Tuesday, October 02, 2007

My Father and Han Suyin

My father bought a fairly big collection of books by Han Suyin, which I started reading, rather inadvertently at the age of 14. He said that it would be a challenge for me to read HIS books but nevertheless I read every one, starting from Destination Chung King. Later on, I bought a few of her newer books myself . But until today, I have not bought or read every one of her books for at one time, her books were not popular in the democratic Muslim nation of Malaysia.

Why this interest in Han Suyin? My father had studied at Yenching University in the 1930's, and as an overseas Chinese student he had met most of the foreigners and Eurasian students at the University. One of the students was Han Suyin. Although he did not know her as a friend, he had found her a remarkable person and someone the world would have to reckon with he thought at their first meeting. That was what he said. My father was a man who could fathom the minds of a lot of people, like the way Lu Hsun had done.

In the 50's and 60's in Sibu, in fact, I had already developed some fear of what communism might bring to Asia. It was a fear which was passed to me by the newspapers which wrote very vehemently against the ideology. Later,in Sixth Form though I was quite impressed by the Five Year Plans of Stalin, I was not thoroughly leftist by any means because I had by then developed a very strong inclination towards Christianity. By that time, many relatives and Sibu Foochows had already gone "into the jungle" to join the CCO or Chinese Communist Organisation.

Athough many parents were fearful of their children's political inclination at that time, they were not really that disturbed as long as they had a few other children with them. Hence one or two children per family "disappeared" after attending numerous "Moonlight" parties held to recruit communist sympathizers.

On the other hand, when I went to Sixth Form,which happened to be a period of this kind of political awakening in Sibu, I was strangely,very influenced by the Quaaker thoughts proposed by Mrs. Purnell who taught us European History and other Western Christian and liberal ideologies. And in fact all my classmates were very much in favour of the western thoughts of liberalism and equal opportunities. The Christian missionaries taught us well indeed.

Political thoughts were not new to me because before I was introduced to all the Western ideologies I already had a very strong grounding of Chinese thoughts from my father who was a great reader and a quite teacher in some ways.He was a quiet educated Chinese gentlemen who allowed his country men to be the pompous, show offs that they could become. He was defintely , as person who sat by the side and watched the local theatrics being performed. He did not say much, my mum was his sounding board and occasionally we children received his jewels from the little conversations we had. But these little sprinkling of information remained within me forever.

And one of the things he taught me was about the history of China as was seen through his eyes and I am very glad that part of that history has been found in the books of Han Suyin.

And I believe to this day, his mental struggle was parallel to Suyin's struggles to be a daughter of China. My father was torn between being a son of China and a son of Sarawak. But sadly, death overtook his struggle and he died prematurely, without putting much of his thoughts in writing.

In this posting I would to share with you some bits and pieces about the remarkable heroine of my life - Han Suyin.

One of the latest articles about Han Suyin:

"There was a time when being Eurasian could get you killed. I don't remember this myself because I was only 2, but my mother tells the story of how, in 1967, we were nearly lynched by Maoists amid riots in Hong Kong. I was the provocation, being—in the eyes of the mob—the detestable spawn of her traitorous union with a Westerner. We fled for our lives to the cries of "Bastard!" and "Whore!"

The Belgian-Chinese novelist Han Suyin, born Elisabeth Chow in China's Henan province in 1917, was painfully familiar with this kind of race hatred. But far from hindering her, the prejudice she experienced as a child inspired a blend of defiance and pride that she expressed in her 1952 novel A Many-Splendoured Thing: "We must carry ourselves with colossal assurance and say, 'Look at us, the Eurasians! ... The meeting of both cultures, the fusion of all that can become a world civilization.'" It was an epoch-shifting outburst. Prior to reading Han, Eurasians tended to identify, somewhat apologetically, with either our Asian or European sides. But her writings opened up an infinitely richer middle ground that belonged to us alone.

Han was never consistent, and her life and corpus (nine novels, 10 autobiographical works, seven volumes of history) are full of contradictions. A militant anti-imperialist, she married a British special-branch officer at the height of the Malaya Emergency. Slighted by the Chinese, she named herself after the Han, China's dominant ethnic group, and became an apologist for Mao. Despite what she called an "inescapable passion" for China, she spent much of her life in Singapore and India and now resides, at age 89, in Switzerland. But, in the end, Eurasians forgive her idiosyncrasies, because in giving us our identity she gave us everything. "Only I had the courage ... to scream against the general contempt for Eurasians," Han wrote of her early struggle. Today, in a time of globalization, Eurasians are envied for a look and a biculturalism that have become bankable commodities. We gaze upon a very different world, and it was Han Suyin who led us here.

Han Suyin was born in Xinyang, Henan province, China. Her father was a Chinese engineer surnamed Chow (Chinese: 周; pinyin: Zhōu), of Hakka heritage, while her mother was a Flemish Belgian. In 1938 Han Suyin married Pao H. Tang (Tang Paohuang), a Chinese Nationalist military officer, who was to become a general. They adopted one daughter (Yungmei).

She began work as a typist at Beijing Hospital in 1931, not yet fifteen years old. In 1933 she was admitted to Yanjing (Yenching) University (later part of Peking University). In 1935 she went to Brussels to study science. In 1938 she returned to China, working in an American Christian mission hospital in Chengdu (Wade-Giles: Cheng-Tu), Sichuan, then went again to London in 1944 to study medicine, graduated MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine & Surgery) in 1948 and went to Hong Kong to practice medicine in 1949 at the Queen Mary Hospital. Her husband, Tang, meanwhile, had died in action during the Chinese Civil War in 1947.

