Pearl Buck was born in West Virginia to missionary parents who took their three-month-old infant daughter to China in 1892 “to answer a call from the Lord.” She grew up, as she described it, in both the “small, white, clean Presbyterian world of my parents” and a “big, loving, merry, not-too-clean Chinese world.” In a very real sense, Buck actually was Chinese – except for college, she spent her first 42 years the Middle Kingdom. Mandarin was her first language, and she mentally composed her prose in Chinese before writing in English. In her memoir, she wrote, “When I was in the Chinese world I was Chinese, I spoke Chinese and behaved as a Chinese and ate as the Chinese did, and I shared their thoughts and feelings.”
The Good Earth
1931, Buck wrote The
Good Earth, which
for the next two years became the best-selling book in the United
States, later winning the 1932 Pulitzer Prize. The story tells the
tale of a Chinese peasant family’s changing fortunes as they
negotiate a precarious existence through a rural famine, one made
harrowingly real by Buck’s attention to detail and insight into the
darkness of the human heart. Her depictions of harsh rural Chinese
life may have been rooted in her life growing up in the countryside,
as well as in the stories she heard as a high school teenager in
Shanghai where she volunteered at The Door of Hope, a Christian
relief organization for destitute girls.
The Good Earth,
generations of Americans a mostly sympathetic view of the Chinese
people, heavily influencing the West’s understanding of life in
China. But the Chinese government did not seem to appreciate that it
was the book’s focus on the hardships of rural Chinese life that
had elicited a sympathetic reaction in Western readers. When MGM shot
a movie version in China in 1934, the Chinese government was
concerned that the film might depict a country of ignorant peasants.
MGM complied with government requests to include anachronisms such as
tractors instead of water buffalo and that the village women wear
flowers in their hair. Despite this cooperation, the director’s
house was burned to the ground and the film destroyed with sulfuric
acid just before the crew returned to the USA. Buck blamed the
sabotage on government actors, and the final movie version had to be
shot in the USA.
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Vern Sneider was a 1950’s writer
whose hands-on experience in post-WWII reconstruction helped form the
storylines for his novels. The U.S. Army had sent Sneider to
Princeton University to study Taiwanese society in preparation for a
post-invasion U.S. military administration of the island – which
was later aborted. Instead, Sneider was assigned to Japan and Korea.
His experience as a commander of a Japanese village formed the basis
for his well-known first novel, The Teahouse of the August Moon,
set in Okinawa. That book was later made into a Pulitzer-prize
award-winning play and a hit Hollywood movie starring Marlin Brando.
On the heels of this success, and after
spending time in Taiwan, Sneider wrote A Pail of Oysters
(1953), a novel critical of Taiwanese military rule. Though
brilliantly insightful, his second book was not destined to meet with
the same success as his first. While it was no surprise that the
governing Kuomintang (KMT) banned it in Taiwan, not as foreseeable
was that copies were reportedly stolen from libraries and bookstores
across the United States, perhaps by Taiwanese sympathetic to the KMT
government. And given the book’s indictment of an anti-communist
U.S. ally during the McCarthy era, the China lobby and U.S. military
persuaded Congress that the book presented a negative and biased view
of the U.S. government’s activities in Taiwan. John Caldwell, a
former director of the U.S. Information Service, in testimony to
Congress, described it as a “thoroughly dishonest book.” And,
despite positive reviews, Hollywood producers were not enthusiastic
about adapting A Pail of Oysters’ sad tale into a movie.
What might have been a post-WWII classic was quickly buried.
The book was only republished in
January 2016, on the 69th anniversary of the 1947 2-28
incident (a massacre of thousands of civilians by the KMT), and just
one month after president-elect Donald Trump took a phone call from
Taiwanese President Tsai Ying-wen. As the book states in its
introduction, “the conflict over Taiwan’s future – whether or
not its leaders should bind the island more and more to the fortunes
of China – is closely connected with the debates about Taiwan’s
past. Americans, many of whom know little about Taiwan, might be
asking again what, if any, role the United States should play.”
