Category Archives: Research

An Unexpected Discovery

A few days ago, when I told a Frenchman that I came from Malaysia, he said, ‘Ah, you have a simple language.’ It was not the first time someone had told me that s/he thought Malay “simple”. The sub-text, albeit unarticulated, was usually: “simple language, simple people”.

I felt it again with this Frenchman, a European condescension towards my Asian culture. I thought to myself: what does he even know about Malay?

Malay was a language of my childhood, one of three. My family spoke English and Cantonese at home but I was taught in Malay at school – part of the first intake of students to be educated exclusively in the Malay language in what had previously been English-medium schools.

I learned the language, but failed to appreciate its poetic beauty. This was partly because in Malaysia, Mathematics and the Sciences are more highly regarded than the Humanities, and partly because of the political context in which the switch from English to Malay took place.

It occurred in the aftermath of May 13 1969,  a day on which Malaysians of Chinese origin were targeted for slaughter at the hands of mobs of Malays in Kuala Lumpur’s streets. The killings occurred after UMNO – the political party which has ruled Malaysia since its independence from Britain in 1957 – and its allies lost the popular vote and many parliamentary seats in a general election.

The period afterwards was a time of radical change. Within about a year, Malaysia had a new Prime Minister; within two years, a raft of racially discriminatory measures was put in place. It was then that Malay was imposed as the medium of instruction in previously English-medium schools.

Language, of course, is not only a means of communication: it is also a political tool. In Malaysia certainly, language and religion are used adroitly by UMNO. UMNO understood early on the power of language. It has been uncommonly adept at choosing emotive words and at using these words to craft an insidious political narrative.

Thus I grew up hearing that I was pendatang yang tumpang sahaja di Malaysia, a newcomer who was only squatting in Malaysia. This was the backdrop in which I was taught Malay. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I never stopped to think about what a beautiful language Malay actually is. If French (which I speak) is romantic, then Malay is poetic. It was only when I started writing a novel and began filling my landscapes with characters who ran around speaking different languages that I was struck by just how poetic the Malay language is.

Take for instance the simple concept of homeland. The Malay equivalent is tanahair, literally translated as “soil (tanah) water (air)”, in other words the earth and water from which you come. I hope you will agree that the expression “my soil and water” is much more evocative than “homeland”.

Or take that well-known beast, the “orang-utan”. In truth, the latter is a bastardisation of the words orang, meaning a person, and hutan, meaning forest. Orang hutan is actually “a person of the forest”. The phrase, if you think about it, is immensely inclusive; it says, “Here is the forest, we share it with this creature which is not so different from us – a person of the forest.” For me, orang hutan captures the essence of traditional Malay culture, which was at once utterly respectful of others and very gentle towards them.

Even that wonderful political creation, the bumiputera – the prince (putera) of the earth (bumi) or son of the soil, a person who by dint of race or religion is privileged in Malaysia – has a certain ring to it. From a purely linguistic standpoint, the word bumiputera is really rather beautiful.

There are many other examples, and yet poetic beauty is not what people think of when they mention the Malay language. Instead they say what the Frenchman said to me: Malay is “simple”.

What he and others don’t seem to realise is that Malay was written using the Arabic script, a form known as Jawi, until quite recently. I discovered this for myself while carrying out research for my second novel (for which incidentally I have completed a first draft). Most of this research took place at the National Library of Singapore (whose generous opening hours of between 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. allowed me ample time to work). There, shivering in the ultra-cold air-conditioning which Malaysians and Singaporeans seem to favour, I found that the Malay language newspapers I wanted to read had been published solely in the Arabic script. On further digging, I could not find a single Malay newspaper which had not been printed in Jawi up to the Second World War. I was of course unable to read any of them; the Jawi which we had been taught in school was rudimentary, because Jawi was already not in everyday use by the time I went to school.

If Malay were still written today the way it used to be – in the Arabic script – would people go around denigrating it as a simple language?

