The Mouse Deer Kingdom

“… the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth.” – Chief Seattle, 1851.

The year is 1905 and Chai Mingzhi, an immigrant newly arrived in the port-town of Malacca, takes Engi, an indigenous boy from the tropical forest, to live with him. Trapped in a realm he doesn’t recognize and finding himself caught up in Chai Mingzhi’s bitter personal affairs, Engi quickly learns to take on the shape of the legendary mouse deer in order to survive in the outside world. Twenty years later, Engi sets out to unravel the mystery surrounding Chai’s past, his tireless quest for the land where the grand Minang Villa is built, and the tragedy that destroyed him.

The Mouse Deer Kingdom is a tale of love and betrayal against the backdrop of a troubled time when hundreds of thousands of Chinese fled poverty and the Qing Empire for Southeast Asia, where their arrival unsettled native life in their new home.


A deep and affecting exploration of assimilation and displacement, migration and adaptation . . . Chiew-Siah Tei’s understanding of disgrace, ruin and ambition, human cruelty, homesickness, heartache and the illusion of happiness, along with her grasp of the nature of commerce, greed, prejudice and hate, make this a heartfelt story.” (Asian Review of Books)

It’s an extraordinary story, little known if at all in this country – but what enchanted me is that it’s primarily such a highly sophisticated storyteller’s book. It draws on ancient folk-tales from the Malaysian forest – and on the history of Chinese commercial emigration at the start of the twentieth century – cross-cutting between them to turn our conventional notions of colonial expansion and exploitation inside out and upside down. I found it hard to put down. (Hilary Spurling)

“[A] skilful tale of love, betrayal, and making a fresh start . . . a story full of complexity and intelligence . . . [a] rewarding and important novel.” (Scotsman)

Tei excels in a series of wonderfully vivid set pieces, including an account of a typhoon that reaches a Conradian pitch of intensity.” (Independent)

“This is a beautiful little book, to be sure; a tragic family saga along the lines of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life about outsiders in a land that seems set on smiting them.” (

Links to reviews:

Chiew-Siah Tei

Chiew-Siah Tei was born and raised in Tampin, Malaysia. A writer who is keen on experimenting with form and medium, Tei produces works that range across literature, film and theatre, in both Chinese and English. She has won awards for her Chinese prose, including the Hua Zong International Chinese Fiction Award. The short film she wrote the script for, Night Swimmer, won Best Short Film at the Vendome International Film Festival, and her play, Three Thousand Troubled Threads, was staged at the Edinburgh International Festival. Her first novel, Little Hut of Leaping Fishes, won Audience Choice Award (Malaysia), and listed for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize and Best Scottish Fiction Prize. The Mouse Deer Kingdom came third in the Audience Choice Award.