But which wager? The Headmaster’s Wager, by Vincent Lam is designed around wagers. As the stakes rise while the story unwinds, the novel’s tension grows in our fear that ever more reckless wagers could destroy the effects of past bets. Percival, the headmaster, is good at winning. Or is he blind?
The Headmaster’s Wager is situated in South Vietnam before, during and after unification. Percival, or Chen Pie Sou, is the son of a father who left his family in China to search for the Gold Mountain. (In Calgary’s Sien Lok Park is a statue marking the journeys of Chinese people to the Gold Mountain of Canada.) As a lonely young man, Percival unexpectedly wins the girl of his dreams, because he has access to his father’s home in Cholon, near Saigon. Although all is not well, Percival does become the wealthy proprietor of a school for learning English. His neighbour, then teacher, then friend, Mak, ably assists Percival in administering the bribes needed for every official and many unofficial transactions.
War starts as a distant event, concerning only the Vietnamese. As American military officers gradually populate the sophisticated gambling clubs in Saigon, Percival finds new sources of income, again ably assisted by Mak.
Percival’s family life falls to pieces. Only deep love for his son, Dai Jai, fulfills his familial yearnings. So, how can he let Dai Jai be conscripted into the South Vietnamese army? Against the wishes of his mother, he sends him to Shanghai, that is, he returns his son to his home. Which is not safe — a fact that takes years for Percival to understand. This is a man who can read mahjong tiles, cards, and gamblers’ faces, but he cannot actually hear the sounds of war and revolution, even when they explode on the radio newscasts and outside his own door.
Possibly, it is Percival’s skill in gambling that is indeed the most useful in the fluid moments of history. He knows fear, and he knows how to master it at the moment when everything is on the table.