Vincent Lam’s The Headmaster’s Wager

In this review of The Headmaster’s Wager, a first novel by Vincent Lam, Vinh Nguyen finds sociohistorical and cultural value in the rare portrayal of a diasporic Chinese character in wartime Vietnam.

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I want to begin my review of Vincent Lam’s new novel – The Headmaster’s Wager – with a recommendation: read it. Read it because it’s interesting. Read it because it offers a different point of view. Read it because, on a narrative level, it is full of melodrama, intrigue, and plot turns.

Don’t read it expecting a masterpiece that, according to John Barber of Canada’s The Globe and Mail, captures the “near-native feel” of the wartime milieu and develops a “fully realized Asian perspective” of the war in Vietnam. Orientalist and essentializing assumptions aside, Barber’s assessment of the novel still seems like a vast inflation to me. I often felt underwhelmed or frustrated with many aspects of the novel – the mediocre plot construction, the weak character development, and flat writing style, among others.

A good friend of mine, who loved the novel, pointed out that, whatever else, the book is important for its focus on a Sino-Vietnamese character, or, a diasporic Chinese character in Vietnam, and how he is ambivalently positioned. And she is absolutely correct. The novel sheds light on a significant minority group of Vietnam that has been historically, and at times simultaneously, both advantaged and marginalized. The history of the Chinese in Vietnam is long and vexed, involving colonial occupation and long-standing social, political, and cultural tensions. In the postwar years, many of these people were forced from the country and constituted a large segment of the Indochinese refugee population. Born and raised in Canada, Lam identifies as being from this “expatriate Chinese community of Vietnam,” and his novel mines family history for both inspiration and raw material.

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The Headmaster’s Wager is Lam’s first novel, and sophomore effort, following the massive critical and commercial success of his debut collection of short stories Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize (2006), Canada’s highest-paying and high profile literary award. In the collection, which revolves around the interconnected lives of a group of young doctors, Percival Chen – the protagonist of the novel – makes his first appearance as an ailing old man living in Brisbane. Sketched out in the story “A Long Migration” is Chen’s journey to Vietnam from Guangdong, his gambling and womanizing ways, and his position as a headmaster in an English language school in Saigon.

Picking up from this initial portrait, the novel expands Percival Chen’s story and fills in the details of his life. Besides two fragments of memory that bookend the narrative, The Headmaster’s Wager is told chronologically in the third person omniscient voice from Chen’s perspective. We begin with Chen’s cocoon in Cho Lon (Saigon’s Chinatown, once a separate city), where he oversees his English academy and builds a metaphorical wall to guard against assimilation. The novel, in a way, attempts to chronicle the breakdown of such a life and perspective. Against the backdrop of war, Chen is unable to maintain his rigid Chinese patriotism as he sees his son get into serious trouble with the authorities, falls in love with a mixed-race Vietnamese woman, and learns more about the political machinations of his enigmatic right-hand man. As much as he tries to keep the war happening around him at bay, it finds its way into his closely drawn circle – he becomes entangled in several keys events of the war, including the Tet Offensive, the self-immolation of Buddhist monks, and the Fall of Saigon.

Lam paints his protagonist as an apolitical businessman, concerned only with turning a profit and maintaining his ethnic and cultural purity. As such, Percival Chen is not a likable character, verging on stereotypes and clichés. Yet, it is this unfavorable characterization that makes for an interesting read. While Chen’s stock-like quality does not invite empathy, what ends up happening to him does provoke thoughts on race, Chinese-Vietnamese relations, and the place of the Sino-Vietnamese in Vietnamese (diasporic) society.

It is unfortunate, however, that Chen is not the only character who seems stereotypical – Lam brings back to life a version of the tired “Miss Saigon” narrative in the book – and thus the novel feels weighed down by the many (dominant) discourses that surround Vietnam and the War. But, as I mentioned earlier, The Headmaster’s Wager deserves a reading, because as a text it asks us to think more deeply about what “Vietnam” and “Vietnamese” means.

Vinh Nguyen is a PhD Candidate in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University. He lives in Toronto, Canada.

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  1. Neat. Sounds like a must-read. Not sure about calling the Hoa a minority group. To be sure, that is how the UN saw them in the repression of the 70s. In English in America it’s a dodgy term, avoiding the classical liberal sense of the ruling minority, the rich, and avoiding the fratricidal struggle of the poor whites and blacks here since the 17th C. It’s a post-1965, post-1975 word, that ducks as much as raises the issue of how most Asian-Americans may engage with cosa nostra, our American thing. That dissent registered, I am off to read the novel. Note that one of the most popular novelists of RVN 1954-1975 and of the diaspora since is a woman who writes in Chinese. I am forgetting her name. And the contemporary author I work most closely with is Ly Lan, daughter of a Chinese trader and an ehtnic Vietnamese village girl. The name of her omnibus collection refers to the corner in Cho Lon, call it Chinatown, where he father resides.

    • try his book “bloodletting and miraculous cures.” i liked it a lot and it seems like it could be a more surprising book than “the headmaster’s wager.”

      • HI Viet, I went to the UNC research library and got both books. I was startled at the extent of the PR (Library of Congress) section in our stacks. I usually visit the PS, American, shelves. I handed off both books day before yesterday to a medical research director. She glanced at Bloodletting and then read 30 pages of Headmaster during our nap. When I fell asleep again that evening she was still reading. Last night I went through Bloodletting. Each story engaged me for a few pages then I stopped. This is only taste. I read and taught medical anthropology as the academic practice closest to my approach to Vietnamese literature. The initiation of physicians, the clinical encounter, and the hospital as an institution are classic topics, gorgeously treated, respectively in Howard Becker’s Boys in White, Judith Farquhar’s Chinese Medical Encounter, and Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor. So I wasn’t going to learn much from Vincent. I was wary of being sucked into med porn such as the NYT Magazine and the NYer sell. I put Bloodletting down with the opinion that it is a physician’s book about becoming a literary author, cast in terms of young people become physicians. I appreciated the culturally detailed portrayal of overseas Chinese and the contrasting blank slate of the alter ego Fitz. But I am an editor, my name is Duffy and I’m a SE Asianist, so again I didn’t think I would learn much about those points by reading the whole book carefully. I did learn that Vincent is a perceptive and talented man so I look forward to reading Headmaster when my biomedical professional finishes it. I expect to learn most from Vincent’s perspective as a Canadian. They are space aliens to me, so calm and objective. One of my favorite novelists of any origin, Nguyen Ngoc Ngan, is a voluntary Canadian, although his market is chiefly Californian and his day job is in Paris. Canada is a good place from which to observe and represent.

        • There are different kinds of exoticisms at work. As someone who reads a lot of Asian American fiction, I find books like “Headmaster’s Wager” to be a little tired in their premise (family dramas in Asia as imagined by an Asian North American). But as someone who doesn’t read medically-inspired literature, I found the doctors’ stories more interesting, not to mention different because they are not primarily about being Asian.


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