Sunday, April 21, 2013

C is for Chinatown Beat by Henry Chang

Today I am featuring Chinatown Beat (2006) by Henry Chang for my submission for the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme. My theme for the meme this year is mysteries that feature policemen as the main character.

Introduction from the book flap:
Detective Jack Yu grew up in Chinatown. Some of his friends are criminals now; some are dead. Jack has just been transferred to his old neighborhood, where 99 percent of the cops are white. Unlike the others, confused by the residents who speak another language even when they’re speaking English, Jack knows what’s going on.
The Setting and the Detective:

New York City, Chinatown, 1994. Jack's father has just died and he is relatively new to a posting in Chinatown. He is adjusting to his father's death as he investigates two crimes in Chinatown.

This is the story of an outsider. Quoting from the book:
Of the twenty-eight thousand, eight hundred and sixty-nine officers in the New York City Police Department, Jack Yu was the eighty-eighth cop of Chinese-American heritage. A lucky number, he once thought. At a sinewy five-foot-ten, he'd have failed the height requirement of a decade earlier. Now, four years into his career, he'd been transferred to Chinatown, back into his old neighborhood, a detective second grade. 
After four months here he realized that working in the 0-Five was like living in two worlds at the same time. In a precinct that was ninety-nine percent yellow, the Commanding Officer was named Salvatore Marino, and the beat cops were ninety-nine percent white. The white cops put in their shifts, then beat a quick retreat back to the welcome of white enclaves beyond the colored reaches of the inner city. Chinatown was like a foreign port to them, full of experiences confounding to the average Caucasian mind. Don't worry about it, Jake, its Chinatown. They were able to dismiss it as a troublesome nightmare, half-remembered and unfathomable. These Chinese were creatures unlike themselves, existing in a world where the English language and white culture carried little significance. Generations of sons and daughters of the Celestial Kingdom, they lived their lives by their own set of odd cultural rules. When a crime was committed, no one ever saw or heard anything. When the cops rousted them, it was a Chinese fire drill. 
But Jack had grown up in Chinatown, knew what it felt like to look and breathe Chinese, to savor foo yee, ga lei, pungent and spicy aromas that white precinct cops wrinkled up their noses at, to speak and decipher regional dialects that sounded to the others like a back-alley cockfight.
Even in the community, Detective Jack Yu doesn't fit in because he represents the law and a police force that no one trusts. In his personal life, he carries baggage from his poor relationship with his father. His father was disappointed when Jack became a cop, and when Jack moved out of Chinatown.

One of the crimes being investigated involves Uncle Four, a member of the Hong Kong-based Red Circle Triad, and his beautiful young mistress, Mona, imported from Hong Kong. This plotline is compelling and  overshadows the other elements of the book.

My take:

I wondered how true this picture of Chinatown in the 1990's was, because we are only seeing the underbelly of the community. The crime, the violence, the hopelessness that many experience. I could not help but compare this book to the series by S. J. Rozan, starring Lydia Chin, a resident of Chinatown, and her sometimes partner, Bill Smith. The picture of Chinatown in Rozan's books is not so dark. The first Lydia Chin book was published in 1994, the same year as Chinatown Beat takes place.

However, Henry Chang was born and raised in Chinatown, and he is speaking from personal experience, which would make this book a valid picture of the time and the place. See this interview with the author at the New York Times site.

As I read this book, I had mixed reactions. I was coming into it expecting a police procedural, and it was more of a character study and an examination of Chinatown culture. As a novel, I liked it a lot. As a mystery, it was lacking. Still, my overall reaction is a positive one.

My recommendation is dual. If you want a straight mystery and a definite resolution, this may not be for you. If you are open to a crime novel with a different approach, this is a very good one.

Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other entries for this letter.

Other reviews of this book are at: Petrona and January Magazine. The review at January Magazine is very detailed, so you might not want to read it until after you read the book.


Bill Selnes said...

I have not heard of this book before your review. In recent years I have come to appreciate mysteries with interesting characters even if the mysteries are average.

Sarah said...

It sounds quite interesting Tracy. I like reading books that focus on the culture of a place as well as a murder plot. I know I've said this before but you do read a wide variety of books.

Peter Reynard said...

You make an interesting point about authors and their perspectives. I guess there is no reason why both versions cannot be true.

Anonymous said...

Tracy - I couldn't agree with you more on your assessment. There is such a strong sense of character and of atmosphere in this novel, and the reader (well this one anyway) is drawn in by that alone. You're right that the mystery isn't what you'd call gripping, but in this case that was fine with me.

srivalli said...

Interesting setting! I will pick this book. Insider, outsider perspective is interesting, I will definetly try both the authors. Thanks for the recommendation.

TracyK said...

Bill, this is one of the authors my husband has introduced me to. I have a hard time reading fiction that is not mystery, but any element of mystery introduced makes it work for me.

TracyK said...

Sarah, it was very interesting. I forgot to mention in the post that this is another series I am borrowing from my husband. Setting is an important element to him. He has read all three of the books by this author.

TracyK said...

Peter, I am sure both versions are true, from the perspectives of their authors. Good point.

TracyK said...

Margot, I am fine with books where the mystery is secondary, but I like to mention it, just in case potential readers care. On the other hand, here I am trying to highlight police procedures and the books I have featured so far haven't been that strong in that area. I am finding out how varied such books can be. (And I have a LOT of mysteries featuring policemen.)

TracyK said...

srivalli, it is interesting. The S. J. Rozan series is also good. I have read all of the books in that series except the most recent, Ghost Hero.

col2910 said...

Tracy, Why can't you write about books that I won't feel attracted to? I like the city within a city feel to it and the family baggage that Yu carries. When there's enough of that and it's done well the lack of mystery almost doesn't matter to me.
Plus 1 to wishlist!

TracyK said...

I know, Col, too many good books out there. I do think you would like this book.