"It is the early 19th century, when European traders and adventurers first began to penetrate the forbidding Chinese mainland. And it is in this exciting time and exotic place that a giant of an Englishman, Dirk Straun, sets out to turn the desolate island of Hong Kong into an impregnable fortress of British power, and to make himself supreme ruler-- Tai-Pan!"--P.  of cover.
The books tells the story of Dirk Struan, the Tai-pan (leader) of a large trade company in Asia, trading between China and England. He has a lot of enemies he has to deal with, dirty deals to make, etc., etc. All this is done with the founding and rise of Hong Kong in the background.
The book really disappointed me. The characters are shallow, the story is simple and highly predictable, very repetitious and the end is, well... pretty ridiculous. People who are hoping for an interesting historic novel (I was one) don't need to bother, the book is a bad kind of action novel, coincidentally taking place in and around Hong Kong in 1840.
In all, not a book you have to read, even when you really liked Shogun and King rat.
I loved the way, in 'Shogun', that Clavell used the Japanese language, teaching his readers simple words and then no longer providing a translation for them, once they became familiar enough. However, the same trick doesn't work as well here, with the use of pidgin English, Struan's thick Scots accent, and the poor English of the pirate-traders like Brock or Scragger. In fact, this attention to detail on Clavell's part nearly wrecked the experience for me, though with time I grew used to the presentation, and now cannot imagine it written any other way.
The plot runs similarly to 'Shogun' in its style - once again, a relatively short period of time is explored over the course of about a thousand pages, and once again the end of the book is by no means the end of the story. 'Tai-Pan' is more obviously a book in a series, part of his saga; the story of the four half-coins is not concluded, and a number of notable ends are left quite loose.
The main character, the eponymous Tai-Pan, Dirk Struan, is an interesting creation, but is too often the wisest person in the text, and is almost pointedly wiser than the reader would imagine himself to be. This can be a pain, but fortunately the other characters are developed enough to provide interesting counterpoints. I'm particularly glad that Clavell uses some of his book to round out the supporting cast, making them into three-dimensional beings rather than the crude caricatures they could have been. Longstaff is a good example - for much of the book he is a bumbling fool, but really he's just out of his depth; later, we see how he too can be a schemer, just like Struan.
Having read this book I am convinced of the need to read the remaining chapters of the saga. There are four more to read, but they go quickly despite their length, and so shouldn't take very long.
Tai-Pan is about the foundation of Hong Kong in the 1840s, with the main characters being the families of two Scottish traders.
This is another engrossing tale, with Clavell's unique style. Surprising easy to read, and difficult to put down once you become interested in the characters and situations.
I didn't find it quite as good as Shogun, but that's maybe because I read Shogun first and it's difficult for other books in the same style to compete.
My main criticism is that I felt some of the characters were a bit one-dimensional, and there was a bit too much black and white. For example, Dirk Struan is a good guy, and his son is basically good if a bit naive; whereas Tyler Brock is a bad guy, and his son is just evil. I felt that Shogun was better in this respect.
I found the pigeon English interesting, because I wasn't aware of this meet-half-way language that was used in the Chinese pors in the 19th century.
Worse, in many ways, was that Clavell had been given access to the historical documents of Jardines, the trading company whose head effectively founded Hong Kong. It was believed that Clavell was writing a serious history and some of the principals at the company (descendants of the founder), swore afterward that no writer would ever again gain access to the family papers -- something I hope does not happen.
The book was instructive in terms of Chinese culture, and it was interesting that both 'sides' (Western and Chinese) saw the other as uncivilised.
Tai-Pan covers the founding of Hong Kong in the middle of the 19th century and the origins of many of the traditions, friendships, relationships and feuds between various families and factions, both Western and Chinese, that we see in their more mature context in Noble House.
Dirk Struan is the central character here and although he sometimes comes across as impossibly talented, lucky and omniscient he does represent the kind of driving mercantilism that defines the 19th century. The story drives along with plenty of brio and enough incident and twists to please anyone.
The western characters tend to be drawn as black or white, whereas the Chinese characters are more nuanced and subtle, perhaps representing the author’s clear respect for Asian culture.
The pidgin English used to represent interactions between westerners and Chinese is of its time (the book was written in the 1960s) and would probably not be acceptable today; but, it does show the gulf in communication between the two cultures. I did find the broad Scots accents of the Struans and the uncultured speech of th Brocks a little wearing.