Of Men and Beasts

Review of Yangsze Choo’s The Night Tiger (USA: Flatiron Books, 2019)
by Samantha Neugebauer

Yangsze Choo’s Malaya in the 1930s feels locked in time behind a slender spirit-filled Rubber Tree Forest abounding in British colonial residences, Chinese shophouses, a melange of local superstitions, and a nostalgic twinkling of seamy dance halls and kerosene-lit bicycles. Yet, through a feminist lens, as Ji Lin’s story unfolds in this bygone Kinta Valley, we wheel around questions still resonant today: what is the separation between man and beast, and how do we escape the violent man-beasts of our lives? These beasts appear in many forms in The Night Tiger—colonist, husband, lover, childhood friend, stepfather, pimp, and weretiger. The true mystery of the novel lies not only in its supernatural plot of tigers who may become men and men who may become tigers, but also in how one may spot these beasts and how one may contain them.

In William Blake’s poem The Tyger, the narrator asks:

When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

The same paradox—how could the same creator beget both the tyger and the lamb—guides a central relationship to Choo’s protagonist, Ji Lin, a part-time dressmaker’s apprentice and part-time dancer at the May Flower Dance Hall. Throughout the novel, Ji Lin is haunted by the trauma of growing up with an abusive stepfather, and she fears her stepbrother Shin, who was born on the same day as she, and whom she loves dearly, will someday morph into a man like his father.

“I’d always told myself that Shin didn’t look like his father, but from certain angles, there was an eerie similarity. The flickering oil lamp my stepfather carried made their features swim, so that for a nightmarish instant, they looked like the past and future of the same person.”

In an augmented form, Ji Lin’s fear could be the collective fear of all women that tomorrow’s men will look identical to today’s; it is the fear of a recursive future in which our institutions continue to fail us and blame victims of abuse. In fact, midway through the book, there is a scene of male domination and power that grimly resembles Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s recent testimony before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee against Brett Kavanaugh, U.S. President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, who has since been sworn into office despite Dr. Ford’s convincing allegations. In the scene, Ji Lin tries to deter unwanted advances from a man who works with her stepbrother:

“Then I was leaping, the biggest jump of my life, trying to get past him, but he caught me by the wrist. No breath to scream, I could only grit my teeth and yank hard. Slipping on the wet floor, he slammed past me into the door. For an instant he stood there, face tight as though he was making up his mind. Then with a twist of the handle, he was out and had locked the door on me.”

This is hardly the only scene of male on female aggression in the novel. Concurrent with Ji Lin’s tale, we also spend time with Ren, a young servant on a quest to find his late master’s missing finger while working for a womanizing British doctor, William. William’s male gaze is palpable and disturbing, but in Choo’s writing he never becomes a caricature of the white colonialist; instead, he represents one shade on the complicated spectrum of male violence and power that also includes local men. In Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, we see toxic masculinity treated similarly in the slave-trade days of late eighteenth century West Africa. Like Choo, Gyasi portrays a world where both local men (the Asante and Fante slave kidnappers and traders) are complicit with British officials in the subjugation of women. In both novels, we also see examples of men trying to be allies to the women in their lives while shackled to their inherited privilege. Shin is one such man. He acknowledges his stepsister’s talent and intelligence, but he goes away to school without fighting for Ji Lin’s right to an education. Unlike the other men in the novel, it never seems like Shin is looking to take advantage of the women in his life. Yet, a reader may easily turn impatient with Shin. Is he a defeatist? Will he use his freedom to free others, as Toni Morrison would advise? Does he have a master plan?

Throughout Choo’s tale, we witness Ji Lin negotiating male privilege in various guises and her navigation of this reality seems quite modern, so much so that one wonders if her character is anachronistic at times. Ji Lin works at the dance hall to repay her mother’s gambling debts (and so her stepfather doesn’t beat her mother senseless for these debts), but she yearns for university education and freedom. In a spirited scene with Shin, who is being supported by his father to attend school, she yells:

“I’ve been hateful and envious about you going to medical school. And for being a boy. And getting to choose what you want.”

Ji Lin’s declaration is convincing and made even more tragic as readers know the step-siblings’ feelings towards each other are powerful, bending in the way of the siblings in V.C. Andrew’s Flowers in the Attic. Furthermore, despite being denied education by her stepfather, Ji Lin does seize on opportunities to go for what she wants, in opposition to both patriarchy and colonialism. In her assertive womanhood, Ji Lin succeeds in stealing the story from her stepbrother. With her hair cut short like Louis Brooks, Ji Lin knowingly laughs with her dance hall friend Hui about the kinds of men who frequent the May Flower. At one point, Hui tells her, “Old is better” because “young men expect you to fall for them and do all sorts of things for free.” Ji Lin doesn’t bat an eyelash at this distinction despite being the novice.