I grew up hearing and speaking Malay every day but I took the language for granted, in the same way Malaysians assume they will see the sun every day. Only recently have I rediscovered Malay. At the same time, I began to appreciate the richness of Malaysia’s multilingual environment. I can easily recall the distinctive sounds of my native country: Malay, with its elegant smoothness; the no-frills brand of Cantonese I grew up with, rough and ready, a far cry from the haughty Hong Kong version but more in tune with the go-getting entrepreneurs who spoke it loudly and merrily; and the energetic, tongue-rolling Tamil used by our Indian friends, full of indecipherable syllables at which I could only shake my head.

We in Malaysia are fortunate to have this wealth as our heritage. But I have yet to hear a Malaysian adoring any of our languages the way the French adore theirs. The French are happy to debate the intricacies of their language for hours and will happily tell you how wonderful French is. This is something I wish Malaysians could also do, starting with our national language, Bahasa Malaysia. I would love to see Malaysians not only owning Bahasa Malaysia and learning it with enthusiasm, but also acknowledging its inherent poetry and being proud of it.



Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia, Novel, Research

Tan Twan Eng, the Garden of Evening Mists and Memories of War

I’m always on the lookout for writers and artists from Malaysia. I get a particular thrill when a piece of literary or artistic work reflects Malaysians as we are, in the places we know and love. It is rare to come across such work outside Malaysia. So when it happens, and the work then goes on to achieve international recognition, I’m doubly excited!

This is what has happened with Malaysia-born Tan Twan Eng. (Surname: Tan, name: Twan Eng. See my blog-post What’s in a Chinese Name?). His two novels have both been long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize – a remarkable feat. I first heard of him in 2007 when his début novel The Gift of Rain was published in the UK. A former banking colleague had recommended I read it. “It’s beautiful,” he told me. He was right. The Gift of Rain is set on the magical island of Penang, home of sandy beaches and swaying palms. The story in it unfolds in lyrical prose as light as stardust.

Yet, Tan Twan Eng is not especially known in Malaysia. This is a shame – because his work ripples with themes Malaysians would find interesting.

To begin with, both novels are about the War and its aftermath. For Malaysians, there is but one War: the Second World War – when Malaya was occupied by Japanese forces. This occurred between 1941 and 1945. Roughly seventy years may have passed, but we continue to be affected by the events which took place then. They changed Malaya irrevocably, in ways we are only beginning to explore and understand.

I know I was obsessed with stories from the War era as a child. Whenever my now-dead maternal Grandmother visited, I would beg her to tell me what the War was like. She would sit, as calm as a lake on a still night, and in her deep voice, would tell me things I simply could not imagine. Soldiers rapping on doors and windows, looking for girls and women; men being rounded up, forced to stand in 30+ degree Celsius heat with no water; the screams that could be heard from one of the hospitals in Ipoh, where the Japanese had set up a torture chamber; heads on spikes, on full display at the front gates of Ipoh’s Central Market as a warning to the headstrong.

I thought I knew much about the War. Yet, both The Gift of Rain and Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng’s latest novel, taught me new things.

For example, I grew up believing that the British Colonial administration had done its very best to defend our country. Not so, according to The Gift of Rain, and my own research confirmed this. Much has been made of the Malayan Campaign. But if we cut through it all, here is the bald fact: Britain largely abandoned us to the Japanese. Japanese forces attacked the north-eastern coast of Malaya first, before swiftly marching across the country: westwards and southwards, over mountains and across jungle our Colonial rulers had said was impenetrable. Yes there were battles – mainly in support of retreat – unlike in Europe, where the British army fought for every inch of ground, to the death. In Malaya, the Colonial troops retreated…and retreated…until they reached the island of Singapore and there was nowhere else to go. At that point, some hopped onto ships bound for Australia, following their women and children. Those who didn’t leave on time were captured when Singapore fell.

I was sorely disappointed by what I learnt. It still rankles today. The only thing I can do with my feelings is to write about what happened.

