Like the fading of a dream: Thuận’s ‘Chinatown’


Chinatown is Thuận’s second novel; her first to be translated into French, and published by a major French publisher, Le Seuil, in early 2009. Chinatown is not an easy book to read. It starts and ends at a suburban Parisian train station, where an unidentified package stops the train and disrupts the day for all its passengers. The two hours were enough for some to get angry, for others to abandon the train and hop on a bus. It was enough for the narrator, sitting with her son’s head on her shoulder, to fall into more than two hundred pages of reflections, memories and dreams, intertwined to form a text within which the reader is meant to get lost, always unsure whether what we read is simply figments of the narrator’s imagination.

Chinatown is difficult to summarize. Fragmentary, lacking chapters and numbers to organize the content, the book is like a box of puzzles somebody accidentally spilled onto the carpet. It is perhaps a love story, which took place at the height of the Sino Chinese war when to fall in love with a Chinese Vietnamese named Thuỵ could result in interrogations at the police station. Yet, it is also a story about the son who grows up in Paris but dreams about a day when he can parachute into Iraq to establish another Chinatown. Or, more than anything, it is a story about loss and being lost, in Hanoi, Leningrad and Bellevue, Paris, at the end of which the reader will lose sight of all the characters as we return to the small train station in a French suburb. Like the fading of a dream.

Thuận’s writing does not make it easier for the reader to navigate this maze of space and time. Full of repetition, irony and sentences begun, but left unfinished, she opens up the secure space from which the writer writes up the world through another novel, which weaves in and out of the narrative of Chinatown itself. We need to tread with caution, the multiple paths within the story, because her words will lead us astray. We may want to put it down, a few times, during our first reading to sew together the pieces of information, given to us with so much intensity and seemingly at random. Yet, in the end it is a powerful narrative that will leave us unsure, uneasy, wondering whether it should go on. The question remains whether this power, of linguistic and formal nuances, symptomatic of what some critics call postmodern Vietnamese prose, can be found in the translation.

'Chinatown' in Vietnamese

Thuận (pen name of Đoàn Ánh Thuận) is a Vietnamese writer who currently resides in Paris, France. She is also the partner of artist Tran Trong Vu. She has published 5 novels: Made In Vietnam, Chinatown, Paris 11 tháng 8T Mất Tích (T Disappeared) and Vân Vy. Chinatown was translated into French by Đoàn Cầm Thi, Thuận’s sister. This review is of the Vietnamese version of the book, published by Da Nang Publisher in 2005.

To buy Chinatown in French, go to

– post by Thang Dao, a doctoral candidate in American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, where she is working on a dissertation about Vietnamese and Vietnamese diasporic literature


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