On Researching The Dulang Washer
AN EPIC TALE OF LOVE, VALOUR AND SECRETS
BY PAUL CALLAN AND PUBLISHED BY MPH PUBLISHING
PAUL CALLAN talks to ERIC FORBES about the kind of research he undertook while writing his début novel, The Dulang Washer
“AS THE STORY REVEALS, Batu Gajah was the staging post for newly arrived Chinese immigrants in Perak’s Kinta Valley, while the principal mining town of the time was Gopeng. Miners were paid every six months in arrear and it is a fact that as payday approached, mine owners did indeed reduce the cost of opium and time spent with the whores in order to encourage spending, resulting in miners being left with little or no money, necessitating them having to sign on for further periods of employment. Thus the miners became economic slaves to the mines.
“It is a little known fact (not referred to in the novel) that over a period of nearly a hundred years, a great many Chinese men died in the mines. Death was caused by the harsh conditions and one of the curses of the mines was beriberi (meaning ‘I can’t, I can’t’, usually muttered in response to a miner’s inability to swallow food when struck down by the disease), brought on by the lack of a proper diet, as well as other dreadful diseases, most notably malaria. I researched the cause and effect of both diseases, as well as dengue fever, before I wrote about them.
“Taxes on opium, a drug miners were encouraged to indulge in, and which repressed the appetite and caused much addiction, was the second highest earner of revenue (after tin) in Perak for the government of the day—the British. (It would be fair to say that, historically, the British have a lot to answer for when it comes to drug addiction worldwide!) It should not be forgotten that Hong Kong was ceded to the British after they fought two wars with China to force the importation of opium there. As with the diseases, I also researched the impact of opium addiction and actually met an opium addict in Kuala Lumpur. I spent several hours with him learning all I could to help me write on the topic.
“It is true, as the story reveals, that Hakka women were the one race of Chinese who never bound their feet for reasons explained in the story—the women had to tend the fields while their men were defending their villages, or were off in distant lands working to provide for their families. In the period in which the story is set, and for centuries before, Hakka men were taught pugilism and self-defence, largely because of their need to defend their villages. According to my research, no Hakka man would allow a Hakka woman to work in the whorehouses; they would not abuse their women in such fashion. In the story I refer to, a Hakka folk song about the tree and the vine and such a folk song does exist. The customs described at the funeral of Siew Lan are all based on research. Hakka men greet callers on their knees and the pak kim (candle money) that enabled Hun Yee to open his own mine is but another of the customs. Interestingly, among prominent Hakka are the late Deng Xiaoping, the reformer who led China towards a market economy, and Singapore’s very own Lee Kuan Yew.
“It is a fact that Malays, usually farmers, augmented their income by working in the mines and it is from an elderly Malay gentleman, sadly now passed away, that I learnt about mixing serai wangi (citronella) and coconut oil to fend off mosquitoes. The storyline about the meal Aisha cooked for the washerwomen—wild chicken cooked in spicy coconut gravy—came from the same source. The old gentleman gave me the recipe.
“As the story shows, Tamils played their part in the development of the tin industry by operating the transport system. It is noteworthy that the Tamil language does not use ‘foul’ words, succumbing instead to such derisory terms as ‘smelly donkey’!
“Papan town, also referred to in the story, still exists today, and although now badly dilapidated, it does retain the very wide street I wrote about. Batu Gajah does have a church called St. Joseph’s, but I took poetic licence by claiming it was being built at the time Hun Yee visited the town. Different schools of thought place its construction somewhere around the 1880s.
“In the epilogue, I wrote that the skull is the last of the bones cleansed by the monk and this and the custom of burying the bones of the dead seven years after death at the ancestral burying place is all based on research.
“Interestingly, in a small museum in Ipoh there can be found today a replica of a tin mine; it is about the size of a small room. Approaching Ipoh from the north, if one takes the first exit off the highway and drive towards St. Michael’s Institution, on the left-hand side, just before the police station, is the museum. That replica mine—along with a vast amount of written material on tin mining in the 18th and 19th centuries—was the inspiration for the fictional mine I created for the novel.”