An overstuffed, multiform swirl of a novel about a decade in the life of San Francisco’s Chinatown and, by extension, the Asian experience in America.
Yamashita (Circle K Cycles, 2001, etc.) blends prose, theater and art into this set of related novellas centered on a shabby residential hotel. The story opens on the Lunar New Year of 1968. Says her narrator, “Now we know the Vietnamese call it Tet, but the Chinese own it: New Year, they call it,” a time in Vietnam as in Chinatown of explosions, bright lights and revolutionary fervor. Vietnam haunts young Paul, who worries about dying there even as he prepares for his father’s funeral; by Chinese reckoning, he is too young to take his place at the head of the family, but not to be swept up into a faraway conflict. Paul take his cues from Chen, a Mao- and Gertrude Stein–quoting collector of postcards, and from alternative journalist Edmund, who covers the foment over whether to establish an ethnic-studies program at the university and declare Chinese New Year a holiday in the local school system. The ’60s shade into the ’70s, and Yamashita’s prose gives way to blocks of play-like dialogue complete with set directions (“Raucous laughter. sound of James Brown: “Like a Sex Machine”), as new characters come onto the stage that is the I Hotel, representing many ethnicities: a Filipino American farm workers’ union activist; a Japanese American organizer who turns a sweatshop into the I-Hotel Cooperative Garment Factory, its machines “whirring with industry and purpose”; a burly Samoan who escapes being busted for illegally fishing by telling a warden, “See this tattoo?…This is my hunting license.” Elements of the picaresque and the satirical play against passages that are almost documentary as the characters struggle to keep the hotel from being gentrified—and to keep the revolution alive in a time when just about everyone seems tired of politics.
With delightful plays of voice and structure, this is literary fiction at an adventurous, experimental high point.