By Nicki Chen
An Lee has the heart of a man. But when the Japanese invade China, she’s forced to stay home while her beloved husband goes to battle. Until he returns, it’s up to her to protect her mother, mother-in-law, daughter and soon-to-be-born son.
Surrounded by the enemy, An Lee buries the family gold, stocks the pantry, and watches in dismay as her former teachers flee to Hong Kong. Then, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and take control of China’s international settlements, including An Lee’s island home. To survive the next four years of occupation, she will need all the strength, resilience, and love she can muster.
Emotionally charged and lyrical, Tiger Tail Soup captures the drama and suffering of wartime China through the eyes of a brave young woman.
Intro and Chapter 1
Dodging a low-hanging pine, I settle back into my sedan chair. This washed-out road, like the mountains themselves and the tigers that hide in their shadows, is all beauty and treachery. We start up another slope, my neck straining to support my suddenly heavy head. Finally we reach a level spot.
“A moment’s rest, ma’am?” the lead man asks, and I nod. These carriers use their rest periods to lick the opium they carry in their belts. I use the time to look back.
Walking along the trail, I search for a break in the trees, but we’ve come too far. Mountains are blocking the view of my home now. Kulangsu. Island of pianos they call it, drum-surf isle, egret island. Every detail of its contours is carved into my memory—trees everywhere, tile-roofed houses, cottages painted gold and peacock blue, sandy beaches the color of a ripe peach, and the surrounding sea, blue or green, gray or white, depending on the weather. My beloved home, and for nearly eight years of war, my prison.
“Ma’am.” The amah comes up behind me, my son and daughter at her side. “They’re ready to go, ma’am.”
I search my children’s eyes for the strength I know is there. My ox girl, my tiger boy. Too small for their ages. Still startled by loud noises. And yet the might of their ancestors shines through.
“Get in your sedan chair,” I tell them. “We have a long way to go.”
Our journey to Foochew won’t be over tonight or even tomorrow night. I settle back for another leg in the long, uncomfortable journey, and as my chair jostles and jolts, my thoughts bounce from one memory to another. The Japanese guns and bombs. My tiger dreams. My mother, my mother-in-law, and of course, my husband, Yu-ming, so long absent from my bed.
In the spring of 1938, I was alone and pregnant. And I was worried out of my mind. My husband should have returned days earlier from his business trip. I kept watch for him each day from our bedroom window, straining my eyes and wringing my hands. Each night before falling asleep, I whispered into my pillow, asking him to enter my dreams and tell me where he was. Yu-ming was a scientist, though, and scientists don’t believe in dreams.
Still, I continued to hope for some sign that he was still alive. Instead, when I fell asleep, I dreamed of tigers, nothing but tigers. Here they were again. Tails swishing, eyes flashing, they led me through the forest, past a monk’s fire pit and up to a clearing with white pillars at its center. I’d seen all this before. These dreams that were meant for the child I carried had nothing to do with my husband.
As the sun rose and my dream began to fade, the tigers flicked their ears and growled one last time. I shivered and opened my eyes. Enough with the tiger dreams!
Shaking the dampness from my hair, I dangled my feet over the side of the bed. Surely, I told myself, Yu-ming was still alive. All I had to do was to wait for him. I fluffed the quilt, freshening equally the sweaty and the unused sides of the bed. I’d assumed when Yu-ming went to work for Siemens that the powerful German company would protect him from China’s sorrows. Now I wasn’t so sure. After all, why would bandits care whether the throat they slit belonged to a Siemens engineer? And the bow-legged invaders? I stuffed my fingers in my hair and yanked at it as I padded across the cool tile. It was ludicrous to think the Japanese would ask the affiliation of a Chinese before shooting him between the eyes.
Blinking the thought away, I opened the French doors, and stepped onto the balcony. Below me a rice straw broom whispered on the paving stones. A rooster crowed. And in the distance, one rumbling boom after another. I leaned out over the railing and looked for lightning. But the booming sounded more like bombs than thunder.
