Chinatown Beat by Henry Chang
Soho Crime, 2006.
I recently read a very positive review of the latest in the series of books about Jack Yu, a Chinese police detective in New York, so I thought I would try the first one, Chinatown Beat. In this novel, Yu is stationed in Chinatown, almost the only cop there to speak the language or understand the culture. He has to deal with racism (usually unspoken) from his colleagues in addition to the standard (in the crime fiction genre) police politics, as well as a lack of trust from his old friends from the neighbourhoods in which he grew up, for joining the law-enforcement establishment.
Both these aspects of the novel are successfully and poignantly conveyed, framed as they are by the recent death of Yu’s father, which means that the son has to clear out his father’s cheap apartment and reflect on his childhood and difficult adult relationship with him.The crime part of the plot also starts well, set amongst the recent immigrants to the USA who have to contend not only with the struggle to survive and settle in an alien land, but with their own community in Chinatown, which is rigidly controlled by the heads of Tongs – the legal front for what were the Triads. This dilemma is shown in the persona of Johnny Wong, who has recently graduated from menial work to driving a taxi. One of his regular clients is Uncle Four, a senior figure in the Chinese community, and his young companion, the beautiful but desperate Mona.
In this milieu, a very young girl is attacked by a rapist while being escorted home from school by her grandmother. Jack Yu is assigned the case, but quickly realises that the girl is not the first victim. The fact that the perpetrator is an apparently well-dressed Chinese man creates conflicts of interest within the immigrant community hierarchies and their relationship with the police and indeed within the police themselves as to how to handle the case.
The strongest parts of this book are the depictions of the various closed communities – the mores and rules by which people live and how the men at the top keep control and see off their eager rivals. Jack Yu, too, is an interesting character, particularly when he encounters a female human-rights lawyer who has her own prejudices about the police.
The story of Mona is very poignant while she is living in New York, and in fact takes over the novel to the detriment of the crime plot, which becomes rather perfunctory. Although this book is a bit raw in places, it is an impressive debut, leaving Jack Yu in an interesting place at the end. I think the soap opera aspects (the flight of Mona) that dominated the last part of the novel are not so successful, and some of the sections about Chinese immigrant life could have been shorter and just as effective. I might well try a future novel in the series in the hope that it focuses more on a crime plot and Yu’s issues with his personal life and police politics.
Author website, including short synopses of this and other novels in the series.
New York Times interview with the author upon publication of this, his first novel.