Unlike his Malaysian-Chinese compatriots, Tash Aw and Tan Twan Eng who have become well-known for novels which fit pretty squarely into the English-language, Ng Kim Chew writes in Chinese from a base in Taiwan. Slow Boat to China is a collection of his short stories, the first book of his—as far as I can tell—to appear in English.
That the book was published by Columbia University Press is an indication of the academic uses to which the volume can be put. Malaysian-Chinese literature even has its own name: mahua literature, whose origins go back the better part of a century.
Ng pokes fun at the affectations of the literary class
Several of Ng’s stories takes place within this literary community and which in a somewhat self-referential way are about a writer writing about writing and writers. The opening story, “The Disappearance of M”, tells of the search for the anonymous author of a critically-acclaimed avant-garde novel written in Chinese plus English, Malay, Sanskrit and other languages. Ng pokes fun at the affectations of the literary class, their conferences, papers and pretensions:
A group of Taiwanese authors in the work were critiquing fictional characters who shared their name in a work by the same title, even as the fictional characters themselves were simultaneously critiquing a work by the same title. In the end, Zhang Dachun couldn’t help but sigh: “Don’t you know, reality itself is so fictional.”
Ng seems to have a soft spot for Chinese writer Yu Dafu, who fled to Sumatra from Singapore in 1942 and believed executed by the Japanese in 1945. Yu appears, or is referred to, in the selection more than once. Another story is about a prolific autodidact who pens essays and other works from a shack in a rubber plantation. And yet another is a gruesome tale of an eccentric English colonial official who, “obsessed with Chinese characters” sets about writing a novel in tattoos on the backs of coolies; he too disappears under Japanese occupation.
The stories on the whole take place in a period several decades ago of communist agitation, inter-communal riots, villages and rubber tapping and, sometimes explicitly, deal with issues of ethnic and linguistic Chinese identity in the Southeast Asian diaspora.
Stylistically, Ng displays an unusual combination of the surrealism that seems to typify quite a lot of contemporary Chinese literature, at least that which finds its way into English, with structures reminiscent of stories from a century or more ago. One thankfully atypical piece is a single paragraph of unintelligible symbols and the other a half-dozen entirely black pages (which must however been easy to translate). In the more traditional prose works, dream sequences are not uncommon, stories of a few thousand words may unroll over decades and Ng makes considerable use of lengthy letters, quoted writings and long stories told within stories.
But regardless of academic and purely literary interest, stories are—in the end—stories. Perhaps the best of these is “Allah’s Will”, in which a Chinese due to be executed for some unspecified but presumably political crime is instead exiled to a remote and impoverished island, required to lose his identity, convert to Islam and never leave. His reprieve is due to his mainland skills: he is to develop agriculture, education and administration. He becomes a shadow, with shadowy jailers who are simultaneously protectors.
The title story tells of a small boy who runs away from home on the back of the family water buffalo, looking for Zheng He’s abandoned ship that would periodically set sail back to China—or so went a story told to the children by an old man outside a coffee shop.
Slow Boat to China, translated by Carlos Rojas who is perhaps best-known for translating Yan Lianke and Yu Hua’s Brothers, is an introduction to a different take on both modern Southeast Asian and Chinese literature, casting some familiar territory in unfamiliar ways.