Tag Archives: Han Suyin

The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam

I’m so far behind on book reviews….for some reason book reviews are really dominating my blog. At some point soon I’ll try to get back to other topics but for now, here’s another book review:

headmasters-cover-US-220wideVincent Lam grabbed everybody’s attention by winning the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2006 with his book Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. I was not actually able to get heavily into this book (my fault, clearly), but when I saw The Headmaster’s Wager at the library I picked it up. I found the premise very intriguing and as soon as I started reading knew I was reading something wonderful that was nevertheless going to devastate me. It takes place in Saigon and Cholon during the Vietnam War, so that’s a rather a giveaway.

In 1994, my husband and I moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for his job. While there I began to read books about the history of the region and became interested in the Chinese Diaspora. There’s a great book called Sons of the Yellow Emperor by Lynn Pan that traces the emigration of millions of Chinese across the globe. I also read about how the Chinese became scapegoats for nationalists in South East Asia in the ’60s. Chinese were victimized wholesale in Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries that were looking for external enemies in their drive for self determination, even though the Chinese had been there for generations and had contributed significantly to those countries’ economies. In Indonesia, Chinese-owned businesses were appropriated, but when the Indonesians had trouble running them, the Chinese were quietly asked back. In Malaysia, the bumiputra laws ensure that every corporation has to have a certain percentage of Malay directors, but when I was there, it was common knowledge that the Malays often sold their seats on the board to Chinese. Racism in Malaysia was institutionalized in the bumiputra laws which were enacted in the 1970s. These laws led to an increase of Malays in the middle class, but marginalized other races such as the Chinese and Indian Malaysians. There was a saying that if you were Malay, you could get into university with a 60% average; if Chinese, you’d need 90%, and if Indian, you’d need to be Einstein. I remember meeting privileged Malay kids at parties and was always disgusted by their attitudes of entitlement, knowing that it was these unfair and unearned advantages that allowed their parents to send them abroad to school and spoil them (not that there aren’t entitled kids everywhere). A lot of Malaysians also had lots of deep-seated insecurities that they masked with arrogance, because at some level they knew what was what. When I was writing for local magazines I got to know the people who were running volunteer organizations and it wasn’t usually the Malays (mind you, there weren’t a lot of Chinese tai tais there either). Most of the volunteers I met were Malaysian Indians who were concerned with social injustice and inequality, and worked hard to alleviate the problems of Malaysian life. Now, I am wildly generalizing here; I also met a brilliant female Malay lawyer who worked for women’s rights. (Now, would she have arrived at that position if she hadn’t had “unfair” advantages? Hmm.) Overall, I found the institutionalized racism detrimental to Malay society and it also lessened my respect for that country’s government. Here in Canada we have laws and programs to give advantages to First Nations communities, but again it’s a racist policy that I’m not sure is achieving its goals. I think these policies infantilize people and unless carefully policed lead to corruption.

Wow, what a rant!

Anyway – in Vincent Lam’s book, it becomes clear that it wasn’t easy to be Chinese in Vietnam in in the 1960s either. The South Vietnamese were becoming nationalistic, and the Viet Cong also targeted “foreigners” on assassination lists. Talk about a rock and a hard place. The issue of half-French children also comes up, as the headmaster, who is quite Chinese-centric and has sent his son to China (not knowing the situation there) to avoid the Vietnamese draft, falls in love with a half-French, half-Vietnamese girl and has a child with her. As it becomes clear that Saigon will fall and as Chinese and foreigners flee the country, the headmaster becomes anxious to send his girlfriend and son out of the country; their foreignness is stamped on their faces. I visited Vietnam in 1997 and remembered reading about the Vietnamese hatred of mixed-race children, so I was mildly worried about showing my half-Japanese self there. I needn’t have; the only remark I had was in the hotel and it was more a compliment than anything else. But after the war, mixed race children were victimized by the Viet Cong. Here in Vancouver, mixed race kids are everywhere and I make a facetious prediction that one day most of the world will look like us. But until very recently, being mixed race, or “Eurasian” was a stigma. Han Suyin, who had a Chinese father and Belgian mother, talks a lot about the difficulty of being half-European and half-Asian in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Her excellent autobiographical series (The Crippled Tree, A Mortal Flower, Birdless Summer, My House Has Two Doors, and Phoenix Harvest) contains many incidents that prove this. Because of colonization, there was always a wrong-side-of-the-sheets association with Eurasian children, and even the word “Eurasian” was considered a dirty word by the British of the Raj. So the headmaster’s story spoke personally to me on many levels.

