The Difficulties of Love and Independence

May 2012

Kerry Young, Pao: A Novel (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2011); 270 pages; ISBN 978-1608195077 (paper).

Kerry Young’s first novel, Pao, opens in 1945 at the close of World War II, with a romance. The central protagonist is the titular Pao, a Chinese Jamaican who emigrates with his family to Jamaica during the interwar period. The narrative action begins with Pao and his “boys” hanging out in his shop, when in walks Gloria Campbell, a black prostitute and madam, seeking help to avenge her sister who has been savagely beaten by a white American sailor. Pao’s attraction to Gloria is immediate, and despite their differences they embark on a lifelong relationship. The strength of Pao’s feelings for Gloria is not enough to challenge the edicts of his father figure/mentor, “Uncle” Zhang, who is the leader of illegal activity in Chinatown. Pao is forbidden to marry a black woman who does not do “honourable” work and is instructed to find a “proper” Chinese woman who can give him access to respectability and old world patriarchal power. Marriage, Pao is told, “is not for celebrating. It is something you do to give your children a name” (6). Eventually Pao does just that. He finds a woman who embodies what is “proper”—Fay Wong, daughter of Henry Wong, a Chinese supermarket owner, and Cicely Wong, a black Jamaican woman.

As the novel progresses, so too does the love triangle. Pao, against Fay’s wishes, gets Fay’s parents’ consent to marry, yet he maintains a romantic and economic relationship with Gloria. He “protects” Gloria’s house, as well as others’, and along with his other extralegal ventures, such as running US surplus, becomes successful in his own right. He fathers children with both women: With Fay he has two children, the first through consensual sex and the second a product of rape. With Gloria Pao also has a daughter, Esther, whom he does not publically acknowledge or claim until the end of the novel, when she is a grown woman about to be married. The relationship between the Chinese immigrant and Jamaican national politics is metaphorized through the central protagonist’s vexed romantic relationships. The “proper” Fay embodies the promise of respectability that her self-confidence, “light-skin,” and paternal inheritance gives her. She is indifferent to local politics and sees rising post-independence black authority as a threat. Meanwhile Gloria, in addition to being the site of romantic love, the “only person who ever care to listen to [him] talk ‘bout [himself] and what this life mean to [him]” (78), symbolizes an active engagement with domestic national concerns. It is in her home and place of business that Pao hears and participates in conversations about revolution and the benefits and problems inherent in socialism (144).

This novel is also about the romance with independence, the efficacy of rebellion, and political engagement. The China Pao’s family leaves “had become a country that was half feudal and half colonized,” a land that Pao’s father and Uncle Zhang fought to wrest from “foreign control” so that it would provide the “ordinary man” with opportunity to fend for himself and have a “decent life” (49). From Zhang, Pao learns the philosophy of Sun Tzu, which is sprinkled throughout the novel, and the importance of “inheritance.” The Jamaica that greets the family is simultaneously a land of possibility and alienation. Pao inherits both legal and extralegal businesses from Zhang and a new name, but the burden of patriarchal and cultural practices plagues Pao throughout his adult life. Pao and his older brother lose their paternal inheritance when their father is killed by British and French soldiers in China. Pao’s older brother, Xiuquan, refuses to embrace a life in Jamaica and emigrates to America, where he “no longer [has] to feel ashamed of being Chinese” (207). In the racial taxonomies of the United States, Xiuquan occupies a different position, one that explicitly defines itself in opposition to blackness, unlike the Chinatown spaces in Jamaica where Pao and Xiuquan learn from Zhang that Chineseness and blackness are linked explicitly to colonial labor and exploitation. American national history facilitates a different set of racial identifications, one that gives Xiuquan—who becomes Karl—a position of relative privilege (and arguably invisibility).

Post independence, Fay absconds with the children to England, and Pao is left mourning their loss, especially the loss of his daughter Mui. Initially, we read Pao as an observer of the celebration of independence, not an active participant in explicit resistance. He is not a “hero” of the revolution or even of the domestic politics of his own house. The reader cringes when he dismisses his daughter Esther because her skin “didn’t even ease up a couple of shades” and expresses anxiety that her blackness will bring “shame on Fay” (117). He eschews strident politics, the “abstract” nature of Norman Manley’s politics and the “gangsterisms” of Edward Seaga, yet he is not immune to the promise embodied in Michael Manley.

Pao’s connections to Jamaica strengthen as does his relationship to Gloria and his daughters Esther and Mui. He eventually articulates a critique of foreign business interests controlling bauxite and aluminum industries, and compares Jamaicans to the “slave working to make the masa [sic] rich” (196). Pao is a fixer who uses his “proper” and “improper” business connections to right wrongs and fight bullies. He is the one who acts to address neocolonial corruption metaphorized in the form of predation by Americans and the British. He arranges for educational support for a young Jamaican girl and the adoption of her baby after she has been seduced by a much older British officer. He also arranges safe passage and protection for another young girl who has been caught up in a double murder committed by a young white British woman that she had become romantically involved with. After Pao and his friends come to the defense of a local higgler and are called “Chink” and “Nigger,” respectively, by an abusive American, Pao corrects the American with a blow to the throat and declares, “I am not a Chink, and these boys are not Niggers. We are Jamaicans. We are brothers” (33). By the end of the novel, Pao becomes reflective, lamenting a “loss of opportunity,” the need to revolt in the “right way,” and questioning if indeed there is a right way. He expresses fatigue and impatience with Black Nationalist cultural amnesias, those who forget that “the original Jamaican was the Arawak Indian and after the Spanish and British get through murdering all of them we was all imports. Every last one of us” (243).

The novel closes with Pao settling into a life with Gloria and waiting for his daughter Mui to return home from England where she is a barrister. He sees Jamaica’s future in his granddaughter, Sunita (Esther’s child), who is African, Chinese, and Indian. To Pao she is Jamaica: “Out of the many, [she is] the one.” And, more important, this child is not torn between nations. She has her own “identity and dignity” (259), and it is an identity tied to a multicultural Jamaica.

The text is a topography of national memory, and its textures are in the intimate relationships Pao has with his friends and family, thus ultimately emphasizing the “commune” in “commune-ism” (265). The last words of the novel are not Pao’s but are from Zhang, the father figure who gave Pao his inheritance, a life in Jamaica: “Everything is in your own heart” (270).


Tzarina T. Prater is an assistant professor in the English and Media Studies Department of Bentley University and is currently working on her book project, “Cinematic Vernacular in Black Fiction.”


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