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Mambo in Chinatown


Mambo in Chinatown

It’s hard to improve on the Cinderella theme, but Jean Kwok manages to do just that in MAMBO IN CHINATOWN. Charlie, an ABC (American-born Chinese), washes dishes in the restaurant where her noodle-maker father works. Her mother was a soloist with Beijing Ballet, and even though she never performed again after immigrating to the United States, she would push aside the furniture and dance with Charlie in the evenings. She died when Charlie was 11 and Lisa was three, and, for the next eight years, the widower Pa managed to provide a poor but traditional Chinese home. His hours were long and hard, but he earned respect for his fine noodles. Charlie’s hours were just as grueling, but she was always waiting to be scolded, never sure she has done the right thing.

Charlie is now 22 and rarely leaves Brooklyn. Her hands are rough and cracked from the scalding dishwasher; she wears matronly hand-me-down underwear from Aunt Monica, worn-out sweaters and pants from her father, and slippers that are too big. She barely made it through high school, and her clumsiness and inability to keep numbers or dates straight is legendary. Her attempts to leave dishwashing are unsuccessful; she has been fired from other jobs because she cannot remember how the phones work, and computers are a complete mystery.

"It’s hard to improve on the Cinderella theme, but Jean Kwok manages to do just that in MAMBO IN CHINATOWN."

Her Godmother Yuan sees beyond her disappointments, however, and Charlie visits her every week to help teach tai chi lessons. Godmother’s encouragement comes from Lao Tzu: If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading. Let go of who you are, she tells Charlie, to become what you might be. Charlie knows how to teach tai chi, and we see her sweet nature when she responds to her Godmother, the unsure students and her few friends from school.

Charlie’s single joy is Lisa, with whom she sleeps on the floor, cradling her in the night when she cries, dressing her with care and attention, and reveling in her brilliance at school. One day, Lisa comes home with a clipping about a job on the Upper East Side, a receptionist for a ballroom dance studio. The thought of being able to watch dancers all day --- to remember her strong and limber Ma teaching her how to move, to watch something of beauty --- convinced Charlie to try again. By her honest, disarming answers to the interviewer (and a fluke of timing), she gets the position.

After a few months, Charlie makes a horrible scheduling error, and the studio desperately needs an instructor for one group of beginners. She hears herself say, “Is there anything I could do to fix it? Could I help teach it?” Yes. With much persuasion from one of the other dancers, the director allows Charlie to offer the class.

The best part comes next. Another dancer lends Charlie a soft blue rehearsal dress that clings to her strong, capable body, and borrowed glittering sandals with nude straps become part of her legs. She sneaks a look in the mirror before leaving the dressing room, and for the first time, she “did not see a dishwasher.” She has a lesson from a renowned judge and coach, and practices at home after Lisa and Pa leave in the mornings. Charlie is a natural, thanks to her Ma, Godmother and own emerging self, and she becomes an instructor.

Ballroom dance instructions turn out to be shorthand instructions for life. “Don’t count the numbers, looking for the beat. Feel the music,” she learns in the first lesson. Music is not in the ears, it’s in the partner. As she teaches her own students, she combines her Godmother’s training with the new lessons of dance. 

Although the ballroom dance studio is the centerpiece of this seemingly autobiographical novel, the side stories of Charlie’s Pa and the Chinese culture he still embraces, her little sister’s mysterious illness, and her friend’s reckoning with earning a driver’s license without a car are rich and interesting. Charlie’s voice is finally heard aloud; she is witty, kind, generous and, at last, confident. The Chinese family dynamic --- girls submissive, fathers in charge --- will undergo stress and change as both Charlie and Lisa grow up, and Pa becomes a more American father. There are missteps along the way (remember, Cinderella did lose that slipper), but Charlie’s passion for life and dance transform her brilliantly.

Reviewed by Jane Krebs on June 27, 2014

Mambo in Chinatown
by Jean Kwok

  • Publication Date: July 7, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 1594633800
  • ISBN-13: 9781594633805