Review of “Mambo in Chinatown” by Jean Kwok

Charlie (an anglicization of Cha Lan, or beautiful orchid, a name which takes on significance in the story) is 22, and still living at home. She helps her father take care of her 11-year-old sister Lisa; their mother died of a stroke eight years previously. Charlie works as a dishwasher at the same restaurant in New York’s Chinatown in which her father serves as “noodle master.”

Charlie, an “ABC” (American-born Chinese), has always felt unattractive, especially as compared to her late mother, once a star ballerina in Beijing, who was “poised, elegant and beautiful.” Charlie dreams of being more like her Ma in her next life. But her Godmother Yuan tells her that even this life can be different; as she quotes from Lao Tzu: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”

Charlie would love to let go – at least of dishwashing, and she responds to an ad for a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio. To her surprise, she gets the job. She tells her Pa, however, that she got a job doing data entry at a computer company; he is extremely protective and old-fashioned and she fears he would not approve.

Charlie isn’t very good as a receptionist though; she might have some type of dyslexia. But one day when the studio is short a new instructor for beginners, they ask Charlie to fill in for the day. Charlie helps her godmother teach tai chi so it isn’t such a stretch, and to everyone’s surprise, she does a great job. They decide to let her continue in the position, and help her by teaching her all the dance moves. She loves it.

At the dance studio she also picks up more than dance; she comes to learn something about beauty:

“Their attractiveness had more to do with how they moved, how they held themselves, than how they looked. . . I began to see beauty as something that could be unleashed from within a person rather than a set of physical features . . . “

Dancing made Charlie feel “free and strong, beautiful and courageous, capable of anything.” She was astounded to find that “for the first time, I felt as if I might have a chance to actually be good at something. Like Godmother said, nothingness was the beginning of the universe.”

Then Charlie falls for one of her students, Ryan, but he is white, and in any event he has a girlfriend already.

Charlie has troubles at home as well; something bad is happening to Lisa, who is losing her ability to walk. Their father won’t let them seek out Western Medicine to help Lisa, because it would cost too much money. Chinese medicine also has the advantage of emphasizing healing of both the body and soul. Unfortunately, not all of the practitioners of Chinese medicine are authentic. Losing money to charlatans is just as bad as losing money to western doctors.

Eventually, all the characters learn the lesson Ryan (seeming channeling Godmother Yuan) shared with Charlie: “Every change has a hello and a goodbye in it, you know? You always have to leave in order to go on to something new.”

Evaluation: This author is just lovely. She writes stories full of humor, wisdom, and creates strong females determined to overcome adversity. I didn’t think this book was quite as good as her first book, Girl in Translation, but it was enjoyable nevertheless. And like that other book, this one would also make a great movie.

Rating: 3.75/5

Published by Riverhead Books, 2014

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4 Responses to Review of “Mambo in Chinatown” by Jean Kwok

  1. I listened to this and didn’t like it quite as much as you did. I wonder if I would have enjoyed it more in print.

  2. Rachel says:

    Your review reminded me that Girl in Translation is on my TBR list. So many books!

  3. Heather says:

    I really liked this one, too! I agree that her first book was a little better, but I still really loved Charlie.

  4. stacybuckeye says:

    This looks really good. I love the quotes from the book and Lao Tzu. This might be a good fit for where I am right now. And I love the cover 🙂

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