The writing is the kind where even if nothing happens, the sentences flow so beautifully that it’s a pleasure to read them, but lots happens in this novel. I don’t want to give a lot away; I want you to read it. Be prepared to stay up late a few nights and to require some “digesting” time afterwards. It’s worth it.

(If you are interested in Chinese history, Han Suyin’s autobiographical series is hard to beat. My favorites are Birdless Summer and My House Has Two Doors. She really is one of my heroes; if my husband had allowed it, I would have named one of my daughters Suyin. In the 193os, she responded to the misery she saw around her in China, and studied to become a midwife. She adopted an orphan girl and wound up with her diplomatic husband in London, where she left her husband and, supporting her young daughter, studied to become a doctor. So not just a woman, but also half-Asian, and she braved the racism and misogyny of 1930s London to become a doctor! Her independence and strength of character are inspiring. Her experiences in Hong Kong and her love affair with a British photojournalist resulted in her book Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing which made her a household name, especially after the book was made into a movie.)

I’m going to go back to Bloodletting as I’m sure I didn’t try hard enough there. This sometimes happens, especially when I have a huge stack to get through. It took me 3 tries to get into The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. All that stuff about Mikael’s court case, blah. But it was worth it! So I’m going to get Bloodletting and also Lam’s book about the flu pandemic.

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Milestone Books in My Life

A shot of the fiction bookcase

My mother taught me to read when I was very young, about 2 1/2. I remember her reading to me books like The Wind in the Willows and she filled the house with books of all kinds and just let me loose. She gave me the gift of reading for which I thank her still. I can still recall important discoveries in my reading life:

Age 7: Discovered The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in my parents’ bookshelf and after that it was open season on their books.

Age 8: Read Anne of Green Gables whilst on vacation in Hawaii. Did not understand most of the biblical and classical quotes, but added new words like “perquisites”to my vocabulary.

Age 8: Started reading my mother’s cookbooks, most notably the Time/Life series that focused on food of different regions, like Italy, China, France, etc. and also Creative Cooking, published by Reader’s Digest, that had recipes, organized by month, but also contained, enthrallingly, pages and pages of ingredients with illustrations.

This was my bible from when I was about 8 years old until I was in my teens.

Two pages on cheese, with pictures and a legend so you could get a description of each cheese. A page on fruit, with a drawing of forced rhubarb next to regular rhubarb. My mother was a foodie before the term “foodie” existed; she’s also a dietician. She started teaching me how to cook when I was 8 and I’ve been a full-on cook ever since.

Age 10: Read The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings and to this day I re-read TLOTR about once every two years. When the movie came out I was one of those critical people pointing out the differences between book and movie. In my head, only, of course.

Age 12: Read a friend’s older sibling’s copy of The Exorcist in one afternoon. Was frightened for more than a year.

Age 12: Found Emil and the Piggy Beast by Astrid Lindgren in the school library, brought it home, read it to my little sister and we howled. I still read her stuff I find funny so that we can laugh together. She wants me to read Fifty Shades of Grey so we can mock it, shrieking with laughter, but I just don’t have that kind of time any more. Well, maybe I will. I’m just so morally opposed to this kind of thing: badly-written books getting so much attention? Sequels? Feh. (Plus, I went through all the porn stuff with Anne Rice about 20 years ago. Been there, read that.) (tangent alert) It’s like all the reality shows where people willingly expose their shallowness and vulgarity. These people are damaging our culture and should not be encouraged. I refuse to watch, even though a friend of mine knows someone on Real Housewives of Vancouver and wants me to watch it. Nope. Can’t.

Age 13: Read Stephen King’s Christine in one sitting, have been a fan ever since. My tastes have changed a bit since then but I still like his writing, particularly the Dark Tower series, some of his Richard Bachman stories like The Shawshank Redemption, It, The Tommyknockers, Rose Madder, Duma Key…The Stand and the Talisman also.

Age 14: Discovered in my parents’ bookshelf: Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, James Herriott’s Vet books, and Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman. That was a happy reading summer even if I was a bit mystified by Margaret Atwood. Edible Woman was ok but then I read Surfacing and was like, What? But I adore The Robber Bride and Lady Oracle.

Age 16: Gone with the Wind – read it in one afternoon, had stunning headache afterwards. Rented the movie (Betamax!); my mom taught me the word “schmaltz.”

Age 16: Read my mother’s copy of Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux. Have been a fan of his writing, travel writing in general, and also books about China, ever since. I discovered Jonathan Raban and Dervla Murphy at about this time too.

Age 17: Read Robertson Davies for the first time. Magic.

Age 17: Discovered Anaïs Nin in mother’s bookshelf. Yikes.

