Henry Chang’s Chinatown trilogy, Chinatown Beat, Year Of The Dog, and Red Jade, follows detective Jack Yu, who covers the New York’s Chinatown where he and his creator were born and raised. Here, Henry Chang talks about the place where he lives and writes, both good and bad.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: What do you personally love about New York’s Chinatown?
HENRY CHANG: I love the food, of course, the myriad regional styles of Chinese cooking, from Cantonese to Chiu Chao, from Shanghainese to Szechuanese, from Malaysian to Vietnamese, and lately, East/West fusion from Hong Kong. Secondly, its location is a pleasure. Walking distance to great neighborhoods, and a quick hop, skip, and jump by Bike/bus/taxi/subway/ to all of Manhattan and the Five Boroughs. Its iconic status as one of the great Lower Manhattan neighborhoods make it a go-to destination.
MP: What makes it rich material for you as a writer?
HC: I grew up in Chinatown, spent most of my life here. And survived. I didn’t have to make up much of the material, – just changed the names of the players, and the times and locations. I came of age during violent times on the Chinatown mean streets, so the writing is juiced with that urban anger, that detached loneliness and quick-temper violence, that NYC Lower Eastside sexuality. With the storied Chinatown street gangs, the Tongs and creeping triad domination, yes, it’s a rich cultural lode to mine.
It’s all about the Chinese flavors, the colors, the nightmare conflicts that Chinese people encounter in their Americanization dream.
MP: How does it inform Jack Yu?
HC: Jack Yu grew up in the neighborhood, so he’s lived it. He is constantly pulled back into the place he’s escaped, a place always loaded with bad memories. He knows the turf, and plenty of lowlifes to aid an investigation, but everything comes with a professional and private price.
MP: What is the biggest misconception about it?
HC: The Biggest Misconception about Chinatown is that it’s a happy little foreign village in Lower Manhattan where the inhabitants are doing well, where cultural touristas events are colorful, and the food is great, and cheap. BUT everything comes with a price; half the Chinatown immigrant population lives below the poverty line, and Chinatown seniors depend on food and health care. Youngsters are caught up in the fight for day care. YES, the New Year celebrations and Mooncake Festival are a big draw, BUT Chinatown businesses struggle for half the year, post 9/11. Chinatown needs civic power but too many of its immigrant inhabitants do not vote. So it’s a cheery festival, behind which there are many suffering people. If you care enough, look beneath the surface for the things you really love about the neighborhood.
MP: One thing that I got out of your books was how Chinatowns around the world are connected. What creates that bond?
HC: The connective bond is about history, culture, economics, and survival. Establishing Chinatowns around the world is nothing new, – it’s been going on since the 18th Century when Chinese sought to explore the outer world,- created out of the diaspora of famine and social unrest, – for the glory of China. Chinese sailors from Jung Kwok, the Middle Kingdom, landed on the West Coast of North America long before Columbus came around. Chinese miners landed in America in the Gold Rush Forties, hung around until the railroad-building sixties, gave their grandchildren a fighting chance, better than a Chinamen’s Chance in America.
MP: What can happen in a mystery set in Chinatown that can’t happen anywhere else?
HC: Chinatown exudes a global connectivity that all Chinese share. Because of the Chinese diaspora that scattered Chinese people to all the far-flung corners of the world, a Chinese person can walk into a NYC Chinatown dry goods store, deposit a thousand dollars into an underground banking system, and within minutes, have that money reappear as local cash in a Chinese jewelry store in Lima, Peru, or in a Chinese barber shop in Panama City, a TaiPei bar or Sydney Chinese restaurant, to any Chinatown or Chinese community anywhere in the world. With 140 years of Chinatown history behind this, I don’t think other ethnicities have such an underground system. So, history and sociology is a link to what happens in Chinatown,- considering language, culture, custom and its place in America, -but a mystery set in Chinatown can take you anywhere around the world.