C. M. Woon's first novel, The Advocate’s Devil, creates a vivid picture of the Singapore of the past, while exploring and also critiquing the genre of the historical novel and particularly the increasing popularity of the postcolonial historical novel. It is an episodic novel that consists of a loosely connected collection of detective stories set in 1930s Singapore. Serving foremost as a backdrop to the comedy of the first person narrator's retrospective telling of his youthful adventures, the depiction of colonial Singapore and the Straits Settlements at once exploits and exposes the recent marketing of the exotica of the past.
Dennis Chiang, the first person narrator, is a young lawyer who is caught up in various mysteries and adventures, in which he conducts himself more or less heroically. It is his retrospective retelling of these events of the past that provide the novel with much of its humour. The genre of the detective story as well as the usual themes of the postcolonial novel - memory, dislocation, identity crises - are treated with a certain extent of self-reflexivity that ties in nicely with the self-ironic style that predominates throughout the novel. The uncertainties of memory, the delights of nostalgia and ironic retrospection, are self-consciously evoked to tell the story of an English-educated Straits-born Chinese who resiliently negotiates his way through the confusions of a rapidly changing society.
The novel opens up with what an aged Dennis Chiang self-ironically terms a “torrent of bittersweet reminiscences” (12) of his Cambridge days and his first love, of "Daffodils along the Backs… Punting along the Cam” (17). The conjuring up of bittersweet memories as a literary cliché is simultaneously used and exposed. The role of overdrawn stereotypes such as Jefferies, "a Colonel Blimp figure," "the very cliché of a colonial planter” (23), similarly serves a twofold purpose, as their comical effect underscores insight into the narrator's changing perception of himself and the communities he encounters in his investigations.
Dennis's attitudes to his past, his upbringing, and his allegiances are significantly and symptomatically contradictory. An orphan adopted into his uncle's family and part of the quintessentially hybrid community of the Straits Chinese, he adopts congenial ideals, traditions, and communities to forge his own identity, but confronted with pompous colonialists on the one hand and an exotic world of more recent Chinese immigrants on the other, his self-confidence falters at times. His early experience of dislocation is briefly evoked: “Uncle determined that I should be brought up as a proper English gentleman. So it was that I as forcibly wrenched from my sun-filled childhood at the age of twelve and packed off to an English boarding school in the dank and dismal Fens” (45). Although Dennis suggests that he "came back to Singapore a stranger in my home and homeland” (46), he also emphasises that “[e]ven back in Singapore, [he] felt entirely at home within my English-speaking milieu” (250). Accused of being “a banana who is yellow on the outside but white on the inside” (228) by a group of Chinese communists, Dennis has to reassess his allegiances. Most memorably, the novel offers an affectionate and insightful portrayal of the Baba or Straits Chinese community in the Singapore of the 1930s.
Woon, C.M. The Advocate’s Devil. Singapore: Times Books International, 2002.
Last Modified 25 September 2002