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July 21, 2014

Book Notes - Jean Kwok "Mambo in Chinatown"

Mambo in Chinatown

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Jean Kwok's second novel Mambo in Chinatown is an engrossing cross-cultural coming-of-age tale.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"In her winning second novel (after Girl in Translation, 2010), Kwok infuses her heartwarming story with both the sensuality of dance and the optimism of a young woman coming into her own."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In her own words, here is Jean Kwok's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Mambo in Chinatown:


Tracy Chapman, "Fast Car" and "Mountains O' Things"

I've always been a big Tracy Chapman fan, partly because she sings about the burdens of being working class with desperation and tenderness. My heroine Charlie is washing dishes in a noodle restaurant when we first meet her, and she dreams of being someone else, of having a better life. I hear Tracy Chapman's desire to escape in "Fast Car":

You got a fast car

I got a plan to get us out of here

I been working at the convenience store

Managed to save just a little bit of money
…
You and I can both get jobs

And finally see what it means to be living

And I also think of her lyrics from "Mountains O' Things":

The life I've always wanted

I guess I'll never have

I'll be working for somebody else
Until I'm in my grave

I'll be dreaming of a live of ease
And mountains, oh mountains o' things

Beyoncé, "If I Were a Boy"

I really love Beyoncé's wistful daydreaming about being a boy here, and both Charlie and I would have had an easier time if we'd been born male. Like Charlie, I was an anomaly in my traditional Chinese family: a girl bad at cooking and cleaning, clumsy and not feminine enough.


Ricky Martin, "Livin' La Vida Loca"

This Ricky Martin mambo always reminds me of the years I spent working as a professional ballroom dancer, both because I danced to many Ricky Martin songs in that time period and because this number is so passionate and wild. Indeed when Charlie lands a job at a ballroom dance studio, she finds herself suddenly living la vida loca, a crazy life.

Verdi, La Traviata, Giorgio Germont and Violetta duet

I find this to be such a moving duet, especially when sung by Angela Gheorghiu. Germont is the father of Violetta's lover, Alfredo, and Germant persuades Violetta to give Alfredo up because she is a courtesan and would destroy their family's reputation. It's an extraordinarily beautiful piece of music as the father reminds Violetta of her duty even though she is passionately in love with Alfredo. That struggle between duty and love is one that my heroine Charlie must wrestle with throughout my novel as she finds herself living in two worlds, that of working class Chinatown and the glamorous one of ballroom dance.

Billie Holiday, "God Bless the Child"

One thing that Charlie could never turn her back on is her love for her little sister, Lisa. That devotion in the midst of hard times is beautifully sung by Billie Holiday:


Yes, the strong gets more

While the weak ones fade

Empty pockets don't ever make the grade

Mama may have, Papa may have

But God bless the child that's got his own

That's got his own


Thelonious Monk, Round Midnight

As Charlie becomes a strong and graceful dancer, Lisa's health fails and Charlie becomes desperate to get Lisa a Western diagnosis despite their father's insistence on treating Lisa only with Eastern medicine. In the night scenes, when Charlie walks the streets of Chinatown in despair, I hear Ella Fitzgerald singing Thelonious Monk's Round Midnight, with Oscar Peterson on the piano:

Suppertime I'm feelin' sad;

But it really gets bad,

'round midnight.

Memories always start round midnight.

Tito Puente, "Take the A Train"

Meanwhile, Charlie is exploring new worlds both emotionally and physically, and she goes on a date to dance mambo in Spanish Harlem with her dance student Ryan. Of course, I think of Tito Puente as they take the subway uptown.

Miles Davis, "Baby, Won't You Make Up Your Mind"

But even when Ryan and Charlie begin to fall in love, Charlie can't forget that Ryan already has a girlfriend. As Ann Baxter sings together in a band with the great Miles Davis and Art Blakey:

I'm tired of playing this game

I've suffered just enough pain

Baby, won't you make up your mind

Aretha Franklin, "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman"

By the end of the book, Charlie has found herself, as a dancer, a sister, a daughter and a woman. She feels understood and complete, as Arethra Franklin sings:

When my soul was in the lost and found

You came along, to claim it

I didn't know just what was wrong with me

'Til your kiss helped me name it


Jean Kwok and Mambo in Chinatown links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

BookPage review
Bookreporter review

ArtsATL interview with the author
Banana Writers interview with the author
Bustle interview with the author
Weekend Edition interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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