Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty
Title: A Bit of Earth
Author: Suchen Christine Lim
Publisher: Times Marshall-Cavendish, Singapore, 2001
A Bit of Earth is a multi-layered novel by Suchen Christine Lim that explores the history of Malaya under the British regime. The saga stretches from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. The protagonist, Wong Tuck Heng, journeys from being a poor, hounded immigrant to a rich towkay, a big boss in local parlance, guided by the principle that helped him achieve his dream of growing into a rich and honoured man. He states his viewpoint, ‘Land and properties, you can lose. But if you lose your spirit, then you lose the very thing that makes us human. Courage and loyalty. That’s part of our spirit as human beings…’
We first see Wong in 1874, a teenager on the run with a price on his head, chased out of his homeland Sum Hor in Canton Prefecture, by the Manchu rulers. He considers the Manchus as invaders and intruders into China; the Manchus had wiped out his entire family, loyalists of the preceding Ming dynasty, as rebels. The saga starts with Wong landing in Malaya after a perilous journey, saved by loyalists and brave supporters from the clan of White Cranes. He finds work in the tin mines of Malaya and struggles to become rich. He acquires two wives, a Nyonya (Straits-born Chinese) wife and a Chinese one from the mainland, chosen by his foster mother Wong-soh. His Nyonya wife is thrust upon him by the wealthy Wee family that his foster father married into to upscale himself in wealth and power, after disowning his earlier wife, Wong-soh.
There is a splattering of colourful Chinese, Malay, Indian and British characters in the story with a close look at the Baba culture, an intrinsic part of Singaporean and Malaysian heritage. Wong gives a description of this culture to his son as he talks of his first wife’s family: ‘Your mother’s family is Baba. They’re like the Monkey King. Their ancestors left China and settled in this country a hundred, maybe two hundred years ago. Maybe longer. Married local women and adapted to the life here. They can change themselves seven times seven like the Monkey King. When the Malays were powerful, the Babas spoke Malay, wore Malay clothes and hungered for Malay titles. Then the English barbarians came. The English were more powerful than the Malay kings. So, your mother’s family changed again. They learned to speak English and do things the English way.’
The story is complex and has multiple sub-plots. One explores how Malaya was made part of the British Empire. There is another thread, which weaves the story of Bandong, the fictional village created by Suchen to house the tin mines and its workforce. The Wee family, representative of the Baba heritage in Singapore and Malaysia, add glamour to the narrative. The Malay and the British rulers, along with Chinese revolutionaries, form an essential backdrop to the story. And the thread that stitches all these narratives together is the meteoric rise of Wong. His ascent to wealth and power and his subsequent deportation to China as a result of his principles, a sense of loyalty and courage, weave in and out of the sub-plots to unite the story into a whole. Suchen has pointed out in the Author’s Note, this kind of deportation was a prerogative the British adopted. The colonizers brought Chinese coolies to Malaya to work in the tin mines and rubber plantations. However, they could be easily deported under two laws – the “law of the blood” and the “ law of the soil”. The first stated that any Chinese could be deported to China, irrespective of where they were born or what language they spoke. The second law said that they could be deported to their country of birth at any time. The British used these laws indiscriminately on the coolies.
That Suchen’s sympathy lies with the underdog, the coolie, is evident throughout the narrative. Wong explains the psyche of the Chinese immigrant, ‘We Chinese have suffered terrible loss in our long history of wars, disasters and corruption. And loss has made us greedy. And afraid. That is why we guard against loss all the time.’
Wong gains our respect when he stands loyal in the British court to his original clan, the White Cranes. He compares their celebration of freedom from the Manchus (which resulted in a riot) in 1912 to that of the British celebrating the Empire Day. He says in the court, ‘It is my firm belief that Your Excellency’s a just ruler. You will not deport someone for his patriotic feelings for his homeland. If so, Englishmen must be deported from this colony too. Because on Empire Day, they show their love for their country and they get drunk.’ The British of course do not tolerate his ‘unspeakable audacity’ for questioning ‘the governor’s immense power to deport anyone without a trial’. They sentence him to deportation by the law he dared to critique.
Wong is not unhappy with the sentence forcing him to return to the country of his birth, China. For him China has become emblematic of hope and optimism under Sun Yat Sen. However, he continues to look forward to his return to Malaya under a new identity like the ‘Monkey King’ after a few years in exile. He gives his parting gift to his eldest son, a verse in Chinese that brings in a fresh perspective on what one considers being one’s homeland,
What is homeland
In which we planted
Our hopes, lives,
dreams and memories?
A bit of earth.
Thus the novel analyses man’s relation to the land he calls his home. In an interview, Suchen had stated that she firmly believed that the country of man’s birth gets into his ‘bones and heart’ as China does for Wong. The novel is enriched by the diverse voices used to explore events, characters and history. For instance, Wong’s Nonya wife and the Wees perceive the protagonist as a burden because he does not conform to their values; the White Crane and his Chinese wife view him with respect and the British label him a trouble maker. The multiplicity of the viewpoints adds to the richness of the texture and makes the story come alive. The plot, with all its complexity, flows smoothly into a lucid, well written narrative that draws the events and characters close to one’s heart and compels one to read on.
It is difficult to compare A Bit of Earth to any other novel. It stands unique in its attempt to describe the underdog’s rise to power with a message of hope and courage in a period of South East Asian history that needs to be examined further in fiction accessible to readers in English. The translation of Isa Kamari’s compelling read, 1819, does explore the history of Malaya but is more focused on the history of Singapore and Raffles and shows how the colonials gained ascendancy over the locals by exploiting their weaknesses. A Bit of Earth empowers the protagonist to flourish under all odds because of his strengths. I enjoyed reading both these books. Though some of Somerset Maugham’s stories are set in Malaya around this time, they are written from a colonial perspective. ASEAN writers exploring the colonial period voice the concerns of the indigenous inhabitants of the region under the yoke of the British Empire. These novels help connect and unite the people suffering under the same vicissitudes of history.
The feeling I am left with after reading Suchen’s book has been best described by the prize-winning author, Diana Hendry of the United Kingdom. She talks of being ‘impressed’ by the narrative and climax, and concludes saying, ‘I… was sorry to get to the end of the book!’
Mitali Chakravarty writes essays, short stories, poetry and reviews. Her bylines have appeared in The ‘Times of India’, ‘Pioneer’, ‘Statesman’ and ‘Hindustan Times’. Her poetry has appeared as part of two anthologies, ‘In Reverie’ (2016) and ‘An Anthology of Indian Poetry in English’ (1984). She has a book online, ‘In the Land of Dragons’ (2014, ISBN; 978-1490704333). She blogs at 432m.wordpress.com