Friday, November 19, 2010

Tai-Pan by James Clavell

Rating: 4 Stars 

The time period of James Clavell’s fascinating ‘Tai-Pan’ is the middle of the nineteenth century, during Britain’s glory days when her champions swaggered across the globe extending the reach of the British Empire by brain and by brawn. Part edge-of-your seat action adventure, the book is also a delight to those who are still interested in the history of colonialism. China’s belligerent foreign policy today can be traced back to the spanking humiliation that this ancient culture endured at the hands of the West for close to a century.

Ah, Britain and China – one arrogantly flaunting it’s military might while flexing its economic muscle at the same time, the other fiercely insular and undaunted in its sense of superiority. One challenged in matters of hygiene, the other in matters of human rights. How will these two great nations ever see eye-to-eye, with each looking down its nose at the other?

While the book more than adequately lays the historical groundwork for the plot with its detailing of the acquisition of Hong Kong, the story in general is about the British China Traders, the ruthless merchant-pirates who ply the oceans monopolizing the exchange of opium, tea, silk and bullion between East and West. Using Bengal-grown opium as leverage against China, the traders build their empires while corrupting the soul of a nation. In an environment where foreknowledge equals money, staying ahead of the game means staying three steps ahead of everyone else. That would be Dirk Struan.

Struan is the larger than life force behind Hong Kong, the proprietor of The Noble House, and the most powerful of the China Traders. He is a man who can be defined only in contradictions, a British Imperialist and a global visionary, one who would exalt China even as he ravages her for monetary gain. He is a devious manipulator who bends friend and foe alike to his Machiavellian will. He’s not a nice man, but one who lives by his own inscrutable code of honor, harsh yet humane at the same time.

Struan’s implacable enemy is Tyler Brock, his business rival with whom he is on first name terms.  Even as each seeks to annihilate the other, they will nevertheless stand shoulder to shoulder defending their mutual interests, and fighting off their common threats. This is a man’s milieu, each one jostling to be the alpha male - the Tai-Pan. But never fear, there are also some wily yet vulnerable women in this book. Chief among them is May May, Dirk Struan’s devious yet endearingly childlike mistress of indomitable spirit.

‘Tai-Pan’ is an adrenaline-laced thrill ride. Its odd blend of Scottish brogue and Pidgin English may be a little distracting, but its triumphs more than make up for its minor shortcomings. It’s an entertainer fueled by intelligence. That is a potent and irresistible combination.

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