Tag Archives: Cantonese

Ruminations on Food 1: Malaysians & Food

Hello again, it’s great to be back! I know I’ve been away for a while. I promise I’ve been busy! At one point I was writing so many publicity articles that everything blurred, and I didn’t know my right hand from my left. In between radio interviews – the highlight of which was my appearance on the BBC World Service – and speaking engagements, I was mad enough to carry on writing my third novel.

Thankfully there was a spurt of rest, when I took a short trip to Malaysia for a family celebration. That’s where the idea for this series of blog-posts came from – because as usual, I ate copious amounts. And with the trip lasting only 10 days, the eating was intense.

In fact, after 6 nights of dining out like crazy my partner announced: ‘You haven’t seen drama until you’ve watched a group of Malaysian-Chinese discussing menu choices.’

When I thought about it, I realised she had a point. There’s always a kerfuffle at the start, when we’re still trying to decide what to order. In a Malaysian-Chinese restaurant you don’t place your order with an ordinary mortal, such as a waiter or waitress, no! You summon the head waitress herself. This head waitress is usually a middle-aged woman who has worked her way up the ranks. She knows everything about the menu and how things should be cooked, and makes recommendations accordingly.

Of course, diners around the table – who are invariably food connoisseurs – will have their own ideas. The result is operatic drama, lasting a good 10 minutes on average, during which we talk about which soup to have, which type of poultry, what fish, should we order another seafood dish or another meat dish, what about vegetables and which ones – all before we’ve even come to the finicky point of how each dish should be cooked.

The discussion takes place in one or other Chinese dialect, in our case Cantonese. This means that the conversation is loud: we Chinese are noisy when we’re excited, and we’re always excited where food is concerned. Everyone around the table chips in, sometimes all at once. Ideas are tossed about and there’s much to-ing and fro-ing, especially when it comes to cooking methods, since the conversation often gets down to precisely how the fish will be steamed. In the heat of those moments, the difference between silver pomfrets and black pomfrets seems a matter of life and death.

It Took Us a Long Time to Choose You!

The conversation is always full of passion, it’s never a competition of egos. Everyone truly wants the best possible version of any dish we’ve ordered – that’s what we’ve gone for, after all. And because there is so much outstanding food in Malaysia, people have lots to say.

Apparently, the two groups who spend most time talking about food are the Malaysians and the French. (A verbal anecdote I heard somewhere.) The French, I’m sure, regard themselves as foodies, but having spent a good chunk of time in France I have news for them: we Malaysians are even bigger foodies. And we love all food – not just Malaysian food.

We’re totally obsessed, you see. I believe that this obsession, for Malaysian-Chinese at least, must stem from some primeval fear of famine. Not so long ago – as recently as my childhood – we would greet one another with ‘Have you eaten yet?’ instead of ‘How are you?’ If you had a full stomach, it was assumed that you were well; how could it be otherwise?

A Queue for Moon Cakes

For us, fear of hunger is ingrained. Even though we now live in Malaysia, a country so fertile that a seed only has to drop to grow, and despite having lived here for several generations, we still behave as if we might starve tomorrow. Because who knows, there might just be a war, right, as happened in When the Future Comes Too Soon?

Therefore, we go to great lengths to discuss what to have for lunch while munching our breakfast, what to eat for dinner before we’ve finished lunch, and so on. Our meals are mapped out days in advance. We will battle traffic and thunderstorm; we will drive miles for the sake of the juiciest mangoes, the freshest fish and the best moon cakes. In case you’re wondering what these look like, the photos below were what the people above queued for.

Moon Cakes: Were They Worth the Wait?

Some street food vendors have become so wealthy, they’ve sent their children to study overseas. This is what my protagonist does in The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds. One American reader who reviewed the book was sceptical that this could ever happen – she obviously doesn’t know Malaysia.

Potential famine aside, food is wonderful because it’s safe. There’s nothing controversial about satay or fried chicken or soupy noodles. No one will criticise you for posting photos of your lunch on Facebook; in return, you can comment on your friends’ dinner meals and everyone is happy.

Delicious Noodles: Soupy and Safe!

There’s little doubt that Malaysians love food, but there’s also little doubt that we prefer avoiding conflict. Who doesn’t? It’s a question of the lengths to which we will go.

