|Apr/May 2001 Book Reviews|
Allen and Unwin (Orion) (May 2001) 392 / 343 pages
ISBN: 0 75282 5933 / 0 75282 594 1
Anyone who saw the film Raise The Red Lantern, or has read one of the many recent books about growing up as a Chinese woman (or even as a Chinese-American woman) can tell you that being born female in China before the Communist Revolution was a misfortune. Girls, if they were not smothered by the midwife or the mother at birth, grew up as the despised possessions of men and lived lives of bondage and subservience. It's a cultural stereotype which has been widely disseminated in the Western world and there has been little evidence that it is untrue.
Growing up in the culturally mixed society of Malaya in the 1950s, however, was clearly rather different. Mei Kwei, heroine of Catherine Lim's cumbersomely titled novel, The Teardrop Story Woman, grows up in Luping amongst Chinese, Malay, Thai, Indian and British families. Communist terrorists hide in the jungle helped by sympathizers in the community, and the British soldiers are there to fight them, although their war is called an Emergency, so as not to alarm the locals. All these cultures influence Mei Kwei as she grows up, causing conflict and change in her life.
At home Mei Kwei learns the traditional Chinese customs and beliefs of her family, and a close bond with her maternal grandmother teaches her to love Chinese gods and goddesses. But she is fascinated by the local Mission School and hangs around outside its windows absorbing the teaching, stories and songs until a lucky accident allows her to join the classes. As she gets older, love and marriage, too, cause her confusion. She falls in love with Father Francis Martin, newly arrived "from his native Provence to the small Malayan town of Luping to save souls," but she accepts a traditionally arranged engagement to a wealthy old man for whom she will be 'Fourth Wife'. Eventually she breaks this engagement and marries a young man of mixed Chinese and Thai parentage, but even this is problematic.
Yet, in spite of being Chinese and female; in spite of the unlucky teardrop-mole blemish on her beauty; in spite of family expectations, rejection by her father, the self-serving exploitation of her brother, and the attentions of predatory males, Mei Kwei manages to make her own decisions and, to a large extent, carry them out. In this way she is very different to "the girl Han" in The Bondmaid whose life is governed by the whims of others and whose story is one of unremitting repression and hardship.
In The Bondmaid, most characters are identified by their family name or position - 'the patriarch,' 'The Old One,' 'Fourth Elder Brother' and so on—as if to emphasize the traditional ghost-tale nature of the story. And it is very much a traditional Chinese story, full of hierarchical power, filial piety, ghosts and hopeless love. The Tear Drop Story Woman, however, is more complex, less stereotyped and, consequently, much more interesting precisely because the heroine is able to make choices and because the choices are complicated by the rich cultural mixture of the society in which she lives.
In The Tear Drop Story Woman, Catherine Lim touches on a time and place in which change was accelerating and many traditions were being questioned, and Mei Kwei is not the only character in the book to face personal dilemmas because of this. Catherine Lim explores some of these dilemmas through her characters but, in the end, the dictates of a romantic story line take precedence over more serious issues. Which is a pity, because Lim writes well and sensitively and could well have lifted the book out of the rather crowded 'Chinese culture genre' to which it will inevitably be assigned.
Novels based on Asian cultures by Asian authors, however, are immensely popular at the moment and both these books provide vivid insight into lives lived according to Asian traditions and beliefs. Catherine Lim is a good story-teller, she draws the reader into unfamiliar worlds and provides enough tantalizing and unusual situations in her characters' lives to keep you reading to the end. Both books essentially light reading, and if you are female and love a good love-story, both will appeal.
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