Cinema love A novel

Jiaming Tang

Book - 2024

"A staggering, tender epic about gay men in rural China and the women who marry them"--

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FICTION/Tang Jiaming
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New York : Dutton 2024.
Main Author
Jiaming Tang (author)
Physical Description
pages cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by Booklist Review

A fixture of the Chinese town of Mawei, the Worker's Cinema is where gay men go to cruise in the darkened theater. It is there that Old Second meets Shun-Er, and despite the fact that Shun-Er is married to Yan Hua, the two men become lovers. The cinema's woman ticket-taker, Bao Mei, is a fixture too and the self-appointed friend and guardian of the cinema's patrons. When Yan Hua discovers her husband's affair, she betrays him and Old Second. Shun-Er dies by suicide, and in the aftermath, Yan Hua emigrates to America and pays a man called Frog, who has a green card, to marry her. Now an unlikely couple, Old Second and Bao Mei emigrate too--illegally. Working in a garment factory, Yan Hua befriends May, whose husband, Kevin, turns out to be having an affair with none other than Old Second. The growing complexity of Tang's fully realized characters is as fascinating as the interrelationships among them. Rich in simile and metaphor, Tang's book is beautifully written too (things happen "with the urgency of a bullet wound," a city grows "like a tumor"). An excellent first novel and a captivating reading experience.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

This resonant and textured debut traces the secret lives of gay men and their wives in 1980s China and their loneliness in contemporary New York City's Chinatown. As a young man, Old Second leaves his village in shame after his family discovers his sexuality. In the city of Fuzhou, he falls in love with a man named Shun-Er, whom he meets at the Workers' Cinema, which is known for showing war films to a gay clientele who meet for sex in the screening rooms. Out of convenience, Old Second marries Bao Mei, a woman who works at the cinema's ticket counter, and they immigrate to New York City in the 1990s. A parallel narrative follows Yan Hua and her marriage to Shun-Er, who dies by suicide in 1989 and whose ghost continues to haunt her after she comes to the U.S. as a "puppet wife" to Frog, the "discount-bin husband" her family paid in exchange for her green card. Tang laces the narrative with Dickensian details of Chinatown's underground economy (Frog and Yan Hua live in a cramped, six-dollar per night "motel" room shared by many others in bunk beds), and lyrically portrays Old Second's longing for same-sex intimacy ("A barrier has been erected around his heart, and though he can look past it like clean glass, he finds there are certain thresholds he can no longer cross"). Tang announces himself as a writer to watch with this unshakable novel. Agent: Kent Wolf, Neon Literary. (May)

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

Tang chronicles the complex connections among a group of Chinese immigrants. In the beginning of this novel, readers will find themselves ushered into a movie theater they'll come to know as the Mawei City Workers' Cinema. "The customer knows the cinema like the lines on a lover's face," Tang writes, and that comparison resonates in a few ways--not least of which is the theater's role as a pickup spot for gay men in 1980s China. In the chapters that follow, Tang introduces a number of characters with ties to the Workers' Cinema who have since left for the United States, including Old Second (who found a place where he could be himself) and Bao Mei (who communed with the ghost of her brother there). Tang moves deftly across the years, finding parallels between the government and business interests looking to destroy the Workers' Cinema and efforts to save the East Broadway Mall in 2020s New York City. Slowly, tensions from the past return to the present, mainly via the character of Yan Hua, who immigrates to the U.S. as the "puppet wife" of a gay man. She's a complex character; her second marriage, to a man named Frog, is described as "a tolerance that sometimes creeps toward friendship." And she, too, has a connection to the Workers' Cinema, albeit one that's left her with a growing sense of guilt over the decades. Tang has plenty to say here--with intimacy, sadness, and aging being frequent subjects. The prose moves from omniscient to highly focused with ease, as when Tang zeroes in on an aging Old Second, noting that his "main issue, now, is his inability to disregard pain." A haunting story of shared pasts and troubled memories. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

