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.’