In Tiger Tail Soup, Seattle-born Nicki Chen delivers a story of eternal hope, a peaceful life derailed, and womanhood attained in a time of war. The novel begins in 1946 with her Chinese protagonist, young mother Han An Lee, traveling by sedan chair north of Xiamen, through the vast mountains of Fujian in the wake of the Japanese surrender in the Pacific. The majority of the story, however, is a recollection that takes place before and during the war on An Lee’s tiny home island of Gulangyu, the mercantile multinational settlement that is still renowned for its culture of sophistication and the marriage of Western and Eastern architecture.
In 1938, under the protection of America and the European powers on Gulangyu, An Lee and her young family are blissfully unaffected by the conflict to their north. The ferries to Xiamen depart on time, and the news reliably arrives via newspapers in English and Chinese for the wealthy residents of “Drum Surf Isle” (or “Kulangsu” in the local Hokkien language). Even the Nationalist government’s retreat up the Yangtze from Wuhan to Chongqing barely makes a dent in the daily life of Gulangyu, with its “tile-roofed houses, cottages painted gold and peacock blue, sandy beaches the color of ripe peaches, and the surrounding sea.”
The cast of characters consists of pregnant An Lee; her traditionalist and foot-bound mother; her tall, proud, and independent mother-in-law; her young daughter Ah Mei; and the domestic helpers, or “amahs” who are such an integral part of aristocratic Asian families. An Lee belongs to a respected island family — she is the daughter of a successful sea merchant who plied his trade across the South China Sea, and she’s married to engineer Han Yu-ming, the second son of an ambassador and a Mongolian aristocrat.Throughout the book, An Lee’s hobbled and superstitious Chinese mother represents her pious, traditional side, while it’s her free-spirited Mongolian mother-in-law, born of the open steppe, who provides the inspiration for An Lee to be a modern Chinese woman. Absent from the start but ever-present in her mind is Yu-ming, who has gone missing on a visit to the northern Fujian city of Fuzhou on behalf of his German employer.
It is under these conditions — raising a young family, caring for her crippled mother, and holding up the household in the absence of her husband — that An Lee experiences the steady approach of Japanese forces and the slow but catastrophic consequences of occupation on a small island community. Xiamen, a five-minute ferry ride away, falls before autumn, and the residents of Gulangyu are outnumbered and overwhelmed by the refugees that manage to flee on the erratic ferry services. An Lee dabbles in ways of peaceful resistance and subversion, and struggles to reconcile the duty to her family with the desire to defend her country. As the war wears on, food becomes scarce, inflation takes over, and catastrophe creeps closer to home.
The author, Nicki Chen, has written a story that beautifully evokes the shady, moss-covered lanes and village atmosphere of An Lee’s home. But the young mother’s story alone is rare and engaging enough to maintain interest — a particularly feminine take on life at home resisting occupation, while making sure those around her survive. Chen’s late husband was a Gulangyu native and the author draws heavily on his childhood stories of southern Fujian for her people and places. And, like the character of Ah Chew, Mr. Chen was born the child of a soldier during his father’s service, an experience that would have informed the descriptions of a hyper-tense domestic life lived in the shadow of war. At times the deftly detailed depictions of the minutiae of An Lee’s island life feel long and labored. For example, a solitary visit to the hairdresser dominates the early passages: “The sky was overcast as I started for the beauty parlor, the lanes and houses gray and shadowless. My red coat was a touch of color, but everything else was dull – the moss-edged brick and stone walls on either side, the steps and inclines that followed the contours of the land, and the open concrete gutters molded to the earth beside the lane.” However, it soon becomes apparent that dwelling on these details is part of An Lee’s way of surviving the relentless grind of occupation, trying but not always succeeding to find the touches of color in Gulangyu’s increasingly gray daily life.
Tiger Tail Soup is a story of a young woman’s life changed forever, set in a time that also changed the peculiar islet of Gulangyu forever. The events of the war in the Pacific put an end to the International Settlement and threw a cloak over its twisting, shaded lanes and curious architecture, one that has been lifted only in recent decades through an immense growth in tourist numbers. At the beginning of the war, hungry tigers emerge from the hills around Xiamen and strike fear into the local population; but by its end, it is bandits who roam the lawless countryside as the city’s greatest threat. A population at peace before the war, the people of Xiamen and Gulangyu after the Japanese have left are battle-hardened, armed, and deeply divided. Throughout the book Chen’s characters speak only in broken English and Hokkien, the language of Xiamen that is spoken in overseas Chinese homes all over the world. But before war’s end, An Lee’s children are being encouraged to learn Mandarin, the language of northern China that now is being used to help unify the People’s Republic of China.
Tiger Tail Soup is a story of survival, and many of the settings in Chen’s novel have survived. An Lee’s daily life takes her past the U.S. Consulate, abandoned by the Americans in 1946, but still standing and converted to a museum on Gulangyu today. Xiamen waterfront’s jewel, the “Crane River Hotel” (Lujiang Hotel) still presents its magnificent stone edifice at the corner of Zhongshan Lu and Lujiang Dao. And An Lee and her mother-in-law take a stroll to visit Gulangyu’s Shuzhuang Garden to spy Japanese warships and “seabirds skimming the surface of the sea.” The garden, with its elegant twisting bridges and rocky shoreline, is still a place of peace and serenity on a quiet day.