IN NEW YORK, in Chinatown, a man named Old Second remembers. He has freckles all over his face. Burn scars and blackheads, like barnacles on a whale. Trembling hands attached to long, hairless arms pick up and light a cigarette. A ceiling fan spins, and the open window offers a view of people marching. He watches them. They are mostly quiet, but sometimes they chant words he can't understand, hold up signs he can't make out. Still, he knows what this is for. They've come to him in the past, with cameras and notebooks and sputtering words. Hi, my name is . . . We're here to get your signature . . . Do you mind if. . . And so on, until Old Second says, in broken Mandarin: "Sure." Old Second grew up in the mountains, missing all but a year's worth of school. It was the same for his siblings. The girls went for longer while the boys went straight to the fields. They preferred it, anyhow--They claimed it gave them freedom. Especially in the hot, damp, sticky summers. Instead of Mandarin, they learned how to fish. How to transform old shirts and water bottles into river traps. They'd wait in the stream with their buckets, their eyes gleaming and their bodies completely still. Then, suddenly, a shout. There! There's one! Old Second remembers a thrust of the body. Gold, sinewy skin; the muscles taut and firmer than steel. He remembers, too, the weight of his brothers' limbs as they leaned against him, not quite hugging but almost. Now, decades later, he watches a similar kind of love outside his window. He may not understand the words or the signs, but he's aware of what's going on. A rent strike. The marchers are trying to save Chinatown. Like the mall on East Broadway with the Fuzhounese kiosks and the decades- old restaurants on Eldridge Street. The marching started three hours ago-- small. A trickling of Chinese protesters walked down the street like shoppers. Then a woman with a loudspeaker arrived, and youngsters in lion dance uniforms. Passersby joined in, and soon it became a crowd. From above, the marching resembles hugging. It moves Old Second, causes him to remember. Not just childhood and brother- love, but also the time he stood with thirty- seven men outside the Mawei City Workers' Cinema. That was a long time ago, Old Second thinks. In August, it will have been thirty- five years. -- BUT FIRST WE MUST VISIT AN EARLIER TIME. NOT THIRTY- FIVE years back but forty. This is where the story begins, where a boy from the mountains learns that the wrong kind of laughter can kill. You've already met Old Second, but there are other characters, too. Family members and neighbors who will remain in the background, like cardboard forests in a play. Mother and Father. Big Sister, Little Sister, Old Third. The brother named Eldest matters more to our story, but only by a little. He's the oldest son and works at a welding factory in Fuzhou. He's also the darling of the family, the one des­tined to be killed, and he dies in a factory accident in 1980. The other important characters are Old Second's youngest brother, Spring Chicken, and a neighborhood boy, age sixteen, who goes by the name One Meter Sixty- Five. None of the boys resemble their names. Spring Chicken has matchstick arms and medium- rare cheeks. Instead of tanning, his skin burns under sunlight. Blushes pink, then red, and the boils that form resemble the bumps on a plucked goose. He's ugly, and that's why people love him. Then there's One Meter Sixty- Five, loved for the opposite reason. He's had his nickname since childhood. It rep­resents the height of every man in his family except for him: a giant with a voice that sounds like a stroking hand. Its cadence approaches your ear like a curious cat. Then it romps, playful, before boredom sinks in, leaving with a piece of your heart. Which is what happens to Old Second. SUMMER 1980. A VILLAGE WITHOUT ELECTRICITY OR HEAT, and whose name literally means High Mountain. One morning, El­dest will leave for his factory job in Fuzhou, never to come back. No roads connect High Mountain with Fuzhou, so the journey will take an afternoon and an evening. Spring Chicken will watch Eldest leave. His dark, round, curious eyes will stare until his brother dips out of sight. There are so many trees up here, so many places to hide. You can climb up a tree and disappear for hours. There's a reason High Mountain kids don't play hide- and- seek, and it's not for lack of imagination. It's simply too easy to vanish. Too easy to climb into the leaves and forget that life exists. Today is Old Second's turn to collect firewood. He's already tied a bundle with rope and packed it into his basket. There's more to be gathered, but for now, he'll rest by the stream his brothers call River. In two hours, morning will have passed and the sun will have reached its highest peak. Sweat on his skin, under his arms and be­tween his legs, gets splashed away in the water. Nearby, a river trap is laid-- one of Eldest's. The scene is quiet aside from the water sounds, the rustling of leaves. Old Second assumes it's an animal until One Meter Sixty- Five falls, crashing to the forest floor. "Shit," he says. "You scared me." "I scared you?" "All that noise you made. I thought you were a bear." "A bear in these parts?" "I've seen them. They look just like you." "Where'd you see a bear?" "Right now. He's talking to me." "Don't be funny with me. I know where you live-- I'll kick your ass here and I'll kick your ass there." The play in his voice burrows under Old Second's skin. It's not merely the sass and the teasing. There's also a look in his eyes. A curling of the lips that makes Old Second's cheeks burn with anger. The boys consider each other friends despite running in separate circles. Most days, their interactions are brief. A distant nod or glance, neither of them smiling. Yet here they are: joking, grinning, the heat rising in Old Second's belly. He's fifteen and tends to