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Clavell, James. (1966). Tai-Pan: A novel of Hong Kong. New York: Dell Publishing Co.

Tai-Pan is the second in a series of Asian sagas by Clavell. (The first is King Rat about Singapore during WWII.) The quasi-historical blockbuster-type novel is set in the founding years of Hong Kong and is a fictionalised depiction of pioneering British traders in the “Orient”. A heady mix of Orientalist depictions of China and Chinese culture alongside adulation for unmitigated free-market capitalism characterise the text.   

The story centres on “Noble House”, the most powerful trading house in the region. Dirk Struan,  the patriarch of Noble House, dominates the story. His actions, as trader and capitalist entrepreneur extraordinaire, shape the destiny of his family, close associates, enemies and ultimately of Hong Kong itself.

Struan is a hard businessman but  also a testament to the ingenuity and intelligence of pioneering Scottish/British traders. The story opens with Noble House facing bankruptcy and Struan negotiating a financing deal, in the form of silver bullion, with the Canton-based trader Jin-Qua. Paralleling these financial uncertainties is the uncertainty of Hong Kong’s future as a British colony. Struan presciently promotes it as a strategic gateway to China and a significant portion of the narrative is devoted to depicting his manipulation of the system including colonial officials and the news media into subscribing to his vision for the territory.

The main dramatic conflict is provided by the competition between Struan and Tyler Brock. Brock, another British trader, is Struan’s antithesis. Unlike Struan, Brock has little or no understanding or respect for what is presented as Chinese custom and culture in the text. Struan is adept in negotiating the intricacies of “face” which is presented as fundamental to an exotically figured oriental culture. This  knowledge and acknowledgement of local custom allows Struan to outwit Brock who is presented as a typical colonial figure—arrogant, greedy and culturally naive and insensitive.

There are many action-filled encounters between Struan and Brock, all of which end with Struan triumphing over his enemy. Struan attempts to groom his son Culum and brother Robb as successors. Both are unwilling heirs and lack  Struan’s self-confidence. Brock also attempts to mentor his brutish son Gorth who becomes a self-destructive mirror image of the father. Gordon Chen, Struan’s illegitimate half-Chinese son also plays a shadowy role and becomes the founder/leader of Triads. May-may, Struan’s Chinese mistress, is an exotic melange of servility, animal-like sensuousness, cunning, and feminine wile. Struan is the one European who maintains a Chinese mistress openly and plans to marry her legally but fails to do so before his death.

During the  time period covered in the novel, a township is established in Happy Valley and the colony of Hong Kong begins to take shape. Struan even finds a cure for malaria in the form of a South American herb—a forerunner to quinine. The novel ends with a typhoon that obliterates most of the colonial settlement but in doing so proves Hong Kong’s value as a harbour. Struan and May-may die during the typhoon, paving the way for Culum to become the next Tai-Pan. Gorth Brock is killed earlier by Gordon Chen’s assassins in a plot hatched by May-may to eliminate Struan’s competition. Culum also falls in love with Tess Brock, Gorth’s younger sister and marries her. Though Struan publicly opposes the marriage, he privately endorses it because it paves the way to neutralize Brock’s threat. Culum’s unlikely ascension to power at the end suggests the continuance of the Struan and Noble House legacies but with generational changes implied by the succession of the son. (HR)

 

 
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