On her last day, Dr. Han Thieu, a Vietnamese doctor in Montreal, reminisces about her life, her husband, daughters, adopted son Quan, and friend Mathieu Hibou. In an act of love, she has decided to spare them her descent into unbearable pain and eventual death. Each of her remaining moments is like the rustling of papaya leaves—a sound only audible to those who choose to listen. Each memory brings sorrow and joy. For in life, love is but the counterface of suffering. Then with her last gasp, the story begins. The dark pain of post-war Vietnam and Cambodia blends into the youthful resilience of Malaysia and Thailand, the discovery of Canada and then new tragedies in Africa and the Middle East. Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls is a story teller’s tale. With every page you turn, let the ink lament a land lost, the paper sigh for past love and the letters paint desire for life renewed.
About the author
Con Cú is a Canadian author, born in Vancouver, who now lives in Aylmer, Quebec, outside of Ottawa. A veteran traveller, he attempts to marry his rich experience living abroad with the excitement of Canada's new and open society. Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls is his first novel. Con Cú is also the founder of Deux Voiliers Publishing, a thriving micropress dedicated to bringing down the barriers to publishing and bringing the best of new Canadian novelists to readers everywhere.
Excerpt: Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls (by (author) Con Cú)
Chapter Thirteen Pulau Bidong
Quan and Hue watched the Thieus from a distance. The family moved with such grace compared to the other refugees. Voang bore a tremendous resemblance to their father while Han’s affection toward her children reminded them of their own mother’s soft ways.
Quan and his sister had settled in the Chinese quarter of the camp when they had first arrived two weeks earlier. Although they spoke functional Cantonese, the Hoa Chinese from Vietnam would mock their Hokkien pronunciation. Some Hoa harboured deep resentment toward the Vietnamese who had forced them to sell their entire belongings and flee a country where their ancestors had lived for hundreds of years. The fact that Quan and Hue spoke to each other in Vietnamese provoked strong reactions from some of the early arrivals, who had been humiliated and tortured in the first days of the government’s campaign to encourage the Chinese to leave Vietnam. The children’s increasing discomfort incited them to look for shelter elsewhere in the camp.
The Thieu family had chosen to build a new hut in the smaller Vietnamese part of the camp. When Quan saw Voang Thieu struggle with his mangled hand to maneuver the bamboo into place, the young boy marched up and offered to help in exchange for a third of the space in the new hut. Voang was impressed by the confident air of the eleven-year-old, and even more impressed by Quan’s strength. In no time, they had a basic structure in place. Hue took Han around the camp and the neighbouring forest, showing her where edible roots could be found. The plants were similar to those along the Thai border in Cambodia, which Hue had learned to harvest. For the city-dwelling doctor from Saigon, Hue’s knowledge was invaluable in bringing vital nutrients to her family’s diet of boiled rice.
An, now eight, became endeared to Hue who took care of her as her own mother sought to administer simple medical care to many of the malnourished camp residents. With Hue’s help, Han slowly developed from the jungle roots a nutritional supplement for the most serious cases. With the small payments from those refugees who still had some money, jewelery or gold, she sent Voang to buy from the camp guards soap to disinfect the lesions brought on by severe malnourishment.
Minh Chau remained distant from Hue, who was just another stranger, another boat person, perhaps another person who would put a razor to An’s throat. As night fell, her tiny body convulsed over recurrent memories of the boat trip. Cong’s body sinking below the water sickened her with guilt. Her tears would not stop, even as her mother rocked her softy in her arms for hours on end. After nocturnal marathons of trembling, the young girl would succumb to exhaustion in the early hours of the morning.
When dawn broke, Minh Chau would suddenly awake in a state of euphoria. For the rest of the day, she would dance around the camp in the warm Malaysian sun, singing the sweet songs of liberation that Huynh had taught her in prison or hum the gentle melodies of the Vietnamese singer Khanh Ly that Aunt Lan had sung to her as they worked in the household vegetable patch. But Minh Chau replied only laconically whenever her family spoke to her. While her eyes still seemed to sparkle like wedge-like pieces of jade exquisitely placed in dark brown mosaics, a closer look revealed the emptiness of her soul.
