A young woman's epic journey of survival from China to George Town

In an opulent tomb spanning 9m (30-feet) high, the vaulted ceiling is painted in sky blue.

From a rich man’s mausoleum in 20th century China to a starkly different blue dwelling on Campbell Street in Penang, the story of a resilient, young girl is woven through the pages of the newly released novel Blue Sky Mansion.

Written by Penang native H.Y. Yeang, this debut novel explores class differences in southern China, the raging 1910 pneumonic plague to the north in Manchuria and life in the bustling entrepot city of George Town in Malaya.

Yeang, who retired as the Head of Biotechnology and Strategic Research at the Rubber Research Institute of Malaysia, is a self-proclaimed late starter at fiction.

Writing a book at the age of 70 is truly a new chapter for this Fellow of the Malaysian Academy of Sciences.

“My background is in science and not in literature. I do have over 200 publications to my name, but they are all scientific papers and so they don’t count,” he jests, noting that the sole exception was one short story published in a Singaporean magazine over 30 years ago.

Involved in online editing during his retirement, Yeang says he never saw himself as a novelist and would probably have never published a book if not for his wife Helen Chew.

After showing her the opening chapter, Yeang says he only carried on writing after she expressed interest in what would happen next.

“I write about things that I know. My grandfather migrated from China to settle in Malaya, making me a third generation ethnic Chinese.

“Hence, I am familiar with customs, mannerisms and beliefs among the Chinese in general, and the idiosyncrasies of those who set root in Malaya,” he explains.

Set in a time and in places where men largely dominated society, Blue Sky Mansion’s protagonist Tang Mei Choon finds her life sewn together in phases correlating to affiliations with male figures who come into her life.

But far from a passive character, the girl is resourceful as well as perceptive and while she cannot always fight against her circumstances, she responds to them with ingenuity and practicality.

“The story traces the life of the protagonist Mei Choon first as a child, then when she comes of age, and finally as a woman."

Historical connections

“As a historical novel, many of the ideas have to, of course, follow reality. These include those that fall into the timelines of the pneumonic plague of China and the early days of Penang’s experience during World War II,” says Yeang.

After life-altering events in her childhood, Mei Choon finds herself in the city of Harbin in the midst of a deadly plague that ultimately kills around 60,000 people.

Here, we are introduced to Dr Wu Lien-Teh – a name that may ring a bell in current times as the Penang-born physician was the inventor of the surgical face mask that has now evolved into the N95 respirator.

Dr Wu’s name is also especially familiar in his alma mater of Penang Free School where a sports house is named after him.

Yeang, coincidentally, is both an Old Free and was in Dr Wu’s green-cladded house, but actually has a deeper affiliation to the historical figure.

“My connections to the man extend further because I am his great grandnephew. My mother’s maternal grandmother was Dr Wu’s sister; go work that out!” he says candidly.

Despite not being a Chinese citizen or even being able to speak Mandarin, Dr Wu – the first ethnic Chinese medical graduate from Cambridge University – was called to head a special task force in Harbin to fight a plague that was massacring its citizens.

“As an epidemic, the comparison with Covid-19 today is inescapable, but there is one major difference: the death rate from Covid is below 5%, but for the pneumonic plague, mortality was 100%.

“Incidentally, you’d realise that Dr Wu was not picked because there were no other Western-trained doctors in China.”

In fact, there were Western-trained doctors from Britain, Russia and Japan who were older and who had longer working experience than Wu, who was 31.

However, to appoint a foreigner to head such a high-profile undertaking would be a serious loss of prestige for China, or what the Chinese would call a “loss of face”.

“Being from the Straits Settlement of Penang, Dr Wu was in fact a British subject, but at least he was ethnic Chinese. In a crisis situation, that would have to do!” exclaims Yeang.

The second historical personality in Blue Sky Mansion is Manicasothy Saravanamuttu, the editor of The Straits Echo newspaper during the Japanese occupation of Penang.

Credited as one of the locals who worked to save the island in the days of aerial bombardment by Japanese forces, Saravanamuttu also personally undertook a special task at Fort Cornwallis.

“Saravanamuttu took charge in the early days of WWII when the British administrators fled Penang.

“He was responsible for raising the white flag of surrender to spare Penang from further aerial bombing. The Penangites linked to Saravanamuttu appearing in the book were his sub-editor Ratnam

Gopal, who scaled the flag mast, and his intern Harold Speldewinde,” says Yeang, the latter referring to the cherished, colourful Penang Veterans Association founder who passed away in 2012.

“(Aside from historical events in the book,) the other plots are mainly my own, but there are also real incidents narrated to me that I have written into the story.

“Examples of these are the segment about a dragonfly falling into the spider’s web and the part about the yellow umbrellas (signalling bombing targets for Japanese planes).

“I hope Penangites, like other readers, would not only enjoy reading the story, but also get to appreciate the historical backdrop against which it is set,” he adds.

Blue Sky Mansion was a finalist in the 2021 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, a writing competition held annually by Singaporean publishing house Epigram Books.

Established in 2015, the initiative is aimed at promoting contemporary Southeast Asian creative writing.

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