Furthermore, Ji Lin, unlike similar protagonists, does not spend a great deal of time reflecting on the appropriateness of her desires. She is content with her worth and wants; her unhappiness stems from external forces and from the weak choices those around her make. In this aspect, she stands in contrast to the many dithering protagonists of late, such as Sunja, the protagonist of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, who is about the same age as Ji Lin, and is growing up in Japanese-occupied Korea. Unlike Ji Lin, Sunja is racked by guilt and shame, and does not have that magical ingredient that many inspirational protagonists like Ji Lin possess: a love of books and knowledge.

In another episode, Ji Lin describes the hip FMS (Federal Malayan States) Bar and Restaurant in Ipoh. Having a “gracious, colonial façade,” FMS is the place where “both locals and expatriates come to drink... and order Western dishes prepared by a Hainanese chef.” Despite not knowing if they allow single women in, Ji Lin decides to charge into this citadel of privilege and buy herself a steak. She is admirable not only for her work ethic and courage, but also for her gusto and sincerity; it is hard to imagine the British wives who populate the sidelines of the novel going into a bar alone and ordering a midday meal on their own. In moments like this, Ji Lin becomes an unforgettable protagonist, who sometimes meets harsh realities with a devil-may-care nonchalance. This attitude, coupled with her intelligence, is foreshadowed from the start in her name. As she explains:

“‘Ji Lin’ was the Cantonese way of pronouncing it; in Mandarin, it would be ‘Zhi Lian.’ The Ji in my name wasn’t commonly used for girls. It was the character for zhi, or knowledge, one of the five Confucian Virtues. The others were benevolence, righteousness, order, and integrity.”

The Night Tiger is not about the loss of innocence so much as about the benefits of wisdom. From the novel’s beginning, Choo’s major characters, Ji Lin, Shin, Ren, and William, are all too aware of the injustices and misfortunes of life, especially in a world that is patriarchal and colonized. This is a refreshing starting point, reminiscent of the decision that Mohsin Hamid makes in his immigration novel Exit West, where he has his protagonists, refugees fleeing war, escape through magical portals to their new homeland. In an interview with NPR, Hamid explained that he didn’t want his novel to focus on their journey, but rather the experience once they arrive in their new home. In the same way, Choo does not spend time explaining the racist scaffolding of colonialism or the gender inequality of the times, they are assumed, and therefore, we can focus on the nuances of particular lives lived in such a society. It is the Malaya of Anthony Burgess more than the Malaya of Somerset Maugham.

As much as Choo’s story is sunk in the gully of colonialism and patriarchy, it is also a novel that manages to consider violence and the supernatural in non-allegorical and acutely local terms. Most characters display an appetite for stories about ghost animals who not only eat your nightmares but also “gobble up your hopes and dreams.” There are whispers of a tiger village near Malacca where the houses are constructed from tiger prey—rafters of human bones, roofs of hair, and walls of human skin. Doubt and faith in the supernatural interact in unexpected ways throughout the novel, with local characters sometimes expressing skepticism while foreigners and men of science are awed by weretigers and other superstitions. If you believe that “each finger has a personality,” the appearance of a deformed hand may be a supernatural sign, or not. The line between fantasy and reality is not that sharp. As a character explains, “Someone saw an old man walking in the rubber estate in the dark. But when they went to look, there were only tiger prints.” So, are those soft tracks in the earth made by tiger or man or both? Does the distinction even matter in a world overrun with beasts?

The Night Tiger does not have the epic ambitions of other recent colonial-era novels like Singaporean-American writer Wena Poon’s Chang’an: a Story of China & Japan or Pachinko; what Choo gives us is a dark mystery fiction, rife with Malayan folklore. Her depiction of man-beasts and were-tigers interwoven into the euphoric and mundane realities of life feels satisfying in our fourth-wave, #metoo feminism. Given the historical setting, readers understand what strides we have made since the colonial period, but we also see how much remains the same. Ultimately, the most rewarding aspect of The Night Tiger is the creation of Ji Lin, a restless spirit who deftly balances self-sacrifice and personal fulfilment.

Samantha Neugebauer is an instructor at New York University Abu Dhabi. She is on the editorial board of the Philadelphia literary magazine Painted Bride Quarterly, a staff writer for the Paris-based magazine Postscript, and a contributor to the podcast Slush Pile. Samantha has presented on experiential learning in higher education and first-year student experiences throughout the world, most recently in Utretch, The Netherlands. You can find Samantha’s stories, poems, and reviews online or connect with her via social media: https://samanthaneugebauer.com/.