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Americans in China during the Opium Wars: a panoramic, seriocomic tour de force from the author of The Monkey King and Sour Sweet. Hong Kong-born Mo picks up his long, complex story in 1833, using two young American traders, Gideon Chase and Walter Eastman, as his viewfinders for focusing on the British-Chinese turbulence that led to the 1842 British annexation of Hong Kong and the full opening of China to European trade. Contrasting types (Chase: studious; Eastman: energetic), the two clerk at a large Cantonese trading house run by Frederick Remington, whose lovely daughter, Alice, inflames their love when she visits from Macao. Angry at the duo for courting his daughter and for disputing Britain's policy of importing opium to the Chinese, Remington pushes them into quitting; whereupon they borrow money from a painter pal, Harry O'Rourke (a brawling, bawdy lampoon, one of several created by the resourceful Mo) and establish a weekly paper, The Lin Tin Bulletin and River Bee: a caustic, parodic mouthpiece for their anti-opium views. Mo devotes many pages to extracts from the paper--editorials, news, letters, advertisements--giving this novel unusual texture (and allowing him to comment on sundry aspects of Chinese and European culture). As the years pass, the paper prospers; but Chinese-British relations do not, with some harrowing sea and land battles (at odds with the more leisurely flow of the rest of the book) witnessed by Chase and Eastman, who survive the Opium Wars only to decide to shut down the Bee, eager to embark on some new endeavor. Halfway through this story lies a Bee editorial contrasting the Western novel (""linear"") with the Chinese one (""circular""). Clearly in this novel--crammed full of asides, digressions, and those large chunks of Bee miscellanea--Mo is attempting to write a ""Chinese novel""; according to his definition, he largely succeeds. While this swirling, stylish, literate epic won't appeal to all readers, its rewards are great for those open to an unusual--at times demanding--approach to historical fiction.

Pub Date: March 2nd, 1987
Publisher: Random House