Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wind and Water, by Ang Chin Geok

I recorded this novel upon request for Malaysian Association for the Blind. It's a largely autobiographical family saga, featuring three generations of Chinese women, first in Singapore and later in Australia. Wind and water are elements of feng shui (or, as it appears in the family's Hokkien dialect, hongsui). As the story opens in the 1930s, the first matriarch attributes all her bad fortune to the blighted hongsui of her husband's family. Unless a proper balance can be restored, she believes, future generations will continue to suffer. This woman, uneducated, illiterate and barely ambulatory on her bound feet, is nonetheless a pillar of her community and ruler of her household. She has centuries of Chinese tradition behind her, and living in Singapore does not alter that fact. This is, in the end, a book about culture and tradition -- at their best and their worst.

One of the matriarch's catastrophes is her failure to produce a son. She has borne six daughters, but only a son's prayers will be heard in the other world when she and her husband have died. Not only will the family name die, but the memories of the ancestors will not be properly revered unless a son goes to the temple. One of the daughters explains her mother's desperation.
My mother  had no desire to suffer the cursed fate of a woman who had caused the extinction of her husband's family... She contemplated the  prospect for her husband and herself, condemned for all eternity because they had no sons to pray at the altar for their spiritual well-being.

Her terror leads the matriarch to adopt a son, but her attempt to manipulate the family's hongsui has disastrous consequences. Meanwhile, she must arrange marriages for her six daughters, all of whom are also illiterate, since she insists that girls can only be harmed by education. Their highly cultured father fought briefly to send them to school, but he was no match for the intractable mother. 

The narrating daughter dreads her impending match, as she watches one older sister after the next end up in miserable marriages.  Finding a husband for the narrator is made more difficult by her Chinese zodiac sign, and none of the mother's domineering attitude can overcome that.  
Needle-tongued and quick to take offense, she had been unable to win the approval of several prospective mothers-in-law, who shuddered at the prospect of a bride born in the evening, in the Year of the Tiger. 

Aversion to Tiger brides remains til this day. I know. More than one Chinese person has told me they're not surprised that I'm single. Tigers are bad luck. Female Tigers are best avoided, and a female Water Tiger? They shudder and shake their heads.The Tiger narrator has good reason to be apprehensive, since only the most desperate man would consider linking his fortunes to her.

Her husband, however, turns out to be a decent man, although there is no love between them. His mechanical abilities get him through the Japanese occupation of Singapore, and his wife's tale of those years is a moving example of the Chinese suffering and cameraderie. 

When the war is over, the Japanese are vanquished, but the British colonials return.  The narrator makes plain the Chinese lack of fondness for anyone who is not Chinese. 

...and Europeans from whom we averted our eyes when we passed them in the streets. They seemed to us so very ugly with all that pink skin and orange hair, their women large with hairy arms and loud voices. My father shuddered whenever a Western woman walked near him. "They are so coarse and they smell of mutton," he complained.
This chauvinism, however, has its cost, and in a tiny, newly independent city-state like Singapore, the cost is too high.
As Singapore's first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew set about the task of getting the various racial groups to discard their difference and to assume, deliberately and consciously, a different level of identity, a distinctly Singaporean one, weaving the disparate ethnic elements of Singapore into a single strong entity, improving the shabby social fabric as it existed, and then breaking the reign of terror imposed by rampant gangsterism. Later, there would be criticisms of his authoritarian style of government and the suppression of civil rights, but during the thirty years of his administration, most Singaporeans enjoyed a prosperity and physical safety unknown in most of Asia.

Few thinking people who spend time in Singapore come away without trying to balance the country's still authoritarian government with the orderliness and security it provides. From where I sit today, I appreciate Lee Kwan Yew's challenge in trying to bring together his island's ethnic Chinese, Malay and Indian citizens into some sort of coherent nation. He could have done worse.

The final section is narrated by the woman of the third generation:  Lettie, who is the daughter of her Singaporean-Chinese mother and Australian father. As a Eurasian, she contended with racist epithets growing up in Australia, and again when she visits her family in Singapore. Singapore, where to this day they still call Eurasians grago, the same word they use for the krill the Portuguese fishermen in Melaka collected in nets and made into the foul-smelling briny sauce called chincharo. "Gragos stink," my mother explained. Her Chinese relatives refer to my father as the angmo-kau kiasai, the red-hair ape bridegroom. They still call all Westerners red-hair apes. The Chinese are efficient insultors, succinct and cruel. My mother's family, like most Chinese, are terribly racist; they believe themselves superior to everyone else, and the other people who share their island are referred to as pigs and apes. 

I believe that, if threatened, most Han Chinese, regardless of dialect group, would bind together for mutual defense. In the absence of external threat, however, they often disparage each other. In Kuala Lumpur, most Chinese are Cantonese; those in Penang and Singapore are more predominantly Hokkien. "Those Hokkiens, so superstitious, lah!" my Cantonese friends tell me. "And have you listened to them? Ugh! Hokkien is so coarse and rough-sounding! It's because they all sell in shops and markets."  I smiled as Ang described the Singaporean Hokkien view.
...the Hokkiens considered themselves far less superstitious. Safe in their pragmatism and sophistication, the Hokkiens murmured that the Cantonese were naive and nonsensical. The Cantonese, they sniffed, would believe anything; they fall over themselves in veneration of numbers such as double eight, because in their noisy singsong dialect, the word eight is a homonym for luck.
Dialect, customs and superstitions are the glue that hold these Chinese women together and give them strength and resilience. That same culture can also serve to limit their horizons. In the final chapter, Lettie wonders whether she is more Chinese or Australian, whether her ancestors' hongsui is still haunting her, or whether her misfortunes come from Aboriginal curses. Ang treats all of her narrators, from the first to the last, with great sympathy and respect, and she extends the same to her readers, allowing us to reach for own conclusions.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like an interesting book. Reminds me of Wild Swans by Jung Chang, also spanning 3 generations of women in China. a biography of the grandmother, mother, and autobiography of the author who later moved to England.


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