Under The Pong Pong Tree begins in 1941 with the Japanese invasion of Malaysia and the taking of Singapore. Early in the storyline we are introduced to Captain Hodo a vicious member of the Japanese army who beheads Mr Tan and takes over his estate which produces rubber. Colonel Kosaka a member of the Japanese secret police is left in charge of the estate.
In Singapore the Japanese send families to their death or Changi Prison. But pretty young women are sent to serve in “Comfort Houses” as prostitutes. Li Lian is just sixteen and is forced to live in one of these “Comfort Houses”. Later a pregnant Li Lian is smuggled away, she leaves her baby in the care of Malays and joins the Red Army resistance.
When the war ends many of the resistance turn to fight the British oppressors and they become the Malayan Communist Party, but Li Lian doesn’t wish to be part of this. She takes over ownership of Mr Tan’s rubber plantation and with it his alternative source of income. They make and sell heroine. When the price of rubber falls they also turn to producing Palm oil.
When the Americans are fighting in Vietnam, they come to Singapore for R&R. There is much talk about the ease with which the soldiers can get drugs and how they are turning into addicts. Mike Cagle is given the job of finding and cutting some of the drug supply lines. His investigations lead him to Maimunah and her mother Li Lian.
The events of the war, occupation, drug running and the Vietnam drug problems were all interesting, however the style of writing often read like a newspaper report or an encyclopaedia entry. It was full of facts often told through lengthy dialogue, but there was very little depth to the writing. The many characters were just names and difficult to imagine or differentiate by their mannerisms or dialogue. I wanted more emotion, more time spent on the important points. I was actually desperate for descriptive passages which took me into the sweltering mosquito ridden jungle, I needed to feel the desperation of the drug addict and I needed to get inside the minds of the main characters. At the moment the reader is just on the outside looking through the window of a fast moving train, catching glimpses but not being able to participate in what they are reading.
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