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A Dance with Chinatown

There are so many people who are invisible to us, and I think that its important to realize that the girl who runs the egg-cakes cart, she has dreams too, she has a future too, she has a past as well.

Jean Kwok lives in the Netherlands, far from the Manhattan Chinatown garment factory where she spent much of her childhood. Since those days, she has built her writing career on stories of young girls trying to escape, yet also feeling bound to, Chinatown. Her first novel, Girl in Translation, tells the story of a girl named Kimberly who, like Jean, moves to New York from Hong Kong, lives in an empty building with broken windows and no heat, and works with her mom at a garment factory after school. It was a New York Times bestseller. Her second novel, Mambo in Chinatown, comes out this month and follows Charlie Wong, the clumsy daughter of a noodle maker, who begins to discover the world outside of Chinatown when she secretly gets a job in a dance studio.

Jean will launch Mambo in Chinatown at 7pm on June 24 at the AAWW. Ahead of the event, Open City spoke with her about writing, and the push and pull of Manhattan Chinatown.

Your characters live in Manhattan Chinatown, but you did not, correct?

My family and I lived in a bad area in Brooklyn, but we spent all our free time in Chinatown, and our working life was there as well. My mother worked at a garment factory in Chinatown, basically a sweatshop, and even though I was only 5 when we moved from Hong Kong to the US, I helped work as well. And of course all our shopping, social engagements, etc. all happened in Chinatown, so it is kind of our emotional heart.

In those days [the 1970s] the Chinese community was not as large as it is now. I remember feeling isolated outside of Chinatown, and had a lot of daydreams of living there and getting to speak Chinese and becoming more a part of a community I understood and recognized after this whole alien world I had entered in the US.

And now the garment industry no longer exists there…

The factories were filled with children. It’s not like parents were using their children as slave labor; it was that there was no other place to put those kids. You have a family where every adult is working day and night just to survive, and there’s no one who can stay home and not work and take care of a child. So it was easier to bring the children along, and once they’re there, they work too to try to help. And indeed now the factories have moved out of New York. But I think the issues of poverty and low-wage labor still remain; they just get displaced into other areas.

Jean with school principal
Jean with her school principal.

Tell us about living in Brooklyn.

We moved from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when i was five. My family lost all their money in the move, so we started working in this sweatshop in Chinatown, and also started living in this incredibly rundown, roach-infested apartment – not only filled with insects and rats, but also unheated. That was the worst part of that place. In a building that was essentially unoccupied except for us. So that meant nothing was warm around us except for our own bodies. It was really awful. The window panes would have this sheet of ice across them all winter long. You saw your breath when you were moving. And of course we brought home work from the factory, because work is never finished when you work in a factory. We would bring these big bags home every day, and then you lose your manual dexterity because your fingers are basically frozen and you can’t do fine work with gloves on. So the only source of heat in an apartment like that is the oven. So we turned it on to max and opened the door and left it on all winter long, and we would huddle around that. The oven was in the kitchen but most of the windows in the kitchen were broken. So we covered these huge gaping holes with black plastic bags that would gust as the wind blew against them through the winter.

Mambo in Chinatown is drawn from your own experience as a professional ballroom dancer. How did you become a dancer?

Throughout my life my main ambition was to get out of that life at the factory. I had a plan for my life, for how I was going to do it, which included going to Harvard then entering a stable career, like becoming a scientist or physicist. And it really wasn’t until I was in college at Harvard that I realized: I’m not going to have to go back to the factory, I am free of that, and I can dare to do what I really wanted to do, which was to become a writer. So I graduated from Harvard with this dream of becoming a writer. Being a fairly compulsive person – some would say an extremely compulsive person – I was wary of getting a regular career-track job, because I knew before I knew it I would wind up in some profession that was not what I really wanted to do. So I was looking for a day job and saw an ad in the paper that said, “Wanted: professional ballroom dancer, will train.” And one of the things I had learned about myself in college was that I loved to dance. So I went, somehow miraculously got the job, and worked for three years for Fred Astaire Studios, East Side New York, as a professional ballroom dancer. I taught classes, did competitions, trained for shows, did shows, etc. for three years, then went back to Columbia and got my MFA in fiction, which was the start of my writing career.

Throughout my life my main ambition was to get out of that life at the factory.

In fact, my book, Charlie goes to that first interview at the studio in this completely inappropriate outfit. She goes in these black pumps that are so worn that they’re peeling, and she cuts off the peeling parts and colors them in with permanent black marker, and she wears this huge red dress. And then her hair is a disaster so she winds a clashing red scarf around her hair to hide the bad haircut. And that outfit is exactly the outfit that I wore to my interview at the dance studio

In entering this new world of dance, Charlie learns so many new things about herself – is that a reflection of your own experience?

