Against a backdrop of Jamaican history, a likable Chinese-Jamaican runs rackets in this eye-opening, rambunctious debut.
Pao is just a kid when he arrives in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1938. His father has been killed by European soldiers dismembering China, but in Jamaica he finds a surrogate father in Zhang, his father’s best friend. Zhang shakes down the Chinatown merchants; Pao becomes his apprentice. He takes to Jamaican street culture like a duck to water, acquiring his own loyal lieutenants, black kids useful as muscle; he cuts his first deal, distributing navy surplus, with a corrupt U.S. sergeant. In 1945, Zhang retires, and 21-year-old Pao becomes the new lord of Chinatown. His smooth ascent distinguishes him from the conventional racketeer who must claw his blood-soaked way to the top. What energizes him as a fictional creation is the voice Young has given him: hip and effervescent. But this Mr. Nice Guy will get his comeuppance in his personal life. Extending his reach beyond Chinatown, Pao offers protection to a brothel and becomes romantically involved with Gloria, its black madam; but when it comes to marriage, he passes over his true love to land a bigger fish: Fay Wong, daughter of a wealthy supermarket owner. The marriage is a disaster. Spoiled, hoity-toity Fay never accepts being married to a hoodlum, and eventually stuns Pao by abducting their two children and stealing away to England. This is the most intense episode among a slew of scandals. White people are almost invariably bad news. There’s the British army major who impregnates a 12-year-old Jamaican girl and becomes a major source of hush money. Add to the mix the references to some 40 years of Jamaican politics, and the quotations from Pao’s mentor, the military strategist Sun Tzu, and you have a novel that is cluttered but never dull.
Young leads from the heart (her father served as a model for Pao) to celebrate a resilient world that tourists never see. You’ll enjoy the view.