“Zhen shook his head. ‘No, blockhead, she is the Moon Goddess and I am Yi, her husband. She wants to hold me in her tender embrace.'”
Charlotte MacLeod is a Scots lady coming to 1830s Singapore to join her brother, Head of Police, Robert MacLeod. Zhen is a member of a Chinese kongsi, coming to Singapore to work as a coolie and somehow turning into a businessman. When they had their first glances over the waters, both of them thought of each other as nothing but a desirable, fleeting dream. When they indeed cross paths, however, they end up in a struggle between their societal expectations and the red thread believed to be binding them together.
Zhen, the Hidden Romantic
He gives an air of arrogance, representing the hot-blooded ambition for a better life in Singapore. Often juxtaposed with the more reserved Qian, Zhen is often portrayed as the “perfect” man, his masculinity stemming primarily in his physical assets and his skills in the bedroom. While the story paints him as a stereotypical “manly man”, it could also serve as a shell covering the learned, more sensitive side of him, which is mostly played out in private (in front of Qian, in the privacy of a whorehouse, in front of Charlotte).
Zhen also represents the importance of brotherhood and societal duty in those times. Obeying his future father-in-law out of gratitude to the kongsi and helping Qian like his own brother, Zhen somehow seems to strive to be as empathetic as he can to the women around him, treating them gently and keeping his spiritual teachings (Tao) near. This could suggest his inner desire to be a gentleman ultimately.
Charlotte MacLeod, the Navigator
She appears in the book like a typical romance film princess at first – learning the ways of the locals, doing so rather easily, being polite etc… While she shows kindness and curiosity, it is not something delved into deeply. What stood out was her probably how she continued to follow societal expectations, leaving Zhen despite knowing of her love for him. It could also be possible that she knew the relationship would never amount to anything but physical intimacy should they continue the way they did.
Singapore – the people…
What historical fiction generally does is to tell the stories of the people. Colour is often used as a symbol, not of race, but of the mix in culture (food, spices, costumes, clothes, houses etc…). At the same time, while colonial segregation still ran deep, a thing to note was how the native people and the different races worked together well, getting along the line of a common job that needed to be done.
Love & Marriage…
The time and setting were of that when love and marriage could be separate. Personified through Robert & Shilah, George & Takouhi, and most prominently, Charlotte & Zhen, the issue of social status and expectation almost always come to hinder the natural course of love. Marriages were almost always out of duty and to carry on the family line, something greatly depicted in this story.
Style & Structure
Farnham made a good parallel to bring the lovers together – showing one side of the story in one chapter and the other in the following one, alternating until their paths crossed. The story itself had many parallels to Romeo & Juliet, two lovers from totally different backgrounds – meeting in secret, constant physical intimacy and longing, secret “marriage.”
The poems (both English original and translated) peppering the story show the thoughts of the main characters without revealing too much. One particular poem, “Do Not Stand at my Grave and Weep” by Mary Elizabeth Frye towards the end of the novel provides hints of the already hanging relationship.
And while all of them provide a peek at the fate of the relationship, it can be said that the use of poetry describes the relationship itself – beautiful people in poetic love, only to be interpreted between themselves and appreciated by a select few.
In the meantime…