Located on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, the tiny island of Singapore is considered a modern success story. The city-state is a global financial center, boasts a high per capita income, and is also named as one of the most livable places in the world. Less known is Singapore’s history: its modest beginning; various colonial occupations; the suffering its people have undergone to preserve their way of life.
Established by the British as a trading hub in the early 19th century, Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1941. After the Japanese surrendered in 1945, Singapore reverted to being a British colony. The historical novel, The Great Reclamation, a coming-of-age tale, portrays this postwar period of Singapore. Author Heng, born and raised in that city-state, depicts the social, governmental, and environmental upheaval that ensued by showing it through the eyes of its citizens.
Her book centers on Lee Ah Boon, a gentle young boy, who grows up with his sister in a humble family amid the heat and scarcity of his scenic kampong. The family subsists by fishing along the coast. However, their fate changes when Ah Boon, accompanied by his father, goes out on a moonlit night to the sea for the first time. There he discovers a mysterious, never-seen-before island. “High cliffs, verdant shores. As dark and implacable as the sea itself. The island made the sea more comprehensible, less boundless, more known.”
Such an insight will allow more fishing, which will soon bring prosperity to the locals. Ah Boon has thus not only discovered his own power but has also displayed his ability to help others. As he grows up, Ah Boon becomes friends with Siok Mei, a lively girl from his neighborhood, and falls in love with her. This happens at a time when political changes swirl about them. Whereas Siok Mei is eager to take part in citizen’s protests, Ah Boon remains uncommitted. Upon questioning her, he receives a reply that informs him where the relationship might be headed. “It was the voice of revolution, of self-righteousness, a pious certainty that filled him with resentment.”
More challenges soon come to Ah Boon and the people of his kampong. The government decides to undertake fundamental changes to their way of being in the name of progress. Uncertainty is in the air, but Ah Boon adapts by joining the governmental work force in the pilot phase of a project to reclaim land.
Heng excels in building the characters and describing the landscape. Her prose is graceful. Slow-paced but beautifully rendered, this novel is meant to be savored.
Rachel Heng appears at Elliott Bay on Friday, March 31, 2023 at 7pm. For more information, contact 206-624-6600.