The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo is an enchanting read

Dark, magical, and bewitching, The Night Tiger transports the reader to colonial Malaya where weretigers supposedly roam, strange deaths are happening in a sleepy town in Ipoh. A young boy is searching for a missing finger and is mysteriously connected to a woman trying to make some money as a dance hall girl.

Choo permeates her story with all the sounds, smells and tastes of Malaysia. She brings in so many Malaysian foods that I am often left hungry after reading a few chapters (Malaysian and Singaporean foods are quite similar).

She deftly weaves in a variety of folklore and superstitions like the pontianak and weretigers. It’s a great mix of supernatural and historical. And overall, a beautifully written, magical tale blended with some mysteries that left this reader guessing until the end.

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Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong

I came across this book via the 500 Great Books by Women Group on Goodreads. It’s a group that discusses the list in the book by Erica Bauermeister. It’s also a list on List Challenges if you like ticking off things online and that sort of thing.

And like in Family Trust by Kathy Wang, a book I was also reading at around the same time, it’s a book set in San Francisco. Unlike the 2018-published Family Trust, Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong was originally published in 1945, and it’s quite telling of its time, with a 73 year difference between publication of these two books.

Fifth Chinese Daughter is an autobiography but is written more like a novel. And it has a rather educational tone to it, like it’s trying to teach the (presumably) white person reading it. So as a modern Chinese-Singaporean reading this book, it sometimes is amusing but more often it feels a bit heavy-handed and didactic.

I must admire Wong’s life and her determination to be educated and find a career. It wasn’t easy at that time for women, and I must imagine, even more so for a Chinese woman living in the US. Her father, while pushing education, especially Chinese-language education, when she was younger, is unwilling to pay for college, as he’s already paying for her brother’s medical school.

“You are quite familiar by now with the fact that it is the sons who perpetuate our ancestral heritage by permanently bearing the Wong family name and transmitting it through their blood line, and therefore the songs must have priority over the daughters when parental provision for advantages must be limited by economic necessity. Generations of sons, bearing our Wong name, are those who make pilgrimages to ancestral burial grounds and preserve them forever. Our daughters leave home at marriage to give sons to their husbands’ families to carry on the heritage for other names.”

She then begins working as a housekeeper for various families and manages to also find herself a scholarship to a college.

It’s an interesting account of various Chinese traditions, such as a funeral, a baby’s first full month with red eggs (which is something that Chinese families in Singapore still do) and pickled pigs’ feet (that was new to me).

Fifth Chinese Daughter may be a bit dated but it does offer an insight into the life of a young Chinese-American growing up in San Francisco at the time and trying to find a balance between her traditional Chinese upbringing and the more American lifestyle she’s becoming accustomed to as she goes to school and finds a career for herself.

This is my read for Back to the Classics – Classic From a Place You’ve Lived as it’s set in the San Francisco Bay Area

 

Family Trust by Kathy Wang

This book appealed to me for several reasons.

– it’s set in the San Francisco Bay Area and perhaps more importantly, not just the city itself but also the rest of the Bay Area. Don’t get me wrong, I like the city (well parts of it at least), the husband works there and all, but we live in the East Bay and it’s nice to see other parts of the area talked about.

– it’s a story about East Asian immigrants. They are originally from Taiwan, as are many of those in the Bay Area and I’m always interested in stories about immigration, particularly from Asia.

Also it opens with a whopper of a first sentence.

“Stanley Huang sat, naked but for the thing cotton dressing gown crumpled against the sterile white paper in the hospital room, and listened to the young doctor describe how he would die.”

He’s been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and this is the story of how he and his family deal with it.

He has a son, Fred, Harvard Business School grad, who’s been trying to make it big in the fintech industry but hasn’t quite yet. His daughter Kate is doing well at a well-known Silicon Valley company but is struggling with the balance of home and work. Also something seems to be up with her husband who is trying to get his start-up going.

Then there is their mother, Stanley’s ex-wife, Linda, perhaps a less-than-usual Asian woman of her time, one who continued working for decades, and yes, even divorced her husband. She’s even been thinking of dating again!

“What was one supposed to say, when one’s now-ex-husband of thirty-four years was struck with such a diagnosis?”

Stanley’s current wife Mary is 28 years younger than him. She’s a former waitress and has devoted her new life to caring for Stanley but now with Stanley dying, his family is suspicious of her motives.

