Everything was set. Seventeen-year-old Marina Lu had even ordered custom-made gowns for the ten bridesmaids who, in several months' time, would have preceded her down the aisle at her storybook wedding.
There isn't going to be a wedding. Marina lies dead, alone in her shiny status car in a suburban shopping center parking lot, her two-carat diamond engagement ring refracting another abruptly shattered Los Angeles dream. Was her death merely a carjacking gone bad? Or is there more to the story?
Marina's murder introduces Los Angeles Times reporter Eve Diamond to a subculture of "parachute kids," the rich Asian teens who are left to their own devices in California while their parents live and work in Hong Kong. Seeking American education and political stability for their children, the affluent parents often leave only an elderly housekeeper in charge of their vulnerable offspring.
What was Marina's story? Why was she, at such a young age, marrying twenty-four-year-old Michael Ho? Why is Marina's father, banker Reginald Lu, so reluctant to provide information? As Eve delves deeper into the mysteries surrounding Marina's life and death, she stumbles upon a troubled world of unmoored youth and parental neglect.
But Marina, in many ways, would seem to have been among the fortunate. She had money and her parents had power. Eve soon discovers a dramatically more tragic subculture, where destitute young Asian immigrants live in virtual sexual slavery. The story of May-li and her journey from a poor farming home in Fujian, China, to a brothel in Los Angeles is one that Eve will fight to tell and will never forget.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Denise Hamilton is a Los Angeles- based writer-journalist whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Wired, Cosmopolitan, Der Spiegel, and New Times. As a suburban reporter with the Times, she was the first to draw widespread attention to the phenomenon of "parachute kids." During her ten years with the Times, she also covered the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the breakup of the Soviet Union, and burgeoning youth movements in Japan. A Fulbright scholar, she taught in former Yugoslavia during the Bosnian War. She lives in a Los Angeles suburb with her husband and two young children. The Jasmine Trade is her first novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I heard the ring through fuzzy sleep. Groaning, I opened one eye and groped for the receiver. "Hello?"
"Hel-lo, Eve Diamond," said a cheerful voice on other line. "Miller here."
My editor was oblivious to, or else ignoring, my sleep-logged voice at ten in the morning, a time when most reporters were already at their desks, rustling through the daily paper and midway through a second cup of coffee. I swallowed, and tasted chardonnay, now a sour reminder of last night's excess.
"...slumped in her new Lexus, blood all over the place, right there in the parking lot of Fabric World in San Gabriel," Miller was saying. "Guess the bridesmaids won't be wearing those dresses any time soon."
I cleared my throat.
"Can I have that address again, my pen stopped working."
"Why, suuure," he said. "Hold on, let me see what the wires are saying."
I would hold forever for Matt Miller. He was my hero, known and loved throughout the paper as a decent human being, a trait the Los Angeles Times rarely bred anymore in its editors. Most of the real characters had long ago been pushed out of the profession or early-retired to pickle themselves slowly and decorously in hillside moderne homes. They had been replaced by gray-faced accountants with more hidden vices. Funny thing was, Matt didn't seem to drink too much, and he was happily married.
After a quick shower, I was out the door of my apartment. I lived in a funky hillside community ten minutes northwest of downtown. Silverlake's California bungalows and Spanish-style homes harkened back to an earlier era when the neighborhood had bustled with some of Hollywood's original movie studios. And though the studios had long ago given way to the same public storage facilities and mini-malls that infested the rest of the city, a whiff of 1920s glamour still clung to our hills and attracted one of the city's most eclectic populations -- lately it had been a wave of boho hipsters. They settled down, living cheek by pierced jowl alongside multigenerational Latino families, third-generation Asian-Americans, Eastern European refugees from communism, 1930s-era Hollywood communists, and a smattering of liberal white yuppies, all of whom somehow managed to get along. Plus it was freeway close.
Within moments I was chugging along the ten-lane expanse of asphalt, looping around downtown Los Angeles and heading east on Interstate 10. Steering with one hand, I flipped the pages of my Thomas Guide with the other, looking for Valley Boulevard and Del Mar. Out my window, the bony spines of the San Gabriel Mountains were already obscured by a thick haze. The San Gabes were a scrubby desolate range northeast of the city, from which bears and mountain lions emerged with regularity to attack the inhabitants of tract houses gouged from the hills. Each year, flash floods and icy ridges claimed a dozen or so hikers. You wouldn't think that could happen so close to the city, but it did. The way I saw it, nature, too, demanded its pound of flesh. It was only we who called it accidents.
The cars ahead of me shimmered in the heat. The forecast was for 102 degrees in the Inland Valleys, with a Stage 1 Smog Alert. Already, perspiration pooled in the hollows of my body, and I cursed the fact that the A/C was out again in my nine-year-old Acura Integra.
