For those who had been living under Western imperialism in Asia, the sudden loss of presumed superiority in almost all things political, social, and cultural of the European colonial powers after Japan’s sudden attack in late 1941 was a seminal event. Japan’s own, often violent, experiment in colonial administration that immediately took its place, lasting through to the summer of 1945, and its attempts at pan-Asianism reinforced for the many that the “civilizing” project need not demand colonial masters from abroad.
As many historical studies have argued, this changed the course of colonialism in Asia. In fiction, however, this perspective of former colonial subjects (as opposed to the colonials themselves) living through the daily trials brought about by the tumultuous events of the Second World War, particularly in mainland Southeast Asia, has been less well explored.
A dynamic examination of the Japanese attack on British Malaya and the tenuousness of love in war, told from the rare perspective of local Malayan-Chinese.
Selina Siak Chin Yoke’s novel When the Future Comes Too Soon is an important corrective—as well as an exciting read—on the subject. The story follows Mei Foong, a Malaysian-Chinese wife and mother, as her family attempt survival during the Japanese occupation of British Malaya.
A picturesque scene of colonial Malaya is developed throughout the novel. Its richness brings the reader closer to the baju styled garb, the sleeping barlay raised platforms of Malayan homes, the Hokkien, Hakka, and Cantonese dialects of Malayan Chinese, the Kempeitai secret police of Japan, the betel nut chewing of commoners, the local parang machetes of workers, the official British Resident, the hardwood chengai of the tropics, and an innumerable number of traditional honorifics and kinship terms of multilingual Malaya. The protagonist Mei Foong’s interactions in this world are colorful.
The struggle of multiethnic Malaya is paralleled in the personal challenges of Mei Foong’s character. The occupation places a stress on familial and personal relationships in her family. Mei Foong is jarred out of her comfortable upper-middle class situation and forced to inspect closer her life with her husband Weng Yu. She begins to reevaluate the reasons why she accepted her father’s urging for Mei Foong to betroth the young British-trained engineer many years earlier.
The persecution of many individuals of Chinese-heritage in Malaya by the Japanese—particularly the violent sook ching purges of persons of Chinese descent—exacerbates those selfish, nebbish qualities of Weng Yu. A crisis of marital fidelity is assumed by the husband against Mei Foong, forcing her to question her place in the family home. The trials of the Japanese occupation end at the same time as the trials of Mei Foong and Weng Yu come to a head.
Although it follows Siak’s debut novel The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds, the first book in her Malaya series, both of the novels may be read individually. Stirring and realistic, When the Future Comes Too Soon is a dynamic examination of the Japanese attack on British Malaya and the tenuousness of love in war, told from the rare perspective of local Malayan-Chinese.