The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam


“We are wa kiu.” They were overseas Chinese, those who had wandered far from home. “We are safer when we remain quiet.”

We first meet Chen Pie Sou in Shantou, China. It is 1930 and his father Chen Kai is about to leave for Indochina to try to make his fortune. Chen Kai passes down to his son the family good luck charm, a small lump of gold which his ancestor dug up many years ago.

Fast forward to 1966 and Chen Pie Sou is in Cholon, Vietnam, now known as Headmaster Percival Chen of the Percival Chen English Academy. He is admonishing his son Dai Jai for being seen with a local Annamese girl: “Son, you must not forget you are Chinese”. For Percival is fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage, and reminded of his father Chen Kai’s second, disastrous marriage to an Annamese.

Some of his Chinese pride bleeds down to Dai Jai, who launches his own protest against the newly mandated Vietnamese lessons that the school conducts – he leads a walkout. Unfortunately this reaches the ears of the authorities and they take action. Chen has to make use of every contact and favour he has throughout the city (ok so most of them are the mysterious Mak’s, a teacher in his school, his right hand man, who seems to have answers to everything) – and almost every last piastre.

But Dai Jai’s troubles continue to dog him and Chen’s solution is to smuggle him to China, not realising that the Cultural Revolution is upon it – not the best place for the son of a wealthy merchant.

“On a nearby couch, a metisse girl in a light-blue dress was half-reclined, her legs crossed. Her hands were slender creatures nested in her lap, and her elegance made the furniture cheap and shabby. She had strong French bones and warm Vietnamese skin. Her poise made it clear that she was better than the dress.”

Chen, who has long had a weakness for mahjong and prostitutes (he is divorced from Dai Jai’s mother), still has loans to repay, and takes on a big-stakes game where he meets a beautiful metisse (mixed race) prostitute named Jacqueline and essentially ‘wins’ her. He later falls for her, despite his earlier admonitions to his son about preserving his Chinese heritage.

He had turned the radio on for something reassuring, something solidly Chinese, but the Mandarin-speaking announcer reminded him that he ought to feel embarrassed about Jacqueline, that he should be ashamed to be in love with a foreigner. She was mixed, yes, and neither part was Chinese.

While Lam has crafted an intriguing story set in a fascinating time and place, his main character is difficult to like. He’s too much of a stereotypical Chinese businessman type whose only interest is money. It’s like he has blinders on, everything else is out of sight, out of mind. He doesn’t ever wonder why Mak seems to have his finger in everything and contacts everywhere, he resolutely remains indifferent to the politics of the Vietnam war raging around him. He is unsympathetic, and a little offputting, even when his son is feared drowned:

He said, “Did you thank the ancestors?” Cecilia looked at her husband as if he was speaking a foreign language. He turned to Cecilia, on the verge of shouting without knowing why. “Did he? I want to know – is he grateful to his ancestors for saving him?”

But what happens to Chen and his family does make for an interesting read, and a different viewpoint of Vietnam and what it means to be Vietnamese and Overseas Chinese.

It is something I sometimes think about myself. I am Chinese. I am Singaporean. I am Chinese-Singaporean or Singaporean Chinese. But what does it mean to be Chinese?

My family has always been more comfortable speaking English. Thanks to Singapore’s mandatory ‘Mother Tongue’ second-language lessons, I had to take Mandarin classes from Primary 1 (age 6/7) to AO levels (age 17/18). More than ten years! Yet I have never felt comfortable speaking Mandarin. Probably because my parents don’t really speak it either. They grew up speaking their own Chinese dialects of Hokkien (Fujian) or Teochew (Chaozhou) and English. My mum actually took Malay lessons instead of Mandarin.

I’ve never felt any ties to China although I still have distant relatives there. My late grandfather though was a member of the family’s clan association in Singapore (永春会馆) and the clan association for the Singapore descendants of the village that our ancestors were from (can’t remember the name). This is despite the fact that he was born in Singapore. Whereas for my dad, the only reason he visits China is to play golf!

So to read of Chen’s blind devotion to the country he calls ‘home’ intrigued me.  He hadn’t been back in years and had no intention to return, and seemed firmly ensconced in Vietnam, but regularly made donations to various causes in China and felt so strongly about his Chinese heritage. Was it a different generation? A different sense of belonging?

Lam too is Overseas Chinese, by way of Vietnam, and Chen is inspired by his own grandfather who was a headmaster and a gambler.

He said in an interview with Metro News:

“I was born in Canada so I grew up hearing family stories about a place that I’d never been to, which was Vietnam, specifically the Chinese community in Vietnam. So I think those stories had an especially vivid place in both my imagination and my concept of self because they were completely foreign to my experience of growing up in this country.”

“I was also very aware as I was growing up … that not only was I not growing up in that world but that world did not exist any longer.”

But luckily for us, he was able to recreate this world for his readers


As always, I look forward to reading passages that are food-related, and there were such gems:

Each bowl of noodles was crowned by a rose of raw flesh, the thin petals of beef pink and ruffled. Foong Jie put down dishes of bean sprouts, of mint, purple basil leaves on the stem, hot peppers, and halve limes with which to dress the bowls. She arranged an urn of fragrant broth, chilled glasses, the coffee pot that rattled with ice cubes, and a dish of cut papayas and mangos.

On these occasions, Percival made sure that the cooks prepared special Chinese dishes that Laing Jai liked – his favourite was or lua, oyster omelettes, and Percival was gratified that the boy relished such a characteristic Teochow dish. He also looked forward to hung gue dumplings filled with garlic chives, rice, minced pork, and dried shrimp, platters of Peking duck, crab balls, and tofu stuffed with shrimp. For a snack, a big bowl of mee pok noodles with minced pork and braised mushrooms.

Vincent Lam is from the expatriate Chinese community of Vietnam, and was born in Canada. Dr. Lam did his medical training in Toronto, and is an emergency physician in Toronto. He is a Lecturer at the University of Toronto. His first book, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, won the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

I received this book for review from Random House


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