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Book Author: Ed Lin

SNAKES CAN’T RUN by Ed Lin: Book Review

As much a snapshot of New York’s Chinatown in the 1970s as it is a mystery, Snakes Can’t Run by Ed Lin gives the reader an insight into the various factions of an ethnic community at a turning point in its history.

The snakes in the title are not of the reptile variety but rather snakeheads, what today we more commonly call coyotes.  They are Chinese American citizens who bring over illegal immigrants, in this case to lower New York City.   Not surprising is that both snakeheads and coyotes are the names of animals in that their treatment of the men and women they bring to the United States, whether it be via ships to New York’s Chinatown to work in restaurants and laundries or via trucks to Arizona to work in the fields, is inhumane.

Robert Chow is a New York City police detective whose late father was an illegal immigrant. Chow was a huge disappointment to his father when he decided not to go to college and joined the Army instead, then came home from Vietnam to become a policeman.  The elder Chow had higher aspirations for his son, aspirations that were out of his own reach as an immigrant with an incomplete grasp of English.

And Robert Chow has other demons besides his memories of his father.  He came back from Vietnam an alcoholic, and when the novel opens he’s only been sober for four months.

Now Chow is surrounded by illegals in his own neighborhood, where he’s the poster boy for diversity in the Police Department. Chinatown is split between two groups–the mainland Chinese and the Taiwanese Chinese.  Although Taiwan has been replaced by mainland China as a member of the United Nations, the United States still did not have full diplomatic relations with the Republic of China in 1976 when the novel takes place, and tensions among the Communists and the Taiwanese are running high.

Adding fuel to the fire is the increased number of illegals coming to New York from China, mainly Fukienese.  Like most immigrants, they arrived in America poor and uneducated and willing to do anything to stay here.  But by coming here illegally, with the help of Chinese Americans who owned businesses, they couldn’t object to low wages, poor working conditions, and lack of benefits.  And in order to pay back the money advanced by these merchants to the snakeheads, or owed by the immigrants themselves to the snakeheads, these illegal aliens were basically indentured servants, many working until their deaths trying to pay back what they owed.

Although there is a double murder early in the novel, I felt Snakes Can’t Run was more of a sociological study than a mystery.  There’s a great deal of history in it and a lot of background of Chinese and Chinese American feelings during the late 1970s, and the mystery takes second place to that.  But one of the reasons I love reading mysteries, as I have written before, is because they take me outside my own world.  I was pulled into the gritty world of Chinatown–its food, its superstitions, its people. And it made for very interesting reading.

You can read more about Ed Lin at his web site.