If our talented cartoonist, Zunar, stuck to drawing happy scenes of Malaysians chomping through plates of nasi lemak, he wouldn’t be suffering from a travel ban today. At present he can’t even come to London for an upcoming exhibition at the Westminster Reference Library, one that has been organised by the UK’s organisation of professional cartoonists and suitably called Gagged – all because he dares lampoon our esteemed Prime Minister.

Zunar’s Tweet: He’ll be on Skype

Of course, strong democratic societies were not built by avoiding inconvenient discussion. Sometimes, conflict will result – this can’t be helped. There’s no other way. Democracy is about speaking up and trying to reach accommodation, especially if we disagree with one another. If we don’t find our voices, food itself could become a political tool.

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Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia

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

What does it Cost to Write a Novel?

I have now been writing my novel for 580 days. How many hours would that make? I haven’t counted, but given that there are 13,920 hours in 580 days, a rough estimate must yield a number in the thousands. A sobering thought…

With my business background and Chinese heritage, I can’t help thinking about what people in business call ‘the opportunity cost’. In other words, what else I could have done in that time, and how much more income I might have generated.

In a year and a half, the total package garnered by a senior manager working full-time could come to a few hundred thousand pounds (if we included bonuses, healthcare and pension contributions). I chose to leave the corporate world, and I don’t for one nanosecond regret that decision. Not because I hated it, but because in my time, I survived two life-threatening illnesses. Writing was integral to my recovery (see blog-post The Miracle of Writing), and I believe I need to continue telling stories for my well-being.

While I would love to be commercially successful as a writer, I have to be realistic: I’m writing historical fiction, not Harry Potter. My aim is to be both accessible and literary at the same time. In the process, I hope to entertain many, and to touch a few. Although my novel is historical, it carries themes of contemporary interest, such as the invisible cost of cultural assimilation – what it means to lose a heritage, and the ongoing tension between modernity and tradition.

It took me twelve months to write the first draft of this epic drama. That is fast, I’m told, for 150,000 words. (In comparison, the average book now has 100,000 to 120,000 words). Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I worked like a fiend. It helped that I could work at my second job from home, which gave me plenty of flexibility to write. I also had a wonderfully supportive partner who agreed not to speak to me before 3 pm each day. Although this was the subject of constant jokes amongst our friends, I can happily say there is no substitute for discipline.

At that whirlwind speed, I expected to be finished in no time. But my editor shook her head after the second draft. Nope, not ready yet, she told me in no uncertain terms. It is only now, well into my third draft, that I fully appreciate how much work has to go into polishing each and every word. I sit thinking about tenses and grammar. I stare at commas and semi-colons, the presence or absence of which could subtly change a sentence.

When I gave the second draft to a book-loving friend for a lay-person’s opinion, the work had grown to 170,000 words. I’m very grateful to my friend for her patience and her many comments. But what is a writer to do with wildly opposing feedback?

The bone of contention: the fact that my characters talk like Malaysians. (By that, I mean the dialogue between characters, not the narrative flow itself). Here’s an example. Instead of saying “How can that be?”, a Malaysian in real life might say, “Like that, how can-ah?”

To me as a Malaysian, the words written in that way simply jump off the page. I can hear the sentence, “Like that, how can-ah?” in all three of Cantonese, Malay or Malaysian English (Manglish). While creating the dialogue between my characters, I realised that when Malaysians speak English, we often just translate from our own languages.

By changing the order of the words on the page, I hoped to convey some of the cadence and intonation of Malaysian speech. It would have been easy to stick to the tried and tested Malaysian favourites: ‘lah’ and ‘ah’ and even ‘ai-yahh’; I wanted, perhaps ambitiously, to capture more of Malaysia’s atmosphere in my novel. If you haven’t been to South-East Asia, this may be lost, and the speech could seem trying. This is why I’ve restricted ‘Malaysian-isation’ to only the dialogue between the characters in my book. A matter of style, but it has already proven controversial. My editor loved it, and my friend hated it. Their reactions told me that other readers were also likely to fall into those two camps. As the writer, I will have to make the final decision.

