Patricia Chao

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 September, 2005, 12:00am

Writers from China's diaspora

When Patricia Chao is asked whether the research for her recently published second novel, Mambo Peligroso (HarperCollins) was difficult, she says: 'Everyone should have to do the three things that were most important to get the book done.' And what where they? 'Go mambo dancing as often as I could; learn Spanish; and go to Cuba.'

The mambo, the sensuous Cuban rhythm, is the unifying passion that brings together the central characters in Chao's vivid depiction of New York's Latin dance scene.

The author, a New Yorker for about 25 years, has been a mambo devotee for a decade, having danced professionally with a salsa troupe.

'I started taking salsa and Latin dance as a hobby, but it went from being a nice, little exotic dance, to practically my life,' says Chao. 'Dancing salsa is a narcotic movement. It's also such a joyful and thrilling experience that, as I was writing Mambo Peligroso, I had an almost missionary zeal. I wanted to convert all my readers to salsa dancing.'

Fans of Chao's first novel, The Monkey King (HarperCollins), the story of a second-generation Chinese-American artist's alienation from her parents and her recovery from a breakdown, may be surprised by the subject and tone of her second book. But Chao says she was ready for a change when she finished The Monkey King. 'Writing a novel is such a long process that I promised myself I'd try a few different things with the next book. By then, I was already doing a lot of Latin dancing, so of course it influenced me.'

Those who assumed that the author must be Chinese because of her name and her first novel's Chinese-American protagonist may be surprised to find that her second novel's chief character is a woman of Japanese-Cuban descent.

Chao's father is Chinese; her mother is Japanese. They met when her father, a foreign correspondent for a Chinese newspaper, was covering the American occupation of Japan. After they married, they moved to the US, bringing up Chao and her brother in Connecticut, where they taught their respective languages at Yale.

Chao grew up with little sense of identification with either the Chinese or Japanese side of her ancestry as she encountered few Asians at the private school in Massachusetts her parents sent her to, or in college at Rhode Island's preppy Brown University. However, her awareness of being half-Chinese 'moved from zero to 100' in 1979, when she landed a job at Radio Beijing as a script editor through her father's connections.

'From the moment I arrived in China, I 'got it',' she says. 'I understood what it meant to be Chinese. What awed me about China is how many Chinese there are, and that even though there are a lot of different kinds of us, we're all part of the tribe. I love that feeling.'

Her Japanese side is more elusive, she says. 'When I was growing up, I was much more interested in Japan than China. And even now, part of me would like to be more Japanese. It appeals to my sense of order, but I suppose I'm 50-50 - a mixture of my parents and the two cultures, whether I like it or not. You can't reshape character.'

As if to illustrate her point in explaining how a novelist's characters often come to take on lives and voices of their own, Chao says that her Cuban-Japanese protagonist originally was intended to be Cuban-Chinese, as Cuba had a large Chinese emigre population. 'No matter how hard I tried to make the mother Chinese, she would act Japanese in every scene. So I finally gave in and let the character do what she wanted to. And as soon as I did that, she came alive.'

But to show just how complicated cultural identity is, Chao says her fantasy is to be Latin. 'I don't feel at home where I live, or where I was brought up, but when I go to Brazil or Cuba, I feel as if I've been in these places all my life,' she says. 'I suppose that in writing Mambo Peligroso, my extreme desire to be Latino showed itself.'

Chao says she isn't the only Asian woman to have an affinity with Latin culture. 'When I started going to the tango and mambo clubs, there were about three of us on the floor,' she says. 'Now half the women will be Asian. They're the majority. So you tell me - are Asian women finally letting their inner Latina out?'