This book Pao was left in my shelf for a long time. I vacillate between returning without reading or keeping it. The only reason I read it was because I haven’t read a book set in Jamaica before, moreover about a Chinese man in Jamaica, how unique is that?
Kingston, 1938. Fourteen-year-old Yang Pao steps off the ship from China with his mother and brother, after his father has died fighting for the revolution. They are to live with Zhang, the ‘godfather’ of Chinatown, who mesmerises Pao with stories of glorious Chinese socialism on one hand, and the reality of his protection business in Jamaica on the other.
When Pao takes over the family’s affairs he becomes a powerful man. He sets his sights on progressing in life. But when Gloria Campbell, a local Jamaican prostitute, comes to him for help he is drawn to her beauty and strength. They begin a relationship that continues even after Pao marries Fay Wong, the ‘acceptable’ but headstrong daughter of a wealthy Chinese merchant, Henry Wong.
Soon after Jamaica is independent. As the locals danced to the day of independence, all was hopeful that for once Jamaicans hold their country’s destiny in their own hands.
However it was not meant to be, as the political violence escalates in the 1960s the lines between Pao’s socialist ideals and private ambitions become blurred. Jamaica is transforming, the tides of change are rising, and the one-time boss of Chinatown finds himself cast adrift and force to ride the waves of changes.
I was expecting a book of personal relationship struggle between Pao’s pseudo marriage to Fay and his long term relationship with his mistress, Gloria. Although I was slightly disappointed that this aspect of Pao’s life was not the main plot, I was compensated by the rich historical background of Jamaica and the lives of some colourful characters in the novel. There are Fay’s children Mui and Xiuquan (Karl). Fay’s mother Cecily, brother Kenneth and sister Daphne. Father Michael Knealy who made Jamaica his home. The housemaid Ethly… the bad guys and the good guys, all were given enough airtime and character development and by the time I finish the novel I seem to have known the whole community.
The bridesmaid is two girls Esther know from St Andrew High school….These girls so thin I can’t imagine any man managing to get hold of them. It must be like trying to pick up a glass but even after you completely close yu hand ’round it the glass still slipping through yu grasp. But both these girls already engaged so that just go to show what little I know ’bout it. They seem like they nice enough girls though, and them and Esther look like they close so that is good. – page 217
I was in a reading slump in June, I took ages to finish this book but I find the book captivating as it is told in a sort of rasta colloquial English and there were humour and horror in equal measure. In between the chapters there are Sun Tzu’s text (of The Art of War which many times I tried to read but believed that some of the principles can be contradictory of each other!) reminding Pao what to believe and what action to take in every course of his life. The lighthearted prose of the novel betrays a more sinister and severe undertone as the plot is centred around Pao, who is the enterprising minority that draws the wrath of the locals and Pao needs to protect his turf and seals his connection with the corrupted constables and the underworld.
Similar to the movie review of The Shinjuku Incident I have posted a few days ago, the Chinatown community pays a protection fee to their gang leader to protect them from harm. The similarity between the novel Pao and movie The Shinjuku Incident is uncanny in such that the characters are morally ambiguous and both depicted Chinese immigrants who run in packs and deployed similar tactics of survival. Pao, in this case, is depicted as honourable and dishonourable, rapacious and decent. There were dealings and scenes in the novel that are uncomfortable to read, and if you were to come out telling me Pao is a slimey, deceitful, manipulative son of the b….; I would agree with you.
The Jamaican society seems so multicultural and complex. Races intermarry and religious and beliefs can be mixed. Zhang is an ex-Buddhist and ex-revolutionary who is a Catholic convert.
‘Sunita. Sunita.’ I repeat it to myself. And I look at this tiny little African, Chinese, Indian baby and I think to myself, Sunita, you are Jamaica. Out of the many, you are the one. and you won’t have no need to go back to Africa, or China, or India because this is where you belong, with your own identity and dignity. – page 259
I thought the few final chapters were very heartfelt and symbolic, as a the Jamaica went through a phase, the life of Pao went through similar phase too.
After Seaga get elected in 1980 things get better, but his government couldn’t grow the economy enough for people’s liking so by 1989 Michael Manley was back in power. But him older now, more circumspect, and I think the fire had gone.
Then I start to think that maybe it wasn’t just from Manley that the fire had gone. It was gone outta me as well. And maybe it was a different phase of life. We live through our turbulent youth and come out the other side. And that other side was a place of acceptance. Not a place of contentment, it didn’t feel as happy or as comfortable as that. Maybe it was a place of resignation. We become resigned to how things was, and we just decide to try do out best with that. – page 265
Like how Mr Manley say, Jamaicans had to make an identity, and dignity and destiny for ourselves. But it wasn’t the same for everybody. Like Gloria was always telling me, not everybody had their sights set on building a nation. some people just wanted to put food on the table. – page 269
If all you knew about Jamaica was Usain Bolt, the fastest man on earth. Do read this novel as it gives me a bit more context and historical background about the country, and not to mention few instances of humour and smiles, coated on top of a tragic and sad human stories.
This book did a lot to explain a period of history that I knew little about and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for fiction set in Jamaica.….. Jackie@Farmlane Book Blog,
…an extremely interesting novel, perfect for summer reading. A Reading Odyssey
….the way it is written was very distracting, and eventually weakens the story itself. Jules’ Book Reviews
Paperback. Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2011 Printed Length: 271 pages; Setting: Kingston, Jamaica. Source: Reading Library. Finished reading on: 28 June 2013, Friday.
About the Writer:
Kerry Young was born in Kingston, Jamaica, to a Chinese father and mother of mixed Chinese-African heritage. She came to England at the age of ten in 1965. Kerry’s early life with her father, a businessman who operated within Kingston’s shadow economy, provided the inspiration for Pao.
Kerry has Master’s degrees in organisation development and creative writing, and a PhD in youth work. Kerry has written extensively on issues relating to youth work. Kerry Young is a Buddhist in the tradition of Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh. Her interests include Tai Chi, weight lifting and golf. She also loves jazz and plays alto and tenor saxophone. She lives in Leicestershire.
Pao is shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2011, East Midlands Book Award (2012) and Commonwealth Book Prize 2012
I love Kerry’s author’s notes, here is an excerpt:
Han Suyin once wrote that we Chinese are history-minded. And as the world knows, we Jamaicans are politics-minded. Perhaps it is no surprise, therefore, that this book, my first work of fiction, should turn out to be a political history. Not because every story has a context, but also because context creates the possibilities of what might be, fashioning the circumstances of people’s lives so that they decide to do one thing rather than another, making their story unfold in this way rather than that.
In the end though, in true Taoist style, Pao is a book about Jamaica’s history, and it is not a book about Jamaica’s history. It is a book about Jamaican people and it not a book about Jamaican people. What it is, is a book about the world, and the universe and the ten thousand things. – Kerry Young, June 2010.