Compared to, say, an Indian writer who can invoke Bombay with a single word, Tan needs to unpack details without slowing down the story for Malaysian readers. For example, one passage reads:
"Japanese troops landed in the northeast coast of Malaya, fifteen minutes after midnight and an hour before Pearl Harbor was attacked. People think that Japan entered the war through Pearl Harbor, but Malaya was the first door they smashed open."
In addition to managing such geopolitical points, “The Garden of Evening Mists” is loaded with rich and diverse set of cultural biographies, including Chinese, Malay, Japanese, Afrikaner, and English characters.
Arguably, “The Garden of Evening Mists” is more about memory than history. The lushly told story investigates the nature of memory through its protagonist, Yun Ling, a just-retired judge with aphasia. Yun Ling’s youth was marked by violence and loss when she was sent to a concentration camp during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia. To honor the memory of her sister, Yun Ling undertakes an apprenticeship with Aritomo, the Japanese emperor’s former gardener, who is now working on his own land in Malaysia.
Yun Ling acknowledges that she doesn’t know much about Japanese gardens. Despite Tan’s own initial lack of horticultural knowledge, the titular “Garden” acts almost a character itself. His research included not just the usual books and interviews, but visits to Japanese gardens in San Francisco, Melbourne, and Sydney.