“The decorations hadn’t changed in years. On the wall was a giant red Double Happiness poster. The formica counter was cracked and repaired with duct tape. Overhead was a giant take out menu with vinyl numbers taped over the old prices. Fortune Garden was strictly take out only. There was no room to dine in even if someone wanted to.”
Author, playwright and screenwriter Isaac Ho has written a pulp thriller based on a series of murders of Chinese delivery men that took place in New York City in 2004. “It wasn’t a serial killer,” says Ho, “It turned out to be a gang of kids who saw easy money: a Chinese guy, therefore he, and the people around him, probably don’t speak English very well, or at all, and are probably illegal, and so wouldn’t be too well-documented or protected by the legal system. But once the arrests were made the story ended, the press stopped covering it. I wondered, what happened to the victims’ families?”
The story is told in both English and Chinese, highlighting the isolation the language barrier creates for the main characters.
Told from the perspective of the family of the murdered man, the main actors in the story are poor working-class or illegal immigrant business-owners, for whom the crime itself is only the beginning of their troubles in a world made of trouble.
The novella’s deeply ironic perspective pokes fun at a host of TV drama clichés as it makes the case that the only thing worse than being invisible is to become visible.
Detective Jackson knew he had to let the other shoe drop. “As far as the police are concerned, it’s an open and shut case. We have all the proof we need. However, the District Attorney may plead them out rather than go to the trouble of a jury trial.”
Detective Jackson tried to sum up the U.S. criminal justice system for Lau. “Judges love it when you make things easy for them. It’s kind of the American way.”
Now Lau was upset. “They’re not going to die for what they did to my son?”
“They’re minors. Even if convicted at trial they won’t get the death penalty.”
Lau composed himself and tried to put his thoughts into something the American detective could understand. “My youngest son tries to make me watch baseball but I don’t understand the rules. Difficult. Not simple. In China, when a person kills someone, they are put to death. Simple.”
The murder victim’s father, outraged by the legal system’s failure to deliver a justice he can understand, driven by grief, and guided by the incomprehension that comes with a 300-word English vocabulary, tries to save his son’s honor and prevent his family from falling into the abyss of poverty, homelessness and deportation that the crime, with its loss of one wage-earner and the delivery car, pushes them into.
The legal system’s betrayal is only the first in a series that leads Lau ever deeper into a conflict that becomes exponentially more complex as each person Lau encounters brings his or her fear and cultural values to it. His ultimate downfall involves a bicycle and two fateful Mets tickets to a game at Citifield.
“If you write this story from the investigating cop’s point of view, you’re free to move around, to talk to everyone, but if I’m following Lau, I only know what he knows; the investigation is the least interesting part of the story. I grew up watching TV with all these stereotypes–characters and storylines. This perspective imposed limitations that were challenging to me as a writer. In writing the story, I had to break my own stereotypes. The question becomes, what is he going to do about his son’s murder? How does his journey resolve?
Isaac Ho grew up in Rockland County in the 1970s. His parents were immigrants from different parts of China who met in the United States. Every Saturday the whole family drove to Chinatown to shop for groceries, pick up the Chinese newspapers and eat dim sum.
Growing up in white suburbs, where kids at school called him Bruce and Pearl Harbor, he learned to hide in plain sight–trying to fit in as much as possible with white friends, and consciously trying to repress his Chinese identity.
That changed when he came to New York City to study acting. He found himself bumping into all kinds of people, and connecting with an Asian arts community. But one of his teachers at NYU advised him against working on original plays by Asian Americans, saying, “Nobody takes ethnic theatre seriously. You’re going to waste your time on something that doesn’t matter.”
“In my other books, the politics are like a sledgehammer, but in this book it was sufficient to tell the story from Lau’s point of view, that’s enough of a political statement in itself.
“In my first book, The Repatriation of Henry Chin, the story is about a guy who goes on the run chased by an ICE agent. Someone who read the first completed draft said “You introduce the protagonist way too late,” which I didn’t understand because Henry Chin is introduced on the first page. He thought Henry was the evil Chinese guy, and the ICE agent was the knight in shining armor–we’re so used to seeing white male characters as heroes, “You really have to change this; it’s way out of balance.”
“So I reworked things to make it clearer that Henry, the Chinese guy, is the hero.
“I ran into the same kind of thing when I started working on the new book. A lot of people asked me,’Why would you write about a Chinese delivery guy? If you’re going to tell a story about someone like that, there has to be something special about him, he’s just too ordinary.’ But the opportunity that writing about Americans who also have an outsider identity provides is to look at how strange America is, instead of looking at it from an “insider” perspective.
“Recently I took a trip to China with my father. We were driving through a modern section of Shanghai and slipped into a little alley that was completely traditional, surrounded by all these enormous highrises and shopping centers. When I was growing up, my grandmother told us she lived a day’s boat ride upriver from Shanghai. I asked my father if we could visit that place, but he said no, it doesn’t exist anymore. It’s part of Shanghai now. The city has expanded so much it has just absorbed the surrounding villages and towns.”
Ho, who has lived in California for 20 years, experienced an even more intimate culture shock when he visited New York in 2012.
“When I came to visit New York City for the first time since 1998, I was shocked by how much it had changed: on the one hand, it was like slipping on an old skin, the heat and sticky clothes, eating from food carts, getting around on the subway–except I had to get used to the metro cards, instead of using tokens.
“On the other hand, Lower Manhattan and Chinatown is like a military zone, with all the barriers and the security around 1 Police Plaza, and forget about parking your car. A friend of mine who lives in Chinatown and works in Long Island City told me he uses his bike to get to and from work. “He said, ‘Screw the subway, it’s much easier by bike.’
“Even Chinatown has changed: it’s not just Cantonese food now. When I went with my aunt we had Shanghai-ese food at a dim sum place on Elizabeth St.”
Isaac Ho, 2013
Photograph: Andrew Shuie, Am I Invisible? A Portrait of New York City Bicyclists, 2012