experience every emotion as anger. Now is no exception, though this time he doesn't feel the itch to strike. He stays and listens, ob­serving the knots of muscle like tree roots running along One Meter Sixty- Five's legs. The straightness of his torso, bare under a lifted flap of shirt. Most aggravating of all: his laughter, beckoning and beckoning. "You always come to this stream, bear?" "Why? Do you own it?" "Sure. But you're welcome here anytime. No fee." From that day on, the boys claimed each other. One because his oldest brother and best friend had left High Mountain, the other because he was bored. Curious. If I ask, will he come? He does in the day, but what about at night? They look at each other in the dark­ness, examine bits of face illuminated by moonlight. An eye here and a smile there. No words, because they don't want people to hear them. Neither says it, but they know their friendship is strange. Ru­mors would form if they were caught. Yet all they do is silently embrace. This is what Old Second tells his mother when she finds out. He omits the part where they sneak away from home at two, sometimes three in the morning. He doesn't talk about the waiting, his anger and impatience at always being the first to arrive. Nor does he mention the part where he performs twice the amount of work the previous day. No one will miss him if he gathers extra firewood, digs up all the sweet potatoes. No one but Spring Chicken, who's baffled by the extra work Old Second does. Nine years old and curious, he snoops around like a dog. He's too young to work, too sickly. All day and night he watches his siblings live their lives. At the first sign of suspicion, he'll follow them: through brambles, under trees, across the stream called River. And recently there have been strange behaviors. The first is Old Second's sudden productivity. A sibling doing extra work for no reason? Not in Spring Chicken's world! Second, his brother's frequent trips to the stream, all yielding zero fish. Not even a single croaker, his favorite. When Spring Chicken asks, Old Second says nothing. Instead, he darts his eyes. Where is he looking? Because it's not here-- the boys' shared bedroom contains nothing but mats and blankets. Maybe his behavior has to do with exhaustion. He's been yawn­ing a lot lately, sometimes before the sun has even set. At the dinner table, too, and while cleaning himself. A yawn followed by lip smacks, sometimes a burp blown into a sister's face. At night he's the first to fall asleep, and often he forgets to lower the mosquito blinds. Spring Chicken has to do it for him. He doesn't realize that Old Second is trying to escape quietly. That's why he sleeps with his clothes on, and why, after dinner, he leaves the kitchen door open. But all of Old Second's efforts go to waste because, one night, Spring Chicken wakes up. Not due to any noise-- he simply has to pee. And while walking to the latrine, he sees Old Second sneaking off in shadow. Spring Chicken follows him down the mountain path, into the forest. Minute after minute of twigs snapping under­foot. Eventually, they reach a clearing. Spring Chicken is far be­hind, but he can hear the water, the croaking of bullfrogs. Thin shafts of moonlight are everywhere. And with the glow of fireflies, he can see his brother standing with another figure: a feline boy with skin that shines like polished metal. He's frightened but knows better than to yell. In fact, all three boys are silent. Even when Old Second touches the figure, and when the figure touches him back. Tenderly, like a mother stroking her child. But then the figure turns and sees Spring Chicken, and begins to laugh. OH, THE MOUNTAINS. THE MOSQUITOES AT NIGHT AND THE rabbits nibbling behind trees. You can't see them, but they're there. Always. This is the kind of place where words don't matter. Only the language of bodies, and the sound of machines. Can you hear the machines? They approach slowly, but to the villagers it's too fast. Way too fast. A road is paved; a telephone pole goes up. Then another, and another-- giants obscured by gravel dust. The stream Old Second calls River becomes a puddle, and his bottle traps with the croakers still in them are buried in mud. Old Second is no longer there, and neither is the lover with the inaccurate name. Their friendship ended the night Spring Chicken watched them hold each other. The precious secret that once belonged to two boys now be­longs to others. To Spring Chicken, who will tell his mama, who will tell her husband, who will clench his fist when Old Second ap­proaches the dinner table. The other villagers will know, too. Try telling a nine- year- old boy not to share a secret. By the following morning, even the trees will know the truth, with their own embel­lishments to boot. Did you hear about Old Second? With Old Guan's boy at that. I always knew he was funny. Too pretty for his own good. In later years, Spring Chicken will reconsider what he saw in the clearing. At the time, he told his mama that Old Second and the other boy were kissing, but age and distance have sharpened his memory. He will conclude that he was wrong. The two silhouettes, entwined like vines, were merely touching. One stroking the other's back with a golden hand, the other sighing and sighing. It wasn't the dirty seduction his mama had made it out to be. It didn't justify the beatings. Nor did it justify the way his baba forced Old Second to kneel outside their home. For hours and hours his brother kneeled, and if anyone dared to help him, they'd get a smack across the face. He remembers his mother: how she refused to speak to Old Second and pretended he wasn't there. Even after Eldest died and Old Sec­ond left to work in Mawei, the siblings were forbidden to speak to him. Forbidden to say goodbye. Excerpted from Cinema Love: A Novel by Jiaming Tang All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.