Book Review: Mambo in Chinatown – Jean Kwok

Mambo in Chinatown cover

Title: Mambo in Chinatown
Author: Jean Kwok
ISBN: 9781594632006
Pages: 384
Release Date: June 24, 2014
Publisher: Riverhead
Genre:  Cultural Fiction
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Charlie Wong is 22 years old and has barely seen the world outside New York’s Chinatown, where she lives with her father and sister and works a miserable job as a dishwasher. But when she sees a job opening for a receptionist at a dance studio, she can’t help but dream of something bigger. Charlie’s mother was a dancer in China before she died, and just being around the dancers reminds Charlie of something better. As Charlie’s world starts to grow and change, her worlds—work and home, dancing and dishwashing, Western and Eastern—collide and she must decide what she wants for herself.

Snapshot Review:

A story about two very different cultures, Mambo in Chinatown features a strong and sympathetic main character looking to find her place in a crowded world. Readers will enjoy getting to know Charlie and seeing her grow in her new life at the dance studio.

Full Review:

Mambo in Chinatown is the gorgeous story of one young woman’s search for meaning in a world crowded with others’ hopes and dreams. Charlie has never wanted much for herself. She isn’t exactly content with her life, but she’s invested all her effort into her younger sister, Lisa. Charlie plays a mother figure for Lisa, sacrificing the little she has in order to help Lisa get ahead. It’s a sweet relationship, but it’s also nice once Charlie begins living for herself. Lisa’s storyline can be somewhat frustrating, but Kwok writes the East versus West theme very well.

Once Charlie starts working at the dance studio in Mambo in Chinatown, she starts to change. She sees possibilities everywhere; she achieves things that she didn’t even know she wanted. But Charlie always remains the same, at her core. The dance studio doesn’t change who she is—she’s always had her own way of doing things, an established identity, and she doesn’t become a different person. It’s just that the person she’s always been becomes a little bit freer and she starts taking new risks, actually hoping and dreaming for herself for once.

The dancing in Mambo in Chinatown is also a lot of fun. It’s so interesting to juxtapose that against the more traditional aspects of Chinese culture presented in the novel. It really is an East meets West story, a metaphor for what is happening inside Charlie at the same time. She’s torn between caring for her sister and father, and being a dutiful daughter, and the wider world she’s discovered through dancing. It makes for a great cultural story.

Mambo in Chinatown would be nothing without a well-developed and sympathetic main character who readers will both enjoy and root for, which is why Charlie is so perfect for this story. She’s entertaining and talented, but she’s also devoted to her family. It’s great to see her grow and change while also remaining true to who she is. Readers of cultural stories will absolutely love this tender novel.

Other books by Jean Kwok:

Girl in Translation

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  1. Thank you so much for this lovely and thoughtful review! I really appreciate it! I’ll be linking to this on my social media in the coming days. 🙂

  2. Melyssa says:

    I’m excited to read this one. I loved Girl in Translation.

  3. I have just added this to my Goodreads wishlist–thanks!


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