmly anchored in the old world by their parents. For Charlie the load is even greater with her mother’s death and the mountain of debt left behind by her illness. While her father relies on her working full-time he treats her alternately as if she was still a little girl and as a burden that he must marry off as soon as possible. His fear of the Western world means that neither Charlie nor Lisa is allowed to leave the confines of Chinatown and when Lisa becomes ill he refuses to take her to any kind of doctor other than his older brother, a practitioner of Chinese remedies and a crone thought to be a witch. Both cost exorbitant sums of money they cannot afford as their poverty is such that Charlie wears clothes donated by the elderly neighbor ladies and sleeps on the floor so her younger sister can have the couch. As she tries to fit into the body conscious, physical world of the dance studio far from Chinatown, she finds herself having to hide more and more from her family. At the same time, she is blossoming and becoming aware of the fact that she does have unique skills and is not the ugly older daughter who should be happy to be married off to any man who would have her.
I was just realizing this myself. All my life, I’d been trying to fulfill other people’s ideas of who I was supposed to be and failing, and this was my chance to try to become who I was meant to be.
Kwok uses words with such grace they draw in the reader from page one. This is a novel that embraces even as it points out the difficulties of being new in a country and wanting to be a part of that country but at the same time being constrained by cultural mores and traditions. With insight and intelligence Kwok portrays the extraordinary tension Charlie lives under as she attempts to adhere to her father’s rules and to be a good daughter, but in reality she is growing and expanding into her own life in a world he refuses to acknowledge. The exhilaration of discovering a place where she is not viewed as unattractive, clumsy, and not-so-bright leaps off the page with the same joy Charlie feels as she becomes a young woman she never thought she’d be.
What makes Mambo in Chinatown something more than a singular story about one young woman is Kwok’s subtle ability to transcend the novel beyond Charlie trying to find herself to the much greater story of the journey each of us takes to find who we are. The fact that she can do this in a story within a story that is so captivating is a marvelous achievement. It is this universality, the primal desire to discover who we really are and our place in the world and to be recognized for these things, all make this a novel to be read and treasured by readers of all backgrounds.
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