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The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam

The Headmaster's Wager (edition 2012)

by Vincent Lam

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2792640,505 (3.99)54
Title:The Headmaster's Wager
Authors:Vincent Lam
Info:Hogarth (2012), Hardcover, 432 pages
Collections:Read, Your library, ARC

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The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam



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Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam is a plot-driven, cultural, and generational story of the father-and-son relationship as represented in the characters Chen Kai and Chen Pie Sou (or as he is better known by his English name in the novel, Percival Chen); and Percival Chen and Dai Jai.

And amidst the father-and-son archetypal quest for vulnerable and honest communication, understanding, and connection, is the ambition for wealth and success, and the competitive obstacles and vices of gambling, womanizing, and drug addiction.

The violent backdrop of the Vietnam War is the pathetic fallacy that accompanies the repression of turbulent feelings found in the main character of Percival Chen, respectfully, affectionately, and sometimes mockingly referred to as hou jeung—Headmaster.

There is the yearning that began as a young boy for physical and emotional closeness to his father, Chen Kai, who leaves both his mother and himself in pursuit of wealth promised in the distant land of Indochina.

That continues in his wrongly placed affection for the cruel and wealthy socialite, Cecilia, with whom he is both unloved and abused.

---To read more of this review, please visit my blog, The Bibliotaphe's Closet: http://zaraalexis.wordpress.com/2012/05/30/the-headmasters-wager-a-review/

Zara Garcia-Alvarez ( )
  ZaraD.Garcia-Alvarez | Jun 6, 2017 |
I thought this book was very well written and very interesting. I liked the setting of Vietnam before the war and after. The characters were intriguinf and well developed. Highly recommended ( )
  janismack | Mar 20, 2016 |
A lot happened in this book, where to start? It took place over a few decades and even if a lot did not always happened to the character, then the world around him was re-shaped.

Percival is the principal of an English school. Is he a good guy? Well what is a good guy? He is kind (sort of), he cares about his family and tries to make their lives better. But at the same time he spends a lot of time gambling and whoring. But I would call him a good guy, a naive stupid man who is neither good or bad. Just human.

He leaves China when the Japanese comes. Then they come to Vietnam too (damn war is evil!). He marries, he has a son. He finds his father. The French, the Americans and later the Northern Army all fight over Vietnam (arghh I do not get communists! Fair, fair? There is nothing such as equal rights with them.) Yes this is a country that sees war, but it's not always present. He manages to stay away from much of it. But we do get a taste of the brutalities too.

Other people we get to know is his son, his ex-wife, who was a sort of a harpy but I liked her. Teacher Mak, Percival's mistress and many more. It's not a happy book so all of these wont be happy in the end. I felt sorry of the country, and of the people, and all the metisse children. But war and shaping a new country is never easy. It's bloody, horrible and disgusting.

I did come to realize that I know way too little of this era. Mostly cos what I know has been shaped through US eyes. And here we get the view of a Chinese man, who does not have it easy either as he is not liked either.

An interesting story ( )
  blodeuedd | Mar 2, 2016 |
Originally posted at: http://olduvaireads.wordpress.com/2013/08/29/the-headmasters-wager-by-vincent-la...

“We are wa kiu.” They were overseas Chinese, those who had wandered far from home. “We are safer when we remain quiet.”

We first meet Chen Pie Sou in Shantou, China. It is 1930 and his father Chen Kai is about to leave for Indochina to try to make his fortune. Chen Kai passes down to his son the family good luck charm, a small lump of gold which his ancestor dug up many years ago.

Fast forward to 1966 and Chen Pie Sou is in Cholon, Vietnam, now known as Headmaster Percival Chen of the Percival Chen English Academy. He is admonishing his son Dai Jai for being seen with a local Annamese girl: “Son, you must not forget you are Chinese”. For Percival is fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage, and reminded of his father Chen Kai’s second, disastrous marriage to an Annamese.

Some of his Chinese pride bleeds down to Dai Jai, who launches his own protest against the newly mandated Vietnamese lessons that the school conducts – he leads a walkout. Unfortunately this reaches the ears of the authorities and they take action. Chen has to make use of every contact and favour he has throughout the city (ok so most of them are the mysterious Mak’s, a teacher in his school, his right hand man, who seems to have answers to everything) – and almost every last piastre.

