June 24th, 2014

the red queen.

Review: Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok

Mambo in Chinatown
by Jean Kwok


Charlie Wong works as a dishwasher with her father, a noodle-maker, in New York City’s Chinatown. The family is poor, but every time Charlie attempts to take up a new job she’s let go in a few weeks because of her poor reading and writing skills. Her sister Lisa convinces her to apply for a receptionist position at a dance studio, and even though she’s not the most qualified Charlie is hired. She proves to be just as disastrous as she feared, but Charlie soon discovers a new talent: her natural balance and rhythm, inherited from ballerina mother, and cheerful, patient disposition make her an ideal teacher for beginning dance students. As Charlie becomes absorbed in this new world, finding success with her students and joining the ranks of professional dancers, her life in Chinatown seems on the verge of collapse as her sister Lisa suffers from an unknown affliction and her father refuses to allow her to be treated by Western doctors.

I really liked Jean Kwok’s debut novel, Girl in Translation, so I was happy to see another one of her books had been published. In many ways, the book is similar to her previous novel. Both novels focus on a poor Chinese-American girl who discovers she excels at a particular thing and uses it to break free of her poverty. In both books, there is a wealthier relative who creates problems for the protagonist and her family, but the family remains beholden to them.

Charlie is an interesting character. Although she’s an ABC (American Born Chinese), she was raised in the insular environment of Chinatown so many aspects of American culture haven’t reached her. Defying a popular Asian stereotype, she was also a dreadful student - one of the dancers she works with at the studio speculates that she suffers from dyslexia - and since she grew up without a computer or a smartphone, the Internet and its culture are barely on her radar. There’s a lot to admire about Charlie, though. She isn’t afraid of hard work; although she tries many times to move on to a white collar job, when it inevitably goes wrong she doesn’t sit around complaining, but rolls up her sleeves and returns to washing dishes. She’s focused and determined, as her rapid dance improvement showcases. She loves her family, and she wants to give her sister Lisa every opportunity. Charlie may be only 22, but her maturity is far beyond that of most of her peers. I liked her and rooted for her, which made it easier to swallow the practically overnight rise of her dancing career.

Kwok’s writing is direct and clear, leading the reader as smoothly as a practiced dance instructor. This book is a joy to read, and I flew through it.


5 out of 5 stars


To read more about Mambo in Chinatown, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.





Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Waking Storms (Lost Voices #2) by Sarah Porter
2012: As Simple As Snow by Greg Galloway
2011: Fashionista Piranha will be on hiatus for a while…
2010: 29: A Novel by Adena Halpern
2009: An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage
2008: The Venetian Mask by Rosalind Laker