Ying-ying is in her daughter’s guest bedroom, the smallest room of the house. This is very un-Chinese. The Chinese put the guest in the nicest room.
Ying-ying feels like she needs to try to save her daughter before it’s too late, and the only way to save Lena is for Ying-ying to tell her daughter about her past.
Ying-ying doesn’t understand her daughter; why is she an architect if she lives in such a useless house and has such useless furniture and decorations? Ying-ying sees her daughter’s house as ready to break into pieces, just like she’s been able to predict other family disasters.
We flash back to Ying-ying as a pretty, young girl in Wushi, China.
Ying-ying’s family is immensely wealthy, and she is a stubborn, wild, and independent girl.
Her mom tries to keep her in line, but can’t scold her too much because Ying-ying is just like her mom. Ying-ying is so much like her mother that she was named for that similarity; Ying-ying, means "Clear Reflection."
Ying-ying knew little of her family’s wealth, taking jade jars and ivory for everyday items, not valuing them.
When she is sixteen, Ying-ying meets the man she knows she will later marry.
It’s the day of her cousin’s wedding and this man is a guest. During the post wedding party, he teases her, asking if she’s hungry and wants him to kai gwa or "open the watermelon." He cracks open the melon with a knife and everyone laughs. Ying-ying is embarrassed, but too innocent to realize that kai gwa is a euphemism for taking her virginity.
Basically, this guy is bad news.
The next day, Ying-ying’s half sisters are giggling and daydreaming about getting married. Ying-ying can’t share in their chatter because there aren’t any boys that she’s met who are good enough for her (in her opinion).
Just then, a wind blows and a flower that was sitting on the table fall from its stem and lands at Ying-ying’s feet. At this moment, she realizes that she’ll marry the bad man.
Over the next few days the man is around Ying-ying’s home, making annoying comments about how she’s already his and that he dad will definitely give him the dowry that he’s asking for.
Six months later, she is married to this very bad man.
Ying-ying falls in love with him, almost against her will, and begins to live her life to please him.
She conceives a son; she knows it’s a son just like she knew she would marry this man.
Meanwhile, her husband is out womanizing. He finally leaves her for some opera singer, but she’s not the first – there were dancers, American women, prostitutes, etc.
Remember: hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. In anger and hate, Ying-ying aborts her child.
As a quick break from the flashback, Ying-ying begins to speak of her daughter, saying that Lena sees only a small old lady instead of a dangerous tiger lady. (Ying-ying was born in the year of the tiger.) Ying-ying will tell her daughter about this bad man, her anger, and her shame.
Returning to the flashback, Ying-ying lives with relatives in the countryside for ten years, surrounded by babies, chickens, mice, etc. It’s not a comfortable life.
Ying-ying decides to work as a shopgirl in Shanghai, and buys modern clothes and gets a stylish haircut.
Ying-ying becomes a successful shopgirl. As a tiger, she’s good at flattery and uses it on the female customers. She’s also pretty herself, which helps.
While working, she meets Clifford St. Clair, who she knows she will one day marry.
St. Clair courts her for four years, during which he’s too polite to her and gives her gifts that he’s anxious for her to like. She doesn’t even encourage him.
St. Clair thinks that Ying-ying is a peasant girl living in the city, not realizing that she comes from a rich family.
In 1946, Ying-ying gets word that her husband has died. He had last been with some young servant girl, and when he decided to move on, she knifed him.
Upon hearing of her husband’s death, Ying-ying is again angry at him.
She also decides that she’ll let St. Clair marry her. She becomes a "wounded animal" basically luring St. Clair the rest of the way to her, and willingly gave up her spirit that had caused her pain in her previous life.
Ying-ying becomes a ghost.
Ying-ying moves with St. Clair to America, learns the American way, and raises a daughter, all without caring, without any spirit.
The flashback is over.
In the present, Ying-ying admits she never really loved St. Clair (who has now passed away), or couldn’t love him because she was a ghost.
Now Ying-ying wants to give her spirit to her daughter by telling her daughter about her life and her pain. She will bring out her daughter’s tiger nature (Lena was born in the year of the tiger as well).