James Clavell began his Asian Saga with "Tai-Pan," and in doing so brought the Far East to life in an unparalleled fashion.
"Tai-Pan" tells the story of Dirk Struan, Tai-Pan ("Supreme Leader") of Struan's, more popularly known as the Noble House. First in everything (money, influence, panache, daring, etc.), the Noble House has tied its future to the rise of Hong Kong, which is "founded" in the book's first chapter.
Struan, who has founded the Noble House with the vast fortune he built as an opium smuggler along the Chinese coast (many of the trading houses in "Tai Pan" owe their fortunes to opium smuggling, although they euphemistically refer to themselves as "China Traders"), has used his influence in Britain and with certain Chinese figures to take Hong Kong for the British crown as a toehold in China. Guided by his near-mystical vision of the importance of China to the world's future (at this point, China is considered by many Europeans to be a profitless wasteland populated by "heathens"), Struan will fight and kill to defend Hong Kong.
Newly widowed, Struan is comforted by his Chinese lover, May-May, who is also one of Clavell's most wonderful characters. Teetering on the verge of a stereotypical "dragon lady," May-May is a woman of courage, cunning, refinement, humor, and great beauty. Clavell lets May-May speak in both English (hilarious malaprops abound) and in Chinese so the reader gets a true picture of May-May's intelligence. Prejudices being what they were, Struan is forced to keep May-May under wraps, as it were, although the legend of the Tai Pan's Chinese mistress abound.
In addition to the loss of his family, Struan must contend with Tyler Brock, his one-eyed nemesis and leader of the second most powerful trading house, Brock and Sons. Brock and Struan have a deep-seeded hatred that is doomed to head for a reckoning. Brock, constantly maneuvering to best the Noble House, has quite a few tricks up his sleeve, and he forces Struan to make a dangerous gamble with the future of the Noble House.
In the novel's most intriguing sub-plot, Struan can ensure his financial status only if he accepts four half-coins from his Chinese mentor, Jin-Qua. Anyone who presents the other half-coin to the tai pan can have one favor granted -- no matter what it is. A chilling bargain, and one that flows through Clavell's future novels (Noble House).
Through it all, Clavell goes to great lengths to capture the clash of cultures on Hong Kong -- from the British, American, Chinese, and Eurasian perspectives. The sheer scope of man's prejudice is staggering!
As pervasive as the racial conflicts may be, ulterior motives also abound. Virtually every character in the novel has a wide range of goals, ambitions, and plots they are trying to weave, and Clavell handles this vast plot with great skill.
Struan, clearly the dominant character of the novel, does not quite reach superhero status, which shows proper restraint by Clavell. Struan is forced to cope with Culum, his resentful, conflicted, naive son, as well as his brother, Robb, and of course May-May. Struan struggles mightily, but he demonstrates that even the Tai-Pan is all too human.
All in all, a wonderful tale of the founding of one of the world's great cities, Hong Kong, and an expert treatment of the clash of cultures between East and West. A must read!