Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

China Boy

Posted by nliakos on November 2, 2008

by Gus Lee. Plume, 1991.

China Boy is the story of little Kai Ting, only son in a Chinese immigrant family in San Francisco in the mid-twentieth century.  The book is set during Kai’s eighth year of life.  His beloved mother has died and his father has married a cruel, abusive American woman whose apparent goal is to erase every vestige of Chinese language and culture from the home while breaking the spirits of the two children who are still living there (Kai and his older sister Janie).  (The reader has to wonder how the father could stand by and watch his wife abuse his children to such an extent.)

Kai, an undersized, weak child who inexplicably never masters either Chinese or English, is the punching bag of the other boys (and one girl) who populate the extremely rough neighborhood of the Panhandle, where the family lives.  The book tells the story of how a series of kind adults, mostly staff of the Y.M.C.A. where his father finally signs him up for boxing lessons, support and teach Kai how to stand up and fight for himself.

Many of the characters (such as Hector Pueblo, the Mexican mechanic who rescues Kai from a savage beating on the street; Mr. Barraza, the boxing coach; Mr. Punsalong, the multiracial boxer with a background of martial arts; Angie Costello, who takes it upon herself to fatten Kai up; and Mr. Lewis, the one in charge of the Y boxing program; Toussaint LaRue [Toos] and his mother; and the other friends that Kai makes in the neighborhood and at the Y) are skillfully developed into people we can imagine and would like to meet.  Unfortunately, Lee writes their speech so that someone learning English would never understand: e.g., “He’s muy rapido, you know, bery quick. Black boy get in his face and firs’ t’ree punches, firs’ kick, yo’ boy go lik’ dis and lik’ dat, so touch.” (p. 123)  or “China Boy, you’se jus a stupid fool ofa chink.  You’se standin here in my schoo’ yard, like ratfacedogshit. I’se gonna teach ya’ll some Fist City, China Boy….Gimme yo’ face…” (p. 183)  Since there is a lot of dialogue, an English language learner would have to really struggle to comprehend; and this is not a good model for speech, needless to say!

There is a lot of graphic violence and at least one truly evil character (the wicked stepmother).  It’s a good story, though–one though it  has been told many times before (e.g., The Karate Kid), never fails to entertain and inspire.

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