Singapore – a trading post where different lives jostle and mix. It is 1927 and three young people are starting to question whether this inbetween island can ever truly be their home. Mei Lan comes from a famous Chinese dynasty but yearns to free herself from its stifling traditions; Howard seethes at the indignities heaped on his fellow Eurasians by the colonial British; Raj, fresh off the boat from India, wants only to work hard and become a successful businessman. As the years pass, Singapore falls to the Japanese. While suffering the agonies of occupation, the three are thrown together in unexpected ways, and tested to breaking point.
Beginning in Singapore’s first communist riot in 1927, and set against the years before the colony achieved full independence, the novel follows the lives of three families caught up in tumultuous times. From a traditional Chinese world of female foot binding and submission, Mei Lan seeks to become a modern woman in a male orientated society. Unable to fulfil ambitions to study abroad, Eurasian Howard is filled with anger against his colonial masters who ignore a man’s merit and hold him to his place, limiting hopes of betterment.
During the Japanese occupation Howard is forced to flee into the jungle, living with communist guerrillas. In contrast Raj Sherma’s wheeling and dealing under the Japanese allows him to prosper while his sister, Leila, and her husband, Krishna, become infatuated by the charismatic Subash Chandra Bose and join the Indian National Army. Once the war ends communism spreads its roots throughout South East Asia, and the urge for nationhood grips those countries in the region still under British rule. Howard becomes enmeshed in the violent birthing of politics in a country that has previously known only British Rule. Mei Lan, her life blighted by the effects of imprisonment and torture under the Japanese, become an iconic figure in the struggle for women’s rights.
Later the growing violence of post war Singapore, where history sits on the knife-edge of communism, sweeps up Mei Lan’s young teenage relative, Greta. The explosive era of the 50’s, where workers strike daily and Chinese school children, full of revolutionary ideas, join in vicious communist backed riots, involves everyone.