Publication: 26th July 2018 from No Exit Press
Alex Cohen, a twenty-six-year-old Jewish Bostonian, is living in southern China, where his father runs their family-owned shoe factory. Alex reluctantly assumes the helm of the company, but as he explores the plant’s vast floors and assembly lines, he comes to a grim realization: employees are exploited, regulatory systems are corrupt and Alex’s own father is engaging in bribes to protect the bottom line. When Alex meets a seamstress named Ivy, his sympathies begin to shift. She is an embedded organizer of a pro-democratic Chinese party, secretly sowing dissonance among her fellow labourers. Will Alex remain loyal to his father and his heritage? Or will the sparks of revolution ignite?
Deftly plotted and vibrantly drawn, The Emperor of Shoes is a timely meditation on idealism, ambition, father-son rivalry and cultural revolution, set against a vivid backdrop of social and technological change.
It is 25 years since the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Hong Kong has been handed over and trade between China and America is flourishing. Among those making money from the transition to a more commercial economy is shoemaker Fedor Cohen and his 26 year old son, Alex. Fedor runs the Tiger Shoe Factory in Guangdong, South China. The shoes are unbranded knock off, cheaply produced and sold to mass market shops that retail them with their own brand on them.
The system works because the kickbacks to party officials and others are in place and because the factory is ruled with a rod of iron by Chinese overseers who will penalise workers for taking too many bathroom breaks, singing while they work or even having mobile phones. These workers live in dormitories on site and without papers saying they work at the factory, held by Fedor and his managers, they would be effectively stateless.
The relationship between Alex and Fedor is not an easy one. They live in the Intercontinental Hotel. Fedor, whose marriage collapsed some time ago, has a Chinese mistress who is concierge at the hotel and Alex is just being inducted into the management side of the business as he becomes part owner of the factory under his father’s tutelage. While Alex knows rather a lot about shoes, he has no real idea of how the factory runs and what he sees once he begins to take a real interest, is quite an eye opener for him.
What Alex discovers is that mass market shoemaking is a cut-throat business with very tight margins, especially when kickbacks are in play. When he tries to discuss this with his father, he is brusquely dismissed as young and naïve (which he is) and told that he will soon learn what it takes to survive in their business.
But Alex has dreams and these are more than fuelled when he meets and falls for the enigmatic Hanjia Liu, a seamstress in the factory, who is called Ivy by the overseers. Ivy opens his eyes to the exploitative conditions that the workers have to endure and Alex himself is appalled at the corruption. Alex is also aware that the Party officials are keeping a close eye on the factory, looking for troublemakers and they try to recruit him into naming those workers that he thinks may be fomenting unrest.
Ivy’s sister died in the violence at Tiananmen Square and that has conditioned her politics ever since; she is now a closet political activist. She introduces Alex to Zhang, a revolutionary leader and they try to persuade him to take the lead in improving conditions in the sweatshop that is the Tiger Shoe factory.
There’s a brilliant juxtaposition inherent in the book between the persecution suffered by the Jewish people and the exploitation of the Chinese workers by Fedor. Alex can see it and does not understand why his father can’t.
As Alex struggles to find his way in the factory and as a man, the paths open to him all feel fraught with danger. It seems that he cannot both achieve what he wants and keep everyone on side. As Tony Blair might say, he is struggling to find a third way.
Tension mounts and the stakes are high for the future of the factory and its workers. Alex is going to have to do something bold if his dreams are to prevail.
The Emperor of Shoes is an incredibly well written book, finely crafted and well nuanced book. It carries a lot of humour and is beautifully argued and grimly authentic. Characterisation is lightly worn, but that does not detract from what is a gripping and compelling story with deep factual roots.
Verdict: A terrific debut novel and a story that needs to be told.
About Spencer Wise
Spencer Wise was born in the North Shore of Massachusetts where people give directions relative to Dunkin’ Donuts franchises (ie. Two Dunks down the road, turn left, at the next Dunks, bang a right).
After attending Tufts University, he did community organizing in the South End. Then he followed a girlfriend to New York and worked at Time Out NY and Sports Illustrated for a number of years and kept writing stories. One of them he showed to his close friend at the Tavern on Jane, who set the story down and said, “You know, you don’t have to be a writer.” Scarred but undeterred, Wise returned to graduate school in creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin, finally earning a Ph.D. at Florida State University. He stayed in Tallahassee where he has the privilege of sharing his passion for literature and writing with the amazing students at FSU. He lives with his brilliant partner who rocked a beret with leopard trim for most of her childhood. Unsurprisingly, they have two cats.
He comes from a long line of shoemakers dating back many generations to the shtetls in Poland. To research the book, Wise lived at a dormitory in a shoe factory in South China where the novel takes place.
He was recently awarded a fellowship to attend the Vermont Writer Studio this summer.
Follow Spencer on Twitter @SpencerWise10