Whenever Han or Hue turned their backs, Minh Chau would wander off. Once, they found her tossing small stones onto the roof of the Malaysian guards’ hut. The guards laughed it off that time. Luckily, one of the guards, Dahan, who was a notorious drunk, was not there. Of all the guards, he was the only one who truly hated the refugees. He had come from a small farming village in central Malaysia. When he was a child, his family had been driven off their farm by a rich Chinese merchant who had acquired the farm and all the surrounding farms through a corrupt Malay intermediary. The merchant did not even live in Malaysia, but had moved to Bangkok in the early years of independence. Dahan’s earliest memories were of the Chinese merchant’s henchmen torching the family hut, as his mother knelt crying before it, and his father bowed his head in the shame of his impotency.
Han had heard from others that Dahan had attacked several of the young women in the camp. More disturbing was the rumour that he had been caught fondling a seven-year-old girl. Han spoke at length to Minh Chau and An about the dangers of going too near to the guards and the need to particularly avoid Dahan. An listened carefully to her mother, but Minh Chau remained in her separate universe, and only giggled as her mother spoke to her.
Finally, An came up with a scheme to keep Minh Chau under control. She whispered in Minh Chau’s ear that Quan knew where to find unlimited supplies of the hard candy that Huynh used to bring to Chi Boa Prison. Suddenly, to Quan’s discomfort, little Minh Chau began to follow him everywhere. Sometimes she walked behind him like a soldier marching off to war. Other times, she would dodge from hiding place to hiding place, keeping always only ten feet away.
Quan felt very protective toward both the Thieu daughters, and had come to love their parents, who took the time to teach him to write in Vietnamese and gave him some lessons in rudimentary English so that he could communicate with the Malay guards. Voang Thieu had even taken him aside one day and spoke to him of the importance of the girls’ honour. He then said, “I will give you a secret name. For now on, I shall call you Bao for Bao Ve Phu Nu – the protector of women. You won’t let me down, will you.”
“No, Dr. Thieu, never!”
However, Minh Chau’s constant shadowing of his every move began to wear on his nerves. When he scolded Minh Chau, she collapsed into uncontrollable tears and convulsions. Quan went into a panic. What had he done? He approached Minh Chau and put his arm around her tiny shoulders to comfort her. It was at that precise moment that an intoxicated Dahan stumbled by. “What do you have there, boy? Let me see! Ah, a pretty little thing.”
Dahan effortlessly pushed Quan into the dust, grabbed Minh Chau’s arm and dragged her off toward his hut. Quan tackled Dahan, but the guard, even in his drunkenness, had the strength of a water buffalo. He again threw Quan against the wall of a bamboo hut. Quan got up and took out a slingshot from his back pocket. No other guards were in sight. He fit a large stone in the band of the slingshot and aimed it at the back of Dahan’s head. When Minh Chau screamed in pain as Dahan tightened his grip on her, Quan released the shot. The stone seared Dahan’s shaven head. It was just enough to distract the guard, who released Minh Chau’s arm long enough for Quan to run up, scoop Minh Chau in his arms and head off to the forest. Dazed, Dahan just shook his head and then sat on the ground and pulled out a small bottle of rice wine from his jacket.
When the community learned of Dahan’s latest rape attempt, an emergency meeting was held. It was decided to write a petition to the new UN-appointed camp administrator. After a short investigation and a considerable bribe in gold from a rich refugee who had three young daughters, the new administrator had Dahan transferred. That evening, men and women lined up to shake Quan’s hand, and Minh Chau sang out, “Quan is my friend, my very big friend.” Then she ran to him and hugged him, singing, “my big, big, big soldier.”
After that, the guards paid Quan special respect. Other parents urged their daughters to play with the Thieu girls just to come under Quan’s protection. Ironically, one eleven-year-old boy had brought more security to the camp than the collective efforts of the one thousand adult men in it.
After Dahan’s dismissal, things improved in the camp in many ways. The UNHCR representatives began to visit the camp more frequently. The locally recruited Malay guards were gradually replaced by regular Malaysian policemen who were stationed just outside the camp and entered the camp only when the local camp committee called on them to do so. The Chinese and Vietnamese inhabitants soon reconciled their differences and started joint night patrols to improve security.
