Monthly Archives: June 2012

Lost Cells 1: the Cultural Challenge of being Overseas Chinese

I was born on a starless night in Singapore, one among fifty seven million people of Chinese descent to have been born outside of mainland China.

According to my Mandarin teacher, some overseas Chinese were at one time referred to as ‘same cells’ by our fellow-Chinese on the mainland. This sobriquet applied to those in Hong Kong and Macao, the idea being that they were all part of one body, one organism. As for the rest of us, we presumably floated too far away to qualify for ‘sameness’. Like lost cells, we’ve become disentangled from the mother organism and are now drifting aimlessly through space.

I rather like this idea. The term ‘lost cells’ conjures up amoeba-like objects from biology lessons. I imagine blobs with malleable membranes, expanding and contracting as they skim across a vast ocean.

It has sometimes been lonely being a lost cell. China always loomed, but I couldn’t have told you what it signified. When I eventually spoke to other overseas Chinese, I discovered I was far from alone. No matter where our homes were – be they in Jamaica or Australia – we all grappled with what being overseas Chinese meant.

How did this vast ancestral land of ours, with its millennia of culture, fit into our lives?


Of course, we Chinese are a practical people. Nothing as nebulous as existential angst could ever stop us in the day-to-day business of simply getting on. To quote the legendary investor Jim Rogers: “By one count, the overseas Chinese together make up the third largest economy in the world.”

I found this statistic truly staggering. Imagine placing all fifty seven million of us – you if you’re an overseas Chinese, me, my family, friends and acquaintances – onto the same land. Our collective effort, according to Jim Rogers – from the businesses we owned, the work we did, the things we made – would create a powerhouse third only to America and Japan (the top two at the time) in terms of output.

(If you haven’t heard of Jim Rogers, he once worked with George Soros, retired early and then rode around the globe on his motorcycle. The above quote is taken from his book Hot Commodities, a terrific read for anyone interested in investing in commodities.)

Rogers’ statistic surprised me, but it also made me strangely proud. It spoke to me about core Chinese values: hard work, family, education. Because he was talking about far-flung Chinese, it said other things too. I thought of the way many of our ancestors had arrived in unknown places from an impoverished China, with nothing other than the clothes on their backs and the few dollars in their pockets. That they had built new lives out of so very little told me they must have had courage, a gift for adapting, and gritty determination.

Against such odds, overseas Chinese have been conspicuously successful. This is especially true in South-East Asia where most of us live.  

Alas, our success has not made for an easy relationship with the other peoples of the region. It certainly didn’t make my quest for identity any easier.


The search for identity permeates my novel. Its main character is a Nyonya woman who claims a meaningful role for herself within her own culture. With the arrival of the British in Malaya, great change comes, and my heroine struggles as her culture is eroded by new Chinese immigrants and relentless Westernisation. She eventually understands there are things she cannot change; what she can change requires courage, and the confronting of bruising reality.


When I was growing up, I never felt especially Chinese. Thrust into the three cultures of Malaysia – Chinese, Malay and Indian – all heavily spiced by Western influence, I became accustomed to what is now called a ‘multicultural’ society early on.

Unlike friends who can remember astonishing details, I have few childhood memories. The big events I recall were the colourful weddings, of which there were many, all involving copious amounts of food and drink; also Chinese New Year celebrations, which I looked forward to because children received red packets (ang bao) with money inside. I was always excited by a red packet. Before peeling the envelope open, I would caress its sleeves to feel what coins it contained. Envelopes with no coins were the best, because those contained bank notes.

None of what we celebrated made me feel any allegiance to China though. I didn’t even like fireworks, that staple of Chinese New Year celebrations. Whenever my family gathered to light long thin sticks or bunches of red crackers which popped like machine-guns, I cowered inside the house.

“You know we Chinese invented fireworks,” my father once told me, as if this indicated a genetic predisposition to enjoying thunderous explosions.

As I became older, it was clear there were other ways in which I wasn’t typically Chinese; in my bluntness for example, and my tendency to call a spade a spade, which even straight-talking Dutch friends find difficult. Also, while I don’t deliberately seek conflict, I don’t go out of my way to avoid them. If things need to be said, I will say them, regardless of the consequences and even at the risk of conflict. This is quite un-Chinese. It’s un-Asian too; where I come from, talking without mentioning indelicate truths has been elevated to an art form.

Such etiquette works, but only if everyone is equally attuned to fine nuances. My mother once thought she had told me something when in reality she had not – her reference to a gay relative was so oblique, I had no clue what she meant.

Such restraint has passed me by. Who knows why? Perhaps it’s my Nyonya heritage coming alive, or simply the result of decadent Western influence. I can’t help thinking though, what a pity so much is left unsaid by us all. So much holding back of words, thoughts, feeling…while every passing moment masks our and life’s fragility.


In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, I felt truly Chinese for the first time.

