Under the Pong Pong Tree


Fiction - Historical - Event/Era
256 Pages
Reviewed on 04/20/2016
Buy on Amazon

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    Book Review

Reviewed by Romuald Dzemo for Readers' Favorite

Set against the backdrop of a Singapore barely recovered from the throes of World War II, Under the Pong Pong Tree by Hal Levey is a riveting story of a young woman dealing with the repercussions of the war. As if losing her entire family was not enough, Li Lian Goh, a young and beautiful Chinese woman, is forced to work in a military brothel where she gets impregnated by a Japanese military officer. Two options lie before her – despair or escape into a new form of life. But what she does will surprise readers. This is a story of bravery, love, loss, and redemption, a tale that explores the essence of humanity when the house is broken and everything seems to fall apart.

Levey has created a realistic story laced with historical facts, a tale that offers a glimpse of the horrors of World War II and a courageous woman who refuses to be broken by the cruelty of war. While the story unveils the evils of the war, it offers hope in a powerful love story when an American soldier is introduced into the plot. Levey’s prose is beautiful and the overall writing is uniquely appealing. The author skillfully uses subplots to enrich the main story, featuring a vast cast of compelling characters with whom readers can easily sympathize. Without sacrificing the main plot line, the author crafts a compelling tale that comes across as a powerful social commentary highlighting the general atmosphere after the war. An intelligently accomplished story that will make readers feel as though they were reliving history in the lives of its characters, Under the Pong Pong Tree is insanely fascinating and entertaining in a dangerous sort of way.

Joel R. Dennstedt

Under the Pong Pong Tree by Hal Levey begins with the brutal 1942 Japanese invasion of Singapore, telling the tale of a young, beautiful Chinese girl, Li Lian Goh, who is immediately raped by soldiers and dragged to work servicing the occupational forces as a girl of the local Comfort House. She is beaten and impregnated by Captain Hoda, a beastly man later killed by an American hero at the Battle of Guadalcanal. She manages to escape and lives hidden with indigenous Malays, giving birth to a daughter – Maimunah – who takes the status of 'anak beli,' a bought child, the term applied to a non-Malay child adopted into a Malay family. Such a child is never meant to meet its biological mother. Li Lian then becomes a fully fledged member of the Malayan Communist Party and takes post-war ownership of a rubber estate that also produces heroin and palm oil for the profits rubber no longer commands. Her daughter receives a privileged education, while Li Lian succumbs to the drugs she so assiduously produces.

Incredibly, and sometimes a bit coincidentally, these plot elements by which Hal Levey weaves his tale, Under the Pong Pong Tree, are inextricably related and brought together in Part II of this entertaining story. Where one might expect to find a lengthy, meandering, epic sort of tale, this book actually moves with the fast pace more common to a modern thriller or a movie. In fact, the manner in which the novel is truncated to accommodate the necessary speed, and the way in which the various plot elements eventually converge, suggest a style much like that of a screenplay. What saves this book from becoming too rapidly episodic, however, is the author’s flair for writing interesting scenes. The reader finds himself caught up in the white-water turbulence of its flow, unwilling to deny that he is simply taken by the story. A good way to spend your reading time with writing as brisk as this.

Raanan Geberer

War has a way of changing people’s lives in ways they never expected. At the beginning of Under the Pong Pong Tree by Hal Levey, Li Lian is the pampered daughter of a wealthy Chinese businessman in Singapore. Then comes the Japanese invasion, and the family is destroyed. Li Lian is forced to work as a “comfort woman” for the Japanese, only to escape and become a member of a Communist guerrilla group fighting the invaders. Later, she becomes the owner of a rubber plantation, diversifies into growing opium poppies and producing heroin, and finally becomes a hopeless addict herself. All the while, she strives to provide for her secret daughter — who believes Li Lian merely an “auntie” — and vows never to tell the daughter the truth about the circumstances of her birth.

In addition to the interesting plot, Under the Pong Pong Tree gives us an insight into the fascinating assortment of people that is Singapore, with its mix of Malays, Chinese, Indians, Japanese and British. We also learn about customs many Westerners may not be aware of. For example, most people know that Chinese men traditionally had several wives, but here, we meet a man who is married to two sisters. We also see the cruelty of the Japanese officers first-hand. The characters are well-drawn, the action is realistic, and the plot is believable. Without revealing too much, there is also a secondary plot later in the book that revolves around an American officer in Vietnam who is sent to Singapore to help investigate the illegal drug trade that is victimizing so many American soldiers. All in all, Under the Pong Pong Tree is an excellent historical novel about a fascinating society.