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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #14 (March 30, 2004), page 12.

Olé!

El Chino

Written and illustrated by Allen Say

Houghton Mifflin, 1990

Paperback, 32 pages, $5.95

By Josephine Bridges

"My parents came from Canton, China, and had six children in Nogales, Arizona. I was the fourth child. They named me Bong Way Wong, but my brothers and sisters called me Billy." So begins the fascinating — and true — story of Chinese American Bill Wong, whose aspiration to become a bullfighter takes multicultural thinking to dizzying new heights.

"‘In America, you can be anything you want to be,’ Dad told us." The author playfully follows this noble sentiment with the deadpan: "That was good news because none of us wanted to be a grocer when we grew up." At first, Billy wants to play "serious basketball. I was quick and fast, and I could shoot from anywhere on the court." But the young man is too short to play college basketball, so he studies engineering.

During his first European vacation, Billy discovers Spain and bullfighting, shouting with the crowd "until my voice was gone." When he realizes that the bullfighter is even shorter than he is, a new dream is born.

Billy stays on in Spain and studies at a bullfighting school where a fellow student says that "he has courage and grace … but he cannot be a matador. He is not Spanish." It is not the first time Billy hears this, and it won’t be the last time, as he looks for work fighting cows for bull ranchers. "But uno momento, Señor. A Spanish matador? What had I been thinking all this time? I’m Chinese!"

Billy has a marketing brainstorm, and the rest is, in fact, history. People call the young matador "El Chino," Spanish for "The Chinese," and he proves himself in his first fight with a heifer, "but it looked more like a black rhino, with horns that could gore right through me." As he waits to fight his first bull, Billy says to himself, "Good thing you weren’t four inches taller."

Allen Say has done it again. This time he’s told young people the story of a determined athlete who crossed borders of race and culture. What a role model! Say’s illustrations are, as usual, stunning. In sepia, black and white, and color, they bring a great story to life. Olé!

 

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