Snakes Can’t Run by Ed Lin (Review)

bigWOWO Rating: Mystery Gold

This book had been sitting on my shelf for the longest time, and I finally picked it up. Ed Lin’s Snakes Can’t Run is a sequel to his second novel This Is A Bust, a continuation of the story of his protagonist, Robert Chow, a New York City cop and Vietnam War vet. In this novel, Chow is hunting snakeheads who smuggle illegal immigrants into the U.S. Along the way, he discovers secrets of his own family past and the issues faced by his childhood friends.

You’ve gotta love Ed Lin for his honest and straight-forward writing. There’s something absolutely cool and fascinating about his ability to keep you turning the pages. Robert Chow’s character is a full character with no pretension, a man who is truly trying his best to understand how he fits into society after coming back from Vietnam, a man who is trying his best to reconcile his ancestral culture with that of the dominant culture. This story was also a huge dive into Chinese culture. Some reviewers have said that it’s more of a sociological study than a mystery, which is indicative, in my opinion, of Lin’s willingness to put his culture in front for the reader to see, something that was refreshing to read.

I did have one question, and it’s actually one that I had in This Is A Bust (but didn’t think it important enough to mention). It’s this: I wondered whether the factions and infighting that Lin describes are generally as problematic as they are in the novel. For example, I know Chinese face discrimination in some parts of SE Asia, but in Vietnam? I thought anti-Chinese resentment was a trend that mostly takes place in Islamic countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. I don’t remember writers like Lac Su (whose father is Chinese) ever writing about this. Or the differences between, for example, Fukkien and Toisan people–I was under the impression that Chinese people recognized differences but really didn’t care unless it was the difference between Taiwanese and Mainlanders (which Lin also shows in detail). In other words, I thought these lines mostly existed along the lines of religion or government. I could be wrong though, and I’m sure it may depend on who you are. It’s great that this book encourages us to pose these questions.

Snakes Can’t Run is a good read, highly entertaining and fun. I will say that the domesticated (you’ll understand if you read both books) Robert Chow is probably a lot more tame than his former self, but it’s still a fun story.  Check it out!

By the way, Ed Lin has a new book coming out: One Red Bastard. ORB will be the next sequel in the Robert Chow series. Hopefully this time I won’t wait so long to review!

12 thoughts on “Snakes Can’t Run by Ed Lin (Review)

  1. The majority of the boat people refugees who fled vietnam and faced atrocities by pirates and third world government concentration camps were vietnamese chinese.

    At the close of the vietnam war, vietnam had shifted its alliance to the soviet union in order to curb China’s influence in the region. For some reason they decided that starting racial persecution would be a good idea, but the persecution allowed the state to seize and confiscate wealth from the ethnic chinese and put chinese property and networks under state and crony ownership.

    As for intra-ethnic strife, as far as I know, much of it is exacerbated by gangs that recruit from within their dialect groups and then fight one another for economic monopolies. When such gangs are extirpated then the problems disappear.

  2. Agree on the intra-ethnic part.

    As for Vietnam: was it racial persecution or was it anti-capitalist persecution? From what I remember from Lac Su’s writing, his father left mostly because it was an attack on money and property, and his Chinese father (like probably many Chinese in Vietnam) happened to have some of that.

  3. Here, this is the only thing I found on the net (and I don’t even know if it’s accurate).

    Here’s what I’m talking about (see the text that I bolded):

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoa_people

    An announcement on March 24 outlawed all wholesale trade and large business activities, which forced around 30,000 businesses to close down overnight,[19][20] followed up by another that banned all private trade.[21][22] Further government policies forced former owners to become farmers in the countryside or join the armed forces and fight at the Vietnam-Cambodia border, and confiscated all old and foreign currencies, as well as any Vietnamese currency in excess of the US value of $250 for urban households and $150 by rural households.[22][23][24][25][26][27] While such measures were targeted at all bourgeois elements, such measures hurt ethnic Hoa the hardest and resulted in the takeover of Hoa properties in and around major cities.[28][29] Hoa communities offered widespread resistance and clashes left the streets of Cholon “full of corpses”.[23][30]

    It doesn’t look like it was specific to Chinese. It was specific to property owners, and the Chinese happened to be well-represented among that group.

  4. As far as i know it was racial because the chinese community were explicitly singled out and targeted by propaganda and the security apparatus. It wasn’t just a matter of property seizure, there were implied threats on life as well as torture because they had been declared enemies of the state. In the border areas with china, chinese villagers were expelled, and villages and refugee camps on the chinese side of the border were fired upon with artillery.

    I am unsure of the extent of anti chinese racial persecution in the aftermath of the chinese invasion of vietnam and if it reached the same levels as in indonesia where even civilians were encouraged to kill and intimidate chinese civilians as they wished.

