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.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Reads - By CHUAH GUAT ENG star2@thes­tar.com.my

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.

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