The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo’s second book, is a surreal and captivating mystery novel set in the 1930s during Malaysia’s colonial period. It examines the social mannerisms amongst the locals and the conquering Brits amidst the backdrop of a country’s traditional obsessions that are also steeped in the supernatural. As a cherry on top of the proverbial cake, Choo uses five characters to represent the five Confucian virtues (Ren, benevolence; Yi, honesty; Zhi, knowledge; Xin, integrity; Li, correct behavior) as a framework to tie all these elements together, making the story a riveting, compelling and intriguing read.
Ren is a keen, intuitive and observant 11-year old boy charged by his dying British master to find and return the British master’s missing finger to his body after he dies so that his body can be made whole again. According to local tradition, his soul will not be able to rest in peace until his entire body is intact. Ren must finish this burdensome task in 49 days, the number of days his soul is allotted to wander the earth after his death. Before he died, rumors had spread that Dr. John MacFarlane, his master, was a weretiger, a shape-shifter that could change into a tiger. Unless he was reunited with his finger, his master feared he would roam the rest of his life as a tiger.
Yi is Ren’s deceased twin brother. How he died is not made clear, but his soul is stuck in a train station that acts as a world of transition between the living and the afterlife. Instead of boarding the train, he waits for his brother to join him. The longer he waits, the lonelier he gets, making him wish his brother would join him sooner. On rare occasions, Ren and Ji Lin visit him in his dreams.
Ji Lin is intelligent and good with numbers but being female, her skills are unappreciated and of no use in helping her attain a stable life. Having finally escaped the tedious and stifling clutches of her abusive and short-tempered stepfather, she works as an apprentice with a dressmaker. On the side, she secretly works as a dancer at May Flower, a dance hall, to help pay off the debt her mother accumulated while playing mahjong. While dancing with a gropey salesman, Ji Lin ends up swiping his good luck charm, which turns out to be a preserved finger. Unable to shrug off the premonition that the finger carried a bad omen, she turns to Shin for help.
Shin is Ji Lin’s stepbrother who goes to medical school in Singapore. Ji envies her stepbrother and wishes she had the same opportunities as he did, considering she did better than him in school. Although they were close growing up, they became distant after he moved. Shin has returned for the summer because he found a part-time job at Batu Gajah Hospital, which was more than 10 miles away from Falim, their hometown. Ji Lin has been in love with his friend Ming for most of her life, but lately, she realizes she has had feelings for someone else all along.
William Acton is a doctor from a reputable family running away from a questionable past. He is Ren’s second master after Dr. MacFarlane’s death. Although he acts as a proper Englishman among people from his social circle, he lets go of his inhibitions when it comes to the local girls. His many dalliances do not go unnoticed, particularly by a woman named Lydia Thomson, a woman also escaping a questionable past.
These characters make up the five Confucian virtues. And as all compelling narratives do, they will show how they fail to live up to their names. The IE interviewed Yangsze Choo ahead of her appearance at Elliott Bay Book Company, which will be on January 24 at 7:00 PM.
International Examiner: Can you tell us a little about your background?
Yangsze Choo: I’m originally from Malaysia and spent part of my childhood in Germany and Japan. Now I live in Northern California with my family. We used to have chickens until the hawks discovered them. Recently I find myself procrastinating by looking at ducks online…
IE: How long did it take you to write the book?
YC: [It] took me four years. There were times when I had to set the book aside for months because I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen next. The best remedy for me is to go on to other projects (like building a predator-proof chicken run). You’ll be surprised at how many good ideas will strike you when you’re doing something completely different.
IE: You are a contemporary Malaysian author whose books so far have been set in colonial Malaysia. What draws you to this time period? Will your next book also take place during this period?
YC: I’ve always been fascinated by history and museums, so perhaps it’s natural that I’ve been writing historical fiction. The past, as they say, is another country; a place that’s both familiar, yet unknown. I’m currently working on a new novel set in northern China/Manchuria and Japan—at least, that’s where I think it’s going at the moment! To set the mood, I’ve been forcing my family to participate in “research” by cooking and eating a lot of northern Chinese food, like hand-cut noodles, dumplings and pork belly.
IE: You have a lot of intriguing elements that play a part in your story: the weretiger, the five Confucian virtues, the auspiciousness of numbers, dreams and communicating with the dead, among others. Which of these elements acted as the first spark of inspiration that got you committed to this story? Did the other elements follow along gradually or were they following close at the heels of the first inspiration?
