The year is 1905: China is weakened by corruption and conflict. Chai Mingzhi and his family join the thousands of emigrants who make the journey to South-east Asia to start anew. Established as a trader in Malacca, Chai adopts Engi, a boy from a forest tribe, who witnesses Chai’s world collapse around him as he suffers bereavement and betrayal.
The Mouse Deer Kingdom revisits characters from Chiew-Siah Tei’s debut, Little Hut of Leaping Fishes, but it lacks that novel’s lightness of touch, and the themes of cultural dislocation and political unrest are awkwardly handled here. Nevertheless, Tei excels in a series of wonderfully vivid setpieces, including an account of a typhoon that reaches a Conradian pitch of intensity.