Unrest by Yeng Pway Ngon

Translated by Jeremy Tiang

Balestier Press, 2017

Publisher’s Blurb

When the fervour of revolution is gone, what remains?

Four leftist teenagers in 1950s Malaya dedicate themselves to overthrowing colonialism and bringing about a better world. With time, their paths diverge — into capitalism, into adultery, into the dark heart of the Cultural Revolution. Disillusioned and middle-aged, they look back at their lives from the prosperous but soulless 1980s, wondering what has become of their dreams and ideals.

Winner of the Singapore Literature Prize

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Reviewed by Hsiu-chih Sheu, 20/3/18

Unrest written by Yeng Pway Ngon, is a story first set in the Chinese Diaspora in Malaysia and Singapore in the 1950s and extends to Hong Kong and China over the span of 30 years.  It is through the voices of four main protagonists: Weikang, Guoliang, Ziqin and Daming that the author weaves a poignant story about the difficulty of growing up in a turbulent era while fulfilling one’s political aspiration. Politics and sex are intricately intertwined throughout the story.  The protagonists are introduced to the readers in two unexpected reunions in the 1980s when they are at their late 40s.

The first reunion takes place in Guangzhou when Weikang, meets his long lost leftist friend, Guoliang, from Singapore.  The reunion refreshes the memory of their youthful aspirations and the political turmoil in the 1950s in Singapore and Malaysia.   Back then, they formed a group of young ethnic Chinese who, incensed by British colonialism, set out to overthrow the foreign domination.  Weikang left his family to go pursue his revolutionary dream in China. He was quickly disillusioned and dragged in the calamity cultural revolution.  Guoliang remained in Singapore, lost his leftist convictions and turned into a business man. With the business boom of the 1980s, he was on his way to Guangzhou as Weikang did 30 years earlier, only he went to scour for business opportunities.

The second reunion is between Guoliang and Ziqin (the only female).  As teenagers, their close relation was cut short when Ziqin falls in love with Daming, the leftist leader.  Ziqin and Daming soon get married and planned to move to the fatherland in accordance with their revolutionary creed.   However, news of the turmoil in China made them stay in Hong Kong.  Daming proved a quick learner of capitalist ways and has made a comfortable life in Hong Kong. He also picked up a womanising habit.  His passionate love-making with Ziqin coexisted with marital infidelities.  He rationalised his womanizing as: “Don’t get me wrong—his love and lust for his wife haven’t lessened. Definitely not.  Can you believe it?  After going to bed with another woman, he’ll grow even closer to her. This extra-marital encounter will enrich his imagination so that he is making love with two women at once, one in the fresh and one in his mind. “(p.94).  As time goes by, he left his wife and his political views behind.  In revenge, or in the name of feminism, Ziqin followed her husband path in adultery.  She gradually built a collection of lovers like her husband.  The reunion with her Guoliang rekindles the old flame, reconnects her to her past and makes her reflect on the unexpected turn her life has taken.

As they aged, the revolutionary enthusiasm of their youth has given way to the enthusiasm for sex.  Sex was a refuge during Cultural Revolution for Weikang: “Weikang felt the full weight of emptiness and boredom.  Working in the fields was meaningless physical labour.  Only at night, when they bucked under the blankets, did he feel that life had some vitality and meaning.” (p.204)   On the other hand, for Daming, in a capitalism society, sex is used as a metaphor to demonstrate power in the capitalism society, The story provides insights into the political climate of the era and on the vagaries of the revolutionary creed that gives way so easily to sexual indulgences, leaving the characters adrift.

The translation reads well and proves credible.  Coming from a background similar those of the author’s, the translator is able to convey an authentic voice to the readers.

Reviewed by Hsiu-chih Sheu

Reviewed by Andy Thomas, 24/1/18

This is a novel about the Chinese diaspora in South-east Asia and Canada. It is about the British as colonial power in Singapore and Hong Kong. It is about identity cards, interrogation, the Special Branch, and expulsion or rejection. It is about finding capitalism with Chinese characteristics. But mostly, it is a novel about sex and power.

