Simply put, Pao is political history of Jamaica told through the eyes and life of ‘Uncle’ Pao Yang of Kingston’s Chinatown. Don’t expect anything more or less when reading Pao, I say this because from reading the blurb it is easy to believe that the book focuses on Pao’s relationship with Gloria and the struggles they face due to her profession, racial discrimination and class etc.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Pao. While Pao Yang isn’t really the best of male characters (he does come across as sexist, homophobic and unaware of his own privilege, not to mention he rapes his wife), Pao provides really interesting and relevant commentary on slavery, colonialism, post-colonialism, colourism, class and race relations in Jamaica. Pao really delves into a handful of issues. For example, instances of racism in the book not only show the kind of overt racism people of colour suffered at the hands of white people pre-Independence. There is also that of the Chinese towards Black Jamaicans even though Pao’s step-father Zhang schools Pao, telling him that Jamaicans and Chinese are the same due to poverty, oppression and exploitation and that they are ‘brothers in arms’. There are also glimpses of internalised racism as seen through Pao’s brother Xiuquan who is ashamed of being Chinese and is only happy after he leaves his family in Jamaica for America.
Another character that is first portrayed as having internalised racist views of herself is Mrs Cicely, the mother of Pao’s wife Fay. It’s fascinating that the book’s blurb mentions Fay Wong as the more respectable woman that Pao marries instead of Gloria. Yet Fay’s mother, Mrs Cicely is a Black woman. Through Fay, we are told that Mrs Cicely hates being black and abandoned her first child because he was not mixed race like her later children with Henry Wong. Mrs Cicely’s character is fully fleshed in the last pages of the book where she reveals the true reason she was ashamed of her first son, through her we also get to witness the kind of conflict that results from being a direct descendant of slaves. Mrs Cicely had lived her whole life trying to prove to ‘them’ that Black people were not all monsters and uncivilised.
Colourism (linked with class) is mentioned as well when Gloria, Pao’s mistress argues with him regarding the kind of school she wants to send their daughter. Gloria is dark-skinned, so is her and Pao’s daughter Esther. Esther to. Due to Esther’s complexion despite her mixed heritage, Pao is initially uncomfortable with sending her to the school Gloria suggests (the school he sends his children with his wife, Fay to). On the other hand Fay is light-skinned and is thus privileged to attend white-only venues before independence. Fay also comes from a wealthy family which adds to her privilege.
There were just so many issues properly analysed or just shown briefly in the book. For example, when Yang Pao arrives in Kingston and is promptly renamed Philip Yang by a British official at the port stuck out to me. Later on in the book, it is revealed that the same thing happened to Pao’s father-in-law, Henry Wong whose real name is Hong Zilong.
The main criticism I have for Pao is that after reading the book, I felt that some characters and situations were not fully developed. For example, Pao’s mother and Uncle Zhang, what was really going on between them? Was it love? Why did they wait so long to act on their feelings for each other? Also why did Pao’s brother, Xiuquan hate being Chinese? Why was Fay so angry at her mother, Mrs Cicely? I understood Fay’s anger and hatred for Pao though. Also Fay’s sister, did she really have feelings for Pao? So many questions!
Pao is written in dialect, this did not stop me from enjoying the book at all. I like that Kerry Young added a bibliography at the end. Overall, I found Pao funny, and entertaining. I’ve learnt a bit on Jamaica’s history and thanks to the bibliography I can continue learning more. At times the book had a mystery genre feel to it with Pao solving minor and major problems for all sorts of people. For those who are tired of books that have Chinese men and Black women in solely romantic situations, be prepared to be extremely pleased as Pao does not have much romance in it. The book is basically just about Uncle Pao living and taking care of Chinatown while observing Jamaica’s transition from a British colony to a fully independent nation and dealing with family issues.
In conclusion, here’s a video interview with Kerry Young and some quotes from Pao;
And even though we still struggling to sort ourselves out after the English come here three hundred years ago and set everything up so careful and tidy – Africans on the bottom, the Indians, the Chinese, English on top – I think we doing OK. But I wonder to myself how many other countries there are like Jamaica? How many other countries been through what we been through? How many of them still going through it like us? All because some long time back somebody decide to pick themselves up and sail halfway ’round the world to come colonize us. And it not just about the English and the slaves. It about the Americans and the money. (p. 266)
Because in the old days everybody could see that it was the British that was responsible for the slavery, whereas now it seem like we are the ones responsible for this mess we in. Nowadays it hard to see how we being controlled by foreign powers because this new kind of imperialism come wrapped in a cloak that look like help. (p 242-243)
‘You want to talk ’bout revolution, but this was never your revolution. You never been poor, not so poor you hungry; you never had to find yourself a job or put a roof over your head. You never needed to get yourself an education. You were never made to feel degraded and ignorant or worthless because of the colour of your skin, and have to stand there like a damn fool while them shut every door in your face, and while you watch even the most stupid white people moving up instead of you. You didn’t have to feel the shame of what been done to your people, and witness how that shame sit on your mother and father and brother and sister, and neighbour and acquaintance. No, you live in Chinatown all this long time because you was comfortable, and now you not so comfortable you have the choice and the money to go move to a mansion in Beverly Hills.’ (p. 245)