Happy Lunar New Year! Below are eight books exploring East Asian experiences through the prism of historical fiction (and one non-fiction) to read this Lunar New Year. Travel back to 1920 and 1930’s Malaysia, Singapore, America, and Britain. Curl up and enjoy these fantastic Asian and Asian-American heroines and heroes.
The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo
In this magical retelling of 1920’s Jazz Age America, readers have whisked away with Jordan Baker as she dazzles in the upper echelons of society. Surrounded by beauty, wealth, and decadence Jordan know’s that everything around her is still close to her as queer Vietnamese adoptee. People love to ogle her as an exotic finery, but few want to know her as a person. She has a mission to fix everything, to learn magic so she can burn out a man’s heart; as a fantastical re-telling of The Great Gatsby, with demons and charm, it’s one of a kind, fantastic read.
The Frangipani Tree Mystery (Crown Colony Mystery, 1) by Ovidia Yu
The Frangipani Tree Mystery is the first book in the Crown Colony mystery series. The bright, tenacious Su Lin becomes the governess to the daughter of the acting governor after her first governess is found dead after falling from a balcony. As Su Lin takes her post, she begins investigating the most powerful family in the British colony of Singapore, the governor’s family. Living in the house full time, she observes how British colonials keep and take power from locals, the deadly secrets of the rich and powerful, and how allies can become mortal enemies. Su Lin and her boss, the highly respected Chief Inspector Lefroy, must tread carefully when another household member dies. As the tension mounts, Su Lin must protect herself from someone in the house. A compelling look at class, power, and how physical and mental disabilities change your status at any given moment. A full review is coming soon.
A Gentleman’s Murder by Christopher Huang
Christopher Huang’s debut novel, A Gentleman’s Murder, is a delightful re-imagining of the Golden Age Detective fiction tropes. In 1924, Chinese-British manuscript editor Eric Peterkin was ensconced as a member of the prestigious soldiers-only club, the Britannia. One night over cribbage, several members make a friendly wager to pass the time. When one of the members in the bet dies, Eric Peterkin suspects one of his fellow club members is a ruthless killer. As he begins to investigate the storied pasts of his peers, he is confronted with vice, secrets, and more murders.
Black Jade (Daiyu Wu Mysteries, 1) by Gloria Oliver
In 1930 Dallas, Texas, a young, blind Chinese laundress yearns for a better life. When Daiyu Wu smells burned garlic on a dress, she becomes suspicious and devises an experiment to figure out why a dress would be doused in garlic. After running a few tests, she finds the dress isn’t covered in garlic but arsenic! Daiyu Wu, determined and resourceful, finds the body that once wore this dress and provides evidence to the clueless police. In this well-plotted mystery, follow Daiyu Wu as she gets pulled into a deadly family drama, tries to live a good life during the rise of “Yellow Terror,” and finds her footing as an investigator.
The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
A rich tapestry depicting 1930’s Malaysia through the eyes of Ji Lin and Ren. Ji Lin is an unfulfilled apprentice dressmaker who spends her nights working as a dance hall girl to help pay her mother’s debts. Ji Lin has almost saved enough money to quit moonlighting as a dancer when one of her clients leaves a severed finger in her pocket. Now Ji Lin must figure out whose finger is in her possession and if the rest of the person is alive or a corpse. Ren, an eleven-year-old houseboy, is left with the bones of his dead master, except for a finger, which he must find in the next 49 days, or his master’s soul will walk the earth forever. The Night Tiger follows these two stories until they collide into one fascinating finale.
Waking the Tiger by Mark Wightman
It’s 1939 in Singapore, and a young Japanese woman is found with her throat brutally slashed. The only identifying mark on the woman is a large distinctive tiger tattoo. The case is assigned to the weary Inspector Maximo Betancourt, who is reeling from his wife’s disappearance and is relegated to the inauspicious marine division after his rising star fizzled. As Betancourt begins digging for information, all clues point to one of Singapore’s most powerful families. A story rich in detail about Singapore in the interwar years and driven by an investigator with nothing to lose, this is a gutsy and heartbreaking story of the pressures of life under British colonial rule.
The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
Technically, The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee is set in the 1890s, generally before most books discussed on this blog, but it’s such a good story. Seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan works as a ladies’ maid in one of the wealthiest houses in Atlanta. In the evening, she writes an advice column under the pseudonym “Miss Sweetie.” Her column is widespread, and the people of Atlanta love speculating about the identity of “Miss Sweetie”; however, when Jo Kuan begins writing about the ills of people who are not in the ruling class, “Miss Sweetie” faces a harsh backlash. When the townspeople pressure the newspaper to reveal her identity, she wonders if she needs to flee Atlanta. On the heels of her social uncertainty, she receives a mysterious letter about her identity. Jo Kuan must learn about her past alone, with her parents dead. This book takes an unflinching look at what life was like in the deep south for Chinese Americans, who could not vote, own property, or work most jobs during the Gilded Age.
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang
In Yunte Huang’s thouroughly researched book, he explores the twin histories of the man who played Charlie Chan on the silver screen and the actual man who Earl Derr Biggers based Charlie Chan off of: Chang Apana. Huang’s tome travails these two dna strands that make Charlie Chan, an honorable detective, a mishmash of asian sterotypes, a hero, and a charicature used to vilify ChineseAmericans. A shockingly complex book about the creation of an asian hero by a white author, during the height of the “Yellow Peril” and the generations of chinese americans that must contend with Charlie Chan and his influence in books and media today.