Sunday, January 26, 2014

Henry (Chang), Hammett, and history

The happiest bit of news I received from the Soho Press contingent in Philadelphia for the American Library Association's 2014 Midwinter Meeting is that of a forthcoming novel from Henry Chang, more than three years after his previous book. Back in 2008, I wrote that Chang's novel Year of the Dog
"not only introduces us to Chinatown's newer Fukienese arrivals, with their wide ideological separation from the neighborhood's longer-established residents, but he portrays dangerous criminal rivalries among these relative newcomers."
That, in turn, led me to some reflections on an affinity between Chang and Dashiell Hammett:
=================
I've cited Henry Chang's crime novels for their portrayals of a New York Chinatown more complex than non-residents might think. Longtime residents are suspicious of newcomers; alliances, ethnic rivalries and cultural habits spill over from the old country; and Hong Kong Chinese restaurants are flashier than all others.

Dashiell Hammett did something similar in 1925, in a story called "Dead Yellow Women." That's not a title one would see today unless it was intended with irony, and it may make readers in 2014 cringe. But take a look at what Hammett does at the beginning of the story:
"The San Francisco papers had been full of her affairs for a couple of days. They had printed photographs and diagrams, interviews, editorials, and more or less expert opinions from various sources. They had gone back to 1912 to remember the stubborn fight of the local Chinese—mostly from Fokien and Kwangtung, where democratic ideas and hatred of Manchus go together—to have her father kept out of the United States, to which he had scooted when the Manchu rule flopped. The papers had recalled the excitement in Chinatown when Shan Fang was allowed to land—insulting placards had been hung in the streets, an unpleasant reception had been planned.

"But Shan Fang had fooled the Cantonese. Chinatown had never seen him. He had taken his daughter and his gold—presumably the accumulated profits of a life-time of provincial misrule—down to San Mateo County, where he had built what the papers described as a palace on the edge of the Pacific."
I don't know about you, but that makes me curious about who made up the population of America's Chinatowns and how those populations changed after the Qing dynasty, China's last, fell in 1912. And that's a lot of history to pack into a humble pulp story.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010, 2014

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20 Comments:

Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

You seem to be doing plenty of Hammett threads these days, Peter;
Oliver Stone packed a lot of Chinese, and immigrant history, into his great trashy film, 'Year of the Dragon'
should be interesting to compare and contrast

btw, did I ever tell you I share a birthday with Hammett?
(not date of birth, of course!)
....likewise my favourite horror film actor, Vincent Price (ditto).

I've just started my first 'Panicking
Ralph' novel, 'Astride A Grave'; Charlton Heston-lookalike indeed!
50 pages in, and he, and such as Caring Oliver, seems to be adding a welcome new dimension to the series

September 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, i do make a non-Hammett post from time to time.

I can't help it; the Continental Op stories are so good. The opening of "Dead Yellow Women" is especially noteworthy because American crime fiction of the first half of the twentieth century is not exactly noted for its sympathetic portrayal of Asian characters. I don't know how much sympathy is at work here, but I think Hammett makes a real effort to understand the Chinese community in San Francisco or at least to give a believable portrayal. And that fits this blog's ostensible subject of crime fiction that crosses borders.

And I am glad you are enjoying Bill James' villains. There is more to come.

September 01, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

but I think Hammett makes a real effort to understand the Chinese community in San Francisco or at least to give a believable portrayal. And that fits this blog's ostensible subject of crime fiction that crosses borders.
stretching things just a tad, aren't we; still, I'l let you off with a caution, this time, seeing as how its Hammett.

I'm quite sure that the only occasion I was in San Francisco, - back in 1989, the week before the earthquake hit (!!!!), I passed by either a street named after him, or a house with a nameplate displaying a Hammett dedication.
And, further stressing my crime writer-potential credentials,while at the same time not wanting to tempt Fate, I also lived for a time, next door to a house displaying a Wilkie Collins nameplate dedication, - a mere stones-throw from the legendary address of one Sherlock Holmes, esquire!

