COMMUNITY AND NATION By Wang Gungwu (Allen and Unwin, $175) CLIMB into your overalls, folks, don your hard hats, check your breathing apparatus and light your Davy lamp. Come with Professor Wang - Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hongkong - into the dusty depths where perspiring historians scrabble for elusive nuggets of established fact in the mother-lode of rumour, remains and records which is all we have of the past. This book is tactfully described on the front cover as a ''new edition''. This is confusing, but not as confusing as the blurb on the back cover touting ''a stimulating synthesis of recent research''. The most recent items in the book date from 1988, theoldest from 1959. Synthesis is understandably elusive. Professor Wang says he included the older pieces by popular demand. No doubt people often lament the difficulty of finding a freshly printed copy of some of his earlier efforts. The trouble is that academic people are so exquisitely polite. By the time you become a Vice-Chancellor the level of politeness is so high that you need one of those slaves who used to ride in Roman triumphs in the chariot of the victorious general, whispering into his ear reminders that he was still a human being. Some of the pieces are included on the rather more promising basis that they were enjoyable to write. And there are indeed pleasant moments. But unless you are passionately interested in the finer points of southeast Asian history they are a bit thin on the ground. I enjoyed the piece on the Nanyang Chinese, although it is the oldest one in the book, for its interesting resonances with other diasporas. Someone will one day compare the experience of the overseas Chinese with that of other exile groups like the Jews, the Armenians and even the expatriate Brits. The results will be fascinating. Some of the pieces on early Chinese foreign relations impress with the range and detail of documentary records available. As these consist entirely of official histories I would have preferred a mite more scepticism about their accuracy. We also get our share of guest lectures, summaries of conferences, obituaries, reviews and such. This is academic rhubarb. Classy rhubarb, but rhubarb nevertheless. Definitely a book for the specialist.