A Contract on Henry Liu : FIRES OF THE DRAGON: Politics, Murder, and the Kuomintang, <i> By David E. Kaplan (Atheneum: $25; 604 pp.)</i>

<i> Chin, author of the novel "Donald Duk" (Coffee House Press) and editor of "THE BIG AIIIEEEEE!: An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature" (New American Library), last month was awarded the 1992 Lannan Literary Fellowship for Fiction. </i>

I have a problem reviewing this book. The problem isn’t that it’s a bad book. Nor is it that the author is white (although Chinese who don’t like its account of the death of a Chinese-American will shrug it off as the work of a white American). My problem is that I’m a Chinaman who’d like to write sympathetically about another Chinaman whose sympathies got him killed.

The man was San Francisco journalist and gift-shop owner Henry Liu. His sympathies were expressed in his critical biography of Taiwan’s President Chiang Ching-kuo, known by his friends and enemies as “CCK.” Under his father, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, CCK had been in charge of everyone who carried a gun on Taiwan. He ran the police, the armed forces and several intelligence agencies. When the generalissimo died, CCK became president of the entire Republic of China. Shortly thereafter, Henry Liu’s book was published in Chinese.

What Liu’s book had to say about the Chiang family and CCK was deemed so traitorous and offensive to their honor that Chinese intelligence commissioned gangsters to cross the Pacific, travel to Liu’s house in a San Francisco suburb and make an example of him.


My problem is: I don’t want to say this is a good book and end up like Henry Liu.

My mind changed, however, at San Francisco’s East Wind Bookstore. There I saw groups of Chinese-Americans reading Liu’s biography of CCK. These people, I knew, saw Liu’s book as an act of courage and rebellion; I didn’t want to see myself as too timid to tell the story behind it.

Opening like a gripping police procedural, “Fires of the Dragon” takes us to Henry Liu’s garage in Daly City on Oct. 15, 1984, shortly after his body is discovered. Neighbors tell the cops they remember seeing Chinese men in jogging suits with hoods and fake beards bicycling away from Liu’s house around the time of the crime. As if that weren’t strange enough, Liu’s widow, appearing more angry than anguished, says foreign agents murdered her husband, who had been working for the FBI.

Author David Kaplan, a news editor at San Francisco’s Center for Investigative Reporting, then shifts his setting to mainland China in 1936, when Liu was a child in a happily landed family. When the communists take over the mainland in 1949, Liu makes a desperate and dangerous journey by boat to Taiwan. There he naively joins an elite school run by the exiled Chiang Kai-shek, where he entertains dreams of becoming a film director until he realizes that the school is really just a factory for cranking out spies, finks and stooges. With similar naivete about political consequences, Liu then drops out of the school, going AWOL in favor of the life of a high-class moocher and gossip writer.

Eventually, Liu manages to emigrate to the United States, the land where he had dreamed of getting rich as a writer and director. Settling in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, he starts a little business with his wife and becomes a U.S. citizen to protect himself from being murdered by Taiwanese agents who have been tailing him since he dropped out of CCK’s school.

Liu accepts dinners and money from the FBI, and sets out to write the definitive biography--the only non-government-sponsored biography--of CCK. At the same time, he accepts a few thousand dollars from the Kuomintang (KMT), CCK’s political party, in return for a promise not to reveal that CCK’s sons are bastards and have syphilis. Later, however, he welshes on the deal.

What holds this opportunistic, self-serving, social climber together? Kaplan never gets a chance to tell us: He is too preoccupied with using Liu as a literary device for retelling Chinese and Chinese-American history. Kaplan’s dismissiveness toward Liu seems to grow from his stereotypical notion that Asians are less individualistic than Westerners:

“The tradition of the independent scholar in pursuit of a higher truth seemed to Henry one of those absolute concepts of the West. This was not China’s way. Historically, the press in China was a function of the state, and those who published did so at the behest of those in power. This state of affairs existed well into the twentieth century; indeed, the tradition remains alive and strong today in both the Mainland and Taiwan.”

Ironically, from the Chinese point of view, just the opposite is true. The repression practiced in both Taiwan and the Mainland was learned from the West. Both Chiang and Mao wanted to emulate Western Christian- and Communist-style dictatorships. The Chinese are in fact so individualistic that Chinese philosophy is founded on the Confucian ethic of private revenge. Free from preoccupations about Original Sin, the Chinese are better able than Westerners to exercise their own judgment. Not believing in the Social Contract, that Western bit of double talk where individuals relegate their power to the state in order to enjoy the benefits of a stable society, they view government as mutable and ephemeral. The Chinese Mandate of Heaven, after all, says that all states go through the same cycle: They come in on the goodwill of the people, fail the people and then get replaced by the people.

Mao’s Cultural Revolution was designed to stamp the Mandate of Heaven out of Chinese thought and to create an eternal Marxist state. Sad to say, they have had some success. Standing at the Gate of Heaven, the students in Tian An Men Square were in the right place at the right time. But instead of declaring the state the enemy of heaven--heaven being, in classic Chinese philosophy, a euphemism for the will of the people--the students merely asked for token “reforms.”