The biggest improvement for Minh Chau, An and Quan was the newly opened school. A young Malay teacher, Abdul Hakim, was sent to teach the children English. He was a jovial type who came to love his young charges. Minh Chau was a particularly bright student, and her first quest was to learn how to say in English and Malay, “Where does Quan hide his candy?” An had told her that Quan did not want to share his candy because it made him strong. Minh Chau was determined to find Quan’s hoard to become just as strong as he was. Abdul Hakim, learning of An’s prank on Minh Chau, decided to join in.
One day, he brought a big bag of hard candy to the classroom. Distracting Quan for a moment, he slipped a handful into Quan’s jacket pocket. He then went off to Minh Chau, who whispered in his ear in English as she did every day, “Where does Quan hide his candy?” Abdul Hakim answered, “If you can also ask me in Malay, I will tell you.” She quickly translated her question into flawless Malay, and Abdul Hakim answered, “Check the left pocket of his jacket.” “No, I already did.” “Check again.” Minh Chau then sneaked over to Quan, who was engrossed in the new Dick and Jane book that Abdul Hakim had given him, put her hand into the jacket pocket and whipped out a handful of candy. “I found it! I found it! Now I will be as strong as Quan!” She then threw candy right and left to other students. Quan looked at her bewildered. Where did she get the candy? Abdul Hakim bowed over in laughter, and the entire classroom became bedlam, as some students jumped up to catch the treasure and others surrounded Quan to beg for more candy.
The next day, Abdul Hakim had twelve new girl students in the class, all of whom tried to sit as near to Quan as they could. Minh Chau made sure that she snuggled even closer to Quan, and stared down her rivals. As often as he could, Abdul Hakim would sneak more candy into Quan’s pocket when the boy was not looking, and it did not take long before Minh Chau or another girl managed to pickpocket it. Whoever got the candy first, shared it freely with the rest. Quan, who was by nature superstitious, started to believe that a Malay jinn had taken hold of his jacket. How else could this constant supply of candy be explained? Minh Chau and the other students were convinced that Quan had smuggled into the camp a huge store of candy, and after school, not only did Minh Chau stalk Quan, but so did three or four other girls. Only An and Abdul Hakim knew the real story.
While Quan became very popular both with adults for his stand against Dahan and with younger girls attracted not only by his seemingly inexhaustible supply of candy but also by his good looks, he remained a deeply disturbed child. At night, as he slept beside Hue, he was haunted by the brutal death of his mother. The Khmer Rouge guards who had raped her to death had escaped from the farm before Quan could take his revenge. In his quest for survival and protection for his sister, he had also frequented some of these same guards for more than two years as he role-played loyalty to their insane and brutal ideology. As his sister Hue grew older in the camp, she again attracted many admirers. Since leaving Cambodia, her life had stabilized. Now sixteen, she began to dream of marriage and starting a family.
Voang Thieu’s words rang in his ears, “You will now be called Bao Ve Phu Nu.” Only twelve, Quan was stronger than most of his sister’s suitors. Quan would scrutinize each of them, and frighten off most. Finally, Hue complained to Han Thieu about her brother’s interference. Han took Quan aside, and explained to him that his sister was old enough to make her own choices. Quan nodded obediently at his adopted mother, just as Minh Chau who had been eavesdropping sauntered up.
“I am old enough too. Can I marry Quan?” asked Minh Chau.
Quan blushed immediately, as Han Thieu smiled at her daughter, “If Quan wants to, I agree, but not before we all go to France.”
“Whoopee. Then I can eat all of Quan’s candy!” cried out Minh Chau, as she gave her mother and Quan a little bear hug.
While Dr. Han Thieu had her heart set on resettlement in France where she had cousins, this was not to be. Instead, one day, the Thieu family were invited to meet a Canadian immigration officer. His name was Denis Prud'homme, and he had a flaming red beard. The family put on their best clothes and the children reviewed their French with Han before the interview. Denis was a kind man. He took down all the details and promised to return for a second interview. Did the Thieus know anyone in Canada who perhaps could arrange sponsorship?
