Portraits: Tan Twan Eng

The Garden of the Evening Mists most recently shot to fame due to a stunning movie adaptation.
Friday 31 July 2020
Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng is also the recipient of the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Walter Scott Prize. Photo: Tan Twan Eng

If you think the name Tan Twan Eng is familiar, that’s because he’s the Malaysian author of the book, now turned Golden Horse award-winning movie, The Garden of Evening Mists. He is also the recipient of the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Walter Scott Prize, which he tells UNRESERVED was a great honour to win and have opened doors for him around the world. However, he says he doesn’t feel like he has “made it” as each subsequent book he writes presents a new and different set of challenges. If you’ve wanted to know his biggest pet peeve and people’s misconception about him, we delved into that here, amongst some.


How does it feel to have received the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Walter Scott Prize? Do you feel like you’ve ‘made it’?

It was a great honour to win those two prizes, and they’ve opened doors for me around the world. However, I don’t feel like I’ve ‘made it’,  as each subsequent book I write presents a new and different set of challenges.  


The Garden of Evening Mists has been so well received by audiences and critics. Was that expected? How do you feel about that? 

I knew the film was beautifully and sensitively crafted when I first watched it on my computer, but I only experienced the full magnitude of its power when I first saw it in the cinema at the gala premiere in Kuala Lumpur.  More than anything else, I’m relieved that it’s been warmly and enthusiastically received by audiences and critics in all the countries where it has been screened.  I’m also very grateful to the cast and crew for making such a timeless, moving film.   

You were a former Intellectual Property lawyer who became a novelist. How and why did you decide to make the switch?

I wasn’t a good lawyer, in the sense that I didn’t enjoy cleaning up other people’s mess. I took a year or two off and obtain a Masters degree in Law. I  used that time to write a novel.


What is your favourite book to read over and over?

It’s impossible for a writer to list just a single favourite book. I’d include on a long list An Artist of The Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro; Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively; Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. And so many more.  


Your favourite film of all time?

Again, I can’t give you a definitive list. My tastes are catholic: The English Patient; Eat Drink Man Woman; Michelle Yeoh’s and Donnie Yen’s early Hong Kong martial arts oeuvre. 

Are you a Kindle, book or a mobile device kind of reader?

Definitely a book. Hardback and trade paperback. I find I can’t remember much of anything I read on a Kindle. 


What do you like to do to relax?

Read. Go for a long walk. Swim laps in my gym pool. 


Are you a morning or night person?

Morning. The day feels so much longer when you wake up early; there’s so much more time to do the things that need to be done. 


What’s a typical day for you like?

Most days will begin with a session at the gym before I sit down at my desk to write.  I’ll work from 9.30 to about 4 p.m.  Then I’ll stop, go for a walk, and read until bedtime, which is around 10.30pm. 


Who or what inspires you?

Reading a well-written, unpretentious piece of prose or poem and discovering a great seam of wisdom in it, or discovering that it’s given me a different way of looking at the world. 


Most overused phrase or word?

That tired quote on the cover of novel which makes me grit my teeth: ‘So-and-so shows us what it means to be human.’ 


What’s your hidden talent?

Answering interviews with charm. 


What makes you happy?

Solitude and silence. 


What makes you sad?

When people tell me with great but misguided pride that ‘They don’t read novels.’ They don’t seem to realise that they’re missing out on so much of the accumulated experiences of our entire human history. 


Best gift you have ever received?

The gift of Life, of course. 


What is the biggest misconception that you think people have about you?

That I’m an easygoing person. 


Favourite holiday destination?  

The United Kingdom. Its countryside in autumn and winter.    


Favourite food?



What is a pet peeve of yours?

Ill-mannered and inconsiderate people. Parents who let their children scream and shout and behave like brats in public places.  


What do you spend the most money on?



What do you spend the least money on?

Household decorations. 


What is success to you? 

Being able to do the things that mean the most to me. 


What advice would you give to your younger self 10 years ago?

Buy shares in Apple. As many as you can afford. 


Word association

Garden – Hard work

Love –    Harder work

History – Is still alive

Emotion – Keep it private

Rain – Somerset Maugham

Travel – Jet-setting hypocrites

Penang – Traffic-jams

South Africa – Corruption 

Success – Independence

UNRESERVED – Awkward name