Tai Pan Book Review : The Founding of Hong Kong as described by J. Clavell

Secluded beach on the MacLehose trail section 2
Secluded beach on the MacLehose trail – How Hong Kong would have looked to the British, 150 years ago

Tai Pan Book Review

Another month, another country. Another Readathon.

Although my readathon page has suffered from quiet drought, behind the scenes many readathons did, in fact, occur, keeping as always good company: en route to Zanzibar, while exploring Spanish gems, and most recently: en route to Hong Kong.

I had not read James Clavell’s Shogun, so I was unaware of the other books in his Asian Saga. Until Printre Randuri suggested I read Tai Pan

A walk through history some 150 years ago? I’m all for that. 

I regret now having brushed away the name of this author, solely on the basis of my annoyance towards the “I want to learn Japanese because of the Shogun” stereotype that half my 1st year colleagues were throwing around. 

Here’s a snippet of my Tai Pan book review below:

Hollywood-Worthy Action Book

It turns out, reading Tai Pan was so much more than an interesting history lesson: the book has a perfectly crafted narrative, with Hollywood worthy, vivid action scenes, eye-catching descriptions, and a complex plot – with a surprising ending (that’s all I’ll say, no spoilers)

The novel follows the life of Dirk Struan, British trader in Asia, and his plots and efforts to expand trade following the British victory of the first Opium War and the seizure of Hong Kong.

Although the island is largely uninhabited and the terrain is unwelcoming, Dirk – called by everyone Tai Pan – has a deep fixation to occupy this ‘barren rock’, which would mean the dawn of a new area in British – and global – sea trade.

Fact-checking the book (of course!)  I soon realized that the historical facts depicted in Tai Pan are by far simplified, so that the average reader like me can get a sense of the historical context. Nonetheless, if you start from a quasi-ignorance of the history of Hong Kong, this book will be able to provide some solid understanding.

I rate it 4.5 out of 5. Although the action happens in the mid 1800s, it is by far a bore!

No spoilers of course, but I will give you a taster:

Chinese customs, polygamy, a romance worthy of Shakespeare, and a  really hard to guess ending 

Historical & Geopolitical setting:

Treaty of Chuenpi, year  1841 – Peace for twenty-six years and no major war imminent “unheard of for hundreds of years. Devil Bonaparte safely dead, violent France safely bottled, and Britain world-dominant for the first time.”

  • The New Age.
  • A new queen—Victoria—the first popular monarch in centuries!
  • Slavery out eight years ago.
  • Canals, a new method of transport.
  • Toll roads, with unheard-of smooth and permanent surfaces
  • The first police force in the world
  • Industrial Revolution and now the locomotive “an invention that’ll rock the world”

And Parliament taken out of the hands of aristocratic rich landowners “so that now, incredibly, every man in England who owned a house worth twenty pounds a year could vote”

Hong Kong Polaroids

Quotes from the book:

The mainland peninsula was low-lying, with nine squat hills, and jutted into the harbor that hooped around it. It was named “Kau-lung”—“Kowloon”

“The panorama was vast. Awesomely beautiful. The sun high in the blue sky and the Pacific sea a blue-green carpet. Brown-green mountains of the islands were jutting from the sea carpet, Pokliu Chau to the southwest; Lan Tao, the huge island, bigger than Hong Kong, fifteen miles westward”

Hong Kong: the key to Asia “this miserable threadbare rock, without which all the open ports and the future will be meaningless.”

Book Descriptives

Wang Chu could not dress himself for his nails were four inches long and protected with jeweled sheaths. Struan turned away filled with loathing.

Kathleen found the tape and measured Shevaun’s waist. “Seventeen and a half inches, by the Blessed St. Mary! And when you faint, me darlin’, be sure you’re as graceful as a cloud and that everyone’s watching.”

My Favorite Quotes

(About Power) “I’m saying that without power you canna be a saint in this day and age. Power for its own sake is a sin. Money for its own sake is a sin.”

(About Money and Power) “It wasn’t money that was important. Only the lack of it.”

(About Power) “Empires are built by young men. They’re lost by old men.”

“If one barbarian can be changed into a civilized person, why not many?”

(Civilization Clash) “The Manchus think our ideas—Christianity, Parliament, voting, and above all, equality before the law and a jury system—are revolutionary and dangerous and evil.”

(About Love) “love is like the sea, sometimes calm and sometimes stormy; it’s dangerous, beautiful, death-dealing, life-giving. But never permanent, everchanging. And unique only for a short span in the eyes of time.”

 Mei Mei’s Quotes:

(Chinese Traditions) Only a girl with bound feet—lotus feet—could be a wife or concubine. Those with normal feet were peasants, servants, low-class prostitutes, amahs or workers, and despised.

The husband is supreme in family, of course, but in the home, first wife is supreme of supreme. It is Chinese law. Many wives is also law, but one Tai-tai.”

Pox on that modest – I’m honest, Tai-Pan. Chinese are honest. Why for should I not appreciate me? And you. I enjoy you, like you me. Stupid to pretend na.”

(About God/Religion) “There is only one God. One!” “Prove it,” she said. “I canna do that.” “There, you see. How can mortal man prove God, any god? But I am a Christian like you. But, fortunate, also Chinese, and in these god things better think a little Chinese. Werry wise to keep a werry open mind.

“Wat for should the only true God, who is therefore fantastical clever, say only one wife, heya, which is terrifical stupid?”

