It gives me great pleasure to reignite the location series by featuring Nicki Chen’s highly rated historical novel, Tiger Tail Soup. I met Nicki via the WordPress blogosphere and I have enjoyed her posts over on Behind the Story. I also follow Nicki through her Facebook Author page. Her updates are always interesting and recently one of them spurred me on to purchase and read her book. Not too many pages into her wonderful novel, I knew I had to see if Nicki would be willing to write a guest post for the Location Series. So, without further ado, take it away Nicki Chen.
Walking the Lanes of Kulangsu Brought My Novel to Life
I’ve always been partial to stories that take me away to some far-off, fascinating place. Maybe my affinity for distant shores was exactly why my late husband captured my heart. Besides being a marvellous storyteller, Eugene had a bagful of stories about an exotic spot: the unique little island off the coast of southern China where he was born.
Kulangsu (now called Gulangyu) is still considered special, even by the Chinese. It’s a quaint vacation spot known for beaches, food and its longstanding ban on wheeled vehicles. Even bicycles aren’t allowed on the island, and it’s been that way for as long as anyone can remember. No one complains, though. The island is small and the lanes narrow.
For years, we thought we’d never have a chance to visit Eugene’s birthplace. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember how China was cut off from the rest of the world, existing behind what we used to call the Bamboo Curtain. Even after Richard Nixon’s 1972 surprise trip to Beijing, China remained off-limits for most of the next decade.
Then in 1983, while we were living in Manila, we heard that a travel agency was arranging trips for overseas Chinese to travel to Amoy, a larger island that’s only a short ferry ride from Kulangsu. Great! We made reservations, flew to Hong Kong, and sailed up the coast to Amoy (now known as Xiamen).
In honor of the new more open policy, Xiamen built a brand new hotel to accommodate their overseas brethren, the Hotel for Overseas Chinese. It was a brave step forward in a country whose doors had been shut to the outside world for more than thirty years. A brave step. But then we showed up, my Chinese husband and his white wife and three half-white children. “Not possible.” The desk clerks shook their heads and blasted my husband with a barrage of refusals in the Hokkien dialect. The hotel was for overseas Chinese, they insisted. Only overseas Chinese. No way around it.
Since the city hadn’t thought to build a hotel for foreign visitors, if we couldn’t get into this one, we’d have no place to stay. Eugene was forced to drag out his best powers of persuasion and an apt Chinese proverb. After twenty or thirty minutes, he finally got us in. (See “No Room at the Inn.”)
Every day that week, we took the ferry across to Kulangsu. We walked its lanes and beaches, tasted its food, and talked to old family friends. If I’d known that I would one day write a novel set on Kulangsu, I would have taken more notes and snapped far more than two rolls of photos.
These days, when I look online at photos of Xiamen, I don’t recognize it. It’s all shining steel and glass skyscrapers and highways and parks. In 1983, it was grimy three-story buildings and bicycles, the way it must have looked right after WWII.
For me, that postwar period of stagnation was a lucky break. The time period for my novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is 1938-1946, a time when the streets and lanes of Kulangsu and Amoy (Xiamen) must have looked about the same as they did the year of my visit. Walking those lanes myself, brought the story of my novel to life … even before I thought of writing it.
My Five-Star Review of Tiger Tail Soup
Nicki Chen’s novel, Tiger Tail Soup, left me feeling as though I had watched the most vividly beautiful movie. Every word is a delight to the senses, the writing as elegant as her description of a tiger. “I could see the golden sheen of his fur and count the perfectly carved pieces of night that were his stripes.”
As the sub-title warns – the subject matter is China at war. But carefully woven through a story of loss and hardship are numerous threads of beauty, humour and love.
In Chen, the reader finds a craftswoman of extraordinary talent when it comes to painting a scene or aptly describing an emotion. The moon is a fishhook over the sea, peace soaks through a crust of skin and sun-warmed rocks are fragrant. Consider this passage when An Lee is preparing to send a batch of letters she’s written to her husband, Yu-ming.
“I pulled out a green silk ribbon, the exact color chosen long ago: a soft lotus-leaf green for the wind-skirts and the water-pads of a lotus pond. Seeing the ribbon, he would think of mandarin ducks swimming in pairs among white lotus flowers blooming pure and untouched above the muck.”
No matter the challenges and privations faced by An Lee as the war drags on and life on the small island of Kulangsu becomes more and more brutal, her life is lived with thoughts turned to beauty.
The tiger thread that wends its way through this novel is powerful. I felt as though I could feel the padding of the large animal’s paws walking alongside of me. Chen expresses An Lee’s connection to the animals so well. “It seemed to me that everyone loved tigers – their beauty and strength, the danger they represented. Tiger-ness, that’s what I love, the idea of a tiger, the myth.”
Throughout the novel, the author is relentless in showing us An Lee as she is – flaws and all. By the end of the story, I felt as satisfied as any doting mother would be at An Lee’s maturity. She reflects on what life reunited with her husband will be. “Yu-ming is only a man, after all. He’s not a mold that fits around all my corners. He isn’t a river that will forever flow into the basin of my emptiness.”
This is the type of book that demands a reader slow down as the end approaches. It is a story to savour. It is a story to remember.
The e-book of Tiger Tail Soup by Nicki Chen is currently selling for the outrageously reasonable price of $1.98 (Amazon.com) Similar bargain price to be had for the Nook version and the Apple iBook. Nicki’s novel has twenty-three, four and five star reviews on Amazon and great ratings and reviews on Goodreads . I invite you to read this book – you won’t be disappointed.