Temptation and Consequence in Vanessa Hua's 'Deceit and Other Possibilities'

Vanessa Hua. (Photo: Mark Puich)

Lies, betrayal, cheating, heartbreak -- these are the themes that run through Vanessa Hua's debut story collection Deceit and Other Possibilities. Out this month on Willow Books (Hua was the publishing imprint's grand prize winner for prose), the stories here are filled with desperate, confused, liminal people making questionable life choices. The American-born Hong Kong movie star facing a sex scandal of epic proportions. The defrocked 21st-century pastor looking to make a comeback in Hong Kong, by any means necessary. A woman whose husband's sudden death forces her to reflect on their mutual history of infidelity.

Many of these stories take place in, or peripherally involve, the San Francisco Bay Area -- no surprise since Hua, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, lives locally. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she's written before about what it's like to grow up between cultures, and that tension is often explored in these stories.

In "Line, Please," the memorable opening story, Kingsway Lee is a Bay Area-born young Chinese-American man who moves to Hong Kong in his late teens and stumbles into a movie career, becoming a sudden sex symbol. His parents back in America couldn't care less; to them, he'll always be the college dropout that never became a doctor. Across the ocean, Lee finds a new life, a "bigger, brighter version, me all along, like a moth's hidden brilliance, exposed in ultraviolet."

At a commercial shoot, he experiences a sense of power for the first time in his life. Here he is desired, his Western manners and Chinese appearance making him a charmed creature.

The photo shoot for a bottled grass jelly drink seemed legit. The scout didn't fleece me with an up-front fee, and miraculously, the make-up artist with the smoky voice and smoky eyes seemed to be flirting with me. With me! In high school biology, the teacher had explained that asexual organisms, like the amoeba, divided and reproduced without a partner. When the teacher asked for more examples, someone blurted out, "Kingsway."

For the next few years, Kingsway's star soars in Hong Kong. He's a household name, a teen heartthrob, and he views his accidental success as a "windfall, a blessing -- what I was owed after my early, unhappy years."

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That is, until, his phone is hacked. Soon, a Chinese tabloid, owned by Kingway's mentor Uncle Lo, has spread hundreds of photos with him in compromising positions from young starlets. When he returns home to his parents, tail between his legs, he's forced to reckon with a quick, dramatic loss of status.

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"What They Shared" is another powerful story in the collection, an excerpt from which was published last month in Lena Dunham's 'Lenny Letter.' The setting is a campground in Big Sur. Told from the perspective of two different characters, the story follows Lin and her husband Sang, both recent Chinese immigrants and software engineers. They've lived in the United States for four years, and Sang is ready to return home to China. Lin, not so much.

Lin would always belong to dirty and cramped Beijing but here she could give herself away. If she returned to China, she could already picture the rest of her life. A baby, living in high-rise apartments with her parents, she and Sang advancing toward middle management, growing old, and playing with her own grandchild someday. Comfortable but predictable. Here, there was discovery, uncertainty, possibility.

There's one problem. Lin has recently been laid off from her job at a failing startup, and she doesn't have a green card. To make matters worse, she hasn't told her husband about the layoff. The lie creates a brittle tension that underlies a camping trip with Lin's parents who are visiting from China, and who find camping baffling.

In China, camping was considered a Western idiosyncrasy. People did not buy expensive gear to sleep on the ground. Why strive to be uncomfortable, when you had a bed that your ancestors can only dream of?

The second character, Aileen, a first-generation Chinese American and San Francisco native, is camping at the site next to Lin. Surrounded by her boyfriend's white, upper-middle-class jock friends, Aileen acutely feels her outsider status. She cringes at the Chinese character tattooed on a woman named Janey's bicep, the references to Buddhism: "White people who were more Chinese then her made Aileen feel guilty."

Later, Aileen wonders whether Reed will ever understand her completely -- or will culture always stand in the way?

She and Reed never talked about the slights, the little judgements, and assumptions that people made. Your English is excellent. Your eyes look tired. Would he ever understand that the world saw her different? Maybe he thought they had moved beyond the need for discussion. What she feared was that he didn't think about it at all.

The juxtaposition of the two women's stories, and an eventual meeting in a bathroom where they size each other up, work well to capture the ways in which culture and assimilation can become a vise on the soul.

Hua excels not just at creating underlying tensions for her characters. She also manages to turn what might be mundane into high drama. In "The Shot," a fiery Southern California golf course becomes the site of an epic battle of will (with a side of regret) and an expected semi-tragic ending. In "The Older the Ginger," an elderly cook returns to his village in China after years of toiling anonymously in San Francisco Chinatown restaurant kitchens to find himself steeped in an altogether different identity. And in "The Responsibility of Deceit," a young Chinese man finally comes to terms with being gay and releases the weight of his secrets.

What lies at the core of the book is the unhappiness that tends to follow secrets and betrayal. When Anna, a middle-aged woman on a solo camping trip, after her husband dies of a brain aneurysm, reflects on an abortion she'd had after cheating on him, she thinks "Although she kept this secret to protect him, she hadn't realized it would distance them."

It's a hard lesson learned, and one that most of the characters in Deceit and Other Possibilities eventually take to heart.

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Vanessa Hua celebrates a book launch for Deceit and Other Possibilities on Wednesday, Oct. 5, at the Booksmith in San Francisco. Details here.

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