“The Great Reclamation” by Rachel Heng

Rachel Heng Rachel Heng

Rachel Heng writes in The Great Reclamation about the making of modern Singapore, a sweeping story with hints of magical realism. The book is substantial at 450 pages and spans a period of twenty-five years, but Heng’s writing is engaging from the beginning and it doesn’t take long for the story to pick up speed. 

The novel centers around Lee Ah Boon, the younger son of a fishing family. His childhood is idyllic before the start of World War II.


The Lees’ home was a modest attap house on the edge of the kampong, facing the sea…It was more swamp than beach, really, dense with twisting mangroves whose roots reached up through the mud like so many tiny arms. Millions of camouflaged little crabs plied the mud flats, outnumbered only by the tiny, perfect balls of earth they rolled while digging their homes. No larger than a thumbnail and a translucent gray-brown, they gave the impression that the ground itself was skittering and shifting.


The Great Reclamation, Rachel Heng (Riverhead Books, March 2023)
The Great Reclamation, Rachel Heng (Riverhead Books, Tinder Press, March 2023)

The land would indeed move in ways no one could have foreseen. But first Ah Boon’s father is killed by the Jinpunlang, or Japanese in the great inspection, or dai kensho in Japanese, when Chinese men were arrested and shot point blank on the beach at the start of the occupation. Ah Boon was just a boy and was left with memories of fishing with his father, including a monumental time when the young boy spots an island off in the distance that hadn’t been there before. This mysterious island is significant for the kampong residents because they find an abundance of fish around its shores, but both island and fish are only visible when Ah Boon is nearby.

Ah Boon also develops a close friendship with Siok Mei, a female classmate and an orphan whose parents had left to fight the Japanese in China during WWII and were never seen again. Ah Boon and Siok Mei make a pact to always stay together, which would become easier said than done as political tensions heat up in Singapore after the War and the two find themselves on opposite sides.

Siok Mei stays true to her parents’ leftist ways while Ah Boon finds a job with the Gah Men, or government men, helping to run a community center at his kampong. Siok Mei and other classmates from their Chinese school are suspicious of the Gah Men (and Women) and their community centers (CCs).


The CCs were conceived as a way to build national identity and patriotism in a fledgling island state hurtling toward independence, one with disparate racial groups and no clear or unified history to call its own. Officially the centers provided citizens with services such as access to senior Gah Men, information and support on nutrition and hygiene, sports facilities, language classes. Unofficially, the CCs were the Gah Men’s strongest tool in their mission of lifting the island out of its wretched state.


But Ah Boon doesn’t have a problem with community centers and is soon recruited to persuade residents of his kampong into applying for new government housing which would provide electricity, indoor plumbing, modern kitchens, and air-conditioning. It turns out to be an easy sell for most. The Gah Men need the kampong residents to move because their fishing villages will be destroyed in order to complete the great reclamation, or land reclamation planned to modernize Singapore.


Should the project be successful, the new land would be a miracle of technology, testament to the Gah Men’s foresight, but it would also leave the kampongs stranded, miles away from the sea that its residents plied as their livelihood. Eventually—once the pilot phase had proven successful and the project was approved to move ahead—they would all have to be resettled. By then the merit of the endeavor would be undeniable, the benefits irrefutable to all.


As Ah Boon and Siok Mei move further apart politically and start relationships with other people—each finding someone who fulfills an emptiness left behind by their deceased parents—they still cannot let go of their feelings for one another. The story ends a couple of years before Singapore breaks from newly-formed Malaysia, but even by 1963 kampong life is starting to become a thing of the past.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.