Age 17: An ex-boyfriend gave me a copy of Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road because he knew I’d love it and he was right. I still love him a bit just for that. He’s also the one who introduced me to movies like This is Spinal Tap. I still adore Helene Hanff. And the Spinal Tap guys.

Age 18: Read Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, swiftly moved on to Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai. I was setting the stage for my discovery of Han Suyin later in my twenties.

Age 18: Picked up Pride and Prejudice in the library and found out that Jane Austen is hilarious! Who knew. She’s still one of my favourite writers. She opened the door to classics for me.

Age 18: John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany was the first book that made me cry. And I love his turn of phrase: “Grandmother possessed those essential qualities that made the inappropriate gesture work: those being facetiousness and sarcasm.” (that’s off the top of my head, I don’t have it in front of me so mistakes are because it’s from memory)

Age 19: Mom gave me a copy of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and I realized I’d have to wait for the movie to find out what the hell happened. I’m a very fast reader so when prose gets, say, lyrical, I don’t usually pause to parse it. I enjoy poetic prose when it enhances my understanding of the novel as a whole – Margaret Atwood excels at this – but I’m not good when the whole thing is all poetic. This is my failing and maybe one day I’ll self-improve and get into Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marques and other authors my mother’s always going on about. Our tastes in literature overlap but do not completely jive.

Age 20: Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth – consumed on a red-eye flight from Toronto where I was visiting my boyfriend. Red-eyed, indeed. This book sparked an interest in English history that I indulge to this day. I went on to more historical fiction, with Sharon Kay Penman, Philippa Gregory, and then into non-fiction writers like Alison Weir and Antonia Fraser. I still love all these authors. And I am a total know-it-all when it comes to English history, which is something worse than totally useless in the restaurant business and the side effect is that historical TV shows like The Tudors drive me insane. Justin’s banned it because of all the ranting afterwards.

Age 22: Discovered M.F.K. Fisher’s food writing. I still love How to Cook a Wolf. I adore this type of cookbook; lots of writing with some recipes in there too. Laurie Colwin, Colman Andrews, Mark Kurlansky, Ruth Reichl, A.A. Gill, and Robert L. Wolke. My heroes.

Age 24: A friend recommended Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There and I discovered that you can’t read anything really funny before you go to sleep because it’s too stimulating. I was up all night, giggling. I lent it to my dad for a flight to Hong Kong, but had to confiscate it because he put in earplugs, then started reading and was laughing so loud he was disturbing everybody else in business class. I absolutely love all of Bryson’s writing and his memoir of growing up in the ’50s, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, is one of my all-time favourites.

Age 25: Michael Crichton’s Travels has been an important book for me. Here was a Harvard-medical-school-educated, science-oriented, extremely critical and analytical thinker – and the last third of this book details his explorations of the paranormal world. I know! Right? He learns to read auras, dispel entities….it’s incredible and really opened my mind. A bit, anyway. One day I’ll post about the ghost in the Washington Athletic Club.

Age 26: Han Suyin’s memoirs about her life and her relationship with China as a half-Asian, half-Belgian intellectual who fled her marriage to a Kuomintang general to become a doctor in the UK. And then had the sense not to return to live in Communist China. A Mortal Flower, Birdless Summer and My House Has Two Doors. Amazing. She is a genius and totally my guru and also half-Asian like me so we’re practically sisters. See, I’m gushing. I have to admit, nowadays her writing seems a bit turgid and pedantic, but she’s still my hero.

Age 30: Stuart MacLean’s Vinyl Cafe stories – amazing, wonderful, hilarious.

Age 30: Jared Diamond. I read Guns, Germs and Steel on vacation on the east coast of Oahu. Wow. Need I say more? Collapse is even better.

Age 31: Christopher Moore. When I run out of reading material I go get Bloodsucking Fiends or Fluke and have a giggle for myself.

Age 31: Augusten Burroughs, David Rakoff, David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell….worship the wit, the honesty, the courage, the funniness.

Age 36: Charles Clover, The End of the Line, Taras Grescoe, Bottomfeeder. And similar books on sustainability. After this series of reading, sustainability became a big goal at Hapa; we joined the Vancouver Aquarium’s Oceanwise program in 2010, which, as a Japanese restaurant, was tough to do and we’re definitely alone in our genre.

Age 37+: Discovered more fabulous fun authors: Laurie Notaro, Jen Lancaster, Diablo Cody….the memoirists, they rock my world. I like people who have a small streak of nastiness as opposed to those who are perfectly happy and positive all the time. Where do those people come from? I think they’re hiding something.

I’m stopping there….that’s the short list because I’m worried about this post getting too long. Also we’re getting close to my present age. One more! Last year I discovered Malcolm Gladwell. OK, I’m stopping there.

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