The four Chinese student activists of Yeng Pway Ngon’s Unrest were revolutionaries only for a moment; in the three decades that the novel spans, they struggle with what it means to become ordinary people. Guoliang and Weikang grow up in southern Malaysia amid the brutality of the violent post-war struggle by the Malayan Communist Party against British rule. On the outskirts of the new villages where the colonial government has sequestered their families, the boys witness British soldiers leaning the bodies of Communist guerrillas against a fence ‘like suckling pigs ready to be roasted’. They attend a Chinese-language school in Singapore, where they learn the principles of revolution along with literacy, and join a radical student group with their classmates, the beautiful Ziqin and her political mentor and lover, Daming. When the police attempt to ban leftist student organisations, they march in the streets, chanting ‘Unity is Strength’, even as the police beat them with truncheons and fire tear gas to disperse them, one girl ‘choking so hard as she sang, she sounded like she was weeping’. But in Malaysia and Singapore, the other side wins. The last handful of Communist guerillas, isolated and decimated by a successful counterinsurgency, wandered out of the jungle in 1998. In Singapore, the Cambridge-educated lawyer Lee Kwan Yew came into power on the backs of the student movement, and then, once in full control, subjected his former allies to harassment and imprisonment.
For Yeng’s characters, life goes on. Daming and Ziqin plan to emigrate to the People’s Republic of China, but once in Hong Kong, they get cold feet. Daming becomes a philanderer, a capitalist, and a devoted hypocrite. ‘Those students were going too far. The government had to deal with them,’ he says of the PLA firing on the 1989 student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Expelled from university, Guoliang struggles to make ends meet in Singapore. Weikang is arrested by the secret police, who stamp his identity card with an indelible mark indicating that he is a radical. Unable to find employment in Singapore, he emigrates to China, where his foreign roots make him a target for persecution during the Cultural Revolution.
Yen’s novel was awarded the 2004 Singapore Literature Prize and praised by Singaporean critics for filling an important gap. Estranged from the English-speaking imperial metropole, the distant ethnic homeland, and the Malay culture surrounding them, Chinese Singaporean writers have long been preoccupied with how to articulate their unique identity. Lee’s regime has promoted a national narrative, from Chinese settlement to neoliberal prosperity, that tracked closely with Lee’s own idiosyncratic career — his autobiography is titled The Singapore Story — and marginalised Lee’s political opponents.
Dissenting voices such as Yeng, who was a political prisoner for a brief period in the late 1970s, have sought to challenge that narrative by exploring historical episodes that the Lee regime finds inconvenient, and representing a more multicultural Singapore. Before writing Unrest in 2002, Yeng established himself by writing several well-received novels on the plight of Chinese-educated Singaporean intellectuals. But in trying to produce an expanded version of ‘The Singapore Story’, they risk replacing one grand narrative with another. Representation can become tokenism, and history a list of events recited as if from a textbook. Unfortunately, Yeng’s novel sometimes lapses into this mode. ‘Have you forgotten? The year you left Singapore, in August, a group split from the PAP and set up their own party, Barisan Sosialis—the Socialist Front,’ Guoliang robotically informs Weikang. Yeng also inserts himself in the novel as a character, burdening the narrative with several tired monologues about the ethics of authorship. At one point, Ziqin scolds Yeng for his portrayals of women and female sexuality, in a ritual self-mortification that reminded me of certain male feminists who are willing to do anything to advocate for female equality except shut up and let women get a word in edgeways.
It’s a shame because, if you cut away the twenty or so pages of metafictional nonsense, you have a complete novel that provides a lyrical, human history of what happened to the leftist student activists of the 1950s and 60s. The novel begins with a secret assignation between Ziqin and Guoliang in 1987, and moves back and forth in time and among voices. In Yeng’s novel, politics and sexual desire burn for decades, and while they fade, they are never extinguished. Guoliang meets up with Ziqin after three decades and sees the same passionate gaze of ‘a sixteen or seventeen-year-old girl dressed in a pure white uniform, her hair in pigtails.’ Jeremy Tiang excels at translating the long, complex sentences favoured by Chinese into a colloquial English:
‘In secondary school, Daming learnt about dialectical materialism and how to love the fatherland, but he doesn’t trust the Communist Party. And so we’ll move to Canada.’
To capture the curt irony of the original in English is a translation coup, and Tiang demonstrates similarly good judgment throughout the novel.
Unrest is a novel with few illusions. Weikang, sent down to a village during the Cultural Revolution, watches his faeces float down the river together with the bodies of the persecuted and acidly muses that ‘shit never once came up’ when he discussed dialectical materialism with Guoliang. Yet the novel faces the tragedy of history with a defiant melancholy. Ziqin confronts the author and forces him to admit that ‘even though she’s now a mature, middle-aged woman, inside that body the young girl lives on, the one that began to be chipped away after the marriage.’ The fiery radicals became businessmen, housewives, and pensioners — ordinary people. Yet such ordinary people once shook the world, and could do so again.