The Chinese headmaster of an English language academy tries to keep body, soul and school together in Saigon during the Vietnam War.
Chen Pie Sou, also known as Percival, is supremely aware of being an outsider. His father had moved to Vietnam in the 1930s to start a new life in the rice trade, and when that dried up during the Japanese occupation, his son eventually decided to go in a new direction. Although Percival’s marriage to his socially superior wife, Cecilia, began in derision and ended in failure, he had a son, Dai Jai, that he doted on. The novel opens with Dai Jai as a young man, flouting the recent edict that forces the teaching of Vietnamese at the school. Percival has always taught his son to assert himself, but his Chinese identity turns out to be dangerous in Saigon in the 1960s, so Percival smuggles Dai Jai out of the country and back to China. Percival also feels his son might be getting too close to Vietnamese girls, and he wants to ensure that his son chooses a Chinese wife. With Dai Jai gone, Percival takes up with an extremely attractive student, Jacqueline, who’s half-French and half-Vietnamese. They begin a fiery affair that culminates in her pregnancy. She gives birth a month before her time, precisely at the explosion of the Tet Offensive in 1968, when Percival is on a Viet Cong list of those to be assassinated as a collaborator with the Americans, and while he escapes this time, further revelations are in store—that Bak, his faithful friend and employee since the Japanese occupation, is actually in league with the Viet Cong, has been spying on Percival, and has encouraged graduates of the school to work with the Viet Cong to intercept and translate American military orders.
Lam writes tellingly about intrigue, political collusion and the clash of cultures.