Interview with Nicki Chen about her Novel “Tiger Tail Soup”

9781457526756cvr.inddIn 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.

Nicki Chen
Nicki Chen

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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.

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A big thanks to Nicki Chen for this interview! You can learn more about Tiger Tail Soup and her writing at NickiChenWrites.com, where you’ll also find an excerpt from the novel.

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22 thoughts on “Interview with Nicki Chen about her Novel “Tiger Tail Soup”

  • September 19, 2014 at 9:36 am
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    I have reader of Nicki’s blog for awhile now (actually, it is through her guest post that I found out about ‘Speaking of China) and I always love the stories she shares. I enjoy her style of writing and I am sure that this book is just as captivating.

    Reply
    • September 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm
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      Yes, now I remember finding your blog through Nicki’s blog too! Her writing style is really gorgeous — and if you’re a fan of her work (including her blog), you definitely don’t want to miss this book.

      Reply
  • September 19, 2014 at 1:29 pm
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    ‘Tiger Tail Soup’ is catchy! It must be more like a meal – the book, that is. Those tales are fascinating. The graveyard ghost, just wondering… Fujian was where our ancestors came from too. I believe Nicki had a rich and wonder life with her husband, with so many tales and adventures to share. Unfortunately, I avoid internet transactions. So will wait for the hard copy if they are available here. Anyway, congratulations to Nicki!

    Reply
    • September 19, 2014 at 4:37 pm
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      It is a catchy title, isn’t it?

      I can understand avoiding internet transactions — online shopping isn’t for everyone. But I’ll bet if you go to your local bookstore they might be able to order you copy too, instead of waiting. I’ve done that from time to time in the past.

      Reply
    • September 20, 2014 at 6:03 am
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      Thank you, Ordinary Malaysian. I hope you’ll get a chance to read Tiger Tail Soup. You’ll probably have to ask a bookstore to order if you don’t want to order online. I do have international distributors. They include: Baker & Taylor, Ingram, and the Books-In-Print data base.

      I’d love to hear if you’re able to get a book, and if so, what you think of it.

      I have one review on Amazon from a Malaysian reader. She’s married to an Englishman, so the name she goes by in English is Janet Williams. You can read her review here. http://www.amazon.com/Tiger-Tail-Soup-Novel-China/product-reviews/1457526751/ref=cm_cr_dp_see_all_summary?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1&sortBy=byRankDescending

      Reply
      • September 20, 2014 at 8:53 am
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        @Nicki Chen, thanks for the link. Just read the reviews, fascinating. Will check out the local stores and see whether they have the book in stock or whether they will accept an individual order. But pretty occupied these currently.

        Reply
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  • September 19, 2014 at 11:14 pm
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    Interesting interview, and the “tale of Tiger tail soup” was surreally poignant. Wow, I just used the rhyme. haha

    Well, Fujian caught my attention because my grandparents were originally from Fujian, Hui’an.

    Maybe this is also anecdote from my parents. I can’t verify if my knowledge of Fujian from my grandparents are true since I’ve never been to Fujian.

    –> Fujian is the region that was naturally separated from all northern parts of China by those ranges of mountains which make the Fujian region as “Beauty of the Nature”. The protection given by the nature makes the Fujian region as “Haven” for scholars, diplomats, all Dynasty refugees to come in exile every time there were warring periods in China history.

    –> Quanzhou used to be the World Largest port when China was at its peak. Since “Hokkien” or “Fujian hua” was the main dialect in Fujian, a lot of loan words from Hokkien can be traced in Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese language. Just google “Minnan” and you can explore in wikipedia because giving a link in Jocelyn blog is a pain.

    Needless to say Majority of Taiwanese speak “Hokkien” and those Chinese diaspora during Tang Dynasty, known as “Tan People” who migrated to Malaysia, Singapore, Burma, Indonesia all speak Hokkien compared to Guangdong who speak Cantonese who migrated a lot to Canada, and the US.

    The most famous Hokkien word in Today usage is “Tea” which comes from “Te” Hokkien language since China is the home of Tea, when trading from the most busiest port Quanzhou, it’s understandable cultural exchange could have happened a lot.

    –> Fujian is also the scholars feeder in China since it’s the region that harbors those scholars fled from every Dynasty breakup.

    –> To invade Fujian, Japanese has to rely more on their Navy power rather than infantry troops.

    That’s all I have to say.

    Reply
    • September 20, 2014 at 6:21 am
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      Rdm, you had so many interesting things to say about Fujian. When we visited Xiamen in 1983, my husband pointed to the rocky mountains all around us and said, “With such rocky soil, this has always been a hard place to make a living. That’s why over the years so many people left Fujian Province for countries around SE Asia.” Driving around, we saw people building fences from big slabs of granite. It seemed like the hard way to make a fence.

      I’ve been working on a post about Fujian’s oolong tea that I’ve scheduled for the second week of October. It’s really an interesting subject.

      Reply
  • September 19, 2014 at 11:46 pm
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    Great interview! I love the story behind the title of the book, especially since it’s based on a real life experience.

    Reply
  • October 9, 2014 at 4:57 am
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    So great to read more about Nicki, aside from her great blog, on another interesting blog. Although I am not married to a man from a different culture, the fact that I have lived abroad, far from my native land, for many years triggers my interest for people, and especially women, who are living either far from their native land or have married outside of their safety net. I haven’t read Nicki’s book yet, but this interview is certainly convincing me to get a copy. Thank you to Jocelyn and Nicki for this good post.

    Reply
  • October 9, 2014 at 8:46 am
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    Evelyne, I’m glad you stopped by to read the interview. Jocelyn is such a supportive blogger. I recommend her blog and also the anthologies she’s contributed to: Unsavory Elements and How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit?

    Reply
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