Set in late C19th China, Little Hut of Leaping Fishes tells the story of Mingzhi, the treasured first grandson in the Chai Mansion in Plum Blossom Village. His grandfather a feudal landlord who soon learns that opium is a more lucrative crop than rice, rules the household with an iron fist. Mingzhi’s future as a scholar and later a mandarin is mapped out for him, but this sensitive soul finds an escape learning from the cloying atmosphere of the household with its rivalries, adultery and addiction through books and learning.
But Little Hut is as much a story about China as about the characters. “These historical events in C19th China are woven into Mingzhi’s life. He is not just as a witness. He is part of it” says Tei.
She says that she did a lot of research for the novel to get the details right. “I found out the timeline of historical events which was very useful. I actually merged every important period in Mingzhi ’s life with important events in Chinese history. When I realised that Emperor Guangxu was enthroned in 1875, I arranged for Mingzhi to be born in that year. Then when Mingzhi’s wife dies together with the child in labour, it is on the same day that the 100 days of reform failed, when the reformers are toppled by the empress. That’s why when Mingzhi is waiting for the wife to give birth he counts to 100 and just can’t get past that number. There are many tiny details like this I don’t know if everybody will get them.”
The end of the novel has Mingzhi and his friends escaping to Malaya, along with a whole wave of Chinese immigrants fleeing poverty. Is the novel in anyway based on the lives of Tei’s own ancestors who arrived at about the same time?
Tei says that she doesn’t really know much about her great grandparents, but she does remember seeing a black and white photo of someone in a Mandarin’s costume which used to sit on the family altar, although she has no idea who he was and how he was related to her.
The novel is actually planned as the first part of a trilogy, all centered on the concept of “home”, a theme which has particular resonance for Tei, living between a Scotland where she still feels an outsider, and a Malaysia where she says feels a tourist on her return visits.
The sequel to Little Hut of Leaping Fishes will take place in the early years of the C20th and see Mingzhi having to find a home in the new land. “So he has to think, what is home to him, here or there? There is a conflict.”
The third book in the series will be set between the 1990’s and the present. “It will redefine the concept of home in modern society when everything is moving so quickly and people become so busy. People can just go from one place to another place so easily and some people even have houses in different places. So it explores how we define home and how sometimes home just equals a sense of belonging.”
Her writing is, Tei says very influenced by film, which she describes as her primary language, and she is concerned with using minimal dialogue and vivid images to tell the story.
Indeed, with its short sentences and sentence fragments, and its use of the present tense, Little Hut sometimes reads like a film script. The writing very visual, the imagery is often striking, while the relative simplicity of the language, as well as its working of themes which will be very relevant to the local audience, should win the novel a broad readership in Malaysia.
Although Tei very much has her hands full with the writing projects at the moment, she says that she sees all her work as interconnected and does not rule out a return to film making. She may also return to writing in Chinese, although she says she does not know when yet.
So how does it feel being one of the growing list of Malaysian authors who are winning recognition? Tei says she was tremendously encouraged seeing Tash Aw and Tan Twan Eng longlisted for the Booker and winning recognition for their work. And it is an encouragement that she no doubt will be passing forward in turn.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Pendatang Part 2
(Continued from yesterday.)