Pao depicts life in a time and place that’s unusual for historical fiction: Jamaica, from pre-independence to the present day. The narrator’s perspective is also unique. Yang Pao immigrated to Jamaica from revolutionary China as a boy of fourteen. He gradually built himself up into a benign gangster based in Chinatown, providing protection to Chinese merchants, running brothels and a gambling enterprise, and distributing stolen goods.
The story Pao tells covers his entire life, a long span of time that sees many changes in his adopted homeland. Pao relates the events of his life as a series of vignettes. Known as “Uncle,” he solves problems for the people under his purview, such as when a young Chinese girl becomes pregnant by an older white man, or a waitress witnesses a murder involving a powerful resident. He experiences some personal turmoil, battling with his estranged wife over their children, but for the most part, Pao’s life is peaceful and prosperous. His story, while interesting for its historical detail and different point of view, lacks vital conflict.
At its heart, Pao is a political novel, but here it falls somewhat short. Pao loves Jamaica and holds strong views about how the country can become more self-sufficient, especially during its turbulent post-Independence days. But Pao remains a passive observer, never involving himself in politics. As a narrator, he only glosses over the important events in Jamaica’s history and the political life of the country. He even refers to the country’s leaders mostly by their nicknames. For a reader who doesn’t know much about Jamaica but would like to learn more, this scanty summary can be frustrating. I was left wanting more: more detail, more politics, more involvement by Pao in the events he watches unfold.
Pao is narrated by its title character, and the book is written in dialect, a pidgin English in which words are dropped, verb tenses don’t agree, and the language mimics spoken speech. Because Kerry Young is Chinese-Jamaican herself, I assume the dialect is authentic. It’s not easy to write an entire book in dialect and keep it readable, but the author mostly succeeds. I found the broken English a little tiresome at times, but generally it was very readable. What bothered me more is that I didn’t understand the roots of the dialect. Does Pao speak that way because he is Chinese or because he is mimicking Jamaican speech, or is it a combination of both? I wish Young had provided more context to help readers understand the language as well as the history of her setting and characters.