Mambo in Chinatown; Jean Kwok.

mambo in chinatown

Expected publication date June 24th, 2014.

5 star

I received this ARC copy of the book from First to Read in exchange for an honest review.


Charlie Wong is twenty-two years old, but trapped between childhood and adulthood. She lives with her widower father and eleven-year-old sister Lisa, having cared for her little family since her mother died. Having grown up in New York’s Chinatown, Charlie is trapped there by her traditional immigrant father, and a culture that has rigid plans for her future.


Prone to dropping things, clumsy Charlie feels awkward next to her graceful younger sister, who earns better grades than Charlie, too. Instead of being jealous, Charlie scrimps and saves for Lisa’s future and happiness, spending her money on nice clothes and other luxuries while Charlie’s hand-me-downs slowly disintegrate. When Lisa pushes Charlie into taking a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie is reminded of her deceased mother, who was a ballerina in Beijing—a dream lost when she immigrated to America. Though she thinks she could never be a dancer, the studio slowly brings out the long-neglected talent Charlie inherited from her mother.


But her father is suspicious of Western culture, so Charlie must hide her new dream from him, all her struggles and successes unacknowledged by anyone but her sister. As Charlie finally blooms, Lisa begins to decline, a mysterious illness that brings back the nightmares of their mother’s illness and enormous hospital bills. Certain that American hospitals and doctors are expensive and useless, Charlie’s father insists on treating Lisa with traditional spells and medicines. Lisa isn’t getting any better—how can Charlie convince her father that the old ways aren’t always the best?


Charlie is a retiring person, shy, a little hopeless at times, but even in despair, she reaches for hope—mostly for her family, but also for herself. And she’s willing to work hard without much complaint (she isn’t perfect, after all). That made me root for her as she tried to navigate the obligations of family and still fulfill her own desires, and bring together two cultures without comprising either. She struggles for independence, makes mistakes, falls, and picks herself up again. You’re left with a feeling that, though life can be painful, it is also beautiful.


Certain cultural details aside—and some horrifying soup—this is a very relatable story, about family at its dysfunctional, wonderful, complicated best. Each relationship of Charlie’s has its problems and moments of glory—the bonds of love in all its forms are beautifully illustrated, developing naturally over the course of the story, so the characters seem like people you’ve known your whole life.


Recommended for fans of family-centered stories, ballroom dance, and stories of self-discovery.


About Caitlin Stern

I have a MA in English, and have so many fantasy/urban fantasy WIPs it's not even funny. I'm an avid reader of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, biography, fiction, and anything else that catches my interest. I collect books, and bookmarks I find that are visually appealing and useful.

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