Plenty of girls daydream about their future weddings. Usually these dreams include, at minimum, another human being. In that sense, the first marriage proposal in Yangsze Choo’s debut novel, The Ghost Bride, is a little unusual: It comes from someone who’s been dead for months.
Set in the 1890s in Malaysia (or, as it was known then, Malaya), this decadently imagined, elaborately romantic novel delves into the world of the supernatural in colonial Chinese culture, including the tradition of “spirit marriages.” Historically, spirit marriages were a way to appease the ghosts of young people who had died single, so they wouldn’t be lonely in the afterlife. The novel’s heroine, Li Lan, receives an offer of marriage from the wealthy family of Lim Tian Ching, a young man who died suddenly of a fever. It seems the young man carried a torch for Li Lan while he was alive, though she was intended for his cousin (unbeknownst to her). The cousin now stands to inherit the family fortune and get the girl, which drives the petulant ghost of Lim Tian Ching crazy.
We know this because the ghostly groom visits Li Lan in her dreams, explaining the situation and making ominous threats. Soon thereafter, Li Lan herself gains access to the realms of the dead, and it’s here that the novel takes a unique and wonderful turn.
Ordinarily, an unmarried young woman in a Malaysian port city in the 1890s would not be permitted to wander around unescorted. But due to some unfortunate circumstances (which I won’t give away), Li Lan happens to be more or less invisible, caught between the physical world and the ghost realm. Though distressing for her, this is excellent for the reader, because it gives us a sharply observant and entertaining guide to both the city and the spirit world. We see not only the vast banquet halls and embroidered silk clothing and sumptuous meals of the historic city, but also the afterlife’s terrifying ox-headed demons, floating green spirit lights, unnaturally aged courtesans, silent puppet servants, enormous predatory birds, hungry ghosts and many other wonders.
Perhaps unusual for a story so fantastical, the novel began as Choo’s senior thesis at Harvard. “I wanted to write about Asian female ghosts,” she explains by phone from her home in California, where she lives with her husband and two young children. After receiving a degree in social studies from Harvard, Choo worked in various corporate jobs before writing The Ghost Bride and landing an agent for the novel through an unsolicited query letter. She’s been surprised and delighted by the early accolades the book has received.
Choo grew up in Malaysia, but her father, a diplomat, was often posted abroad, and she traveled extensively with him. She speaks English in a very proper-sounding British accent. “Everybody and their uncle has some ghost story,” she says of the Malaysian inspiration for her novel. “And I realized the worst ghosts were all women! I thought, why is that?”
Choo theorized that the misogyny historically inherent in Asian culture was to blame for the fact that the scariest ghosts were all women: “Maybe this is a subconscious, underlying way it’s showing up—people feel guilty,” she says. Describing a few particularly awful examples—including a “female ghost that’s just a head flying around, trailing placenta”—she adds that the prevalence of female ghosts must have “some sort of root in the sense that women were historically oppressed, and only after death could they seek their revenge.”
All of which she’d intended to explore in her thesis. “But,” she says, “I didn’t write it.” Worried that she wouldn’t be taken seriously in academia, she instead submitted a “boring thesis about industrial townships,” and that was that.
Some time later, while working on an early novel (one she now calls an “absolute disaster” with a “massively complicated” plot), Choo was doing research in the archives of her local newspaper in Malaysia and came across an offhand mention of the fact that “ghost weddings” were becoming increasingly rare. She was instantly intrigued.
Digging around, she found “many manifestations of this [tradition], weird, weird permutations and local variations.” Research on ghost weddings led her back toward the other ghosts that populate her homeland.
“Because my book is set in Malaya, which is kind of a melting pot, there are many different kinds of ghosts there that you wouldn’t get in China,” she says. For example, there’s an Indian ghost that specifically haunts banana trees; people who believe in it studiously avoid them. Malaya’s traditions and stories were brought there from several very different places and gradually mixed together, Choo explains. “It’s all a big mishmash.”
One product of those blended traditions in The Ghost Bride is Li Lan’s foil and possible romantic interest, Er Lang, who looks like a man but isn’t precisely human. He keeps his face hidden beneath a bamboo hat, frustrating our curious heroine: “Perhaps there were no features beneath his hat at all, merely a skull with loose ivory teeth or a monstrous lizard with baleful eyes,” she speculates. He turns out to be something entirely unexpected, an irresistible invention of the author drawn from several different myths.
Then there’s Amah, Li Lan’s nanny, who worries nonstop about bad luck entering the household. She is typical of a certain kind of rural Chinese person, Choo says, even today. “Many Chinese are extremely superstitious,” she says, adding that the dozens of rules and precautions Amah uses to ward off bad luck probably spring from an urge to control a chaotic world.
“I have my own theory about this,” she adds, laughing. “I wonder if the first person who did all this was kind of OCD.” Choo tells a story about a friend of her father who, for years, wouldn’t use the front door of his house because a fortuneteller had told him it was bad luck. This was inconvenient for him and his family and guests, but there was no ignoring the fortuneteller’s advice; he believed it.
Choo says she doesn’t have such superstitions herself, though she was amused to notice recently that Los Angeles is peppered with signs advertising psychics, evidence of the same instinct.
Meanwhile, the author is recording the audio version of The Ghost Bride and working on a new novel, “another subplot out of my gigantic mistake.”