30 Jul / Diamond Head by Cecily Wong
If you’re tuned to celluloid pop culture, you probably heard about the Aloha casting controversy earlier this year, most specifically that casting Emma Stone as a hapa Chinese Hawaiian Swedish character named Allison Ng was probably not the smartest (accurate? effective? politically correct?) choice. Depicting Hawai’i as pretty much 99% white with the excuse that Hawaiian sovereignty activist Bumpy Kanahele got to play himself didn’t satisfy the naysayers much. The film was probably a box-office dud (what else might that $37 million budget have accomplished?!) for reasons other than just casting, but Stone recently did come out publicly to admit that “Her ‘Eyes Have Been Opened’ by Aloha Controversy.”
Hollywood aside, here’s a summer alternative on the page (or stuck in the ears – the mellifluous five-woman cast is a major bonus), which at least has the promise of authenticity. That cloyingly exoticized cover (blossoms? perfect Gong Li partial? how-to-make-an-asian-book-cover-101?) might make you balk initially, but give the words a fighting chance.
Like her characters, first-time novelist Cecily Wong is Chinese Hawaiian, born on Oahu where most of her family still resides. In an article for Bustle.com, Wong estimates that her book is “[e]ighty percent fiction, 20 percent family stories.” In terms of veracity, Wong explains she “used real facts from real family history, but dropped them into a fictional plot.”
As Diamond Head opens, the mother, wife, and daughter of Bohai Leong are called together to remember and mourn: his untimely death and its aftermath serve as the frame to reveal three troubled generations of the Leong family. Transplanted from China to Hawai’i in the early 20th-century by the late patriarch, shipping magnate Frank Leong, the family accumulated vast riches, but contentment and happiness remained elusive commodities.
Frank saves Lin from abusive parents, but her luxurious life in Hawai’i is based on half-truths and lies. Her daughter-in-law Amy’s heart belonged always to another, in spite of Bohai’s wrenching devotion. The only Leong grandchild – Amy and Bohai’s daughter Theresa – is still a rebellious teenager, yet carries the latest Leong-to-be in her growing belly. Each generation is haunted by the promise – fulfilled and broken – of “an invisible red string … [which] connects destined lovers, despite time or place or circumstance. It can stretch and tangle, but never can it break.” That said, it sure can screw things up.
Interwoven with late 19th-century Chinese history, the colonization of the Hawaiian islands, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, all the way through 1964, Wong’s expansive saga is definitely a page-turner; it’s also sprawling, messy, and not without the occasional raised eyebrow. Lin’s narrative after the midway ‘big-reveal’ could have been better flushed out, her sister-in-law Hong’s story dangles, Theresa’s spoiled petulance is overdone, and Bohai’s younger brother lacks depth in both page time and character.
Regardless of possible literary faults, Amy Tan and Lisa See fans will surely welcome Wong into their fold, ready to add Diamond Head to summer bookshelves. Groupies in search of less formulaic, fresher options might turn to Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You (Ng blurbs Diamond) or Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. Indeed, that such authentic choices abound might be just the stories to which Hollywood needs to pay closer attention – eyes wide open and all, ahem!