I imagine Tan Twan Eng must have been similarly affected, though he has worked wonders to weave history into his stories easily. His writing doesn’t feel dense, nor is there any rancour. Amazingly, each novel incorporates a Japanese central character. In Garden of Evening Mists, this happens to be the Emperor’s gardener; in The Gift of Rain, it is an aikido master. Tan himself has first-dan ranking in aikido, and has obviously studied Japanese thinking. He manages to convey some of its Zen-like mystery and beauty through slow, deliberately measured prose, so that even the positioning of stones within a garden becomes pure poetry.

Garden of Evening Mists tells the story of a young Malaysian-Chinese woman, Yun Ling, who goes on to become a lawyer, but who cannot forget the War. After graduating from Cambridge, she takes leave to learn the art of creating a Japanese garden from a man who was the Emperor’s gardener. This fictional garden is located high up in the Malaysian hills, in Cameron Highlands, a dreamy place once shrouded in jungle and mist. It was developed because it reminded British Colonialists of their home. Yun Ling hopes the creation of a garden will be cathartic; instead, it adds layers of intrigue and pain she only comprehends years later. 

Japanese themes also echo in The Gift of Rain. A Eurasian boy, Philip (Note: By Eurasian, I don’t mean someone from that piece of land known as Eurasia, but a person with one European parent and one Asian parent), who lives in Penang, is befriended by a Japanese man, Endo, before the War. Philip is taught aikido by Endo. Perhaps I read too much into it, but what develops within Philip is a depth of feeling which struck me as homo-erotic. (Though I stress this isn’t a ‘gay’ novel.) Philip learns not only aikido, but also the Japanese language. Then, the Japanese arrive, en masse. You will have to read the book to find out what happens to him, his family and Penang.

Incidentally, there is an explicitly gay character in Garden of Evening Mists. I mention this because it shows me that Tan Twan Eng isn’t afraid of tackling a subject we in Asia prefer to avoid.

Like a good story-teller, Tan Twan Eng folds his own experiences seamlessly into his writing. Having lived in Cape Town for the past few years, he inserted an Afrikaner into his latest book. There are therefore plenty of lekker braais (delicious barbecues) alongside descriptions of Cape Dutch houses and flora. And these are all made to fit into Cameron Highlands!

Reading Tan Twan Eng has inevitably made me reflect on my own work. My current novel deals with an equally dramatic period for Malaya – the years after colonisation but before the War. It was a time of great change: cars and airplanes came to Malaya then, Malayans started to learn English and many families became westernised. There was also a Japanese community in Malaya, whom we later learnt were spies. Many were photographers; one of them features in my novel towards the end, just before the eve of the Japanese invasion, when the matriarch in my story dies.

I had always intended my novel to be the first in a trilogy, with the second in the series focusing on the impact of the War years on a particular family in Ipoh. Reading Garden of Evening Mists has made me realise how much is left to explore…What an incredible life this is.


Filed under Malaysia, Novel, Research, Writing

In Search of Great-Grandmother’s Name

I don’t know my great-grandmother’s name.

When I began writing my novel, I tried to find out what it was. I didn’t need her name to write my story, but I was curious. I knew she was a devout Buddhist who prayed at the Siamese Temple in Tambun Road, Ipoh, so my first stop was the temple, where I hoped to find Great-Grandmother’s ashes. As a Buddhist, she would have been cremated, and I reasoned that if I could find the urn containing her ashes, I would learn what her name was.

The picture below shows what the Siamese Temple on Tambun Road looks like today: a set of beautiful buildings with elaborate roofs built around a serene courtyard.  Its architecture is typical of a temple, with a large airy central room serving as the main shrine hall and adjacent buildings housing the wooden tablets set up in memory of the deceased. (In case you’ve never seen a Buddhist tablet, here are examples below. They are the red oblong objects standing vertically side by side, some adorned with photographs of the deceased. Like Christian tombstones, the tablets can be elaborate.)

