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Sunday November 13, 2011

Under the pear tree

People of the Pear Tree Island In The Centre River of Roses
Author: Rex Shelley>Author: Rex Shelley
Publisher: Marshall Cavendish Editions >Publisher: Marshall Cavendish Editions

There are exotic characters, tropical settings, intrigues and conflicts galore in these re-issues of the works of an author from a little-written about community.

ONE of two books by the late Eurasian author Rex Anthony Shelley released by Marshall Cavendish in 2009 was The Shrimp People, a novel about Eurasians originally published in the 1990s. It was the first of what has been dubbed as Shelley’s “Eurasian quartet”. This year, Marshall Cavendish re-issued the three remaining books in this quartet: People Of The Pear Tree, Island In The Centre, and A River Of Roses.

So, why now? “Rex Shelley was an author whose works we felt a new generation could benefit from,” said Chris Newson, general manager of Marshall Cavendish.

“We didn’t want his books to be consigned only to the archives, and so decided to republish them with more contemporary covers.”

It was said that no one else before Shelley had written so much about this particular demographic. In his own way, Shelley was the spokesman for his community, offering glimpses into the lives and history of Singapore’s Eurasians through his works of historical fiction.

“It is all fiction,” says the author in the preface. “But the settings are in real worlds of the past. I have tried to keep the facts generally correct.”

And, lest we forget, there are many more components in our country’s demographic makeup other than the oft-mentioned trio of Malay, Chinese and Indians. Because many of my generation would probably never learn about the Eurasians (or the Serani), Shelley’s Eurasian quartet is the closest thing we have to a time capsule about a people and an era.

Thy surname is pear

People Of The Pear Tree is told largely from the viewpoint of the Perera family in the 1930s and 1940s. Augustine “Gus” Perera (“pear” in Portuguese) falls in with a bunch of British-backed Communist insurgents.

Gus’s sister Anna is courted by Japanese army officer Junichiro Takanashi (“high pear” in Japanese) and later, becomes entangled in a love triangle of sorts when British guerrilla trainer John Pearson (see where this is going?) is drawn to her.

We are also introduced to Ah Keh, a Communist guerilla. He’s the one who drags Gus into the Communists’ anti-Japanese struggle and continues to be nothing but trouble to the Eurasian protagonists in the three books.

When the Japanese land in Singapore, a bunch of Singapore Eurasians, including the Pereras, are transplanted to a swampy malarial hell in Malaya, where nothing grows well and the living is hard. Then, the fighting starts....

Welcome to Singapore

Part diary and part narrative, Island In The Centre begins in the 1920s in Japan. A conversation among a bunch of human traffickers foreshadows the fates of village girls Yuriko Sasakawa and Hanako Ohara.

Meanwhile, electrician Tomio Nakajima writes in his diary: “Today the starting is. My English Diary. To help learning English language it is. But a English-learning book it is not. A life-details record it will be.”

Posted to Singapore, Nakajima is dazzled by his new home, an “island in the centre” like himself (“naka” means middle, “jima” means island). His grammatically clumsy description of a Deepavali celebration is almost poetic.

Nakajima later saves Hanako from a brothel and marries her. But things get complicated when he embarks upon an affair with Eurasian hottie Victoria Viera who sells sports equipment (hey, don’t look at me) and is also involved with Ah Keh.

With the imminent Japanese invasion of Singapore, Nakajima is roped in for intelligence work.

At this point, the timeline intersects with that of the previous novel, and we learn more about the events that led to Nakajima’s fate.

Not all rosy

The last of Shelley’s quartet, A River Of Roses, continues the story of our Eurasians from the previous books. It’s the 1950s, and the Japanese have left.

Feisty 50something Philippa Rosario (Portuguese for “rosary”, or rosa, ie, “rose” and rio, ie “river”) is a junior college teacher and believer in the Chinese and Western zodiacs. A side story involves the past: the war, how Philippa and Vicky met, and a substantial chunk of backstory on Philippa’s brother Antonio, all of which is inserted intermittently between the novel’s current timeline.

It wouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that Philippa is friends with Vicky Viera, sporting goods salesperson, and that Vicky is still carrying on with Ah Keh, who manages to drag our Eurasian teacher into an underground resistance movement.

Too bad our amateur zodiac reader couldn’t see that Ah Keh is bad news, or that a love affair with a Kassim Selamat-type would end in tears....

Tantalisingly testing

Personally, I’m not sure how the Eurasian community would be served by a trio of novels that feel like a Latin American telenovela. The exotic, often lusty characters, tropical settings, familial and community intrigues and conflicts and all the Pereras, de Britos, Vieras, Rosarios....

And with all the supporting characters and the tangled skein that is whomever’s family tree, it becomes hard to keep track of who’s who. After some time, I just tossed my hands up and kept my nose on a few key characters.

Or you could get a paper and pen, which is so, so wrong. Novels shouldn’t test you.

Also, there is nothing remarkable about the tone of the narrative, which is mostly descriptive and tends to rush the reader towards the rather abrupt endings. A River Of Roses, for instance, ends with one cul-de-sac of a conclusion.

I think there’s more colour and character in the characters’ dialogue. Perhaps this was the author’s intent.

Don’t be too shocked by the racist or bigoted statements, which were probably part of the times before political correctness became trendy. Though I didn’t find them as outrageous as, say, the notion of adding grilled unagi to char koay teow....

Don’t let all this stop you from picking up these three books, though. Until the next great Eurasian novel comes along, you won’t find a better window into this community.

And don’t worry, just take it slow, ’cause no one’s going to test you.

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