The book provides many fine comic moments, has an excellent cast of minor characters and records an important part of Malaysia's social history and I did overall enjoy it. But I found it frustrating too ... if only Chong had gone that bit further and developed his main characters rather more, the book could have been excellent.
I met Chong at his booksigning at MPH Midvalley on the same afternoon as Tash Aw appeared there. I wonder if he is the oldest first-time author ever to be published - anywhere? He is 81, a retired diplomat and a reviewer for the New Straits Times. And I found him totally charming as I chatted to him while he signed my book. He says that this is the only novel he will ever write: he's now going to learn to cook and spend time in meditation.
Since the original is now behind subscription I'm posting it here:
The action in Chong Seck Chin’s Once Upon a Time in Malaya takes place around the time of the Japanese occupation, a time of great turbulence and change in the Malay Peninsula. Surprisingly then, the novel sets out to be “a tale of light relief ” (as Chong explains in an epigram): a comedy rather than a war story.
The story follows the fortunes of a young lad called Ah Kiew and those around him, during the war years. He lodges with his brother, Ah Sing, and his father (a traditional Chinese physician specializing in the treatment of piles) in the house of the twice-widowed Madam Tuck and her daughter Mei Li, in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. Ah Kiew is about to sit for his Senior Cambridge and faces tough choices both about his future career path (he wonders whether to become a pastor or a clerk) and his love life. (Should he choose the more accommodating Mei Li or hold out for the haughty Shirley Howe of the ‘Scarlet O’Hara’ ringlets?).
But the Japanese invade, and decisions are very much taken out of his hands. After a brief spell hiding out in the tin mines of Ampang (during which time Ah Sing throws in his lot with the communists), Ah Kiew goes to work for Captain Tanaka in a Japanese army depot and begins to discover latent entrepreneurial skills which will determine his subsequent direction in life.
Chong writes very well and the novel cracks along at a fair old pace. He has an excellent vocabulary which borders on the bombastic at times, but his delightfully wry sense of humour tempers his excesses. Indeed, his turn of phrase often delights: Howe’s wife “bristled like a disturbed mimosa”. And when the cunning Mei Lin invites Ah Kiew to give her some help with her algebra (a request that does not fool him for a moment), Chong writes “Algebra had become abracadabra – or as a classic Chinese hack would have put it, prudishly, ‘A conjuncture of turbulent cloud and rain ensued.’”
The author is clearly most at home with those characters he can get greatest comic mileage from and pokes gentle fun at human vanity. Some of the funniest moments in the novel are between the avaricious Madam Tuck and the naïve sinseh Lim whom she sets about manipulating to her own ends both as a marriage and business partner.
Some of the minor characters are drawn with a deftness and economy that many more established writers would envy. Particularly amusing are Howe senior, an anglophile clerk of Baba extraction, with a love of “orotund legal phrases” and bowties; and Terry White, a spinster of Eurasian extraction, “one of those women whom looked better from the behind than from the front, and not many of her rearview admirers had survived the frontal deception”. The chapter in which Terry tries to ensnare her cousin Freddie with a love potion is hilarious and could stand by itself as a satisfying piece of short fiction!
Sadly, Ah Kiew emerges as a rather insipid character by comparison with these larger-than-life figures, and even the author seems to tire of him, allowing him less and less time on the page as the book goes on. And whereas we expect a stirring love story to develop when Ah Kiew and Shirley when they are thrown together during the war, (particularly as he spends so much time mooning over for her in the early chapters) the romance, such as it is, simply peters out without causing the reader to care very much either way.
While Chong writes comedy very well, he finds it much harder to create moments of real drama. The darker side of the Japanese invasion is almost completely ignored. Indeed, the reader is left with the impression that the war was a minor inconvenience to the inhabitants of Chinatown, who quickly learn to capitalize on the commercial opportunities it brought.
It also seems strange that while Chong can spend time lovingly sketching in background detail of, for example, the pharmacist’s shop or a group of Nonya ladies playing chiki, he fails to capitalize on some of the novel’s pivotal scenes. Ah Sing takes upon himself the task of murdering collaborator Ivan Ho, but in the chapter where his assassination attempt on is thwarted, Chong gives barely a paragraph to the shooting which leaves the lad seriously wounded. Similarly, much more suspense could have been worked into the scenes where Shirley and Ah Kiew decide to increase their fortunes in the gambling dens.
In the end, the novel largely succeeds at what it sets out to do: it does entertain and is a valuable social document, giving an intriguing insight into this particular period of history. However, it could have been so much more satisfying if both plot and main characters had been more fully developed. The reader comes away from the book feeling that the author ran out of steam before he ran out of things to say.