Review of “And the Rain My Drink” by Han Suyin
Outsider’s “People Inside”: A Re-Consideration of the First Five Years of the Malayan Emergency, 1948-1953
photo credit: wikipedia
1. Introduction And the Rain My Drink is a novel written by Eurasian female writer Han Suyin when she was married to Leon F. Comber, a British officer who worked in the Malayan Special Branch in Johore (a state of present-day Malaysia) after the World War Two. When the novel was finished in 1953, Malaya was still in the state of Emergency, in which the Commonwealth government launched a large-scale guerrilla war against the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA) led by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). Some commentators regard this novel as a partial autobiography of Han Suyin, who once worked at the Johore Bahru General Hospital during the Emergency. Suyin, the narrator of the book also shares a lot of similarities with the author in terms of social status, family background, personality, etc.: for instance, both the character and the author showed noticeable sympathy for the communist detainees. Despite the perceived anti-British bias, the novel itself became a fairly classic piece, as it convincingly criticized the British colonial authority and its policies. Moreover, Han Suyin successfully made the voice of the other side of the turmoil heard by the public by presenting her vivid portrayal of the brutal history during the pre-independence period of Malaysia.
Han Suyin herself is a very contradictory figure for her “anti-imperialist stand” and “inescapable passion” for China—Some people even labeled her as an apologist for Mao Zedong. Her husband also resigned from the British Colonial Police Service due to the publishing of And the Rain My Drink. Compare to Han Suyin’s other fictions, and autobiographies, relatively few reviews are written for this book due to the limited quantity of publication and presumably that the content of the novel might not be quite accessible for people without much knowledge of Southeast Asian History. But this well-written historical fiction is still an indispensable mirror reflecting and refracting the history of the Emergency itself as well as today’s plural society of Malaysia. Roughly 60 years after the 1st edition was published, the novel provided us a particularly valuable lens to re-consider issues of ideology, ethnic identity and interracial relationships from a more contemporary perspective while being true to history. In this paper, I will seek to establish a panoramic outlook through the analysis of the novel by mainly looking at the historical backdrop of pre-independent Malaya, representative characters and their relationships between each other, and finally the effect of the Emergency on present-day Malaysia.
2. The Emergency through the Depictions of And the Rain My Drink
As a major resistance force against Japanese in the WWII, the Communist-led Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) significantly developed itself through the far-reaching guerrilla wars and gained tremendous support from the common people of Malaya, especially the Chinese labors working in tin mines and rubber plantations. By having a thorough reformation, the military force was transformed into the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA) although the force was officially disbanded by the British colonial authority. Since 1946, the MNLA started to facilitate a series of harsh protests against the British Administration in major tin mining and rubber plantation areas. They not only executed a large number of suspicious ex-Japanese collaborators but also Europeans who tended to be unfriendly to pro-Communist labors. In response to the deteriorating situation, the British authority outlawed MCP and some other leftist parties. The MNLA had to retreat to the jungle again, to continue its struggle against the British by carrying on guerrilla wars. In July 1948, the British Administration upgraded the emergency measures to the countrywide level—An extensive anti-Communist war broke out and continued for more than ten years.
The story of And the Rain My Drink took place in the fifth year of the Emergency when the military force of the MNLA was seriously crippled, yet the resistance and bloodshed were still far away from the end. “Min Yun,” literally translated as “People’s Movement,” was conducted by the Communist Party to maintain their contact with ordinary people living outside, so that the food supplies and other necessities could be secured for the “People Inside,” the Communists hiding in the jungles.
