Before writing his first book, author Daniel Nieh was an international model and a Chinese interpreter. And so you get to witness all kinds of different bizarre situations.
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Beijing Payback is a thriller full of those situations: glitzy nightclubs full of models and mobsters, strip-mall massage parlors, the underground lair of a Chinese gang kingpin. A Chinese American college basketball player named Victor Li learns that his father was murdered — and that perhaps his father was not quite the person he was thought to be.
The story takes place in Southern California and China. And Nieh says his work as a translator and interpreter came in handy with squaring those two worlds. Overall, that's the kind of sensitivity and attention to detail that really fuels good prose and good fiction.
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This is a situation that is really universal in one way, which is that when you're in your teens or maybe in your early 20s like Victor is, at a certain point you realize that your parents aren't perfect. And you stop worshiping them, and maybe you start resenting them or resisting them.
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And then that usually, for people, evolves into a Phase 3 where, maybe later on in your 20s or your 30s, you accept them, you forgive them, you feel grateful to them. So that's a universal story that I myself have experienced — it's just a part of coming-of-age. At the same time, it's more complicated in this situation, because here's someone who was born in a totally different context — this is the father — and he's never really shared that story with his son.
So the son is in the process, throughout this book, of discovering his father's background and childhood. And that's kind of the crux of the novel. On the experiences of children of immigrants, whose parents' previous lives often go unspoken or unknown. The thing here is — in my book, that's couched in this thrilling plot, because I want to write an exciting, page-turning crime thriller.
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But for people like me who are the children of immigrants, that seems almost universally true. And I grew up in this environment where I had a very loving father who did a lot of parenting to me — who took a lot of interests in my interests. But he never spoke about his childhood in China. He never spoke about the crazy things he had experienced.
And I didn't know that he had come to this country as a refugee until I was in my 20s. People, when they immigrate, they often feel But the truth is — and it's dramatized in this book, but the truth is — is most of the people who have come to this country have some crazy stories to tell about how they got here, and a completely different upbringing than the children who they raised in a completely different environment. It's a really good story, because my father was from a[n] aristocratic background in Shanghai. So he grew up the descendant of a very famous general, and of another mayor, and they had servants in a big house.
But when he was 8 years old, that all came to an end, because he was part of the status quo, and Communists took over China in And he and his family moved to Hong Kong where they would be safe. And so once he was in Hong Kong, he was just sort of more an ordinary person.
And that's where he spent his formative years, from around 8 years old to about And then he moved to the United States, and all of a sudden he was an undergrad studying engineering at Southern Methodist University in Texas — and then we're talking about the s, so he was a complete fish out of water. And I think that diversity of experience, I think the first three decades of his life, really shaped him into an extremely flexible and extremely courageous person.
And that's one of the reasons I've always looked up to him, and been interested in having my own adventures, and I think probably being a little less averse to risk than I might otherwise be. I had such a great childhood that I never realized these things were secrets.
It's just — I didn't think of my dad as a storyteller. They know the surface story: a Chinese man who married a white missionary, had two children, and immigrated to America to start anew. He opened a string of successful restaurants, provided his family with a comfortable suburban life, cared for his wife as she died from cancer, and sent his children off to college.
The restaurants they thought he owned are actually controlled by a mysterious parent company in China. Vincent may have been murdered by someone he knew. A strange young man is following Victor. Things get more complicated when Sun, an orphan Vincent secretly raised in China and trained to take his place when he left his criminal life, shows up. But does he really have to choose? Does his comfortable life obligate him to settling old debts for his father?
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Who was his father, really—the model immigrant, the reformed gangster, or someone else? While his father was focused, tenacious, and confident, Victor is scattered, unambitious, and unsure. 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! She sets her jaw and glares at me for a moment. The plot is twisty and the action is propulsive. A piece of the ocean. Clown fish. Tiger prawn.