by Margo Fuke
Sixteen year old Philip has an English father and a (deceased) Chinese mother and feels isolated from both cultures. (our ethnic minorities?). He meets Hayato Endo, a Japanese Martial Arts Master. Philip carries the immense trust essential to their master/student relationship over into the rest of his life, finding stability in intensive daily training and sharing his love and knowledge of the island with Endo San.
But this is Penang, 1939, trembling and waiting as the Japanese invade China with appalling brutality (I’ll leave you to read about the Rape of Nanking). The Allies can spare only two ancient ships for defence of Malaya and Singapore and, worse still, all the guns on Singapore are pointing the wrong way! The invaders make monkeys of the British by invading via Malaya, not with tanks, but on the humble bicyles that enable them to surge down paths invisible to non-locals. Philip recognises the info he has given Endo San. He is torn. Many welcomed the Japanese initially, seeing only freedom from Imperial rule. Then his newly-enlisted naval half-brother drowns.
I couldn’t help comparing this with the dilemma experienced by many in other parts of the world today. Should he flee; fight, like his half-siblings; copy his trader father’s ‘business as usual for now’ attitude; or collaborate in the hope of saving lives. He chooses the last but the insane viciousness of the invaders gradually makes this impossible and he must throw caution to the winds and hope the Allies return.
Philip tells his story after a lifetime running his father’s trading empire and we see the hatred of those who called him collaborator and the gratitude of those he saved.
I was reluctant to read this book. I spent several months, years ago, in Singapore and Indonesia and they hadn’t forgotten Japanese brutality and still feared a new invasion as inevitable. But it was a Book Group choice. As a Tai Chi beginner I was fascinated initially by his martial arts training and, by the time the story moved on, I was completely hooked by this lonely boy. This is a gripping story of colonial family life, friendship, betrayal, and simply coping with the horrors of seeing his world devastated around him. It is brilliantly coloured, action-packed, evocative and moving.