Published by Doubleday Canada
Publication date: April 24th 2012
In 1930 Percival Chen’s father left him and his mother in mainland China to go to Vietnam and seek his fortune. He never returned and so, after his mother’s death, Percival left their province to go to school in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the Japanese invasion in 1941 meant that Hong Kong was no longer safe, but it precipitated Percival’s marriage to a young beauty much above his station, so she could escape with him. They land in Saigon and journey to his father’s home and factory in Cholon, a suburb. The family business is lost to the new government so Percival converts the building to an American language school. In the decades that follow, the school profits greatly by training ever-increasing numbers of Vietnamese students to speak fluent English. In this way, Percival manages to walk the fine line between the Vietnamese and the occupiers, enjoying wealth and the status of being the school’s headmaster.
The Headmaster’s Wager opens with Percival’s 16-year-old son, Dai Jai, being taken away by the “quiet police” for disobeying a new law. Suddenly, Percival’s stable world is rocked. He turns to his longtime friend and compatriot, Mak, who has managed school affairs and much of Percival’s life since they met in the early days of the Japanese occupation of Vietnam. Percival knows little to nothing about Mak’s personal life but depends on him almost completely to handle his affairs. With Mak’s help, Percival and his now ex-wife, amass enough money to bribe Dai Jai’s captors into releasing him. He is returned, battered but still alive. Life seems to return to normal until orders come for Dai Jai’s induction into the South Vietnamese army. This is unacceptable to either of his parents so, once again, using his connections, bribes, and cash, Percival has his son sent back to Hong Kong, to the motherland, where he believes he will be safe.
Author Vincent Lam immerses the reader in the surreal world of 1950-1970s Vietnam when the indigenous population was regularly being invaded but told they were being “liberated”. Life in the Cholon section of Saigon is a twisted pleasure palace where one can procure champagne, escorts, food of any kind, but can also be whisked away in the night never to be heard from again. Percival revels in this world, beneficent in his wealth and good luck, seemingly removed from the very real dangers of the time. He spends his time gambling and with escorts, partaking of all of the excesses Cholon has to offer. During the Tet Offensive in 1968 he refuses to believe the North Vietnamese are attacking and tells his dinner guest that the bombs are merely fireworks, thus endangering himself and everyone around him.
In addition to all of this, Percival has added complication upon complication to his personal life. He moves within his world as if he is master of it but one has to wonder if he is a player or if he is being played. As his personal situation and the political situation around him deteriorate he remains willfully unaware, believing his Chinese citizenship makes him immune to any adversity. Bribes and corruption are his only solution to every problem. Playing the political events of the time off against the nature of an arrogant and foolhardy man, Lam creates a subtle drip of tension much like the water torture described in the book. Right up until the very end, the reader will be guessing as to the lessons left to be learned and how the tiles will fall in Percival’s last game of chance.