Malaysian author Choo Yangsze draws on the myths of shape-shifting weretigers for her new book, The Night Tiger

Choo Yangsze's The Ghost Bride is about a young woman in 1890s Malacca who receives a strange proposal: relieve her family's debts by marrying the son of a wealthy family - who happens to be dead.
Choo Yangsze's The Ghost Bride is about a young woman in 1890s Malacca who receives a strange proposal: relieve her family's debts by marrying the son of a wealthy family - who happens to be dead. PHOTO: COURTESY OF CHOO YANGSZE

SINGAPORE - Success is often rooted in failure. In the case of Malaysian historical fantasy writer Choo Yangsze, failure was her first novel about an elephant detective, which she never finished, but which gave rise to two published novels - one a bestseller being adapted by Netflix.

"I sometimes wonder if I'm always writing the same book, just different parts of this world I've made," muses the 45-year-old over the telephone from California, where she lives with her husband and two schoolgoing children.

Her 2013 debut, The Ghost Bride, grew out of a subplot in the elephant detective novel, which also featured tigers - a key element of her new novel, The Night Tiger.

It is a banner year for Choo.

Just ahead of The Night Tiger's publication this month came the news that The Ghost Bride is being made into a Mandarin six-part drama by Netflix.

The book, a New York Times bestseller which was picked as Book Of The Week by television mogul Oprah Winfrey's book club, is about a young woman in 1890s Malacca who receives a strange proposal: relieve her family's debts by marrying the son of the wealthy Lim family - who happens to be dead.

Haunted by her ghostly suitor, she has to uncover the Lims' deadly secrets before she ends up trapped in the netherworld.

 

The Netflix series will be helmed by Malaysian directors Quek Shio Chuan and Ho Yuhang and stars Taiwanese actors Wu Kang-jen and Huang Peijia as well as Canadian-Chinese actor Ludi Lin.

Choo recalls being so excited on hearing of the Netflix adaptation that she could not sleep.

"I'm actually very happy that it's going to be a Chinese-language serial because that's my mother's favourite form of entertainment."

The daughter of a diplomat and a housewife, she spent a nomadic childhood in countries such as Germany, Thailand and Japan. She did not have access to many English books and so voraciously read old National Geographic magazines.

She left her job as a management consultant due to a wrist injury.

While being a housewife, she started writing late at night after her children had gone to bed.

"That worked out pretty well," she says, "except I would also get hungry, so there's a lot of food in my books. What we had to cut for both books were all these meals. My agent complained, 'Why are these people always eating?'"

The Night Tiger, which took her four to five years to write, is set in the 1930s in the Kinta valley area of Perak, where her family is from.

"When my mum was little, she had a friend who was a child servant in an Englishman's house," she recalls. "I always thought about how in those big houses, the masters had no idea what the servants were doing because they couldn't even speak their language."

The Night Tiger features a colourful cast of characters, among them an 11-year-old doctor's houseboy, a dance hall hostess and, possibly, a were-tiger.

Choo drew on the myths of shape-shifting were-tigers from across Asia, from the harimau jadian of Malay folklore, beasts who don human skins, to the covetous were-tigers of Kerinci in Indonesia.

"The premise of were-creatures is fascinating," she says.

"They do stuff we're not supposed to, like killing and eating people. They transgress social mores. It's the question of what is human and what is animal - what divides us."

To research the world of 1930s Malaya, Choo dug up old shophouse diagrams and maps in the National Archives of Singapore; looked at doctors' bags and medical equipment in the museum at the former King Edward VII College of Medicine, which now houses Singapore's Ministry of Health; and even took a night class in dressmaking.

Her work is at the forefront of a wave of South-east Asian fantasy fiction coming out this year, with titles such as The True Queen, the second volume in Malaysian Zen Cho's Sorcerer Royal trilogy, and Singaporean J.Y. Yang's novella The Ascent To Godhood to look forward to.

"I don't think any one of us has to represent South-east Asia to the world," says Choo cautiously. "Everyone writes what he or she wants to write. If it makes people interested or want to visit these places, that's great.

"I hope my books are transporting. I think that's one of the nicest things about books, that by reading novels, you get to go live other people's lives."