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Magical Mystery Tour: Chinatown’s Underbelly with Novelist Ed Lin

“My strength is writing about Chinese people and dirtbags, and Chinese dirtbags.”

Walking east on Division Street, I found myself keeping pace with a short, shifty guy in work boots and dusty jeans. He was yelling into a dated, flip-style cell phone sprouting from a fuzzy blur of black hair. I couldn’t help but eavesdrop, and at some point my ears perked up.

“Don’t tell anyone where she is… Just keep her there for now,” he said. I glared at him sideways in horror. He got the drift and pulled away, speeding into a crowd.

Maybe he was planning a surprise birthday party or discussing a rescued female puppy, but my noir-addled brain skipped to the macabre: a human smuggling ring; no question.

I blame Ed Lin.
Tour of Chinatown with Ed Lin

Ed [1] is a contemporary purveyor of Chinatown noir. “My strength is writing about Chinese people and dirtbags, and Chinese dirtbags,” he said.

His most recent book, One Red Bastard [2], was published earlier this year. It’s his third mystery featuring Robert Chow [3], a Chinese American Vietnam vet turned NYPD officer. Set in the mid-’70s, the book revolves around the murder [4] of Chen Xiaochuan, the official tasked with minding Chairman Mao’s daughter. Robert is assigned to investigate the crime, a job that sucks him deep into the brutal, international feuds of Chinatown.

Ed’s dark imagination is set off by his quick laugh, rosy cheeks, and laid-back, almost West Coast air. When the weather was more seasonable, he met me [5] in Chinatown—first for lunch at the divey, reliable Big Wong restaurant [6], “where Robert Chow would eat.” We proceeded to roam around the neighborhood, which Ed generously narrated as follows:

[7] “I have another book coming out next year: a mystery set in Taipei, about a guy who, through strained circumstances, is running a food stall at the night market. Everything gets sold there, even chicken butts.”

[8] “Oh, we just walked by Confucius Plaza. This is distinctly Chinatown because the streets are crooked, and then you chinkify them with lanterns.”

[9] “You know there’s a whole underground here, right? Mmm, Chinese medicine… I feel healthier already.”

[10] “Did you ever hear of Lin Zexu? He was Fukienese, and he fought the British during the Opium War. He’s held up as an example in Chinatown of a Chinese dude who said ‘no’ to drugs.”

[11] “How many years has Chinatown been in the background of this city? I try to make it a real character. I want it to be real, man. I don’t want to write some embarrassing shit… like having gratuitous descriptions of food, opera, or a Chinese wedding.”

[12] “It’s very ironic because the KMT is in cahoots with the People’s Republic now. It’s like communism versus nationalism. The dualisms in Chinese culture… Uh, god, sweet and sour—what other culture could make something sweet and sour?”