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Into the Tiger's Mouth: A Novel of the China Trade, 1857-1863 Paperback – April 10, 2014
From the Back Cover
Inspired by the experiences of Richard Starr Dana, author David T. Dana III's great-grandfather, Into the Tiger's Mouth offers new perspectives on a turbulent period. As a young man, Dana lived in three vastly different Chinese cities - Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Hankow. Now, his letters and reminiscences come to life. Starr begins his adventure as an expatriate American merchant, living a life of luxury in the British colony. His curiosity pulls him deep within China's foreign culture, where he fights greed and corruption. As the British and French fight the opium wars, and the Chinese Taiping Rebellion ravages the land. Along the way, Richard Starr faces death, illness, moral conundrums, and profound loneliness in a culture he is worlds away from truly understanding. Nothing is as he expects. Conniving Chinese merchants help him with one hand and cheat him with another while China is threatened by violence and foreign invasion. Amid rebellion, war, corruption, poverty, and opium, conditions deteriorate around him. Dreams of his own fortunes ebb and flow, and he questions his identity. Back at home, Civil War tears America apart. Nothing is as it should be. "An exciting story based on an ancestor. From the shoot "em up fights, to the very subtle love story, to the quest for money and conflict of values" -Phyllis Forbes Kerr, editor, Letters from China "Moving and interesting stories in this fascinating novel bring the reader back to the days of the old China trade" -Yong Chen, History Department, University of California-Irvine
About the Author
David T. Dana III is a retired lawyer and US Marine Corps veteran with an abiding interest in Chinese history. The author of two nonfiction histories, A Fashionable Tour and A Generous Idea, he graduated from Princeton University with honors in history and from the Yale Law School. He lives in Carlsbad, California.
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Twenty-one year old Richard leaves his comfortable life in New York to sail to China where he will work for the largest American company that trading in Oriental goods. He lands in Hong Kong and begins work in a rather Dickensian fashion bent over a table making three long hand copies of every transaction. Soon, because of his diligence and willingness to obey orders, he is given many more responsibilities that take him to Shanghai, Hankow, Foochow and Canton. The China trade is a fascinating story with the many countries who want to dip their fingers in, bring out money in some form and send it "home".
Along the way, Richard learns to deal with a colorful cast of well drawn characters including a menacing pirate, Fookie Tom, and Kung Loong an especially wily merchant banker. And in most of his dealings up river and down all sorts of fights take place with staves, bamboo poles, guns whatever comes to hand. He is well protected by the Chinese men who work for the Trading company, but it makes for a lot of action and Dana does that very well.
Against the background of the Taiping rebellion and the second Opium War the young man encounters more action: damsels in distress, financial finagling, river travel, pirates, poverty and dirt, accepting the "squeeze", loyalty and deceit, "romance", decisions about opium......but mainly about China. Not the romantic one that he had envisioned, but one that took him from a New York Society bred boy to a worldly manhood.
With China so much in the economic news this past decade, "Into the Tiger's Mouth" is a particularly interesting read.
Richard Starr, Dana's main character, is a bright young man from a wealthy background looking for his first job...preferably one where he can make a lot of money and retire soon. He has some rather romantic notions about becoming a China tea trader. Now this is 1850"s China, not modern China. Those illusions are quickly crushed. China is a dirty, filthy place, given to violence and with little respect for life or death. He interacts daily with a large group of thieves, crooks and questionable characters. Frustrated that he is not enjoying much financial benefit from his efforts, he abandons some and soon most of his ethical concerns. He becomes a master of the Chinese squeeze.
Dana carries the reader through the old adage "if you lay down with dogs, you will wake up with fleas". The book gives the reader a close and personal peek at China's backyard, which is much akin to a modern day Mexican border town.
I knew little of China and certainly nothing of 19th century China and trade relations with the west. This was a great tutorial. A good read. I hope there is a sequel.
All the characters in the novel, and in particular the hero Richard Starr, are well drawn. I really cared about what happened to this character based on Dana's great grandfather from the time he started out as a naive young man abroad to the end, which saw him back in the U.S. as a slightly world-weary but nonetheless forward looking new recruit about to be involved in the American Civil War. Starr was a very believable character throughout the novel and the lively action we saw through his experiences in China served to reinforce the idea that he would look for more when he returned home.
This is a moving and exciting novel, which will be appreciated by history and travel lovers in equal measure.