Sally’s Rating: 2.5/5
Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze is about a young country boy who navigates the dangers of a big city that is steeped in the traditionalism of its past. Apprenticed to a coppersmith, Young Fu’s escapades in 1920’s Chungking reveals the ups and downs of growing up in a treacherous city filled with amazing wonders and spectacles.
Young Fu is a naïve, foolish character who lacks any semblance of street smarts. While he has a yearning for knowledge, his human blunders get him into more trouble that he can handle. In fact, most of the situations he gets into are a result of his foolish mistakes. Twice, he ends up in debt – once when he buys a watch out of his price range and another time when he gets suckered into taking over a losing player’s game of dominoes.
He is also an inherently good character with no moral ambiguity, and he always ends up making the right choice when in a difficult conundrum. Every chapter serves as a moral lesson, resulting in many Chinese proverbs scattered throughout the book. I just wish there was some moral complexity in his motivations and more depth to his character. Instead, the plot of the book revolves around Fu making a dumb mistake and then having to fix it so nothing else gets bungled as a result.
The main character’s mother Fu Be Be ended up being my favorite character in the book. Despite having a stern and no nonsense personality, she genuinely wants her son to succeed. I could easily imagine her rolling her eyes at her son’s antics or being proud of his advancement in his profession. The poor woman lost the lottery, though, when she ended up with Young Fu as her son and all the trouble that came with it.
1920’s Chungking provides an interesting backdrop among all the shenanigans that Fu gets involved in. The story touches upon different parts of China’s customs, traditions, and history. The reader is introduced to the art of making copper, the dangers of opium smuggling, the spread of cholera, the oppression of coolies, and the fear of evil spirits and demons. With these small details, author Elizabeth Lewis enhances the narrative with these bits of Chinese culture and transports readers to a completely different era.
Overall, Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze was a decent read that showed China during an interesting time. The book would have improved with a shorter page count and a more complex main character. If you are looking for a period piece on pre-communist China, this coming of age novel offers a glimpse into that foreign world.