Our August 2020 pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club is Daniel Nieh’s “Beijing Payback.” Become a member of the Now Read This book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.
In “Beijing Payback,” college student Victor Li and his sister Jules find out that their late father, Vincent, was involved in a crime syndicate while growing up in China. Shortly after his death, they return to the first Chinese restaurant he opened in California’s San Gabriel Valley, where they pass through the swinging saloon doors into the kitchen, “intense with the heat of the gas stoves, the sounds of chopping and frying, the competing odors of sesame oil, cilantro, and Sichuan peppercorns.”
For author Daniel Nieh, this passage “from the (superficial) dining room into the (unseen) kitchen parallels Victor’s eventual journey from the peaceful suburb of San Dimas to the underbelly of Beijing.” Nieh told the PBS NewsHour that San Gabriel Valley — which is home to one of the largest Chinese communities in the United States — and more specifically San Dimas, was “an irresistible choice” for the setting of Victor’s sheltered childhood.
As the book progresses, Victor travels to Beijing, where he connects with his father’s former associates and learns more about the largely illegal work that Vincent undertook to support the family.
As part of the narration, Nieh also includes Chinese phrases from Vincent. “The diversity of his advice,” Nieh told the NewsHour, “reflects a theme of the story: We are indelibly marked, but not fatalistically defined, by our origins.”
From “Beijing Payback”
“We can’t eat here,” Jules says hoarsely as we pass along the seafood-tank side of the vast dining room, and I nod my agreement. Through the saloon doors, in the kitchen, everyone is too busy with the lunch rush to notice us. I’m beelining it to the office door at the back when Jules grabs my arm.
“Hey, slow down. You cool, Cato?” she asks.
She’s right—I’m not. I take a long breath, try to unwind the key between my shoulder blades a few clicks. The kitchen is intense with the heat of the gas stoves, the sounds of chopping and frying, the competing odors of sesame oil, cilantro, and Sichuan peppercorns. My eyes reflexively drift to the back doorway, where Dad would stand with his arms folded over his chest and supervise his underlings. He started me working here when I was thirteen, five or six hours each weekend at minimum wage, wrestling the mop and bucket around the bathrooms or mixing the duck sauce in an industrial-size garbage can. Three cases of applesauce, three jugs of white vinegar, two boxes of white sugar, half a bottle of molasses, and one big jar of plum sauce, which Dad had shipped in from China by the case. No ducks. If you didn’t stir it fast enough, the sugar would clump, but if you stirred it too fast, you’d end up with sticky brown goo all over your pants.
My eyes dance over to the extra sink Dad installed by the chopping station for velveting the meat, presently filled to the brim with bloody skirt steaks, corn starch, and diluted Shaoxing wine. Old Jiang, Dad’s indispensable knife man, spears a steak with a barbecue fork and begins shaving uniformly thin slices off of it with concise, rapid motions. He handles his ultrasharp blade with mesmerizing efficiency, standing over his work with an athletic flex in his knees, an unlit cigarette dangling from his expressionless lips, as he flicks bits of gristle and fat into a separate bowl.
“Jīngtōng gèshì jìnéng, zhǐ shì biǎomiànshàng sìhū bu fèilì — Masterful skill appears on the surface to be effortless,” Dad would say.