“We know no one in Canada,” said Voang.
“Wait! Marie-Christine Labonté is Canadian,” jumped in Han excitedly.
“Did you say Marie-Christine Labonté?” queried Denis Prud'homme.
“Yes, we knew her in Saigon. Why? Do you know her?” asked Han hopefully.
“Marie-Christine is my cousin! She lives in Bangkok now with her husband. I will see what we can do,” explained the immigration agent.
Just at that moment, Minh Chau could not hold back her curiosity anymore and reached to pull hard on Denis’s beard. While her parents suddenly saw their dream of Canada evaporate, Denis only laughed and then plucked a red hair from the beard and said, “Little girl, you can keep this as a souvenir.”
“I got the magic hair! I got the magic hair! I can go to Canada with my magic hair,” chanted Minh Chau, as she ran off to find Quan to show him her good luck charm.
The Thieus profusely offered their apologies for their daughter’s impetuous behaviour, but Denis Prud'homme shook them off. “You have a delightful daughter and I hope that the hair does bring you all good luck. We need families like you in Canada!”
A week later, Denis Prud'homme not only returned as promised, but brought along Marie-Christine. Han bowed before her friend from Saigon, and Marie-Christine reached out to her and said, “Han, I am so sorry. Thomas tried to save you at the embassy. They wouldn’t let him. They forced him to leave without you. He sends his best. He also says that if you want, he can work on getting you to the States instead of Canada.”
Minh Chau stepped forward, “We must go to Canada because I have the magic hair!”
Voang turned to Marie-Christine, “Madame Labonté, you know that I respect your husband and I worked for many years alongside Americans, but I want to return one day to Vietnam. If we go to the States, that will never be possible. Can you help us go to Canada?”
“Of course, that is why I am here. We have found a church in Quebec City to sponsor you.”
“Marie-Christine, there are two children that we must take with us. They have no one else,” said Han.
“Dr. Thieu, that will not be possible. Our resettlement policy only allows for immediate family members,” explained Denis Prud'homme. “I am sorry. I can try to do what I can for these children, but you should not get your hopes up. What are their names?”
“Hue and Quan Phoc,” answered Han quickly. “I can bring them now. Minh Chau, find your brother Quan and sister Hue.” Minh Chau raced through the camp. She knew exactly where to find Quan. It was Saturday morning and every Saturday morning, Quan bartered Chinese medicine with the Malay policemen for cheap novels in English. He had befriended an old Chinese healer, Jing Zi, from Vientiane, Laos, who knew how to transform the roots and bark of the local trees into traditional medicine. Aphrodisiacs were his specialty and especially popular among the Malays. Quan told the guards that the white powder was ground from rhinoceros horns, and tripled the price in doing so. Apparently, the powder had a very helpful effect on the policemen when they visited their wives on the mainland, and demand kept on growing.
Quan was in the midst of an important transaction at the police station. Not only was the Malay sergeant offering a well-used copy of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, but he had thrown in a vintage copy of Batman Meets Catwoman. The Sun Also Rises would be a gift for Abdul Hakim. Quan had finally realized how all the candy had got into his pocket, and wanted to thank his gregarious English teacher.
Hue was also nearby taking orders to sew the policemen’s clothes. Minh Chau saw Hue first. She rushed toward her when suddenly a hand reached out and grabbed her by the neck. It was Dahan, who had returned to pick up some of his belongings. “Little Vietnamese bitch, I will teach you a lesson,” he swore, overwhelming the child with the stench of gin. Minh Chau squirmed helplessly as the huge man lifted her by the throat high into the air. Her face turned blue, as her nails dug into the arms of her attacker. “Bitch, breathe your last breath.” Hue and a Malay policeman ran toward Dahan and Minh Chau. With two powerful strokes of his backhand, he sent both flying through the air, knocking them unconscious.
