Mambo in Chinatown is a book I picked up at the library when I was browsing after replacing my lost card. I do a bit of Latin dancing off and on (more off recently) so both the shoes and the name caught my attention. Then I read the blurb and it said it was about a first generation Chinese American woman who grew up in Chinatown, NYC, and ended up working for a ballroom dance studio. I knew I had to read it.
Charlie Wong, daughter of a Beijing Ballet prima ballerina, feels ungraceful and works as a dishwasher in a noodle shop where her father makes money. She spends her time supporting her family and trying to help her beautiful, intelligent younger sister, whom Charlie hopes to help to bigger and brighter things. One day, Charlie, who has always longed to feel beautiful, applies for a job as a receptionist as a ballroom dance studio and gets it. Working at the studio begins to slowly transform her life, but she worries about her sister, Lisa, who is struggling with an unknown illness that seems to worsen as Charlie’s life improves.
I greatly enjoyed this novel. It was definitely written for a Western audience and Kwok takes plenty of time to explain Chinese beliefs, attitudes, and traditions for a non-Chinese audience. She always manages to make it feel very natural to the story, partly because it’s written in first person, so it’s always presented as Charlie musing on what she’s looking at. It’s fairly obvious but never overdone and sprinkled evenly throughout the novel. I genuinely appreciated it – some things I knew and some things I didn’t, but overall the holistic integration of all the components Charlie talked about make me gain an appreciation for her worldview that I think can be challenging to convey in a novel. Kwok also does a good job of letting the bigger cultural notions speak through the actions of the characters – Charlie’s desire to show proper respect for her father is never dissected but is clearly and understandably demonstrated through her actions and concerns.
Charlie herself is a really wonderful character. She’s kind and tries her best, but struggles with finding herself and self-esteem issues, making her believably flawed but likable. Of course, part of her struggle is balancing the Chinese and American cultures she exists in, which Kwok does an excellent job with. I also appreciate that Kwok includes many other Chinese American women, all of whom are finding their own balance in Chinatown.
I loved her descriptions of dancing – she really manages to capture the essence of twirling across the dance floor. And the book definitely touched on magical realism as shows Lisa’s illness, with her father trusting traditional Chinese medicine and Charlie wanting to try Western. I will say, if Kwok writes a magical realism novel, I will definitely read it.
The biggest downside to this book is that the plot line is incredibly predictable. Now, in a book like this, which I’m reading for escapism and for enjoyment of the characters, that’s not a fatal flaw at all. But I was able to predict every plot twist and turn that happens straight from the beginning of the novel. The pacing is good and I really wanted to know what happened next, I just already knew what was going to happen next.
Overall, it was a lovely and introspective light read and if you’re looking for something uplifting, a little different, and kind, this is definitely the book for you. If you’re looking for an unexpected turn, or don’t want your escapism novels to deal with the big evils of the world (there’s one in here, though done well), then, sadly, this may not be the book for you.