Tai-Pan, James Clavell

This was the second written, and also the second chronologically of James Clavell’s “Asian Saga”, which traces the west’s relations with Asia in fictionalized versions of various key encounters. In Tai-Pan we see the establishment of Britain’s colony at Hong Kong following the first Opium War. The protagonists are the traders who have come to exchange opium from India for Chinese tea to be sold in Britain.

The central character is Dirk Struan, the most powerful of the tai-pans, or trading house owners, and known simply as Tai-Pan. Having directed British affairs in southern China from behind the scenes (the political leader is a clueless puppet, though he does have a trick or two up his sleeve), Struan now aims to build up Hong Kong as a colony to give the British a secure base for trade with China.

The antagonist is Tyler Brock, the brutal tai-pan of a rival trading company, whose history of violent conflict with Struan goes back to their early days in the Royal Navy. Brock is ruthless and utterly devoted to the goal of destroying Struan, but there little chance he’ll ever actually best the Tai-Pan. The real point of uncertainty in the story is whether Culum Struan, the son recently arrived from Britain, will mature sufficiently to take over from the Tai-Pan so he can return home and buy a place in Parliament from which to direct assistance to the colony he effectively founded.

Some aspects of the dialog are clever, particularly the nice dissimulations as one character after another argues a point with an opening claiming to agree with what the counterparty has said all along, but then turning it to some opposite sense to win their point. But others are distracting, particularly the rendering of the trade pidgin used between English and Chinese, which could easily be read as offensive by someone who can’t distance themselves from current ideas of inter-cultural relations and read the book with consideration of the context it was written in, and of the time it portrays. Worse to me was Brock’s accent. I could be wrong, but I’d at least be surprised to find out that there was a British dialect at the time that used “thee” for the second person; but always “thee”, never “thou”, for both the objective and subjective pronoun.

The major weakness of the book, though, is Brock Struan. The character is presented as such a superman that there’s never any doubt that he’ll win any contest he enters, or gain any political or trading concession he needs. With no doubts about his superiority to his enemies, or his ability to cope with the uncertainties of dealing with the Chinese, the drama in the unfolding of his plans is weakened.

But despite that, there’s enough plot twists and turns to make the story addictively engaging. The competing traders have enough vile tricks; the inscrutable (as Clavell presents them in relation to the 19th century British) Chinese have enough confounding and unknown internal factions; there’s enough uncertainty in British government support for the new colony, to keep the story moving along at a rapid pace for over 700 pages. Despite some faults, this is absolutely successful entertainment.

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