In her new book Tiger Tail Soup, Nicki Chen transports us to a corner of China you don’t often find in wartime China literature – Fujian Province’s Gulangyu Island, an international settlement near Xiamen. But what makes this book even more fascinating is that it was inspired by stories from her Chinese husband, who was actually born on Gulangyu following the Japanese invasion.
Anyone who has read Nicki Chen’s blog – cleverly titled Behind the Story – knows she has some incredible tales to spin (thanks in part to her marriage). This novel about An Lee, a young mother who shows extraordinary courage, resilience and patriotism in the face of danger, is also a lovely story. Tiger Tail Soup offers a touching and poetic tale that ultimately speaks to the enduring power of love.
It’s my pleasure to introduce you to Tiger Tail Soup through this interview with Nicki Chen. A native of Sedro-Wooley, Washington, she holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College and has lived in some of the most beautiful places on earth, from the Seattle area to the Philippines and Vanuatu. Nicki also married her husband Eugene during the extraordinary year of 1967 (yes, the very same year that interracial marriage was finally deemed legal across the US). You can learn more about her writing at NickiChenWrites.com.
Your husband and his family’s stories were the major inspiration for this novel. Could you tell us briefly about some of your favorite stories behind Tiger Tail Soup?
The title of the novel is taken from one of my favorite stories. My late husband was born soon after the Japanese invaded Fujian Province. During his early years, his family seldom had enough food. Meat was especially hard to come by. One day they heard that the Japanese had killed a tiger, so they sent their maid out, hoping she’d be able to buy some tiger meat. As expected, the Japanese commander claimed the heart and liver and the other officers and soldiers took most of the meat. But in the end, there were some scraps left over to sell to the Chinese. My husband’s maid stood in line all morning, and that afternoon she returned with a small piece of the tiger’s tail. A grand prize under the circumstances. In the days to come, they made soup, boiling the tail over and over until every last bit of nourishment and taste was extracted.
Another favorite tale involved my husband’s grandmother. She was a cigarette smoker, but she didn’t want people to know. Unfortunately, her bound feet were too tiny and crippled for her to run to the store. So when my husband was old enough, she sent him. One day after buying her cigarettes, he fooled around so long, playing and talking to the shopkeepers that he had to rush home. Even as the sun set, he took a shortcut through the cemetery. And that’s where he saw the ghost: a Western woman in a long white dress floating above the gravestones. When he told his grandmother, her advice to him was simple. “Don’t worry,” she said. “If you didn’t mistreat the person when he or she was alive, the ghost will not harm you.”
At the heart of this novel is An Lee, who you have described as “a young woman who longs for a life of patriotic heroism” even as she stays at home to take care of her family. You created a very fascinating character in An Lee—a woman who on the surface seems much like a typical housewife, but who in fact demonstrates incredible courage and strength throughout the story. Could you talk about what it was like creating this character? Was she inspired by real-life individuals or by fictional characters you’ve come across in your own reading?
The Chinese women I’ve known, friends and family, are without exception more strong and independent-minded than the old American stereotype of the submissive Asian woman. In that sense, the character of An Lee was inspired by all the Chinese women I’ve ever known and read about. When I was researching the novel, though, I was struck by accounts of the patriotic fervor of the Chinese men and women as they coped with the invasion of their country. I knew that An Lee would be caught up in that fervor, but, like every other human being, she would have her ups and downs—her struggles to keep fighting to survive.
The story is set during the Japanese invasion and occupation on Fujian’s Gulangyu Island, which was where your husband grew up and a place rarely featured in historical fiction about China. How did the Japanese invasion and World War II impact Gulangyu differently from other parts of China?
When the Japanese began their invasion of China in 1937, they weren’t ready to go to war with the Western Powers. And since Gulangyu was an International Settlement that housed many consulates, they stayed off the island, in the beginning at least. It was surrounded by the enemy, though, flooded with refugees, and cut off from shipments of food, fuel and medicine. People in the international sections of Shanghai experienced similar circumstances. Then, in 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and marched into Shanghai and Gulangyu. They remained under occupation until the war’s end in 1945.
It’s too bad that Gulangyu and Xiamen are rarely featured in historical fiction about China since they’re the ancestral homeland of most Chinese in Southeast Asia.
What message or messages do you hope readers will come away with after reading Tiger Tail Soup?
I hope the reader will take away a sense of possibility and hopefulness. We all face challenges and pain; we make mistakes and feel like giving up. But, like An Lee, we can survive and succeed. In a more general sense, I hope Tiger Tail Soup increases the reader’s empathy and understanding of other people. When we read a novel and imagine ourselves alive in another time and place, we escape the narrow confines of our own lives and become someone new.