One of Asia’s foremost historians on the Chinese diaspora, Wang Gungwu now tells his own history in Home is not Here, an account of Wang’s younger days up until his university studies, spanning three countries across Asia.
Born in Indonesia, Wang grows up in Ipoh, Malaysia, then goes to university in Nanjing during the final years of the Republic of China (ROC). This period of his life is an extraordinary time, encompassing, first, the Japanese invasion of British ruled-Malaysia during World War II, and then the Chinese Civil War that threatens and ends his university studies in China.
To be honest, Wang and his immense reputation were unknown to me before reviewing this book, but I got a strong sense of how he developed a passion for Chinese history and literature. The book is neither overly dramatic nor flowery, but straightforward and written with measured sentimentality and reflection. Interspersed among the author’s recollections are chapters where his mother gives her version of events, which provides a good insight into the hardship of daily life during World War II.
Wang begins by telling of his upbringing in Ipoh, a tin-mining city in British ruled-Malaysia with a significant local Chinese population. However, Wang’s parents are from the Yangtze River province of Jiangsu, making them different from most of the other Malaysian-Chinese, who are from Fujian and Guangdong. Wang’s father is a highly-educated Chinese-school teacher who introduced Wang to Chinese classics and history, inculcating a life-long appreciation.
While they got along with those other Chinese, Wang’s parents mostly befriended people from their home province and Zhejiang, which borders Jiangsu and shares a strong literary culture. This is a trait that is common among many Chinese overseas communities which often tend to center on provinces or tongues, reflecting both the diversity and the plurality of China.
In 1947, during the civil war between the ROC government and the Communists, Wang and his parents returned to China. Wang entered university in Nanjing, the ROC capital. However, this patriotism would be tested by the harsh living conditions (which saw his parents return to Malaysia), and his disapproval of the ROC government, which he and many other students saw as corrupt and inefficient. Wang is forced to leave Nanjing at the start of his second year of studies in December 1948 when advancing Communist forces capture Xuzhou, a major town near the capital. Nanjing would eventually fall a few months later in April the next year, as would the ROC.
Wang’s continual balancing of his Chinese heritage with his growing up in a multicultural, British-ruled Malaysia encapsulates the challenge of dual or multiple identities that many overseas Chinese face. For Wang, it has meant retaining a strong sense of devotion to Chinese history throughout his career which has taken him to Australia, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Of course, not every person of Chinese descent who grows up abroad will take the same path regarding cultural identity.
Home is not Here comes in at a compact 208 pages, and like any good book, has the effect of making the reader want more. The book ends with Wang leaving Nanjing and soon to resume his tertiary studies in Singapore, which hopefully will be told in a follow-up volume.