[REVIEW] “The Heterogeneity of the Vast Chinese Community: Grace Chia’s The Arches of Gerrard Street” by Queenie Au

{Written by Queenie Au, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Grace Chia, The Arches of Gerrard Street, Penguin Random House SEA, 2021. 268 pgs.

It’s clear from the prologue alone that Grace Chia has prepared a complex and diverse diasporic world for her readers in The Arches of Gerrard Street. Inspired by Chia’s own experience living the UK in the 2000s, the novel welcomes us into London’s Chinatown where Donald, a young Malaysian, is shot dead in a bar on Gerrard Street. The Metropolitan Police and the mysterious community of London’s Chinatown alike appear to be indifferent to the murder, leaving it to Donald’s childhood friend Molly to travel to the British capital and seek answers for herself.

The mystery unfolds with perspectives from an array of characters, each with their own distinct voice and colourful background. Through the narratives of Molly, Ee-Ling and Mandy, we learn how these women wound up in London and their respective roles in the circumstances surrounding the shooting. The three women may seem similar as the exotic, immigrant Others lost in London’s Chinatown, but Chia is clever to play on these assumptions to highlight the heterogeneity of the vast Chinese community.

The novel explores London and its Chinese inhabitants through the eyes of locals who will never be local enough, tourists who considers the overseas Chinese to be fakes, and the stranded who struggle to find their Chinese identity. Chia successfully captures London and its Chinatown, which come to life with every small and seemingly insignificant detail. For example, the subtle use of dialects and phonetic translations further expands the diverse culture that comes under the umbrella term “Chinese”.

The book’s blurb categorises itself as a “coming-of-age” novel, presumably on account of its protagonist Molly’s growth in her journey to London. It is arguably a preferable choice to labelling it a “murder mystery”. Donald’s death is a mere catalyst to Molly’s adventures and eventual self-discovery rather than the essence of the story. While looking to solve Donald’s murder, Molly navigates London as an outsider, gaining independence and survival skills that she never thought she’d need under the protection of her parents and her boyfriend. However, despite the female characters’ united commitment to independence and pursuit for freedom, the success of their battle with male oppression and patriarchy is ambiguous as their stories draw to their respective ends.

Readers are frequently reminded by the female characters of the importance of marrying “a good man”. Molly struggles with her unrequited love for Donald and her relationship with Han Leong, the medical student whom she considers to be the objectively more “suitable candidate” for marriage. Molly’s imagination is restricted by her culture and her education, where her childhood female idols are a limited category—nurturing females such as confident principals and religious leaders, as opposed to the neighbourhood’s divorced divorce lawyer or an unmarried 50-year-old. Ee-Ling and Mandy offer counterexamples of what happens when one ends up with the wrong man, while snippets of the male characters’ points of view in between chapters are enough to destroy every unrealistic notion one might have had about them. Chia’s approach to the problem is a straightforward one as she introduces the perfect gentleman, Iain, to restore Molly’s (and the readers’) faith in both humanity and men. Nevertheless, all of this underlines the power imbalance between the genders while allowing some room for readers to discuss and consider the issues for themselves.

In contrast to its explosive start, the novel ends with a gentle simmer. Not to spoil the ending here but suffice it to say that Molly has found a home in London even as a diasporic alien.

How to cite: Au, Queenie. “The Heterogeneity of the Vast Chinese Community: Grace Chia’s The Arches of Gerrard Street.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 05 Aug. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/08/05/gerrard-street/.

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Queenie Au is a PhD student and aspiring writer living in Hong Kong. She writes about everything from books to games, movies to music, politics to philosophy, aliens to zombies. Her short story “Yanghwa Bridge” received a Special Mention at the Nivalis Short Story Contest 2017 and her essay “My Mother’s Life” won the Honourable Mention in the Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest 2017. She received her BA in Philosophy from the University of Nottingham and her MLitt in Creative Writing with distinction from the University of St Andrews. She’s currently trying to finish her first novel while fighting off her many hobbies/addictions such as crocheting, gaming and painting.

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