YC: I must confess that I don’t do a lot of planning. I wish I did because it would make the writing process more orderly and predictable! For The Night Tiger, I just started writing the story and the various elements began to emerge as the characters did. For example, I’d been thinking of fingers and hands, so naturally the number five came up, which sparked other associations such as the Chinese obsession with lucky numbers.
The glorious part of writing is when the characters start to move themselves and the story unfolds, becoming richer and more complex. The hard part, though, is when you get stuck and run out of ideas. Eating lots of chocolate helps, I find. I especially enjoyed writing the dream sequences because I suspect each of us has experienced dreams that feel incredibly vivid, and somehow oddly significant—dreams in which you have conversations with people or see places that linger with you long after you wake up. People have always grappled with the significance of such dreams: What do they mean? Why do we have them? Are they some sort of communication from another world? In the past, they might have been interpreted as visions or oracles; nowadays, we’re more likely to run them by a therapist. But I think the underlying questions they raise are still the same.
IE: I never knew Confucius had five virtues picked out to embody the perfect man. What meaning do the five virtues carry for you? Have they had a big impact on your life?
YC: Haha! I owe all my knowledge to a class I took about Confucian ethics in university. I’ve always been grateful for that class, for besides the large lectures, Professor Tu Weiming led a small group in Chinese for students who were bilingual. That tutorial made a deep impression on me, especially since we discussed the many aspects of Confucian humanism and what it meant to be a good person from a non-Western perspective. Reading the Analects in literary Chinese was eye-opening because you see certain characters show up again and again. The five virtues, for example, appear in many different contexts, which give them a richer and more resonant meaning.
IE: Many aspects of this book remind me of “Downton Abbey,” from Ren and Ah-Long, the kitchen cook, to the social mannerisms of both the natives and foreigners. Were you planning on writing a “Malaya Abbey” when you started writing the story?
YC: Not deliberately, but I do like old houses. There is nothing quite like walking through an old house or building and seeing the marks of human history left by them. “The Night Tiger” was inspired by the grand colonial bungalows left behind by the British that you can still see in Malaysia and Singapore today. Some lie in ruins or have been bulldozed, while others have been quite beautifully restored. They speak of another time and place, both haunting and filled with secrets. I think the inner worlds of these lavish old houses, with their servants and private social circles, still captivates readers and viewers today.
IE: Where did you do most of your research?
YC: Books, libraries, first-hand travelers’ accounts of tiger-hunting and old photographs are all helpful. The National Archives in Singapore were a blessing in terms of reading old local newspapers on microfiche, particularly the advertisements from the 1920s and ’30s, which give you a real flavor of what people aspired to at the time. I also have a pile of books about man-eating tigers from the Malay Peninsula!
IE: Your story is told in first person, past tense through Ji’s eyes, and third person, present tense through Ren and William Acton’s eyes. Are these narratives meant to be taking place in two different time periods? Is Ji relaying her story in the aftermath of everything that has happened? Why did you decide on these tense changes?
YC: When I was writing this book, I kept returning to the themes of parallel or mirror worlds. You see this in the novel, where there’s the contrast between the world of servants and masters, men and women, locals and foreigners, adults and children, the dead and the living. I’ve always thought it so interesting how we as humans can accept the notion of contradictory realities.
The Night Tiger itself can be read as a murder mystery or a ghost story—or both at the same time. And the narrative splits itself quite naturally into two points of view. Readers have asked me whether I wrote all of Ren’s story separately first, and then Ji Lin’s, but the truth is that I wrote the book almost exactly as you see it: one chapter from Ren’s vantage point, and the next one from Ji Lin’s. As you read it, you can see that they take place in a timeline that almost overlaps, although at times it skips a little faster or slower. This is how I think we personally experience time—some events take up more space in our memories than others.
In terms of the differences in tenses, I felt that I wanted to keep the reader at about the same emotional distance from both, so while Ren is in close third person, he’s also in present tense. Ji Lin’s first person is balanced out by past tense. On a more practical level, I thought the tense changes would also help readers open any page of the book and quickly figure out whose narrative they were in.
IE: What happens to Ren’s master in the end is brilliant and sweet, poetic justice. How did you foresee this tangled mess of events leading to this simple resolution?
YC: That scene (for which I’ll try not to give away spoilers) is actually one of my favorites in the book—I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I wrote that chapter in one sitting, almost exactly as it was published in the book. I had no idea what was going to happen, just that a lot of gears had been set in motion, but the story was just rushing along by then. It was very fun to write.