Chinatown Beat

by Henry Chang

Published by Soho Crime

214 pages, 2006

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Year of the Detective

Reviewed by Anthony Rainone

Some of the best crime novels are sociological explorations of place and time, in which law-breaking and mystery-solving elements are infused into a framework of cultural mores. There is perhaps no finer example of this technique than in Henry Chang's Chinatown Beat. More than a driving novel of suspense or intrigue, Chinatown is a look at a segment of society closed to most people, who do not share its ethnic heritage. It is a novel of setting, though also of noirish foreboding. The plotlines followed by Chang are dark, and his characters are mired in a labyrinth of local customs and societal distrust. The setting -- New York City's Chinatown -- takes on an organic, life-sized existence, and it almost supersedes all other fictional components; it would have, had Chang not been so talented at character development. Chinatown Beat has flashes of brilliance diluted by less-eloquent sections, but the potential for Chang's new series is bright -- perhaps brighter than the subject within its pages.

Protagonist Jack Yu is a New York Police Department (NYPD) detective assigned to the Fifth Precinct, located in Chinatown. That is the city's oldest law-enforcement precinct, founded in 1881. Yet its supervisors and other personnel seem to have learned few lessons about the area during the succeeding century and a quarter. Yu faces daily racism within the NYPD because he is Chinese, and that extends outward to the populace, too. Chang explains:

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 shift, 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.

Yu is an angry man in these pages. He is angry at seeing the city's elderly Chinese population targeted and mugged by Hispanic and African-American youths from the projects; he is angry at seeing how the older generations living in Chinatown view their neighborhood's geographic demarcation points as corrals for their lives ("[T]hey trapped themselves here, the old bachelors, wrapping themselves in their fierce Chineseness, taking pride in their disdain for American ways"). Mainly, he is angry at the sudden death of his critical father, and his newfound inability to repair their previously damaged relationship.

Jack was never the good son, but he struggled to maintain the truncated sense of family he had with Pa, who, in the few hours he was home from the laundry or the restaurant, was full of criticism or complaint, the smell of whiskey tinging his words.

Now, sitting on his father's crumpled bed, Jack was unable to find the peace of mind he needed. What bothered him ... was the sense of being here, too late, the son, the cop. After the fact.

Like the congested, gritty neighborhood that is depicted here, with its fish and vegetable stalls smashed up against each other, mounds of noisome garbage that accumulate at the end of each day, and countless dialects heard among the thronging crowds, there are competing plotlines pressed one against the next. Yu catches a case involving a Chinese serial rapist who's targeting young Chinese girls. Although the family of the latest victim is reluctant to involve the authorities ("Her father does not like the police"), Yu visits the victim and examines the crime scene, then brings in the Sex Crime Unit. While the details of police protocol are diluted in this novel, the workmanlike approach to crime is highly accurate. The rape victim's family does not place much hope in the NYPD catching her attacker, rather believing that independent action will bring better results ("Her father is talking about going to the elders of his village association to get something going"). Yu is a good detective and quickly determines that someone outside Chinatown is committing the sexual attacks, perhaps a national fresh off a boat from China. He goes to the Asian American Justice Advocacy for help with the case, but runs into lawyer Alexandra Lee-Chow, who in her role as protector of immigrants fleeing to America, has little appreciation for Yu's situation ("You know and I know, the laws aren't the same for everybody"). The fireworks are immediate between Yu and Lee-Chow, and later on in the novel they begin to appreciate each other more. A lot more.

The rape plotline is barely pursued in Chinatown Beat past this point, and while the reader wonders why, there are other developments that come to the surface that are more vigorous. Prominent among those is Chang's scenario involving ambitious limousine driver Johnny Wong and his rich, private client, Wah Yee Tom (aka Uncle Four), and Uncle Four's gorgeous mistress, Mona. Uncle Four is a respected elder in Chinatown, and is an official with the Hip Ching Labor and Benevolent Association.