 “I wonder if the barbarian God is like our Chinese gods. Who, if you think about it, are very stupid. But not really. They’re like human beings with all our weaknesses and strengths.”

(About Justice) “The world can grow into an ordered place where all are equal before the law. And the law is just. Honest. Without graft.” “Is that so important if you are starving?” said Mei Mei.

(About Spitting – yes, spitting!):  “There is poisons in the throat always. You become very sick if you dinna expectorate it. It is very wise to expectorate it. The louder the hawk, the more the spit-poison god is frightened.”

The Russian Context

“We’ll (British) always rule the seas, lad. We have to. You’re (Russia) an agricultural country. We’re industrialists. We need the seas.” “(Russia) One day, we’ll take the seas.”

Eight years ago Russia had compelled Turkey to sign a treaty which gave Russia joint suzerainty over the Dardanelles, and international tension had been acute ever since.

“Russia can afford to wait. When the Ottoman Empire breaks up, she’ll calmly take all the Balkans—Romania, Bulgaria, Bessarabia, Serbia—and as much of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as she can gobble up as well.

(About Democracy) “Yes. It’s a great and glorious experiment, one fit for the splendid attributes of your country, sir. But it’s not suitable for all nations. Wasn’t it the ancient Greeks who came to the conclusion that the most perfect form of government was a benevolent dictatorship? The rule of one man?”

 (About Democracy and Equality) “Your hypothesis is correct. But it has one vast flaw. You presume an enlightened world population—all equally educated, all equally prosperous—which is of course impossible, isn’t it? You should travel in Russia to see how impossible that is.


The English Mentality

The book touches on many of the taboos and prejudices of the British community, most of which would come as a shock in present days.

(The Brits’ hygiene) “Wash my clothes? Why, that’ll make them shrink and spoil the cut and goodness knows what!”  

 “You’ve lice in your hair.”  “Everyone’s got lice. Lice are with us whether we like it or not.”

“You stink, Culum.” “So does everyone! Why else do we always carry pomades? Stinking is a way of life”

(About Birth Control) “It’s not taxes, it’s just that there are too many people. Birth control’s the thing.”

(About Catholicism) : “the dogmatic fanaticism of self-castrated, power-seeking men who sucked riches from the poor in the name of a Catholic God, drop by bloody drop, and from the drops built mighty cathedrals to the glory of their version of Divinity, who had idolatrously set up a man in Rome as Pope and made the man an infallible arbiter of other men.”

“Suppose you know the rulers of China aren’t Chinese? Half the damned trouble, so we’re told. They’re Manchus. From Manchuria. Wild barbarians from north of the Great Wall. They’ve ruled China for two hundred years, so we’re told. They must think we’re fools.”

The Chinese Culture / Mentality

(Chinese customs) “Perhaps you’d better change it. Pick another place and another time.” “Why?” “Because if you agree to his suggestion, he and all the mandarins will interpret it as weakness.”

(Chinese Manners) “It was the height of Chinese decorum to pretend to the host that the food was so good that one could eat no more, even though both host and guest knew they would continue to eat ravenously.”

(Fenh Shui) “What does the fêng-shui gentleman do, apart from costing money?” “He makes sure that the fêng shui is correct, of course. He makes sure the house is positioned right for the Heaven-Earth-Air . And that it’s na built on a dragon’s neck.”  That’d be horrifical, for then the dragon that sleeps in the earth would no longer be able to sleep peaceful.

(Chinese mentality) Save a man from dying, then you yourself are responsible for him for the rest of the man’s life. That’s fair. Because if you interfere with the will of the gods, you must be prepared to assume their responsibility

(Law and Democracy) “Ridiculous to have one law for all—for rich or for poor. What else is the point of working and sweating to become rich and powerful?”

“How else can you dominate joss? If you smile when you lose, then you win in life.”

Chinese always used a mosquito net. Jin-qua had advised it as good for health, years upon years ago, so Struan used it too.

Some Useful Tai Pan Vocabulary:

Tai Pan – Supreme Leader. Wikipedia will tell you that Clavell translates Tai-Pan as “Supreme Leader”. Although, “Big Shot” might be more accurate. The more globally widespread  tycoon is common today.

Snuff – a smokeless tobacco made from ground or pulverized tobacco leaves. It is inhaled or “snuffed” into the nose, delivering a hit of nicotine and a lasting flavored scent

Cathay  = historical name for China in English. … Originally, this name was the name applied by Central and Western Asians and Europeans to northern China; the name was also used in Marco Polo’s book on his travels in China (he referred to southern China as Mangi).

Mooncakes = tiny delicate rice-flour cakes stuffed with almond custard

Sextant = instrument used for measuring the angular distances between objects and especially for taking altitudes in navigation and surveying. “Without this beauty we’d be lost. You’ve heard of Captain Cook? He used the first one, and proved it, sixty years ago.”

Sampan =  flat bottomed Chinese wooden boat.

Supreme Wind > typhoon

Cow chillo = young woman in Pidgin English : “No stop can this one piece cow chillo, Mass’er,” the servant said in pidgin English, holding on to the struggling girl. Only through pidgin could the traders …

No Spoilers

I won’t tell you who dies and who survives, but I will tell you the ending is very unexpected.  Read it – and indulge in the exquisite literary skills of a true wordsmith.  I may even read Shogun, after this (though that would mean another visit to Japan !)

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