History As Fiction and/or Fiction As History
When it's good, does it really matter?
By David Fedo
A Different Sky
Fictionalising history can be a tricky business. American writer Margaret Mitchell's sensational novel Gone with the Wind (1936), took on the Civil War with outwardly dramatic results, and the 1939 film of the book, with Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh famously playing the leads, is still popular on network and cable television. Yet the work remains a melodramatic fiction potboiler and, in many ways, a simplification of history. Stephen Crane's much shorter and earlier novel, The Red Badge of Courage, published in book form in 1895, is a narrower but far more authentic picture of the deadly war between the Northern and Southern states, and its principal character, the tormented Private Henry Fleming of the Union side, has a verisimilitude almost entirely lacking in Mitchell's overblown saga.
In Singapore, Rex Shelley's quasi-historical novels of Eurasians settling in the country before independence, struggling to make their way pre- and post-World War II, while at times ponderous, provide readers with a clear window both into Singapore's past and the flesh-and-blood characters who seem to breathe and act like human beings. The Shrimp People (1991), published when longtime civil servant Shelley was 61 years old, while hardly a perfect work of art, is probably the best of his books, although he produced three more serviceable novels before his death in 2009.
Now we have gifted writer Meira Chand, a Singapore resident since 1997 who was born in the UK and lived in Japan and India for many years. Her eighth novel, A Different Sky, is set in Singapore's turbulent past and covers nearly 30 crowded years (1927 to 1956). Chand's perspective on Singapore's history and her skilful development of her fictional characters, are mostly unsentimental, level-headed and at times riveting, and its lengthy but often beautifully crafted narrative makes us believe in both the real-life history and her own inventions of plot and circumstance . It's both history and a solid work of art.
However, some years earlier, in 2006, Chand, then chair of the English Book Selection Committee of READ! Singapore, seemed to downplay such definitional nit-picking, insisting that "all that matters in the books is that you can connect, that you can identify, as a human being, with the story you're reading".
And vivid stories are what Chand really is about. Of her novels, five The Gossamer Fly (1979), Last Quadrant (1981), The Bonsai Tree (1983), The Painted Cage (1986), and A Choice of Evils (1996) are set mainly in Japan, where Chand lived from 1962 to 1997. House of the Sun (1989) and A Far Horizon (2001) are placed mostly in India, where she had taken up residence for five years. These are books with a rich canvas and a large storyline, all capturing different and sometimes tragic epochs and events. A Choice of Evils, for example, features the Japanese massacre in Nanking during the 1937 invasion of China, and A Far Horizon takes place in mid-18th-century Calcutta's White Town and Black Town, with tensions running high. The Painted Cage explores the lives and eventual tragedy of a British husband and wife in Yokohama in the late 19th century. In Last Quadrant, a typhoon rocks the city of Kobe, imperilling the survival of an orphanage. Although some of these earlier works are more engaging than others, all have at least some characters worth caring about.
Chand has said A Different Sky was written at the suggestion of then-Singapore president S. R. Nathan, who wished to have Singapore's 'history' passed on to a younger generation. And historical Singapore is present everywhere, beginning with a Communist riot in 1927 which just happens to be witnessed from a stalled trolley by some of the imagined characters that Chand will develop throughout this packed novel. There are the Eurasians, the mother Rose Burns and her young boy, Howard; the Chinese girl Mei Lan, accompanied by Ah Siew, her amah; and an Indian immigrant, Raj Sherma. All will be prominent players in the drama that slowly unfolds over the years, and which includes native discontent under British rule, the brutal Japanese Occupation, guerrilla warfare undertaken by Communists in the jungles of Malaya, and the chaotic initial drive toward the country's hard-won independence.
However, history aside, the real issue for Chand's characters, as Indian writer Ann Kumar wrote in a July 2011 online essay for the South Asian Women's Network, is identity and the "need to belong". Most are outsiders striving with varying success to become insiders. Rose, Howard, his sister Cynthia, Mei Lan and Raj among others in A Different Sky are marginalised in the Singapore under British colonisation, and their lack of belonging to the mainstream affects them at every turn. Howard and Mei Lan are neighbours across a storm canal along Bukit Timah Road; Rose runs the rambling Belvedere house as a boarding establishment, while Mei Lan's family has been forced by economic circumstance to move from the resplendent Lim Villa to nearby Bougainvillaea House. Howard and Mei Lan eventually are attracted to one another, and later become lovers despite Ah Siew's warning: "He is not of your race; you are Chinese and he is Eurasian. If the elders find out I cannot protect you." Even though they promise to marry, the two are outsiders even to themselves, and will be throughout the rest of the novel. Only Raj manages to find his place, although a precarious one, in a growing Singapore.
Meantime, the clouds of war are gathering, and the Japanese suddenly start bombing Singapore. Many residents are in denial. "Not possible," a Brit insists. "It must be that big practice air raid they've threatened. Don't be taken in." But the bombs are real, first devastating the docks and Chinatown, and then setting the stage for the invasion from the north. Howard volunteers for war duty early in 1942, is badly wounded in a skirmish near the Straits, and shortly after Singapore falls.