For Stanley has often hinted at his riches – in the millions! Who deserves it more, the one who’s been caring for him in recent years? His children? Linda is determined to make sure her kids get their fair share.

Family Trust is a Silicon Valley story. It is also an Asian family story. It is also an American story. It’s a story about the pursuit of success, about money, about family obligation. There probably will be Crazy Rich Asians comparisons but as someone not a fan of that series, let me just say that Family Trust is better. Its characters are complex yet relatable, its observations of Silicon Valley life and family relationships are astute and witty. A great debut!

Honestly, Linda has some of the best lines.

“The woman likely didn’t even think she spoke English, regarding her as just another sexless Asian dotting her periphery – someone who could be ignored at will, like a houseplant.”

 

And here’s another – apparently there are differences according to where you landed up as an immigrant.

“Everyone knew that the best Chinese immigrants of their generation were settled in California, and mostly in the Bay Area. There were some in Los Angeles, but then you ran the risk of ending up with some sleazy import/exporter. And Linda had no intention of being matched with some grocery store operator in, say, Reno.”

 

“She knew exactly how Americans saw women like the Mercedes driver – as indistinguishable from herself. An Asian lady consumed with the creation and consumption of money, who neglected to hug her children. Why did white people like to pick and choose from cultures with such zealous judgment? Of course they just loved Szechuan cuisine served by a young waitress in a cheap cheongsam, but as soon as you proved yourself just as adept at the form of capitalism they had invented? Then you were obsessed. Money crazed. Unworthy of sympathy.”

The Lost Garden by Li Ang

“Although I spent so much of my life at Lotus Garden, it was only recently that I was deeply moved by the many wondrous scenes, a result of learning to observe the garden in its minute details. The world is filled with boundless mysteries and wonder; everything is possible and nothing is tenable.”

I really need to start writing down how I come across certain books. I can’t remember the exact details for this one, possibly that it came from a list of books in translation written by women. I definitely hadn’t heard of Li Ang before this. She is a Taiwanese writer, her real name is actually Shih Shu-tuan. And her major work is The Butcher’s Wife. Unfortunately my library only had this book of hers so I made do.

The main character in The Lost Garden is Zhu Yinghong, an only child, the last generation of an old family in Lucheng, Taiwan. The family’s home is known as Lotus Garden, a sprawling estate, very much the pride of the family, and which, in the prologue we are told is being opened to the public.

There are two important men in her life. One is her father, Zhu Zuyan, part of the old guard, who speaks to her in Japanese, calls her by her Japanese name Ayako, and was once arrested for dissent, then returned to his family due to his old age. He then devotes his life to photography and to his beloved garden – replacing foreign trees with native Taiwanese plants

The other man is Li Xigeng, a real estate mogul, filthy rich, powerful, materialistic, and fond of the seamy nightlife of Taiwan.

The contrast between the two men is stark, representative of the old vs new, culture and tradition vs development and modernisation. It’s a story full of symbolism.

The narrative moves from past to present and back again but what takes some getting used to is the occasional switch from third-person to first-person (from Yinghong’s POV). It can sometimes be a bit too jarring.

The Lost Garden would please plant lovers as Li Ang is adept at writing about the garden and all its wonders.

“Cape lilacs were overtaken by a blanket of misty white flowers in the spring, like a lost cloud pausing at the green leaves; it was the kind of mysterious illusion that could only be embodied by a string of lithe, tinkling notes plucked by the nimble fingers of a harpist.”

Despite having traveled to Taiwan a couple of times – once as a kid with my family (my father used to travel to Taipei for work quite often) and then once again about 12 years ago for my own work when I used to be a research assistant and was working on a project about creative clusters in Asia – I know pretty much nothing about Taiwan’s history. So to read in the translator’s note that this book, published in 1990 (3 years after martial law was lifted), was the first to re-create in fictional form the “White Terror Era”. I of course had to go google that and learnt to my surprise that martial law in Taiwan lasted for 38 years and some 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned during this time with around 4,000 executed.

It seems that the following books also feature the White Terror Era and if you’ve got any Taiwanese author recommendations, please let me know!

The Third Son – Julie Wu

The 228 Legacy – Jennifer J Chow

Green Island – Shawna Yang Ryan

I believe this book works for the Reading Women Challenge – about nature.

