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Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Little Hut of Leaping Fishes by Chiew-Siah Tei

Where Ripples Shun the Tide - sa

by Suzan Abrams

The Malaysian-born and now Glasgow-based playwright and novelist, Chiew-Siah Tei in her skilled role as gentle raconteur, pens this thoughtful, pensive tale that lends itself without regret, to the stricken tone of a lingering sadness.

In Little Hut of Leaping Fishes, brooding Mandarin scholar Mingzhi a promising lawmaker and genius is inclined on finding his place in a fishbowl world surrounded by volatile elements that shape late 19th century China. Raised by his strict grandfather and docile prayerful mother in Plum Blossom Village, Mingzhi, aims for a haven of solitude and the rise of destiny, by delving in between the pages of the ancient Chinese classics. Nestled along with this determined peaceful spirit, is a steely fortitude of perseverance that strings the character along; as Mingzhi plods with continued calmness through the rest of the plot.

In fact, it is Mingzhi's unruffled air that would eventually rescue the thoughtful academic from the the jagged turbulent crisis of sibling rivalry and jealousy, help him battle the worrying uprising against Western missionaries from where he had derived his few best friends and too, escape the wars fast looming on the horizon. The time of the novel represented an unsettling period when any Chinese imbued by Western influences would be considered a criminal by radical groups and jealous gangs.

About one third way through the novel, an unexpected intrigue siren-ed by the new sharp stab of Mingzhi's half-brother's brutality, may have drastically turned the pace of the plot if allowed.

Mingyuan sits on a little girl servant, treats her like a horse and punishes her slowness by beating her head with a bamboo cane.

Having no regard for the frail girl's pain, he rules over this merciless act with gusto. Mingyuan later asks a shocked Mingzhi to join him. Both brothers have been brought up in relatively easy comfort by their grandfather, Master Chai who is constantly surrounded by a butler and servants. The cantankerous sulky man used to habit and prestige, grabs his fortune from the opium trade by heartily faming poppies. Mingyuan is the materialistic brother, lawless in his greed for power even as a lad.

Of course, the act of walloping a little girl's head is no less a sadistic one but I thought it made an exciting balance in the way of technical execution when you weighed the episode up with Mingzhi's almost angelic disposition....here was a kind gentle soul who cherished his floral curtains, little animals and butterflies and would also follow the Christian commandment of turning the other cheek. On the other hand had this heroic character been made to confront his brother's intense brutality, what robust power would have been added to the story.

A boisterous clash from this forced partnership arising from one man's brawny prowress to another's focussed singular will, perhaps? However, since this possibility was not developed, such an aspect of the story would continue to stay limp. Until Mingyuan's tragic end, the brutal brother would rely only on casual appearances now and then, swinging the odd jealous plot long after the barbarous act had faded.

Still, Chiew is a glorious storyteller of the benevolent and amicable.

One could almost hear her soothing hushed voice lull her readers to an indefinite rhythm of meditative calm with this narration.

Of course, Malaysian, Singaporean, Macau and Hong Kong audiences would be easily familiar with the picturesque descriptions of old world China sometimes screened on daytime television; what with the crowd of young men who spotted half-shorn heads and long plaits, bustling about their daily trade or drinking tea and playing *mahjong in noisy brothels.

Chiew also reflected a high talent in analysing Mingzhi's tragic marriage. She paints the character's heartbeak with a memorable subdued tenderness; nothing short of realistic. She is kind to her characters, one gets the impression she is so fiercely maternal of her creation, Mingzhi that as a devoted author, she would do her best to rescue him from ill-will.

It was also an innovative idea to sketch the life of a dedicated scholar as readers would be treated to the study and progressive duties of academia, not known to many in the closed years that moulded 19th century China. Much of old literatures settles on the lives of peasants, trecherous landlords, monks or soldiers. Chiew's tale of Minghzi and his love for the written word, adds on a refereshing change.

Still, because of the consuming staidness of such a somber plot, Chiew's studied efforts to draw high drama and a chilling conflict towards the end of the story failed her purpose as the sudden warning notes could not arouse enough attention from this reader, now used to sobriety from earlier ensuing chapters. The plot buried under solemnity struggled to rise and race with its slow-paced legs to a fast-speed end. The emotions of fear and anxiety in later chapters could not be roused to their desired acceptability that would lend its reader any fraught expectant moments.

Chiew-Siah Tei is a fine and promising storyteller and her playful wit which peppered the plot, was a powerful element that surely made her writing doubly exquisite.


Suggested futher reading:

a) Please find an extract from Little Hut of Leaping Fishes.
b) Alasdair Gray's superb analytical review of Little Hut of Leaping Fishes in the Times Literary Supplement.

*mahjong: a favoured Chinese pastime amounting to gambling. 4 players are needed to play the game consisting of 144 tiles marked in suits, counters and dice. The object is to build a winning combination of pieces.

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