The splen­dour of Han Suyin’s works

The Star Malaysia - - VIEWS -

HAN Suyin ( pic), the charis­matic Eurasian physi­cian-au­thor who re­cently passed away aged 95, was a prolific writer whose ca­reer spanned World War II, China’s rev­o­lu­tion, the Korean War, Com­mu­nism’s rise and the de­cline of colo­nial­ism in East Asia.

Her bi­ogra­phies of Chi­nese lead­ers Mao Ze­dong and Zhou En­lai, set against the back­drop of the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion and fo­cus­ing on, and to an ex­tent lend­ing cre­dence to, why they did what they did at the time they did it, were crit­i­cised by the West for not de­nounc­ing the Chi­nese com­mu­nist regime.

At other times, the Chi­nese branded her “bour­geoisie” for re­call­ing her part-West­ern roots and their in­flu­ences on her.

Typ­i­cal of her unique style of writ­ing, ex­press­ing her in­de­pen­dent think­ing can­didly and pas­sion­ately, she once com­mented: “I write as an Asian, with all the pent-up emo­tions of my peo­ple. What I say will an­noy many peo­ple who pre­fer the more con­ven­tional myths brought back by writ­ers on the Ori­ent.

“All I can say is that I try to tell the truth. Truth, like surgery, may hurt, but it cures.”

I first came to know of Han Suyin and her writ­ings in the late 1950s, when our English Lit­er­a­ture teacher wanted stu­dents to read works by au­thors from the East as much as those of the West. So we read the po­ems of Rabindranath Tagore and Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat (trans­lated).

And then there was Han Suyin’s A Many-Splen­doured Thing, a tale of for­bid­den love, rev­o­lu­tion and ro­mance, a blend of East and West, and how dif­fer­ent so­cial and po­lit­i­cal be­liefs, ideas and val­ues can com­ple­ment one an­other side by side.

Her au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel cap­tured our emo­tions and our imag­i­na­tion, more so when we learned that she had mar­ried a Bri­tish of­fi­cer in the Malayan Spe­cial Branch, came with him to then Jo­hore, worked as a doc­tor at the JB Gen­eral Hospi­tal and later set up her own clinic there.

In 1955 Han Suyin helped es­tab­lish Sin­ga­pore’s Nanyang Univer­sity and served as its physi­cian. She was of­fered a post there teach­ing lit­er­a­ture but she de­clined, in­di­cat­ing her de­sire “to make a new Asian lit­er­a­ture, not teach Dick­ens”.

Be­tween her first novel, Des­ti­na­tion Chungk­ing (1942) and one of her last his­tor­i­cal stud­ies, El­dest Son: Zhou En­lai and the Mak­ing of Mod­ern China (1994), Han Suyin pub­lished al­most two dozen nov­els, non-fic­tion books and mem­oirs and contributed count­less es­says for main­stream news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines world­wide, of­ten in the con­text of his­tor­i­cal and gen­er­a­tional up­heaval in Asia.

Many years af­ter leav­ing school, some of us heard that A ManyS­plen­doured Thing had been made into a film, the Academy Award­win­ning Love Is A Many-Splen­doured Thing, and to our great de­light it was be­ing screened at the old Rex The­atre in Kuala Lumpur.

What bet­ter way to show our ap­pre­ci­a­tion to our former English Lit­er­a­ture teacher than to in­vite him to watch the film — with two erst­while class­mates, Oth­man, a teacher, and Lee, a hospi­tal as­sis­tant. We ab­so­lutely en­joyed the show, re­call­ing old times, es­pe­cially the fun and good for­tune we had learn­ing such splen­did works by great writ­ers and po­ets. RUEBEN DUD­LEY Pe­tal­ing Jaya

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