At age fifteen, Vincent Lam knew that he wanted to be a writer. And the first book he wanted to write was one inspired by his grandfather, William Lin, a headmaster of an English school in Cholon who “had a taste for gambling, women, the finer things of life.”
Lam started writing The Headmaster’s Wager over a decade ago, but put it aside to finish medical school and complete his award-winning short story collection, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures.
In a recent interview, Lam claims that The Headmaster’s Wager took ten years of toil. More than 1,000 pages were tossed as he experimented with different points of view: four different narrators, third person, first person and back to third person. He commented, “It would be awfully nice to be more efficient, but I haven’t figured out away to do it yet.
The novel opens in 1966, just as the Vietnam War is escalating. Chen Pie Sou, also known as Percival, is the headmaster of an English academy in Cholon. Determined to play all sides, this Chinese expat businessman negotiates relationships with the Vichy French, Japanese, South Vietnamese, Americans and North Vietnamese forces. Throughout the novel he reiterates the simple Chinese business strategy of remaining indifferent to politics.
When his son, Dai Jai, broadcasts his Chinese patriotism, Percival realizes he cannot keep his son safe in Viet Nam. Using all his connections, he sends Dai Jai to China at the height of the Cultural Revolution. To console himself, Percival turns to gambling and enters a relationship with Jacqueline, a mixed-race Vietnamese-French prostitute. On the eve of the Tet Offensive, Jacqueline bears Pericival a son.
As the fighting in Viet Nam intensifies, Percival tries to protect both sons, but quickly discovers that the rules have changed. He must now risk more than his fortune; he must risk his very life to save his own flesh and blood.