  5. The wikipedia article on the hoa leaves out the important context of the sino soviet split and the open secret of china’s new alliance with america and vietnamese state anxieties over what they saw as chinese proxy encroachment into the heartlands of indochina even while unilateral moves were made on the spratly islands. Without cambodia and laos, vietnam would have little strategic depth. Although china and vietnam had earlier agreed that chinese in vietnam should be gradually naturalised, the status before the flight of the boat people was that significant numbers of of actually had dual citizenship. Moreover, the hoa in vietnam had stayed relaively uninvolved in the struggle for independence as well as the wars, as far as i know, so they managed to retain their wealth and manpower very well compared to the majority of vietnamese who had by this time come under communist domination of their independence movement.

    It is with this backdrop that the seizures of property and edicts obliquely targeting the Hoa were instituted.

  6. They may say it was just another class war, and that these measures were targeted at property owners, but the unspoken purpose may have been to not just seize the property of the hoa but also to destroy them as a demographic and ethnic identity, especially in light of the decision to engage in hostilities with china.

    Also, consider that in order for people to be motivated to violence and other acts, racism remains a useful tool. The british empire used racism extensively in its heyday. Today, america decries racism, but we all know how her soldiers really think and feel about the muslim civilians in the occupied warzones.

    I guess we may find out if there was racial persecution by asking the surviving refugees if this was the case, but that would be digging up old wounds and memories that a lot of them still have trouble dealing with.

  7. Also, look at the number of chinese who became refugees, hundreds of thousands, and see if there are historical precedents elsewhere. Class warfare has occurred before, have they ever caused such massive exodus?

    Typically, such exodus only occur when the fabrics of entire communities are being destroyed.

    That it occured during the interregunum between vietnam’s wars seems important to me.

  8. But it’s hard to say. From his memoir, it seems that Lac Su’s dad didn’t feel if he were victimized by racism, but rather by a government trying to take his stuff. It isn’t really “class warfare”–“class warfare” would be if it were rich vs. poor, but in this case it’s more like “government takes stuff to make things equal.” A mass exodus only happens insofar as people are free to leave or are able to to get past the barriers keeping them in. For example, this threat of “government takes stuff” created a mass exodus from Hong Kong to Vancouver before the takeover, which is why Vancouver may have the world’s best Chinese food these days.

    Think about this. What if, for example, the government decided that they were going to confiscate money and property from people who worked on Wall Street. They’d have to hit up New York, which is disproportionately Jewish, more so than, say, Nebraska. Later historians might accuse the government of anti-Semitism, whereas the fact would be that there just happened to be more Jewish people employed in the fields and the area the government was targeting.

    That’s what I’m guessing happened in Vietnam. Although I’m also thinking we may have to ask someone. I might do that. One of the fortuitous advantages about learning Vietnamese history is that many of the people who left are still alive.

  9. ^ I agree, we can gain a more complete picture by talking to the survivors. I think that we may eventually have to do that just to get a better understanding, just because it’s something that’s not written much about.

    “Think about this. What if, for example, the government decided that they were going to confiscate money and property from people who worked on Wall Street. They’d have to hit up New York, which is disproportionately Jewish, more so than, say, Nebraska. Later historians might accuse the government of anti-Semitism, whereas the fact would be that there just happened to be more Jewish people employed in the fields and the area the government was targeting.”

    Racial conflict can probably never be separated from their political and economic dimensions and implications. Racism could be just a rationalisation to allow predation on another person based on a flimsy but believable premise. Wall Street today probably has very good non-Jewish representation. But what about if it were four hundred years ago, when Jews were forced to live in ghettos, not allowed to own land, had to wear marks to identify themselves in public, and then the governments of the day decided to seize property in ways that would leave them destitute? Would this be a racial war or an economic one?

    The European colonialists, everywhere they went, made sure that no faction would dominate society by pitting them against one another, opening avenues for some but barring them from others. In this way their superior armed forces could be the arbitrator of government and the functioning of society.

    Everywhere the filth of the colonialists has touched you will see traces of class rivalry hidden along racial lines. Quite frankly it is sad for me to see Asians falling for this same trick hook line and sinker. Some of the tactics are quite well established and have been used everywhere from Ireland to East Timor.

  10. I just had another thought. How should we view the following scenario:

    The admissions board for universities in a particular country claims that Asians are over-represented, hence the need for a quota to cap intakes at a certain level. Could the existence of such a quota be justified for any reason? If it could, what determines the level of the quota? It it could not be justified, then how would the needs of other parties also be met? On the other hand, could the official justification for the quota mask other motives that are simply not spoken of?

  11. hey, bigwowo, just saw this. thank you for your kind words! i hope ya dig ‘one red bastard’ when you get around to it!

    cheers,
    -ed

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