Yangsze Choo's 'The Fox Wife' reveals a hidden world of mythical creatures


  • Books
  • Tuesday, 20 Feb 2024

'It is the other side of the fairytale that intrigues me, the darkness and wonder that lurks outside the open door at night,' says Choo. Photo: James Cham

Across many Asian cultures, you can find varying accounts of “fox spirits”, from Japan’s kitsune to Korea’s "gumiho".

Unfortunately, Malaysia is not one of them, or The Fox Wife – the latest novel from New York Times bestselling author Yangsze Choo – would have turned out very differently.

“I considered setting this book in Malaysia, but then I realised that foxes are not native to our area!” says the California-based Malaysian author in a recent interview.

Since she was a little girl, Choo read a lot of old Chinese folktales, including those of fox women (and men) who tempt and beguile humans.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the shape-shifting foxes of Chinese literature, so I did a lot of research about the ancient cult of the fox, which has its roots in northern China, and likely spread from there to Korea and Japan.

“I often wondered how the story played out from the shape-shifting fox’s perspective. Why did the foxes bother with humans, and what exactly was going on in their own busy lives? It is the other side of the fairytale that intrigues me, the darkness and wonder that lurks outside the open door at night,” says Choo.

The Fox Wife, out now in local bookshops, is a historical mystery set in Manchuria in 1908, when the Qing dynasty is on its last legs.

Choo's new book 'The Fox Wife' is about old loves and second chances, the depths of maternal love, and ancient folktales that may very well be true. Photo: MacMillan Choo's new book 'The Fox Wife' is about old loves and second chances, the depths of maternal love, and ancient folktales that may very well be true. Photo: MacMillan

We are introduced to Bao, a detective with an uncanny ability to sniff out the truth, who is hired to investigate the mysterious death of a courtesan.

Meanwhile, a prominent family that owns a famous Chinese medicine shop is known for curing all sorts of ailments, but can’t seem to escape the curse that afflicts them – their eldest sons die before their 24th birthdays.

Their new servant, Snow, appears to bring change to the family’s luck, but she’s not at all as she seems. Harbouring secrets of her own, Snow is on the hunt for the man responsible for the loss of her child.

As it turns out, Bao’s and Snow’s searches are inextricably linked, and they are taken on a journey from northern China to Japan, weaving a bittersweet tale of loss, vengeance and second chances.

In the shadows

Based on her research for the book, Choo found that the fox has historically held a marginalised position in Chinese culture – both worshipped and condemned, they existed in the shadows of human communities.

“Foxes were said to be uncontrollable, lustful and wicked, but were also considered fertility deities, healers and moral guides. The ability to shift between human and beast forms echoes that uncertain status of in-between,” she explains.

Choo’s 2013 debut 'The Ghost Bride' sees a young woman in 1890s Melaka haunted by her ghostly suitor. Photo: HandoutChoo’s 2013 debut 'The Ghost Bride' sees a young woman in 1890s Melaka haunted by her ghostly suitor. Photo: Handout

In reading countless stories about foxes, including purported historic encounters from China and Japan, Choo found that there are far more stories about fox women than men.

“Perhaps because many of the stories are told from the viewpoint of a male protagonist, usually a scholar, who is seduced by a woman who approaches him. I’ve always wondered at the lopsidedness of this portrayal. Some stories are very odd and disjointed; others seem to hint at a rich and busy life for these creatures,” she says.

Choo even travelled to China to visit the garden villas of Suzhou and Hangzhou, on which some of the houses in the novel are based.

“It was intriguing to explore the literati culture there, which had refined opinions about everything from tea cups to the style of furniture used in a scholar’s study. Setting this collision of old traditions against a backdrop of revolution, when the imperial ruling class was about to be overthrown, made it particularly poignant to me.

“I’ve also always been interested in trains – which showed up in The Night Tiger – and in this novel, I was excited to research the South Manchuria Railway, which was headquartered in Dalian. Travel in those days, especially as a lone woman, would have been quite difficult and filled with unexpected occurrences,” she adds.

The daughter of a Malaysian diplomat, Choo was born in the Philippines and grew up in Japan, Thailand, and Germany. After boarding school in Singapore she went on to study in the United States.

She graduated from Harvard University (where she did Social Studies) and was working as a management consultant prior to releasing her debut novel The Ghost Bride in 2013, which was made into a successful Netflix original series in 2020.

She is married to a Chinese-American whom she met while studying. They have two children.

All of Choo’s books so far – The Ghost Bride and The Night Tiger, and now The Fox Wife – have been set in historical time periods, with two in British Malaya. Would she ever consider writing a novel set in modern times?

“I’ve thought about it from time to time, but my problem with writing a contemporary novel is that the world feels like it’s changing very fast, especially with technology,” she admits.

“It’s hard to capture the present, so I sometimes feel like I might write a science fiction novel, set in a far future instead.”

So the time may come, but not quite yet – the book she’s currently working on will also be set in the past ... as to the what, when and how, we’ll have to wait and see.

The Fox Wife is available now in good bookstores nationwide.

Follow us on our official WhatsApp channel for breaking news alerts and key updates!
   

Next In Culture

Melaka government allocates funds for preserving historic Villa Sentosa
Writers are refusing PEN America award in protest of its position on Gaza
London's last remaining cabmen's shelter receives official heritage status
Weekend for the arts: shades of silence, Japan Anime Exhibition
Greece reopens historic mosque for Eid celebration
'Sadness' as Australian court rules against 'women only' art exhibit
Novels from Asia, Europe and South America vie for International Booker Prize
Heritage textile award honours artists, designers and craftsfolk
Street artist brings hometown flavour to Negri Sembilan
Anime invasion: a month of thrilling events to check out in KL

Others Also Read