Taking a second look at the unpleasant past

Tan Twan Eng's novel The Garden Of Evening Mists, which has been made into a film, deals with the scars of World War II

Tan Twan Eng's second novel has been made into a movie starring Angelica Lee Sin-je and Hiroshi Abe.
Tan Twan Eng's second novel has been made into a movie starring Angelica Lee Sin-je and Hiroshi Abe.PHOTO: COURTESY OF TAN TWAN ENG

It was at a party in South Africa that Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng met the gardener of the Emperor of Japan.

They exchanged only a few words - neither spoke the other's language - but the man's very job description set bells ringing in Tan's head.

Thus emerged the evocative opening line of his second novel, The Garden Of Evening Mists: "On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan."

The exquisite garden of Tan's 2012 novel, set amid the rolling tea plantations of Cameron Highlands, will come to life on the screen in a movie adaptation by HBO Asia, Malaysian film production company Astro Shaw and Malaysia's National Film Development Corp (Finas).

It will be shown in Singapore at Cathay cinemas from Thursday and be available on HBO and HBO Go later this year.

"I am quite excited," says Tan, 47, over the telephone from Kuala Lumpur, where he is doing press events. "It is a very immersive film. Right from the opening scene, it's beautifully shot, very lush - the colours are gorgeous."

The novel moves back and forth in time through the life of Teoh Yun Ling, who in her late 20s, braves the Malayan Emergency to become the apprentice of Japanese gardener Nakamura Aritomo, who has exiled himself to Cameron Highlands.

Yun Ling is the sole survivor of a Japanese internment camp during World War II. Despite her abiding hatred of the Japanese, she decides to seek out Aritomo so she can build a garden in memory of her sister, who died in the camp.

The Garden Of Evening Mists was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, beating two-time Booker winner Hilary Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies to the latter.

Tan, a former lawyer, was previously longlisted for the Booker for his 2007 debut novel, The Gift Of Rain, which is set in WWII and about the relationship between a young Malayan man of mixed heritage and a Japanese diplomat who teaches him aikido.

The Garden Of Evening Mists film received nine nominations at Taiwan's Golden Horse Awards last November, winning for Best Make-up and Costume Design.

Tan Twan Eng's second novel has been made into a movie starring Angelica Lee Sin-je and Hiroshi Abe.
Tan Twan Eng's second novel has been made into a movie starring Angelica Lee Sin-je and Hiroshi Abe. PHOTO: CANONGATE BOOKS

It stars Malaysian actress Angelica Lee Sin-je and veteran Taiwanese actress Sylvia Chang as the younger and older Yun Ling respectively, as well as Japanese actor Hiroshi Abe as Aritomo.

Singaporean actress Tan Kheng Hua has a supporting role as Emily, the wife of Magnus, a British tea planter played by Scottish actor John Hannah.

In the novel, Magnus is South African and displays anti-British sentiments, having fought in the Boer War against the British.

Tan says he was surprised by the change of Magnus' nationality, which has not gone down well with his South African friends. He is based in Cape Town, where he did his master's in shipping law.

"I think that the tale has lost a slight complexity and colour for it," he says, "but I understood because Magnus came with his own entire history and Tom (Lin, the director) explained that it was difficult to show all this complicated history to the viewer."

Tan, who is single, is working on his next novel, which he declines to share more about.

His involvement with the film was minimal - he saw an early draft of the screenplay and sent it back with "some very harsh comments" on characterisation. He visited the set twice during filming, accompanying his mother, 71, who was an extra in a tea party scene.


"I was surprised that they built a Japanese house and garden from scratch," he says. "The garden was constructed in the lowlands, not high up because there was no land big enough up there.

"So it was strange because it was very hot and humid on the set, but through post-production visual effects, they made it look misty and cool. It was surreal seeing it on screen and knowing I had been there, sweating away."

Though the film could draw more visitors to Cameron Highlands, Tan hopes the area can be preserved against overcrowding and over-development. "Tourism ruins a lot of places."

Rather, he would like to get audiences thinking about the difficult parts of their history.

"In South-east Asia, we are remembering only the pleasant things, what is useful to the politicians," he says.

"There's a difference between ignoring something wilfully and forgetting. Forgetting happens naturally, but to ignore something wilfully because it's unpleasant doesn't make the unpleasant thing go away.

"We should bring it out into the open and have a reasoned dialogue about it, rather than pretend it never happened because otherwise, it's going to fester and affect the present as well."

• The Garden Of Evening Mists ($19.94) is available at Books Kinokuniya at bit.ly/GEMists

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An earlier version of this article listed a meet-the-author session with Tan Twan Eng. This has since been cancelled.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2020, with the headline 'Taking a second look at the unpleasant past'. Subscribe