Tuesday 25 May 2021

A World To Win: Tim Harper's new history of global revolution

Editor's note: Our poetry column takes a break this month! Still an history undergraduate at heart, I simply couldn't pass up the opportunity to review this new border-crossing book on the anti-imperialist heroes of Underground Asia (just published by Harvard University Press and Penguin UK). 

(Photo by Theophilus Kwek)
Gazing from the dust-jacket of Underground Asia historian Tim Harper’s new and magisterial account of anticolonial radicalism in the first quarter of the 20th Century – is an enigmatic young man, wrapped up against the European cold, whose strong, even handsome features have not yet gained the global recognition of his later years. Barely twenty years old, and known variously as ‘Seaman Ba’, ‘Ly Thuy’, ‘Nguyen Ai Quoc’ or his birth name ‘Nguyen Tat Thanh’, Harper places him early on in the narrative “perhaps on the pont Alexandre III in Paris […] cigarette at the corner of his mouth, an umbrella on his arm, quite the dandy”. Over the next six hundred pages or so, Harper draws back the clock-and-dagger curtain of imperial intrigue to reveal how Thanh (and others like him) came to join a gathering chorus of revolution, emerging on the world stage as ‘Ho Chi Minh’. But crucially, it is here that we encounter him, with the weight of national liberation still in the distant future, free for the moment to traverse the boundaries of la belle époque; a student abroad on the banks of the Seine. 

Underground Asia examines a period “when local nationalisms were still nascent, and when the political future of the colonial world seemed uniquely open”. Out of the ferment of commerce and conquest arose individuals who, coming of age in “a world connected and transformed”, minted new allegiances around a dream of a more equal and borderless world. They made their home in what Harper calls the “village abroad”, an international network of cosmopolitan solidarities in universities, port cities, and metropolitan nodes where Thanh and his circle crossed paths with such like-minded figures as Tan Malaka, M.N. Roy, and the young Deng Xiaoping. Though the life-histories of these men form the book’s core, Harper is quick to acknowledge the “ubiquity and tenacity” of the era’s women revolutionaries, who despite their “relative invisibility” in surviving colonial records, are at critical moments the true movers and shakers of his narrative. He also pays compelling tribute to the invisible hands of global revolution, such as the dock workers and cabin boys who helped ‘Seaman Ba’ leave home in 1911 and facilitated ‘Ly Thuy’s’ return via Hong Kong almost two decades later. 

We now know, of course, that though these revolutionaries would each shape the post-colonial world in indelible ways, the moment of cosmopolitan dreaming was eventually lost – to the violence of imperial policing, to the anxious diktat of an ascendant Comintern, and to a new generation of rebels who held, by conviction or compromise, to the “dismal nationalisms” of later mass movements. By the end of the period the revolution had faded to a “waiting game”, and it is testament to Harper’s humane and meticulous treatment of this cast of fallible characters that we experience so keenly the pangs of their disenchantment. Most tragic among the disappointments is Tan Malaka’s final imprisonment and summary execution at the hands of an Indonesian republic he had prophesised years earlier; other strands of the tale, like Zhou Enlai’s and Deng Xiaoping’s, lay a trail for the world-historical events to come. Meanwhile, Harper excels in capturing the fusion of geography, ideology and youthful élan that led the revolutionaries to formulate the enduring ideals of their time (and ours); or how indeed, in his memorable words, “the universal revealed itself to [them] in a continuum of port cities”. 

Harper’s sympathetic and highly sophisticated storytelling allows us to trace the contingent turns of this intellectual history through what can appear, otherwise, as an overwhelming – and motley – mass of historical detail. If the number of letters read by the French postal censor in a given fortnight in 1920, for instance, might seem too fine-grained a footnote for the grand narrative of global revolution, we ought to remember that every wrinkle of colonial policy factored into the daily calculations of a community in exile whose many aliases and alibis are only just coming to light. On occasion, however, and particularly in the first half of the book, Harper’s efforts to join the dots of this “connected wave of revolution” risk pre-empting the story somewhat. In his telling, a global web of radical connections, at least in the sense of a self-consciously cosmopolitan network that, even if not formally coordinated, shared similar values and a common vocabulary, only became more apparent as the revolutionaries converged in Europe and Russia after World War I. Prior to this, the sporadic flashpoints of rebellion (among others: bomb attacks in India, shootings in Hong Kong) certainly augured a gathering wave of discontent, but given how admittedly “fragile” the connections were, it is debatable if they arose collectively “out of the resources of the country of the lost” as Harper suggests. 

