16 April 2011

Book Review in Brief: Pao by Kerry Young

The eponymous Pao is only a small boy when he and his family emigrate from China to Jamaica in the wake of the Chinese Civil War and just prior to the outbreak of World War II.  After settling into the Chinatown area of Kingston, Pao grows up in its shadowy underworld and eventually becomes the civic-minded leader of its organized crime, doing business and protecting the Chinese minority in the city.  Using Sun Tzu's The Art of War as his conscience and guide, Pao's influence waxes and wanes against the backdrop of Jamaican politics, ranging from post-Colonial rule to Rastafarianism, from the Back-to-Africa movement to socialism.  

I've long been a reader of books of Caribbeana, particularly the fiction of the region, but this book gave me a wholly fresh perspective amidst the black African diaspora, white colonialism, and Indian subcultures that I've read before.  Race and class necessarily play a large role in this book, and while I wouldn't venture to say that Pao is a feminist, his dealings with women are largely well-balanced and even occasionally progressive for a man who is a product of his time and culture. 

To wit: Although Pao moves to Jamaica in 1938, the book opens in media res in 1945 when Pao  is beginning to earn his reputation as the go-to guy in Chinatown.  A  black Jamaican woman named Gloria comes to Pao to demand the justice that the law won't give her when a white sailor beats her sister almost to death.  Pao's brother urges him to drop the matter because the sister is a whore and, thus, should expect to get beaten up a bit from time to time, and further, that "white men been beating Jamaican women for three hundred years."  After much consideration, Pao's replies, "That is true, but this is the first time anybody come ask us to do something 'bout it." Thus marks the real beginning of Pao's unofficial career. 

While I didn't always like Pao, he is one of the most fascinating characters I've encountered in a long time, and seeing his trajectory from young boy to old man made for a satisfying read.  I'd recommend this book for readers interested in social stratification (class, gender, race), interesting character studies, or Jamaican politics. 

NB: I requested an ARC of this book from my MPS sales rep, Jen.  The book will be published  in the US by Bloomsbury as a paperback original in July of this year, but it is already available in the UK.  


  1. This sounds fascinating, and totally different from anything else I've read. I'll keep and eye out for it. I'm also quite interested in books set in the Caribbean.

  2. A Chinese kid facing tough realities in Jamaica? That soudns incredibly interesting, not like anything I've tackled this year. I may give it a look.

  3. I'm always on the lookout for books that tackle a subject but from a different/interesting angle. This one definitely fits. It sounds like the author did a good job making Pao a complex character and not just a stereotypical "leader," especially when it comes to women.

  4. I'm going to add this to the tbr pile. It is of subjects I would love to read more about. And a Chinese man in Jamaica? That's got to pack a lot of cultural punch.
    I'm particulraly intrigued that the protagonist uses 'The Art of War as his conscience and guide'.

    And thanks, I learnt a new term today - in media res

  5. I've added this to my TBR list. Sounds great. I read a nonfiction book a few years back you might enjoy. It's about the connections between African and Asian cultures, and includes a chapter discussing the influence of Indian immigrants in Jamaica on rastafarianism. It's called (I love this title) Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting.

  6. Hi, I just wanted to let you know about a video of Kerry Young talking about Pao. It's a really interesting insight into the mind of the author and why she wrote the book:
    Hope you like it.

  7. Thanks for letting me know about the video!


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