I visited the Siamese Temple with my aunt and uncle, and it remains thankfully smaller than other temples, which meant fewer tablets to examine. Nonetheless we spent a good half hour making sure we hadn’t missed Great-Grandmother.

To no avail, for it turned out her ashes lay elsewhere.

My search took us next to the Sam Poh Tong (Temple), the second oldest Chinese temple built inside the famous limestone caves surrounding Ipoh (see my blog-post My Ipoh). One of my aunts told me Great-Grandmother had been cremated there, so my uncle and I went straight to see the temple caretaker. He was a middle-aged man who sat all day in his cave office with a notebook, cooled by a whirring table fan which stirred the air from the hills.

The caretaker’s first question was what Great-Grandmother’s name was. When we told him we didn’t know, he looked at us through narrowed eyes.

“Hmmm…then, very hard,” he said.

When our faces fell, the caretaker added, “But, maybe possible from the year of her birth.”

Unfortunately we didn’t know the year of her birth, just the exact date of her death. I proudly passed this information on, and was surprised when it didn’t impress the caretaker.

“That, no use,” he declared.

How could the date of her death not help? I wondered aloud. Didn’t they keep records?

The caretaker looked at me as if I were mad. There were records, but not dating as far back as 1941. Didn’t I know how many cremations there had been since? “Come”, he said, “I show you.”

He led us down steps, past a murky green pond at the front in which turtles floated languidly, half dead from the Malaysian heat. On we went, towards a brick shelter which stood on its own in the middle of nowhere.

“In there-lah”, the caretaker said, pointing to the windowless hut. It wasn’t lit, so the man kindly brought an electric lamp which he hooked up. Then, wishing us luck, he left.

We went inside a dark musky room crammed eerily full of the ashes of the long-dead. It was clearly the room for the untended, and I felt the goose-bumps rise on my skin even though I’m not superstitious. The room was cold and damp and stacked from floor to ceiling with clay urns which glared at us from atop the wooden shelves. Amid the shadows cast by our dim yellow light, the urns looked identical. They were dusty, fusty, as decayed and faded as the building which held them, but some of the vessels still retained a haunting beauty; the Chinese writing on their bodies stood out, as if they could never be erased despite the evident lack of care. We searched for an hour, but my uncle and I failed to find Great-Grandmother. It was obviously not to be, at least not that time.


How is it that I don’t know Great-Grandmother’s name?

In previous generations, people didn’t address anyone older by her or his name. This is a bit like ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ in Western culture, except that the Chinese had forms of address for many other relatives (at one time, probably for every relative).

For example, the woman who inspired my novel was actually my mother’s grandmother, or in Chinese, my Big Maternal Grandmother. In Chinese, it is important whether a person is related to you maternally or paternally; traditional forms of address are as specific as that. They were intended not only as public demonstrations of respect – from the young towards the old – but were also a means of conveying the exact blood relationships between parties, so that any listener would understand the ties at once and have no need to ask embarrassing questions.

To give another example, my mother has five brothers, one half-brother and one half-sister. Her second brother is therefore my Second Maternal Uncle. When I was a child therefore, I always addressed him as ‘Yee Kow’ in Cantonese: ‘yee’ meaning ‘second’, while ‘kow’ is the word for ‘Maternal Uncle’. Anyone who heard me would then have known exactly how we were related. It’s like hearing an echo: you open your mouth to speak and what bounces back are your exact blood relationship, which family generation you belong to and your status within the family.

Similarly to ‘maternal uncle’, there are Chinese words for maternal great-grandfathers, maternal great-grandmothers, maternal grandfathers, and so on…everyone down the line, all the way to maternal uncles and maternal aunts. And then, there is a whole other set of words – for your father’s relations. I don’t know when this strict hierarchical custom began. (If you do, please write and tell me.) I suspect Confucius, though I can’t be sure. Such hierarchy must have served a useful purpose at some point, but by the time I came along, the downsides were only too obvious.

