Role of history in heritage novels
Rather than culture, it is the places they came from and where they settled that influenced the work of Chinese Malaysian heritage novelists.
IN the previous article, we saw how the heritage novels of some South Asian writers reveal the cultural diversity within their community caused by differences in places of origin, languages, and traditions.
In the heritage and historical novels by Chinese Malaysians, the factors that most influence whether and how the authors write about the nation are not related to culture, but rather to the history of their ancestors’ migration: when they first arrived on these shores, and which part of present-day Malaysia they settled in.
Chinese Malaysian heritage novelists may thus be divided into three groups: the Peranakan, whose ancestors arrived here during the 15th century; the descendants of later immigrants who came to British Malaya in the last century; and the descendants of immigrants to Sarawak during the rule of the Brookes or “White Rajahs”.
Peranakan heritage writings
The earliest evidence of Englishlanguage fiction by ethnic Chinese ISRAELI author David Grossman won the Man Booker International Prize on Wednesday, sharing the £50,000 (RM272,000) award with translator Jessica Cohen.
Grossman, the first Israeli writer to win the prize, is now expected to enjoy a spike in international sales for A Horse Walks Into A Bar.
The book unfolds over the course of a stand-up show during which comedian Dovelah Gee exposes a wound he has been living with for years and the difficult choice he had to make between the two people who were dearest to him.
“Thank you all. I will cherish this award and this evening,” Grossman said after receiving the prize at a ceremony in central London.
“I thank first of all my wonderful, devoted translator, Jessica Cohen,” the 63-year-old author added.
One of the judges, Nick Barley, said Grossman “attempted an ambitious high-wire act of a novel, and ... pulled it off spectacularly.
“We were bowled over by in this region is found in The Straits Chinese Magazine, a quarterly journal that first appeared in Singapore in 1897. The authors were localborn, Malay-speaking, Englisheducated Peranakan (or Straitsborn) Chinese, whose multilingualism and general openness to different cultures made them particularly suited to work as mediators between the British and the local people.
That openness to different cultures and the assumption of a mediating role in society seem to be discernible characteristics of Peranakan novelists. We find it in the writings of Lee Kok Liang, the first significant Peranakan fiction writer in modern times, and it has been noted in this writer’s fiction by critics and scholars.
Thus, in Lee’s works – from The Mutes In The Sun And Other Stories (1962) to Flowers In The Sky (1981) – the main concerns are not communal, but social and national; and the narratives give hardly any indication of the narrators’ (or the author’s) ethnic identity.
Peranakan heritage novels by locally based writers are rare (so far). I know of only two – Chin Kee Onn’s Twilight Of The Nyonyas (1984) and Yeap Joo Kim’s Of Comb, Powder And Rouge (1992); both are semi-autobiographical in tone and, as the title of Chin’s novel indicates, infused with a consciousness that they are writing about bygone days and vanishing values.
Most Peranakan heritage writings are nonfiction and short fiction. Well known examples are Yeap Joo Kim’s The Patriarch and Ruth Ho’s Rainbow Round My Shoulder (both published in 1975) and, today, the collections of short fiction by Lee Su Kim, such as Sarong Secrets (2014) and Kebaya Tales (2011).
Works by later immigrants
The first decade of this century saw the publication of six heritage novels about the later Chinese immigrants. They are Khoo KhengHor’s Taikor (2004), Nanyang: The Lure Of The Southern Ocean To Lands Of Opportunity And Danger 1861-1966 (2007), and Sifu: An Unusual Teacher In The Turbulence Of The Malayan War (2009); and Kuan Guat Choo’s Mouse Clutching Winter Melon (2008), Or Rau (2009), and 4...5...6 (2011).
As the titles suggest, these novels are communally centred. Since I have read only two of them, Nanyang and Or Rau, I am not able to comment on whether and how these novels as a group contribute to the national discourse.
Sarawak heritage novels
The most interesting of Chinese heritage novels are Alex Ling’s historical novels, Golden Dreams Of Borneo (1993) and Twilight Of The White Rajahs (1997). I have not been able to find a copy of Twilight, but on the theme of nation-building, Golden Dreams alone offers much to think about.
It gives insights into how the first two White Rajahs, James and Charles Brooke, carved out the territory for themselves and then set about moulding it into a sovereign nation. And it helps us to understand why the people and present state government of Sarawak seem to hold concepts of nation building that are sometimes at variance to those held by the Federal government and many Peninsular Malaysians.
Golden Dreams is not a light read – 867 pages of narrative spanning more than a century – but it is not dry and boring. There is romance, intrigue, villainy, a couple of battles and skirmishes, and struggles for economic and political power among the Europeans, the Chinese clans, and the Sea and Land Dayaks. The backdrop to all this are the development of the gold mines in Bau and the idiosyncratic rule of the second Rajah, Charles Brooke.
The main character is Stephen Young, who joins the Rajah’s service soon after his arrival in 1898. As we follow his rise from cadet officer to Resident of the First District and, finally, trusted advisor of the third Rajah, Vyner Brooke, we learn about the key aspect of Charles Brooke’s rule that seems to have left an indelible mark on the psyche of Sarawakians today: Much justice and little law and native law before British law.
In the run-up to Merdeka Day on Aug 31, we celebrate local literature with a fortnightly 10-part series on how homegrown English language novels fit into the nation’s story; this is the sixth instalment.
Chuah Guat Eng is a Malaysian author whose works include two novels (Echoes Of Silence and Days Of Change) and three collections of short stories (Tales From The Baram River, The Old House And Other
Stories, and Dream Stuff ). Currently, she teaches fiction writing at two universities in Malaysia.