No, I thought, it can’t be bombs. The Japanese are still in the north, and these sounds are coming from the south.
“Po-ping,” I called to the amah. “Come out here.”
She shuffled onto the balcony, my daughter’s head resting on her shoulder.
“What do you hear?”
She squinted into the rising sun. “Thunder,” she said.
“No, listen once more.”
“I hear thunder, Young Mistress,” she said again, impatiently bouncing Ah Mei on her hip. “May I go now?”
Before long the distant booms were drowned out by the sounds of shouting and laughter, chickens and birds. A crow swooped down and scattered a flock of chickadees. A vendor selling sweetened soymilk and crispy fried ghosts called at the gate. And once again, it seemed that everything was back to normal on the charmed little island of my birth.
Everything, except that my husband was missing and the Japanese invaders had within the past three months captured Shanghai to the north of us and the capital at Nanking.
Now, I wondered, were they also bombarding cities to the south?
I dressed and went downstairs, intending to ask one of the maids for a poached egg. As I turned a corner, Su-lee nearly ran me down. Only her legs showed as she hobbled toward me carrying a potted Japanese bamboo.
“Oh, Young Mistress,” she said through the foliage. “Look at these flowers. They bloomed during the night.” The small white flowers bursting from a center point in each cluster looked like miniature fireworks. “I want to put them outside,” she said. “Very bad luck. When the bamboo flowers, someone is sure to die.”
I held the door for her, and she staggered, half-running, through the laundry area and across the yard to the far side of the fishpond. As far from our house as possible, I thought as I followed her outside.
If reading the book blurb and the Introduction and Chapter 1 above hasn’t convinced you to pick up this book and start reading, let me say I was totally sold on this book from the beginning lines and it just kept getting better.
An Lee is a determined woman who loves her country, her family, and her home. Her husband unexpectedly enlists in the army and is gone for most of the story. This is wartime, World War II to be exact, but this book isn’t about battles and the nitty-gritty details of fighting. An Lee’s story is one of the hardship, fears, and personal loss the people of China felt as the Japanese invaded their country. It is a story of personal triumph and the courage of An Lee and the other the women left behind while the men are off fighting the war.
There are many characters to keep track of, but most are essential. Without them, An Lee’s chronicle would be incomplete. For some readers, the most difficult aspect of the book is keeping track of characters with Chinese names. This is a character driven novel and Nicki Chen’s writing flows effortlessly, and her knowledge of the people of China comes though as she beautifully develops the characters in TIGER TALE SOUP: A NOVEL OF CHINA AT WAR.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Any lover of great historical fiction will enjoy TIGER TALE SOUP: A NOVEL OF CHINA AT WAR, however, this is not a book to rush through. I give this book five stars out of five.
Format: paperback and e-book
Publisher: Dog Ear Publishing
Publication date: May 8, 2014
Page count: 281 pages
Genre: historical fiction/women’s fiction
To Purchase TIGER TALE SOUP: A NOVEL OF CHINA AT WAR
When I started writing seriously, I was living overseas with my husband and three daughters. I’d been trained as a teacher, but the Manila International School didn’t hire expat teachers. So, after several years of children’s birthday parties, volunteer work, and Chinese painting classes, I decided I needed a new occupation.
By the time I was accepted into the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, we’d moved to a small island nation in the South Pacific called Vanuatu. It made for a very long commute to classes in Montpelier, VT.
My first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is loosely based on the stories my late husband, Eugene, told me about his childhood in China during the Japanese invasion of WWII. He was a great storyteller. Unfortunately, he died before I started writing the novel. So I was on my own.
My daughters and grandchildren keep me busy driving across the mountains or flying across the country to visit them.
I’m currently working on a second novel which tells of a woman who in her eagerness to follow the advice of a fertility doctor, convinces her husband to move to the South Pacific.
Social Media Links:
Google+: Nicole Chen
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