Books I Read: All Chinese don’t look alike

The cover of Grace Chia’s The Arches of Gerrard Street says it before we get to the words. This is the ultimate face-changing performance. A darned good read of a mystery. A thought provoking social commentary.

As we go through the arches into London’s Chinatown we enter a whodunit told from points of view of an array of characters, each portrayed by face-change master Chia with consummate skill. Each with his or her own distinctive voice and story. Each putting paid to the notion that all Chinese look alike.

As each of the character’s masks are discarded, we are led through the alleys of London’s Chinatown back to first causes. Why Molly, the introverted Malaysian Chinese girl from small town Batu Pahat, is compelled to come to London to investigate the killing of her first love, an entitled young man who abandoned her years ago. How Ee-Ling, a no nonsense dollars and sense dimsum waitress from Hong Kong becomes privy to the killer’s identity. Why Mandy, the beautiful enigmatic mistress of a Chinatown big brother, won’t go to the police with her part of the story.

The novel too changes faces. This is not a mere mystery. It’s also a stinging commentary of the inequity of power structures between men and women, developed and undeveloped countries, illegal migrants and citizens. The character’s voices, sometimes bold and brash, sometimes poignantly hopeful, sometimes quietly resigned, do not just define the characters but also serves to highlight the power imbalances. There is the sexual aggressivity of the male gaze in the descriptions of Molly, Ee-Ling and Mandy when told from the viewpoint of the male characters Donald, Ah Sam and Jin Ge. There are the bewildered perceptions of the outsiders Molly and Mandy as they try to make sense of everything. There is the kind but unconsciously exoticizing interpreter and white saviour Iain.

Read the novel as a mystery once to find out why entitled Donald died. Let the senselessness of it sink in. Read it again to see beyond the ching-chong dim interiors and and gangster story into the world the migrants really inhabit. Then, be angry.

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