It was the virulent criticism of China beforehand which spurred this ‘quasi-patriotism’ in me. Not a day passed in the spring of 2008 when we in the UK didn’t hear about the air quality in Beijing (poor), Chinese policies in Tibet (oppressive), and other tit-bits such as scenes of the Chinese countryside (full of tanned peasants with crooked teeth, decaying houses and filth). In other words, the usual Western media fare when reporting on a developing country.

When British troublemakers unfurled the Tibetan flag at one of Beijing’s iconic towers, I became indignant. Not because I support Communism or think China blameless or disagree with the right to protest, but because the manner of this protest smacked of Western neo-colonialism. It showed no sensitivity to ‘face’, an important part of life in Asia. It took no account of how far China has come in the last thirty years, or how it became what it is today. China had to work damned hard for its moment of glory and no Westerner has any right to take it away. I felt personally affronted, as if I had been slapped on both cheeks.

Fortunately, we were avenged. Watching the opening ceremony live on television with colleagues, I remember very clearly my burning pride at the jaw-dropping spectacle. The grandeur, feats of coordination, and the unfurling of blocks of our history, made my heart full. It made me think of visiting the land my ancestors had come from.


My first trip to China took place in 2011. It was actually instigated by my Russian partner, who had already been three times. I on the other hand, remained nervous. It seemed such a large undertaking, so fraught with meaning.

At the time, my Mandarin teacher, an overseas Chinese woman from Singapore, had just lost her job in London and was reluctantly considering two employment offers from China. “I don’t want to go,” she said. Her statement made my ears prick up. “Why?” I asked. “I don’t understand the mainlanders,” she confided. “And the toilets are terrible. Make sure you have loo roll with you.”

As if that weren’t enough, she added, “Oh, be careful when you go shopping. They’ll fleece you.”

From her description, I expected the worst, and was pleasantly surprised when I loved Shanghai. I was struck by how clean the city was; the floors of every metro station gleamed. Though my Mandarin teacher was right about taking loo roll, toilets were generally fine where we went, better than their Malaysian equivalent (see my blog-post Truly Malaysia: The Wetness of Toilets).

More importantly, I blended in. No one towered over me. I looked like everyone else, which made me feel strangely at home. According to my partner, twenty four hours was all it took for my ‘veneer’ of British politeness to rub off. By the second day, I behaved like a local and happily jumped queues. 

Despite this, I was also aware of being different. For a start, I hardly speak Mandarin. Yet even if I did, I don’t think it would have changed anything. The mainlanders eyed me cautiously and I did the same, as if we knew we shared a heritage but our experiences had diverged too long ago for collective memory to matter. China may be my ancestral land, but it is definitely not my homeland. Like a lost cell which had thrived elsewhere, I knew then that China wouldn’t be my destiny.

To be continued


Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Novel

Smart Girls don’t find Husbands?!

The first day I went to school, a Methodist kindergarten, I cried. My mother stood outside watching for a few hours, but I knew she would leave at some point and I dreaded the moment. Nonetheless, when the teacher asked whether any of us knew the song ‘Ten Little Indian Boys,’ I put up my hand. Drying tears, I opened my mouth to sing.

“One little two little three little Indians, four little five little six…”

I became so carried away that when I finished, I repeated the song in reverse, but the teacher told me I had done enough.

That was how my educational adventure began – with a humble rendition of a children’s song. I was not to know that this karaoke debut, full of fear and trembling, would one day lead me to the spires of Oxford University.


While growing up, I was fortunate to have an enlightened mother who emphasised the value of education. The girls in my novel aren’t so lucky. They live in an era when education for girls is deemed unimportant or ignored altogether. Even my feisty Nyonya matriarch struggles with sending her daughters to school. She fears that education would make them too clever to be appreciated by men.  Below is an excerpt:

COPYRIGHT SIAK CHIN YOKE 2012 (from Spirit of Kueh, my unpublished novel)

I wanted to send them to school but at the same time, was concerned not to damage their ability to find husbands, instinctively knowing that men didn’t like wives who were cleverer than they. Even my beloved Peng Choon, wonderful husband that he was, liked to think of himself as being the smarter of us two, which for the sake of peace, I of course allowed. He would make comments, “Ai-yahh! That is rubbish-lah! You talk just like a woman!” in a particular tone, as if talking like a woman were such a terrible affliction.


Attitudes may not have changed as much as we like to think. Even while I was at school, one or two of the older girls warned me that it would be hard to find a man prepared to ‘put up’ with my brains. Therefore, they suggested I play down my intelligence, just a little. How many girls have been told the same thing, I wonder? To dumb ourselves down for the sake of boys?


The matriarch in my novel eventually sends her daughters to the Anglo Chinese Girls’ School in Ipoh, where they thrive. The school, now called the Methodist Girls’ School (see photograph), happens to be my alma mater. It is also the school which my mother and her mother before her attended.

I have fond memories of the place. I remember our old wooden desks, always badly scratched, with doodles all over, sometimes with the marks of penknives etched into them. We had a desk each, and a wooden chair on which we sat for five hours and forty minutes every day, facing a succession of teachers who would come in to teach us different subjects.

