December 12, 2008
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.
Year of the Dog, Henry Chang's second book in his Chinatown trilogy, is as much about Chinese immigrant culture as it is about crime. Fascinating and enlightening, I can see why Chang's work has been compared to both Dashiell Hammett's and the television series, The Wire.
The Chicago Sun-Times wrote of the book:
Chang's canvas is broader than a story of cops and cons. He evokes the intricate social structure of Chinese-American life in both vibrant colors and dusky hues. Like George Pelecanos, he takes his story to the streets and writes with the knowledge and insight of one who's been there.
I do most of my writing on the move. It’s a throwback pseudo combat journalistic approach to writing that goes back to when I first found my ‘voice’, emerging from the gambling joints, the bars and hangouts, into the Chinatown pre-dawn, in one altered state or another, looking for any scrap of paper or coffee shop table napkin to jot down my impressions before they faded from the splintered memory, deleted by the time the Chinatown afternoon light brought us back to consciousness.
Then I type the scrap impressions into the computer before too much longhand piles up. (Every twenty pages or so seems manageable)
By writing in transit, fully immersed in the culture, the sounds of whichever environment I’m in become part of the setting. Sometimes it’s different dialects, or traffic noise or street music that sets the mood on paper.
Whenever I do listen to music during the creative process, it’s always in the background, establishing or reinforcing the mood of the particular chapter, character or scene. ( I tend to stay off the radio because of the commercials) Generally, I don’t play music with lyrics because they usually have a specific tale to tell, revolving around love, love lost, regret, anger, hurt, etc.. I feel that I have my own story to tell, and the music plays a supporting role.
To that extent, I favor the sound of the saxophone for it’s appropriately noir melancholy and longing, it’s primal wail of anguish, its foreboding violence.
Sax players like Gato Barbieri, Candy Dulfur, and Stanley Turrentine are notable choices.
Besides the sax culture, Asian musicians and groups I like for writing are Hiroshima, singer songwriter Kevin So, and the Twelve Girls Band from Shanghai, who play contemporary pieces on modernized traditional Chinese instruments like the er hu , pei pa, and bamboo flute.
Gato Barbieri - Caliente album
For my tormented main character, the anti-hero Chinese-American cop Jack Yu, I thought Gato’s ‘Europa’ was perfect for depicting the brooding and lonely life of NYPD detective Yu, who’s struggling through the untimely death of his father, while embroiled in Chinatown crime.
(From Chinatown Beat)
Jack nosed the fury into Evergreen Hills cemetery, parked it behind a line of mausoleums, and went to the plot in the Chinese section.
The empty cemetery looked pastoral as a brief patch of sun spread over the clipped grass, throwing long shadows across the rows of tombstones. It was cooler now as Jack kicked away the twigs of the dying season, gravesweeping beneath his father’s tombstone. He planted a bouquet of flowers, produced his flask and toasted mao-tai to Father and earth. Sorry, Pa, he thought.
He lit sticks of incense, took another slug from the flask, then poured out a small stream making a wet circle in the dirt. When his thoughts tumbled into speech, sorry was all he could say, not for anything in particular, but for the general torment of unfulfilled dreams.
“Sorry,” he repeated, bowed three times, planted the incense, and touched his fingers to the graceful cuts in the gray stone.
Sorry you never struck it rich.
Sorry I never struck it rich.
He moved the tin bucket over and torched various packages of death money for gambling in the house of the dead.
Sorry no big house in the South of China.
Sorry no farm with fish, and rice paddies.
Sorry no bones to return to Kwangtung province.
He fed the shopping bag of gold-colored paper taels into the fiery heap in the bucket. He stirred the flames with a branch, produced three packs of firecrackers.
Sorry we never had a car.
Sorry I didn’t become a doctor or lawyer.
He tossed the fireworks into the flames, stepped back as the staccato explosions rocked the silent cemetery.
Sorry about moving out on you.
He tilted the flask and took another long hard hit. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
It’s easy to nominate the entire ‘Caliente’ album, because it definitely pushed me through my typing.