In 1952, she married Leon F. Comber, a British officer in the Malayan Special Branch, and went with him to Johore, Malaya (present-day Malaysia), where she worked in the Johore Bahru General Hospital and opened a clinic in Johore Bharu and Upper Pickering Street, Singapore. (Comber resigned from the British Colonial Police Service as an acting Assistant Commmissioner of Police [Special Branch] mainly because of the perceived anti-British bias of her novel And the Rain My Drink. In 2006, Dr. Leon Comber was a Research Fellow at Monash Asia Institute, Monash University, Melbourne.) In 1955, Han Suyin contributed efforts to the establishment of Nanyang University in Singapore. Specifically, she offered her services and served as physician to the institution, after having refused an offer to teach literature. Chinese writer Lin Yutang, first president of the university, had recruited her for the latter field, but she declined, indicating her desire "to make a new Asian literature, not teach Dickens", according to the Warring States Project at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst [1]. Also in 1955, her best-known work, A Many-Splendoured Thing, was made into a Hollywood film. Much later, the movie itself was made into a daytime soap opera.

After Comber and Han Suyin's divorce, she later married Vincent Ratnaswamy, an Indian colonel (died January 2003 in Bangalore, India), and lived for a time in Bangalore, India. After the two separated, Han Suyin relocated to Switzerland.

Cultural and political conflicts between East and West in modern history play a central role in Han Suyin's work. She also explores the struggle for liberation in Southeast Asia and the internal and foreign policies of modern China since the end of the imperial regime. Many of her writings feature the colonial backdrop in East Asia during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Destination Chungking (1942) [note: Chungking=Chongqing]
The Mountain Is Young (1958)
Winter Love (1962)
Cast But One Shadow (1962)
Four Faces (1963)
L'abbé Pierre (1965, French only)
L'abbé Prévost (1975, French only)
Till Morning Comes (1982)
The Enchantress (1985)

Autobiographical works
A Many-Splendoured Thing (1952)
And the Rain My Drink (1956)
The Crippled Tree (1965)
A Mortal Flower (1966)
Birdless Summer (1968)
My House Has Two Doors (1980)
Phoenix Harvest (1982)
Wind In My Sleeve (1992)
A Share of Loving (1988)
Fleur de soleil, histoire de ma vie (1988, French only: Flower of sun: the story of my life)

Historical studies
China in the Year 2001 (1967)
Asia Today: Two Outlooks (1969)
The Morning Deluge: Mao Tsetong and the Chinese Revolution 1893-1954 (1972)
Lhasa, the Open City (1976)
Wind in the Tower: Mao Tsetong and the Chinese Revolution, 1949-1965 (1976)
China 1890-1938: From the Warlords to World War (1989; historical photo-reportage)
Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China (1994)

5 memories:

50 streaks of red said...


Understandably there is not a single comment on writing on Han Sun Yin.

I have started reading her books at around 16. Her books influenced me profoundly and provided me in many ways guidance and a way of seeing things and an understanding of a lot.

I continued to search for her books when I was in London and got many copies of her 1st edition books.

Every other few years I would pick up one of her books to read and I still can find new things to learn with progressing maturity.

I am pleased to find in you a kindred spirit. I have not met any one who share this respect and admiration nor understand my respect and profound admiration for her.

I Am Sarawakiana said...

Indeed! One of the reasons why HSY was not well read by Malaysians was because of her great relationship with Mao. So at one time anyone reading her books might have been considered Leftist.

I read her because of all the obvious literary reasons, and especially because she has impressed me as a great leading Asian and woman writer. I can see very clearly all the roads in Beijing, the birds in her garden, etc.

Do you know that she was also part of the founding members of Nangyang University, Singapore?

Hope to hear from you again.By the way, her books are becoming popular again.

Raypha said...

I have been a fan for years especially after reading 'A Many Splendored Thing'. I found this to be about the concept of love rather than a love story!

Her biographical works on China are valuable because of the very qualities reflected in them that she spoke about at UCLA during a visit in 1965. Namely, you cannot just think about another person or country with your head, you must also remember that emotion causes much of what we do and how we respond. (My wording).

She is enigmatic in that she is full of contradictions but these further serve to humanize her and she readily admits that time and place (circumstances) play a huge role in decision making.

I lived in Miri when I was a boy and my father was murdered there. I began reading about Han Suyin when I was 13. I have never really put her down!

Ray. 17/11/2015

Olivia said...

I was introduced to HanSuyin at age 11 or 12. My eldest was given a copy of The Crippled Tree as a book prize for doing well in school. We didn't have TV those days and the long school break was often spent reading and re-reading our tiny collection of novels and storybooks. I devoured The Crippled Tree again and again.

When I was 14 I became a school librarian and had access to all the books in the school library. So I devoured as many Han Suyin books as I could find. I love Chinese history and her writing transported me to another time another place and I walked among the people then.

Now 40 years later, I'm on a quest to find those books and read them again. I would be very grateful if someone could tell me where I can buy/borrow a copy other than the regular online stores.

Olivia Chan 27 July 2016.

AllThingsGO- since 1911 said...

I wonder if you have read any work by Pearl Buck, as a comparison to HSY? I haven't read any of HSY but liked many novel and autobiographies by Pearl Buck, about her own life and that of her missionary parents in China...


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