DANIEL NIEH’S DEBUT NOVEL, Beijing Payback, is crime fiction with a sympathetic heart — an emotionally layered story of murder, secrets, betrayal, and a son’s loss of innocence about the father he thought he knew. Victor Li is 22 years old, a senior at San Dimas State University, where he is an economics major on a basketball scholarship. He’s a likable guy whose biggest problem is getting a girl, and his life has been relatively stable and carefree; he was born in China but grew up in a McMansion in San Dimas, a Southern California suburb, among minivans and porch swings, playing ping-pong with his sister Jules and helping out at his father’s restaurants. His mother, Linda, a white American woman who met his father in China while doing missionary work, died of stomach cancer nine years ago, but his relationships with Jules and his father, Vincent, are strong and supportive, and the Lis appear to embody an immigrant family’s successful realization of the American Dream.
When Victor’s father is found stabbed to death in his home office, it is initially assumed to be the result of a burglary gone wrong. But as it turns out, Vincent Li may have kept a few secrets from his children. When a meeting with their father’s estate lawyer, Mr. Peng, yields a $4 million life insurance policy and an attaché case containing a gun and over $50,000 in US and Chinese currency, Victor and Jules must consider an alternate theory of the crime, and an alternate version of the man himself.
Although their father had ostensibly built all four of his restaurants from the ground up, Mr. Peng informs them that he was not the owner, and the hefty policy has been paid out by a parent company: “[T]here were other investors in the Happy Year Restaurant Company, people in Beijing who took on risk in the early years of the business.”
This is news to his children, but it is far from the last revelation, and as a bewildered Victor is trying to reconcile how a gun and stacks of cash fit with his memories of a gentle and encouraging father who meditated, sang show tunes while washing the dishes, and lovingly cared for his tropical fish, he meets someone from his father’s other life, a man named Sun Jianshui, who has arrived from Beijing with some explanations. Sun was eight years old and living on the streets of Beijing when “Old Li,” as he was known even in his early 20s, took him under his wing, becoming both a surrogate father and an employer:
I live on the streets when your father hire me. After that, I live in his office. You see, a kid can be useful for, ah, “smuggling”? Sending messages, delivering packages. And also, the kid is a mask, everybody trust man with a kid. Then, when I grow up, Old Li find other ways for me to help him.
Just as he would later do with his biological children, he oversaw Sun’s education. In addition to learning English, Sun had training in martial arts, pickpocketing, and forgery, growing into his role as Old Li’s enforcer. He also shared meals and watched American movies with him, and Sun regarded him as his “best friend.”
A slight smile drifts across Sun’s face: “Old Li, you know, he had a warm heart. He see me like his family, the only family I have.”
Sun has come to the United States to meet Victor and gather information about Old Li’s murder, an investigation that turns up a letter addressed: “For my son, if I am dead.” In this letter, Victor learns about his father’s early life in China, “born in the middle of an epic Communist disaster.” The novel isn’t weighed down with cultural history, but Nieh provides enough to show how, in the absence of opportunities, crime can become a way out of poverty.
Vincent’s family was fragmented during the Cultural Revolution — his sister sent to a reeducation camp, his father, like many innocent people, denounced as a Japanese collaborator and counterrevolutionary, leaving only his grieving mother and himself to find a way to survive. His father’s sentence to labor reform gave the family a “black background,” ostracizing them from people who were too afraid to associate with them, lest they be similarly denounced. Cast adrift with nothing to do all day and an uncertain future, banned from both military and formal education,
[e]ventually I fell in with boys who also had black backgrounds. We stayed together to avoid getting beat up. My closest friends were three boys with the surnames Ai, Ouyang, and Zhao. We called ourselves brothers. We were all around twelve or thirteen years old.
Working together, adapting to their circumstances, the boys began stealing food to eat, but as they grew older, they became involved in more lucrative schemes to put food on their tables: selling stolen goods, bribing customs officials, and making powerful connections, eventually coming under the influence of a criminal benefactor named Mr. Dong, a powerful man high in the Party who would expand their activities.
As Victor learns from Sun,
In the uncertain years following Mao’s demise, they carved out a niche in the gray market, wrangling permits for street stalls and running discreet errands for officials. Then, when China opened up in the 1980s, the brothers scored big by bringing Western goods in through Hong Kong. Microwaves, handbags, cordless phones — China’s nouveau riche scrambled to pay inflated prices for the limited supply.
But when Old Li met Linda and started a family, he wanted to offer his children “a life of more innocent concerns.” He decided to start a new life in the United States, leaving his protégé Sun, now 16, to take his place in Beijing. The brotherhood agreed, even financing his first restaurant, but were unwilling to dissolve their partnership with him, seeing an opportunity to expand their operations into the American market. They used Old Li’s respectable restaurateur status to undertake remittance schemes and citizenship rackets, eventually pressuring him into more serious crimes, crimes that Victor’s father resisted. He was threatened when he wouldn’t go along with Zhao’s latest scheme to bring a mysterious, but evidently dangerous, thing called Ice into the United States. Sides were taken; Ai agreed with Li, Ouyang with Zhao, causing a rift that Sun believes is what got Old Li killed.