Candy Dulfur - Saxuality album
He is as much victim as he is perpetrator, having turned to crime as a way to avenge the violence he’s faced from other criminals on Chinatown’s mean streets. His life is dark, malevolent, brutal.
Candy Dulfur’s ‘Lily Was Here’ sets the mood perfectly as Lucky, accompanied by his henchmen, makes his nightly rounds through the Chinatown underworld. Dulfur’s saxophone, and the accompanying guitar work, is full of threat, menace, anger and anguish.
(From Year of the Dog)
Outside the window the streets of the Bowery were empty, no one out beneath the dim yellow street lamps.
Two car-horn blasts from directly below broke his reverie. A black car pulled smoothly up to the curb, its white headlights momentarily lighting up the front of the Rickshaw Brother’s garage. He pictured Lefty behind the wheel, all spiky haircut and gel, with Kongo, the big dark Malay, riding shotgun by his side. The headlights went to black and the Buick, sat like a water bug squatting beside the curb.
Lucky crushed the burnt marijuana roach into a glass dish. He lifted the leather blazer off the recliner, and felt its heft as he slipped it on. Normally, he would not carry the Smith & Wesson, but tonight, going out to the Chinatown fringe at East Broadway, he followed his instincts, and assured himself he was not being paranoid. Better strapped than sorry. He turned off the lights and the TV and closed the red door of this condo, took the stairs down, and felt the weight of the pistol in his jacket pocket. Thinking about Fukienese East Broadway, and about how easily power could shift, he went down toward the dark Chinatown street, and the black Buick at the curb.
Stanley Turrentine - Pieces of Dreams album
Again, it’s easy to pick the entire album because I often let the CD play through so I don’t have to break my flow to change the disc. I thought the title cut ‘Pieces of Dreams’ was dead-on for my character Johnny ‘Wong jai’ Wong, a Chinatown radio car driver whose life is just cruising along until he gets involved with the wrong woman.
Johnny, like the rest of the night time limo drivers, has all these immigrant Chinese dreams of succeeding in various businesses and money-making schemes. In truth, they’re all dreamers, ever drifting, thinking somehow they’ve got a way to succeed where many others have failed. They really only have pieces of dreams, never enough of the whole puzzle, to see the big American picture.
Turrentine’s classic sax work frames Johnny in his black Lincoln, cruising to airports, night clubs, the race track, hideaways of the underworld. It’s a jazzy ride until he encounters a femme fatale.
(From Chinatown Beat)
But Johnny looked beyond jockeying the radio car. He believed he was going to make his money and get out, sell the car, invest his cash in other directions. Find a partner, someone with money and connections. A takeout counter in Brooklyn, go in with the Lucky Valley’s third chef. The thirty-minute photo shop idea. The hardware store, the coin laundromat, the produce market. The fish market with the Chow brothers. A bakery franchise. Dreams bantered back and forth among the drivers waiting for calls from the night, in their dark cars.
Hiroshima - Best of Hiroshima album
One of the recurring characters, lawyer Alexandra Lee-Chow, the fiery Chinatown activist, is the modern woman warrior. She’s going through a bitter yuppie divorce that’s driven her to drink, but doesn’t let it slow her down for a Chinatown heartbeat.
‘San Say’ , a take on teacher, and the first cut on Hiroshima’s ‘Best of..’ album, fits Alexandra as well as her sharp designer suits. The band’s contemporary Asian martial mixing of taiko drums, the plucky shamisen and koto rhythms, all embody Alexandra’s driven spirit.
(From Chinatown Beat)
The AJA, pronounced Asia, was an activist organization that got its juice from young Asian lawyers doing pro bono time, financed by private donations and matching government grants.
They were operating out of a converted storefront down on Chrystie Slip, where the streets left Chinatown and entered Noho.
Jack drifted past the junkie parks and the auto-repair garages until he came to what was once a bodega, under a yellow sign that read ASIAN AMERICAN JUSTICE ADVOCACY.
When he entered he saw her.
Alexandra Lee-Chow. She was thirtysomething, dressed down-town and wore a diamond band on her wedding finger.
