From The Asian Reporter, V13, #22 (May 27-June 2,
2003), page 17.
Just one thing wrong
By Han Ong
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001
Hardcover, 377 pages, $25.00
By Josephine Bridges
Fixer Chao may be the only Asian-American coming-of-age story in
which the protagonist has a history of freelancing in the menís room at
New Yorkís Port Authority.
"I need an Oriental," frustrated Jewish writer Shem C. tells
gay Filipino American William Paulinha, "because this thing, this
Feng Shui, is the province of an Oriental. And Iíve looked. Iíve
looked and havenít found anyone who can go as low as youíve
gone." Paulinha quips, "He made it sound like a
compliment," but agrees to play the role of a mysterious Chinese Feng
Shui expert in Shem C.ís elaborate scheme of revenge against the elite
who have scorned him. In the guise of "Master Chao," Paulinhaís
assignment is to advise clients referred by Shem C. on arranging their
homes so as to bring them peace, harmony, and prosperity. With a twist.
Paulinha must do "just one thing wrong."
Thanks to Han Ongís astonishing attention to detail, Paulinhaís
moral quandary is hyper-real and riveting. "We went to a bar called
the Gutter Ball," he writes. "Above the entrance were neon
bowling pins that kept getting knocked down by a ball that came out of
nowhere. The pins fell backward like drunken men, but a moment later, they
were upright again, asking to be struck. Again the ball appeared, ready to
oblige. This continued into eternity."
The author of several critically acclaimed plays, Ong writes delicious
dialogue unencumbered by quotation marks. This fragment of conversation
characterizes the uneasy alliance between Shem C. and Paulinha:
Philippines, he pronounced, making it sound fictional. That a place?
Well I wouldnít go that far.
You being sarcastic?
Listen. Donít make fun of me. His tone was hurt.
Ongís exploration of the immigrantís consciousness is a refreshing
and enlightening aspect of Fixer Chao. When Paulinha visits a
fellow immigrant in the hospital, he notes that she looks "waylaid,
diminished. It was the same look of people conditioned by having to wait
in line, slouching in the corridors of anonymous-making institutions
before passing through door after door to get endless forms stamped."
Paulinaís dream, he reminds himself, was "to resemble everyone
else, and avoid being singled out for ridicule, the immigrantís fear of
embarrassment enlarged out of all proportion."
There is no shortage of caustic commentary on the wealthy, powerful,
and beautiful people duped by the phony Feng Shui master. Told she must
burn her sonís shirt, a client "demonstrated her comic privilege by
unsuccessfully trying to start a fire." Attending a ceremony as
Master Chao to receive "yet another award from yet another womenís
fashion magazine," Paulinha observes that, "Even the black
female rapper who won for Sexiest Album Cover was tearfully invoking the
name of Her Savior."
Han Ong skewers the genteel bigotry of the upper class toward Asian
Americans, several of whom may be under the impression that they had
entered its lofty ranks. Among the guests at a party given by Suzy Yamada
are both Master Chao and the novelist Paul Chan Chuang Toledo Lin, but
this doesnít stop book editor Cardie Kerchpoff from declaiming, "if
youíve never talked to some- one not from this country about things like
that, things which weíve already acculturated to, little you know, whatís
that word, nuances!, little nuances, my God, if youíve never tried to
explain American nuances or Western nuances to a Third Worlder, are you in
for a marathon!"
Paulinha is a likeable, believable narrator in part because he is no
stranger to his own character deficits and the toll they are bound to
exact. "Beware the life you earn," he admonishes at the very
beginning of the novel. Indeed, reading Fixer Chao can be an
unsettling experience, not unlike watching a spider devour a fly. You may
want to look away and discover that you canít.