One of these is that no one can tell me my great grandmother’s name. There are still people alive today who remember her, but none of them ever heard her called by her name. She came from a generation which expected to be addressed as ‘Big Madam’ or ‘Big Sir’, even by strangers. And Big Maternal Grandmother, in her role as a leading female entrepreneur in her town, demanded and received, justifiably, the respect that was her due. As a result, her real name remains a mystery.


For a Western reader, the traditional Chinese form of address may actually be a saving grace. All of the characters in my novel address their older relatives according to their familial relationship, such as ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Second Sister’. This relieves the reader of the need to remember a great many Chinese names (see my blog-post What’s in a Chinese Name?). Alas, traditional forms of address were used only for people who were older; those who were peers or younger were called by name (which still means a healthy dose of Chinese names in my story).


How did my great grandmother end up in the room for the untended dead? This, sadly, is one of the results of our cultural loss. Big Maternal Grandmother sent her sons to a leading mission school, where they learnt to speak English and adopted Western culture. Her sons also took on the religion of the West, Christianity, or alternatively, became non-religious. Only the wife of her third son – my Third Maternal Grandaunt – remained a Buddhist, and it therefore fell on this good woman to look after Great-Grandmother’s urn and ashes. When Third Maternal Grandaunt passed away, Great-Grandmother’s urn stopped being tended. It has since lain at the Sam Poh Temple, cast into a dark room with other unloved urns. 

Of course, our story isn’t just about cultural loss; my family bears responsibility too. One of her sons could have taken the trouble to re-learn Buddhist rituals and to look after Great-Grandmother’s ashes, as she would no doubt have wanted. This isn’t as straight-forward as it sounds; unless you’re exposed to Buddhist rituals, you wouldn’t know what to do. In any event, no one took the trouble, and I feel sad when I think of it. It’s enough to spur me to continue trying to discover her name. Is there a Malaysian equivalent to the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency? If so, I would like to hire this formidable detective.


Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Malaysia, Research

Snapshots – 3. Day with a Special Chef

I held my breath. On turning the bright pink mould upside down and giving it a gentle tap, I could barely believe that what I had just fashioned with my fingers would fall out. Yet fall out it did, plopping into my open palm without fuss, its shape intact. You can see the look of utter surprise on my face.

I had finally made my first angkoo.

If you’re not from south-east Asia, you may well ask what angkoo is and why on earth I would want to make it.

In the photograph on the right, angkoos are the orange-red mounds resting on the tray at the bottom. Each angkoo comprises a glutinous rice skin, coloured orange-red and filled with steamed mung beans. Not your cup of tea? You may change your mind once you’ve tasted one: angkoos are sweet and delightfully aromatic, with lots of thick coconut milk and sugar.

Why this interest in angkoo? Well, angkoo is a well-known type of ‘cake’ or kueh made by the Nyonyas. It also has symbolic significance, because angkoos were traditionally given by a Nyonya couple to their family and friends when a new baby reached its first month. Angkoo features at key moments in my novel because of this symbolism. It has additional import for my main character, because it is while making angkoo one day that she finally realises what being a Nyonya actually means for her.

Because of the role angkoo plays in my novel, I’ve had to follow its recipe in detail, trying to imagine what it would have been like making angkoo in a sweaty olden kitchen. This week, I decided it was time to consult an expert.

Who better than my aunt Lorna, who comes from multiple lines of Nyonyas? My aunt’s grandmother was my Great Grandmother, a fierce Nyonya woman, and my aunt’s mother was also a Nyonya descendant of many generations. Aunt Lorna runs Sri Nyonya, one of the best-known restaurants in Petaling Jaya specialising in Nyonya cuisine. (Petaling Jaya, PJ to locals, is close to Malaysia’s capital of Kuala Lumpur).

I was nervous before we started, uncertain how the day would go. Everyone had told me beforehand what hard work Nyonya cooking was, especially the ‘cakes’ or kueh I wished to learn.

