In spite of a long and varied history, to say nothing of being a city of seven-million, Hong Kong has relatively few children's books set there; even fewer deal with the dark days of the Second World War or feature the local, as opposed to expat, population. The multicultural storybook Three Years and Eight Months can't fill this gap on its own, but it helps. Written by award-winning Chinese-American author Icy Smith, her heart-warming story is loosely based on the true life experiences of her father and an uncle between 1942 to 1945.
The main character is a ten-year old Eurasian boy called Choi who, at the beginning of the story, hears loud sirens and sees smoke "in the distance." Then, after his mother is dragged away by Japanese soldiers, he has to hide away with an uncle. The situation improves when Choi meets another Chinese-American boy and they are befriended by a Japanese soldier called Watanabe-san who teaches them Japanese and finds them chores working as slave boys in a military station. While delivering a package, Choi discovers that his mother is working as a washerwoman nearby. Then, after reuniting with his uncle who "sees many dying and injured people every day", the boys start pilfering medical supplies from the military station. They eventually discover that they indirectly helped save "hundreds of lives" because Choi's uncle was working for an underground anti-Japanese resistance group called the East River Column.
The only remotely similar books that come to mind are Martin Booth's novel Music on the Bamboo Radio, in which an eleven-year old English boy disguises himself as a Chinese youngster and helps the Communist faction of the East River Column blow up Japanese infrastructure and, somewhat farther afield, J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun, in which an English boy finds himself in a camp in Shanghai; both have found their way on to school curricula.
Whereas both Booth's and Ballard's books are novelistic in scope and style, Three Years and Eight Months is written more for educational purpose. For example, it includes detailed historical notes and original photographs at the back of the book. Covering four years of personal history in first person present tense gives rise to occasional technical problems in the narrative, and Smith's style is somewhat factual and telling, but Kindert's copious illustrations will surely draw young readers into the story. Her dramatic watercolors highlight interesting local details, from trams and local buildings, local artefacts to Chinese cuisine. Japanese details abound to—-a portrait of Hirohito, uniforms, flags, aircraft, warships, currency.
The explicit details of abuse and cruelty are delicately avoided in the story. For example, we learn that the Chinese women who felt shame for "socializing" with Japanese soldiers became Buddhist nuns. Similarly, Watanabe-san is portrayed with empathy—we discover that he knew the boys were stealing, and fearful of his personal safety when returning to Japan. These soft touches, plus the positive themes of friendship, bravery and sacrifice are well-suited for a Middle Grade audience.
This was published in the "Asian Review of Books" in June 2014.
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