A liberated Asian at odds with her conservative family or homeland is not a new story. Literature abounds with such declarations of independence in prose, doggedly demolishing superstitions and customs. This is especially true when it comes to an Asian woman’s “proper” role in courtship and marriage, or non-role in the workplace. Jean Kwok’s entertaining second novel, Mambo in Chinatown, thus breaks no new ground, except perhaps that it is her father, not her mother, who proves the protagonist’s foil. Also: ballroom dancing!
Charlie Wong is a shabby dishwasher barely into her 20s when she applies for a job as a receptionist at a dance studio. A serial receiver of pink slips, incompetent and possibly dyslexic, Charlie braces for the worst. It comes, but not before the dancers recruit her to train with them. Charlie has dance in her blood, since her late mother had been a performer for the prestigious Beijing Ballet. At first scornful of Charlie’s calloused hands and appalling fashion-sense, the dancers soon make Charlie one of their flamboyant own.
She keeps her bourgeoning career a secret from her father, who despite his late wife’s occupation would shudder to see his daughter on display, not least because it would confound his intention to see Charlie married to a Chinese. Despite warnings from her fellow dancers, who frown on student-teacher fraternization, Charlie is (wait for it) swept off her feet by an earnest Caucasian pupil. Ooh la la!
The story here may reach escape velocity from Chinatown into Harlequin town, but you wouldn’t know it from the language, which is admirably even-keeled. Charlie’s wide-eyed persona conceals a shrewd and determined woman; her father ends up seeming less like a chauvinist than a straw man, consulting healers and slurping noodles while his daughter waltzes into the American Dream.
It was everywhere and always thus that children have rebelled against elders, from Cain to Holden Caulfield, so it’s perhaps unfair to suggest that this is a hackneyed theme in Asian literature. But even if it is, Cain and Caulfield couldn’t dance.