Back in the late 1990s, I lived in the most dangerous neighborhood in San Francisco. The only familiar retail outlet was a Walgreen’s pharmacy a few blocks away. The neighborhood had been an old Maltese enclave, but only one Italian grocery remained from those years. The main shopping street was littered with Cantonese BBQs (our favorite was run by a former cop from Macau), Chinese groceries, herbal medicine stores, and a dim sum parlor with a pink exterior.
So when I heard about The 100-Pound Gangster, which was set in 1990s San Francisco, I was naturally curious and eager to go back in time to a place I knew well. I’m not saying I could relate to Henry Lin’s life as a gangster in San Francisco Chinatown or in prison, but I knew was it was like to live in a rough area of San Francisco (home to most of the 60+ gun deaths in the city, which was a pittance compared to the rest of the US!).
I got into this book right away and didn’t put it down until I finished it later that evening. It’s a quick read and very engaging from start to finish. Lin is born and raised in San Francisco’s Sunset District, an area in San Francisco known for the best Chinese restaurants. His parents were not poor, but his family life was very dysfunctional. His father left the family when Lin was young and his mother favored his older brother in a way that made Lin feel all alone. No child should ever be made to feel worthless and unloved, especially a young teenager.
Lin found acceptance and family in a Chinatown gang. Soon he was in charge of twenty gangsters and had a reputation for being loyal and trustworthy (as he would find out, those two traits are nowhere near the same thing). He was arrested for assault with a metal pipe and was going to get a light sentence since he was still only in his early teens. But the prosecutor had just embarked on a campaign to crack down on gang activity and made an example of Lin, serving him an eight-year sentence.
In prison, Lin grew up. He not only became friends with prisoners from all different backgrounds, but also began to write. He wrote for a prison publication and gained the attention of a facility in Pennsylvania for troubled youth. He continued writing there and ended up leaving a year before his sentence was finished.
Throughout the book, Lin travels back to Hong Kong to visit his grandfather, some kind of official high up in the Chinese government. Although Lin never learns exactly what his grandfather did for the Chinese government, he understands that his Gong Gong was high up in intelligence and may have even worked with the CIA. As his relationship with his mother and brother deteriorate, his relationship with his Gong Gong strengthens. Lin dedicates his book to his late grandfather.
Lin feels many temptations to return to the old life after he returns from Glen Mills, Pennsylvania. He tries his hardest to stay out of his former Chinatown gang and the reader can tell how difficult it was for him abstain from that lifestyle. His last act in the underworld takes place in a casino in Macau. I found myself rooting for Lin, for him to succeed in this movie-like finale.
Although Henry Lin is a pen name and he doesn’t reveal his true identity, his voice is powerful and shines through his pages. He never discussed the neighborhood where I lived, but I knew the Chinatown Playground, as well as Sam Wo, a restaurant I went to when I visited San Francisco in 1997 for a week and ended up buying a house in said bad neighborhood on that trip.
The only thing I wished for in this book was more about his time in Hong Kong. But that wasn’t the main focus of his book, so I’m hoping for another one from him set there. Henry Lin is a fresh new voice and one I hope to read again and again.