It’s hard not to reflect on the revolutionary lives so vividly recorded in Underground Asia without imagining how they would map onto our own. A century on, rail and shipping routes no longer hold the same novelty as they did for Harper’s protagonists, but new conveniences – afforded by the global commons of the internet and, at least before COVID-19, the commodification of budget travel – have enabled a new kind of the “everyday internationalism” they once experienced. So, too, it might seem that our interconnections are once again putting global solidarities within reach: especially when today’s spectres of xenophobia, inequality and climate change denialism are no more territorially-bound than colonialism ever was. Harper’s analysis of the forces that thwarted the dreams of earlier cosmopolitans should give us pause, or at least help us identify and resist the dismal nationalisms of this era. In the same vein, Harper’s project of fleshing out these “lonely” figures on the margins of a changing continent should not grieve us for possibilities lost, but attune us to those still to be won. The important work of recovering these “small voices of history”, as fellow historian Khairudin Aljunied puts it, reconnects us with the “ideas and visions […] that were shunned and unaccepted in their day and age, but have become the framework for thought and action in our time”. 

Don’t (just) take my word for it! Underground Asia has also been reviewed in the New Yorker, The Wire, and Wall Street Journal


Theophilus Kwek has published five volumes of poetry, and has been shortlisted twice for the Singapore Literature Prize. He is also an editor and researcher with interests in Southeast Asian history and migration/citizenship issues. He serves as Poetry Editor of the Asian Books Blog. 

Wednesday 19 May 2021

Pot-sticker dumplings and scarlet gloop: Nicky Harman reviews Maisie Chan’s Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, 2021, and looks back at Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet, 1982


Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths is a delightful story featuring the eponymous Danny, son of parents who run a Chinese takeaway, his friend Ravi, his doting granny (Nai Nai) and assorted oddball friends and neighbours. Danny loves drawing, hates maths, and is appalled when Nai Nai moves to Birmingham from China and he has to share his bedroom with her. He can't speak her dialect, she snores like a train, farts for England (or rather China) and worst of all, she turns up at his school to bring him Chinese lunch. Oh, and he has to look after her because his mum and dad are busy running their takeaway. When the local bowls club are less than welcoming, he leaves her at the bingo and goes off to play in the park. Then Danny discovers that Nai Nai, unlike her grandson, has maths skills in abundance. She not only becomes the local bingo champion, she takes her grandson in hand and helps him create a great school project based on Fibonacci
fractals in Romanesco cauliflowers. 

A novel about an immigrant family inevitably has a certain amount of cultural information to impart. Dragons, in their Chinese version, feature a lot. As Danny says, ‘I was really pleased with my newest creation that I called a DRUCKON. It was a mutant duck with a dragon’s head. It’s very Chinese, if you ask me. Dragons are the most beloved and lucky creatures in Chinese mythology, and ducks are yummy and succulent. The tricky part was the head. Chinese dragons don’t look like other dragons and they have no wings. Ravi is basically an expert on all things medieval and knights. He says that Chinese dragons are anomalies, which is a nice way of saying they’re ‘weird’. And they don’t go around trying to eat princesses or battle knights. I think that’s nice. A druckon is a Chinese win-win.’  

There is also an odious tiger mother, who drags her daughter Amelia to an unending series of after-school improving activities, as a result of which she is fluent in both Cantonese and Mandarin.  And there is The Chinese Way – Danny’s dad drills its tenets into his son – hard work, respect for his elders, and of course the importance of maths, the bane of Danny’s life. We even learn a bit of the language, when Danny and Nai Nai exchange a few words in Chinese. However, Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths wears its culture lightly. The heart of the novel is the friendship and respect that grows between the boy and his granny, and the adventures they share. 

Chinese immigrant families in the UK are almost invisible in literature, but as I read Danny Chung, Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet immediately sprang to mind. (It happens to be one of my favourite novels.) In Sour Sweet, Chen, his wife Lily and her sister Mui arrive in London from Hong Kong in the 1960s and go into business. There are two main stories in the novel: we read how Lily and Mui come to terms with their new life – Lily remains resolutely traditional, while Mui embraces British life enthusiastically – while the other thread follows the in-fighting in a Triad gang, the Hung family, who eventually get Chen into their clutches.

