Books

Impressions of “Beijinger in New York” by Glen Cao


(If video does not load, Click Here for Episode 1 of the miniseries).

If you’ve read the book or newspaper serialization, or listened to the radio play or watched the TV miniseries, you know some variation of this paragraph

If you love him
Send him to New York
‘Cause that’s where Heaven is.
If you hate him
Send him to New York,
‘Cause that’s where Hell is.

Beijinger In New York (translated as A Native of Beijing in New York in the miniseries) is the story of Wang Qiming, a Beijinger who arrives in New York on a “family visit visa” in 1980 and begins working as a dishwasher the next day. There are two parts of this book, which are dramatically different in tone and purpose. The first, comprised of the first ten chapters, focuses on the establishment of Wang in New York and the founding by him of a small business. As author Guilin “Glen” Cao moved to the United States in 1980, and rapidly founded the C & J Knitwear Company, it is reasonable to assume this half of the book is a veiled autobiography. The second half of the book is a tragedy, best described as a cross between The Good Earth and There Will be Blood.

While the tragic story of Wang Qiming, this Daniel Plainview with a cello, affects the mood of the story, I read it because of its presentation of Chinese views of America during the early part of Deng Xiaoping’s economic revolution. Not only had immigration from mainland China to the United States effectively ceased in 1949, the Cultural Revolution left a shadow that influences how events are interpreted. For example, Wang’s wife interprets a cause of business success as resulting from following Mao’s advice that cadre’s should be assimilated into the masses. Further, many activities are interpreted according to Chinese customs. Bankruptcy (being allowed to not pay one’s debts) is portrayed in the same libertine terms as a drug party, while a child no longer being a dependent on income taxes is viewed with the same horror as if a Neighborhood Committee had suddenly stricken a child from a family’s record.

As a final thought, it is interesting that with one exception (a black who steals the bags of the hero and his wife on their arrival in New York City), every villain is an American Chinese. Some of this is doubtless that the American Chinese population is of more interest to Chinese readers than the general American population, and likewise that Glen Cao doubtless interacted with American Chinese quite a bit during his time here. Still, the dismay at perceived greed and materialism that this novel seems to reflect is interesting.

The book was a quick read. I started it yesterday afternoon and finished it today. Further, it complemented the television series, which replaces much of the drama and tragedy of the books latter half with a more realistic unfolding of events. Beijinger in New York is published by China Books, and available for sale from Amazon.

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