Oh, it happened at that place, I thought, as the mammoth shopping center loomed into view. It was an anomaly that only the Pacific Rim fantasy aesthetic of Los Angeles could have produced. Built in a Spanish Mission style, with dusky earth tones, the three-story shopping center catered exclusively to the exploding Chinese immigrant community, although on occasion, a looky-loo gringo would wander through, bug-eyed at the panorama of this Asian Disneyland.
At San Gabriel Village Square, a name developers clearly hoped would evoke a more bucolic time, you could gorge on Islamic Chinese food, buy designer suits from Hong Kong, pick out live lobsters for dinner and $700 bottles of French cognac for dessert, or take out a $1 million insurance policy on your cheating spouse.
Or, as seventeen-year-old Marina Lu had done, you could order custom dresses for the ten bridesmaids who would precede you down the aisle the following June, the wedding day Marina had planned for years with the boy she had known since junior high.
Except on this stultifying morning, fate had backed up and pulled a U-turn, and now Marina Lu lay dead, brains splattered all over the buttery leather seats of her status car, the two-carat rock on her manicured engagement finger refracting only shattered hope.
I picked my way past the yellow police tape that cordoned off the murder scene, waving my notepad and press pass and standing close enough to a burly cop so that my perfume-spiked perspiration got his attention.
"Looks like an attempted carjacking that went bad," the cop said, squinting into the sun as he recited the facts. "Witness in the parking lot heard the shot, then saw an Asian kid, about fifteen, take off in a late-model Honda with two accomplices. Fifth carjacking here this month, and the first time they flubbed it. She must have resisted." The policeman punctuated his commentary with a huge yawn that bared his fleshy pink palate.
"And there's why," his partner said, watching the homicide detective retrieve a Chanel bag and pull out a matching wallet stuffed with hundred-dollar bills. "She was gonna pay cash for those dresses. Those immigrants don't believe in credit."
Nudging the Acura back onto the freeway, I headed for my office in Monrovia, a formerly white WASPy town at the foot of the San Gabriels, where the Times had established a bureau in the halcyon years when it was busy stretching great inky tentacles into every Southland cul-de-sac. The Valley was gritty and industrial, filled with the vitality of colliding immigrant sensibilities that were slowly squeezing out the blue- and white-collar old-timers. All the big Rim cities were morphing into Third World millennial capitals. But in the San Gabriel Valley, the future was already here. I made a mental note to ask the police reporter from the Chinese Daily News out for lunch on the Times Mirror tab. I had seen him again today at the mall carjacking, interviewing madly. Skinny, with bad teeth, he looked like he could use a good meal. And I could use some fresh story ideas.
"Metro wants twelve inches," Miller called out when I stepped inside the fluorescent light of the office, letting the cool air blast my hot skin.
I wrote it up, then dawdled at my desk. Until there were some arrests, it would be just another murder in the City of Angels, which on prickly summer days averaged more than one each hour. Sure, there was the sob factor about the bride mowed down as she planned her wedding, and I milked it for all it was worth. But it was more from habit than any vestigial hope that I would shock readers into doing something about it. The story of the dead woman in the car was no more gripping than that of the two-year-old toddler killed by a stray bullet in South-Central L.A. as he played in the living room. The elderly widow clubbed to death in Long Beach by the transient she hired to weed her lawn. Or the seventeen-year-old honor student in El Sereno whose single mother had changed neighborhoods to escape the gangs, only to have her son shot when his car broke down on the freeway. For reporters and cops alike, a sort of battle fatigue had set in. We had lost our ability to be shocked. My brain flickered to the next story as I ate cold sesame noodles from the plastic bento box I packed each morning. Then it was back in the sweltering car to interview a man named Mark Furukawa for an education story.
In a small bureau, everyone wore several hats. I also covered the schools. Frankly, the education beat didn't thrill me. Single, without kids, I couldn't relate to the obsession with SAT scores and dress codes. Now a teacher had referred me to Furukawa, hinting that the youth counselor for troubled kids at the Rainbow Coalition Center could dish up something more spicy.
Their offices were in a decaying mini-mall in El Monte, a small municipality twenty minutes away. A scattering of Asians sat in the waiting room, resignation and boredom etched across their faces. Some filled out forms, while others stared out through the grimy venetian blinds into the parking lot, ignoring the dust that clung to the metal slats and balled in the corners of the room.
Soon, I was ushered into a functional cube of an office. A framed photo of an Asian woman stood on the desk. She was clad in a vintage forties cocktail dress, with a string of pearls and a low-cut décolletage. Her hair was done up in long curly waves and her eyes were big and limpid.
Behind the desk were bookshelves crammed with medical journals and psychology texts and a guidebook to Los Angeles County gangs. Wedged in between was a blue-and-white can of something called "Pocari Sweat" whose cursive lettering evoked the Coca-Cola logo.