For the first few minutes, I stood watching my aunt in awe. By the time the photograph with my stunned face was taken, I had relaxed, because most of the arduous work had been done. I call it arduous, yet it was easier than in the days when my main character was making her angkoos. She would have had to grind her own glutinous rice flour by hand; we bought ours in ready-made packets. She would also have had to chop firewood for the stove and use bellows to control the strength of the fire.

Despite our modern conveniences, I can’t say the work was easy. There was much mixing and kneading and steaming. Even though aunt Lorna had steamed and crushed the mung beans the day before, it still took us a couple of hours to make thirty two angkoos. Each angkoo has to be made individually, which means that the amounts for every skin and ball of filling have to be separately weighed. Only thereafter could the fun begin: the shaping of each angkoo into its mould and the ‘knocking out’ of the angkoo.

From the photographs, it’s obvious I had to concentrate hard. Aunt Lorna showed me how to flatten the orange-red angkoo skin on my palm, making sure the skin became thin but at the same time, was thick enough to hold its filling. When the skin was properly prepared, I placed a ball of the mung bean filling onto it and slowly pulled at the sides of the skin to close the wrapped ball up. Then, I pushed the ball into an intricately designed mould. The traditional moulds were wooden, but we used a bright pink plastic mould with the characteristic tortoise pattern inscribed. I was told that if I coated the mould properly with glutinous rice flour, the angkoo should simply drop out when the mould was turned over and given a soft tap. Although I understood the theory, it still felt like a small miracle whenever an angkoo fell out with no problem. I always breathed a sigh of relief.

My angkoos tended to have wobbly sides, not the clean lines of my aunt’s expert hands, but that didn’t matter, because they all tasted wonderful once they had been steamed. They were a perfect shade of orange-red too – thanks entirely to my aunt, who had mixed in the colouring in judicious proportions.

It was only afterwards, in the quiet of the night, that I became aware of the emotions I must have carried during the day. I remembered the joy I felt as we, my aunt and her helper Theresa and I, chatted happily while knocking angkoos out. I imagined my main character doing the same a hundred years ago in her old-fashioned kitchen. She would also have been standing with other women, surrounded by the sound of chattering and familiar aromas, of garlic frying and pandanus leaf steaming. It was in the midst of such activity that she learnt to appreciate her heritage.

For me, what began as a research adventure turned into an intense, highly personal event. Making angkoo with aunt Lorna was a privilege, an experience I will never forget.


Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia, Novel, Nyonya, Research

When Resemblance to Real People May Not be Coincidental

A year ago, I began writing my novel. I completed the first draft three days ago – twenty three chapters in all. I thought I would be relieved; instead, I’m numb. When I look back, I see a cycle of dreaming, writing, research…inventing, followed by more writing…followed by more research. Even now, I’m carrying out research in Malaysia, hoping to weave small details into my story. What I’m looking for are the simple everyday things we forget about, because they become as natural as breathing. To find these hidden gems, I’ve had to deploy methods that were at times unorthodox (though perfectly legal). This blog-post is about how I gathered such pearls.

Aunt Lorna at Sri Nyonya

The first victims in my quest for authenticity were my family. This seemed natural, because all I had a year ago were a rough story-line and the raw passion to tell a story linked to Great Grandmother. I conducted interviews with every single family member willing to talk: uncles and aunts, grand-aunts, my mother. They would see me coming with a little black case; it contained an Olympus digital voice recorder, a present from my partner, an apparatus no larger than a small Nokia handset – but extraordinarily powerful. Once, I put it in the middle of a large dining table at Sri Nyonya, the Nyonya restaurant in Petaling Jaya run by my aunt Lorna (see picture) and uncle James, and was pleasantly surprised. Amidst the clanking of bowls and howls of laughter, I could decipher every word that was said.  

