Magic realism, land reclamation, a story of nation-building.
It’s hard to think how the elements can come together to make a story, but Rachel Heng’s epic narrative blends everything into a gripping tale.
In a small fishing village in the 1940s, Ah Boon follows his father to sea for the first time. He’s not cut out for fishing but he braves the sea in hope to gain recognition from his father. That day, they chance upon a mysterious island that his father and elder brother, despite being seasoned fishermen, do not recognise. That day, the catch is unusually good.
They soon realise that the islands seem to exist in a different realm, and while Ah Boon was initially the only one who could find them, everyone he shares the secret with can do so. Ah Boon is sent to school, where he falls in love with Siok Mei, whose parents left her in the custody of an uncle as they pursue leftist causes.
Soon, the landscape changes with the onset of the war. Ah Boon’s father is killed by the Jipunlang (Japanese) in WWII and as political tensions intensifies after WWII and the early post-war days, Ah Boon and Siok Mei are further torn apart by their political differences. Siok Mei remains loyal to the leftist movement, while Ah Boon gets a job with the Gah Men (government) to help with community outreach efforts at the newly built community center in their village. Ah Boon helps to persuade the kampung to move to the new and modernised government-built flats. At the same time, he falls in love with an educated Gah Woman, Natalie, and he aspires to the ways of the Gah Men. Meanwhile, plans are ongoing to reshape the coastline, filling the seas with sand and pushing the fishing village further and further away from their livelihoods. Ah Boon’s uncle, one of the few remaining in the village, sees the Gah Men as yet another evil power. As the land, and its people are pulled further apart by the conflicting ideologies and the sweeping changes of modernisation, the Great Reclamation project runs into trouble. There’s a lack of sand. Where can they find sand, what sacrifices will it entail?
What is breathtaking about the novel is how well it brings us through the upheavals of Singapore’s nation-building while keeping the story firmly rooted in Ah Boon and the fishing village. It’s like seeing Singapore’s history from the perspective of the kampung — somewhat removed from the different forces sweeping through the nation yet very much affected at the same time.
And I love the use of the word Gahmen. While still common among older folks to refer to the government, it has also integrated itself in the vocabulary of younger Singaporeans and most commonly used on online forums when Singaporeans are complaining about politics and the government. On a tangent, I’m also reminded of the Hokkien word for government Jeng Hu and how we often used Bo Jeng Hu (no government) when talking about a situation lacking authority or governance (e.g. when the boss is not around).
All in all, a brilliant read.