By Mandakini Arora
Rachel Heng’s dexterity as a novelist is evident in her light-handed weaving of a momentous history into an appealing tale of a fishing family in a kampong, a boy with magical powers, and young love.
In The Great Reclamation, Heng tells an engaging story while articulating a nuanced sociopolitical commentary on Singapore’s trajectory “from Third World to First.” The book is epic, not for the time it spans—1940s–1960s—but for the dramatic historical change during that time. Two-odd decades of war, occupation, riots and protests, government clampdowns on left-wing activists, and bold nation building measures by the ruling party, when Singapore went from British colony to Japanese-occupied territory, back to a colony, a self-governing polity, merger with Malaysia, and finally independence in 1965.
At the story’s center is Ah Boon, the younger of two sons in the Lee family. Unfittingly for a fisherman’s son, he fears the sea. Yet on his first fishing trip, magical apparitions of nonexistent islands appear and fishing nets fill with an unimaginably large haul. The Lees’ good fortune is short-lived, as they are personally damaged by World War II and the Japanese Occupation.
Ah Boon, a quiet boy, is friends with Siok Mei, a classmate with whom he is drawn into radical activism after the war. The two witness race riots and participate in Communist study groups in school. Siok Mei’s dedication to the Communist cause is more singular than Ah Boon’s. Their paths diverge and she marries a fellow activist even as Ah Boon declares his love for her.
After Singapore attains self-government in 1959, Gah Men (Singlish for government)— “emissaries from another world”—appear in the kampong. They build a community center, a “beacon of modernity, harbinger of the bright future,” boasting newfangled marvels such as electric fans and a television set. Ah Boon becomes a Gah Man but is ambivalent about a proposed land reclamation project to “conjure” land out of the sea, destroying the coastal area fronting the kampong. Natalie, a Gah Woman, makes him see the benefits of reclamation and he persuades fellow kampong dwellers to move into “forests of sparkling new flats,” neat and clean with “modern conveniences of running water and electric lights.”
Siok Mei’s and Ah Boon’s paths cross again in 1962 when the Gah Men round up and incarcerate suspected radicals. The “same seamless, efficient machinery” that made apartments and land possible also “plucked political opponents from their beds in the middle of the night.”
Heng does not present the dramatic molding of Singapore into a glittering, modern nation, which is the backdrop for Ah Boon’s coming of age, as a black-or-white process. While The Great Reclamation is a story of loss—of love, land, a lifestyle—it is also a story of hope, ending with Ah Boon gazing at the skyline of this “beautiful, improbable, unlikely nation.”
Mandakini co-chairs the AWA Writers’ Group, which meets on the second and fourth Thursday morning of every month. She is a historian who enjoys reading and writing stories and browsing in secondhand bookstores. Read her book reviews here and on Instagram: @travelling_bookmark.