Eavesdropping

Jade Chang Shares a Riches-to-Rags Story

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Photo Credit: Teresa Flowers

L.A. author Jade Chang’s novel “The Wangs Vs. the World” appears on just about every list of the fall’s most anticipated books. Elle Magazine calls it one of the best debuts of 2016. Jade reads an excerpt above. The audio was edited for time (and for some very salty language). Get a taste of the full (uncensored) flavor in this excerpt from a chapter of the book below.

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Bel-Air, CA

CHARLES WANG was mad at America.

Actually, Charles Wang was mad at history.

If the death-bent Japanese had never invaded China, if a million — a billion — misguided students and serfs had never idolized a balding academic who parroted Russian madmen and couldn’t pay for his promises, then Charles wouldn’t be standing here, staring out the window of his beloved Bel-Air home, holding an aspirin in his hand, waiting for those calculating assholes from the bank — the bank that had once gotten down on its Italianate-marble knees and kissed his ass — to come over and repossess his life.
Without history, he wouldn’t be here at all.

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He’d be there, living out his unseen birthright on his family’s ancestral acres, a pampered prince in silk robes, writing naughty, brilliant poems, teasing servant girls, collecting tithes from his peasants, and making them thankful by leaving their tattered households with just enough grain to squeeze out more hungry babies.

Instead, the world that should have been his fell apart, and the great belly of Asia tumbled and roiled with a noxious foreign indigestion that spewed him out, bouncing him, hard, on the tropical joke of Taiwan and then, when he popped right back up, belching him all the way across the vast Pacific Ocean and smearing him onto this, this faceless green country full of grasping newcomers, right alongside his unclaimed countrymen: the poor, illiterate, ball-scratching half men from Canton and Fujian, whose highest dreams were a cook’s apron and a back-alley, back-door fuck.

Oh, he shouldn’t have been vulgar.

Charles Wang shouldn’t even know about the things that happen on dirt-packed floors and under stained sheets. Centuries of illustrious ancestors, scholars and statesmen and gentlemen farmers all, had bred him for fragrant teas unfurling in fresh springwater, for calligraphy brushes of white wolf hair dipped in black deer-glue ink, for lighthearted games of chance played among true friends.

Not this. No, not this. Not for him bastardized Peking duck eaten next to a tableful of wannabe rappers and their short, chubby, colored-contact-wearing Filipino girlfriends at Mr. Chow. Not for him shoulder-to-shoulder art openings where he sweated through the collar of his paper-thin cashmere sweater and stared at some sawed-in-half animal floating in formaldehyde whose guts didn’t even have the courtesy to leak; not for him white women who wore silver chopsticks in their hair and smiled at him for approval. Nothing, nothing in his long lineage had prepared him for the Western worship of the Dalai Lama and pop stars wearing jade prayer beads and everyone drinking goddamn boba chai.

He shouldn’t be here at all. Never should have set a single unbound foot on the New World. There was no arguing it. History had started fucking Charles Wang, and America had finished the job.
America was the worst part of it because America, that fickle bitch, used to love Charles Wang.

She had given him this house, a beautiful Georgian estate once owned by a minor MGM starlet married to a studio lawyer who made his real money running guns for Mickey Cohen. At least that’s what Charles told his guests whenever he toured them around the place, pointing out the hidden crawl space in the wine cellar and the bullet hole in the living room’s diamond-pane window. “Italians don’t have nothing on gangster Jews!” he’d say, stroking the mezuzah that he’d left up on the doorway. “No hell in the Old Testament!”

Then he’d lead his guests outside, down the symmetrical rows of topiaries, and along the neat swirls of Madame Louis Lévêque roses until he could arrange the group in front of a bowing lawn jockey whose grinning black face had been tactfully painted over in a shiny pink. He’d gesture to¬wards it, one eyebrow arched, as he told them that the man who designed this, this house destined to become the Wang family estate, had been Paul Williams, the first black architect in the city. The guy had built Frank Sinatra’s house, he’d built that ridiculous restaurant at LAX that looked like it came straight out of The Jetsons — stars and spaceships, and a castle for Charles Wang.

Martha Stewart had kvelled over this house. She’d called it a treasure and laid a pale, capable hand on the sleeve of Charles Wang’s navy summer-silk blazer with the burnished brass buttons, a blazer made by his tailor who kept a suite at the Peninsula Hong Kong and whose name was also Wang, though, thank god, no relation. Martha Stewart had clutched his jacket sleeve and looked at him with such sincerity in her eyes as she’d gushed, “It’s so important, Charles, so essential, that we keep the spirit of these houses whole.”

It was America, really, that had given him his three children, infinitely lovable even though they’d never learned to speak an unaccented word of Mandarin and lived under their own roofs, denying him even the bare dignity of being the head of a full house. His first wife had played some part in it, but he was the one who had journeyed to America and claimed her, he was the one who had fallen to his knees at the revelation of each pregnancy, the one who had crouched by the hospital bed urging on the birth of each perfect child who walked out into the world like a warrior.

