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Sunday 31 August 2014

Glimpses of the Past - Wong Meng Voon (Review)

Random Review 13

Stories from Malaysia and Singapore 

Wong Meng Voon

(Heinemann Asia, 1981, ISBN: 9971640279)

After reading about three stories of this collection, I sat up with a bit of a jolt. Something seemed to be missing. Ah yes: none of these stories had any conclusion. I then looked back at the tile, Glimpses of the Past, and appreciated the message. Although the stories are fiction, the author was trying to produce an authentic representation of life. In real life, episodes seldom have the neat conclusions that some fiction writers manufacture. The story instead is just another stepping stone on the journey.

Bearing this point in mind, it was much easier to appreciate the author’s gentle and perceptive style. His writing enables the reader to eavesdrop on the lives of the characters who populate his stories. They were written at a time when labourers belonged to the country; none of the stories has any interaction with people who are not Malaysian or Singaporeans. Although a couple of the stories give glimpses of a more comfortable middle class life, on the whole, Wong’s characters are strugglers, making the best of the hard lot that has been dealt to them.

Once getting used to the nature of the stories, they are readable and engrossing. However soon I felt that there were also a couple of other aspects of life in the 60s and 70s that were missing, i.e. there was not much to laugh about and enjoy. Reflections on childhood were generally happy, but adult life comes across as being fairly miserable. Wong is definitely engaged with his characters in this ‘compassionate’ period of his career. (His later writings have been more satirical.) However it is a pity that he did not feel able to represent life as being more rounded with a few more flashes of joy.

With the exception of one story, Eight Hours in the Sewer, the stories’ characters are all from the Chinese community. Other communities barely intrude. All of the stories are the author’s translations of stories that were originally written in Chinese. So Wong presents a fairly one dimensional view of Malaysia and Singapore of the time. There is no problem with that: it may well be the way that many members of both countries’ main communities lived then and now. However, it was strange that there were probably only one or two references in this collection to religion, whether formal or popular. It is seldom that home life in any community in Malaysia or Singapore does not brush up against belief in the supernatural in some form or other.

Despite these two missing elements, of joy and religion, there is plenty to recommend in these poignant stories, particularly for readers who are not from the Chinese community. The author’s spare and imperceptibly crafted style beautifully show the common thread of humanity that binds all of us. Wong’s characters and the stories they inhabit are ordinary people faced with ordinary events, the true bedrock of any society, despite common misconceptions to the contrary.


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