Review: The 100-Pound Gangster – a crime story memoir

Well, I have mixed feelings on this.

Published by Signal 8 Press, The 100-Pound Gangster is a remarkable memoir by former gangbanger Henry Lin. Throughout this quick read, the author details his unique Chinese-American experiences growing up in the streets of Chinatown in San Francisco, which were surprisingly rough.

Most are familiar with Chinatown as a touristy place, but specifically back in the 1990s there was serious criminal activity going on at night after all the tourists left.

This book is not your typical Chinese memoir.

The tale is very personal, written informally, and starts out with Lin’s bitter memories about his home family life aside his unstable mother and hateful older brother. Meanwhile, he had to fight against Asian stereotypes and learned right from the start to be tough as the way to survive.

The best parts of the book tell the lesser-know stories and histories of Chinese organized crime, the Triads. From the Jackson Boys to Wo Hop To, it is certainly fascinating. However, even if one starts out emphasizing with the plights of the author the book later suffers due to his increasingly unlikeable nature. True, the narrator grew up around fighting and can’t entire help that violence is always around. It starts with selling fireworks as a child, and then gets far worse… But the way Lin embraces violence—particularly against women—makes it difficult to care for him even when he apparently repents by the end. There is the disturbing focus on guns, for example, and his proximity to murder. Overall, it’s still very much worth the read to learn about this underworld.

Lin’s story gets more interesting as he rises higher and discovers family connections. There always seems to be an Uncle around to give him the leg up, and he eventually ends up in Hong Kong where he meets a Grandfather who is both high-level Triad and possibly a spy.

The story jumps around in time, then going backwards to describe his time locked up in juvie, a place with more violence where he befriends convicted killers. At sixteen, he is locked up for a stint that lasts years. During his longest time behind bars, the young Lin finally starts to reform as he finds hope by writing for prison magazine, and later he’s lucky enough to be selected for a troubled youth school. When he is let out, older and wiser but still quite young, he gets a new start and there are lessons learned which does improve his character.

Yet there is always hustling, or a “one last big heist” crazy story–it seems he can’t get away from money-making schemes. The marijuana game at least is relatively tame compared to the more hardcore gang activities of his peers, and Lin knows this. A large portion of his writing is devoted to how he feels for his former comrades-in-arms caught up in bigger messes, but that may not be something most readers will get. Even if considering The 100-Pound Gangster to be a true crime nonfiction book, it lacks the objectivity for that genre. And so the reader is left conflicted about the quality of the book.

Another issue is that there is a brief mention of romantic elements but only barely glossed over. I would have liked to read more about Lin’s private life which would make him more well-rounded, since this is supposed to be a memoir. But Lin priorities in his writing are clear.

In the final chapter, there is much moralizing as he reflects and wraps it all up. To be honest, the moralizing doesn’t ring true after all reading all that he previously went through. One never gets the sense, despite his intelligence and potential for good, that he truly is that much of a decent person.

That said, Henry Lin is certainly has an incredible story to tell and he does so with brutal honesty. It wouldn’t be an interesting crime tell-all if he wasn’t who he was.

In any case, this is some memoir.

 

The 100-Pound Gangster is available on Amazon

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Of Gods and Mobsters by the Hong Kong Writers Circle

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Of Gods and Mobsters is a 2013 anthology of short stories published by the Hong Kong Writers Circle (you may recall that I participated in a podcast for the HK-based literary society). The Writers Circle publishes anthologies on an annual basis, and this volume in particular was recommended to me. I am pleased to report that the stories are excellent and the quality of writing coming out of Hong Kong is very high indeed.

The stories are grouped together into three parts: Of Gods, Of Tales, and Of Mobsters. Broadly speaking, the stories are split between the genres of magical realism and crime. The pervading theme throughout all are unique examinations of modern cosmopolitan experience—specifically within the strange land of contradictions that is Hong Kong.

The first and longest part tells stories of Western mythology in this Eastern-yet-international setting, which range from James Joyce-esque references to Neil Gaiman-style stories of ancient gods in the contemporary era. Several stories star the Mount Olympus pantheon, starting with Reena Bhojwani’s Hidden in the Night, an entertaining romp about Apollo and Zeus and Hera interacting in the city. Makes for very interesting juxtaposition.

The middle section, Of Tales, still fits with the style of the rest of the book. Aber Revisited by Joy Al-Sofi is a fable in the style of Kipling full of talking tigers, yet the tiger is represents Chinese symbolism. One of the best stories is The Standard by the anthology’s editor SCC Overton, a tragic science fiction romance about the fascinating concept of ethnic minority DNA becoming the future currency standard. It is a genre-bending story, very literary and very poignant. A futuristic banker of all people falls in love with a woman who is a Hakka specimen carrying her people’s genome for the sake of the economy. What a way to capture the essence of Hong Kong.

The final part Of Mobsters exemplifies the spirit of such themes by taking a myriad of story-telling directions. Some mystery, some even satire. Midlife Triad by James Tam is about gangsters in jail who are fans of ‘wuxia’ pulp stories. Guanxi by Edmund Price contrasts the rich (literately) high-life on the Peak, with corrupt Filipinos who break into the world of one wealthy man. I found The Curious Resemblance to the Case of the Speckled Band by Kim Grant very charming, an amusing postmodern take on Sherlock Holmes about a fan who happens to named Holmes who bumbles and strives to be a detective, and actually has a wife named Watson. And The House by Melanie Ho references the board game Clue (known as Cluedo in some countries).

Perhaps the best is saved for last with Ian Greenfield’s story Mr Tse and the Pied Piper of Homantin, which ties the entire anthology together well. The story is both a crime story, and an homage to fairy tales of old. A great satire full of quips on Hong Kongers complex relationship with mainlanders, the shallowness of pop stars, and the prevalence of parent’s dependence on tutors. Ostensibly a retelling of the Pied Piper (also with Snow White, Miss Muffet, and even vampires therein), Mr Tse finds a way to use its structure lambaste nearly everyone in Hong Kong.

Like any anthology, Of Gods and Mobsters has many different short stories of various styles and each may not suit all readers. However, no matter a reader’s preference it cannot be denied that the quality is always high. Not to mention, there are also poems of depth sprinkled within for yet more diversity if one isn’t just into prose. The only major criticism, as it goes with expat literature, is that much of it might only make sense if the audience is familiar with the area. One frequent phrase is “Fragrant Harbour”, which of course is a literal translation of the characters for Hong Kong, but that wouldn’t necessarily be known to most around the world. Nonetheless, for fans of the region the book is sure to have many stories exemplifying the spirit of 香港…

Available in Hong Kong bookstores and on Amazon.com.

 

 

 

Backpacking with a library

I said it before and I shall say it again, the hardest part of moving is having too many books. My rate of buying new books is exceeding my rate of getting rid of old books (the latter something I don’t like to do but must at times…)

Know what else is hard? Backpacking across the globe and picking up endless amounts of books. It is not easy on the shoulders. But, I mean, I’m in an English-speaking country and there are used bookstores and I can use Amazon in America at my friends place and I need all this stuff.

Here is what I speak of:

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Not going to be easy to transport on my LAX to HKG flight tomorrow…

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