We seem to see two quite different types of reporter covering the explosive and enigmatic Far East. The traveling kind, called "specials" or "parachutists" in the trade, keep their extensive tropical wardrobes on Long Island, work on transit visas, and can often be seen mugging up history books while basking beside the swimming pools of famous Oriental hotels.
The other kind actually lives in Asia. They often have Asian wives, usually speak the local lingo, and seldom wear pith helmets or other tropical gear. They have usually written the history books that the specials mine for background information. Occasionally a visiting fireman will invite the resident man to a slap-up dinner at his hotel, introducing him to people from the head office as "my stringer."
Such a resident reporter, blowing his daily or weekly bubble of news for two or three decades, often arrives at a profound understanding of the local society which cannot be shoehorned into a one-, two- or even five-thousand word piece. What to do with a lifetime's insights?
The revival of the Victorian-era, three-decker novel has now given the old Asia had his outlet. Legendary figures like Richard Hughes of the London Times (Old Craw in John le Carre's "Honourable Schoolboy") have long been appearing in other people's novels. Robert Elegant, formerly of Newsweek, took the logical step forward, turning novelist himself and distilling 20 years in and out of Hong Kong into "Dynasty," a sprawling tale of South China life. On the proceeds Elegant has not retired to Dublin, the writer's Valhalla, which knows neither tropical itch, typhoons nor taxes.
Now, we have Noel Barber, formerly of the London Daily Mail, trying the same with his beat, Singapore and Malaya. "Tanamera" is a big book, 637 pages, crammed with incident and information. Some of it is already fairly well known, like the darkness that falls so suddenly in the tropics, while possibly only students of the area could offhand name 1878 as the year Singapore's first telephone was installed. Without wasting a page analyzing fine shades of sensibility in the manner of Proust, Barber still manages to evoke colonial Singapore down to the last curry tiffin. His purpose, clearly, is a rattling good read, with obvious potential as a big-budget film. Dublin, in short, or bust.
His story is another variation on the sure-fire theme of Romeo and Juliet. John Dexter, scion of a British trading firm very big in rubber and tin, meets Julie Soong, daughter of the principal of a Chinese concern just as up there in ship's chandlery and frozen provisions. From their first game of tennis it is clear that boy is going to get girl, but will company get company? It takes the whole book and yworld War II for the business side of the romance to culminate in a blissful merger, Dexter and Soong limited.
Meanwhile, the pair indulge in interracial sex in the garden-house of Tanamera, the baronial mansion of Grandpa Dexter, founder of both the family trading company and Raffles Hotel. Tanamera, we learn, means "red earth" in the Malay language, Grandpa Dexter having sentimentally named his house after the tin-bearing laterite soil from which his immense fortune has been dredged by patient, underpaid Chinese coolies.
The affair violates Singapore's social code of the day (we are in the 1930s) and the star-crossed lover are separated by their indignant parents, who fail to spot the commercial potential of a tie-up. War reunites them, briefly, when Julie returns from the United States to nurse at a Singapore hospital, then separates them again, as Julie escapes on one of the last ships, while John takes to the Malayan jungle with a guerrilla force of left-wing Chinese under British officers, one of them his stiff-upper-lipped self.
The Japanese invaders are eventually sent scurrying, and John and Julie are reunited. Julie's evil brother, Soong Kai-Shek, has meanwhile joined the Malayan Communist Party. He kidnaps both Julie and Dexter's sister, Natasha, and together with other party members is preparing to gang-rape the latter when they are tracked down to their jungle hideout by the pursuing Dexter and a party of assorted good guys. (It is the same hideout used by Dexter when he was a guerrilla, which will save the film budget the price of a set.)
Just as the would-be rapist drops his sarong and gives the clinched-fist salute, he is felled by one of Dexter's avengers, a Borneo headhunter armed with a poison blowpipe. (That's a little farfetched? Well, what about the CIA bowhunters who used to go round Vietnam zapping Viet Cong suspects, hey?) John and Julie are reunited for keeps and they trade happily ever after in rubber, tin and frozen provisions in multiracial, anticommunist Singapore.
Barber breaks no new stylistic ground in "Tanamera," but clearly that is not his aim. The noble old house is Tara with mangoes for magnolias, and the "square-jawed" British planters and businessmen are much as Somerset Maugham left them, endlessly sinking sundowners under the palm trees. "Tanamera" is certainly not sickled o'er with the pale cast of political theory, but readers who are interested in sex, food and money will enjoy accompanying the hero from deal to meal to afternoon assignation and they will learn a lot of basics about present-day Singapore and Malaysia on the way.
Noel Barber has certaily paid his dues out East, with more than a dozen history books to him name. I hope "Tanamera" takes him to Dublin. In fact, I rather fancy seeing him there myself, one of these days.