Tidapathy in the Rubber Republic

by Kenneth Champeon, Dec 1, 2002 | Destinations: Malaysia / Kuala Lumpur

The Allies were not unassisted when they drove the Japanese out of the Asian mainland. Nearly every occupied country had spawned its own resistance movement: Thailand had the "Free Thai"; Vietnam had the Viet Minh. And when the war was over, and the West returned to reclaim its spoils, the participants in these movements wondered what, exactly, had been gained. While there was general agreement, and even a kind of racial dismay, that the Westerners were fairer than the harsh Japanese, the lesser evil was an evil nonetheless. Thus began the "Emergency" in Malaya: the attempt by communists to rid the Golden Chersonese of the English and their Asian "lackeys".

Han Suyin's ...And the Rain My Drink is considered one of the best novels not only about the Emergency but also about Southeast Asia. And its reputation is deserved on both counts. Curious, then, that it should be out of print. My copy, teased out of a close and labyrinthine used bookstore in Thailand, is so musty that it made me sneeze. Every profession has its hazards, I suppose.

A Peking-born Eurasian with one foot each in China and England, Han Suyin is a writer of remarkable ambition, precision, and scope. Her novel parades over 50 characters, and her style resembles nothing so much as the prose-poetry of William Faulkner, including his alliteration, adjectival triplets, and compound words. Consider the novel's opening line: "Peacocks as comets catapult across the tarmac road in a tail-flurry of blue-green and gilded palm-frond feathers to drop staggering, clutching, swinging their meek sharp heads upon the wire fences which ring the Sultan's zoo." It is a style born of crushing heat and drenched land -- brooding, oppressive, hypnotic - a style perfectly suited to the breathless stasis of Malaya during its miniature Cold War.

There was practically only one reason why the English held Malaya for so long: rubber. The nearby Korean War had precipitated a great need for the commodity, and the Malay version of grace, according to Suyin, was "Give us this day our daily latex." For many poor farmers, no latex meant no food, and often no water. Hence the book's title and epigraph, taken from a Chinese ballad: "I will go to the forest for justice. The wind for my garment I wear ...and the rain my drink." Yes, a few characters do indeed drink rain as it falls.

Meanwhile, across the Straits, Singaporeans smuggle ammunition to the communist "People Inside", who would occasionally blow up a bus or butcher an obnoxious Englishman. And by obnoxious I mean those who, like Suyin's short-lived officer Uxbridge, believed that "the world, like Mont Blanc, consisted of a white top and a submissive, yellow-brown-black base."

Present-day Malaysia sells itself as a prosperous, secular, pluralistic society, with Malays, Chinese, Indians, and a smattering of foreigners cohabiting in relative content. It was not always thus. Han Suyin asks herself "whether out of this babel reassembled, a pattern would emerge," and also whether British-Chinese Singapore and the Malay Federation would be unified if granted independence. Geography said aye, but everything else cried nay, and the nays ultimately had it: Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965.

But even independence seemed a far-off prospect, and for familiar reasons. Some Chinese valued British rule because it made them rich while sparing them the corruption and persecution that Malay dominance might imply. And, as usual, there were Malays quite content to squeeze other Malays for their benefit. "We must learn to crawl," says one Westernized Malay statesman, "before we can walk."

Most of the "terrorists" were Chinese with Chinese backing. So, to sever this pernicious tie, "over half a million people, mostly Chinese small farmers...were to be placed behind wire in over three hundred resettlement camps." Which is to say, placed by the English. And resettlement camps being a euphemism for "concentration camps", which itself was a euphemism before it became synonymous with evil. The Emergency could be seen as a war between China and Britain for control of Malaya and as merely one instance of a war between China and the West for control of Asia. But the anti-Communist Chinese, now as then, tended to side with the West.

Han Suyin views the Emergency as an early source of the idea that Asians form a coherent group, "as if Asia were an entity, when really it was a huge agglomeration of continents and cultures and races and religions and governments.... And yet we-Asians gripped the imagination...." We now recognize that identity is formed by its difference from a so-called Other: we-Asians, in other words, often meant not-Europeans, much as India meant not-England, and certainly not-Pakistan. This kind of categorization can proceed forever, but at best it is merely an expedient for attaining equality - at worst, a prescription for perpetual war.

But identity and ideology are only what Marx called the "superstructure." Wars are fought over resources, and in addition to rubber - and before that, tin - the masters of Malaya profited from trades in contraband: especially opium, from which "the Government derived most of its wealth." The most backward, corrupt, and repressive regimes in the world today almost invariably rely on one commodity for their revenues; they are in a continual state of Emergency. Suyin's book may be musty, but the dynamics it describes are as fresh - and as flammable - as an oil field in the Caspian Sea.

But ultimately it triumphs less as a novel of banana republican politics, and more as a novel of Southeast Asia: a cultural colony of India, China, and Arabia, whose kaleidoscopic diversity is feasible only because of its palpable philosophy of "Tidapathy": a coinage from the Malay Tidapah, or "never mind". From a mere calendar, Suyin derives an indelible portrait of this tropical melting pot:

"...the Chinese lunar, European solar, Moslem and Tamil years, months, and days...the festivals of all five races in four languages...Deepavali, the lights and the roof of a Hindu temple; the fire-walking day, glowing with embers; and Hari Raya, end of the fast, day of gorgeousness and Malay New Year; Christmas and Easter...the opening and closing term days of Malay, Chinese, Tamil, and English schools; the birthdays of the nine Sultans and of their fathers.... dark-haired Malay, Chinese, and Indian maidens in sarongs...."

And, finally, in case you missed the point:

"Today was the 20th of May, 3rd of April, 16th of December, and 8th of March."

* * * * *

Review of Han Suyin's ...And the Rain My Drink, Penguin Books, 1961.

* * * * *