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November 14, 2010 / Katie

A Tale of Two Lower East Sides

For what seemed like months, my dad pressed me to read Lush Life, the latest novel from hard-boiled crime writer Richard Price and author of Clockers, telling me every time I called home, “Katie, you’ve got to read it. All the action takes place in your neighborhood: Eldridge Street, Delancey, Orchard, Ludlow. Actually, how safe is it for you to live there?” When I finally dipped into the book myself, I began to wonder the same.

Lush Life,Richard Price’s eighth novel, follows Detective Matty Clark on his investigation of a homicide case: a cocky, middle-class hipster gets shot by two project kids looking to score money for a coke run. The incident takes place at 27 Eldridge, an address I realized I pass by every day. On not a few occasions, while in the midst of reading the book, I found myself walking home alone late at night, eyeing every passerby suspiciously. I would pass No. 27 and imagine the shrine of candles and condolence notes marking the fictional homicide.

Price skillfully evokes the many intersecting ethnic and socioeconomic groups inhabiting the nebulous nowhereland where Chinatown meets Lower East Side. A master of dialogue, he has a singular ability to capture the colors and textures of a neighborhood. He often spends several years living in a place, just “hanging out” and gathering material for his next book. (An interesting side note: a consortium of nine LES art galleries paid homage to the book and the neighborhood by putting on chapter-themed exhibitions throughout the summer.)

I was impressed with the way he portrayed Chinatown: loud, smelly, and un-exoticized. The passage below describes a scene in which Detective Matty brings a Chinese American officer along with him to interview a possible witness.

“Where’s he live?” Fenton Ma asked.

“Twenty-four East Broadway.”

“Fook?”

“I have no idea,” Matty said.

“I don’t speak Fook. You better hope he speaks Mandarin.”

“You’re Mandarin?”

“Mandarin’s the language. I’m Cantonese. From Flushing. But East Broadway’s Fook. Bottom dogs get to live in the bottoms.”

It was a hot night, and beneath the iron shadow of the Manhattan Bridge’s looping overpasses, East Broadway reeked of the iced fish that lined the sidewalks, Fenton Ma getting more and more stressed with each blabbing gaggle of women they passed.

“They’re all speaking that hillbilly shit. I’m telling you, man, I don’t understand a single word.”

The first wave of Chinese immigrants to America were almost exclusively from Toisan, a region in the south of China, and spoke Cantonese. Nowadays a large sector of the Chinese immigrant population comes from Fujian, a province on the eastern coast across from Taiwan. Most Chinese restaurants, in fact, are staffed by Fujianese.

The book is true to life, and my neighborhood is full of “fooks” from Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian. They speak a dialect of Chinese (Fuzhounese) that is completely unintelligible to me since I studied Mandarin and to my roommate who speaks Cantonese. I can’t stand the way it sounds–a guttural roaring like a mashup of Cookie Monster and a gurgling pool of mud. Yes, I am a 普通话 snob. But clearly I’m not the only one.

Lush Life is a dickensian tale that blurs the lines between crime, punishment, and ultimately, justice. It is a kind of love letter to the vitality and collective strivings of this neighborhood. Reading the book will cause you to see the LES/Chinatown with fresh eyes, as if for the first time; I know I have.

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3 Comments

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  1. bradleyf81 / Nov 14 2010 7:08 pm

    Thanks. I’ve heard about the different dialects in China, with Mandarin supposedly being the blanket language, the way Tagalog is for Filipinos. I’ve also heard that depending on what province a person is from in China, they’re either looked at as being higher or lower in social standing. It’s also the same in the Philippines, with Filipinos from provinces nearer the cities being higher in social standing. I also found out that most Singaporean Chinese consider themselves to be quite a few steps above any “mainland Chinese”. It’s amazing the things you learn while living abroad.

    It’s a stark contrast to the US, where if you’re from the south, you might be called redneck, or if you’re from Nebraska you might be called a farm boy, but the vast majority still understand and accept the fact that we’re all on an equal social standing.

    This book sounds really cool, especially since I’m living on the Lower East Side now. I added it to my Amazon Wish List. I’ll pick it up once I’m done with what I’m currently reading.

    • Katie / Nov 14 2010 11:13 pm

      After Mao took over China, Mandarin was declared the official national language. Children, while they may speak a dialect at home, all learn Mandarin in school nowadays. Most of TV is also in Mandarin, but to accommodate older generations subtitles are always run at the bottom of the screen.

      Basically, everyone in China speaks a dialect or at least Mandarin with an accent; Beijingers have a very pronounced accent (they add Rs to everything) despite supposedly speaking standard Mandarin. As a foreigner, my Mandarin is very unaccented, pure in a way (I’m a snob, right?). Everyone in China likes to make fun of everyone else from different regions. I’m not sure if this is necessarily a judgment of social standing. Actually, I always thought it was similar to the U.S. and our general sense of regional differences. I mean, I can’t say I haven’t made a joke about hicks in West Virginia…

      That said, I am just as bad as any Chinese. I hate all accents; I can’t stand the Beijing or the Taiwanese accent. Makes me cringe! And yes, ethnic Chinese in other Asian countries look down on mainland Chinese who they believe have a very specific “mainland” mindset. It’s just a silly rivalry type thing. Anyways, as you can see, I could go on about this forever…

      • Brad Farless / Nov 15 2010 7:02 pm

        “I’m not sure if this is necessarily a judgment of social standing. Actually, I always thought it was similar to the U.S. and our general sense of regional differences.”

        Well, you could be right. My opinion might be tainted by the viciousness of the open dislike Singaporean Chinese regularly showed for mainland Chinese, especially the ones that came to Singapore to work.

        I’ve lived in so many places that I’m almost beyond the point of caring what people’s accents sound like. I used to be really picky, about the ‘correct’ way to say things I mean, but now … I could argue until I’m blue in the face with people about how they’re just doing it wrong and never make a dent. So, what’s the point? I’ll just be happy that I’m speaking English properly.

        By the way, I haven’t had a chance to visit that pork rice place you mentioned a few posts ago. Not yet anyway. Still looking forward to it.

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