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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  • First Published:
    Aug 2012, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2013, 448 pages

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Muy Fa, who always complained that her husband indulged their son, made a soft noise with her tongue.

“Don’t worry, dear wife. I will find so much money in Indochina that we will pile coal into the kang all night long,” boasted Chen Kai. “And we will throw out the burned rice in the bottom of that pot.”

“You will come back soon?” asked Chen Pie Sou, his eyes closed now.

Chen Kai squeezed his son’s shoulder. “Sometimes, you may think I am far away. Not so. Whenever you sleep, I am with you in your dreams.”

“But when will you return?”

“As soon as I have collected enough gold.”

“How much?”

“Enough . . . at the first moment I have enough to provide for you, and your mother, I will be on my way home.”

The boy seized his father’s hand in both of his. “Ba, I’m scared.”

“Of what?” “That you won’t come back.”

“Shh . . . there is nothing to worry about. Your ancestor went to the Gold Mountain, and this lump around your neck proves that he came back. As soon as I have enough to provide for you, I will be back.”

As if startled, the boy opened his eyes wide and struggled with the nugget, anxious to get it off . “Father, take this with you. If you already have this gold, it will not take you as long to collect what you need.”

“Gwai jai,” said Chen Kai, and he calmed the boy’s hands with his own. “I will find so much that such a little bit would not delay me.”

“You will sit with me?”

“Until you are asleep. As I promised.” Chen Kai stroked his son’s head. “Th en you will see me in your dreams.”

Chen Pie Sou tried to keep his eyelids from falling shut. They became heavy, and the kang was especially warm that night. When he woke into the cold, bright morning, his breath was like the clouds of a speeding train, wispy white— vanishing. His mother was making the breakfast porridge, her face tear- stained. His father was gone.

Th e boy yelled, “Ma! It’s my fault!”

She jumped. “What is it?” “I’m sorry,” sobbed Chen Pie Sou. “I meant to stay awake. If I had, ba would still be here.”


1966, cholon, Vietnam

It was a new morning toward the end of the dry season, early enough that the fleeting shade still graced the third- floor balcony of the Percival Chen English Academy. Chen Pie Sou, who was known to most as Headmaster Percival Chen, and his son, Dai Jai, sat at the small wicker breakfast table, looking out at La Place de la Libération. The market girls’ bright silk ao dais glistened. First light had begun to sweep across their bundles of cut vegetables for sale, the noodle sellers’ carts, the flame trees that shaded the sidewalks, and the flower sellers’ arrangements of blooms. Percival had just told Dai Jai that he wished to discuss a concerning matter, and now, as the morning drew itself out a little further, was allowing his son some time to anticipate what this might be.

Looking at his son was like examining himself at that age. At sixteen, Dai Jai had a man’s height, and, Percival assumed, certain desires. A boy’s impatience for their satisfaction was to be expected. Like Percival, Dai Jai had probing eyes, and full lips. Percival often thought it might be his lips which gave him such strong appetites, and wondered if it was the same for his son. Between Dai Jai’s eyebrows, and traced from his nose around the corners of his mouth, the beginnings of creases sometimes appeared. These so faint that no one but his father might notice, or recognize as the earliest outline of what would one day become a useful mask. Controlled, these lines would be a mask to show unspoken decision, or signifying nothing except to leave them guessing. Such creases were long since worn into the fabric of Percival’s face, but on Dai Jai they could still vanish— to show the smooth skin of a boy’s surprise. Now, they were slightly inflected, revealed Dai Jai’s worry over what his father might want to discuss, and concealed nothing from Percival. That was as it should be. Already, Percival regretted that he needed to reprimand his son, but in such a situation, it was the duty of a good father.

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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