The receptionist stalled him at the front desk, and watching Alexandra now, across the room, Jack began to think how uneasy women with hyphenated names made him feel. Ambitious women. The ones who wanted the fab careers, the motherhood, the perfect marriage, strung tight and fully charged.
Lee-Chow. Taking her husband’s name but refusing to give up her own, trying to impose the past upon the future. Or maybe it was a gender power thing that came with the white collar.
Hiroshima is made up of third generation Japanese Americans from Los Angeles. Their sound is uniquely East-West and cross cultural, exactly the beat that Alexandra marches to.
Twelve Girls Band from Shanghai - Live From Shanghai album
“All the men in her life had purchased her time, bought her body, played with her mind. She learned quickly the interplay between sex and money. Men. No sex, no job. No money…”
When I heard ‘Fragile’ by the all-girls band, I thought of Mona immediately. The sad haunting sounds of traditional Chinese instruments in ‘Fragile’ wrap around Mona like a worn cheongsaam; she’s beaten down but still full of heart, courage, defiance. Even a delicate flower dares to survive in a thunderstorm. You feel Mona will rise again, like a phoenix.
Kevin So - Leaving the Lights On album
In both books, detective Jack’s streetwise Chinatown friend Billy Bow is a cynical divorcee, caught up in his family’s tofu business. Billy is a Chinatown denizen who frequents the local hangouts and exemplifies the type who finds comfort in the culture of the neighborhood instead of the isolation of the suburbs. (Perhaps that’s why his marriage was doomed)
Chinese-American performer Kevin So’s cut ‘Streets of Chinatown’ is pitch perfect for Billy’s lament:
First you say that I smoke too much
then you bitch that I’m out too late
Then you claim that I’m out of touch
with the kids and I can never finish my plate
then you wonder why I’m in a rush
to leave the house well I’ll give it to you straight
six days on, I get one day off
to gamble with my boyz and hang by the gate
you can’t keep me away from chinatown
it’s the only place I understand
I can’t describe to you just how it feels
a break from the pressure and the fast food world
mah jong all night, have a nice meal
ain’t no drugs and there ain’t no girls
but you want me at home? Is that the deal?
Slippers on my feet, my hair all permed?
no dominos, no spinning the wheel? Just you and me in a white suburb?
You can’t keep me away from chinatown
it’s the only place I understand
you can’t keep me from going to chinatown
it’s a big part of your ole man
you can’t stop me I’ll find my way around
I’ll make it there if I’ll be damned
you can take the man out of chinatown
but you can’t take chinatown out of the man
like a seed that’s sewn deep underground
like a weed that’s being pulled by your hand
I know that I smoke too much, I know that I’m out real late
I know that I’ve been outta touch, I know that our life ain’t great
I know that’s it’s worrying you, I know that it’s making you blue
but that’s how it is. That’s what I do
I might live here but I live there, too.
Twelve Girls Band - Live From Shanghai album
In my stories, Chinatown itself is a character, with its’ seasonal life cycle,it’s traditions, its’ multi-cultures, its’ people struggling to find and survive the American Dream. Among these people are characters from Year of the Dog like Ah Por, Bo, and Sai Go; seemingly ordinary Chinatown people whose lives are anything but ordinary.
From the Twelve Girls album there’s a cut titled ‘Forbidden City’ which, once again, features the Chinese instruments, and renders the Chinatown setting exquisitely; the images are exotic, vibrant, and courageous, a symphonic sound full of immigrant triumph and tragedy.
Their music, modern yet rooted in classical ground, fits the experience of immigrants whose half-life is neither here nor there, not American, not Chinese; the wah kue sojourners suspended on a timeless bridge.
Smooth Jazz Series
Finally, when I need to segue from all the above, there’s plenty of saxophone virtuosity from the ‘sax series’ ( Sax at Midnight, Saxuality) and artists like Walter Beasley, Kim Waters, Marion Meadows, Nelson Rangell, and even Fattburger.
Good listening. And good writing.
Henry Chang and Year of the Dog links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)
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