In 1910, Manchuria suffered a terrible epidemic that killed tens of thousands of people in a matter of months. Although the 1918 flu pandemic has taken most of the spotlight when it comes to super spreaders a hundred years ago, HY Yeang writes about the Manchurian pneumonic plague in his debut novel, Blue Sky Mansion.
The story opens in Chungking when six-year-old Tang Mei Choon is on the verge of being sold to a wealthy family in town. Her mother is recently widowed and cannot afford to feed the family, so arranges for Mei Choon to be handed over to the P’an family as soon as the P’an patriarch’s funeral concludes. Before that can happen, Mei Choon is inadvertently saved by a man on the run named Chen Tong and his wife Ming Lan. The couple bring Mei Choon up to Harbin just before the 1911 Revolution and later to Penang in 1921. Yeang’s novel follows Mei Choon and how she finds herself escaping one disaster after another.
When Mei Choon is in Harbin with Chen Tong and Ming Lan, a mysterious epidemic breaks out and people start dying left and right. An overseas Chinese doctor from Malaya comes to this northeastern city to run mitigation efforts. Western-trained, Dr. Wu Lien-teh, (who was a real person), teaches other doctors in Harbin about how this respiratory disease is transmitted, contrary to traditional Chinese medicine.
According to Dr. Wu, it is not noxious vapours in the air that cause illness; it is the presence of these minute organisms—or germs—floating in the air that makes people sick. That’s what they believe in Western medicine. Dr. Wu has set a ruling that all health workers have to wear a gauze mask to protect themselves from breathing in these tiny organisms.
If this scene wouldn’t have resonated with readers just a couple years ago, it certainly would now. Thanks to Dr Wu’s efforts, this was the first time in which masks and hazmat suits were used. Tarbagan marmots were thought to be the cause of this plague, after they became disturbed by trappers and bit them.
After Ming Lan passes away from tuberculosis she had contracted back in Chungking, Dr Wu inspires Chen Tong to move to Malaya. He can’t leave Mei Choon behind, so he takes her with him and vows to educate her in Penang, where they settle. As promised, Mei Choon attends school, but Chen Tong passes away when his de facto adopted daughter is sixteen. Before he dies, he asks a relative in Malaya to care for Mei Choon, but that woman sells Mei Choon to a triad. Soon Mei Choon is living at a brothel in Penang, the Blue Sky Mansion.
Mei Choon’s later adventures include a run-in with the triads and a stint on a rubber plantation (drawn, one supposes, from the author’s own background in rubber production), but Yeang also nicely weaves in the history of China just before the 1911 Revolution and the years leading up to the Japanese invasion in Malaya in 1941, the latter of which is significant in the timeline of the Pacific Theatre of World War II.
… the Malayan invasion occurred on 8 December at 2.15am Tokyo time, whereas Pearl Harbour was attacked on the same day in Japan at 3.25am Tokyo time. Hence, when Pearl Harbour was struck in the early hours of the morning, it was already more than an hour after the Japanese troops landed in Malaya. Therefore, the Pacific War did not begin with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. It began with the Japanese invasion of Malaya.
One of Covid’s few silver linings is that this debut catches a zeitgeist that was surely unexpected when the novel was conceived.