September 01, 2010  
Blogger Michele Emrath said...

Lots of Hammet connections here, and all I've ever done is watch some Bogart! But I'm enjoying this string of posts, interesting.

Michele

September 01, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I recall reading that "Dead Yellow Women" is Hammett's younger daughter Jo's favorite DH short story. That it had the "voice" closest to that she remembers of her father as well as his sly humor.

It's one of my favorites, too, and I enjoyed Hammett's use of "cool" as an adjective--I believe the Op was commenting on one of the extravagant nicknames the Chinese ganglord had given him. I thought it was pretty cool to see a 1924 use of the word cool!

September 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michele, I came to Hammett (Chandler, too) through movies, as I suspect many readers younger than 90 or 100 did. Later, I read Hammett's novels and some of the stories. But it's only now that I'm realizing how good the stories really are.

September 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't think "Dead Yellow Women" is the best of the Op stories, but its humor relates to the theme of this post.

I suggested that Hammett tried to give a more nuanced portrait of San Francisco's Chinese population that stereotypes of the time might have suggested.

The Op's absurd dialogue with Chang Li Ching ("the King of Finders Out," "It was only because I feared the Emperor of Hawkshaws would find the odor of such low blood distasteful to his elegant nostrils.") shows that Hammett was aware of these stereotypes and was making fun of them. ("This old joker was spoofing me with an exaggeration — a burlesque — of the well-known Chinese politeness.")

September 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, you can let me off with a caution because it's my damned blog, and I can write whatever I blooming want to.

No, naturally that bit about fitting this blog's ostensible subject came with a bit of a wink to the reader, but not all that big a wink. Back when I first read Henry Chang, I noticed passing references to Chinatown crime and its interesting connections both with Canada and with China. I also noticed that his portrait of a Chinatown more varied than I'd have expected. (Chang was born in New York's Chinatown and has lived there most or all his life, so presumably he knows what he's talking about.)

Both those aspects did put me in mind of border-crossings. Sure, I'm writing about Hammett because he's the best that ever was, but think of it: At least here in North America, most outsiders think of Chinatowns as monolithitcally Chinese, with maybe a Vietnamese restaurant or notary thrown in around the edges. I really did feel with Chang and now, somewhat, with this Hammett story, that I was crossing a kind of border into unfamiliar territory.

But thanks for trying to keep me in line, though.

I was thrilled when, on my first visit to London, I saw that the Baker Street Underground station was decorated with tiles of Sherlock Holmes' famous silhouette. And the last time I was in Paris, I stayed not far from the Boulevard Richard Lenoir. I was tempted to take a stroll to see if Inspector and Madame Maigret were at home.

September 02, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

TCK re your "I passed by either a street named after him, or a house with a nameplate displaying a Hammett dedication."

Perhaps that was "Dashiell Hammett Place" (formerly Monroe) a street on which DH actually lived. Lots of details at mikehumbert.com, a wonderful website mentioned in another commenter's post. I believe John's Restaurant (of "Sam Spade went to John's Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, sliced tomatoes and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when..." fame) has a commemorative Falcon plaque on its exterior. And DH's apt. at 891 Post St. has a "home of Dashiell Hammett and Sam Spade" plaque on its exterior.

September 02, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I think it might have been the latter, Elizabeth, because I seem to recall spotting a plaque out of the corner of my eye, as I was negotiating a hill, - on foot,- on the way towards a gig

September 02, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I was thrilled when, on my first visit to London, I saw that the Baker Street Underground station was decorated with tiles of Sherlock Holmes' famous silhouette
I believe that staff of the (then-)current occupant's establishment, - which I think was a branch of Barclay's bank, - answer all letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes at that address.
(which now be rather ironic given that the kind of shenanigans that banks indulged in in recent years may have appealed more to that dastardly villain, Professor Moriarty; of course I'm assuming that all replies were of a kindly nature)

September 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, I thought I read somewhere that 221B Baker Street does not exist.