Severance by Ling Ma

What exactly was I expecting from this book? Yet another dystopian tale. And yes there was that (this thing called Shen Fever has affected the world) but there was also so much more. There was a story about immigrants – a couple from Fujian province who leave their young daughter to be raised by grandparents while they try to find a better life in the US, bringing her over only a few years later. I was excited – Fujian province, that’s where some of my family is from!

But also I was intrigued by how this woman continues to work at her job in New York City as the world crumbles around her.

And the unusual epidemic, in which the “fevered” go through the motions of their daily lives over and over. For instance, a woman sets the table and her family raises their utensils to “eat” then she clears the table and it all begins again. And yet there are subtle differences with each repetition.

There is a kind of coldness to the book and yet it is irresistible and I am drawn to this woman and the cult of sorts she finds herself in.

A strange and intriguing read.

#AsianLitBingo – The Land of Forgotten Girls

Ever since Erin Entrada Kelly’s third book, Hello, Universe, won the 2018 Newbery award, I’ve been curious about her books. And now that I’ve read one, how I wish I could have read it when I was a kid!

It’s a bit of a sad story really, two young girls move to the US from the Philippines not long after their sister and mother die and their father remarries this woman Vea, who really falls into the “evil stepmother” category. Life isn’t easy but then three years ago, their father returns to the Philippines for a funeral and never returns to America.

“Unfortunately, we still have Vea.”

Vea, who complains a lot, smokes a lot, and locks Sol in the closet when she misbehaves.

12-year-old Sol is defiant but her younger sister Ming is young and doesn’t know any better.

“I’m not a disobedient girl, even though Papa and Vea say I am. Vea thinks it’s because I’m being raised in America, but that’s not it. I just don’t think it’s right to obey orders that you know are wrong – and calling Vea “Mother” was as bad as cursing God.”

They live in lower-income housing. Thin walls, the kind you can hear all kinds of sounds through, and rats. It’s a bleak and depressing place, but Sol tries to make it a better one for her sister by telling her fairytales and stories she makes up or remembers from what their mother told her, including stories about their made-up Auntie Jove, a beautiful adventurer who travels the world and was blessed by fairies.  Ming holds on to the hope of being found by Auntie Jove.

Sol wants to make Ming a treehouse, a place for her to escape, and she breaks into a junkyard to get materials but gets caught by the junkyard owner, who has a change of heart and showcases his artistic side. Similarly, she finds a friend in neighbour Mrs Yeung, a silent Chinese woman. Perhaps there is hope after all for the two girls.

Sol is a great character – spunky, driven, and independent. She’s also a fierce defender of her younger sister. And while she does some silly things like stealing popsicles from the store and breaking into the junkyard, she knows right from wrong, and knows that their living situation isn’t ideal but that as a child, she can hardly do anything about it.

I really liked this story about a young, lower-income, immigrant girl struggling to fit in. As an adult reader, I think I wanted the book to touch more on race and class issues. But if I had been reading this as a 10-year-old I would have enjoyed this a lot, the way it brings in a bit of fantasy into reality.

I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – Asian Immigrant MC.

See the rest of my TBR list here

Find out more details about the challenge here.

The Wildings by Nilanjana Roy

This book was just an absolute delight to read.

Can I leave it at that? And then, you know, you can go run out to your library or bookstore or open your Amazon app and just get this book already?

Not enough?? Really…

Ok then. It has cats.

A clan of cats living in a neighbourhood in Delhi. There is Miao, a wise Siamese; the warriors Katar and Hulo; Beraal the queen; the kitten Southpaw and many more. And their lives are interrupted by a young kitten with amazing powers, she who is able to send out her thoughts and feelings so powerfully that it disrupts and unsettles any animal who senses it.

And of course cats can link up with each other. Because of course cats can do that.

“Mews reached only so far; scents and whisker transmissions formed an invisible, strong web around their clan of colony and dargah cats. But linking allowed them only to listen to each other. A true sending, where the Sender’s fur seemed to brush by the listener, its words and scents touching the listener’s whiskers, was rare.”

I don’t have a cat. I have two kids and I figure that’s enough for me to handle. But I am more of a cat person than a dog person. I like dogs too (well most dogs at least) but there’s something about cats. I don’t think you need to be a cat lover to read this book but it certainly would appeal to cat lovers!

Also, good news, there is a sequel and it’s called The Hundred Names of Darkness.