In conversation with Penang Chronicles author Rose Gan

British by birth, Rose Gan first arrived in Kuala Lumpur in 1978 and has been living and working between both UK and Southeast Asia ever since.

Dragon, Gan’s first book in her Penang Chronicles tells the story of 18th-century Captain Francis Light and Martinha Rozells, the founders of Penang, as well as the backstory of the British settlement of Penang, featuring real historical characters and events from Malaysia, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Britain.

Our reporter Jean Friend chats with the Manchester-born author to find out more about her life and her writing.

“If I had to play another hand of cards, another game of chess, read another book…….”

These were not the words of someone stuck in Covid lockdown, but the words of the soon to become the guardian of Francis Light at the beginning of ‘Dragon-the Penang Chronicles’. 

Former teacher of Classics and Latin at a North Manchester High School, Rose Gan has written a novel about the early life of Francis Light in Suffolk and his rise to Superintendent of Penang (now part of Malaysia).

I was lucky enough to recently speak to Rose via Skype at her home in Kuala Lumpur about growing up in North Manchester, her interest in Francis Light and the process of writing an historic novel. 

Statue of Francis Light in Penang. Credit: Alexey Komarov, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Rose was born in Crumpsall Hospital and was brought up in Higher Blackley. She was educated at St. Clare’s Primary School, Notre Dame Grammar School and then Birmingham University. 

Her life in Blackley was typical of a some one growing up in an Irish Catholic family and centred around church and the Irish Centre and Community. Irish dancing was a pastime that many youngsters took up in this community and Rose won many medals and trophies for it.

Studying history at Birmingham, Rose met Henry and on graduating, they moved to Henry’s homeland of Malaysia where their three children where born.

Returning to the UK, the children spoke with a Mid Atlantic accent, but soon adapted a more North Manc way of speaking. Rose soon found a job as a teacher where the pupils thought she was posh and she tried to convince them that her background was very similar to many of theirs.

I asked Rose what had made her write about Francis Light. She had started by wanting to write about Light’s wife, Martinha Rozella who was of mixed race and seemed to play a very important role in Light’s climbing the career ladder.

Rose wanted to know about how this woman managed in the society dominated by white British men where women were well in the background. However, as you might expect, there was very little written about her but Rose was now hooked on the life and times of Francis Light and the social politics of the greedy, power-hungry European Countries involved in the Malay Archipelago.

From first thought to publication took twenty years, writing in between bringing up a family, supporting her husband, being head of department at the Garden International School and becoming a museum guide. The potential book kept drawing her back, probably because even though set in the 18th century events resonated with today’s society with its racism, power grabs and greed for commodities that Europeans wanted. 

The problems we face today having their roots in these Colony building times – it’s a story that needs to be told.

I asked Rose whether this was her first venture into serious writing. She had attempted, prior to starting on Dragon, to interest publishing houses in a novel about an ordinary Ancient Roman woman but she was met with questions something like ‘why do you want to write about an unknown woman when you could write about someone everyone knows, like a general or Cleopatra’.

Of course, this was not the road Rose wanted to go down, she was interested in the lives of ordinary people.

The story starts in 1740 in Suffolk and takes us through Francis’s rigorous education and his years in the Royal Navy.

Being illegitimate, Francis was never going to get the commission he wanted and branches out on his own. At school, he and most of his class mates, are bullied by a senior pupil, Charles Hythe.

Rose was keen to tell me that Hythe was made up, for a real person may have living descendants. Other characters have been melded from various sources, the Malay foundling boy Soliman being one. Little of his early life is known about but he was a real person and features in the next book. The novel is a historically accurate and all the main characters real.

Having left Manchester in 2011, I asked Rose what she missed about the city. It wasn’t the weather, it was the Craic, listening to the people with their witticisms and wise words. 

On their visits to Manchester, the Gans have noticed a change in attitude to their fellow man and not a good change. This perceived change, tolerating outsiders less, makes the book a book for our times.

The second book should be out in September 2022. Grab a copy of Dragon here.

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