Greene wrote The
Quiet American in
the early 1950’s while working in Saigon as a foreign
correspondent. The book is an exploration of the competing moral
visions of two friends, Fowler and Pyle, set against a backdrop of
war, espionage, and their love for the same 20-year-old Vietnamese
woman. It has been described as prophetic in its depiction of
misplaced American ideals leading to misguided foreign
interventionism. Whatever one thinks of this view, it is true that
considerations for the sensitivities of American audiences have led
to movie productions with substantial thematic changes (1958) and a
delayed release around the time of the Iraq War (2002).
part of his stay in the city, Greene resided at the high-end Hotel
Majestic located by the Saigon River at the foot of Dong Khoi Street,
at that time called the rue Catinat. It was built in 1925 in a mix of
French Colonial and French Riviera styles. The luxurious lobby
flaunts decorative stained glass, white columns, chandeliers, plush
rugs and a pianist. Greene might have relaxed by the courtyard pool
on the first floor where today tourists laze under the shade of patio
umbrellas amidst rows of red and white lilies. One can imagine the
author, after a drink or two and sheltered from the busy Saigon
streets, drifting into a cocoon of narrative reflection conducive to
weaving a tale like The Quiet American.
Nutmeg farms are stunningly beautiful. The smell of cinnamon, cloves, pepper and nutmeg fill the air.
In Somerset Maugham’s 1932 novel, The Narrow Corner, three worldly travelers, all practical-minded criminals of a sort, dock at the remote Dutch colonial island of Banda Neira, called Kanda Meira in the book, during a journey through the Spice Islands of the Banda Sea. They encounter two naïve tropical island dropouts from Europe, Erik and Firth, who seem to be living in dream-worlds of their own making. A collision of world-views occurs, leading one of the characters to his death.
The story’s clash between idealism and practicality is, even today,
reflected in Banda Neira’s idyllic setting and fascinating history. The
idealism: Here and in other nearby Banda Islands, crystal clear waters,
coral reefs and colorful fish make for amazing diving. Beautiful old
Dutch colonial houses with wide front porches dot the island. Nutmeg
farms are stunningly beautiful. The smell of cinnamon, cloves, pepper
and nutmeg fill the air. There are no McDonalds, no Starbucks or other
fast food chains. Credit cards are accepted by only one business. The
island itself is of such insignificant size, that Apple Maps does not
even credit the land-mass with a name.
The local Banda dialect (different from the original Banda language) is a beautiful lilting language, so similar in its intonation to Italian, and to some extent in its pronunciation, that it sounds like, well … Italian. “We hear that all the time,” one Bandanese told me. Speakers seem to use gentle accentuation to soften disagreements or complaints or sometimes to emphasize a point. Below are audio samples of Bandanese making daily conversation on a small boat and playing music and singing by the sea.
George Orwell. The very name is associated in the English lexicon
with critiques of despotic totalitarian rule. The author’s 1940s
writings on tyranny and the individual were so lucid and true, one
wonders how he penned such potent prose. Two reasons are usually given–
1) the strict regimen of the British boarding schools he attended and 2)
his experiences during the Spanish Civil War, where he saw facts
twisted into communist propaganda and where he was wanted by the Russian
police force. Emma Larkin, in Searching for George Orwell in Burma,
suggests a third reason– Orwell’s “work as an imperial policeman
contributed to his ability to write about oppression.” Larkin’s idea is
that Orwell’s years in Burma provided him insight into how authoritarian
institutions insidiously undermine individual identities and personal
relationships. She makes an intriguing case, presenting first and
second-hand accounts of Orwell’s life in Burma as well as some
discoveries of her own and juxtaposing them with his writing.
To fully appreciate Larkin’s idea, one first should get one’s head
around the fact that before becoming a writer, before empathizing with
the down-and-out in Paris and London or authoring his famously chilling
insights into the psychology of authoritarian governments, Orwell was in
fact, for five years, a British colonial cop with a toothbrush mustache
who beat his Burmese coolies “in moments of rage…. Orientals can be
very provoking” as he put it. But Orwell also wrote about coming to see
British imperialism as an “evil despotism” and about the part he played
in it. “For five years I had been part of an oppressive system, and it
had left me with a bad conscience.”
Following Orwell’s Trail
Larkin visited the cities and regions where Orwell worked. In Mandalay, where he received his training, he lived in the Police Officers’ Mess, a large red brick building that is still standing just a few blocks off the southeast corner of