Golden Parasol by Wendy Law-Yone

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Golden Parasol by Wendy Law-Yone

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A very personal take on post-war Burma through the eyes of a writerly-daughter whose father was right at the heart of the early struggle. Warm, readable and highly informative.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 300 Date: June 2014
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099555995

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If you look her up Wendy Law-Yone is described as a Burmese-born American author. That Burmese-born American might be an accurate description of her current citizenship, but it barely hints at the ethnic mix of her heritage, nor of her personal closeness (through her father) to her original homeland's struggle for freedom and democracy.

It's not clear whether the Golden Parasol sets out to be a history book or a political tract, but by virtue of the remarkable father whose life it certainly does seek to honour, it cannot help but be both.

When he died in 1980 Edward Law-Yone was described as the first independent newspaper editor of free, post-war Burma, and also, to date, the last. For the intervening three and half decades since then it would seem that the tribute would remain sadly accurate for far too long.

Edward Law-Yone would be deeply saddened by that, as he was ultimately deeply saddened by his inability to help Burma become the free-speech, open democracy his newspaper campaigned for, and by his need to abandon the more direct fight from the government-in-exile ranks of the PDP hiding out in Thailand and in border camps back home as he sought a final sanctuary of sorts in America, where most of his family were living.

What shines through the telling of his story is that despite his own profligacy with money when he had it, he was never particularly enamoured of the American dream – and the democracy he strove for in Burma must have seemed, to his eyes, of a different calibre.

But that is to jump to the end.

This is a story told through a daughter's eyes, and so it starts with her earliest memories of her father, which were at the newspaper office. The paper was founded a year after she was born, so she doesn't remember a time before it. She does remember being in love with the 'Nation', long before she could possibly understand it or what it stood for. She loved the building and the staff and the sound of her father's typewriter clacking away as she finally fell asleep on the sofa in his office.

From there she goes back into the family history, to find out how her father came to set up his own newspaper, how he ran it… and how it got him into serious trouble with the newly established military leadership when Burma's first short-lived foray into parliamentary democracy foundered. Eventually, she'll find out that maybe what he said in the newspaper wasn't the only problem.

We should know more about Ed Law-Yone. His is a life ripe for tale-telling. He was a flawed individual in many ways. He could be intensely loyal and unfeasibly principled, and as is often so, his family paid the price for that. Then again, they also reaped the rewards of it.

He was born of trader stock. His father came from a remote province of China, not as a trailblazing revolutionary but following rather in the millennia-old tracks of merchants, pilgrims, smugglers, marauders and other desperados… It's clear that Wendy isn't entirely sure in which of those categories her grandfather rightly belongs. Whichever one it was, it brought with it a wanderlust and a desire to really do something that was handed down to the son.

By then the wealth had been made and the son was sent to the best school in Burma. These were the days of Empire still, and for all our faults, it would seem that the British running some of the schools did a reasonable job of educating at least some of the local populace into being able to think for themselves and criticise us and eventually kick us out of the kingdom. There's nothing like engineering your own downfall.

Aside from academic instruction the ways in which these fee-paying schools helped engineer that change, were three-fold. Firstly, they were taught in English. The English language might have taken over the world by vice-&-virtue of the British Empire, but it strengthened its hold through American dominance of popular culture. It maintains it by dint of it being easier than the more florid scripts to render into print, and thence into technological media forms. The importance of being able to use English cannot be under-estimated if you are trying to finance and fight a revolution.

Then, the schools tended to be run by the Christian brothers who were somewhat more worldly than the local Buddhist equivalent and thereby almost certainly gave their charges a broader view of the outside world.

And crucially they gave access to the sons of the existing political hierarchy. The old boys network.

This was a network, dutifully underplayed in the book, that would help out the Law-Yones time and time again. Access might not be everything. It's nothing without the talent to know how to exploit it, but it is the key.

Even the name Edward Law-Yone was created at school. Edward was simply bestowed upon him. Law-Yone was a corruption of the nickname Lao-Yong.

Law-Yone's life was never going to match the idle rich existence of some of the his peers at the school, but it was a background of privilege, make no mistake. He met his future wife at a polo match. There was money to be had.

And when there was none, there would always be some more along soon. It was a very old-world attitude and one that saw Law-Yone through his early life and into the newspaper business. During the war he worked for American intelligence. More contacts. He started his own paper because he wasn't getting anywhere working for some-one else. Access to government, even when criticising it. He started his own revolution because no-one else appeared to do so. He got his kids good educations (mostly abroad) and managed to keep his family together and fed and (largely) protected despite five years as a political prisoner and several more helping to run a government in exile and trailing round guerrilla camps in the hills of Burma.

He was resourceful.

He was idealistic.

He was pragmatic.

As we know, you cannot be all three all of the time.

Wendy is very much her father's daughter, it was inevitable that she would become a writer. She resisted reading her father memoirs for a very long time. Having finally got around to doing something with them, she has done them justice. She explains his access to some of the high-profile people of the age: a mix of schoolday-contacts, career-contacts and the gift of the gab that frequently enabled the journalist in him to talk his way through the door.

Much of his activity must have involved a degree of personal courage. This is underplayed to the extent of being totally lost in the narrative. Wendy does not idolise her father. Like a good daughter she clearly loves him, but she is her mother's daughter too and watched what his choices did to her. She is also a sibling. She shares little of her brothers and sisters lives, but hints at the tragedy in some of them that may or may not have grown out of their early experiences.

Even her own life only impinges on the story to the extent necessary to give context to her father's.

By the time you get to the end of the book, you'll know more about the Burma that gave us Aung San Suu Kyi. You'll understand a bit more about what the fight is all about, and why it is so complicated. I also think that if you enjoyed the book as much as I did, you will keep it not with the biographies on your shelves, but in the history section.

This purports to be about Edward Law-Yone, but it's really about the Burma struggle for a better future.

That said: it is a very warm and personal read, interspersed with family photos. There is sadness in some of the pages, and irritation. There is surprisingly little anger. And there are doses of humour in the most unlikely places. Her description of her father's time in prison comes across as a monty-python re-write of Colditz – but none the less believable for all that.

I picked the book up on the title alone. It is not what I was expecting it to be, but it is an engrossing and educating read. Highly recommended for anyone interested in that part of the world.

For more on the history of Burma to put the modern struggle in context we recommend The Burma Campaign: Disaster into Triumph 1942-45 by Frank McLynn of for the modern take Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle. For more from Wendy Law-Yone, her fiction is heavily influenced by her homeland The Road to Wanting by Wendy Law-Yone

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Booklists.jpg Golden Parasol by Wendy Law-Yone is in the Top Ten Biographies 2014.


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