It’s so true. When you’re an immigrant and you don’t belong, the process of adjustment is very long. It’s not like learning the language, which you can do in a couple years, if you’re young and lucky. But that is the tip of the iceberg. Learning how to handle yourself socially, learning how to be appropriate, learning how to have an intellectual identity – all of these things took me years. At Harvard I learned a lot of things, but I did not learn how to dress! So that whole part of my development was pretty much untouched.

Father mother Jean
Jean with her mother and father.

When I entered the dance studio I didn’t know how to put on makeup. I wasn’t one of those girly girls, and even if I was, I’m quite clumsy with my hands. To this day I’m quite clumsy with my hands. So I put on makeup and it’s like, if I put on eyeliner it’s like, huge on one eye and crooked on the other and smudged underneath. At the dance studio they used to laugh at me about it, in the nicest way. We had a communal dressing room, just like in the book, and had this teacher’s room with a mirror, and both men and women would crowd around and get ready, so we’d see each other in our underwear and people would be like, oh my god what are you doing? That is so messed up, how you’re doing your lips! So there were a lot of things I learned in the studio – although, did not master, I have to say!

Having written two fiction books that are drawn from your real life, do you think you’ll ever write a memoir?

I think I probably will someday when a lot of the people I know are really old – and possibly dead! But I think I will do that much later in life. A memoir is one version of the story and in some ways as much fiction as fiction. Because it is one person’s memory and perspective, filtered through language, of what they believed happened. But I think in an artistic sense I’m more interested in having the freedom to create constructions that get to what I’m trying to express.

A memoir is one version of the story and in some ways as much fiction as fiction.

For example, in Girl in Translation I remember not speaking English, and I remember how it felt to have people talk to me in English, yet pick out a few words here and there and try to figure out what the things were that they had said and not said. I realized how I can do that on the page is have us only understand what Kimberly understands. So when the teacher says to her, “You are hero,” and she’s like, “What does he mean?” – we also hear him saying “You are hero” when he’s angry at her, but actually he’s saying, “You got a zero.” In that way I hope to put the reader on the other side of the curtain of language so that maybe someone who’s a native speaker of English learns what it’s like not to be a native speaker of English. While on the other hand, the things that Kimberly hears in Chinese, the reader in English hears it as well. So she hears people saying things like, “Let’s go get a moon tan” meaning “Let’s go out on a date” [because couples spend time together at night, under the moon]. So they have the experience of being a fluent Chinese speaker as well, and hearing the humor and subtlety of that language.

In Mambo in Chinatown, Charlie embarks on this journey of discovery and at the same time Lisa, her little sister, gets sick. And as she progressively gets worse, the father refuses to treat her with anything but Eastern medicine. And what happened in my own life, while I was a professional ballroom dancer, was that my father was sick. And my family only wanted to treat him with Eastern medicine. And there I was with my Harvard degree and access to neurologists and all kinds of doctors who were students of mine at the ballroom dance studio, and yet I was involved in this struggle to get my father diagnosed by a Western doctor.

…in that move from Asia to the United States, my father had lost so much of his authority and power, and in many ways he had become helpless, like a child.

In the end my father died undiagnosed. So when I wrote the book it felt right to have it be Charlie’s little sister who got sick instead of a parent, and I thought to myself, why is that? And I realized oh – it’s because, in that move from Asia to the United States, my father had lost so much of his authority and power, and in many ways he had become helpless, like a child. And the emotional truth of my relationship with him was that I took care of him, because there were so many things he didn’t know how to do anymore. Because he didn’t know how things worked and didn’t understand the language. And so in many ways the relationship in the book between Charlie and her little sister, the mix of love and duty and guilt and selflessness, that was how I truly felt about my relationship with my father.

Jean and her mother at her graduation from Columbia University.

While reading Mambo in Chinatown, I smiled at all these little cultural moments I recognized. Like when one of the characters tries out those circle lenses that make your eyes look huge, or when they go to a Korean club in Sunset Park where the waiters grab you and throw you at a group of guys to chat.

I love hearing that you recognize those cultural moments! Because it’s this whole kind of Asian inner life. I love writing about those things because I think they’re so fascinating and written about so little. The Chinese community – just to make a vast generalization right now – I do think there are a lot of ways in which the Chinese community is still quite closed. When I was doing research for this book it was hard to get people to talk to me – even though I am Chinese myself and grew up there. Luckily I have a really large network of friends and family, but if I didn’t have that network it would have been hard for me to hear what’s happening today, or where they go, or what they’re doing, or how they really feel about things.

I do think there are a lot of ways in which the Chinese community is still quite closed. When I was doing research for this book it was hard to get people to talk to me – even though I am Chinese myself and grew up there.

I felt like that was something that was really interesting and I loved putting it into the book because I think that’s a world that a lot of people don’t see, and I think the people who live in that world don’t see it in fiction. And it makes a big difference to see something of yourself reflected in the literature of your time – both the good and the bad. And I don’t make those judgments while I’m writing; I just shine light on different aspects of what I see, and allow the reader to interpret them as they will.