Uncle Four was advisor for life to the Hip Ching tong, the number two tong in America, a bi-coastal organization with thousands of members, a multi-million-dollar bankroll, and an aging conservative leadership. The tong was the American offspring of the international triads, Chinese secret societies whose roots reached back to warlords and dynasties preceding China's birth as a nation. The numerous triads had supporters and agents in every Chinese community in the world.

Uncle Four is a powerful and dangerous man, and the Hip Ching is a feared triad. More than just an association for retired old men, sponsoring the occasional colorful parade, the Hip Ching runs drugs in the projects, launders money and diamonds, and--when it's deemed necessary--commits murders. Its members employ crews of young thugs. Competing triads run the underground of Chinatown, which means that much of what happens in daily life is affected by them, too. Like the best mob families that go to war, the triads target each other frequently.

However, Uncle Four isn't the only figure worth watching in this section of the novel; mistress Mona is compelling in her own tragic way. Forced by Hong Kong triads to sell her body at age 14 in order to repay her father's debts, she attempted to work straight jobs after that, but soon realized her sad fate.

Always it was a man who provided a job, always a man who took it away. Always for the same reason: she wouldn't have sex with them. When the time came to fire her, it was because her work habits were unsatisfactory, or business was bad and layoffs were necessary. Or inventory turned up missing from her line.

Men. No sex. No job.

Mona met Uncle Four in a top-rated club in Hong Kong, and he brought her back with him to Manhattan. But she soon had enough of Uncle Four, and she now daydreams of ways to escape his hold. Although he keeps her in an apartment, buys her beautiful things and takes her out frequently, he is physically abusive and repulsive. Speaking only Cantonese and no English, and being an illegal alien, she has no means of escape. Like the best femme fatale, Mona uses her considerable beauty ("She had oval eyes with a translucent brown luster, set in a face of porcelain skin ... her lips, cherry blossom red") to lure Johnny Wong into helping her break away from the elderly, fat Uncle Four. Wong and Mona become lovers, and she asks Wong to get her a gun (which he buys a few blocks over in Little Italy from a "street level goodfella"). Even if Wong is not bright enough to realize what is going on, the reader sees the ending to this scenario coming from a good mile away. It does not matter. Chang is highly adept at characterization, and Wong and Mona are fascinating to watch. There is an earthiness to the sexuality between them, electricity to their interactions. Even when Mona is dealing the duped Wong a bad hand, it provides riveting reading.

Sprinkled throughout the novel are minor characters who could've offered up substantial story lines of their own. For instance, there is the dangerous Golo Chuk, an enforcer for the Hip Ching, who is pitted against Yu in a pulse-pounding, fist-flying, and bullet-shooting denouement. Both Yu and Golo are chasing after Wong and Mona, who are in possession of gold coins and diamonds taken from Uncle Four. This chase takes the parties to America's West Coast and back. Meanwhile, in his attempts to maneuver around the Chinatown underground, Yu seeks help from a former childhood friend, Tat "Lucky" Louie. Lucky has become a triad gangster, "a dailo -- elder brother and leader -- of the brotherhood of the Ghost Legion." Lucky is given a piece of two-card parlors run by the On Yee, the rivals of the Hip Ching. Immoral and vicious, Lucky rips off rival triads in daring armed robberies. Yu hopes to both use his friend to locate Mona and to convince Lucky to give up his life of crime. Ironically, his fraternizing with a known criminal lands Yu into hot water with Internal Affairs.

Chinatown Beat is 214 pages long, and while I usually find myself thinking a book could have been cut more, this novel would have benefited from a greater length. There is so much here that could have been explored. The slathering of details -- including the translation of English words into Chinese -- gobbles up a considerable number of pages. Yet, Chang's characters are rich in potential and perhaps needed more room to grow; that certainly holds true for the relationship between Yu and Chow-Lee. Though the tempo slowly builds and the plot lines are not intricate, there is considerable writing talent on display between this novel's covers. Chinatown seethes with life, and its denizens are shown in all their humanity -- albeit a darkly colored one. There will be much to explore in this series, and the hard-working, earnest, and forgiving Yu looks like the perfect man to do the job. | January 2007

Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine, a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet, and the author of a blog called Anthony Rainone's Criminal Thoughts.