More Than Book Learning - Five Novels that Shaped my Love for East Asia
I have been a book nerd since I discovered the magic of reading in the first few months of primary school. I realized quickly that books are like journeys in place and time and over the course of my life I have traveled far and in many directions.
While in recent years I mostly read nonfiction, I strongly believe that novels can be just as powerful when it comes to broadening the horizon and understanding the big picture.
Honest fiction, especially books with autobiographic backgrounds, give world history a human face. Fundamentally, history is made by people, by their fears, their struggles, and their hopes and nonfiction books often fail exactly to explain these dimensions.
I believe that to understand the world, our history, even contemporary and future developments, it takes both, reading history books for a factual framework and reading novels to get a feeling for the zeitgeist.
While the origin of my life-long interest in Asia will likely stay a mystery forever, I know for sure that there are a few brilliant books that shaped this interest. Among the many I want to highlight five that stood out in particular:
1) “The Quiet American” by Graham Greene (1955)
In my opinion, there are two must-read books if you want to understand the Vietnam war and the effect of colonialism in Asia. One is a non-fiction account by German adventure journalist Peter Scholl-Latour, called “Death in the Rice Fields”, the other one is Graham Greene’s brilliant Novel.
"The Quiet American" is a love story and at the same time so much more than that. Written in 1955, Greene showed incredibly prophetic quality, foreseeing not only the American military intervention in Vietnam but describing the danger of interventionism, even if done in good faith. One of the quotes of The Quiet American that has been stuck with me till today, is “God save us from the innocent and the good”.
In many ways, this quote captures the dangers of an interventionistic foreign policy, no matter if done using civilian aid or military engagements.
2)“Tai-Pan” by James Clavell (1966)
James Clavell is a masterful storyteller and his books have been a huge influence on my life. I am not sure what started my interest in Asia in early years, but James Clavell’s books deepened my curiosity. It was another Clavell classic, Shogun, that I found first. I remember that I saw the miniseries with Richard Chamberlain on the tiny TV in my parent’s bedroom, before realizing that my parents had the book in their shelve.
“Shogun” raised my interest in the Japanese culture, but Tai-Pan (and Noble House) filled me with the dream of “making it in Asia”.
Despite the use of stereotypes, for the characterization of his heroes and villains, Clavell crafted a dense atmosphere and captured the spirit of Asia in his epic tale of the rise and fall of the Hong Kong-based trading houses. The Taipan (according to Merriam-Webster a “powerful businessman, especially a foreigner living and operating in Hong Kong), as the ultimate successful wanderer between two worlds, Europe and Asia, was my ultimate role model.
25 years after reading “Tai-Pan” for the first time, and ten years into my management career in Asia, my ambitions matured and I do not expect to rise to the level of a Taipan anymore. But I can’t deny that this vision was part of the motivation that brought me to Hong Kong in the first place.
3) To Live – Yu Hua (1992)
China is full big, sad stories and Yu Hua masterfully tells one in “To Live”. Covering Chinese history from pre-revolutionary times till the economic reforms of the 1980s. “To Live” portraits the life of Xu Fugui, who over the course of his life, experiences almost every hardship one can encounter. “To Live” does a great job to give each stage of the dramatic Chinese history in the 20th century a human face. And with the hero Xu Fugui, who stubbornly and frugal goes on with his life, it also paints a picture of a simple and pragmatic Chinese citizen, adjusting quickly to the changing times. “To Live” is beautifully written, but at times not easy to digest. If you are interested in understanding the foundation on which the People's Republic of today is built, there is no better novel.
4) Summer of Betrayal, Hong Ying (1992)
“Summer of Betrayal,” tells another one of the incredible sad stories, Chinese history produced repeatedly. Set around the summer months of 1989, “Summer of Betrayal” is the autobiographical story of a young, unpolitical literature student, dragged into the suck of what is today known as the Tiananmen incident, the student movement that ended in a bloodshed. Hong Ying’s first novel is a poetically written, very intimate view of the event that determined the lives of a whole generation.
If “Summer of Betrayal” captivates you as it did me when I read it in 2002, I recommend Hong Ying’s childhood autobiography “Daughter of the River”. Hardly any other book ever touched me as deeply as Hong Ying’s family stories from the slums of Chongqing.
5) Foreign Bodies, Hwee Hwee Tan (1997)
“Foreign Bodies” is a book I bought during my first stay longer stay in Asia, a two months internship in Malaysia in 2002.
At the surface, a witty little mystery-crime story, “Foreign Bodies” is a book as much about the cultural differences between East and West, as about the cultural differences within the Singaporean (Chinese) society.
At the time when I read “Foreign Bodies” for the first time, the book did a good job sensitizing me to intercultural differences. It also was a great guide to the Lion City, I fondly remember my lonely trip to the (at that time) pretty run-down Haw Par Villa amusement park, that with its graphic display of the “10 Courts of Hell” left such a deep imprint on the Heroine of the book.