Still holding Minh Chau with one hand, Dahan staggered toward Hue, who lay helpless on the ground. He ripped off her cotton pants and spread her legs. As he began to unbuckle his belt, he felt Minh Chau’s body go limp and threw her aside, to concentrate on his new victim. Before he could thrust himself into Hue’s delicate body, he felt a sharp blow to the back of his skull. He reached up to touch the top of his head, only to discover that he could feel his brain. He turned around to see Quan holding the police sergeant’s service revolver. A second shot struck Dahan through his left eye. Hue woke just in time to avoid being crushed by the weight of Dahan’s huge body. Quan calmly walked up and put two bullets in the dead man’s scrotum. Within seconds, the children were surrounded by the other policemen. All had come to hate Dahan, but Quan had stolen the sergeant’s gun and committed murder. They took him to the makeshift jail and debated what to do with him.
Hue and the young policeman whom Dahan had knocked out raced with Minh Chau in their arms to Dr. Han Thieu. For ten minutes, Han used every medical artifice that she knew to revive her daughter. Nothing worked. Her guests, Denis Prud'homme and Marie-Christine Labonté, looked on with horror at the frail immobile body of the child who had enchanted both of them. Finally, Jing Zi came to them with a green potion. With Han’s permission, he poured it into Minh Chau’s mouth. Within seconds, the child convulsed violently and her heart began to beat again.
With Minh Chau now breathing, Han asked Hue what had happened. Hue described the attack by Dahan and how Quan had killed the former guard.
“We must tell the police to release Quan,” said Han. “Monsieur Prud'homme, can you help us?” Han stayed with her daughter as Voang, Hue and their visitors marched down to the police station. Denis Prud'homme spent hours trying to cajole the policemen to release Quan. The sergeant whose gun had been stolen was sympathetic, but the killing of a camp guard, even a former one who was known to be a drunk and rapist, was something that could not be swept under the carpet.
For the next three months, Denis Prud'homme worked hard to get the Thieu family accepted into Canada and find a sponsor for Quan and Hue. Each time it seemed that he was close, the sponsors balked when they learned that Quan had killed a man. Hue swore that she would not leave her brother’s side. Ironically, imprisoned in the Malaysian police station, Quan became good friends with all. The fact that Jing Zi kept him well supplied with magic potions to barter was a plus. Regular delegations from the various groups in the camp came to pay Quan homage, some of them leaving with purchases of Chinese medicine or goods that Quan had obtained in barter with the policemen. The small jail became, through Quan’s entrepreneurial spirit, an important distribution centre for the camp.
Back in Kuala Lumpur, Marie-Christine convinced her husband, Thomas Smith, to intervene with the Ministry of the Interior to have the charges against Quan dismissed. Finally, both Denis and Marie-Christine convinced their uncle Father André Hibou to sell his parishioners in New Carlisle, Quebec on the idea of sponsoring Quan and his sister. As New Carlisle was too small a place to receive the children, it was agreed that the money raised by the parish would be transferred to Father André’s nephew Mathieu Hibou who studied in Quebec City. Mathieu would be responsible for finding a room for the children and overseeing their integration into Quebec society. The paperwork was complex, and Citizenship and Immigration in Ottawa had misgivings about allowing Quan into Canada. The processing would take at least several months. The Thieu family, Hue, Denis and Marie-Christine held a small conference to decide that the Thieus would go first to Quebec City to take up the offer of sponsorship from the local church. Hue would wait for her brother’s release and then follow in three months.
When the time came for the Thieus to leave for Canada, Denis, Marie-Christine and her husband Thomas Smith all came to the camp. Together they went to the police station to say goodbye to Quan. Abdul Hakim joined them, bringing hard candy. The police sergeant made them all tea, and brought Quan out. His face brightened when he looked at how healthy Minh Chau was. She rushed to hug him, and pressed into his hand several candies, and said, “I brought some treasure for you, Quan. I love you!” When Voang’s turn came to say goodbye, he caressed the boy’s face and said, “Bao Ve Phu Nu, I owe my daughter’s life twice to you. We will wait for you in Canada—you are now my real son!” An stroked Quan’s hand and bowed deeply, “Honoured brother, we all love you.”
Then Minh Chau’s face lit up, and she chanted, “I know how to make Quan come to Canada!” The family and visitors looked quizzically at her, as she reached deep into her pocket and brought out the red hair from Denis Prud'homme’s beard. “Quan, I give you the magic hair to Canada. You must never lose this. Promise me!”
