Tai-pan is the second novel in James Clavell’s Asian saga. Set in Hong Kong in the mid-19th century it tells the story of Dirk Struan, tai-pan (supreme leader) of the Noble House. Every company had its own tai-pan, a man we would now refer to as a chief executive. Such is the power of the Noble House that Dirk Struan is known as the Tai-pan.
At the start of Tai-pan we learn that Great Britain has just won a war with China and been given the island of Hong Kong. Many don’t see the point of accepting a barren island instead of free access to mainland China’s ports. Dirk Struan believes that Hong Kong is essential to British interests, providing a secure harbour free from interference by the Chinese mandarins.
Throughout the novel we see Dirk Struan working to establish a viable colony on Hong Kong. We also witness his struggles to maintain the Noble House in the face of a bank failure and a rising by the Chinese in Canton. He has some friends, such as Horatio and Mary Sinclair, and some enemies, in particular Tyler Brock of Brock & Sons. Although Tyler Brock is out to break Struan and his company, he is portrayed in such a way that he isn’t wholly unlikeable. I could understand his feelings on finding his overseer in his daughter’s cabin, but could not condone his reaction. There are other instances where his feelings are understandable, but his reactions indicate a very short fuse on his temper.
Tai-pan is well written, with all the characters neatly drawn, even the minor ones. There were numerous occasions when I found myself wondering how Struan would get out of a tricky situation and was pleased when he did. I felt for him during the sad times and, yes, I cried towards the end. Historically the novel is broadly accurate, as far as I know, and Clavell keeps the story moving at a nice pace. A completely different setting from Shogun, but still a well-told story.