Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works—miserably—as a dishwasher.
But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Gradually, at the dance studio, awkward Charlie’s natural talents begin to emerge. With them, her perspective, expectations, and sense of self are transformed—something she must take great pains to hide from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds—Eastern and Western, old world and new—to rescue her little sister without sacrificing her newfound confidence and identity.
“A riveting story . . . [one of] the season’s hottest page-turners.”—Real Simple
“Western convention clashes with traditional Eastern culture when a young, impoverished Chinese-American woman dips her toe into the glittering world of professional ballroom dancing—and finds love.”—Woman’s Day
“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.”—Booklist
“Charlie’s Cinderella story, not to mention Charlie herself, is charming.”—Kirkus
I’m so happy you’ve come to my new book, Mambo in Chinatown. It’s a story that I’ve wanted to tell for a long time.
Like many working class people, I did not have the opportunity to take lessons for extracurricular activities as a child. It was in college that I discovered I loved to dance. Then, post graduation, looking for a day job, I stumbled across a newspaper ad that read, “Wanted: Professional Ballroom Dancer, Will Train.” Terrified and unprepared, I went to the dance studio in an oversized red dress, black pumps I had covered with permanent marker to disguise their bald patches, and a long red scarf wrapped around my head. Somehow, despite all this, they invited me back for the audition, and then for the three-week training class. Ultimately, they hired me and taught me how to dance. I worked as a professional ballroom dancer for Fred Astaire Studios in New York City for three years. I trained, did shows and competitions, and taught students how to waltz, swing and mambo. For a young immigrant woman who had never fit in, who had never felt graceful, it was a great personal transformation. I wanted to give that transforming experience to the heroine of my new book.
Many of the people I know from my childhood working in Chinatown didn’t go to college. They’re still there, washing dishes, sorting garments, supporting their families. I have enormous respect for them. We’re all familiar with the stereotype of the high-achieving Asian student – and indeed, my first novel was about a Chinese immigrant who is saved from the sweatshops by her success in school — but that’s not actually the reality for many. The less known Chinatown story is one in which formal education stops in adolescence, and the path out of poverty is much less available or direct. For Charlie Wong, the Chinatown noodle-shop dishwasher of my new book, academics are not where her talents lie, but her ambitions for the future are no less important for being less obvious or common. What if her passion is not math and science, but something unconventional – and untraditionally Chinese – like ballroom dance? Could her dreams of working as a dance studio receptionist expose her to a world she would not otherwise have seen?
Finding one’s place in the world, moving into adulthood, is never easy for anyone, and for an American-born Chinese girl braced against a very traditional Asian family, that road would be especially bumpy. Charlie Wong’s story shows how one’s personal choices have ramifications beyond oneself, how we exist within a wider community of friends and family who all have their own expectations. She might find herself in the world of ballroom dance, but that freedom is not won easily.
I hope you love reading it!