I checked it out for a while, then glanced at my watch, wondering when Furukawa would show, until a man appeared in the door. He was in his early thirties, exuding an attitude that started with his Doc Martens, traveled north up the jeans to a jutting hip, and ended with ponytailed hair tied back in a colorful Guatemalan scrunchy. A little too street for his own good, I thought, and probably a recovered drug addict or gangbanger to boot.
"Be with you in a sec," the man said, and disappeared. I had been expecting a middle-aged guy with a paunch, not some hipster near my own age. Well. I made my way back to the other side of the desk and settled into a plastic chair, feeling the fabric stick to the back of my skirt. Now I took a closer look at the girl on his desk. She smiled into the camera, her eyes shiny with love. It figured he would have a stunning girlfriend. Nobody displayed a picture like that without intending to telegraph something.
He came back into the room and we shook hands and traded business cards. I told him my predicament and asked whether he was seeing any trends with kids in the San Gabriel Valley.
"There are a million good stories out there, but the real interesting ones, I can't talk about." Furukawa lit up a cigarette. In the San Gabriel Valley, everybody still smoked, and no one asked you to put it out. That would have been going against the culture.
He bit down on a pen and thought for a moment. "I do see a lot more straight-A kids living a double life in gangs."
"In the Asian community, hhmmm. I wouldn't have thought."
"Yeah, that's the problem with us, the model minority myth."
"I didn't mean..."
"You're not the first. But dig, most of the kids I see are immigrants. Mom and Dad may live here now but their brains are hard-wired to the old country."
Furukawa leaned back in his chair and described kids caught between traditional Asian values and permissive American culture, and fully at home in neither. The schools sent him all their problem cases and he jive-talked them into listening, which was always the first step, he said. He spoke their language. It didn't matter that he was a Sansei and they were Overseas Chinese and Southeast Asian.
"No offense, but I thought the Chinese didn't like the Japanese on account of World War Two."
He appraised me anew.
"This is the New World. We all get along. They'd like Hirohito himself if he paid attention to them."
I scribbled as he spoke, filling page after page in my notebook. He saw I was lagging and stopped, puffing on his cigarette and staring out the window until I caught up. In another, more quiet corner of my mind, I wondered how often he gave this spiel to ignorant whites and how he felt about it.
Soon he seemed to grow impatient and ambled over to the bookshelf to pull something down. Now he turned and lobbed it at me.
I dropped my pen, extended my hands, and found myself holding the blue-and-white can of Pocari Sweat I had been staring at earlier.
"Nice reflexes. You'd be good in a pinch."
He walked back to his chair and sat down, and I wondered what kind of game we were playing.
"What the hell is Pocari Sweat?" I asked. "Do you squirt it under your arms?"
"Japanese sports drink. Think Gatorade. The name is supposed to evoke a thirst-quenching drink for top athletes."
"Who's going to want to drink something called 'sweat'?"
"Exactly." He looked pleased with himself. "No one in America. But it's only marketed in Asia. Lots of stuff has English names. Asians don't get the negative cultural connotation of the English words, so you end up with something that doesn't quite translate."
"I see." I wasn't sure where this digression was going.
"A lot of the immigrant kids I counsel are like Pocari Sweat. Caught in a culture warp they don't know how to decode. The parents are even worse off. They expect their children to show filial piety, excel in school, and come straight home when classes let out. Meanwhile the kids want to date, hang out at the mall, and yak on the phone. They want all the nice consumer things they see on American TV. So they find ways to get them. The parents only wise up when a police officer lands on their door."
"And they're not collecting for the police benevolent fund."
"You got it." Furukawa stubbed out the emphysema stick. "The kids get beaten or grounded for six months. So they run away. To a friend's house to cool off, if they're lucky. If not, to a motel room rented by some older pals from school, maybe a dai lo. Where they can drink and party with their girlfriends. And when the money runs out, it's easy to get more. The dai los always have work."
"A dai what?"
"That's Chinese for older brother. It's a gang term. The dai lo recruits younger kids into gangs. Shows them a good time. Takes them out to a karaoke bar when they're underage and buys 'em drinks. Drives them around in a fast car. The good life. It's very seductive when you're fifteen. And these kids feel that once they've left home and disgraced their parents, they can never go back."
He might have been talking about the weather, or how his car needed gas. To him, this was mundane, everyday stuff. To me it was a glimpse into a suburban badland I hadn't considered before.
"What do you mean, there's always work to do?"
"Muscle at the local brothels. Drug runners. Carjackings. You name it," Furukawa shrugged. "One homie told me he gets a thousand for each Mercedes he delivers."
"Carjackings? I was out on one of those today. But it got messy," I spoke slowly. "Young bride who'll never see her honeymoon night. It'll be on the news tonight."
"Can you introduce me to some of these kids?" I tried to keep the hope out of my voice.
"Afraid not, darling."
"Why not? Now that you've told me." I was miffed.
"They're minors. There are all sorts of privacy issues. And these are fucked-up kids. They don't need any more d...
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