After finishing “Shōgun,” I was eager to see how well author James Clavell would keep the momentum in “Tai-Pan” (1966), the second novel in his “Asian Saga” series. Needless to say, Clavell produced yet another epic historical fiction adventure packed with exciting characters, harrowing themes, astonishing detail and a narrative you’ll contemplate long after you finish.
Set in 1841, the novel begins at an inflection point in the First Opium War between Great Britain and Imperial China, when the British had just secured the land that would become Hong Kong. The narrative follows the thrilling business adventures and political intrigue of a Scottish merchant, scrapper, opium smuggler and general charmer known as Dirk Straun. Dirk is the “Tai-Pan,” or leader of the Noble House, the richest trading company in Asia. His company is in fierce competition with the second-best firm, Brock & Sons, led by his arch-rival, Tyler Brock. The two companies are engaged in a struggle to outsmart the other in order to gain favor with the inept and opium-addicted Governor-General William Longstaff. Each is also jockeying to secure influence with the Chinese traders and emissaries but, most of all, to be the richest man in Asia.
Both Dirk and Tyler are profoundly egotistical, conniving, blunt and power-hungry men; yet, in their own ways, each has unique qualities that exhibit their humanity. For Dirk, it’s his unwavering love for one of his many wives, May-May, and the impeccable standards he holds for his son from his first marriage, Culum. As for Tyler, his commitment to his family and passion for doing right by his children, no matter the personal cost or indiscretion he must go to, is simply jaw-dropping and unnerving. Their characters alone make “Tai-Pan” worth reading, building suspense around what each will do next, and what bridges they are willing to cross into the realm of moral ambiguity. In combination with their compelling personalities, you’ll also fall in love with them even if you know you shouldn’t.
Just as in “Shōgun,” in addition to the main characters’ stories, the narrative takes on numerous other equally enjoyable perspectives. Some come from disgruntled sailors who have been beached or humiliated by Dirk and Tyler. Others are derived from the swashbuckling pirates who hassle the South China Sea waters near Hong Kong. There are also tales of ambitious lovers who seek to manipulate others for their gain and immoral artists whose actions exhibit the extent of artistic freedom. Perhaps my favorite perspectives come from the Chinese characters: merchants, partners and disgruntled children who act naive but are unsuspectingly crafty actors subtly engaging in ingenious machinations just like their European counterparts.
“Tai-Pan” is a worthwhile read for its pertinence to modern-day topics ranging from colonial oppression to political subterfuge and questions of moral relativity. Throughout the novel, there is an omnipresent conversation about the colonial happenings, oppression and exploitation in Asia, as nearly every single European character validates it while every Chinese character condemns the practice — though they don’t cast off their visions for a grander empire, either. Moreover, the extent to which characters are willing to engage in intrigue is remarkable, and it highlights the sort of backstabbing, transactional nature of politicking and corruption scandals found in most places today. Additionally, the novel poses reflective questions about the ways we constitute our moral foundations, forcing us to contemplate what centers our humanity and decide if our occasionally rigid standards about drinking, infidelity or blasphemy are worth upholding.
To contrast the political and moral quandaries, Clavell weaves in emotional subjects that balance out the Machiavellian issues by examining what constitutes true love. Dirk’s experience with May-May is a testament to discovering true love, as he is consistently ashamed of the affection he feels for his wife, simply because of his own internalized racism.
May-May and Dirk’s relationship is complex, occasionally toxic and a fascinating look at how racism can corrupt a relationship. Dirk fears turmoil that may come about in his public life if he officially recognizes her, as his European counterparts would look down on him. Already criticized by friends and foes alike for his adoption of several Chinese ways of life, Dirk sidelines his love for May-May because it’s beneficial for his social status, thus permitting his own racism to come between the two. This dynamic permeates throughout the novel until the end, leaving the reader torn about how to perceive their relationship.
What I appreciate the most about “Tai-Pan” is that it excelled at the same aspect that made “Shōgun” an exquisite tale — it perfectly illustrated the divisions, lack of communication and shortage of understanding between the cultures of the East and the West. Throughout “Tai-Pan,” Cavell depicts perfectly the world’s cultural partitions without making either one seem inferior or superior to the other. Instead, his characterization implies they are simply two halves of the same whole that lack exposure to one another. It is Clavell’s determination to demonstrate that we all should experience one another’s culture without prejudices to become better human beings, that solidifies the novel’s timelessness.
Clavell’s “Tai-Pan” is nothing short of a brilliant extension of the framework laid for readers in “Shōgun.” In its finest moments, “Tai-Pan” offers us insight into the sort of political intrigue that characterized the 1800s colonial period, emphasizing the vivid and frightening disconnect between the colonizers and the colonized. The novel depicts the persevering nature of true love and the gradual acceptance of other cultures that comes from it in a fashion that’ll tug at your heartstrings. In short, “Tai-Pan” is a non-stop thrilling adventure of love, loss, deceit and conflicting worlds that leaves me in anticipation to see how it all carries into the next novel “Gai-Jin.”
Mammas’ article is part of an ongoing column featuring reviews of classic books that one should read. Read the other articles here.