The British experience of Malaya deteriorated in the 1950s from a harmonious and servile place of rubber plantations to an experience of post-colonial struggle, liberation and further repression. It was  a test ground for Kitson’s new military doctrine of Low Intensity Operations and new military technology, including helicopters and defoliants, which the Americans, sacred of a “domino effect” fall to Communism in South-East Asia,  used in Vietnam a decade later, equally without success.

Fanon was to warn against the formation of new liberation governments from elites who had received the best, and therefore the worst, of Western education. He would advocate, in The Wretched of the Earth, finding national leaders from amongst the rural and the led, not from the city, educated, elite. But Maoist efforts in Malaya and China to place the educated leaders within the rural and illiterate masses did not amount to the same thing.

Disillusioned with this sort of revolutionary struggle, Weikang, former unwilling student organiser in Singapore witnesses suffering and suffers himself the Cultural Revolution after choosing to leave Singapore for mainland China. Daming, a contemporary, a collector of women’s orgasms and the adulterous husband of Ziqin, who was once faithful to him, is safe in Vancouver with their son when he criticises the events of June 1989. Wasn’t it the same struggle? their son asks.

But it’s the way he tells it. Yeng Pway Ngon writes in a complicated structure, with false partitions between chapters and sections, dividing this ramshackle house of memories into rooms uneven in size, decoration and flooring.

This novel is self-conscious about being post-modernist in style. Yeng signals this by repeated clear and obvious references to Barthes and Kundera to drive this point home, before launching into a dialogue between his Narrator, as a writer on a residential placement in Taipei, and Ziqin, the lead female character. It is the Narrator, not her husband Daming, nor her only one-night stand, who is intimate with Ziqin, as she makes teenage and later adulterous love.

And with her he quarrels about female characters in fiction written by men. Ziqin in Hong Kong cannot see that men can write about sex with women without objectifying them. The Narrator in Taipei can see the argument but cannot write as she would. This question about power is not resolved: it causes unrest.

The translation by Jeremy Tiang is clear and fluid, but is betrayed now and then, in his revisions to word order, by inattentive proof-reading.

Reviewed by Andy Thomas

Reviewed by Bonnie Cheung, 27/11/17

Unrest is a book unlike any I’ve ever read before. One of the reasons that really sets this book apart from others that I’ve read is that the “author” himself seems to appear as a character throughout the novel. Towards the end of the book there is even a section where the “author” and one of his characters exchange a conversation as a literary method to move the story along. Throughout the course of the book the “author” appears time and again to give us readers further insight and a different perspective into the lives and thoughts of these characters.

It’s a wonderful book filled with conflicting emotions and insight into the lives of the main characters. It’s mainly set in Hong Kong and Guangzhou and the story seamlessly flitters between the past and the present. The flashbacks and memories of these characters provide an insight into what experiences a student might have if they were a part of the leftist movement.

For me, the title “unrest” perfectly represents the storyline, the lives and experiences of these characters and their individual psychological states. Readers are exposed to and given insight into the social unrest during the leftist movement. There is unrest within the interpersonal relations between the characters and their families. There is unrest within the hearts and minds of these characters as they flitter back and forth between their present day lives and reminiscing about their past when they were students.

Sex and sexuality is another distinctive theme which soaks and permeates throughout the story. I found the way the author approached this topic thought-provoking from a literary stand point. Usually, when an intimate scene involves the protagonists of a story, their acts of intimacy and their emotions are the main focus of that scene. Due to the way that the “author” interacts with the audience, the readers, however, this often isn’t the case as the acts of intimacy are quite often put on pause while the “author” converses with us seemingly directly, or we are faced with a flashback scene.

There are several other themes that are prevalent throughout the novel paired with the principle dominating theme of “unrest”: infidelity and secrecy, defiance and endurance.

