BOOK REVIEW One man's Korean war Yin Yang Tattoo by Ron McMillan
Reviewed by David Simmons
Every expatriate in Asia has a story to tell: What brought them here, what made
them stay, how do they survive in an alien culture? Whom have they met, whom
have they loved, whom have they hurt, and who has hurt them?
Some write their stories down, and even publish novels. Generally, we'd prefer
that they didn't.
There are, however, notable exceptions, and Ron McMillan's debut novel Yin Yang
Tattoo joins that small but happy rank.
"It's not great literature," said McMillan, an amiable Scot, as he
handed Asia Times Online a copy when we met at Southeast Asia's most cunningly
concealed Starbucks, at The Emporium shopping complex in Bangkok.
And it isn't, but for those seeking such a thing, War and Peace is
available from Amazon for US$11.16. Yin Yang Tattoo is a violent,
sex-and-alcohol-soaked romp through South Korea centered on an elaborate
corporate scam by a mythical chaebol.
As a work of escapist fiction, the book is a success, with an intriguing plot
written in a highly readable style. At its higher purpose as a cautionary tale,
however, it may fall a little short.
author is a photojournalist with long experience in Asia, including no fewer
than five visits to North Korea, and nearly 50 to mainland China (see
Where few men have gone before, Asia Times Online, February 4, 2010).
Written in the first person, Yin Yang Tattoo is the story of Alec
Brodie, a photojournalist with long experience in Asia, including visits to
North Korea. Oh, and he's a Scot. McMillan insists the similarity ends there,
more or less.
The prologue, set in 1990, finds Brodie meeting a sizzlingly sexy woman named
Miss Kim in Seoul's notorious after-hours Itaewon district, and then, 15 years
later, undergoing a vicious beating by South Korean police. Brodie spends the
rest of the book discovering the link between these two events.
In 2005, as a struggling photographer in London with angry creditors beating
down his door, Brodie is suddenly offered a commercial-photography job by a chaebol
called the K-N Group and flown to Seoul, leaving his long-suffering but loyal
assistant Naz behind to fend off the crowds clamoring for overdue payments. The chaebol
has agreed to Brodie's outrageous fee, meaning not only a respite from his
financial woes, but an expense-paid trip back to South Korea, where he spent
many happy, besotted years.
But things quickly go sour, first is the discovery that an old nemesis, an
American public-relations flack named Ben Schwartz, is overseeing the job
Brodie has been hired for. One shock follows another, culminating in a tragic
event involving the titular tattoo, which puts Brodie in the thrall of K-N's
slick president Chang.
The chaebol, we learn, is on the brink of collapse after a series of
massively costly, and even more massively disastrous, investments. In a
desperate bid to save itself, it has organized a global depository receipt
(GDR), which Brodie's friend Bobby Purves, a fellow Brit now a senior manager
for a top brokerage in Seoul, explains is "a mechanism set up to attract huge
amounts of inward investment that the group badly needs to service a debt
that's been out of hand for years".
The GDR is based on the chaebol's moves into an area out of the reach of
its competitors - the untapped hinterland north of the Demilitarized Zone.
But the point is that the Hermit Kingdom is also out of reach of the busybodies
who, under South Korean law, must conduct a due-diligence investigation before
the GDR can be authorized. Since these people can't physically go to North
Korea to see the fancy factories K-N Group says it is building there, Chang and
Schwartz have arranged to produce a slick prospectus with "evidence" of the
Brodie's role is crucial, as he not only is one of the few professional
photographers who has been to the North and has a portfolio, he is almost as
desperate for money as K-N itself and can be counted on to keep his mouth shut.
Or he could be, with a little extra incentive - which is where the yin-yang
tattoo comes into play.
By this time, though, Brodie has realized he can never win by playing along
with these people. They are absolutely ruthless, and not only is it highly
unlikely he will see a single won of his fee, it's pretty clear he's about to
spend the rest of his life in a South Korean prison - if he's lucky. So he uses
his wits - and other people - to escape.
