Chiew-Siah Tei: Little Hut of Leaping Fishes
Tei’s first novel in English is an enjoyable tale of life in China at the end of the nineteenth century, when China was suddenly faced with the influx of foreign devils and changes to their traditional culture. The story revolves around Mingzhi. He is the grandson of Master Chai, a dominant, corrupt and brutal landowner. As the son of the first wife of Likang, Master Chai’s oldest son, Mingzhi is favoured. This incurs particular jealousy from Er Niang, Likang’s second wife, and her son, Minyuang. Indeed, the pair will spend a significant part of the book trying to bring Mingzhi down. Likang is neither a good husband nor a good father. He spends much of his time in debauchery and drunkenness. His only valuable contribution to Master Chai is when he breaks his leg in a drunken revel and, confined to his bed, takes to opium to amuse himself. He then recommends to Master Chai that he grow opium. Master Chai concurs and makes a lot of money from doing so, though clearly this is very much frowned on by Master Chai’s second son, Liwei, and by Mingzhi when he is older.
We follow Mingzhi’s boyhood. He is destined to be a mandarin – a super civil servant – as a fortune teller has predicted this and also because he is very studious. He can be distracted, for example when he devotes himself to his dog, but, on the whole, he does well and passes nearly all of his mandarin exams with flying colours. Minyuang tries to match him and, for a while shows a scholarly aptitude but soon turns to debauchery, like his father. Eventually, Mingzhi will pass the key exam and obtain a role as a mandarin. While studying, however, he had met Father Terry, an English priest and had learned some English. Later he will befriend Martin, an English commercial traveller. Because of Liwei’s refusal to marry and, in particular, his refusal to marry the daughter of the powerful Mandarin Liu, an enmity builds up between Liu and Master Chai. Liu shows Mingzhi one way to success as a mandarin – corruption. Liu accepts bribes, supports the rich and powerful and exploits the poor and downtrodden. Mingzhi tries to help the poor and downtrodden and, to some extent does, but faces opposition from his own family, particularly his grandfather and half-brother. Moreover, the political situation, such as the Boxer Rebellion, causes extensive problems both for Mingzhi and his family.
Tei’s tale is fairly straightforward. The good are good and the bad bad and there is not much in-between. But the story is full of local colour, engaging and Mingzhi does have his struggles, both with his grandfather and his conscience. Tei also shows the conditions of the time, particularly how women were subjugated and how oppressive landowners like Master Chai and wicked mandarins like Mandarin Liu exploited the people.
First published 2008 by PanMacmillan