Quan took the hair and put it safely in his own pocket. He then took out the batman comic and handed it to Minh Chau. “When we grow up, I will be Batman and you, Catwoman.”
“Yes,” said Minh Chau, “yes, Batman and Catwoman forever and ever!”
With the Thieu family’s modest belongings, Denis Prud'homme’s Land Cruiser pulled toward the camp’s gate. As they passed the police station, Quan, Hue, Abdul Hakim and the entire police contingent waved. If tears could become pearls, the Thieu family could have transformed their grief at leaving Quan and Hue and their joy at departing for Canada into the greatest treasure trove the world had ever known.
The Land Cruiser drove onto the tiny ferry that would take them to the mainland. The boat pulled out into the sea, and Minh Chau quivered as images of the sea voyage to Pulau Bidong flashed before her. Without Quan at her side, her body began to shake. Quickly, An unwrapped a hard candy and put it into Minh Chau’s mouth and whispered, “Quan’s treasure will protect you from the sea.” The sweet taste of the candy drove the dark thoughts from Minh Chau’s mind, and she dreamed of playing hide-and-go-seek with her protector.
Critical acclaim from other authors
The writer’s understated style gently weaves this tapestry of life, trauma, love and bloodshed; and as the lives, experiences and relationships deepen - the writer’s passion for life and love comes into full bloom and culminate in a poignant epilogue. P.T. Straub, The Ordinary Adept.
Such a moving story, well-written too. I was impressed with how you switched back and forth between the characters without getting their stories lost. Well done! Sonia Saikaley, The Lebanese Dishwasher, Quattro Press
The story is brilliantly told. I read the last three quarters of the book all in one sitting and was caught up in the narrative and the characters. Chris Turner, Author of Denibus Ar, Innersky Press
And from our readersA portrait of the current human condition emerges. As his many characters develop, we share their sorrows, joys and loves in a true kaleidoscope of events. Michael Scott-Harston, Ottawa
The novel really is a wonderful, touching tale of how the human spirit overcomes adversity. The author Con Cú has mastered the art of simplicity and economy of words, without foregoing the occasional stroke of poetic genius. BPOTS, Cultus Lake
Soldier, Lily, Peace and PearlsSoldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls by author Con Cu tells the tale of the Thieus, a Vietnamese family who fled the post war chaos of their country for a fresh start in Canada. The author also gives us an unsettling reminder of the physical and mental devastation that war leaves on civilian populations. Think of other conflicts in more recent years—Central Africa, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Egypt, Venezuela and the Ukraine—where millions of people died or fled the same kind of violence and bloodshed that dogs the Thieus as they flee Vietnam and then touches the life of Mathieu, one of their Canadian benefactors.
Even without physical wounds, the Thieus and their daughters live with the pain and anguish of their experiences as they try to remain connected with Quann who helped them escape and then becomes hunted by a gang of drug pushers.
Anyone who can remember the stories about the Vietnamese boat people and the work by volunteers to resettle them in communities across Canada will find their personal memories of those times rekindled by Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls from Deux Voiliers Publishing. While there are many happy endings from those days and in the lives of others who found safety, we should not forget what happened to them and all the others who died trying to escape. Those stories go on today as the regular reports about crowded boatloads of migrants perishing or being rescued at sea remind us.
Soldier, Lily, Peace and PearlsReview: Soldier, Lily Peace and Pearls
By Con Cú
Con Cú’s book about how oppression and war in Vietnam transform the lives of three innocents is not only a compelling read, it is a powerful manifesto to the strength of the human spirit faced with adversity. The novel opens simply, with the treasured contents of a small wooden box, setting the stage for the story which unfolds. I mention this in particular because what I particularly liked about Con Cú’s book is that he never needs to push the language or over-dramatize, and this makes some of the most harrowing parts of the book, including a vivid scene of life and death in a crowded boat, all the more effective. His straightforward yet highly descriptive prose takes us to places we might not expect, and allows us to see clearly what the characters see, and even to experience along with them fear, sensuality, trust, shame, and finally redemption. I highly recommend Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls, and I am anxious to read his next work.