Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok

In Mambo in Chinatown, Jean Kwok writes about topics and situations that she knows well. Kwok was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to Brooklyn as a young girl. She graduated from Harvard and attended the Columbia MFA program. She also worked as a professional ballroom dancer.

Mambo in Chinatown is set in Manhattan's Chinatown and in a world outside Chinatown in a ballroom dance studio uptown in New York. Twenty-two year old Charlie Wong is the main character, an elder sister who lives with her father and her 11 year old sister, Lisa. Lisa is seen by the family as the pretty and talented sister. Charlie struggled in school and works as a dishwasher in the restaurant where their widowed father is a talented noodle cook. The family lives in a tiny apartment and life is not easy for them. Pa's elder brother, Uncle  helps them financially and in return, Lisa works in the office where Uncle practices Eastern medicine.

Gradually, changes develop for the family. Charlie takes a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio. She becomes friends with some of the professional dancers and finds she has a talent for dance, similar to that of her mother who was a ballerina in Hong Kong. Lisa has an opportunity to test for the prestigious Hunter High School. But Lisa also develops a chronic illness. Pa dislikes any change and fears Western medicine and life outside Chinatown, so the family, full of love, is also full of secrets, as the characters struggle to find balance in their lives.

Mambo in Chinatown is well written and full of interesting characters. Details of the life of immigrants in Chinatown, their customs, practices, and foods are contrasted with details of the world of ballroom dance and dancers. Eastern medicine and witchcraft are contrasted with the world of Western medicine. Romance, love, and caring set the tone for this descriptive and sensitive book. 

Kwok's first novel, Girl in Translation, is another story of an immigrant family, a young girl and her mother moving from Hong Kong to New York's Chinatown, and struggling in poverty and through hard work and education to find a better life. I recommend reading Girl in Translation too.

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