Mambo in Chinatown

Written by Jean Kwok.

The fact that a book with a young female Chinese protagonist has received such positive responses says something about arguably positive social and literary developments in the US. Similar to books by writers such as Lisa See and Cara Chow, Jean Kwok's Mambo in Chinatown is a polished work of fiction that seems destined to join the commercial mainstream.

The plot centers on a 22-year-old, second-generation American-Chinese girl who accidentally discovers that she possesses remarkable dancing skills. At the outset, Charlie is the "clumsiest girl ever" and works Cinderella-like as a dishwasher in her father's noodle shop in Chinatown, New York. But shortly after becoming a receptionist at a premier dancing studio, a "world class" choreographer recognizes her dancing potential, and within a matter of months, Charlie has transformed herself into a stunning-looking professional teacher and performer.

Charlie also discovers that her feelings for Westerners are stronger than the ones she has for the Chinese man her father would like her to marry. She falls in love, not only with her dancing partner, but possibly with the choreographer too, becoming "torn between" her dancing career and family commitments.

Meanwhile, her 11-year-old "extraordinarily intellectually gifted", incredibly precocious sister Lisa falls ill with alarming symptoms which their father, penniless from paying for Western medicine for their mother, insists on treating with remedies dispensed by a Chinese medical practitioner and an old woman who conducts ancient Chinese rituals to eliminate "evil spirits".

When their father finds out where Charlie is working, he threatens to disown Charlie and take Lisa back to China. Fortunately, the real reason for Lisa's malaise is revealed just in time: It is a result of sexual abuse by a trusted member of their family clan, rather than the hereditary disease that their mother died from. The story closes with their father attending a dancing competition and endorsing Charlie's chosen career and boyfriend after all.

The commercial thinking behind this 370-page story seems clear. The publisher, Riverhead Books, is a division of the Penguin Group which promotes "exciting new voices, stories and ideas", including Junot Diaz and Chang Rae Lee. Kwok herself is a second-generation Chinese-American, with a successful first novel, Girl in Translation, under her belt. Mambo itself fits squarely into what has come to be known as the "crossover" or "new adult" genre, that is, books equally suitable for older teens and adults in, say, their 20s. Its characters and settings embrace diversity. And its publication has been accompanied by a dizzying variety of social media marketing strategies.

"The mambo was beautiful: romantic, sexy and very difficult. But the lifts ... were a struggle". I think it can be assumed that Kwok's upbringing and personal experience as a dancer has informed her latest novel, which may partly explain why the descriptions of the settings and the actions of the characters feel somewhat retro, and the language veers toward the matter-of-fact. As a result, Charlie's learning to dance occasionally can read more like a dancing manual than a depiction of the lively rhythms, sensual melodic lines and physical pleasure of coordinated movement.

Similarly, when it comes to the emotions in the novel, Charlie longs "to let go", to allow herself "to feel and be honest". But that is pretty much all we are told. The motivations and machinations of most of the secondary characters are also largely unexplained. So when Charlie eventually reveals the truth about her personal life to her father, we wonder why he accepts her choices so readily.

The literary world remains open to authors who give authentic voices to contemporary multicultural characters. Throughout Mambo, there are tantalizing examples of the exoticism of Chinese culture and cuisine—from the medicinal power of snakes' penises, to the consumption of caterpillar soup and the umbilical cords of donkeys; from psychics and witches, to tai chi and qi gong. Such details will undoubtedly fascinate readers unfamiliar with these features of traditional Chinese culture, but unless they are linked more to Charlie's own belief systems, they seem included merely to astonish and titillate Western readers.

This was published in the "Asian Review of Books" in August 2014.

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