Both sides realized that the war “won’t be won only with guns. It’s also a battle for the souls of men. And mostly for the souls of the young.”(279) The British initiated a campaign to win the hearts and minds of the people by providing medical aids and money rewards for information—“woo the people from communism with soft words, and courtesy lessons for their constables.” (116). While the People Inside also changed their policy from “frightening” people to “becoming more selective in targets and to be friendly to Malays and show respect and consideration for the religion.” (51)
However, things are usually more complicated than it seemed to be. Although killing was generally under control, the common people, especially those who lived at the edge of the jungle, became the major victims of the Emergency. On the one hand, they had the moral obligation to help the People Inside, the Communists, who were either friends or relatives of the rubber tappers and the tin miners; On the other hand, they had to be submissive to the British authority, who dominated the fate of these poor people in all respects. What was worse, the British adopted an extreme strategy that there should be “no food out of fence” (39) to “starve the bandits into the open” (114). The situation was exactly like Han Suyin depicted that people “stand between fire and water, between the Police and the People Inside” (40), the two inescapable terrors endured in the dark days of the Emergency.
Another highlighted topic of the novel is the independence: when, how and to whom should the British hand over their power. Ostensibly, the British authority claimed that they would switch themselves “from a Colonial Force to a Service” (263), granting independence and self-government, “however reluctantly and slowly,” when Malayan people are “ready” for it. But everybody knew that there was no clear boundary between being “ready” and “not yet.” Some people thought “tethered freedom is better than no freedom at all,” (144) because “the longer independence was denied, the more chances for communism.” (238) Although most of the political parties took “anti-colonialist” as their major slogan to gain support from the common people, their actual strategy was usually “to please the prominent people” through collaboration with the British Administration in all aspects. Han Suyin powerfully questioned if these politicians fought hard enough for Malayan people’s independence, since “it is the wealthy Chinese, Sultans, and Malay bureaucrats who on the whole do not want independence.”(295) On the other hand, ordinary people “just want their rice bowl full and would be quite happy if the British stayed on forever”(150). This was particularly true during the Emergency when being loyal to the British was the only way to survive, and Malayan people were forced “to crawl before they can walk” (66). In this sense, the prerequisite of getting freedom was loyal to the colonial power. Or in another word, which was ridiculous indeed, that independence was exclusively based on being submissive.
In the process of nation-building of Malaya, ethnic identity and interracial relationships were always subject to heated debates. Han Suyin sharply observed the vulnerable connections between each ethnic group that people with different background could hardly understand each other well, which rooted in “ignorance of each other’s language and customs, producing blindness and intolerant inhumanity.” (27) Without a doubt, the decade-long Emergency seriously exacerbated the tensions that already existed in the Malayan society. A large number of Malay young people from rural areas were appointed as police to fight against the Chinese-dominated MCP, whereas the poor Chinese communities were forced to fight back, turning themselves to join the Communists without any other choice. Chinese looked down upon Malays as “unreliable and inefficient” (167), while Malays accused Chinese of being brutal and blind to all but their interests. On the contrary, British, Chinese, Malays and Indians collaborated with each other quite closely in the upper level, so that they can maximize their profits to the greatest extent.