Writers are always encouraged to read as widely as possible. Yet, while writing my first draft, I found that if I read any work written in a style dissimilar to mine (a story-telling style à la Isabel Allende), my own writing became affected. The sentences would cease to flow. In that period, I was forced to read and re-read Isabel Allende. Not a hardship, since I love her writing. In contrast, reading widely has helped me with my second and third drafts. I’ve read a string of novels recently, including The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a sad story set in Japan in the late 1700s, in which David Mitchell displays wonderful techniques with dialogue.

Latterly, I’ve discovered a trick I wish I had used earlier. Now that my work is nearly ready to be more widely exposed, I have a number of readings planned. While preparing for them, I began to read passages of my work aloud to myself. That was when I realised I could use reading aloud as a tool to weed out unwieldy sentences. If my tongue couldn’t get around a sentence first time, it was usually because the sentence didn’t work, and I had to change it.  Reading aloud also helps when you’re trying to spot repetition. Gillian Slovo had mentioned this at a writing workshop at the Faber Academy, but once I arrived home, I promptly forgot her advice. She was spot-on though.

Soon, it will be time to think about how to get my work published. I’m not looking forward to the process; why that is the case deserves another blog-post. To return to the question I asked at the outset: what does it cost to write a novel? Answer: many years of a writer’s life. And what does it take to get to the finish line? Discipline, determination and an insane belief that you have a worthwhile story to share with the world.


Filed under Malaysia, Novel, Writing

What’s in a Chinese Name?


The above is my Chinese name. They were the first, and for a long time, the only, Chinese characters I knew how to write. The character on the left means ‘Pure’, while the one on the right means ‘Jade’. Together, they make Pure Jade, the meaning of my Chinese name.

Jade is a type of precious stone. I’m sure you’ve seen it on rings, or in Asia, carved into images of deities, dragons and other mythical creatures. I loved the idea of Pure Jade. When I was a child, the sight of pieces of emerald-coloured stone on fingers always evoked a special feeling in my heart.

Until last year, I thought jade only came in green. Then, when we were in Shanghai, we saw Pi Xiu, a mythical creature with the head of a dragon, the paws of a lion and an apparently voracious appetite for silver and gold.

Pi Xiu only eats treasure; he never releases any, since he lacks an anus (such a wonderful creation, so characteristically Chinese…). Our Pi Xiu is in solid jade, brown from head to his non-existent bottom, and extremely heavy. He gives new meaning to the word ‘lug’. Finally, I knew what it felt like to lift Pure Jade in my hands.

Now for the trickier bit: how to say Pure Jade in Chinese. How you say my name depends on whether you’re speaking Mandarin or one of the many Chinese dialects. The same written character can be said many different ways. Because my father is Cantonese, my name was officially transliterated using the Cantonese form. In Cantonese, Pure Jade is more or less said as ‘Chin Yoke’, which is how my name appears on my birth certificate. But because transliteration is only approximate, my name could also have been written ‘Ching Yoke’, ‘Cheng Yoke’, or even ‘Chin Yook’.

You can just imagine the fun our British rulers had with our names before Malaysia’s independence. Some people ended up with official names which were nothing like what they should have been. Fortunately, this didn’t happen to me, as I was born after independence and my Chinese name was properly spelt.

The point to note though is that there are two parts to my Chinese name. My name is Chin Yoke, not Chin on its own, or Yoke on its own. If you called me just Chin, it would be like having Yin without the Yang – one half would be missing. That is true for all traditional Chinese names. (Though there seems to be a recent fad among the mainland Chinese of giving their children just one name, so that their surnames have to be tagged on. For example, the tennis player Li Na. Li is her surname, Na is her name. But having just one ‘particle’ is bizarre for a Chinese name, which I assume is why she’s known as Li Na. Otherwise the yin-yang principle would break down).

The example of Li Na illustrates perfectly where our surnames should be placed: before our names. This may seem strange, but once I explain the principle, you’ll understand why we do it this way. As a rule, we Chinese try to ‘home’ in on details gradually, starting with the bigger picture. The result is a logic all of our own and which generally confounds everyone else.

Take for example, the writing of an address on an envelope. If you were to hand the envelope to a courier for delivery, the first thing the person would want to know is: to which country? Therefore in a Chinese address, the country is written first. After the country, the courier will ask about the province, then the town, followed by the street, and finally the house or building number and if relevant, the apartment number. (Actually, if you look at it this way, conventional Western practice appears quite odd.)

