Malaysian-Chinese Yangsze Choo’s best-selling debut historical novel, The Ghost Bride was set in late 19th century Malaya with an immediately compelling premise: a young Chinese girl in is married off to a ghost.
The Night Tiger is also set in Malaya, although in the early 1930s, but it lacks its predecessor’s immediately graspable premise. Not that it should necessarily need one: The Ghost Bride was aimed at the young adult market, whereas The Night Tiger is adult fare, so a greater degree of complexity would be expected. Compared to other times and places in Asia, such as Colonial or Post-Colonial India, or China during the Mao years, Colonial Malaya—William Somerset Maugham notwithstanding—is a relatively under-explored setting in fiction for the international market. Choo also clearly delights in sharing her knowledge of Chinese and Malay folklore, traditional belief, and magical practices. As the title suggests, The Night Tiger particularly lingers over Malay ideas about weretigers. But it might nevertheless have benefited from a tighter focus on fewer of its many ideas.
The two main plots revolve around a young orphan, Ren, trying to return his dead master’s missing severed and preserved finger to his grave, within 49 days of his death. The dead master was a weretiger, and, with his body buried incomplete, his ghost is now wandering the earth. Returning his finger to the grave will free his ghost to become fully that of a man, and to rest in peace. Meanwhile, a young woman, Ji Lin, is working in a dance hall, to pay off her mother’s debts. One night, during a dance, she acquires from her partner a preserved, severed finger.
How Ren’s and Ji Lin’s lives intersect so that one can pass the finger to the other is the main plot-driver. But one of the several subplots concerns Ji Lin and her stepfather’s son, Shin. It’s soon obvious these two are going to end up romantically involved, and since there isn’t anything stopping them becoming a couple, except that though genetically unrelated they are step-brother and sister, Choo has to work hard to keep them apart until the end of her novel. Ren’s new employer, William, furthermore, has a taste for local women, a mysterious fiancée Iris, as well as Lydia, an English women with designs on him. Choo holds back much information, in particular insights into Lydia’s character, that, had it been delivered earlier, might have made the resolution to this tangle more plausible.
Malayan folklore provides wonderful material.
Choo integrates her plots by having her five characters named for the five Confucian Virtues, whose stories are yoked together by fate. Ren has a dead twin brother, Yi. Ren, we are told, is the Confucian Virtue of humanity and Yi, is that of righteousness. Ren often dreams of Yi, and so does Ji Lin, whose name incorporates the word for another virtue, knowledge, or wisdom. Choo is fond of retelling her characters’ dreams—the dead communing with the living—but as a plot device, it can feel a bit contrived, constraining the story from developing naturally.
The many culturally-specific references—the scent of clove cigarettes; comparing a girl’s calves to lo bak, giant white radishes—give Choo’s work richness and sensual depth. The command of local detail and interest in the sensual sometimes combine in striking ways.
The sun sank lower, the light so golden that you could almost take a bite out of it, like the layered butter cake, kuih lapis, a cousin from Batavia, in Dutch Indonesia had once brought to our house. Each moist slice had smelled like all the spices of the East Indies.
Malayan folklore provides wonderful material, Weretigers, we learn, are not entirely akin to Western ideas of werewolves. In one of William’s regular, but unread, letters to Iris, he writes