As Han Suyin put it, “the Malayan episodes are a comedy of errors due to this division between the ruler and the ruled; not one in hundred of rulers can boast to speak well the language of the ruled.” (27) Of course, the problem was not merely constrained to the difference of languages; it was the British colonial rules that alienated the different ethnic groups of Malaya: each ethnic group was restrained from entering the others’ industries, for instance, Malays were predominantly peasants living in remote rural areas, whereas the overwhelming majority of Indians and Chinese worked as plantation workers, tin miners or small shop owners. There was very little contact between each ethnic group because people seldom mingle with others who lived outside of their community. Instead of attributing the cause of the Emergency to the brutality of the Communists, as Han Suyin noted, “violence was sediment of long immobility, compact spark of fire from the smoldering placation of endless caging.”(173) The best example for this that demonstrated in And the Rain My Drink is probably the story of the female “Communist” detainee who was arrested by the Malay police on the Ching Ming Festival when the girl brought food to her ancestors’ grave for the spirits. Then, the police officers charged her with her “collaboration with Communists.”—As the author stated it, “The trouble in this country is that nobody knows anything about anyone else’s customs. That’s why terrible mistakes are made.” (103)
To “forge a new country called Malaya, a single people to be called Malayans” (28), people started to be aware that only different ethnic groups unite with each other, can they ultimately build a common identity as a nation regardless of their seemingly unbridgeable separation in the society. Inspired by the upheaval of Asian Revolution, Nationalist movements, and the WWII, the Malayan people irresistibly inserted themselves into the powerful current of anti-colonialist struggles. When speaking proudly of We-Asian, it seemed that all people in Malaya, no matter where they were originally from, shared a “feeling of akinness”
However, the nation-building of Malaya was destined to be extraordinarily difficult—too many ideas, too many voices, too many conflicts. To what extent should they inherit the British colonial legacy? To what extent should they imitate Communist China, Nasakom Indonesia or Islamic Arab? To realize these political ideals, all parties had to join the fierce competition: collaborating with the British, pleasing the influential and wealthy bigwigs, or making “a straight bid for power through terrorism” (279) like the Communists—only the strongest one could survive at the end.
Han Suyin also had a great success in demonstrating the severe situation of the New Villages, the large-scale resettlement projects carried out during the Emergency, relocating poverty-stricken Chinese communities that were suspicious of having Communist connections to the middle of nowhere. The British government deliberately selected some unreclaimed areas for these people’s resettlement, to cut off the contact between the Communists and people living outside. Not only did these Chinese families suffer greatly from the grievous environment of the remote wastelands in this tropical country, but they were also miserably exploited by either the British resettlement officers, who alleged to grant them freedom, or the Chinese contractors, who took advantage of these poor people relentlessly. The portrayal was particularly compelling when: the British officers laughed at those Chinese women whose husbands went Inside and never came out (119); Small posts were built at the four corners of the camp, on which “machine guns could be erected to rake the village in case of riot (133)”; And a greedy police officer once said that “eight thousand people, however poor, could still produce a fair amount of cash if squeezed.” (139)
As it was indicated in the novel repeatedly, “the trouble with this country is not only the Emergency.” (16) One cannot blame everything on the Emergency—“it is the red tape and the cancer of corruption, not the terror of the jungle.” (17) Communists or non-Communists, there was always certain kind of people who took their side only based on their personal interests. Greedy Communist betrayed the entire Organization for money, and policemen also sold information to Communist for the same reason.
While Communists killed innocent villagers simply because they suspected those people betrayed the Organization, the British authority executed more since people were not showing obedience. Rather than the Communists, it is the corrupted British Colonial Administration and the decaying society that was particularly criticized by the author throughout the book. As Luke said, “It’s not only the communists we’re fighting...it’s just as much the old-type morons on our side, and you and I know they abound and prosper.” (256) There are numerous examples in the novel: Pang, the Chinese detective, always “ran after women and was rough with people in the New Village” (215), but nobody dared to report on him because they are afraid of being labeled as Communist; Lam Teck, while working as an agent of the British Government of Malaya, also involved in opium dealings, gambling and bigamous marriage; (10) It is astonishing that “there (were) a lot of private revenge being carried out...people with a grudge will accuse their enemies to the police.” (104)
Different types of Chinese and British characters were wonderfully portrayed in the novel, whereas Malay and Indian characters only played some minor roles as the narrative unfolds, probably because of the author’s China-born Eurasian identity and her own living experience in Malaya was largely restricted to British-and-Chinese-dominated urban areas. Although some people pointed out that Han Suyin held an obvious anti-British bias, I found the depictions of this novel objective and convincing, because the wide variety of characters were not only portrayed based on the distinction of ethnicity or ideology. For example, the Resettlement Officer Uxbridge’s notion of the world “consisted of a white top and submissive yellow-brown-black base,” (112) and he always addressed Chinese as “Chinks”; On the contrary, the British commandant of the detention camp was depicted as “one of the kindest men alive. Although doing his job ably, he never forgot that detainees were human beings.” (79) The Chinese characters, too, varied from individual to individual, and some characters had very complex personalities. For instance, Chan Ah Pak, a violent Communist bodyguard who killed a lot of innocent people, was a selfless soldier who never betrayed his comrades no matter how tough the situation was. By contrast, the Baba translator Mr. Tay, who did a great job on his duty, paid no heed to his Chinese compatriots at all.