These themes flow effortlessly together with unrest as they weave together as each other’s cause and effect. Infidelity and secrecy, defiance and endurance lead to unrest and unrest leads to these themes. This is something which becomes increasingly more evident as the book progresses and the story develops. As readers delve deeper into the minds and memories of these characters, there does not seem to be a single moment where a sense of unrest is neither prevalent nor imminent. Each scene, each memory, each event leads back to the theme of unrest in some way.

I would recommend this book because I found the way that the “author” became incorporated into the story stimulating and engaging. It was as if the author was having a direct conversation with the reader at times, guiding us, advising us to interpret and consider a scene from a different perspective. It bridged the gap that may often separate the writer and their audience.

Reviewed by Bonnie Cheung.

Reviewed by Vicki Leigh, 23/11/17

Have you ever felt like you’re just a character going through the motions in someone else’s novel? So does our female protagonist in Yeng Pway Ngon’s Unrest, where several politically idealistic youngsters in 1950s Malaya set about ousting British colonialism, and from Hong Kong to Singapore and Canada, finding their own way in this unforgiving world where there is little humour to be found in infidelity, persecution, and revolution.

I read an acerbic article recently that began by declaring that ‘the British don’t really know their own history, as most of it happened overseas’. As a British person curious about the history of the world we live in and how it continues to affect the present day, I can enthusiastically vouch for that. Unrest illuminates the harsh truths of Britain’s reprehensible history of invasion and oppression overseas, East and South-east Asia enjoying no escape from the deadly tentacles of the so-called ‘empire’, on which the sun never set. If you’re into anti-colonialist activism like Daming, the ghosts of Special Branch will come for you eventually, whether you are in South Africa or Singapore.

However, punishing oppression does not end with the British, and the devastating Cultural Revolution in China to which the youngsters are drawn to like moths to the proverbial flame soon creeps into the consciousness of Ziqin, Daming, Weikang, and Guoliang. The ‘fatherland’ beckons, and you cannot escape its summoning once you are chosen. ‘Hell is other people’ proclaims a chapter heading, and if China was a person, it sure was hell if you got caught in the spirit-breaking crossfire of Mao’s Red Guards.

In overseas Chinese literature, China is, and always will be, the character whose presence we can analyse through infinite omnipresent standpoints. From The Joy Luck Club to Wild Swans, China will always be where the Chinese diaspora ultimately look to for their identity, and belong, and for that it pays the price of being the narrative’s ‘elephant in the room’, always silently breathing down the necks of our Chinese-yet-not characters.

I meandered languidly through the first half of the snaking plotlines, muscling through the disorientating changes in tense, person, and location, and only when the curtains were teasingly pulled back on who ‘our protagonist’ is, is when it started getting really interesting.

Then, it all gets super meta. Perhaps as Yeng Pway Ngon battles serious illness in real life he has realised it’s a brilliant thing to drastically break the fourth wall and engage with his protagonist in the experimental way that occurs in Unrest. Had I been reading this in Chinese, I certainly would have momentarily doubted the way I digest basic information the way his character presentation suddenly develops, but this aspect of the story leads to expansion of the readers’ expectations in ways they could not foresee, which adds unexpected dimensions to what is an intensely sombre novel throughout.  As a little aside, the stepfather of Leeds University’s very own former professor Li Ruru makes a surprising appearance, with references to Cao Yu’s works. It’s always good to know your alma mater has made a real and serious impression on the world’s literary landscape!

Jeremy Tiang’s translation reads fluidly, the title translates well into English unlike novels in translation I have read in the past, and having emotionally invested in the female protagonist and her cohort, I certainly ended the novel realising a fair bit of unrest in my own soul. We can all relate to experiencing some kind of itch in your consciousness that you can’t scratch… I just guess not all of us go on a quest to exorcise it through devastating revolutions.

Reviewed by Vicki Leigh.