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[237] Fixer Chao – Han Ong

Chao

“I had entered this world of privilege where the people had taken me in as one of their own, and had been entirely comfortable divesting themselves of ugly things in my presence. These people, in my imagination, lived in a glass bubble filled with money, aerated and sent flying in all directions.” [100]

Never say never. This book surprises me in a positive manner. It is eclectic and appealingly skewed. The premise of the book does not make a good first impression: a writer who is ostracized by New York literati recruits William Paulinha, a Filipino street hustler, to retaliate against the privileged society that has slighted him. Shem C., the embittered writer, is to have William pretend to be Feng Shui master who would fix those who spurn him harm. As the material benefits that have long been due William become reality, the novel also evokes in me a recent scandal in Hong Kong in which a Feng Shui master who has insinuated a wealthy family seeks to inveigle the inheritance. At the recall of the true incident I’m more than piqued to see how Fixer Chao will play out. at its course. The book does outstrip my expectation—it is both entertaining and literary.

In between bouts of pretend-wisdom which he declaims with folksy gravity to the owners, have the young man, physically unrecognizable from his former life, have this new young man, in a voice-over, wonder which of the several items he sees in these various houses he could safely make away with to sell later on . . . [133]

William doesn’t have the scruple for the hoax. In fact, he looks at it as a negative heroism—to turn the tenets of social order against itself. By satisfying the desire of these shallow and overprivileged people for inoculation, he realizes their huge crush on the Asian practice in pursuit for peace and prosperity and the desire to be part of the growing hipness are much better than what he first believes. These people pay him a fortune to fix their homes so they can be rid of moral and civil responsibilities in their lives.

The thing about crime, I thought to myself as the elevator doors closed, the thing that nobody believes anymore in this day and age of smarts and cynicism and toughness, is how foolish the fools can still be. [154]

With an acerbic and edgy voice, Han Ong delivers a wickedly knowing satire that skewers the folly and absurdity of those who live careless lives and believe they can repair their ugly souls with money. Soul plastic surgeon Ong aliases his protagonist. Ong has adroitly drawn on social sources that encompass immigration, homosexuality, interracial and intraracial discrimination, and living the American dream to explore the slippery natures of privilege and expertise. The ingenuity of Fixer Chao lays in the fact that the self-informed William Paulinha is forced to foray back and forth between truth and lie, sort of like an unreliable narrator, but only unbeknownst to the other characters. The title is highly allusive and pun-intended, for the spelling of Chao, a Chinese surname, is one letter short of the word chaos. Whereas Feng Shui concerns with the arrangement of a house that is instrumental in determining fortunes and peace, what William does is to reverse that magic, thus rendering chaos. It’s a clever musing on how people deceive and are deceived over and over again.

377 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

Chinese Women in Fixer Chao

ChaoFor a debut novel, and that the protagonist is not morally attractive, Fixer Chao is surprisingly not a bad read. I picked up this book when Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun has become too grim. The point of this book is an astringent depiction of the high life and the low in Manhattan. How much lower can someone have gone as William Paulinha, who is a Filipino street hustler? I didn’t have much expectation at the first place because the subject matter, despite its originality, is quite perverse. He is recruited by a failed writer to disguise as a Feng Shui master as an instrument of revenge. So far I have enjoyed the book, which is quite a literary sensation. I love Ong’s voice, so acerbic that one might pinpoint the clue that the Philippines and Hong Kong are secretly at war with one another.

“We crossed the busy intersection at Canal and Mott. There was an old man being carefully guided across by a young girl, and they both looked mysteriously perturbed, as if they were fleeing the scene of an accident in which they had been involved. Two women, whose knock-off fashions and thick movie-star makeup spoke of Hong Kong Origins, were distracted by a billboard touting a discounted overseas calling plan . . . The Hong Kong women’s red mouths were wide open, like children’s, and their eyes were squinting as they looked up. Predictably, they bumped into two housewives, from whose tight embraces across their chests spilled cans and boxes and plastic packages onto the crosswalk. The two Hong Kong women moved along briskly, unmindful of the accusing stares of the crowd.” [32]

My friend, who happens to be the person who recommends to me the book, would be both nodding and laughing with approval. He has always thought that the brand name bags (LV, Chanel, Gucci, etc) Chinese women carry are knockoffs. He has to apologize ahead before he makes this comment. I usually just dismiss his somewhat stereotypical statement (which is true at times) with chortling. The other interesting observation is in accord with what has been lately branded as the “Princess syndrome” in Hong Kong. Girls who are high-maintenance, materialistic, absurdly rude, egoistic, and self-entitled are known to be princesses. Any brainwashed man will give her tangible things and emotional sublimity to stop her, and she will only demand more.