3. Justifying Communism or Calling for Justice?
“We can’t let any Chinese have any say in this country!” (68) This is not just a wild talk from a British anti-Chinese extremist in the fiction, but also a severe situation faced and still facing the Malayan/Malaysian Chinese in reality. Chinese did not obtain permanent citizenship until the independence of Malaysia was eventually achieved in 1957. In exchange, Chinese had to recognize Ketuanan Melayu, literally means Malay Privilege or Malay Special Rights, which was legally acknowledged in the Malaysian Constitution that: “It shall be the responsibility of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (the head of state of Malaysia) to safeguard the special position of the Malays.” In the following decades, the Malay-dominated government devised a series of economic development policies to favor Malays to create a bigger and stronger urban Bumiputera; middle class who would ultimately become the die-hard supporters of the government. By contrast, the non-Bumiputera ethnic groups such as Chinese and Indians have to compete with the government-backed Malays under the discriminatory policies. Such unfair treatment largely originated from the harsh regulations during the Emergency, which were implemented to prevent Malayan Chinese, the perceived troublemakers, from being communized.
In And the Rain My Drink, the stereotypical Communists were given stronger voice. In Suyin’s narrative, they were no longer just bandits destroying infrastructures and killing the innocent—they were humans as well. They were simple, normal and approachable, just like everybody else. Most of the people went Inside because they had to struggle for survival, as the Malayan Communist Party gave them dignity and shared priceless comradeship that they could hardly find elsewhere. People casting doubt on the influence of Communism as an ideology, since a lot of Communists were illiterates who can barely read, and thus, “what does the word ‘Communist’ mean to those people?” (13) The answer given in the book was quite straightforward: their beloved ones all went into the jungle, and the People Inside, either family members or friends, needed help.
All Communists had dreams, but not those unrealistic “Communalist” ones typically perceived by outsiders. They wanted to receive education, live a happy life without starvation, or simply “go to the Zoo”(32). While the colonial authority tried relentlessly to demonize the People Inside, the Communists found no way out but to keep struggling. As a dying young man put it: “I could never be anything but a coolie, all my life... Those had come out were going back...There was no other for me. I went back inside.”(31) Most Communists were just ordinary people; they wanted their lives to move on if they were ever given a chance, as it was implied in the examples of Ah Mei and Big Dog Tsou, SEPs (Surrendered Enemy Personnel) who started their new lives after detention. Working as maidservant and tailor respectively, however plain and insignificant their lives were, they did not have the intention to back Inside, although Ah Mei’s sweetheart was still in the jungle and Big Dog Tsou could better serve the Party under the guise of his tailor shop.
The British authority always emphasized the importance of loyalty, as they believed that obedience was the principal prerequisite for accepting Chinese as Malayan/Malaysian citizens. Han Suyin criticized this point of view acutely by borrowing Luke’s voice: “how can we have the bloody cheek to ask for their loyalty?”(239) “The laws had been devised to keep the Chinese out rather than to bring them into the fold of the country...and now it had succeeded in making one million stateless people (Chinese) in Malaya.”(238) Exactly like Quo Boon put it, “Take away the Chinese of Malaya, and there would not be any Malaya: only a collection of kampongs, nine Sultans, a lot of Malay and British officials sitting in government offices.” (242) The British officials were suspicious of the Chinese youngsters who “infected with the Red Virus” and “turned their eyes to Red China” (281), but they ignored the fact that China was not the homeland for Malaya-born Chinese and it was those Red-Virus-infected youngsters who formed the last yet the strongest force in Malaya to resist the invasion of Japanese. Apparently, the huge sacrifice of the Chinese in Malaya during the WWII did not count as loyalty in British officials’ eyes.
