Book Review: Yin Yang Tattoo

Yin Yang TattooRon McMillan: Yin Yang Tattoo
Sandstone Press, 2010
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“If you’ll excuse us, we have stereotypes to explore,” says our hero, Alec Brodie, to a visiting investment banker as he heads off to a private room arm-in-arm with a Korean girl.

Yes, there’s irony in the quip, but the stereotypes don’t stop with the expense-account prostitute. There’s the hard-drinking foreigners with livers of iron, the exotic bar girls seemingly eager to have exotic sex with foreigners, and without giving too much away in terms of plot, there are policemen whose interview techniques haven’t moved on since the 1980s, and chaebol whose balance sheet management processes are still in the pre-IMF era. The patriotic tattoo on one of the bargirls is a distinguishing feature, but the cardboard investment bankers – professionally as well as socially useless – are distinctly schizophrenic: they can’t seem to make up their minds whether they are preppy Ivy Leaguers or still on the playing fields of Eton. They wear chinos and polo shirts but speak like wannabe toffs: “Heck of a night that. Good one. Overdid the old pop though. Bit of a head. Sore. Very sore.”

Enough negative comment though, because this is a fun book. A dead-broke Scottish photographer gets a much-needed assignment to provide images for a glossy corporate PR brochure supporting a share issue. But the project being financed, a factory which is the product of the Sunshine policy, is not all that it is claimed to be. Our hero displays some unexplained qualms about getting involved, but framed for a rather gruesome murder he seems to have no choice but to further the deception.

Fortunately though he’s spent time in Korea before, and can call on the assistance of a Taekwondo school when some rough work needs doing, and also on his knowledge of the country when he needs to get away from things in Seoul. And his previous romantic attachment provides a second string to the plot which gives his character more colour and depth.

Tongyeong

회덮밥And it is McMillan’s own experiences in Korea which give the book some authenticity and will make it appeal to Koreaphiles. The episode of the novel spent in Tongyeong (above) will make you want to go there, and the next time I go to Korea I will be sure to search out some hwe deop bap (회덮밥 – right, before getting mixed with the red pepper sauce), the raw fish and rice dish which McMillan describes with such relish.

This is Ron McMillan’s first novel, and draws extensively on his experiences as a photojournalist and taekwondo student in Korea. He has also spent time in Hong Kong and Singapore, so maybe we can look forward to more adventures for Alec Brodie elsewhere in Asia.1 His Korean capers are worth searching out for action-packed holiday reading.

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  1. According to the author’s website, a “sequel is in the works, set in the region in Northern China and Thailand where many North Korean refugees live in exiled limbo. There, they are at the mercy of corrupt Chinese officials, local gangsters, questionably-motivated South Korean evangelical charity organisations — and in permanent fear of re-patriation to North Korea, where at best, a bunk in the Gulag awaits them.” []

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