The Night Tiger by Choo Yangsze
Book Group 1 – July 2020
Choo’s second novel is set in the Kinta Valley in1930s Malaysia during the British Colonial period. Variously described as a murder mystery, an historical fiction novel, a coming of age novel and a ghost story; it combines elements of all four. As the novel opens, Ren, an 11 year-old Chinese houseboy is attending to his British master, Dr. McFarlane, on his deathbed. Previously McFarlane’s small finger was amputated and subsequently preserved. His dying wish, conveyed to Ren, is that the missing finger be found and buried with him within 49 days of his death so that he would not become a wandering ghost. Ren, out of respect and love for the old man sets out on his mission.
The other central character is Ji Lin, an 18 year-old dance hall instructor, who inadvertently and unwillingly comes into possession of the lost finger. The lives of Ren and Ji Lin continue unknowingly in parallel until ultimately their paths cross and become intertwined. Along the way family members, spirits, superstitious beings, colonial characters and Malaysians are all peripherally involved in the pursuit of the lost digit. Many aspects of Chinese and Malay beliefs are threaded throughout, especially those related to tigers, whether humans can turn into tigers or tigers can turn into humans. The Five Confucian Virtues play an integral role in the unrolling of the plot.
Our group found the book to be a light, entertaining read. Many traditional beliefs were new and intriguing to us. We felt that being residents of Malaysia meant that the setting and aspects of the story were things we could identify with easily. Two of the well-developed characters were especially appealing to us, both Ren and Ah Long, an older man who ran the house of one of the colonial doctors. Choo herself says she sees the world she created as a mirror of sorts, colonial British and Malaysians, those in the real world and those in the under world, young looking forward in their lives and older characters looking back which was intriguing and subtly portrayed. We saw her writing as providing a nostalgic view of the past, enriching our understanding of and appreciation for the Malaysia of today that we know. A book worth reading by those intrigued by Malaysian culture.