Last week I reviewed Jeremy Tiang’s debut novel, State of Emergency, and this week I read Tiang’s translation of Yeng Pway Ngon’s Unrest (Balestier Books, 2018). Both books follow Malayan leftists back in the 1950s and 60s and in modern times. And both deal more with personal relationships than political events. State of Emergency centers around one family and some ancillary characters, whereas Unrest follows four teenaged activists in the 1950s and 60 and their encounters with one another 30 years later.
Unrest is only 220 pages, so a quick read, but it’s also dense and the structure is complicated and told in alternating points of view, sometimes with the author interjecting. It’s the kind of book one needs to read again for everything to sink in and because it’s that powerful.
Back in 1950s Malaya, Daming, Guoliang, and Weikang were male student activists involved in the leftist movement. Ziqin is the main female protagonist and also a student activist back in the day. She was admired by quite a few of the male activists, including Guoliang and Daming. While they were still in their teens, Daming won over Ziqin and the two moved to Hong Kong when they told everyone they were heading to China to be one with Mao.
Weikang was the only one of the four to move to China back in the early 1960s, just after the Great Leap Forward (in which 45 million people starved from a man-made famine). Weikang saw Hong Kong when his boat docked there to let off some passengers, and he thought Swatow in China couldn’t be much worse than what he saw in 1961 Hong Kong. He soon realized his mistake.
Back during their student days, Weikang and Guoliang had a romantic tryst, about which the two never spoke again. They meet again in Guangzhou 30 years later, when Guoliang visits from Singapore for business. (Guoliang is the only one of the four who stays in Singapore in early 60s.) But the two never talk about what happened that night many years ago.
From Guoliang’s trip to Guangzhou, he learns that Ziqin is in Hong Kong and gets her number from Weikang, who had it because he had some business dealings with Daming, Ziqin’s husband. As the years passed, Daming and Ziqin’s marriage unraveled after he started sleeping with countless women, sometimes not returning home at night.
For years Guoliang wondered what could have happened had he and Ziqin ended up together. Guoliang married another woman in Singapore, yet still thinks about Ziqin. When Ziqin and Guoliang are reunited in Hong Kong in 1987, they end up going back to her place (Daming is in Vancouver, where he plans move with his family; the couple has a son) and sleep together. And it’s this affair around which the novel centers.
The story bounces back in time and point of view, sometimes naming the characters and sometimes not. I like the structure and it keeps me thinking about the characters and the sub-stories. What stands out the most and–what’s very timely–is Yeng Pway Ngon’s attack on the patriarchy. Men like Daming are seen as manipulative predators, not just when he cheats on Ziqin, but also in his relationship with her, even from the beginning.
Unrest certainly deserves a second and probably third read. It’s a rich and complex story and one that is timely with the #MeToo movement and the changing climate in the US. For more about leftists in Malaya and Singapore back in the 50s and 60s and their family life decades later, be sure to also check out Jeremy Tiang’s State of Emergency (Epigram Books, 2017).