Saturday, August 20, 2016

The House of Wives by Simon Choa-Johnston

Toronto: Penguin, 2016 (Image from Amazon)

This absorbing novel begins in Calcutta at the height of the opium trade and portrays the early days of Hong Kong, market place of the valuable drug. Loosely based on the ancestors of author Simon Choa-Johnston, the tale evoked memories of the time I spent there before the former British colony reverted to China in 1997.

Against a backdrop of fascinating historic detail, the story begins when Emanuel, a younger brother from a Jewish trading family in Calcutta, defies his father's prohibition against the opium trade. Others monopolize the trading docks of Central District, but he and two partners grow rich developing a new market for high quality opium in the Chinese interior as the colony grows.

Having gained partners, confidence and money in Hong Kong, Emanuel spends an increasing part of the year there. When he falls in love with Pearl, the much younger daughter of his Chinese business partner, he builds a lavish mansion on Victoria Peak and asks her to marry him.

However, this means abandoning his first wife back in Calcutta. Before leaving India for Hong Kong, he had married Semah, a crippled girl with a large dowry, and used this money to establish himself in the opium business. This marriage has not prospered as Emanuel has. After building a mansion for his first bride, he continues his regular opium runs between Calcutta and Hong Kong.

But Semah is strong-willed. When she hears of Emanuel's defection, she recruits a single Indian servant and sails to Hong Kong in search of her errant husband. Once there, she ascends the hill to confront Pearl and reclaim her role as wife. With strength and determination as their common bonds, both wives refuse to retreat from the airy hilltop mansion of Kingsclere.

As time passes, Emanuel manages to settle his two-wife household and become a father, despite warning by fortune tellers that a curse on opium traders that will prevent their sons from growing up. Superstition, scoff the inhabitants of the hill. But could the curse be real?

Meanwhile, as the opium business goes into decline, the risk-addicted Emanuel is desperate to get more land in Kowloon. Will he succeed again? And in the long term, can a man live peacefully with two different-but-equal wives in the same house? Can these women overcome their jealousy and competitiveness when life brings hardship and heartbreak?

Choa-Johnston's writing makes the reader care deeply about the struggles of these fascinating people. The author says that during years of research, his ancestors began to talk to him. No doubt their voices helped him develop his story, which morphed from a play into an engrossing novel.

One more reason to read this book is to get a sense of the real characters and the history of the opium trade, on which so many later fortunes were based. I was interested to learn that Franklin Delano Roosevelt's grandfather was an opium trader, as were the ancestors of the great British poet, Siegfried Sassoon.

Another historic character mentioned in this book is a real artist of the time. Amitav Ghosh, who has written extensively of the opium trade era in his Ibis trilogy, says his artist character, Robin Chinnery, is based on the real artist George Chinnery. Perhaps the mention of George in Choa-Johnston's book is a nod to a fellow historical novelist.

Simon Choa-Johnston has enjoyed a long career in theatre. He's worked as a playwright, actor, director, and Artistic Director. He is a member of the Playwright's Guild of Canada and Artistic Director Emeritus of Gateway Theatre in Richmond.

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