The case of business tycoon Quo Boon’s family was quite intriguing. The characteristics of his sons and daughters were distinct from one another, vividly reflected the multiple identities of Overseas Chinese: stubborn Communist leader (Sen), successful businesswoman (Intellectual Orchid), traditional wife (Fragrant Orchid) and left-leaning student (Golden Orchid). Quo Boon himself was a hardworking entrepreneur who successfully started his business with nothing. It was striking that “Sen, best beloved son of his father, wealthy, unbitter, unfrustrated, had become such a rebel,” (249) which was quite different from his comrades who went Inside due to grievous poverty. Perhaps Sen was one of the very few believers of Communism, as Ah Mei implied that “(Sen was) the best one (who) never surrendered.”(298) Sen kept himself Inside because of his ambition—a pure Communist ambition of striving for ultimate equality and freedom. But “Sen had always dreamt too big, too impatiently,” and only allowed “the dream to shape the creation,” rather than “let the creation modify his dream.”(267) Hence, he switched himself from a Communist idealist into a sheer destroyer.
Despite the fact that Han Suyin felt sympathy for the Malayan Communists, it is fair to say that she did not solely aim to justify the Communist Movement during the Emergency. Rather, she adopted a rational perspective to see the destiny of Malayan people at this very historical period. Her opinions regarding the challenges encountered by the Malayan people were mostly conveyed through Quo Boon’s narrative at the last part of the book: “stop treating them (Chinese youngsters) as aliens, unwanted and unworthy to belong to this land...Their school lives are a perpetual agitation because they have no future except frustration...(we) must give them opportunities!” (281). Han Suyin firmly believed that the real cause of the Emergency was not the Communist bandits, but the British who only focused on their business of rubber and tin, while overlooking the well-being of the laborers who contributed to the prosperity of Malaya—These workers lived in starvation because they did not have lands; they were not even recognized. And finally, “the young lost faith and belief,” although “they had courage and brilliance, they had idealism and honesty: they were the stuff that heroes and pioneers are made of.” (248)
It has been more than fifty years since the Emergency eventually came to an end, but the trauma these people suffered is still visible in today’s plural society of Malaysia. The Bumiputera are still enjoying the favorable treatment from the government: better education, better employment, and 30 percent share of corporate equity in all Malaysia-based companies. The wealth and power of the country is still overwhelmingly controlled by the minority of the society: Chinese businessmen who are economically superior and Malay elites who are politically powerful. The country is operated in accordance to their will. The businessmen and the politicians formed a system of patronage, in order to most greatly benefit from each other; The Emergency Regulation transformed into the notorious Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for detention without trial or criminal charges under limited, legally defined circumstances; The Chinese education, although it has survived decades of tenacious struggles, is still unrecognized by the government. The tension of interracial relationship, although loosened in the public sphere, still exists in many respects of daily life. A half century after the novel was first published, Han Suyin’s work is not only thought provoking, but also refreshing, as if a political critique written for the latest newspaper, or a march sung out loud by the passionate Communist comrades, although the rhythm sounds a little bit alien to me: “Together with my many companions, the wind for my garment and the rain my drink, we build a new heaven and earth”—“many things which were not communist have become communist now,” (212) and many things that used to be communist will not be communist any more.
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3. Han, Suyin. 1956. And the rain my drink. Boston: Little, Brown. 4. Han, Suyin, and Xingke Li. 2005. Can feng yin lu. Xinjiapo: Xinjiapo Qing nian shu ju. 5. Wikipedia.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internal_S ... 28Malaysia% 29, s.v. ” Internal Security Act (Malaysia)” (Accessed May 5, 2011)