Let it be said immediately, it isn't a 'perfect' book (if such things even exist) there are moments in which I wish the editing had been tighter, sometimes the romance is a bit schmaltzy and the action feels a bit repetitive, but nothing of this mattered overmuch to this reader, because a whole lot of things felt absolutely right, and one of these is the outsider gaze of the main female character, Emma.
Wave in front of me a book, any book, set in China (in the wider sense, including Taiwan and Hong Kong) and I'll bite, but most of the time when those books are written by non-Chinese authors (mrs. Chan is not an ethnic Chinese) I end up throwing them against the wall out of frustration (sometimes outright fury, thankfully those are few and far between) due to mistakes, misunderstandings, poor research, exoticizing, 'I want to show you how much research went into this' or anything in between. Not so with White Tiger and the other books in the series.
Emma, the female protagonist is an Australian expat living in Hong Kong, she works as a teacher in a kindergarten and, in her free time, as a nanny. In the same day she leaves her job and gets an offer from one of her private clients, a mr. John Chen, to become a live-in nanny for his daughter. John Chen isn't exactly what he seems and Emma finds herself catapulted in a world she didn't have an inkling about.
When I surfaced for air, having zoomed through White Tiger, Red Phoenix, and Blue Dragon I tried to find out what had me so enthralled in what basically is fantasy light reading, I found a few things.
The setting: as one could hope for, the author having lived there, Hong Kong comes alive in the trilogy, and not as the magical exotic city where magical things happen, Hong Kong here is alive and concrete (pardon the pun), pollution and maddening traffic very much included.
The cast of characters is wide, but not exaggerated and they are, by and at large, well rounded.
The supernaturals in Hong Kong are mono-cultural (a nice change from the usual) and part of a whole system that is internally consistent and get explained little by little.
The main thing, though, is Emma's gaze. She is a foreigner and an outsider, her closest friends are also foreigners (an American and an ethnic Chinese from Australia), at the beginning her relationship with the local people is just about work-only, she is adjusted, reads and researches but a lot of things go above her head while she has very present some matters that can directly impact her life ( the 'trophy Western worker' for instance as a way for a company to gain face),and this doesn't change all of a sudden when she finds herself working for a shen (I'm trying not to spoil too much).
Some of the supernaturals like her from the beginning, some are very standoffish because they don't like the idea of a foreign woman in their midst and, in either case, when they talk and joke among themselves a lot of it is lost to Emma because she doesn't share either their cultural milieu or their common history. It is very well done, half a sentence there, a literary allusion buried in dialogue here, a joke that has somebody reacting strongly for no apparent reason someplace else, definitely not enough to bore a reader with no previous knowledge of Chinese myths (and the tasty morsels are explained in the author's note), but at the same time enough to give cultural dephth to the whole and to startle this reader into delighted laughter more than once either because I got it or because I didn't and wanted to find out.
So, my compliments to mrs. Chan for the whole and, specifically, for using the outsider gaze as it should be used but too rarely is.