I was born on the 14th of July and growing up, my grandmother told me that if I was born on the 14th day of the 7th month (七月十四) according to the Chinese calendar, my birthday would coincide with the Ghost Festival when the gates of hell are open and ghosts would be free to wander the mortal realm on a sort of holiday. Additionally, I also grew up in a household in which my grandmother created those papercraft offerings that we burn for our dead and I even helped make some of them, so I have always felt an affinity for our afterlife and our funereal customs—and that’s why the premise of Choo Yangsze’s The Ghost Bride appeals to me so much. The book is also set in my hometown of Malacca, which is another huge draw for me.
Now, I have expected a historical fiction set in the late 1800s of colonial Malacca with a focus on the relatively uncommon Chinese practice of ghost marriages, in which either the bride or groom (or both) had passed on, and there is a huge variety of reasons why this is done because of how complicated domestic politics can be traditional Chinese families, as Ms Choo explained in her notes in the book:
Matches were sometimes made between two deceased persons, with the families on both sides recognizing the marriage as a tie between them. However, there were other cases in which a living person was married to the dead. These primarily took the form of a living person fulfilling the wish of a dying sweetheart, or to give the rank of a wife to a mistress or concubine who had produced an heir. Sometimes an impoverished girl was taken into a household as a widow to perform the ancestral rites for a man who died without a wife or descendants…
What I didn’t expect is what a straight up fantasy story this book turned out to be. Li Lan, the only daughter of a once prosperous family, receives an a strange wedding proposal from the Lim family who holds her opium-addicted father’s debts. She is to marry their only son, Lim Tian Ching, but there’s a catch: he’s quite deceased. At the same time, Li Lan has developed a crush on Tian Ching’s cousin (and the Lim family’s new heir), Lim Tian Bai.
There are more than a few parallels between The Ghost Bride and Miyazaki-san’s Spirited Away. Now, there had been many interpretations of this beloved Studio Ghibli anime film but one common take is that Chihiro’s adventure took place in a sort of afterlife realm, and there are a few elements that suggest this including how Chihiro’s parents were trapped because they have eaten the food there (echoing the myth of Izanagi and Izanami) and how when Haku told Chihiro not to look back when they say goodbye (Orpheus and Eurydice). Li Lan, like Chihiro, found herself trapped in the shadowy realm of ghosts and spirits where she had to get a job working in a ghostly manse and her only ally is a man who hides an inhuman true form—a form which was later revealed in an aerial battle with countless smaller bird-like foes. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Ms Choo’s Er Lang was directly inspired by Spirited Away’s Haku.
Speaking of Er Lang: I know his name literally means “second son” but that epithet is almost synonymous with three-eyed Yang Jian from Journey to the West and Investiture of the Gods. I was almost certain that third eye was what Ms Choo’s Er Lang was concealing under his bamboo hat but I was thrown for a loop when he finally took it off for Li Lan. That needle scratch moment when Er Lang asked if she can die happy now that she’s seen his face is probably the funniest moment in the book for me.
Another work I am reminded of is Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow (actually published after The Ghost Bride) because both stories feature a young woman getting entangled with a supernatural being who threatened to sap life her force and she must journey to the underworld in order to resolve her predicament. Ms Choo did a great job balancing the mundane with the fantastic and both aspects of this novel are equally fascinating—though it does feel at times that the book was in danger of falling apart from a surfeit of subplots.
I really enjoyed all the tropes I am familiar with from all the supernatural Hong Kong dramas I’ve watched, particularly involving the bureaucracy of hell and the mechanics of ghostly visitations and spirit possession. Some of the imagery even gave me a bit of a chill, particularly descriptions of the empty extravagance of food offerings manifesting in the realm of the dead and the depiction of the silent puppet servants which rustle like paper when they move. I did wonder why only ox-headed demons make an appearance in the book but their horse-faced counterparts are no where to be seen. The Niutou Mamian (牛头马面)—literally Ox-Head and Horse-Face—are often spoken in the same breath, so it’s a little odd to have one and not the other. I was also looking forward to seeing Heibai Wuchang (黑白无常) or Black and White Impermanence which are well-known psychopomp spirits in Chinese mythology but they were not included either. If you are unfamiliar with them, look them up. They are who we Chinese people get to look forward to meeting after we croak. What joy.
I also noticed that Ms Choo goofed when she repeatedly described Li Lan’s father’s eyes as being dilated,
Bewildered, his pupils were unnaturally dilated. I knew he had been smoking opium again.
While a lot of drugs like cocaine, meth, and LSD can cause one’s pupils to dilate, opioids actually have the opposite effect: they make pupils constrict.
It’s not often I get to read fantasy novels that are set in my home city and even though The Ghost Bride is set in 1893, many of the locations mentioned in the story—the Dutch shophouses at Jonker and Heeren streets, the mansions at Klebang, the Stadthuys—are still standing to this day and are familiar to me. Bukit China, believed to be the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China, is a hill that I have to drive around to get to most places in town. I passed Hang Li Po’s well (where Li Lan meets the medium) everyday on my way back home from school. Having firsthand experience of these places really brought the novel to life for me, pardon the pun.
Aside from the e-book, I also supplemented my reading with the audiobook which Ms Choo insisted on narrating herself. I was there a couple of years ago (pre-pandemic) when Ms Choo video-called to discuss her latest book, Night Tiger, at the local indie bookstore Litbooks and she said she did it because she was afraid that a non-Malaysian narrator would mangle the pronunciation of the words and names of her books. So if you are not Malaysian and wants to hear what everything in The Ghost Bride ought to sound like, you should definitely check it out.
It seemed to me that in this confluence of cultures, we had acquired one another’s superstitions without necessarily any of their comforts.
It’s an impressive work for a debut and between Night Tiger and The Ghost Bride, Miss Choo had carved a very particular niche writing about Malaysian folklore in a period setting. There is a very particular gothic flavour to her stories that I enjoy and if she decides to publish a third novel, she can count me in as a reader. After ghost marriages in 1890’s Malacca and were-tigers in 1930’s Perak, I am eager to see what she will do next.