A family and their goat, the Taiping Rebellion and “an insight into British Malaya that has almost disappeared”: a review of Chan Ling Yap’s third novel ‘New Beginnings’

By Marc De Faoite

Chan Ling Yap begins her third novel with an explanation on Chinese names and how her name is really Yap Chan Ling – but despite this, her book is published under the ‘westernized’ version of her name. She follows in the fashion of other contemporary ethnic Chinese Malaysians writing in English by both living overseas and writing historical novels.

‘New Beginnings’ is set in the period between 1856 and 1868. It starts in China where we meet the protagonist Ah Ngao and his pretty wife and daughter, and their goat. Ngao is out of work and his family are hungry, reduced to eating seedlings from the vegetable garden. The future is not looking too promising for the goat. On top of that, the Taiping Rebellion is in full swing and people are at risk of having their heads swiftly removed if they happen to sport the wrong type of haircut (this is Taiping in the Southern Chinese Province of Guangxi and not the sleepy Malaysian town famed for its lake gardens).

The Taiping Rebellion was much more than a simple uprising – in fact, it was an all-out civil war that lasted almost fifteen years and is still considered one of the deadliest conflicts in the history.

A chap named Hong Xiuquan is generally credited with starting the war. He was a curious individual who claimed to have had visions telling him that he was in fact Jesus Christ’s little brother. Bizarre as all that might sound, the ensuing mayhem caused wasn’t the slightest bit droll. It cost well in excess of twenty million lives, with several estimates reckoning the death toll as high as a staggering one hundred million, which if true would have the dubious honor of being the war with the highest number of fatal casualties ever, all in an age long before atomic weaponry and even before the Gatling gun.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the good old bad old British Empire, having taken a little breather from the First Opium War to engage in other atrocities such as decimating and half starving to death the population of Ireland, among other things, decided to kick off with the Second Opium War.

It is upon this tumultuous background that our protagonist must act out his role.

It looks like things can’t get much worse for Ngao, but then his uncle suddenly reveals his true nature as a fiendish villain who arranges for Ngao’s pretty wife and daughter to be kidnapped and sold – a common practice at the time as the female population was substantially diminished by the unfortunate prevalence of female infanticide.

Having lined his pockets, said uncle easily gets Ngao out of the way by encouraging him to emigrate to the relative safety of Malaya, which of course he does. The rest of the story then follows the individual fates of wife, daughter and husband and the action moves back and forth between China, Singapore and Selangor.

It is filled with historical details from the time and gives an insight into aspects of British Malaya that has almost disappeared, with tin-mines, opium traffickers and various ill-intentioned lecherous characters and references to historical personages like Yap Ah Loy and sundry sultans.

Unfortunately, the characters have little nuance in their personalities. They are either wholly good or utterly bad. Poor Ngao is a hapless victim who suffers all sorts of trials and tribulations and the novel reaches a predictable resolution in the end. But the story moves along with sufficient interest to engage the reader and enough atmosphere and truth to make it feel authentic, and what it lacks in style, it makes up for in substance.

Anyone who has read Chan Ling Yap’s previous two novels ‘Sweet Offerings’ and ‘Bitter-Sweet Harvest’ books will be familiar with her writing style, and if you enjoyed both, or either of them, there should be no disappointments with ‘New Beginnings.’

About Marc De Faoite

Born in Dublin, Marc de Faoite is based in Langkawi and has lived in Malaysia fulltime since 2007. His short stories, articles, and book reviews have been published both in print and online, both locally and internationally. Tropical Madness, a collection of his short stories published by Malaysian publisher Fixi Novo, was longlisted for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize.