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Tin Mines & Concubines: Malaysian Fictions

Hilary Tham.
Washington Writers’ Publishing House
P.O. Box 15271, Washington, D.C. 20003
© 2005, 164 pages, $14.95 paper, $24.95 cloth

Set in Malaysia, mostly in the 1960s, the wise, compassionate, surprising stories of Tin Mines portray the author’s multicultural, multiracial society of Chinese and Indian immigrants and Malays. Hilary Tham, born 1946, was raised in an impoverished Chinese Malaysian family with a strong mother and feckless father; in 1971 she married a Peace Corps volunteer and immigrated to America. In these Malaysian stories, as in her eight books of poetry and her memoir of a Chinese Malaysian girlhood, Tham shows how class, race, gender roles, and Western versus ancestral traditions shape the lives of girls and women, youths and men. www.geocities.com/HilaryTham.

The young Chinese and Indians featured in most of Tham’s Malaysian Fictions struggle to climb the ladder of British-influenced education and modern professions. For poor Chinese schoolgirls, doing well in English school is a way out of grinding poverty; for privileged young men, such schooling is the way into Westernized professions of doctor or lawyer. Both girls and youths form strong same-sex friendships, Chinese with Chinese or Indian. Their parents accept arranged marriages and traditionally separate gender roles, women’s work and influence at home, men’s outside the home. But, though the fathers hold monetary power, it is the uneducated elder women—the Chinese Grandaunts and the ghost-seeing Granny Durian—who teach ancestral traditions to the young.

Tham’s stories show us the interplay of luck and choice, of the realities she would accept with what she called Asian fatalism, versus the individuality and feminism she had learned from Western sources—and from her equality-minded mother. Luck can say if one is fed or hungry, schooled or not, free or trapped, maimed or whole. But choice shapes luck, and choice can also set free or entrap.

In the opening story, “The Second Mrs. Tang,” Leng is a sixteen-year-old, motherless, unschooled girl, sold by her gambling-addicted father to the sixty-year-old tin mine tycoon, Mr. Tang. As concubine Leng has, for the first time, enough to eat, a clean and cool room, silks. Mr. Tang’s unwelcome sexual thrusts give Leng a healthy son. The resentful Mrs. Tang dies. Friendless in the rich Tang compound, ordered about by the resident Grandaunts, Leng becomes their de facto housekeeper. Overwhelmed, passive and embittered, she sees herself as luckless, robbed of choice by her father, trapped forever in “a golden cage” (11).

Other stories show the dangers of bitterness and passivity. “Cheng’s Wife” and “Cheng” show how bitterness far worse than Leng’s, triggered by a terrible abduction, maimings, and disappearance, can take over a woman’s or man’s life. As can passivity: in “The Fruit of the Lemon” a poor schoolgirl sees how her rich, envied friend’s mother, the talented Mrs. Lim, accepts a victim’s role in her husband’s dominance game. The once-envious schoolgirl learns that wealth is not enough: “Freedom should come before peace or beauty” (108).

Most of Tham’s characters are Chinese or Indian; the two stories of Malay families, while sympathetic, are comic sketches. “Pa Chik’s Fortune” tells of the marvelous cabinet a Malay villager buys to protect his new mineral-rights wealth. “The Best Butter” tells how Pa Chik’s nephew Selim, a naive young firefighter, lets the older Malay firefighters persuade him to steal something from a fire scene.

Tham’s “Day of the Long Knives” recounts the terrible race riots of May 13, 1969, when the government, alarmed by Chinese and Indian electoral gains, armed Malay mobs with palangs and incited them to attack immigrants. Hundreds, mostly Chinese, were killed, including the Li family of Tham’s story; mistrust and anger separated immigrants and Malays. Tham’s memoir tells how she saved her elder brother from becoming a riot statistic; and discusses the government measures that precluded real friendships between Malays and non-Malays (Lane with No Name 173-91).

Tham’s recurring best-friend characters are a Chinese-Indian alliance: the young Chinese doctor, Henry Tang, who has avoided his father’s tin mines and gone into practice with a rare, Westernized Malay doctor; and Mani Manickavasagam, a young Indian lawyer in his father’s firm. Henry and Mani’s sexual escapades, with bought women, are treated matter-of-factly and comically—but a vengeful female ghost pursues Henry, and Mani feels degraded. Another privileged young man, Henry’s patient, catches leprosy from a prostitute.

In “Picture Bride” Mani as a young law student passively accepts tradition--an arranged marriage to the daughter of his father’s law partner—then learns, from his father’s letter, that the picture bride has killed herself. The man she loved, Govind, was Mani’s father’s law clerk, and had been Mani’s and Henry’s schoolboy friend, until the wealthier two left for professional training. Overwhelmed with grief, Govind becomes a hopeless, toddy-bar drunk.

In Tham’s final stories, Henry and Mani come of age as they reconcile choice and tradition in their loves and marriages—areas traditionally emphasized for women; and it is the unschooled women elders—Granny Durian and Henry’s resident Grandaunts—who guide them. Henry Tang chooses his own wife, a self-assured young pediatrician, and jokes with his Grandaunts about the absurd Chinese marriage traditions he’s accepting—a Good Luck Woman to adjust the marital bed! But he and Alice will live in the Tang compound; and he learns from his Grandaunts’ ancestral and personal stories that he too needs children, so as not to vanish “like a drop in the slop bucket” (143).

Mani, after five loveless years, has finally let his family arrange another picture bride, a dentist’s daughter. Their wedded nights are pleasurable, and the ghost-seeing Granny Durian tells him that his first, dead fiancée is happy now. But Mani starts desiring Leng, the Tang’s lonely concubine-housekeeper. If this were a conventional Western novel, true love or at least an attempted affair would follow. But Tham’s stories are Asian as well as modern: seeing his best friend Henry accept Chinese tradition, and learning from Henry’s Grandaunts, Mani feels his locked heart open in “a rush of joy” as he freely chooses to “embrace the tradition of learning to love the bride” of his arranged marriage (153).

Acknowledgement: Carousel, 2006

Judith McCombs' fifth book, THE HABIT OF FIRE: POEMS SELECTED & NEW, was a finalist for the 2006 Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award--and a 2005 Four Star Best Pick Montserrat Review book.

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