The same principle of ‘homing’ in applies also to our surnames and names: your surname is far more important – it identifies the clan to which you belong; therefore, your surname comes first. Your name only identifies you. Let’s face it, we’re not that significant in the large scheme of the world. This is why our names follow our surnames.

In my case, my surname is the character for ‘Stone’ (see below), pronounced ‘Sek’ in Cantonese and transliterated into English either as ‘Sek’ or ‘Siak’.

My surname happens to appear on my birth certificate as Siak, therefore my full Chinese name is Siak Chin Yoke.

I’ve never been called by my Chinese name, which is a pity, since I like the sound of Chin Yoke. The trouble with using it where I live in Europe is that people wouldn’t have a clue what to do if I told them my name was Siak Chin Yoke. The first question they’d ask is, er, which one is your surname? And then, they’d start calling me Chin.

It always makes me wonder whenever anyone does that. I know there are many Western names for which such abbreviation is possible, but shortening is by no means a universal rule. For example, if someone told you her name was Pauline – which has two syllables – you wouldn’t immediately ask whether you could call her Paul, would you? Why do it just because my name happens to sound Oriental?

The path of least resistance being easier, for the moment I stick to the Western name I was also given at birth, Selina, for daily use. Because it’s a Western name, it’s written in the order Westerners are used to, with the name before the surname. Therefore, if we combine my English and Chinese names together, you get the full name on my birth certificate – Selina Siak Chin Yoke.

This giving of English names to Chinese children is a relatively recent fashion. The characters in my Malayan novel – set between 1878 and 1941 – certainly wouldn’t have had English names. And I haven’t given them artificially simple names to make reading supposedly ‘easier’ for a Western audience. I think Chinese names are already straight-forward, since they tend to be short. Chin Yoke, for example. Hardly difficult, is it?

Where it gets trickier is that the Chinese liked being able to identify the generation to which a person belonged. Therefore in Chinese families, the children have names which may sound very similar, but aren’t. For example, if I had a sister, a possible name for her could have been Chin Fah. The first parts of our names would then be Chin, so that everyone would know we were related and of the same generation.

That’s all very well if there are just the two of you. But in the old days, people had large families. We’re talking ten or more children. That’s what we have in my novel. Which explains why, when my partner read the first draft, she wondered aloud whether I was deliberately trying to confuse my readers. “Why do you have names that all sound alike?” she asked. Then, in despair, she added, “Your names are so hard to remember!”

I looked at her in astonishment. To put this in context, my partner is Russian. Let me repeat: she’s Russian. Question: have you ever tried to pronounce an entire Russian name from start to finish including the part in the middle they call the patronymic? And our names are hard to remember?? Please. I reminded her of what I’d had to do while ploughing through War & Peace, how I was forced to flip backwards constantly to see who was who. Even that didn’t always work, since Russians often use pet names. This means that a man can appear as Alexandr somewhere, mutate paragraphs later into Sacha and you’re supposed to know that it’s the same person. (No offence to the Russians and Russian speakers reading this blog. Except that you’re not allowed to complain about our names being hard to remember. At least ours are short and don’t mysteriously mutate.)

Back to my novel. I promise I’m not deliberately trying to confuse anyone. And I do try to help my readers to the extent possible. But there’s no avoiding Chinese and Malay names, and for this I make no apology.

The increasing attempts at ‘Westernising’ Chinese names has also had unintended consequences. When I was growing up, everyone used the traditional format for writing their names, placing surname first, and then their name. So we could tell at once what someone’s surname was. Now, many people of Chinese descent have adopted the Western convention when writing their Chinese names. This has sometimes been through necessity (as for Twitter handles) and sometimes through choice – to make it easier for everyone else. The trouble is that it makes it harder now, even for us Chinese, to tell which the surname is and which the name is. For instance, the name Lai Weng Yip could be parsed in one of two ways, with either Lai being the surname, or Yip being the surname. Which is it, my partner asks? I shrug. Could be either, I tell her, since Lai is a Chinese surname, as is Yip. Indeed, Weng Yip could be a name, and so could Lai Weng. With globalisation, it looks like we’ve all become confused. Aren’t Chinese names fun?


Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Malaysia, Novel