The protagonist of Ed Lin’s mystery One Red Bastard, Robert Chow, is, on the surface, made of the stuff one would expect of a Chandler-esque mystery/noir protagonist: he has a selectively specific moral code, he keeps company with several figures of disreputable quality, and he finds himself engaged with several women of questionable character. What separates Chow from the common noir protagonist is his struggles with heritage and identity. Though Chow speaks Cantonese more fluently than many of the younger characters living in Chinatown, he also pushes his heritage away as much as he can. When the force hires a younger Chinese officer, Chow is relieved he will no longer be the token Chinese representative sent to restaurant openings in Chinatown; he ultimately feels that he can only succeed in his department by attempting to shed as much of his heritage as possible.
The central mystery that drives the narrative also contains elements that Chow struggles with internally. Just as the New York City of the late 70s is experiencing a painful push towards gentrification, so, too was mainland China experiencing major growing pains. The daughter of Mao Tse-tung is seeking asylum in the US following the arrest and execution of the Gang of Four and the subsequent tainting of many of Mao’s family members; she sends an attaché ahead of her to deal with the process. When the attaché arrives in the US, the already tense relationship between mainland refugees from China (specifically Fuzhou), Kuomintang-loyal Taiwanese immigrants, and long-establish Cantonese residents threatens to erupt. And when the attaché is murdered (perhaps by Robert’s girlfriend, a reporter who also works at the UN), those tensions explode, with each side presenting ever-more preposterous reasoning behind why the other side would murder the attaché. The solution to the murder itself is not really that interesting or original. However, the image of so many competing interests in such a small, insular area of Manhattan makes for compelling reading.
Lin’s characterization of Chow is interesting when the socio-political context of Chinatown comes to the forefront of the story. Like many noir/mystery narrators, Chow at times can appear disengaged to the point of boredom; really, the only time he expresses clear emotion is when he is defending his girlfriend against the accusations of others, and when he expresses concern for the welfare of his partner’s marriage. His policework to find the killer is fine but unexceptional. His seeming indifference to the political boilerplate that Chinatown has become speaks to Chow’s own internalized oppression – he will not engage in political conversations with anyone, and is especially irritated when he comes across any political protest, whether put on by communist or Kuomanting supporters. Chow, in a way, is Lin’s way of personifying the feelings of many first and second generation Asian Americans – aware of the political baggage their parents or grandparents brought with them, but too concerned with blending in to America to bother to engage. The only time he acknowledges his heritage is to mention it in the negative, saying that it is impossible for Chinese people to forgive each other; indeed, he says, “If Chinese people forgave each other, it would shatter the plots of every Kung-Fu movie.”
Photo of the Author by Gregory Costanzo
It does say something about the racial tensions of New York City in the 1970s that the core relationship of the novel is between Chow and his black, Vietnam veteran partner, Vandyne. Lin rightfully explores how each has hit a glass ceiling; he also subtly addresses the point that, despite the tensions between black and white America, Asian America can also become an easy target for discrimination. Vandyne, despite the racist climate, has made full detective; Chow, despite working just as long as hard, has not made the grade yet. Chow experiences far more harassment about his race and ethnicity than his partner does, is clearly passed over for a promotion because the department still needs him to be the Chinese face of the police force, and hates speaking Cantonese unless he absolutely has to. When Chow first speaks to the younger Chinese officer at his precinct, he mentions that the cadet, whose last name is Ong, is already nicknamed “Ong Kong Phooey”. When Ong responds that nicknames don’t matter, Chow tells him that “It does matter, and if you don’t stop it now, it’s just going to get worse. You’re going to be ‘Fu Manchu’ next.” For Chow, the long held scars have cut him deeply, and he tries to bury it; for Ong, as a third generation Chinese, his oppression is so internalized that he doesn’t even recognize that it’s there.
It’s never quite clear which side of the political debate Lin is more sympathetic to – or, really, if he even cares that much. What Lin seems to have set out to do is create a noir protagonist of color, and to undermine the seedy depiction of Chinatowns that has existed in the popular mainstream as being populated by nameless and faceless Chinese people. In doing this, Lin has succeeded: Manhattan’s Chinatown is alive with characters like the young immigrant determined to rail against capitalist culture, or the slimy businessman who runs a tiny-circulation newspaper out of the heart of Chinatown. The murder at the center of the story is almost beside the point; Chinatown is the message, with Chow as its indifferent explorer.
Noah Cho teaches English at Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera, California.