The children of the children of the Cultural Revolution had wimped out at Tian An Men Square, finally becoming Western with their acceptance of the Social Contract and the notion of a perpetual state for the first time in Chinese history. In this sense, the man who stood in front of the tanks at Tian An Men Square was more Chinese than the scores of student leaders doing the talking on the bullhorns.

Despite the revolutionary nature of classic Chinese thought, Kaplan persists in implying that Liu is a noble character when he’s acting like an American, and a cowardly sycophant when he stays true to his Chinese roots. The result, at times, is white racist cliche:

“But Henry Liu had been in America long enough to suffer from a peculiar kind of cultural schizophrenia. Pulling at him on one side were the old instincts of the Chinese intellectual, now amplified by the public folly of the KMT, commanding him to ally himself with those in power. But there was another, equally powerful side tugging at Henry, pulling him toward the best traditions of the West, to the ideals of human rights and a vigilant press and public; it was the idea that the truth was not a relative concept, that what one researched and wrote should answer to a higher calling. These were American laws, a constitution and bill of rights that were to be honored in deed as well as rhetoric.”

Generally, though, “Fires of the Dragon” is far from a white racist tract. Kaplan has gone well beyond the usual sources favored by reporters, and while his heroizing of Liu seems inappropriate (for Liu was a willing dupe), he displays a genuine empathy for Henry Liu’s murderers, who were manipulated by the KMT. Kaplan offers a clearly sympathetic portrayal, for instance, of Henry Liu’s killer, Chen Chi-li, the leader of Taiwan’s Bamboo Gang.

Nicknamed “Dry Duck,” Chen had a fairly self-sufficient, secure criminal empire and a noble, fearsome reputation when the KMT offered to enlist him as one of its secret agents. The whole plan to kill Liu had been his. A man who gave up his life as a dapper Mario Puzo-Francis Ford Coppola style gangster to become James Bond for the Republic of China, Chen believed the flattery the KMT lavished upon him and swallowed their bogus story that Liu was both traitor and threat to Taiwan.

After masterminding the killing of Henry Liu, the Duck fled from San Francisco to Los Angeles to Houston, from one loyal member of the Bamboo Gang to another. In hiding, however, he read about Henry Liu’s book, and it dawned on him that he’d been set up. Henry Liu had committed no crime against the the Republic of China. He had merely offended the vanity of the Chiang family. He had set in print what was common knowledge on the street.

Not fond of being had, Chen the Duck got mad. He made a tape, sent copies to the two others in on the killing and left instructions that if anything should happen to him at the hands of the Taiwanese government, the tape should be made public. When the Daly City police uncovered Chen’s involvement in Liu’s murder, Taiwan tried to throw him, the Bamboo Gang and a handful of intelligence chiefs into disgrace, and to create scapegoats in confessions forced by torture.

But then the oddest thing happened. The uproar over the killing of Henry Liu seems to have prompted CCK to dismantle parts of his police state. While granting freedom of the press and freedom of assembly in Taiwan, CCK dismantled most of the intelligence agencies and goon squads abroad that had been monitoring such dissidents as Liu. (Perhaps CCK realized that the KMT had come to bear an uncanny resemblance to the Soviet government that had oppressed him after he moved to Moscow as an impassioned teen-ager in 1925. Starry-eyed, he had left Shanghai to join the Communist Youth League, only to find himself confined to Soviet labor camps when he allied with Trotsky rather than Lenin.)

Kaplan believes that despite CCK’s born-again liberalism, real democracy still hasn’t quite taken hold either on Taiwan or in the world’s Chinatowns. The KMT still deploys spies on college campuses, he points out, and employs a Commissioner of Overseas Chinese Affairs who uses KMT money to keep watch on America’s Chinatowns.

But I think Kaplan overestimates the KMT’s influence on America’s Chinatowns. In fact, the KMT is only one of many factions fighting for dominance in the world’s Chinatowns. Kaplan might have given context to Henry Liu’s story, for example, had he told his readers that Chinatowns were founded by Tang people. Henry Liu, his wife and his friends were Han people. The Tang, who created much of China’s great art, and the Han, who created most of its great bureaucracy, are ancient rivals, each disputing the other’s claim to being “real Chinese.” Just as the KMT aspires to have influence over the leaders of Chinatowns, so too do the Tang and Han people. And so too do the Mainland Chinese and the remnants of Mao’s Red Guards.

But Chinatown is likely to remain Chinese--that is, independent of mind--despite these factions. All of the money and junkets that each has lavished on Chinatown are likely to have no more impact than the 42 churches in San Francisco’s Chinatown, institutions that have spent a century trying, without success, to extinguish traditional Chinese culture. The truth is that Chinatown, which has kept the lid on its many boiling pots, has outlasted the Christians who predicted its extinction, the Chiangs, the Maoists, and Henry Liu. The proof is--as it has always been--Chinatown itself.