I have a problem reviewing this book. The problem isn't that it's a bad book. Nor is it that the author is white (although Chinese who don't like its account of the death of a Chinese-American will shrug it off as the work of a white American). My problem is that I'm a Chinaman who'd like to write sympathetically about another Chinaman whose sympathies got him killed.
The man was San Francisco journalist and gift-shop owner Henry Liu. His sympathies were expressed in his critical biography of Taiwan's President Chiang Ching-kuo, known by his friends and enemies as "CCK." Under his father, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, CCK had been in charge of everyone who carried a gun on Taiwan. He ran the police, the armed forces and several intelligence agencies. When the generalissimo died, CCK became president of the entire Republic of China. Shortly thereafter, Henry Liu's book was published in Chinese.
What Liu's book had to say about the Chiang family and CCK was deemed so traitorous and offensive to their honor that Chinese intelligence commissioned gangsters to cross the Pacific, travel to Liu's house in a San Francisco suburb and make an example of him.
My problem is: I don't want to say this is a good book and end up like Henry Liu.
My mind changed, however, at San Francisco's East Wind Bookstore. There I saw groups of Chinese-Americans reading Liu's biography of CCK. These people, I knew, saw Liu's book as an act of courage and rebellion; I didn't want to see myself as too timid to tell the story behind it.
Opening like a gripping police procedural, "Fires of the Dragon" takes us to Henry Liu's garage in Daly City on Oct. 15, 1984, shortly after his body is discovered. Neighbors tell the cops they remember seeing Chinese men in jogging suits with hoods and fake beards bicycling away from Liu's house around the time of the crime. As if that weren't strange enough, Liu's widow, appearing more angry than anguished, says foreign agents murdered her husband, who had been working for the FBI.
Author David Kaplan, a news editor at San Francisco's Center for Investigative Reporting, then shifts his setting to mainland China in 1936, when Liu was a child in a happily landed family. When the communists take over the mainland in 1949, Liu makes a desperate and dangerous journey by boat to Taiwan. There he naively joins an elite school run by the exiled Chiang Kai-shek, where he entertains dreams of becoming a film director until he realizes that the school is really just a factory for cranking out spies, finks and stooges. With similar naivete about political consequences, Liu then drops out of the school, going AWOL in favor of the life of a high-class moocher and gossip writer.
Eventually, Liu manages to emigrate to the United States, the land where he had dreamed of getting rich as a writer and director. Settling in San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, he starts a little business with his wife and becomes a U.S. citizen to protect himself from being murdered by Taiwanese agents who have been tailing him since he dropped out of CCK's school.
Liu accepts dinners and money from the FBI, and sets out to write the definitive biography--the only non-government-sponsored biography--of CCK. At the same time, he accepts a few thousand dollars from the Kuomintang (KMT), CCK's political party, in return for a promise not to reveal that CCK's sons are bastards and have syphilis. Later, however, he welshes on the deal.
What holds this opportunistic, self-serving, social climber together? Kaplan never gets a chance to tell us: He is too preoccupied with using Liu as a literary device for retelling Chinese and Chinese-American history. Kaplan's dismissiveness toward Liu seems to grow from his stereotypical notion that Asians are less individualistic than Westerners:
"The tradition of the independent scholar in pursuit of a higher truth seemed to Henry one of those absolute concepts of the West. This was not China's way. Historically, the press in China was a function of the state, and those who published did so at the behest of those in power. This state of affairs existed well into the twentieth century; indeed, the tradition remains alive and strong today in both the Mainland and Taiwan."