The sharper edge to traveling in Asia

WoWasis book review: ‘Once Upon a Time in Malaya’ by Chong Seck Chim

Written By: herbrunbridge - Feb• 25•14


Set in Japanese-occupied Malaya during World War II, Chong Seck Chim’s Once Upon a Time in Malaya (2005, ISBN 981-4155-46-2) is the fascinating tale of the up-and-coming youth Ah Kiew and how he deftly juggles familial obligation, political realities, and romance. Chong is a master of character development, and introduces the reader to a number of archetypes that wonderfully hold the story together.

We learn early that Ah Kiew is in love with a girl in his church congregation that barely recognizes his existence. Everything in his life changes dramatically when Japanese occupying forces arrive, and how he and his friends and mentors deftly survive the occupation is a remarkable story. Familial obligations are at the forefront, and we here at WoWasis found the references to Malaysian culture, particularly of the baba-nyonya Straits Chinese, to be a highlight of the book (wearing the “green hat” for instance, is a term, derived from Chinese opera, used to describe a man that has been cuckholded).  The author’s descriptive powers are formidable, as exemplified in this passage describing mining ravages reminiscent of the Malakoff Diggins hydraulic mines of northern California:

The brief interlude in Ampang had been less stressful than expected. The refugees found themselves in a strangeplace, almost exotic-a land of rugged escarpments andsand tailings, relics of the tin quarrying that had gone on before. The pressurised water jets in the opencast mines had turned theland surface over like a remade carpet, leaving raw red earth and deep gullies everywhere-as in a moonscape. Or like the badlands of cowboy country in the movies. But the torrential downpours that ravaged the land also filled the mining pools and rivulets, sothat they now sustained patches of freshwater fisheries and marketgardens in the man-made desert. Spare-time dulang (pan) washing by women and children for leftover tin ore in the rillets further helped the villagers to eke out a modest living.

MalaysiaThis book is a landmark in Malaysian fiction, written by a Malaysian scholar who at one time was the Malaysian ambassador to UNESCO, and highly recommended.

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