September 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, I may get to visit that and other Hammett sites next month.

September 02, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter, I don't think there is an actual 221b, and perhaps the nearest address is, or was, a Barclays Bank branch.

Or it may be, just like letters to Santa Claus, c/o The North Pole, postal staff are assigned to reply to any letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes.

But I can say with absolute certainty that I lived next door to the house with the Wilkie Collins commemorative plate on the wall.

San Francisco remains my favourite World city,-with or without the Hammett connection,- although I've yet to visit Paris, which seems to be many people's favourite

September 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe there's a 221 but no 221B.

September 02, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

This passage didn't get me thinking about who lived in the Chinese community when it was written, but now that it's mentioned--yes, it is a good question.

What hit me as I read the excerpts posted is how much Hammett could say in so few lines. It's another example of his terse, yet comprehensive writing style, where he could say so much in so few words.

I know writers who'd take a chapter to say what Hammett said in a few paragraphs.

I would hope that his writing is given as examples in English or journalism courses in how to say a lot with few words. (But this probably is not the case, as who would use mysteries for this, I ask, not agreeing with that point.)

I read Kelli Stanley's "City of Dragons," which took place in San Francisco in 1940 or so and it seemed as if Japanese people lived in the Chinese community. She was talking about the hostility between them because of the 1937 "rape of Nanking," by Japan, which she explains on her website, was not given much attention here. (Anyway, that's another topic altogether.)

So here I go on record as saying--yes, mysteries can not only be very well-written and be "good" literature, but they can be educational, as well.

September 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hammett's is the only style I'm tempted to say is inimitable.

Hostility between the Chinese and the Japanese figures in "Dead Yellow Women" as well, though Hammett wrote the story years before the Rape of Nanking. The story mention this hostility only in passing, but it might have stemmed most immediately from the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894-5.

Keilli Stanley, by the way, is the jolly soul wearing the hat in the second picture here. She sat across from me at a post-Bouchercon dinner last year.

September 03, 2010  
Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

I teach Hammett's Falcon in both my Californuia Literature class and in my Detective in Literature class. Students today are still impressed by what he got away with. Of course you need to point the Flitcraft Parable out to them. It is invisible, otherwise.

September 04, 2010  
Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

Peter, when you get to San francisco, if you are downtown in Union Square, walk uphill along the cable car line to Bush Street. Turn right and walk down to Burris Alley, above the Stockton Street Tunnel. Sam Spade’s partner was murdered at this location, and a large metal plaque that celebrates his death is here. Notice the plaque is bolted into the wall of the alley, about eight feet up; people kept trying to steal it. Notice the plaque says whodunit.

Don’t tell the Bouchercon people who killed Miles Archer! (Lots of frauds pretend they read the book.)

Across Bush Street from the scene of that fictional crime is a doorway with another plaque: Robert Louis Stevenson stayed there. He was on his honeymoon with a hot young American divorcee. They went up to Silverado for more good times. Oh, and he wrote a Silverado book at those times, too.

To digress: out on Sacramento Street, oh, maybe a dozen blocks west of here, around Laguna, is another doorway that says, Arthur Conan Doyle …ah … I’ll let you go look, ‘k? Oh, and the park across the street is called Dog S… ah … Dog Poop Park by the locals.

Let me know if you want more about San Francisco.

September 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nah, you don't need to point the Flitcraft parable out to them; any introduction to any volume of Hammett will do that for you.

What impressed today's students about Hammett?

Hmm, and it is significant that Hammett had Miles Atcher killed across the street from where Stevenson stayed? I've been to the last two Crimefests in Bristol. Funny how Stevenson seemed to keep turning up at crime-writing conventions. Or is it?

September 04, 2010  

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