Review by

Cinema Love

Striking debut tale of immigrant dreams and secret lives

It’s the mid 1980’s in Mawei, a district in the Fujian province of China. Nestled within its humdrum streets is the Workers Cinema, a smoky, graffitied haven for gay men seeking illicit love. Here, against a backdrop of old war movies, liaisons are enjoyed and the pause button pressed on reality. In Cinema Love by Jiaming Tang, we meet regular punter, Old Second, and his future wife, Bao Mei, who runs the box office. Tang’s bold, heartfelt debut spans forty years and two continents, as the couple build a new life together but continue to be haunted by the secrets of their cinema days.

The Workers’ Cinema is frequented by men who don’t want to be seen, all of them have stories to tell, and many of them have wives too. Bao Mei is there to lend an ear, deflect police attention, and stop the occasional irate wife from storming in and catching her husband in flagrante. Her unconventional working day is blessed with an affinity with cinema stalwart, Old Second, a connection that will grow, without fanfare or passion into the kind of relationship you see in couples who have gone through great adversity together.

Having fled from the renunciation of a homophobic family, Old Second’s lonely suburban existence has been transformed by the Workers’s cinema, his comfortingly platonic relationship with Bao Mei, and an unexpected love affair that is ultimately as doomed as his beloved film theatre.

It is ‘an arsonist’s flame’ that heralds both the end of the cinema and new beginnings in 1980’s New York City, mecca for dreaming immigrants, and for Old Second a city whose ‘filth has fallen like a stone into his mind’s heart.’

Tang’s ambitious and absorbing novel explores the issue of personal identity in a myriad ways. As Chinese immigrants in a western metropolis, Bao Mei and her husband find themselves limited to work in the service industry, a world of prep cooks, nail technicians and seamstresses.The camaraderie of their fellow workmates and neighbours in Chinatown is, at least, some consolation for the shoddy housing, insecurity and neighbourhood lawlessness that defines their American experience as it turns into years and then decades.

Tang’s decision to highlight the lives of his female characters in his tale of closeted men is striking and perceptive. Bao Mei is not the only Chinese woman here in a deceptive marriage with a gay man. There are others, whose dreams of creativity and self-fulfilment have been stymied by cultural expectations and poverty. Having married men who loved men and were haunted by it, they too are haunted; cheated-upon wives striving to live ‘dignified, proud and pretend-happy lives.’

Honouring the long tradition of the supernatural in Chinese literature, both dreams and spirits sit alongside Bao Mei and Old Second, declining to rest in peace. Unbeknownst to the couple, more corporeal reminders of their past have traversed the globe with them, harbouring their own secrets. The Workers’ Cinema is not done with them yet.

Already garnering much press attention, this is an arresting debut from a writer to watch.

Cinema Love by Jiaming Tang is published by John Murray, 304 pages.

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