While speaking of Sri Nyonya, I can’t avoid mentioning food. Nyonya cuisine plays a pivotal role in my story, and learning about its intricacies formed an important part of my research. Needless to say, eating was equally important. I could hardly have found a better place; the recipes at Sri Nyonya have been passed down for generations – and it’s run by family! 

Through good old-fashioned talking, I learnt about Great Grandmother and the Malaya of times past. The best anecdotes came unexpectedly, spurred by the jerk of recollection, the sort we tend to have once our memories are stirred. In the middle of one conversation, an aunt blurted out, “Very naughty boy-lah! Make my mother so sad…,” about her own father, which of course caused my ears to prick up. I then heard what the naughty boy got up to, and carefully stored the story to see what I could do with it. For a while, that was my modus operandi: listening, transferring what I’d heard onto my laptop, jotting down notes. It might have been different with a less loquacious family, but fortunately mine loves to talk.

My relations were able to make their childhood years come alive in a way no history book ever could. For example, my cousins reminded me of the ingenious pulley system that was used in old Chinese shops (there’s a modern version in the internal courtyard at Sri Nyonya – see photo). A basket suspended on a piece of strong rope which was looped around itself allowed residents on the top floors of the two-storey shop-houses to buy goods without having to descend staircases. If their favourite street vendor passed, residents would shout out of their windows for what they wanted. These could be dry dishes, such as bundles of aromatic rice wrapped in fragrant banana leaves, or wet food, bowls of noodles say. After calling out orders, the people upstairs would lower their basket with a plate or bowl and the necessary coins, and a few minutes later, haul up their basket, noodles and all, with change for their money.

Of course, I didn’t just rely on memories; I also went to the National Archives in Kuala Lumpur, where I spent hours scanning old newspapers to get an idea of what people were reading at the time. Though thin, the papers contained so much gossip that it took discipline not to digress. This is where I acquired fascinating insight into the topics which vexed our colonial rulers. In 1892, the government of Penang (see map) was exceedingly alarmed about an outbreak of cholera – thousands of miles away in Europe.

Map of Malaysia

I learnt things about my country which had been omitted from our history classes.For example, that the British colonial government in Malaya sold opium indirectly to generate revenue, and very openly (while simultaneously banning its import into Britain). It was even accepted practice for the government of the time to place advertisements for opium concessions in leading Malayan newspapers! The 1892 editions of the Penang Gazette advertised one such concession in the state of Perak (where most of my story unfolds). According to the advertisement, the concession gave its holder “the exclusive right to the importing, the manufacturing, sale and licensing others to sell, of chandu (opium), opium dross, and spirituous liquors, free of duty.” I was horrified.

Yet this practice fitted very much with the tenor of that era. The colonial atmosphere is detailed in the book When Tin was King, which charts the rise of Ipoh (more or less in the centre of Perak on the map) as a mining town. During the tin rush which began in the late 1800s, all sorts of adventurers were drawn by the lure of tin. The situation in Ipoh was reminiscent of the gold rush, and it’s no exaggeration to call Ipoh the San Francisco of the East. At the time my story takes place, the area in which Ipoh is located was the world’s largest producer of tin. The metal transformed Ipoh from a sleepy fishing village into a metropolis, and When Tin was King outlines how this happened in entertaining fashion. I was fortunate to have been introduced to its author Dr. Ho Tak Ming, a family physician with a vast knowledge of local history, who has kindly answered many questions.

I must confess to not being the first writer in my family, nor the first to pen Great Grandmother’s story. That honour belongs to my late grand-uncle Chin Kee Onn, whose novel Twilight of the Nyonyas, published in Malaysia in 1984, shares a similar story-line with my own. Thereafter, the similarities end. My story begins in 1878, his in 1915. I’ve told the story from a woman’s perspective, he from a man’s point of view. It’s no surprise we explore different themes; my novel is about a woman’s struggle for survival and her battle for identity. I also explore the consequences she has to face when she spoils her sons. Despite our differences, I owe a debt to my grand-uncle for his book, which at the time of publication, was the first novel ever written about a Nyonya family. I’m grateful to him for leading the way.

