Henry Chang and Joe Tsujimoto come from opposite ends of the isle of Manhattan, but their recent books, “Year of the Dog and “Morningside Heights: New York Stories”, reside on the same artistic/generational aisle of NYC/Asian American awareness. Both came of age in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, and while thirty or forty years may not be a whole lot of time in the greater scheme of things, in most so-called modern cities, even ten years can represent a millennia. As such, these two books are vivid and visceral portraits of two unique and gritty New York neighborhoods, the likes of which you may still routinely encounter in New York’s other four boroughs, but no longer in Manhattan. At least not like this.
“Year of the Dog”, to be released in paperback in November, is the second installment of Chang’s “Chinatown Trilogy” set in 1990s NYC. The latest Detective Jack Yu investigation, as Chang subtitles his novels, raises the bar on its impressive and highly acclaimed predecessor, “Chinatown Beat”, in every way.
Detective Yu has been promoted, slightly uptown, to the East Village/Loisaida precinct. And not unlike Michael Corleone, an unsightly crime pulls him right back into his native Chinatown fray. There, his investigation becomes a meditation of sorts on the interconnectedness of current, future and former generations of Chinatown. Yu’s investigation runs on a parallel collision course with his estranged childhood friend, “dailo” gangster Lucky, and the young bloods he battles, as well as with old school off-track bookie, Sai Go, who trafficks the more congenial gambling dens that cater to senior citizens and restaurant workers.
Chang chisels Yu’s new adventures with an even more hard-boiled sheen, albeit with a contemporary flavor. None of these passages are more heart stopping than his encounters in the nearby projects with black, gang-banging youths. The episodes also bravely shed light onto the mostly unspoken, sad and tragic state of race relations in the greater Chinatown area.
In Year of the Dog, Chang also ratchets up the humor and poignancy level of the characters around Detective Yu. Lucky’s physical and phallic manifestation of the ill-gotten spoils of extortion, prostitution and firearms are laugh out loud. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, the tender scenes between Sai Go and his platonic love, Bo, are particularly moving and give “big face” to the nearly departed Chinatown Bachelor Society generation. That Sai Go’s object of affection is an indentured, illegal, immigrant slave to the snakehead likes of Lucky, show how Yu’s most probing exploration of this unplanned homecoming are into the soul of Chinatown.
In the end, fate has the final word, as it usually does. Yu is intelligent enough to understand and yield to this formidable power. Through Yu’s process, Chang gives us new insights into the plights of people we see everyday and thought we knew.
Morningside Heights: New York Stories is a very readable and likeable collection of short stories that explore approximately a half-century in the life of one Kenji. Much like the author’s own chronology, Kenji starts off as a wayward child and after surviving stints in, but mostly out, of the embattled New York public school system of the 1960s, he enrolls in a tour of duty in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. Luckily he is not stationed on the frontlines. As he says goodbye to his buddies, who are of various races and ethnicities, the dawning of how Kenji looks like America’s enemy in the war, erodes the party and the innocence of those kids, as they stand on that intimidating precipice of adulthood. Throughout the book, Tsujimoto slyly, and seamlessly, interweaves personal and national history in this way.
Following the Air Force, Kenji enrolls in City College, from which both Tsujimoto and Chang are graduates. At CCNY, Kenji sows the personal and professional seeds that will blossom into an award-winning career as an educator in Honolulu. Though the final third of the New York Stories take place on that other island, emotionally, Kenji and the book stay deeply rooted in the upper, upper westside neighborhood of the collection’s title. It is Kenji’s unflinching and endearing uptown street smarts that allow us to feel his wonder and fears, from childhood to child rearing, from first love to first date after a divorce, without becoming too mournful or sullen.
Though Chang works in the crime noir novel genre and Tsujimoto in short stories, timeless, yet surprising truths pervade every page of their works. Tsujimoto‘s protagonist moves halfway around the world to find that the emotional sand between his toes is, in many ways, still the same. Chang’s protagonist never leaves the city of his birth and finds that the concrete under his feet in his childhood ‘hood has changed indelibly. The world is an infinitely fascinating place, especially in the pages of Henry Chang and Joe Tsujimoto.