Finding freedom in British Guiana

A Review of Song by Michelle Jana Chan

 Random Things Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to experience British colonialism from the perspective of a Chinese boy trapped in a racist system. And lots of birds.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 480

Publisher: Unbound

ARC provided by Random Things Tours

British West Indies Colonial Fiction

From the publisher: Song is just a boy when he sets out from Lishui village in China. Brimming with courage and ambition, he leaves behind his impoverished broken family, hoping he’ll make his fortune and return home. Chasing tales of sugarcane, rubber and gold, Song embarks upon a perilous voyage across the oceans to the British colony of Guiana, but once there he discovers riches are not so easy to come by and he is forced into labouring as an indentured plantation worker. 

Michelle Jana Chan has delivered a world that I was not familiar with, British Guiana (Guyana since 1966), a colony where power resided in the planters. The British Empire outlawed the slave trade in 1807, but emancipation didn’t occur until 1838, and the sugar cane planters replaced their slaves with what were nominally indentured servants. They might have well have been slaves, given that they were often transported under deceptive term with the cost of the transportation supposedly to be worked off, but it was a goal that moved ever away as the planters charged the indentured servants’ cost of living to their remaining debt.

Song is a boy who endures the cost of that deception as well as the racism that fuels a system dependent on a powerless labor class. British Guiana used Chinese and then Indian workers after the former enslaved persons of African descent wanted nothing to do with the plantations.

The character of Song is well realized, as well as the rest of the cast: the despicable Mr. Cameron, the progressive Father Holmes, the hearts-of-gold ladies, the ruffians of Bartica, the friendly Amerinds, and the snobbish “civilized” folk of Georgetown. There are some heart-tearing moments of racism and violence, and the questions of what will you do to be safe and how to combat the status quo are reckoned with.

The pacing is a little uneven. It took me a little while to get into it, then I was completely absorbed in the story until, even though it’s a sad commentary on how my attention works, things got better for Song for a while and there seemed to be little conflict. This oasis for him was sweet and helped build for the next push of crap to be thrown at him, but it was much slower reading. However, I cared enough about Song by that point that I stuck with it.

In addition to the themes of power and privilege, racism and activism, Chan explores some other very interesting ideas in this novel: how much property does one need, what dreams are worthy, how do we deal with repeated losses, and how much does education remediate class differences? She doesn’t necessarily provide answers, but she illuminates portions of the spectrums.

A fascinating study in the book is that comparing Bartica, a rough frontier town, to Georgetown, the heart of colonial government. The overt premise is that the evils of the former are all on the outside, and less in aggregate, than those of the latter, hidden, insidious, and greater. There may not be stabbings on the street or whores every few blocks in Georgetown, but Song is assailed more frequently and pointedly in Georgetown than Bartica. And therein lies what seems to be the implicit story: that racism is more pronounced in “civilized” areas where power congregates and evil is disguised than in a rough place where most are scrabbling to survive.

My biggest complaint is about the ending, which is always a tricky thing to complain about without some spoilers. Let me simply say that it felt like it trailed off rather than ended, which is often a choice on the part of the author, but part of what I enjoy about fiction (as opposed to real life) is the possibility of closure, of a sense of completion. I’ve heard some critics talk about the need to meet the expectations that have been set, but those expectations are set by Western storytelling conventions, so I’m not saying this is wrong or bad, just that it’s a type of ending I don’t care for.

However, it’s largely a compelling read and an intriguing slice of life in a part of world history that many Americans have probably never heard of, and I appreciate the guided tour.


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