The Garden of Evening Mists

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

I had earmarked this for my Malaysia book, but the one-liner synopsis seemed too similar to Pachinko, so I put it off for a while. The author does an amazing job of portraying Cameron Highlands, and now I want to visit. The story also seamlessly weaves together historical elements and somehow connects the South Africans to the British to the communists to the Malays to the Japanese. In my few trips to Malaysia, my most vivid observation was how multiracial it was. I know it has its problems, but it definitely sets Malaysia apart from most other countries, and I was glad to see this motif front and center in the book. Beyond the educational historical context, the book mainly explores three types of Japanese art: gardens, woodprint blocks, and body tattoos.

1) “On one wall, a gallery of former judges stared down at me, their faces changing from European to Malay and Chinese and Indian, from monochrome to color.”

One sentence to sum up the last century.

2) “I felt I was about to enter a place that existed only in the overlapping of air and water, light and time.”

Somehow I can visualize this in my head.

3) “They couldn’t kill me when we were at war. And they couldn’t kill me when I was in the camp…. But holding on to my hatred for forty-six years…that would have killed me.”

I wonder how my approach to life would change if I had to live through a war. I feel like I can never really understand my grandparents because I’ve never gone through something like WW2.

4) “As a prisoner, I had been afraid to open my eyes in the morning; now, when I was no longer in the camp, now when I was free, I was frightened of closing my eyes when I went to sleep at night, fearful of the dreams that were waiting for me.”

Sleep is heaven on earth.

5) “Such a simple, basic act, to touch the earth we walked on with our bare hands, but I could not remember the last time I had done it.”

Trying to remember the last time I did this. Does volunteering to plant trees count?

6) “She opened another carton and took out a batch of paper lanterns, each one pressed flat. She gave one to me. It extended like an accordion when I pulled at both ends.”

This brings me back to Mid-Autumn festival nights in my childhood.

7) “Your memories are a form of shakkei too. You bring them in to make your life here feel less empty.”

I learned a lot about various Japanese arts. One concept that I’ll (hopefully) remember is shakkei – how gardens borrow from their background.

8) “”You Chinese are more terrified of merdeka than we whites.'” – Aldrich

The period of Malayan independence -> formation of Malaysia -> Singapore independence is fascinating.

9) “Lying in my bed at night, I listened to the army shelling a CT camp in a valley nearby. Some nights I would go out and stand on the verandah. The sky throbbed from the detonations, lit up by these unnatural northern lights. ‘Aurora equatorialis,” Magnus called them.”

We wanted Northern lights and meteor showers. Instead, we got forest fires and projectile bombs.

10) “Blackened by decades of soot and incense smoke, the red calligraphy painted on them had ruptured and bled into the tattered cloth, words turned to wounds.”

At the beginning, I was unsure if this book had been originally written in Chinese. Lines like this made it clear that the answer was no.

The Garden of Evening Mists is very well written, especially in its depictions of the setting. The whole time I was reading it, I felt like I was in Malaysia. I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, and some of the key plot points were a stretch (like Yun Ling’s sister wanting to build a Japanese garden). But all in all, I’m not surprised a movie is on the way.

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