But Dai Jai’s troubles continue to dog him and Chen’s solution is to smuggle him to China, not realising that the Cultural Revolution is upon it – not the best place for the son of a wealthy merchant.

“On a nearby couch, a metisse girl in a light-blue dress was half-reclined, her legs crossed. Her hands were slender creatures nested in her lap, and her elegance made the furniture cheap and shabby. She had strong French bones and warm Vietnamese skin. Her poise made it clear that she was better than the dress.”

Chen, who has long had a weakness for mahjong and prostitutes (he is divorced from Dai Jai’s mother), still has loans to repay, and takes on a big-stakes game where he meets a beautiful metisse (mixed race) prostitute named Jacqueline and essentially ‘wins’ her. He later falls for her, despite his earlier admonitions to his son about preserving his Chinese heritage.

He had turned the radio on for something reassuring, something solidly Chinese, but the Mandarin-speaking announcer reminded him that he ought to feel embarrassed about Jacqueline, that he should be ashamed to be in love with a foreigner. She was mixed, yes, and neither part was Chinese.

While Lam has crafted an intriguing story set in a fascinating time and place, his main character is difficult to like. He’s too much of a stereotypical Chinese businessman type whose only interest is money. It’s like he has blinders on, everything else is out of sight, out of mind. He doesn’t ever wonder why Mak seems to have his finger in everything and contacts everywhere, he resolutely remains indifferent to the politics of the Vietnam war raging around him. He is unsympathetic, and a little offputting, even when his son is feared drowned:

He said, “Did you thank the ancestors?” Cecilia looked at her husband as if he was speaking a foreign language. He turned to Cecilia, on the verge of shouting without knowing why. “Did he? I want to know – is he grateful to his ancestors for saving him?”

But what happens to Chen and his family does make for an interesting read, and a different viewpoint of Vietnam and what it means to be Vietnamese and Overseas Chinese.

It is something I sometimes think about myself. I am Chinese. I am Singaporean. I am Chinese-Singaporean or Singaporean Chinese. But what does it mean to be Chinese?

My family has always been more comfortable speaking English. Thanks to Singapore’s mandatory ‘Mother Tongue’ second-language lessons, I had to take Mandarin classes from Primary 1 (age 6/7) to AO levels (age 17/18). More than ten years! Yet I have never felt comfortable speaking Mandarin. Probably because my parents don’t really speak it either. They grew up speaking their own Chinese dialects of Hokkien (Fujian) or Teochew (Chaozhou) and English. My mum actually took Malay lessons instead of Mandarin.

I’ve never felt any ties to China although I still have distant relatives there. My late grandfather though was a member of the family’s clan association in Singapore (永春会馆) and the clan association for the Singapore descendants of the village that our ancestors were from (can’t remember the name). This is despite the fact that he was born in Singapore. Whereas for my dad, the only reason he visits China is to play golf!

So to read of Chen’s blind devotion to the country he calls ‘home’ intrigued me. He hadn’t been back in years and had no intention to return, and seemed firmly ensconced in Vietnam, but regularly made donations to various causes in China and felt so strongly about his Chinese heritage. Was it a different generation? A different sense of belonging?

Lam too is Overseas Chinese, by way of Vietnam, and Chen is inspired by his own grandfather who was a headmaster and a gambler.

He said in an interview with Metro News:

“I was born in Canada so I grew up hearing family stories about a place that I’d never been to, which was Vietnam, specifically the Chinese community in Vietnam. So I think those stories had an especially vivid place in both my imagination and my concept of self because they were completely foreign to my experience of growing up in this country.”

“I was also very aware as I was growing up … that not only was I not growing up in that world but that world did not exist any longer.”

But luckily for us, he was able to recreate this world for his readers

As always, I look forward to reading passages that are food-related, and there were such gems:

Each bowl of noodles was crowned by a rose of raw flesh, the thin petals of beef pink and ruffled. Foong Jie put down dishes of bean sprouts, of mint, purple basil leaves on the stem, hot peppers, and halve limes with which to dress the bowls. She arranged an urn of fragrant broth, chilled glasses, the coffee pot that rattled with ice cubes, and a dish of cut papayas and mangos.

