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5 june 2007
Henry Chang's Chinatown Beat is an exciting crime novel with large helpings of local color from Manhattan's Chinatown. It's an interesting conjunction of two genres: the big-city cop novel and the Asian-American clash-of-cultures novel. As well as being a brisk, satisfying read, it is also an example of the continued productive ferment of American fiction in the early 21st century.
Chinatown Beat is billed on its cover as a "Detective Jack Yu Investigation," though it is currently the only such investigation. One hopes that it will become a productive series. Hero Jack Yu is a second-generation native of Chinatown. (And if you were wondering whether anyone tells him "Don't worry about it, Jack, it's Chinatown," Chang uses the line within the first few pages.) Jack Yu is a plainclothesman in the NYPD, recently transferred to a Lower-East-Side precinct that includes his home neighborhood. Jack himself has moved out to Sunset Park in Brooklyn, but his father lived and died in Chinatown. Died recently, too: a major development in the novel is Jack's melancholy task of cleaning out his father's old apartment.
Meanwhile, all hell is breaking loose on the mean streets. It's a stylized hell that owes as much to film noir and procedurals as it does to real-life observation. Whorehouses and heroin; gambling hells, lethal dames, punks trying to climb the ladder, sugar daddies, cops on the pad – if it weren't for the mah jong and the tong disputes, we could be in the world of Ed McBain or of John Dos Passos or of Gangs of New York, for that matter. Perhaps one dynamic shown in Chinatown Beat is how the City keeps shaping its immigrant groups into familiar molds.
At least in fiction. Though Chang's Chinatown is not as wholly imaginary as McBain's parallel world, it is distinctly stylized. The setting is roughly mid-1990s – at several points it's unclear whether a Bush or a Clinton is President, and David Dinkins appears to continue as mayor into the Giuliani era. Chang's city is one that continues to sink into sordid decay even as the real New York was getting a considerable makeover in the real 1990s. The one dynamic strongly drawn from life, however, is the continued expansion of Chinatown. Asian-Americans have been part of the city almost from its inception, but one important demographic shift in the 1990s and 2000s has been the expansion of Manhattan's Chinatown across Lower Manhattan, and the development of para-Chinatowns in Brooklyn and Queens. Chang captures this expansion with a broad but energetic brush.
No such novel of crime among immigrants and assimilants would be complete without a pair of second-generation childhood friends: one a tough but stubbornly honest cop, the other a brazen gangster who can't understand why anyone would work himself to the bone for a lousy civil-service pension. Hollywood liked that story (see The Racket  and many other films), and Chang can't resist it here. But the formula is given a new twist by the specifics of second-generation interaction with the older, male-dominated Chinatown of the younger men's fathers. This is the Chinatown of Louis Chu's Eat a Bowl of Tea (1961). If we've seen that Chinatown in both fiction and film, as well, we haven't seen the two formulas mix quite as effectively or as violently as they do in Chinatown Beat. One hopes there will be many more Jack Yu Investigations.
Chang, Henry. Chinatown Beat. New York: Soho, 2006.