Alex Cohen is being groomed to take over the family business, the Tiger Step Shoe Factory, in Foshan, China. The factory has relied on cheap labor to manufacture 'casuals for the masses' back in the U.S., but sales are starting to flag, and Alex has his own ideas about taking the business in a new direction ... Wise’s debut offers a fascinating look at contemporary China, but its greatest strength is the struggle between a hard-to-please father bent on preserving what he has worked so hard to build and a son who is trying to find his own way.
Despite nods to recent Chinese history, Wise’s novel stands on shaky ideological ground. Only through a relationship with a disadvantaged Chinese factory worker does his privileged American protagonist come to affirm what are understood to be Western values of equality and human rights, a plotline that risks reducing China and its problems to mere cultural props in a Western man’s coming-of-age story. With Chinese novels increasingly available in English translations, readers wishing to avoid such Western-centrism might consider provocative alternatives like Lu Nei’s Young Babylon and Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls ... Nevertheless, The Emperor of Shoes underscore the extent to which the promise of economic opportunity still moves people across great distances on our planet ... 'So we’re the bridge,' Alex says to an American-born friend. To which his friend replies: 'Right. The middle step. We ain’t Chinese, but we ain’t American. We live here, from there. Inbetweeners.'
...Alex Cohen is in China to learn the ropes of his father’s shoe company. While there, he meets and falls for Ivy, a member of an activist group hoping to start a union among the workers. Alex wants to support her cause, as he knows that workers are being exploited at the factory. But his father is pressuring him to fall in line and step into his new management role. Then a government official asks Alex to bring him the names of the union organizers, and Alex finds himself at a crossroads ... Wise’s well-paced novel moves inexorably forward with functional but never brilliant prose. While Wise resists simplifying the story by contrasting the life experiences of Alex and Ivy, readers will be more interested in Ivy and wish more time had been dedicated to her version of events. Wise, who has worked in his own family’s shoe factory in southern China, skillfully depicts the interdependent yet strained relationship between Chinese factory workers and foreign capital in this revealing story.