Chand's portrayal of the eventual Japanese occupation of Singapore, and her depiction of the fortunes of her characters, constitute the heart of A Different Sky and are the most compelling in the book. To Chand the Japanese are, with one exception, cruel occupiers; only an acquaintance of Raj, Mamoru Shinozaki, based on a real person, demonstrates a shred of humanity. "The Japanese anger easily," says Rose, in a vast understatement. Her beloved Belvedere has been taken over by the ruthless Imperial Army. Anti-Japanese activities by Singaporeans are punishable by swift execution. No one escapes the suffering. Food is scarce; only the bland but hardy tapioca plant is plentiful, and according to Chand, "nothing filled the stomach so quickly". Mei Lan is arrested, imprisoned in the YMCA building, and tortured horribly by a sadist named Captain Nakamura. Howard, also faced with arrest because he has kept hidden a radio (illegal in occupied Singapore), is spirited to a Communist guerrilla camp far in the Malayan jungle. On his way at sea, Chand affords him a moment to muse on what might be the melancholy philosophic underpinning of the book:
But the war finally does end, and Howard, Mei Lan, Rose, Cynthia and Raj all somehow survive, although life will be different for all of them. Returning to Singapore, suffering from malaria, Howard is "shocked to see the number of destitute people and the unspeakable filth piled up everywhere". Raj is stunned when he encounters Mei Lan, now out of prison: "Now everything in her face was drawn inward, as if a great weight sucked her into her core." Deeply traumatised, she somehow manages to win a scholarship to study law at Oxford University. Howard returns to his flunky position at the Harbour Board, but counts himself "one of the lucky few to get a job". Rose, ageing, gets back her Belvedere, but has heart problems. Raj, entrepreneurial as ever, prospers. Singapore very slowly starts to recover.
Yet the ragtag Communists, active once again, want more. Most importantly, they want the British out; they want independence. Chand gives one of the leaders, the unsavoury Wee Jack, the usual incendiary rhetoric:
Even many of us who are expatriates and not native Singaporeans are dimly aware of the details which make up the rest of the historical tableau of A Different Sky. There are labour strikes, some of them violent, and there is a danger that Singapore, with British authority and intransigence marshalled against the relentless hostilities of the Anti-British League and the Malayan Communist Party, would descend into chaos. Astonishing to me are Chand's powerful depictions of the active solidarity of so many Singapore schoolchildren with the strikers; this I did not know. These remarkable young boys and girls were either very brave or very foolish, depending on which side you were on.
Making relatively brief appearances over the final pages, including at the tumultuous Merdeka Rally at the Kallang Airfield, are three 'real' figures involved in this dramatic history, including the young politicians David Marshall, Lim Chin Siong and Lee Kuan Yew, although here I felt Chand's characterisations failed to come to life. (Marshall seems sketched as a cartoon figure, self-important and ineffective; Lee is called simply "the union's astute and calculating lawyer".) Howard, a witness to the rally's confusion, wonders "if perhaps the mayhem at this riot, and that of so many others behind it, was not the mindless chaos it appeared but the early stages of a long and painful labour that would give birth to a world no one could as yet foresee". In other words, of course, A Different Sky, perhaps even a different and independent nation.
But at the end I found myself less concerned with what is now called 'nation-building' and more interested in the characters that Chand has so deftly created, especially Mei Lan and Howard, who clearly love one another but whose future together remains unclear. Mei Lan has returned to Singapore after practising law in England and wins a case defending a young Singaporean woman who, having been severely beaten by her husband, attempted to kill him. Mei Lan thus seems to come upon her life's work: she will take in abused and needy women as charity, utilising a refurbished Bougainvillaea House and Rose's Belvedere boarding house as safe domiciles. "She's changed many women's lives for the better," Cynthia tells her brother Howard much later, "and for her it's a way of healing; by helping the damaged she's helping herself."
Meantime, Howard has been living in Sydney, attending the university with the financial support of Raj, now a figure of some importance in Singapore. When he returns he finds himself soon allied with Marshall, the Chief Minister, and ends up working for him. But his real interest is in Mei Lan. The most poignant scene in Chand's novel occurs in the penultimate chapter, when Mei Lan and Howard take Ah Siew, now in the throes of dementia, for a birthday ride on a junk. Mei Lan's own thoughts soon wander:
As readers, we are led to hope for the bestfor Howard and Mei Lan, and for Singapore.
A Different Sky is also filled with fascinating bits and pieces, details that add colour and depth to the central narrative. The custom of foot-binding among the Chinese is one of them. "Second Grandmother's feet were the ideal three inches in length that society had once demanded," writes Chand, "and were small enough to rest in Ah Siew's palm." (In the old days, according to a disapproving Second Grandmother: "Only women with big feet went out of the house.") Early on, Howard tells Mei Lan that the ubiquitous rain tree "had come to Singapore from South America", and that "a jellyfish was not really a fish and was without a brain". Who knew? Yet such detail the long-vanished Singapore of rickshaws and horse-drawn carts, and the workings of the old port helps give the novel its rich context. Here and elsewhere Chand has done her homework and honed her craft well.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 1 Jan 2012