Excerpt from The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Headmaster's Wager

A Novel

By Vincent Lam

The Headmaster's Wager
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  • Hardcover: Aug 2012,
    416 pages.
    Paperback: May 2013,
    448 pages.

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“Brothers,” said Percival, “this is my friend who advises me on all school business.” He continued to face the officers as he said, “Teacher Mak, I suspect this came to me in error, as it applies to schools, but we are a language institute.”

Mak quickly finished reading the papers.

“Headmaster,” said Mak in Vietnamese, “why not let these brothers be on their way?” He looked at Percival. He murmured in Teochow, “Sign. It is the only thing to do.”

Surprised, Percival took the receipt and the pen. Did Mak have nothing else to say? Mak nodded. Percival did as his friend advised, then put the paper on the table and flourished a smug grin at the quiet police, as if he had won. The younger one grabbed the receipt, the older one took a handful of fruit, and they left.

Percival was quiet for a few moments, and then snapped, “Dai Jai, where are your manners?” He tipped his head toward Mak.

“Good morning, honorable Teacher Mak,” Dai Jai said. He did not have his father’s natural way of hiding his displeasure.

Mak nodded in reply.

Dai Jai stood. “Please, teacher, sit.”

Mak took the seat, giving no indication he had noticed Dai Jai’s truculence.

“I had to take Vietnamese citizenship a few years ago, for the sake of my school license. Now, I am told to teach Vietnamese,” said Percival. “What will these Annamese want next? Will they force me to eat nuoc nam?

Hou jeung, things are touchy in Saigon,” said Mak. “There have been more arrests and assassinations than usual. Prime Minister Ky and the American one, Johnson, have announced that they want South Vietnam to be pacified.” He snorted, “They went on a holiday together in Hawaii, like sweethearts, and issued a memo in Honolulu.”

“So everyone is clamping down.”

“On whatever they can find. Showing patriotism, vigor.”

“Hoping to avoid being squeezed themselves.”

“Don’t worry. We will hire a Vietnamese teacher, and satisfy the authorities,” said Mak. “I can teach a few classes.” Though he was of Teochow Chinese descent, Mak was born in central Vietnam and spoke the language fluently. Percival only spoke well enough to direct household servants and restaurant waiters, to dissemble with Saigon officials, and to bed local prostitutes.

“Vietnamese is easy,” said Dai Jai.

“Did anyone ask you?” Percival turned to his son. “You are Chinese, remember? For fifteen hundred years, this was a Chinese province. The Imperial Palace in Hue is a shoddy imitation of the Summer Palace in Beijing. Until the French came, they wrote in Chinese characters.”

“I know, ba, I know.” Dai Jai recited, “Before being conquered by the Han, this was a land of illiterates in mud huts. Without the culture of China, the Vietnamese are nothing but barbarians.”

“That is very old history,” said Mak, glancing around at the other buildings within earshot. “Anyhow, let’s talk about this inside, where it’s cooler.” The sun was already high, and the balcony radiated white heat.

“I will say what I want in my own home. Look, this school is called the Percival Chen English Academy. Students expect to learn English. Why teach Vietnamese here? Why should we Chinese be forced to learn that language?”

From below came the clang of the school bell.

“What are you waiting for?” Percival said. “Don’t you have class? Or are you too busy chasing Annamese skirts?” Dai Jai hurried away, and it was hard for Percival to tell whether the boy’s anger or his relief at being excused caused him to rush down the stairs so quickly.

Excerpted from The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam. Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Lam. Excerpted by permission of Hogarth Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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