It began, as all Chinese New Year celebrations must, with food. Paper plates loaded with steaming hot rice and stir-fried vegetables were spread onto tables. “Eat! Eat!” the women running around both floors of the Islington Chinese Association (ICA) exhorted, in a way which brooked no dissent. Disobedience would not have been an option.
A crowd numbering hundreds had gathered on a discreet street in north London where the ICA is located, to ring in the Year of the Water Snake. In addition to fan dances, calligraphy, demonstrations from a kung fu master and of course, the Lion Dance, there was to be literature: poetry from a British-born Chinese writer, and a reading by me of extracts from my novel. We’ve never done this before, Dr. Stephen Ng, ICA’s Coordinator, and Lady Katy Blair, its co-Founder and CEO, had confided; you will be an experiment.
Amidst whispering and much howling (from the younger guests), it seemed to me a brave experiment, especially since part of the audience spoke only halting English. As I watched people run hither and thither, I wondered how the afternoon would go.
Those worries didn’t last long. We were soon distracted by an insistent beat and the clanging of cymbals. On a pavement outside, a round Chinese drum, its black lacquer gilded with golden characters, had been set up. The drum was extraordinarily loud, inducing a shiver in the pit of my stomach – a frisson I always feel when I know that the epic Lion Dance will follow. Neighbours peeked out of their windows as the Lion approached, bearing its multi-coloured head. This was a friendly beast, so friendly that at least one little boy was tempted to peer solemnly into its ravenous mouth. The Lion wagged cheeky pink tongue and tail in every corner, which I hope was enough to chase away any evil spirits lurking.
By the time I returned inside, the upper floor of the ICA had been transformed. In its place was a concert hall decked with rows of chairs. From the stage at the front came the dulcet tones of a Chinese flute, so lulling that even the children stopped squirming. When Anna Chen, poet and activist, took to the stage, she invigorated the crowd by half-reading and most astonishingly, half-singing, her poignant poems. The lyrical Anna May Wong must die was especially powerful – ‘a personal journey through the life and crimes of Hollywood’s first Chinese screen legend’, it says on Anna’s website. (I hope everyone reading this will have the opportunity to watch Anna perform). I could see that people listened, but you had to be able to hold their attention.
All too soon, it was my turn. I had been told I would go onstage after the fan dance. I waited in the wings, tense because I knew it would be the first novel reading at the ICA, afraid also that my story might not be regarded as ‘Chinese enough’ for a community event of this sort.
Indeed, the family in my novel is mixed, the woman who leads it being a Nyonya – part of the Chinese diaspora in South East Asia which dates back centuries. Many people today have never heard of the Nyonyas and Babas, even in Malaysia. This is a great shame, because the Nyonyas and Babas successfully created a unique fusion of Chinese and Malay culture long before globalisation existed. In their way of life, they have something to teach us, especially in present-day Malaysia where race drives your rights, or the lack of them (see blog-post The Malaysia We’ve Lost).
The first passage I read told the ancestral story of the Nyonyas and Babas. To make my reading come alive, I had watched videos of actors and politicians speaking. I also enlisted the help of two Malaysian students, Wahidah and Aufa Dahlia, who gallantly came on stage modelling Nyonya costumes. Wahidah, her hair tied up in the famous Nyonya chignon, looked resplendent in a tailored vintage sarong kebaya. Her blouse and sarong came from Aufa’s private collection, while her feet were adorned by a pair of hand-made Nyonya beaded slippers which had been purchased from a shop, Colour Beads, in Malacca. This beautiful town is arguably Malaysia’s most historic, and a large Nyonya-Baba community once lived there.
Wahidah was subsequently joined on stage by Aufa Dahlia, who showed off her modern Nyonya attire with great aplomb. The audience sat enraptured, so graceful were the kebaya ladies. Later, many went up to Aufa’s table, where she had placed a sample of the kebaya blouses she sells on her website as a hobby. If the kebaya ladies and I were to form an act, we would surely be hits on a reading circuit!
Other artistes followed, including the kung fu master whose rhythmic movements mesmerised everyone. Look at the picture below and you will see why he was a tough act to follow, especially by a writer reading her second passage late in the day. Fortunately, I was aided by the dramatic second scene I had chosen to read and by the prop I brought along: the Nyonya kueh (cakes) which feature in my novel. I had only two varieties with me – both from the Malaysia Hall Canteen in Bayswater – but they disappeared in seconds after being shared out!
Afterwards, people came up to say how much they had enjoyed my reading. One woman thanked me for opening her eyes to the diversity of the Chinese diaspora, a few even asked where they could buy my book. Alas, I had to say it was not yet published but I gave them my card nonetheless, as it has the address of this blog on the back.
The grand finale of the afternoon was a Ching (Qing) Dynasty costume parade which starred a Mandarin, a Court Official, a Eunuch, the Empress and of course, the Emperor, all in borrowed robes which had never before been worn in the UK. Truly a fitting way with which to end such an uplifting day.
As we headed off, I thought of those who had come before us. It was not just Emperors and Empresses who made history but the coolies leaving in desperate circumstances, and before them, during the Ming Dynasty, the adventurer traders who left to settle elsewhere. These ancestors, all of them, have left their mark in the sands of history. And we their descendants are immensely fortunate, in having such a rich heritage to celebrate.