Mambo In Chinatown by Jean Kwok | Book Review

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Mambo In Chinatown by Jean Kwok | Book ReviewMambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok
Also by this author: Girl In Translation
Published by Penguin on 2014-06-24
Genres: Asian American, Family Life, Fiction, Literary
Pages: 384
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Buy on Amazon

From the bestselling author of Girl in Translation, a novel about a young woman torn between her family duties in Chinatown and her escape into the world of ballroom dancing. Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works—miserably—as a dishwasher. But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Gradually, at the dance studio, awkward Charlie’s natural talents begin to emerge. With them, her perspective, expectations, and sense of self are transformed—something she must take great pains to hide from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds—Eastern and Western, old world and new—to rescue her little sister without sacrificing her newfound confidence and identity.

I am always a little tiny bit hesitant when it comes to reading GROWN UP books, maybe because most of my reading time is spent whipping my way through young adult and middle grade books. Yet, when Mambo In Chinatown by Jean Kwok came across my threshold, I could not ignore it. I could not hesitate. You see, one of the first few review books that I ever received was Kwok’s Girl In Translation and spoiler alert: I loved it. Now, its been awhile since Girl In Translation was published, about four years actually. Friends, I am happy to say that Kwok has still got it and that while Mambo In Chinatown is certainly lighter than Girl In Translation, I think that it actually surpasses Girl in how much I enjoyed reading it, and that’s really saying something given how much I loved Kwok’s debut.

Mambo In Chinatown by Jean Kwok is about main character, Charlie Wong who is a 22 year old dishwasher who lives in Chinatown with her dad, Pa and her baby sister, Lisa who is 11 years younger than she is. Charlie works as a dishwasher at the same restaurant where her Pa is a noodle maker. She is famously bad at a lot of things, including reading and school and noodle making. Charlie dreams of changing her life and her circumstances, but she always seems to get fired from office jobs, because she’s really terrible with phones. When Charlie’s sister, Lisa finds an ad in the paper for a dance studio looking for a receptionist, she urges Charlie to apply. And so, Charlie shows up for an interview with magic marker painted heels and a terribly ugly outfit. The interview does not go perfectly, but Charlie is hungry for the job and so, she gets it. Meanwhile, Lisa seems to be having failing health, as she begins wetting the bed and losing the use of her legs. Charlie is unsure what’s wrong with Lisa and if she really trusts Eastern medicine to save her sister. Mambo In Chinatown is really about tradition versus the contemporary and how one isn’t necessarily better than the other. It’s definitely different from what I had expected.

Let’s just say I went into this book with a lot of dread and fear that Lisa would die and found myself with serious book anxiety. Clearly,I need to stop reading the back flap of the book and just read the book itself. Instead of going on and on about my anxiety and my nerves and my OMG IS LISA OKAY feelings, I thought we could talk about the things I loved about Mambo In Chinatown.

First, I loved Charlie’s character development as she goes from someone who thinks she is terrible at everything and has no belief in herself to someone who is confident and strong, a dancer. You see, when we start the book, Charlie has such low self esteem. Her self esteem is so low that she drags her friends, namely Zan the egg cart girl, down with her. But then, as Charlie begins to carry herself in a different way and becomes a dancer, she also starts to encourage her friend more to follow her dreams. Actually, I make Charlie sound like a terrible friend but when you read this you will realize she’s actually a really great friend.

I loved the relationship between Charlie and her sister, Lisa. Though they are 11 years apart, they have such a sweet relationship. Charlie is fiercely protective of Lisa and wants the best for her. Unlike Charlie, Lisa is very good at school. So good that she is asked to sit for the exam to attend Hunter High School, which is very competitive and one of the best schools in the City. When Lisa’s problems begin, Charlie assumes it is nerves from the exam. Yet, it runs much, much deeper than that. Anyways, what is best about this book is seeing how hard Charlie works for Lisa’s happiness. There’s a sacrifice there and I love it.

I loved the interplay between Charlie, Pa, and Lisa as Pa works so hard for his girls, yet is so traditional but there’s so much love there. The girls hide certain things from Pa because they are unsure of his reaction. Like, Charlie hides her new clothes and her new make up and her dancing. She basically hides her work identity. She does this not because she is totally scared of her dad or because he will beat her or anything weird like that, but because she doesn’t want to hurt him. Given all of his sacrifice, it does make sense. Anyways, there’s just so much love in this family. It’s a joy to see, even in the painful and heartbreaking moments.

I also loved the theme of East vs. West and East plus West, it’s fantastically explored through medicine and such. Charlie has points where she thinks that Eastern Medicine, and by extension her Uncle’s practice and the local psychic called The Vision are total bullshit. Yet, she has no health insurance and it’s easier to see her uncle than it is to go to the hospital. Further, she has terrible memories of the debts and struggles her family had when her mother died in the hospital. Beyond medicine, it’s also explored when the book delves into themes of love and dating, college, freedom, and family. We see the stark differences between Lisa’s work world at the Avery studio and her world at home in Chinatown.

Basically, Mambo In Chinatown by Jean Kwok was a really great adult fiction book that I could see with crossover appeal. It’s a very quick read that touches on some important themes. It’s got the pace of young adult, even though the main character is 22. It’s got intricately detailed relationships. It’s got a main character that you can’t help but connect with and care about. It’s a universal read about the love of family and struggling to find your identity. I would think that many could relate to Kwok’s sophomore novel. Straight up, if you want to try a grown up book, this would be one that I would recommend.

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April is in her 30s and created Good Books And Good Wine. She works for a non-profit. April always has a book on hand. In her free time she can be found binge watching The Office with her husband and toddler, spending way too much time on Pinterest or exploring her neighborhood.
About April (Books&Wine)

April is in her 30s and created Good Books And Good Wine. She works for a non-profit. April always has a book on hand. In her free time she can be found binge watching The Office with her husband and toddler, spending way too much time on Pinterest or exploring her neighborhood.


  1. I’ve been meaning to read Girl in Translation for some time, as it’s been waiting for me on my Ipad for awhile, but I’ve just never gotten around to it for some reason. Apparently, I need to fix that! I’m glad to hear that you’ve enjoyed her writing, and I am definitely intrigued by this book. I love being introduced to a new culture, or the intermixing of two cultures, and it sounds like that’s exactly what I’d get with Mamba in Chinatown. It sounds like a touching read, and I’ll have to add it to my TBR list. Wonderful review, April!

    • Courtney, that’s funny that Girl in Translation’s on your ipad – I do loads of reading on my ipad too! I hope you’ll enjoy my books! 🙂

  2. This came up in my Google Alerts and I wanted to thank you for this in-depth and heartfelt review of my book! I really appreciate it and I’m also so happy you enjoyed my debut novel as well. I’ve just linked to this on my FB fan page:

    Thanks again – book bloggers like you are so important! 🙂

  3. Thanks so much for the excellent review of a book I really haven’t heard much about. I love Lisa See’s books, and Memoirs of a Geisha is one of my favorites. This sounds like my kind of book.

  4. So basically, I’m thinking I need to read Mambo in Chinatown. It’s not just because of the whole East vs. West aspect, though that is definitely a big draw. But it’s also because the family dynamic in this seems really strong! And plus, Charlie sounds like a great character too 🙂