“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
Jean Kwok, the bestselling author of Girl in Translation, has just released her newest work Mambo in Chinatown. Similar to her previous work, Mambo draws upon Kwok’s immigrant experience and makes wonderful use of her multifarious talents.
Kwok’s story is an interesting one – born in Hong Kong, her family moved to New York when she was five and struggled to survive on a sweatshop-level income. An extremely gifted child, Kwok obtained a scholarship to an exclusive private school and was obsessed with science, working in genetic engineering labs at Sloan-Kettering. During her undergraduate years at Harvard, however, she found her true love in literature and eventually went on to obtain an MFA at Columbia. But that wasn’t enough for this Renaissance woman to secure a day job, so she took lessons and began work as a professional ballroom dancer at a studio in New York.
It is this background of Kwok’s that forms the basis of Mambo in Chinatown. The story is of a young woman with a very traditional Chinese family, Charlie Wong, who stumbles into a world quite beyond her experience. Charlie exists outside of the stereotype of the academically high-achieving Asian and suffers severely from a lack of self-confidence and identity as a result. Her life’s crossroad appears as a job opening at a professional ballroom dance studio in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The work exposes her to the magical blend of movement and music that creates dance.
In her new environment Charlie discovers a true talent, and her growing awareness of her body’s capabilities creates a flow of poise and equanimity that begins to transform her life. With her newfound confidence, she agrees to enter a competition with a talented student to perform a mambo routine. Many of these shifts in her life, however, are in contention with her familial culture and she must find a way to blend and unify the conventions or suffer the loss of her past.
Kwok’s writing style is simple and direct but magnificent. Charlie’s character is completely unvarnished and the honest voice Kwok gives her enhances her veracity for the reader. And the uncomplicated prose lacks nothing in detail. In particular, the dancing is wonderfully described with all the heat and sensuality of D.H. Lawrence. Mind you, this is no courtly waltz but full-on dirty dancing and all the better for it!