It must be said that author William Tham Wai Liang is far from as old as he sounds.
With a classic first name and two novels under his belt significantly set in the decades following Malaya’s independence, one may be forgiven to assume that Tham has lived through these times firsthand.
In reality, this quick-witted writer is in his 20s with an already impressive list of published works here and in Canada where he studied at the University of British Columbia.
Tham’s latest work Kings Of Chinatown, which will be launched at the George Town Literary Festival 2022 in Penang on Nov 25, weaves a complex tale around The Syndicate, an ageing secret society fighting its decline in post-millennium Kuala Lumpur. Led by a menacing but weary leader, power struggles within ranks clash with a bigger gang warfare, throwing the city into fear and chaos.
But however far-reaching and brutal triads and gangs can be, they are rarely the only players in a society’s landscape, which so often sees an interlocking spider’s web of connections among the different echelons of power.
Along these lines, Kings Of Chinatown also follows the steps of an ambitious politician and a disgraced police inspector, each with different motives and past regrets and whose complicated agendas are their own.
“Although it feels easier to draw on a starker, black-and-white vision of crime and punishment, (and) good versus evil – it is such binaries that sell the Star Wars and James Bond franchises – what I hoped to do here was to try and illustrate the dynamics that led to the characters being forced into certain actions and to become strung along destructive pathways,” says Tham.
“For characters such as (The Syndicate’s head) Wong Kah Lok, this meant building a background that was very much one of deprivation, violence and authoritarian surveillance, but which was also driven by an obsession with upward mobility, security and status. Less John Wick, more Jay Gatsby,” he adds.
In reality, people are rarely all good or all evil, instead embodying various shades of grey.
Tham says representations of this fact become even more stark when such characters are well-known, entering the ranks of urban legends.
“Within this equation is the story of the man known as Botak Chin, whose criminal career spawned urban legends and assured him a folk-hero status. As I understand it, the image that was created was that of a Robin Hood, who stole from the rich and distributed the spoils to the poor, but given that his crime spree took place after the May 13 riots, the story is a bit more complicated.
“Curious about this image, I read deeper and over the course of research, realised that the image of the noble outlaw in our region is an old one, with the peasant robbers of Kedah and Si Pitung of Java fitting into this mould. It was a matter of marshalling these elements together,” says Tham.
He adds that one of the Kings Of Chinatown’s protagonists – the old Wong – was in fact loosely based on Botak Chin whom Tham acknowledges with sly appearances within the novel.
Within all the struggles and deception emerges Gavin, Wong’s last remaining son.
Barely full grown and in college, Gavin drifts between two worlds – one ordinary and one of highly organised crime.
Belong at the same time to both and neither, hope is elusive for one who is struggling for an identity that makes peace with his clashing realities.
Tham says that this character was perhaps the hardest to write, though he drew on inspirations from the screen adaptation of The Godfather to create him.
“Like Michael Corleone (the youngest son of a Mafia head in Mario Puzo’s famous novels), it was necessary to chart the entry of a reluctant outsider into a shadowy world, while at the same time not being too derivative.
“Still, the parallels are very clear, even if slightly subverted,” says Tham.
In fact, Tham, who is both a writer and editor, includes an extensive list of inspirations and references in his author’s note, eager to pay tribute to the writings that have helped inform his novel.
“Originality really is impossible, so it was more of a relief to point out exactly where my inspirations came from – sometimes directly in the novel itself – and that made writing a more relaxing process.
“The research (for the novel) was largely informed by the broader project of what we generally refer to as memory, in the sense that it draws upon urban legends, archival images and pervasive mythologies to create what is, in many ways, an imaginary Kuala Lumpur.
“Practically all the events featured are invented, except for when clearly identifiable historical events intervene in the narrative for example May 13, Ops Lalang and political upheavals,” he says.
Delving deep into texts about historical Chinese secret societies, Tham hopes to have created a realistic if not historical vision of triads in the country’s earlier history.
“I was keen on learning more about the historical Chinese secret societies, which meant that I relied heavily on texts by Wilfred Blythe, Leon Comber and Mak Lau Fong for a better understanding of how they operated.
“The fictitious Syndicate is certainly not one of these secret societies, but it borrows heavily from the mythologies of that hopefully bygone world.
“I should mention that this isn’t a sociological work in any sense, since most of the imagery is cribbed from non-Malaysian sources to begin with and that realistically, if we were speaking about organisations along the lines of secret societies, they were most significant during the colonial period but became much less salient afterwards, partly as a result of enforcement and changing economic patterns,” he says.
Tham points out that aside from readers enjoying the plot he has written, the book can also feed the interests of those wanting to learn more about the role of secret societies in early Malaysia.
“I hope it can serve as a jumping-off point for anyone interested in the history of secret societies in Malaysia beyond the more sensational or lurid narratives that are easier to digest, with a note at the end (of the novel) suggesting where we could turn to next,” he concludes.
Kings Of Chinatown is published by Clarity Publishing. More info here.