My research sometimes went down amusing paths. Because the main character ate everything with her hands, including the Nyonya curries she was so fond of, it occurred to me one day that I should try to do the same. With much enthusiasm, I rolled a ball of rice dipped into gravy in one hand – it looked so easy when I watched an Indian friend do this. Yet, as soon as I tried putting the ball into my mouth, gravy dripped all over my elbows. I gave up after a second attempt, deciding that this wasn’t for the uninitiated.

Then there were the children, of which my central character had plenty. Given the themes I wanted to explore – a woman’s survival and struggle for identity – it seemed appropriate to describe a birth scene. The only problem was my own lack of children. Much as I like children, having a child for the sake of a book seemed excessive. Attending a live birth was out of the question, since I faint at the sight of blood. So I did the next best thing: I interviewed as many friends and family I could find, especially those with three and more children. I also spoke to a nurse in Malaysia who told me in vivid detail the practices of old. In the process I heard amazing stories; I only hope I’ve done justice to them all.

A large family with no illness would be unrealistic, which is why it doesn’t happen in my story. When I needed medical information, I turned to neighbours in London. Veritable doctors, they happily described every conceivable consequence of the illnesses I was asking about. They then plied me with photographic evidence to show how horrible things could become. I ended up borrowing their medical text and staring at grotesque images for several weeks.

That was just before re-visiting Malaysia, where I’ve now completed the first draft of my novel. When I survey the result, I’m a little nervous. Because I know I’ve applied a writer’s prerogative, which is to say that I’ve exaggerated, added embellishments and generally used poetic licence with what I’ve heard and read (except in relation to historical facts and real figures who are named in the story). My creation is a fictional account, but one in which resemblance to real people isn’t entirely coincidental!

It was my partner who spurred my worries. She shot up after reading the latest chapter, telling me how amazing it was to recognise family members she knows from among my characters. Hmmm. It made me wonder how my own family would react. I’ve always told them I was writing fiction, which is true – up to a point. But it doesn’t stop me from worrying that they may not like the characters their relations have become, or their own prototypes have become, or the secrets I reveal, some true, others invented. I only hope they will see my novel for what it is: fiction with a large dose of reality, in which we Malaysians can see ourselves reflected. That after all, is what my research has been for.


Filed under Novel, Research, Writing

Hello all!

I’m now two thirds of the way through the first draft of my novel – very exciting! For those who don’t know, my novel is an epic drama based on my Malayan family’s story. So although it’s fiction, the underlying story is true. It starts in Ipoh with a Nyonya matriarch (a character based on my great grandmother), then moves to London with the matriarch’s eldest son (a character based on my grandfather) who arrives in London in the 1920s for studies.

As part of my research, I managed to track down my grandfather’s former college. The picture below is what it must have looked like when he was there.0256

The Battersea Polytechnic Institute is no longer around, but its archived materials are held by the Battersea Library, where I spent the whole day this past Wednesday (October 19th), trawling through hand-written ledgers of every student on every course in the 1920s, as well as examination lists from 1924! What a thrill it was to see my grandfather’s name…I thought of how amazing it was that my grandfather should have arrived on these shores to a very different Britain, and here was I, his grand-daughter, a century later, digging through records which showed exactly which examinations he failed (!)

The records were a hodge-podge…student rolls, financial ledgers, prospectuses, student magazines…many bound in vellum so old, tiny particles of colour fell off when the volumes were placed on the special cushion onto which they had to rest while I browsed through. There were times I held my breath, lest my touch proved too much for these tomes that had lain dormant over the years. I loved looking at the photographs especially – men in white shirts and ties and suits, stiff in their starches even on the golf course, and women with so many layers and frills, it was astonishing they could move. All in, a great look into a bygone time, thanks to the wonderful heritage service offered by Battersea Library.


Filed under Research