Henry Chang’s Chinatown series featuring Chinese-American NYPD Detective Jack Yu debuted to critical acclaim in 2008 with Chinatown Beat, “a fascinating look at New York’s Chinese-American urban community and its subcultures,” according to Publishers Weekly. The Boston Globe also had praise for this first novel, noting, “For readers who relish noir suspense, it doesn’t get any better than this stunning novel.”
Chang followed up that success with Year of the Dog, “a dense, moody, and intelligent glimpse at Chinese life in New York as seen through the world-weary eyes of a young man with a foot firmly planted in two cultures,” as Booklist commented. His 2010 series addition, Red Jade, was termed a “fast-moving police procedural with added sociological depth,” by Booklist. Chang’s third novel also earned a coveted starred review from Library Journal, whose critic observed, “An action-packed plot and a carefully detailed mystery make this a feast for readers who crave insight into the cultural melting pot that is the United States.”
Henry, it’s great to have you here with us at Scene of the Crime. Your novels have been highly praised for their sense of place. Obviously you know your way around New York and Chinatown. Could you talk about your connection to those locales?
I’m a New York City native, born and raised in Manhattan and Chinatown; my parents were Chinese immigrants who lived and worked in Chinatown, where I grew up, and where I live now. It’s still one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in the city, a cultural icon, and a destination for people from all over the globe.
As a native New Yorker, I don’t think there’s any other city in the world that compares to New York, no other locale that offers as much as the five boroughs and Manhattan’s storied neighborhoods, which includes Chinatown.
Chinatown itself is unique, at once familiar yet foreign to even many New Yawkers, and to out-of town Americans and foreign tourists as well. Chinatown is a very ethnic, culturally distinctive setting architecturally (Chinese motifs) and historically (landmark era buildings) The Chinese signage on the storefronts , the banners fronting the various organizations, the exotic food and marketplaces, the colorful physicality of events like a lion dance during lunar New Year’s celebrations, are already vivid images in the American/Western mindset.
Another element about New York City and Chinatown is that we get to experience the four seasons, –winter, spring, summer, fall– all dramatically different visions. Each season can have an effect on how a Chinatown story’s nuanced or plotted. The same streets in Chinatown look and feel dramatically different during a parade on a boiling Independence Day in July, than they do on a sub-zero day in February during a Chinese New Year’s lion dance in two feet of snow.
The elements themselves can cause some things to happen, as weather affects your setting and motivation of your characters. You also have the backdrop of Lantern parades, Moon Cake festivals, Dragon Boat races and Buddhist temples to beef up the plot and the characterization.
It was a conscious decision to use Chinatown as a character because Chinatown was the environment that my characters lived in, a setting that influenced their actions and therefore affected the plot and helped to explain the ‘Big’ story, the back stories and the setups.
“Chinatown” one reviewer noted, “ takes on an organic, life-sized existence, and almost supersedes other fictional components.”
Another reviewer noted, “You can almost smell the tofu cooking…”
I feel Chinatown itself is definitely a character.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
I’ve tried to incorporate Chinatown into the books by making it a living part of the plot, an organic environment that can affect how/why the story goes along…In some instances, that effect is overt (as in the shootout in Year of the Dog), and in others it is background, setting the tone and atmosphere for the characters action scenes.
It’s always a conscious reference to Chinatown, because I’m trying to render the Chinatown story, trying to explain it’s emotional and socio-political terrain as well.
Chinatown is a vivid setting that augments other literary component devices.
How do Jack Yu and your other protagonists interact with their surroundings? Are they natives, blow-ins, reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitants, cynical about Chinatown, boosters? And conversely, how does the setting affect Yu and other characters?
Chinese-American NYPD detective Jack Yu is a cynical New Yorker, seeking freedom from the burden of his Chinatown past that still haunts him.
While Jack operates reluctantly in his old neighborhood, conducting investigations in a community that distrusts and dislikes the police, he’s under pressure to solve Chinese crime.
Mona, relentlessly manipulative in her quest for freedom, has aggressively planned her escape. She has learned how to use men to escape the oppression of other men.
Jack’s history, having grown up in Chinatown, both aids and hinders his police work. His gangland connections bring more conflict than resolution, and he’s haunted by his teenage past here. It’s a no-win situation.
Mona endures the Chinatown nightlife, where she is both princess and slut, learning the ways of the big city. Unless she escapes, Chinatown will be the death of her. She suffers as she bides her time.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
Local reviews (Chinatown/ Lower Manhattan/the Lower East Side) have been overwhelmingly favorable; denizens recognize the landscape and identify with the neighborhoods and my rendering of the people and places.
I’ve been positively profiled in the DownTown Express and in the New York Times.
Chinatown residents have been cheering me on, because they feel it’s their story as well, and they know of and remember the changes over the decades. The Chinese-language press has been supportive of my views and of how I’ve woven a sense of humanity and struggle and hope into the Chinese-American tapestry. As a result of the Chinese press articles, more local people who’ve known me for decades, waiters and shopkeepers, now know I’m also an author. (It still doesn’t get me a discount anywhere.)
Chinatown Beat has been translated into Italian as Il Drago Rosso e il Diavolo Bianco, which becomes ‘The Red Dragon and the White Devil’. Go figure, but I hear it’s doing well. I’m hoping China follows suit, and other European countries as well.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
I haven’t made any goofs in setting, but I’ve taken liberties with names and places, mostly to protect the innocent but also to protect myself from criminal elements. Some Chinatown people feel that certain characters resemble themselves, while others advise me that such and such a place didn’t exist in that period, or a neighborhood incident occurred differently from how I described it. I explain that it’s crime fiction, after all, not history or memoir.
I think they get the picture.
All my books are set in Chinatown, but favorite scenes which focus on that setting are: from Chinatown Beat, the chapters ‘Nightrider’ and ‘The City’; from Year of the Dog, the chapter ‘Black Car, Black Night.’
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
Currently, my favorite writers are Naomi Hirahara, Stuart Neville, Su Tong, Haruki Murakami, Junot Diaz. Other writers who’ve influenced me in the use of the ‘spirit of place’ are Louis Chu (Eat a Bowl of Tea) , Richard Price (Clockers), Fae Myenne Ng (Bone), and Chang Rae Lee (Native Speaker).
And lots of writers are going to be pissed at me for leaving them out…
What’s on the horizon for Jack Yu? You refer to these first three as the “Chinatown Trilogy.” I hope that doesn’t mean Yu is going into mothballs.
I’m starting work on the new Detective Jack Yu sextet, six novels that will leave a trail of bodies leading overseas, around the globe, and back to New York City. Along the way, Detective Yu, and other characters from the earlier novels, will face challenges that will change their lives forever.
Henry, many thanks for joining us at Scene of the Crime, and for letting us know Yu lives on!
For more information on Henry Chang and his work, see his homepage.