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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Ethnic cop caught between cultures


CHINATOWN BEAT by Henry Chang. New York: SOHO Press, 2006, 214 pages, $22 (cloth)

Well before Sax Rohmer created his sinister villain Dr. Fu-Manchu in 1911, Chinatowns figured prominently in British and American popular fiction. These are chronicled by such scholarly works as William Wu's "The Yellow Peril: Chinese Americans in American Fiction, 1850-1940" (1982) and Mary Ting Yi Lui's "The Chinatown Trunk Mystery: Murder, Miscegenation, and Other Dangerous Encounters in Turn-of-the-Century New York City" (2004).

T.J. English's 1995 "Born to Kill" provides a nonfiction account of "the rise and fall of America's bloodiest Asian gang," some dozen members of which were tried for "11 murders, numerous attempted murders, over a dozen robberies, numerous kidnappings, and countless extortionate acts . . . which took place over an intensely violent three-year period." The notion that North America's Chinatowns remain dangerous places, it seems, is not entirely without foundation.

Chinatown has also been a Hollywood standby since such silent films as D.W. Griffith's "Broken Blossoms" (1919), which was actually a sympathetic portrayal. The Robert Daley novel "Year of the Dragon," which made it to the silver screen in 1985, was definitely less so; it climaxed in a fight-to-the-death showdown between superstars Mickey Rourke and John Lone.

"Chinatown Beat," by Chinese-American author Henry Chang, introduces Jack Yu, an NYPD detective at the crumbling Fifth Precinct station house. Yu is portrayed as the archetypal man in the middle, getting no respect from his police colleagues nor from his Chinese peers — hardly original but Chang at least avoids the worst stereotypes and provides plausible motives for his characters' actions.

"When the f**k did you become Charlie Chan?" remonstrates Lucky, Yu's embittered boyhood friend. "You think it's going to be different because you're Chinese? That people here are going to give you more face? . . . You're part of the Blue Gang. NYPD Blue. . . . That badge don't make you no better, brother."

The main narrative features Mona, a kept woman from Hong Kong, who realizes the only possible way out of her life as a plaything for wealthy men is through cunning. Tearfully whispering "Tonight men have hurt me again," she manipulates Johnny Wong, her limousine driver, into helping her flee to the West Coast with a fortune in plundered gang loot. But first she arranges for the murder of "Uncle Four," her powerful patron, to appear as a gangland slaying.

Fighting seemingly insurmountable odds, Yu finds himself in a race with the triads to nab the perpetrators. An authentic and well-spun tale.



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