Vincent’s letter concludes with a weighty request: he asks Victor to go to Beijing with Sun in order to expose Ice and Zhao and Ouyang’s involvement, to avenge him and to make him an honest man in death as he was not in life. Because he kept his work and personal lives separate, no one will recognize Victor, and under Sun’s protection, he can make contact with those who can stop Ice from causing further death and violence. Sun explains,
We need photographs, tapes, emails — something that links Ouyang and Zhao to Ice. Maybe Dong too — although he’s very discreet. It’s true that domestic law enforcement won’t touch any of them. But if we take the story to the foreign press, it becomes a source of embarrassment, and then the Party has to clean house.
Burdened by his grief and rage, and still full of questions about his father, Victor accepts this deathbed request over Jules’s protestations. Jules does not trust Sun and doesn’t want her brother getting involved in something so dangerous, but Victor has already begun to process the two halves of his father’s life, and he believes he understands some of his father’s motives:
Maybe Dad didn’t have all the same options that we had, okay? He did some dirty work because he had to, but he gave it up as soon as he could. He married a missionary and moved to the suburbs! If he worked his ass off and lied about his past so that we could have normal lives, don’t you think we should be grateful?
He also understands that his father’s secrets came with an additional cost, that this cushion of safety has made them complacent; without awareness of Li’s sacrifice, they cannot appreciate their privilege:
I want to say, you didn’t pick up that he was ashamed of us, too, he’s asking so much because he made all these sacrifices for a couple of big babies who don’t think about anything but ourselves, our basketball season, our dreams, our love lives. We don’t care about the past or the future, the vast imbalances in the world that we benefit from. The painful compromises people make just to get a decent job making dinner for people like us. We’re blind to that, we’re desensitized, we live in a bubble, and he knew it.
In Beijing, Victor experiences a sort of double culture shock — he’s in an unfamilar country where he can at least speak the language, but he’s exposed to a completely foreign world of gangsters, drugs, prostitution, black markets, and shady deals, making the acquaintances of a French journalist, a former KGB agent, and a Chinese Mata Hari who keeps a slow loris as a pet. It’s a far cry from his ordinary life of free-throw practice, exams, and hanging out with his friends:
Me. In Beijing. With Dad’s phone. Going after his killers instead of registering for classes. Trying to implicate a senior Chinese official in the international drug trade. Was I really about to use a bag of cash and a U.S. visa to buy information from a Russian ex-spy?
Under Sun’s guidance, he begins to navigate his way through this world, coming to understand that the lessons his father taught him were about more than just basketball, and as he witnesses his own adaptability to previously unimaginable circumstances, he comes to understand his father in a way he didn’t when Old Li was alive. He appreciates that although his father’s life was more complex than he ever realized, he was fundamentally the same man he’d always known, and that the conflicting images of the loving father and the situational criminal could, in fact, coexist:
I had begun to think of him as duplicitous, but he was evidently the same person in both parts of his life: the loving, charismatic guy everybody liked to be around. Filling in the blanks, I see him in a new way, and I feel like I know him better than before, more thoroughly.
The developing relationship between Sun and Victor is the novel’s beating heart, representing the two halves of Old Li’s life. Each knew a side of him the other did not, and as they travel, investigate, and fight together, the bond between them strengthens into a sort of brotherhood.
He looks up into my face with a curious light in his eyes, and in that moment I see all the boons and burdens that Dad gave him, the traits we have in common, the fire and the cool, the rock and now the pain, too. There are those things and the differences, too, the edge that is already sharp inside of him, the harsh lessons I am only beginning to learn.
In the same way as he’s come to understand the circumstances that led to his father’s ethical flexibility, Victor is able to absolve Sun, and later himself, for the same character trait, as he becomes exposed to more of the world than a sheltered kid’s assessment of right and wrong.
Beijing Payback is a strong debut with series potential. Victor’s personal journey is realistic — by the novel’s end he has been changed: he’s become more aware of the world outside of his bubble and he’s done things he never thought he’d do, but he hasn’t turned into a cynical monster or uncovered any latent action-hero abilities. This is a criminal underworld story refreshingly free of machismo; Victor is awkward with women, he vomits after a violent interaction, and he’s loyal and cares deeply about his friends and sister. As one character tells him, “Everyone I meet has an agenda, a game, a secret. So when I first saw you last night, I was struck by how sincere you seemed, how innocent. I can look through most people, but not you. Because it’s all right there.”
Victor may no longer be innocent, but he has not been transformed into a hardened criminal, even though he’s become more willing to blur his own moral lines. He has learned that nothing is as simple as he once believed, and it will be intriguing to see where Nieh takes this character in future installments.
Daniel Nieh will be appearing at Chevalier’s on July 31 at 7:00 p.m., in conversation with LA Review of Books noir editor Steph Cha.