Yes, America had loved him once. She’d given him the balls to turn his father’s grim little factory, a three-smokestack affair on the outskirts of Taipei that supplied urea to fertilizer manufacturers, into a cosmetics empire. Urea. His father dealt in piss! Not even real honest piss — artificial piss. Faux pee. A nitrogen-carrying ammonia substitute that could be made out of inert materials and given a public relations scrubbing and named carbamide, but that was really nothing more than the thing that made piss less terribly pissy.

The knowledge that his father, his tall, proud father with his slight scholar’s squint and firmly buttoned quilted vests, had gone from quietly presiding over acres of fertile Chinese farmland to operating a piss plant on the island of Taiwan — well, it was an indignity so large that no one could ever mention it.

Charles’s father had wanted him to stay at National Taiwan University and become a statesman in the New Taiwan, a young man in a Western suit who would carry out Sun Yat Sen’s legacy, but Charles dropped out because he thought he could earn his family’s old life back. An army of well-wishers — none of whom he’d ever see again — had packed him onto a plane with two good-luck scrolls, a crushed orchid lei, and a list of American fertilizer manufacturers who might be in need of cheap urea.

Charles had spent half the flight locked in the onboard toilet heaving up a farewell banquet of bird’s-nest soup and fatty pork stewed in a writh¬ing mass of sea cucumber. When he couldn’t stomach looking at his own colorless face for another second, he picked up a miniature bar of wax¬paper-wrapped soap and read the label, practicing his English. It was a pretty little package, lily scented and printed with purple flowers. “Mois¬turizing,” promised the front; “Skin so soft, it has to be Glow.” And on the back, there was a crowded list of ingredients that surprised Charles. This was before anything in Taiwan had to be labeled, before there was any sort of unbribable municipal health department that monitored claims that a package of dried dates contained anything more than, say, “The freshest dates dried in the healthy golden sun.”

Charles stood there, heaving, weaving forward and back on his polished custom-made shoes, staring cross-eyed at the bar of soap, trying to make out the tiny type. Sweet almond oil, sodium stearate, simmodsia chinensis, hydrolyzed wheat proteins, and then he saw it: UREA. Hy¬droxyethyl urea, right between shea butter and sodium cocoyl isethio¬nate.

Urea!

Urea on a pretty little American package!

Charles stood up straight, splashed cold water on his face, and strode back to his seat, the miniature soap tucked in his palm. He pulled his gray checked suit jacket down from the overhead bin, took out the list of fertilizer manufacturers, and tucked it into the seat pocket right behind the crinkly airsick bag. When Charles walked off the plane, the scrolls and the pungent lei also stayed behind. He stuck the soap in his shirt pocket, slung his jacket over his shoulder, and swallowed the last trace of bile. Charles Wang was going to come out of America smelling sweet. He was sure of it. “Shit into Shinola,” he said to himself aloud, repeating one of his favorite American movie phrases.

And he’d done it.

Turned shit into two hundred million dollars’ worth of Shinola. Made himself into a cosmetics king with eight factories in Los Angeles, factories that he’d gone from supplying with urea to owning outright — each one turning out a glossy rainbow-scented sea of creams and powders and lipsticks and mascaras.

In the beginning, he’d operated all eight of them separately, sending the clients of one into the disguised folds of another any time they complained about his steadily rising prices. They’d get hooked in again –“Special offer! Just for you my prices go so low!”– and find their in¬voices once again mysteriously padded, just a little bit, just enough to be uncomfortable. Later, as it became clear that women were willing to pay twenty, twenty-five, thirty dollars for a tube of lipstick, that sort of sub¬terfuge became unnecessary, and there was no end to the number of hotel chains that wanted to brand their shampoos and makeup artists ready to launch their own lines.

One of them, a tiny Japanese girl who stared out at the world through anime eyes, came to him with empty pockets and a list of celebrity clients. He’d fronted her the first set of orders for KoKo, a collection of violently hued shadows that came in round white compacts with her face, framed by its perfect bob cut, embossed on the front, the fuchsia and monarch yellow and electric blue powders glaring out through two translucent holes cut through her printed irises. The line was an immediate smash hit, going from runways and editorial layouts straight to department store makeup counters and into the damp suede reaches of a million teenage purses. And Charles, somehow, got credit for being a visionary, a risk taker, an integral part of a new generation of business talents who made their millions on mass customization, on glamorizing the role of the middleman, on merchandising someone else’s talent.

Yes, America had loved him. America was honest enough with him to include chemical piss in a list of pretty ingredients; America saw that the beautiful was made up of the grotesque.

Excerpted from “The Wangs Vs. the World” by Jade Chang. Copyright © 2016 by Jade Chang. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.