by Layne Wong, historical (2013)
She Writes Press, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-938314-18-6
Now, I usually stay away from books where the selling point is a "Oh my god, this is Asian (read: Chinese or Korean) culture made so pretty!" kind of exotification of a culture that I'm pretty familiar with. This is because authors tend to do this in a way that makes me snort or roll up my eyes, just like how I'd react if someone tries to sell me a Big Mac as some kind of exotic cuisine. I know the culture, so I tend to find the creative liberties taken by authors to magnify the exotic aspects of it laughable.
Layne Wong's debut effort, Shanghai Love, however, is somewhat different from the usual crop of "Chinese or Korean woman triumphs over adversity, patriarchy, and evil mommy issues with a war thrown in for added literary credibility" stories out there. It combines Chinese with Jewish cultures, set to a story in the 1930s. I'm intrigued, so here this book goes, into my evil clutches.
Okay, the plot. We have our heroine Peilin, a "herbalist", who is married to a ghost. Okay, the man she was arranged to marry died before the wedding could take place, but wedding plans went ahead anyway, so here she is, a wife to a dead man. Henri Neumann, our doctor hero, flees to Shanghai after the Germans started forcing the Jews in the country into concentration camps, and hangs out with Peilin's brother. He understandably becomes fascinated with Peilin's family business, and the two fall in love, but oh look, here are the Japanese coming to kill everyone...
The whole thing sounds epic, doesn't it? Unfortunately, my short synopsis actually covers slightly more than half of the entire book. You have to be really enamored of pages after pages of information dumping, because that's what the author does here for pretty much the entire book. I find the information dumping on everything Jewish here interesting - I have no issues about exotification, remember? - but the Chinese culture lecture sessions make this book too easy to put down. Perhaps some engaging conversations or even some insight into what the characters are thinking would have broken the monotony of the constant droning of the author's lecture voice, but alas, there isn't any of that here.
More importantly - and damningly - the characters in this story don't feel like people at all. They seem to be walking facilitators of the author's desire to help me pass my social studies exams.
For instance, Peilin often comes off like a parody of the submissive doll that doesn't have negative feelings to mess up her pretty head. When her family was wiped out by the Japanese troops in front of her brother, and her brother wants to take up arms and slays every Japanese soldier he comes across, Peilin can't understand why the man is behaving that way. Then we have Henri who left his family behind in Germany, and who knows what is happening back home. But he spends his time in Shanghai acting like he's a cultural exchange student instead. These two don't behave like realistic human beings in this story, and the author ends up downplaying the brutality of the early stages of Japan's occupation of China with her characters' bizarrely muted reaction to what is happening around them. Peilin is dismayed and perplexed by her brother's aggressive desire to avenge her family's murder - I mean, seriously now!
I guess this book is really for people who find Chinese culture back in those days so exotic and romantic that the very presence of these elements is enough to guarantee a good vicarious trip back to the past in a faraway land. After all, it doesn't have much of what usually makes a good story: no memorable or believable characters, solid pacing, convincing emotions, credible pathos, or even a decent sex scene. I should have just watched a marathon of the 1980 TV series Shanghai Bund instead.
This book at Amazon.com
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