Pacific Dash: From Asia Vagabond to Casino King by Chet Nairene, Banana Leaf Books, June 2021. Independently published, paperback, 394 pages. ISBN-13 979-8745977275. Available from Amazon Australia for $26.34 plus postage
TUMBY BAY - Although Chet Nairene cites novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux as his inspiration, Pacific Dash is more reminiscent of the pulp fiction that was popular in the 1960s in works like Harold Robbins' 1966 pot boiler, The Adventurers.
The central story in Pacific Dash begins in the late 1960s: those innocent days when money and ambition were respectable attributes for fictional heroes, before neoliberalism spoiled it all.
The author lived in Southeast Asia for nearly 30 years working on barges and tankers along the Malaysian coast before getting involved in retail businesses in the Philippines, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Thailand.
He uses this experience to populate his novel with a wide range of colourful characters and events.
Although there is a pointed disclaimer in an author’s note that the book is entirely a work of fiction, it is not hard to see that his writing has been influenced by his real life experiences.
The plot follows a well-worn format as it tracks the adventures of the narrator, a young American, Dashiell (just call me Dash) Xavier Bonaventure II.
Dash is drawn into the promises that the exotic East offers. His becomes involved in legal and not-so-legal businesses, undergoes an existential trial and there is a final redemption.
Along the way there is the required humour, an intermeshing of improbable or coincidental events and a parade of stock comic book style characters.
There’s also a very obvious place where the narrative should go but disappointingly moves off in another direction.*
Given his 30-odd years working in the Asian business world, the author could be regarded as something of an expert. An old Asia hand as it were.
I’ve no doubt that in the narrative there are factual and useful insights into the inscrutable Asian make-up.
Eccentric characters like Little Fatty Lee and Snakehead Goh may not be total fabrications and neither may the other Malay, Chinese, Indian and other Asians that appear in the novel.
Given our location in the Indo-Pacific and the current geopolitical tensions, such insights are quite interesting.
As Little Fatty explains:
“We Malaysians come in three flavor: Malay, Chinese and Indian … We are quite different. Consider. Malay are half the population, rural Muslim folk who live in small villages and grow rice.
“We Chinese are one third and city people. Commercial: we do business. And the Indians are just a sliver, one tenth of population. Mainly Tamil Hindus.
“Our culture of family help, capital sharing and cooperation is a great advantage, spurring business success.”
And they’re easy to blame, as occurred in the 1969 race riots, until the New Economic Policy created a current uneasy truce - placing the Malays in control of the government and leaving the Chinese to their own commercial devices.
The inevitable commercial nexus between these two groups now exists as shop front partnerships lubricated by a flow of untraceable cash payments.
In Australia we call that sort of arrangement corruption, but in Malaysia and other Asian countries it is more like the way business is done.
This is also the business model that has been imported into Papua New Guinea by large Malaysian companies like Rimbunan Hijau, the multinational logging company controlled by Chinese Malaysian businessman, Tiong Hiew King.
Often accused of corruption in PNG, Rimbunan Hijau is doing business the Malaysian way.
And, like the Malays, PNG’s politicians seem perfectly happy with that arrangement.
A large part of the novel is set in casinos, firstly in a luxury vessel operating just beyond Malaysia’s international border and then in the Portuguese colony of Macau, nicknamed the Las Vegas of Asia.
As James Packer is well aware, gambling is an Asian, and particularly Chinese, obsession and wide open to exploitation. This is where Dash makes his fortune.
In the process he observes that he “no longer judged a lot of things I saw in Asia that once would have really offended my Western sensibilities…
“I was no longer really Western anymore, but not quite yet Eastern. Mid-Pacific, maybe? Yeah. Just call me Pacific Dash.”
It seems that Dashiell Xavier Bonaventure II is not the only one to succumb to the influences of Asia.
On 28 May this year Paga Hill Development Corporation and the National Gaming Control Board signed a US$43 million (K150 million) agreement to build a casino in Port Moresby.
Pacific Dash has a corny and dated plot line but offers very useful insights for anyone living in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly if they are dealing with Southeast Asian business people.
He book has a slightly annoying layout with paragraphs indented too deeply, and there are some strange absences of prepositions in the text. It’s sprinkled with prickly jibes about Aussies, but I guess we can’t blame a mere Yank for that.
* Fiona, the girl Dash falls for in Bali and who is involved with him in a motorbike accident, belongs to a very wealthy family. As Dash lies in hospital, her brother, Harry, tells him that Fiona has been horrifically disfigured. He does this to keep the penniless Dash away from her. A good plot twist would have been to make the disfigurement story untrue, allowing Dash to seek her out after he has made all his money, discover the truth and marry her because he is now acceptably wealthy to the family.