At a time when many classics are being rewritten with Asian characters in Asian settings, it was perhaps inevitable that Treasure Island would be recast as a Qing dynasty tale involving two notorious pirates, Zheng Yi Sao and Cheung Po Tsai, set in the South China Sea and Ha Long Bay. CB Lee’s A Clash of Steel is a young adult novel that does just that.
Xiang is a sixteen-year-old who lives with her mother and an assortment of caregivers in a small village in southern China. Her mother runs a tea house in this village, but also a larger one in Canton. Xiang has never met her father and she’s been told he was lost at sea before she was born. All she has left of him is a little pendant.
It’s Xiang’s dream to work in the family business, but her mother feels instead that it’s time to marry her off to a good family. Xiang insists her mother take her to Canton to work as an apprentice in the tea house in hopes of convincing her mother to change her mind.
Enter Anh, a seventeen-year-old Vietnamese seafarer whose mother is the captain of a smuggling boat, complete with a crew that speaks Vietnamese, Thai, Korean and Arabic. Anh and the crew are in Canton when she and Xiang meet. They quickly bond and become interested in lost treasure after Anh explains to Xiang:
The loot of the entire Dragon Fleet has been rumored to be hidden somewhere in the South China Sea, but there are thousands and thousands of islands and inlets and coves. People have been searching for it forever with no luck, even former members of her crew. Zheng Yi Sao disappeared, but her treasure … For years and years, no one has ever found it.
Anh also finds a torn piece of a treasure map hidden in Xiang’s pendant after stealing it soon after the two first meet. All is forgiven and their relationship develops into a romantic one. They each have reasons for wanting to find this treasure: Anh hopes to provide for her mother so they don’t have to continue smuggling, while Xiang wants to impress her mother and finally gain the acceptance that has been absent from their relationship.
Xiang helps Anh to locate the hidden treasure and interprets this poem, believed to be left by the pirate Zheng Yi Sao before she disappeared.
When sunset clouds fall
into the deep ocean blue
The place where the spider-lilies bloom
longing for distant vistas
Weary traveler, for what aspiration
do you come?
The tiger’s tears shine brightly
at the second watch of night.
A number of surprising revelations develop along the way. Lee’s writing is engaging and visual, with abundant sword fights, bustling city scenes, and, of course, rough patches at sea. Xiang’s early days on Anh’s mother’s ship prove challenging.
I take a deep breath and hoist myself up, perching onto the swaying rail. It’s just like climbing a tree, I tell myself—although no tree has ever moved so precariously underneath me like this. The combination of the moving ship and the waves and the motion of climbing up onto the rail is all very disorienting, and I am already starting to feel dizzy.
Lee was inspired to write this story after hearing her mother speak of her own challenges at sea after fleeing Vietnam in 1975 on a tiny boat that was at one point intercepted by pirates. Her father was also a Vietnamese refugee and both parents are of Vietnamese and Chinese ethnicity.
Any English-language novel set in China must come to terms with the question of how to render Chinese terms and names. At the end of the book, Lee explains that she uses a combination of Cantonese, Wade-Giles, and pinyin romanizations. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this (and Lee admits that pinyin is in particular ahistorical), her choice of personal names isn’t consistent with her statement that “The romanizations I have chosen reflect Xiang’s Cantonese perspective.” Xiang is itself a Mandarin rendering, while mother Shi Yeung’s family name (Shi, pronounced “sure”, not “shee” as Lee gives in her pronunciation key) is given a Mandarin pronunciation while her given name is spelled as it would be if pronounced in Cantonese.
While this doesn’t detract from the story and probably won’t bother (or even register with) most readers, it’s something editors should be more aware of, now that Asian stories have become a relatively large presence in young adult literature.