On these occasions, Percival made sure that the cooks prepared special Chinese dishes that Laing Jai liked – his favourite was or lua, oyster omelettes, and Percival was gratified that the boy relished such a characteristic Teochow dish. He also looked forward to hung gue dumplings filled with garlic chives, rice, minced pork, and dried shrimp, platters of Peking duck, crab balls, and tofu stuffed with shrimp. For a snack, a big bowl of mee pok noodles with minced pork and braised mushrooms. ( )
  RealLifeReading | Jan 19, 2016 |
In this magnificently ambition tale a politically naïve Percival Chen, the headmaster of a successful English academy in 1960s Saigon believes in the superiority of his Chinese heritage and the value bribes are the keys to his success. After all this has worked with past conquerors, the Japanese, the French and the Americans–no matter how temporary their stay but being oblivious to the newest player for control will challenge Percival beyond his nightmares.

I was captivated by this book from the beginning and held spellbound to the last paragraph by the Lam’s storytelling ability to intertwine the history/connection of Vietnam, China, Hong Kong and the foreigners. This was an audio book for me and the narrator effectively conveyed the tension, arrogance, love, and betrayals.

I believe part of the appeal of this book for me can also be contributed to my recent trip to China and Hong Kong and reading the wonderful book, “Ghost Month” by Ed Lin helping me to appreciate the complexly layered history of this region.

Lam has crafted a gripping masterpiece that captures a street-level view of the complexity of a world where one misstep can lead to an unraveling of all that you hold dear. I recommend this book to readers of historical fiction. ( )
  bookmuse56 | Oct 16, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
The Headmaster's Wager is indeed a colourful, suspenseful depiction of Chinese living in Vietnam during the war, but its patronizing approach to characters ethnically different from the headmaster gradually eroded any care I had for what happens to him.
Total Rating: 40/70 or 57%

This may seem a little harsh, but only if compared to the expectations like those in the puff pieces planted by publicists and obliging writers at the National Post and The Globe and Mail who in their preview suggested it was “nearly a masterpiece.” To the Globe’s credit, their review this weekend was much more balanced. It is a first novel, and it does have some significant strengths, maybe enough to sell the number of books the publisher expects.
In The Headmaster’s Wager, Lam has created a genuine page-turner. The author takes full advantage of the inherent suspense as the fall of Saigon looms and Chen finally realizes that he and his family may not survive the violence of the Viet Cong. The Headmaster’s Wager is a novel full of surprises and excitement.
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Rocks stand stock-still, unawed by time and change. Waters lie rippling, grieved at ebb and flow -- Lady Thanh Quan
For William Lin
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On a winter night shortly after the New Year festivities, Chen Kai sat on the edge of the family kang, the brick bed.
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Book description
From Giller Prize winner, internationally acclaimed, and bestselling author Vincent Lam comes a superbly crafted, highly suspenseful, and deeply affecting novel set against the turmoil of the Vietnam War.

Percival Chen is the headmaster of the most respected English school in Saigon. He is also a bon vivant, a compulsive gambler and an incorrigible womanizer. He is well accustomed to bribing a forever-changing list of government officials in order to maintain the elite status of the Chen Academy. He is fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage, and quick to spot the business opportunities rife in a divided country. He devotedly ignores all news of the fighting that swirls around him, choosing instead to read the faces of his opponents at high-stakes mahjong tables. But when his only son gets in trouble with the Vietnamese authorities, Percival faces the limits of his connections and wealth and is forced to send him away. In the loneliness that follows, Percival finds solace in Jacqueline, a beautiful woman of mixed French and Vietnamese heritage, and Laing Jai, a son born to them on the eve of the Tet offensive. Percival's new-found happiness is precarious, and as the complexities of war encroach further and further into his world, he must confront the tragedy of all he has refused to see.

Blessed with intriguingly flawed characters moving through a richly drawn historical and physical landscape, The Headmaster's Wager is a riveting story of love, betrayal and sacrifice
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Enjoying his position as the headmaster of Saigon's best English school while indulging in a gambling and womanizing lifestyle, Percival Chen becomes aware of the local violence when his son lands in trouble with the authorities.

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