Friday, March 22, 2002

revenge against america

The Dragonhead, by John Sack. Crown Publishers, $25.95

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in March 2002).

IN THE 1980s, a Hong Kong furrier named Johnny Kon became the supreme leader of the Big Circle Gang, a violent clique of former Cultural Revolution Red Guards seeking to take over the Asian drug trade. According to journalist John Sack's latest book, Kon's first act as "dragonhead" was to declare war on America.

His gang used unconventional weapons: chintzy flower vases, ice buckets and picture frames filled with heroin. Nobody knows how many people died. But before Kon surrendered, pleading guilty to save his wife the indignity of sharing a jail cell with his mistress, prosecutors estimated his gang had smuggled a billion dollars worth of heroin into the United States, while the Drug Enforcement Agency had named him public enemy No. 1.

Rising from poverty and persecution in China, Kon earned millions in the fur trade in Hong Kong, only to lose it all in a property-market crash. His associates, soldiers of the Big Circle Gang, were former Maoist fanatics. But Kon did not wage his war for money or revolutionary ideals, according to Sack's The Dragonhead. The crime boss declared war on America because he blamed the U.S. for the death of two of his children. His war was one of revenge.

Sack is perhaps best known for his book on the U.S Army's Lt. William Calley, the central figure in the massacre of civilians in My Lai village during the Vietnam War. In The Dragonhead, he tells the story of Kon's rise and fall with the empathy and elan for which he is famous. Readers will recognize his style as what was once called New Journalism, but Sack is no gonzo. He spent 12 years hanging out with mobsters around the world and chatting with Johnny Kon in prison, but he makes neither his own derring-do nor stylistic high jinks the subject of his story. He succeeds brilliantly in evoking the Chinese underworld and draws his characters with the skill of a practised novelist.

After escaping from mainland China and settling in Hong Kong, Kon used his grandfather's formula for dyeing fur pelts, as well as survival skills honed in a mainland labour camp, to build up his business. But it was through his criminal connections that he became rich. A friend in a triad gang steered U.S. soldiers on leave from the war in South Vietnam to Johnny's store. Kon soon moved his business into Vietnam itself, gaining a concession in American bases there.

Kon was introduced to the heroin trade in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), where he counted America's generals among his customers and friends. He didn't arrange those early drug deals for money, but to help scared U.S. soldiers take the edge off their fear. "I do you favour, lieutenan'. I no make money from this," says Johnny. Sack believes him.

When Saigon was about to fall to North Vietnamese forces, Kon left two of his children in Cambodia, where he thought they would be safe. That was days before the Khmer Rouge rebels took Phnom Penh. Both Kon's children died in the jungle. Faced with his wife's reproaches and his own guilt, Kon found his own scapegoat: America.

"The people who killed them that day, were they me?" asks Kon. "No, the people who pushed this war from the China Sea to the Gulf of Siam . . . (were) the war criminals like Colonel I-Have-This-Movie, like General Thrash, General Cushman and General I-Am-the-Greatest, and like Mr. Hey-Hey-LBJ."

Passages like these make the dragonhead a remarkably winning figure. There is an inexorable logic to his gradual descent into shadier and shadier enterprises. And even his worst crimes -- drug-running and ordering murders -- are not beyond what he knew the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency did in Vietnam.

The portrait that emerges is not that of a ruthless mobster but of a reluctant one, whose murders are committed sadly, when self-preservation leaves him no other choice -- and even then only against others who live by the gangster's code.

Sack is more concerned with literary truth than with the moral, legal or -- it must be said -- journalistic kind. He includes few dates and eschews the Chinese names of his rogues' gallery for their more evocative nicknames (Fat Ass, Ghost, Michael Jackson, Movie Star and the like). And he rarely attributes his information to specific sources.

That is not to say that The Dragonhead is marred by a single falsehood. On most points, Johnny's story is consistent with his prosecutors' version. But without the usual clues to weigh the statements of the writer's various informants, the reader must take Sack's word on the book's central questions: Did Johnny Kon really set out to destroy America because its foreign policy killed his kids? Or is that the story of a clever man already 10 years into a 28-year sentence?

like being there

<>Something Like a House, By Sid Smith. Picador, 6.99 ($10)

By Jason Overdorf
<>(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in March 2002).

Sid Smith's Something Like a House, the winner of the 2001 Whitbread First Novel Award, is the story of a British deserter from the Korean War who is granted political asylum in China, only to become a slave to Miao-minority peasants.

The deserter, Jim Fraser, carves a life for himself in a village during the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. He becomes the "only round-eye in the Red Guards," and when the Miao resort to ritualistic cannibalism, he shares the organs of an executed man "because it was a kind of belonging."

But Something Like a House is not the whinging catalogue of backbreaking labour that is the standard Cultural Revolution tale. In his happiness over his smallest achievements -- for instance, finding part of an old washtub in which to boil his meagre allotment of rice -- Fraser is more like a triumphant Crusoe.

The Whitbread award committee, as well as many reviewers, lauded the authority of Smith's portrayal of a simple man's terrible misfortunes -- making much of the fact that Smith has never travelled to China.
To Smith's credit, the novel doesn't read like the product of hours spent in a library. "The most important preparation for the book was my seven years as a labourer," said Smith, who worked as a journalist for 17 years and lives in England. "I couldn't have written about life as a Chinese peasant without the years in unskilled jobs, including gardener, gravedigger, dustman, docker, council workman, builder's labourer and railway labourer, and a year alone as a woodsman on a cliff-top overlooking the Bristol Channel."

Less successful is the plot development. This takes a serious work of literature perilously close to the cliches of genre fiction. Some marketing genius behind the book's production considers this weakness to be one of its selling points. The excited prose on the dust jacket reads: ". . . he must confront the horrifying secret behind his years in China -- that all along he has been the target of a fearsome conspiracy. And now it threatens us all . . ." The plot is nowhere near as bad as that.

Other aspects of the novel set the bar so high that one wishes Smith had realized his story of life among the Miao was already arresting enough.