What strikes you now about how Chinatown has changed?

There is one thing that really has struck me and that is the shift of dialect. When I was a kid Chinatown was mainly Cantonese and Toisanese speaking, because most of the immigrants were from the southern part of China and that was the dominant dialect in Chinatown. Nowadays it is much more Mandarin. That is because Mandarin is the national dialect of China and recent immigrants that come, even if that wasn’t their home dialect, they studied it in school, they learned how to speak it, they’re fluent in it, so that has become a common denominator.

And what do you think needs to change? As in, what should the future be?

When you asked what you think is the future of Chinatown I suddenly felt so sad. I’m not saying the future of Chinatown is dire, but I think that Chinatown faces a lot of issues and threats that are not often recognized in the media. One of those is, there’s this whole concept of Asian Americans being the model minority, and it is seductive to believe that we’ve got it made and don’t have any more problems and race is no longer an issue, and it’s so untrue. Although there are Asian Americans who are so successful, there are vast numbers who are living in poverty, and many of them are living in Chinatown. In fact there was a recent report by the Center for Economy Opportunity that in New York City, the poverty rate for Asians is particularly pronounced. And Asian Americans in NY have now surpassed Hispanics as New York City’s’s poorest group, with 29% of us living in poverty.

I think that one of the issues I have with the whole concept of us as the model minority is that it draws so much attention that nobody sees the problems of the poor, of the working class, who are really struggling and working so hard. There are just so many issues: there’s poverty, racism, crime, ethnic hate, police brutality, stereotypes, discrimination, there’s so many issues that we still face. In fact there’s another report by the National Coalition for the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders that in the past couple years that population is one of the fastest growing poverty populations in the wake of the recession. And these are numbers that nobody is really paying attention to because it is so seductive to believe that everything is fine with all of us.

There are so many people who are invisible to us, and I think that its important to realize that the girl who runs the egg-cakes cart, she has dreams too, she has a future too, she has a past as well.

That’s one of the reasons I wrote about a girl who is working as a dishwasher in a noodle restaurant and is not very good at school. Because there are so many people who are invisible to us, and I think that its important to realize that the girl who runs the egg-cakes cart, she has dreams too, she has a future too, she has a past as well. What do all those things look like?

In both your books it seems that Chinatown is both a refuge and a trap. Living in Chinatown provides Charlie’s family with friends and community, and enables Charlie’s dad to get around and be self-sufficient even though he can’t speak English. But at the same time Charlie hides her dance job from her dad because it’s so far outside what he can understand, and when her sister tests into Hunter College High School, her dad is reluctant to let her go to school outside what he sees as the safety of Chinatown.

I love how you put that: Chinatown as both a refuge and a trap. I think in this case it’s not even physical Chinatown, it’s our past or ethnic heritage. What is it? How do you deal with it? Is it a burden, is it a privilege? The only answer is that it’s complex and it can be any or all of those things. That is the difficulty and the reward, when you have a place like Chinatown, either physically or in your heart. I think it’s very true that in my book Chinatown is a complicated place, but it’s a very important place. I think that’s true to how many people experience it.

Jean with Kwan
Jean and her brother Kwan.

I remember as a kid in Chinatown I would stand there and it would seem like my mother was talking for like 40 hours about Chinese stuff, and people from China, and buying Chinese food, and I would be like, can we go home, please? Then she would run into someone else from our village, and I’d be tugging on her hand trying to go…but at the same time it was this place that was incredibly familiar. To this day I go back to Chinatown and feel so at home and so happy to be there. Then there’s the food. I live in Holland which is a really wonderful country but probably has some of the worst Chinese food you have ever tasted! I think it could win a reward for this. So for me it’s such a joy to go back to Chinatown, my own New York Chinatown, and to revisit all of those places and those memories that come up when I’m there.

Probably having a distance from it keeps you from taking it for granted. I think if like Charlie in my book, you have only grown up in that world, then there is an urge to explore further. But at the same time there is also the desire to touch base with home again.

Do you still dance?

I love going out to dance but it’s hard when you have a husband that – he says when he dances he looks like an ape on fire. I love going out to dance sometimes, and especially love going out in New York. The problem is that with ballroom you need a partner. I like to lead women because, since I was a pro I can lead both parts. If I’m the follower and the other person doesn’t know what they’re doing, we don’t get anywhere, but if I lead them, a lot of women are actually pretty flexible so they can do turns and other stuff. So sometimes I do that when I hang out with friends.

I also love just going to a disco and dancing, but you know how it is – there’s such a deal around it that’s not about the dancing, that’s more about sex. So you go and there’s these guys trying to pick you up, and there’s all of this – they’re crowding you and all of this stuff involved in it. So that’s a pity when you actually just want to go out and have a good time actually dancing. I heard that at the National Book Award, the after-party I’ve heard is the only place where writerly people break loose and dance. So it is of course my ambition in life to be nominated for the National Book Awards. So that I can go to the party of course.