Fifty years separate the stories and that makes for interesting comparisons. Of course, the novels are aimed at different readers: an adult readership and pre-teen young readers. But there are similarities. Both families run restaurants, both firmly believe in The Chinese Way, both have a newly-arrived and eccentric grandparent. (Grandpa in Sour Sweet prefers to sleep under the counter instead of the bedroom, and invites fellow-patients from the local clinic to tea, even though they cannot understand each other.) Both families are the odd-ones-out in their communities. Lily and Mui have no friends apart from their customers and a benevolent widow, Mrs Law, and remain culturally and socially isolated in their London suburb. They are further ‘othered’ in one rather odd way: Mo chooses to have his characters speak a sort of Canto-English. ‘Bad talk!’ Lily reprimands Chen. And ‘Husband, door is stuck!’ And she asks her son about his aunt’s new baby, ‘Did you like baby, Son?’ to which Man-Kee replies, ‘Didn’t like it.’ I do not think that this would be considered either acceptable or necessary today, although at least when the family have something important to say to each other, they revert to received English.

Multi-culturalism and racism are not explicitly addressed in either novel but, by way of a contrast to fifty years ago, Danny lives in a Britain that feels more accepting of its separate communities: his best friend is Ravi, an Indian boy, and we are given snapshots of Ravi’s family and his crowded home.

British appreciation of Chinese food has improved over half a century too. In Sour Sweet, ‘The food they sold… bore no resemblance at all to Chinese cuisine. Sweet and sour pork was their staple, naturally: batter musket balls encasing a tiny core of meat, laced with a scarlet sauce that had an interesting effect on the urine of the customer the next day.’ In 2021, Danny soon finds that his bothersome Nai Nai is a wonderful cook, ‘
Nai Nai went into the kitchen to make herself a pot of tea and came out ten minutes later with a plate full of guotie, or, as some people call them, potstickers. I loved them, but Ba never had time to make them for me any more. He was always too busy. I grabbed some chopsticks and started munching them down after dipping them in soy sauce with a bit of cut ginger in it. Nai Nai’s potstickers were SO good, just like Ba had always said.’

Here’s a personal anecdote to illustrate the progress in British taste buds: in 1973, my parents celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. I organized a dinner for them, with family, (white British, one and all) in a Chinese restaurant in Earls Court, possibly the first in London to serve Peking Duck. My parents (farmers in Wiltshire) arrived in some trepidation, probably worried that dinner would be musket balls and scarlet gloop and that they would lose face with their brothers and sisters. They left delighted and well-fed. I was eternally grateful to my landlady, who had introduced me to the restaurant. She was Dymia Hsiung, widow of playwright Hsiung Shih-I and a writer herself, as well as an enthusiastic mah-jong player and a fabulous cook. Now there’s a cultural connection to conjure with.








Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, by Maisie Chan, delightfully illustrated by Anh Cao, age-graded 9-11 years, Piccadilly Press,10th June 2021.

 Sour Sweet, by Timothy Mo, new edition, Paddleless Press, 1999.










Sunday 16 May 2021

Lion City Lit: Celebrating Forty Years of Transforming Lives

Asian Books Blog is based in Singapore, so we occasionally highlight book-related events in the city. Celebrating Forty Years of Transforming Lives is the 40th anniversary commemorative book published by Lions Home For The Elders, a leading Singapore charity.

The book tells the story – in words and images – of how the first home was established in 1980 on the void deck of a Housing Development Block (HDB) in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10, thanks to the hard work and fundraising by Lions Club volunteers, and approved by the then Department of Social Welfare. 

Chairman of the Lions Home Henre Tan, says in his foreword: “In spite of all the constraints on us all during these difficult and demanding days, we did decide to keep to our plan to produce a worthy and insightful narrative of the Lions Home For The Elders, from its humble beginnings to become one of Singapore’s leading nursing homes caring for the elderly.” 

The 40th anniversary book was originally intended to be launched at the Lions International Convention, scheduled to be held in Singapore in June last year, when 20,000 of the charity's supporters were expected to attend. But like many events, the launch was cancelled and the book was recently launched at a hybrid event broadcast from Singapore, beamed live around the world, and attended in person by 50 people, following coronavirus safe distancing procedures.

Singapore-based author and publisher Ken Hickson, who was previously responsible for Asian Books Blog's Lion City Lit column, steered Celebrating Forty Years of Transforming Lives from its beginning in mid-2019, to completion close to two years later. He says: "I want the book to not only provide a faithful record of a remarkable Singapore institution but also to meet clean and green standards." He achieved his second aim by sourcing suitable paper from sustainably managed forests in Asia and using a local printer, Times Printers.    

Sunday 2 May 2021

The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura - A Fast-Paced Japanese Crime Story

The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura is a crime thriller set in modern-day Japan about an experienced pickpocket named Nishimura as he prowls the crowded streets of Tokyo, looking for his next mark. He floats through the metropolis, taking what he wants, as if in an ethereal, dreamlike state, unable to wake up.