Presumably to ensure that we girls would become good homemakers, we were forced to take Domestic Science. It was a subject I loathed. We learnt sewing, the different types of stitches, cooking and I can’t remember what else. Because Domestic Science didn’t have to count towards my end-of-term mark, I would do as little as I could get away with. Once, I actually failed the subject. That proved too shameful; the next term, I made sure I scraped through. Still, I learnt nothing, not even how to sew a button. (If I need a button sewn now, I take the garment to a tailor.)

My best memory is the canteen. It served food which, living in England today, I would kill for. Fried noodles, rice dishes, steaming laksa, juicy tropical fruit. During a twenty-minute break, we would devour our food while sitting on benches in a large open-air area, under the cool of ceiling fans (see photograph).   

Our facilities would have struck many in the West as ‘basic’ for a leading school. Yet, we had everything we needed: laboratories, a library, a single set of courts for netball or badminton, an open-air performance hall, and a playing field where we had to do timed runs of six hundred metres in the heat once a term.

Whatever we may have lacked, we more than made up for in attitude and spirit. All of us wanted to do well. Amongst my classmates, it was assumed we would go to university and graduate with a degree.

When I arrived at a private school in England, the opposite was true: facilities were better, but ambition and desire to learn were in scarce evidence. To be honest, I was stunned. My new classmates thought they did well if they passed O-levels in five or six subjects, whereas the norm in Malaysia at the time was nine or ten subjects. And it didn’t occur to my English peers that A-grades were there for a reason: to be attained.

It was only after reaching British shores that I appreciated what Malaysian education had given me. I discovered I had a solid base from which to build, so solid that the transition to England proved seamless, the lessons easy.

I cannot thank my Malaysian teachers enough for all that they taught me. When I say that, I’m not referring to what they explained from our textbooks. Rather, I mean the values they carried within, which seeped into the air to mould us into the people we eventually became. I’m grateful also to my former classmates, for the unique spirit they helped us engender. Unconstrained by expectations of who we would one day be, we accepted each other as we were then: pimply adolescents still unsure of ourselves, burning with hope for the future. We competed hard, but we also played hard. That easy mix of friendly competition, can-do and fun warms my heart whenever I remember those times.

We had a good life. And we probably appreciate it even more now.


The story of my Malaysian school started, ironically, in the country in which I now live, with an English vicar.

In July 1895, the Reverend William Horley was already in Singapore. From there, he was sent by the Methodist Mission to the-then frontier mining town of Ipoh, his remit being to open a school. Reverend Horley was, by all accounts, an energetic man. Five days after reaching Ipoh, he began teaching a class of boys in a small rented Malay house with a thatched (attap) roof. When girls started arriving, he taught them as well. This was how my alma mater started.

The thirst for learning among the local population was great, and classes of both boys and girls grew quickly. Reverend Horley literally had jungle cleared before arranging for buildings to be constructed. The buildings were financed not by the colonial government but mainly by wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs. Hence their names Anglo Chinese School Ipoh, or more affectionately, ACS Ipoh, and Anglo Chinese Girls’ School. ACS Ipoh went on to become one of Malaysia’s top boys’ schools. You can read the story here.

As for the girls, their school was located within the grounds of ACS until a separate piece of land was bought and a school constructed for them. (The schools remain twinned; at seventeen years of age, the young women move to the boys’ school to continue in the sixth form.)

Whenever I hear this story, I am filled with awe. I imagine the men and the elephants they would have driven. I smell their sweat as they haul trees in thick jungle, clearing the land so that our schools could be built. I think too, of the progressive Chinese entrepreneurs who gave Reverend Horley the funds. Without them, our schools might never have risen from the ground.

Of course, Reverend Horley and his fellow-missionaries didn’t do the physical work themselves: they hired local help. Nonetheless, they would have had to put up with the vagaries of the tropics: the mosquitoes and insects, the inhospitable climate, the uncertainty of how their efforts would be received. It is true that they arrived to ‘convert the natives’. Yet, this didn’t stop them from teaching children of all races and religions.

Many generations of Malaysians have passed through both the Anglo Chinese School and its sister Methodist Girls’ School (formerly called the Anglo Chinese Girls’ School) in Ipoh. We owe a debt to Reverend Horley and the men and women like him, who braved unknown climes to teach us.

I have acknowledged this by including missionary characters in my novel and depicting the vital role they played in education. Because the timeframe fits, I even imagine meetings between my Nyonya matriarch and the Reverend William Horley himself. This is an intriguing possibility: on the one hand, a fierce Nyonya who is sceptical of British rule, on the other, a genial, larger than life English missionary. I hope you will read my novel to find out what happens.

Meanwhile, on 1 August this year, it will have been a hundred years since the foundation stone for the grand buildings by which ACS Ipoh is known, was laid. Undeterred by the fears Nyonya matriarchs would once have had, I’ve donated a small sum to encourage the girls onwards. It is to be awarded as a prize to the best sixth-form pupil in Physics, if she is a young woman, or to the top sixth-form pupil, also if she is a young woman. Even better if there are two winners (in which case, the prize will be doubled)!

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Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Malaysia, Novel