The strength of this book is its setting. Few novels in English are set in
Korea, and it is still largely unknown territory to Westerners. The author,
however, does not fall into the trap of using his intimate knowledge of the
country to show off to his readers, nor to intimidate or confuse them with his
understanding of the Korean language. Rather, he uses these to make the story
more interesting, and to equip his protagonist with the skills he needs to
survive a complex and lonely ordeal.
McMillan's claim to fame is that when Yin Yang Tattoo first went on sale
in Asia (it is available in bookstores in Thailand, South Korea and elsewhere,
as well as Australia and New Zealand), the organizers of Hong Kong's annual
International Literary Festival suggested he attend the event in March 2011 -
and then changed their minds. Apparently, on a second look, the book became not
"literary" enough for the esteemed festival, or, in the words of its chairman,
it was found "altogether too highly colored for our kind of festival ... pretty
Trademark Hong Kong pomposity? Perhaps, but the novel is pretty raunchy - the
sex scenes are extremely graphic, the descriptions of Brodie's alcohol abuse
are enough to give the reader a hangover of his or her own, and the violence is
over the top. As well, many of the characters, especially the villains (and
there seems to be a long queue of them trying, and often succeeding, to make
Brodie's life hell), are caricatures.
An exception is Chang, a plausible Asian chief executive who slickly combines
panache and malevolence and, of course, gets away with his horrendous crimes,
living to scheme and scam another day in the finest tradition of capitalist fat
The book's low points are compensated for by McMillan's brash and irreverent
writing style. It is an excellent complement to the character of the
protagonist, and succeeds in getting the reader to root for Brodie, who after
all is a bit of a jerk and, it turns out, the author of his own misfortunes.
Even the chairman of the Literary Festival, we suspect, would have trouble
suppressing a smile at the author's descriptions of the hairpiece of the smarmy
banker Geoff Martinmass, variations on the theme of deceased avians, or of the
residence of the kindly Mr Ryu, which is "decorated with no expense spared and
zero taste applied" complete with "eye-wateringly ugly carpets" and a stuffed
deer, "red eyes sparkling in the flickering light from fake candles sprouting
from candelabras that would have made Liberace blush".
The book's title, a little like the Taoist philosophy of yin and yang itself,
is a double entendre. The yin-yang symbol, or tajitu, is the
central element of the Taegeukgi, the flag of the Republic of Korea, which in
turn is the central element of the tattoo. And the story links two yin-yang
personalities: the above-mentioned Miss Kim and another woman named Rose. More
skillfully drawn than the villains, these characters are the book's most
interesting - though they never actually meet.
Rose comes in near the end of the book as an apparent bit player, yet she turns
out to be Brodie's salvation in more ways than one. Her arrival on the scene
will seem contrived and overly convenient to some readers, but not to
McMillan's fellow expats. It happens all the time: a chance meeting, perhaps a
shared coffee or beer, then another equally coincidental meeting months or even
years later. How we handle such meetings can often pay unforeseen dividends. It
can also come back to bite us.
For the life of the long-term Western expat in Asia is a complex mix of
survival, adaptation to ancient and mysterious traditions and cultures,
language hassles, opaque bureaucracy and corruption, and adventure, often
involving over-indulgence in mind-altering substances and sex. It is too easy
to allow all this to distract us from the social rules that apply everywhere,
the requirement to respect our fellow humans and grant them the dignity they
crave, even if we don't - and can't - fully understand their world.
Alec Brodie learns this too late. So does the reader, as the climax is a bit
too ... well, climactic to tie things together clearly. The motivations of the
main villains are explained, somewhat, but don't seem to connect fully with
their characterizations earlier in the book. The closing pages are an orgy of
Charles Bronsonesque revenge, winding things up in a blood-red haze that
suggests the author thought, "Och, this thing's already 300 pages - better
finish it and join the wife for tea."
Still, the good news is that overall, Yin Yang Tattoo is an enjoyable
read, and a worthy first effort. And the better news is that there's a sequel
in the works.
Yin Yang Tattoo by Ron McMillan. Sandstone Press (2010). ISBN-13:
978-1-905207-31-2. Price US$14.95, 310 pages.
David Simmons is a Canadian editor based in Bangkok.