Asian-American Ed Lin lives the Great American Dream

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 August, 2014, 12:46pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 August, 2014, 12:46pm

Ed Lin was born in New York City and raised in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where his parents, immigrants from Taiwan and the mainland, owned small hotels. A financial journalist who has been described as the voice of a new generation of Chinese-Americans, Lin is the author of five novels, including a crime series set in New York's Chinatown. His 2002 debut novel, Waylaid , based on his childhood, was adapted into a film, The Motel (2006). Lin's latest novel, Ghost Month , is a murder mystery about a young night-market foodstall owner in Taipei who tries to find out who killed his high school girlfriend. As in the crime novels of one of his literary mentors, Raymond Chandler, Lin's prose is frequently image-laden. Ghost Month is also an excellent introduction to Taipei's food culture - readers are likely to head to the nearest noodle shop after they're finished the book. Lin spoke to Ajay Singh about his writing life and what it was like growing up in the United States.

What was it like to be the child of Chinese immigrants who ran a small hotel in New Jersey?

It's a very Asian-American experience that your parents probably own a business and as a child you're one of the primary workers there. There's something special about the Jersey shore where I grew up. It has an accelerated environment and awareness in terms of sexuality and blue-collar working life. In the summer, all these people come in from New York City and kind of invade your town. And your town is not really in love with these people, but they need them for the tourist revenue.

What was Pennsylvania like?

We lived in this really small town that had an active Ku Klux Klan chapter. I was one of three Asians in the high school. One of them was from a family of refugees from Vietnam. And there was this other guy who told me he learned English from watching Starsky & Hutch [a 1970s TV series about two cops]. It's funny that people who learn English from TV shows … also pick up the body language. This guy behaved like a Starsky & Hutch extra. I got the sense I wasn't really welcome in this new community we'd moved into. I remember walking through the hallways and people muttering "Vietcong" behind my back. But I feel all that sharpened my narrative voice as a writer.

What's the backdrop to your crime series in which the main character is Chinese-American cop Robert Chow?

Those novels are set in New York's Chinatown in 1976, which was a pivotal year because the two sides that fought the Chinese civil war were dying off. Historically, it was the Nationalists who had hegemony over Chinese communities all over the world. But in 1976 the balance changed in favour of Beijing.

Do you support the idea of a single Chinese nation?

While doing research for Ghost Month, I felt only a minority in Taiwan supported either unification with China or full independence. Most people preferred the status quo. But for everybody, the status quo means something else - and my book is trying to sort out what this grey area means. I [feel] Taiwan should be independent - that it has a free press and free protests in the streets. In the past year, the major protests in Taipei have been about not being so close economically to China, about being against nuclear power. There's a young generation there that also recently took over the Congress in Taipei. It's sort of free from pulling the burden of history and is finding its voice as Taiwanese.

How did you make the leap from journalism to writing novels?

I've wanted to write from the time I first learned how to write. When I was in college, I told one of my literature professors: "I've got it - I'm going to be a journalist by day and then I can write the Great American Novel at night." And he just shook his head and said, "You're trying to do this thing that so many people have tried to do - and they can't do it." That only added more fuel to my determination.

Why have you chosen the mystery novel as a vehicle to tell stories?

Crime stories have this epic, metaphorical struggle between good and evil. Yet there's no clear-cut "good guy" and "bad guy" - it's all mashed in together. In some ways I try to explain the world to myself through crime books - after all, we all wrestle with what's good and bad in life itself. I also relate really well to the pulp writers of the Depression era. There was an incredible diversity to their stories. And they ranged from existential westerns to zany comedies - The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett, for example, was one of the funniest works, besides being a mystery novel.

is your first international novel. Why did it take you so long to get out of America in your writing?

I'm still growing as a writer. Going to Taiwan seemed a natural extension of what was next. My first novel was based on my experience working in my parents' hotel. And the next three books were about Chinatown. And this is the Asian century - there are so many interesting things happening in Asia.