26 June 2013: The Dulang Washer

An expansive work of essential historical fiction, thoughtfully and painstakingly composed.Susan Abraham

dulang washerA deluge of novels featuring strong Western heroines often give the impression that fortitude and courage are exclusive traits of the likes of Scarlett O’Hara and Rose Sayer. Thus it is very interesting to see how author Paul Callan juxtaposes stereotype with diversity in his novel The Dulang Washer. The protagonist of this well paced roman à clef is a Hakka-conversant Malay woman called Aisha who works in a tin mine while supporting two families—her deceased fiancé’s and her own. The plot hinges on a huge secret Aisha harbours that is not revealed until the book reaches its conclusion. Next in the cast of colourful characters is Hun Yee, an ambitious young Hakka Chinese miner and ex-opium addict who turns over a new leaf to win over Aisha’s approval. Fook Sin is Aisha’s employer and the archetypical villain, supplying drugs and prostitutes to the miners to keep them enslaved. And lastly there’s Donald Redfern, the doomed English overseer at the mine who takes language lessons from Aisha, whose small gestures of compassion towards him fuels his desires for her.

dulang-2With its racing melodrama and larger-than-life characters, The Dulang Washer presents readers wih an intriguing tale indeed. And yet even in spite of its grandeur, the story remains perfectly believable from beginning to end. The author conducted quite a lot of research in Perak and at the National Library in Kuala Lumpur to gather information about the local culture and some history of the immigrants before embarking on his book. And in this debut novel, his efforts certainly show.

If you like this book, you may also want to read Tin Mining in Malaysia: The Osborne & Chappell Story and Kinta Valley: Pioneering Malaysia’s Modern Development.