Review of Pao
Pao by Kerry Young follows the life story of the central character (Yang Pao) from his arrival in Jamaica to his old age, along with the political history of Jamaica over the same period.
Following the death of Pao's father in 1938 during the Chinese Civil War, Pao's uncle Zhang (a resident of Kingston's Chinatown district) financed the emigration of Pao (along with his mother and brother) to Jamaica. Pao was 14 years old when he arrived at Kingston harbour and was taken under the wing of Zhang. Zhang was the "godfather" of the Chinatown underworld, although his activities were generally on the lighter side of the underworld, such as providing much needed protection to Chinatown residents and looking after gambling dens for the Chinese community. Zhang was also a patriotic Chinese national who deeply respected Pao's father for fighting in the civil war and often commented on the similarities between Jamaica's colonisation and China's occupation by foreign forces.
Over time Pao's role in Zhang's organisation grew until he eventually took over as the leader, or "uncle". In this role we see a more complex side to Pao's personality. In addition to providing protection and recreational activities to the Chinese community, Pao also embarks on more criminal activities such as dealing in stolen merchandise, using incriminating knowledge to his advantage and "fixing" problems that friends have with the police. Despite engaging in these activities, Pao sees himself as more of a problem solver and always strives to do the "right" thing, resisting dealings with guns and keeping Chinatown free from those who do. Pao also takes guidance from Sun Tzu's classic book "The Art of War", seeking answers to his modern-day problems in this ancient tome.
Pao has significant relationships with two women throughout the book. The first one we meet is Gloria, the madam at a brothel who asks Pao to provide protection after one of her girls is badly beaten. Pao falls in love with Gloria but is advised that she is not the type of woman he should marry. In order to find a suitable wife, Pao also courts Fay, the mixed-race daughter of a wealthy Chinese-Jamaican business man and his black-Jamaican wife. Pao and Fay get married and briefly find affection for each other but is soon becomes apparent that both are unhappy with the arrangement, Fay not being suited to life in downtown Kingston and Pao having much deeper feelings for Gloria. Pao continues the relationship with both of these women, having children with both of them and trying, wherever possible, to provide for both of their needs as well as he can.
The book also describes some of the most important events in recent political history of Jamaica, alongside Pao's own lifetime. The story starts in the period leading up to the year of Jamaica's independence (1962) with Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley fighting to make Jamaica an independent country. Independence followed, with euphoria and hope of a better future. This was closely followed by a period of economic hardship and politically motivated violence.
Another area of Jamaica's history covered by the book (which generally receives little attention) is Kingston's Chinatown district. Chinatown was a thriving business district between the parade and coronation market in downtown Kingston, centred around Matthews lane and Barry Street. The area ran in to decline during anti-Chinese riots in the 1960s and the turbulence of the 1970s when many residents moved overseas or to safer areas in uptown Kingston. There is now very little evidence remaining of Chinatown in Kingston.
Kerry Young is a Chinese Jamaican who lived in Kingston up until the age of 10 when she emigrated to England. Pao is Kerry Young's debut novel and was nominated for:
- The Costa First Novel Award (2011)
- The East Midlands Book Award (2012) and
- The Commonwealth Book Prize (2012)