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The Disorientation of Pearl and Kai : CHINA BOY, By Gus Lee (E. P. Dutton: $19.95; 322 pp.)

June 16, 1991|Bob Sipchen | A Times staff writer, Sipchen is working on a nonfiction book for Doubleday about cops and Crips

"China Boy" is about smashing a bully in the face till he spits blood and about how the details of a mother's wonderfully expressive face fade from a sad little boy's memory. It is powerfully blunt and gently subtle. Twelve-year-old boys will want to read this book, and they should, but they may need to live another 20 or 30 years to appreciate all that it offers.

"China Boy's" first-person story, about the frail son of recent Chinese immigrants who learns to coexist with the budding thugs in a San Francisco ghetto, is deceptively simple. Readers may, initially, find themselves flinching at each turn of the page, certain they're about to be ambushed by banal "Kung Fu" mysticism or "Wonder Years" nostalgia. Relax. After reading a couple of chapters you'll have no doubt that the Eastern philosophy here is grounded in scholarship, and that the poignancy derives from honest experience.

Kai Ting is a 7-year-old boy who is told he has excellent yuing chi (roughly, karma) and big responsibilities as an only living son. Kai's father had fought with the Nationalist Chinese and then with the Americans. While his father was making war, his mother led Kai's three sisters on a heroic exodus from China to India, where they reunited with the father and continued on to America. It was an abrupt step from wealth to poverty.

Kai's mother is a wildly exuberant contradiction in cultures. She relishes the wonders of American technology, pines for the noble traditions of China, and pampers her son as if he were a hothouse flower. When "Mah-mee" dies, Kai's pain is sharper and more lasting than what he suffers as his head is being pounded into the asphalt of the grade school playground by nascent gang bangers.

"Who Cancer, Baba?" the boy asks his father upon learning of his mother's death.

" 'Cancer is a disease,' he said.

" 'Like God? Cancer God?' I asked.

"He nodded. 'Yes. The Cancer God.' It was the only time that Father acknowledged the existence of spirits."

Mah-mee's death, and the arrival of an American step-mother, marks the start of Kai's journey through the Limbo of disparate cultures that inhabit inner city San Francisco.

Inevitable comparisons will be made between this book and Maxine Hong Kingston's "China Men" and Amy Tan's "Joy Luck Club." "China Boy" is a rich celebration of transplanted Chinese culture; it is about growing up different. But it's mainly about growing up in America, period, and Lee's greater debt is to Holden Caulfield, Huck Finn and Nick Adams. His portrayal of the villainous adults who would flog the joy out of childhood is darn near Dickensian.

This book is not without failings. Detached irony is what makes "China Boy" work, but sometimes the self-deprecating humor that shields the victimized narrator is counterproductive. Now and then, Lee lets loose a combination of wild similes--"My face looked like Route 66 after a bad rain"--that lack timing and deliver no punchline.

Overall, though, "China Boy" moves with the simple, forceful grace of a true contender.

James Joyce would grin in appreciation of the author's ear for adolescent obscenities in a babble of languages and dialects. The sweat- and blood-splattering violence of the fistfights in "China Boy" would give Martin Scorsese pause. But underlying that machismo is a narrative sensibility of respect, peacefulness and tolerance.

A between-the-lines reading of Lee's "Acknowledgements" suggests that there is more than a touch of autobiography at work here. For instance, an important "off-stage" character, a best friend of Kai's father, is a Maj. Henry Norman ("Na-men") Schwartzhedd. In the acknowledgements, Lee thanks one H. Norman Schwartzkopf for his "faith in callow youth."

But "China Boy's" potency comes from the way Lee's experience is elevated by good storytelling. Nonfiction lists have been cluttered lately with books that purport to tell Americans how to rediscover their manhood. Maybe one reason that manhood--and womanhood--is so frequently misplaced these days is because so many people have discarded literature for the quick-fix, how-to approach to life.

Fiction moves at a slower pace than any "15 Simple Steps" book, but its lessons are often more lasting. The rites of passage depicted in "China Boy" reflect all that is missing in the way so many kids are reared today. Without a single whine about a "wounded inner child," with only an ironic nod to the notion of a "dysfunctional family" and not the slightest concern about the prevailing currents of multicultural correctness, the book offers an engaging exploration of family dynamics and insight into a diversity of initiation rites.

At the local YMCA, African-American, Italian and Filipino boxers teach Kai to use his fists, his mind and his heart. The mother of an African-American friend gives him love, and in the gruff, no-mollycoddling way of the streets, a Mexican mechanic instructs Kai in how to walk with prestigio, how to "Cho' anger , nino!"

Later, Kai's Uncle Shim takes him from his New World mentors at the Y to a gathering of elders in Chinatown, who offer paternalistic praise and honor, and let the much-abused 7-year-old have a sip of beer.

"Ay-yaa! Let him taste the beer! Did you see his fists? The anger in his eyes? He needs the alcohol to calm his fires!" an old man shouts, never letting the boy see the wink in his own eyes.

These days, such man-to-man mentoring has, for the most part, been taken over by alleged experts on "parenting" and New Age gurus teaching "Rites of Passage 101."

Even in its brutality, "China Boy" recalls better days for boys and for books.

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