Tag Archives: Malaysia

Ruminations on Food 5: When Fish Looks Like Fish

Ahead of Donald Trump’s much trumpeted trip to Asia last year, his aides told CNN that he was going to avoid “whole fish with heads still on”.

He did not know what he was missing. The best fish is served whole.

What Trump Missed

Years ago when I was an investment banker, my American bank sent me to New York for a month of training. Those were party days and one evening I ventured into New York’s Chinatown with two Italian co-trainees. They had little idea what dishes to order and thought they were in for a treat.

They were – though it was perhaps not the treat they had in mind. The restaurant into which we stumbled would best be described as ‘authentic’. My nose had led us there, you see, and my nose told me to enter. It wasn’t a hole-in-the-wall, but this was long before New York’s Chinatown became gentrified. Although my colleagues looked doubtful, they bravely followed. It had been their idea after all: they’d given me carte blanche to make decisions. Once inside they seemed comforted by the sight of so many Asians eating together. When I decreed that we sit, they told me to order.

The highlight came in the form of a fish that had been steamed whole, complete with head, fins and tail. It looked pretty much like the specimen below. Our waiter must have had a sixth sense – he positioned the dish so that the fish’s mouth peered directly up at my Italian friends. They went pale; neither said a word. Needless to say, I ended up eating rather a lot of fish that night.


When you grow up with something, you don’t really think about it. In Southeast Asia, we like our fish to look like fish. Because I’d been staring into the gaping mouths of fish since I was a child, it had not occurred to me that anyone could object.

Our penchant for authenticity is not limited to fish. We like our prawns whole, too, still in their shells with tails and juicy heads perfect for sucking.

Prawns As Real As They Come

Quite often, you actually pull your seafood out of the water. Many Chinese restaurants have tanks showcasing the fish, prawns and crabs you can have for your meal. Here’s our waiter pulling large crustaceans out. See the white cards on the side of the tank? The cards reveal the names of customers and what they’ve ordered. At first glance the impression is surreal: the sign with ‘Mr. Chin’ – my uncle’s surname – on the vitrine made it look as if Mr. Chin himself were swimming in the water!

Waiter Fishing

Below is a dish of roast duck. Notice the pains the chef has taken to remind diners that this is duck. So real you can almost hear quacking on the plate. The photo was taken at the  swanky Chinese restaurant known as Yuk Sou Hin inside the WEIL Hotel, which many say serves the best roast duck in Ipoh. In Malaysia and Singapore, even Chinese haute cuisine isn’t for the squeamish. As an aside, I will vouch for this roast duck!

Authentic Duck

The above dishes should qualify as ‘real food’. According to a blog I found, ‘real food’ – a growing movement in the West – is food that is

  • Old and traditional
  • Whole, complete and intact
  • Diverse (as opposed to processed)

You couldn’t get more ‘whole, complete and intact’ unless you strung your poultry up whole. Which of course, many Chinese restaurants worldwide do, too. They hang the already roasted or steamed poultry up and hack them into pieces as customers’ orders come through. It turns out that we’ve been eating real food in Malaysia for a long time – we just didn’t know it.

As if whole fowl dangling pendulously from metal hooks were insufficient, Malaysian coffee shops sometimes have gigantic images on their walls. This must be their attempts at creating the ‘before’ and ‘after’: at the front whole chickens, already cooked, unceremoniously strung up; on one wall, covering pretty much the entire surface area, what those lovely chickens once looked like when they still had feathers.

In Case You Forgot What You Came to Eat

On a serious note, if you belong to the ‘real food movement’ I’d love to know whether the movement embraces an ethos of no wastage, the way we do. What I mean is that we eat every part of the animal. It wouldn’t do to discard the eyes of a fish when you could eat them, would it? This is why there are folks who are fans of fishes’ eyes – I promise it’s true, there are a few in my family – while many others adore fish head curry. The latter is such a popular Malaysian speciality that it even has its own Wikipedia entry.

As for panel signs, we like ours to look as real as our food. The one below was taken inside a Malaysian food court.  It’s not enough to tell customers not to spit. The warning must come in at least two languages with an explicit picture.

Watch That Tongue!

Now spit if you dare. And you probably would dare. Because the sign says nothing about a penalty, does it? In neighbouring Singapore, it would be made clear that you’d be fined for spitting. And you would – because you’d be caught.

But this is Malaysia, a land with laws aplenty and equally plentiful discretionary enforcement. Apa-apa pun boleh, you see. Anything goes.


Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia

Ipoh is Among Top 10 Places to Visit in Asia!

Last year Lonely Planet, the world’s largest publisher of travel guide books, discovered my hometown. And its reviewer was charmed. Ipoh, the town in which my debut novel – The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds – takes place, was duly placed 6th in the publisher’s Asian destinations to visit in 2017!

There was special mention for Ipoh’s food, which has long been a favourite with Malaysia’s many foodies. One of Ipoh‘s specialities is bean sprouts and yes, I do mean that quirky-looking vegetable with a whitish stem and yellow head! Ipoh’s bean sprouts are special: fatter and crispier and therefore tastier.beansprouts

I’m told that this is because they are fed the limestone-infused water from the hills which my heroine, Chye Hoon, loved. Whatever the reason, Ipoh’s bean sprouts are so good that I once wrote a blog-post about them. Naturally, I was thrilled that Lonely Planet mentioned bean sprouts and good old Lou Wong, one of my favourite coffee shops.


Lou Wong is an institution, a bit like the town’s Padang (the large field around which our British occupiers built their administrative offices. I had to explain this to the copyeditor when he tried to reduce ‘Padang’ to a small ‘p’). Like some of Malaysia’s best eating places, Lou Wong doesn’t look like much from the outside. But they serve delicious food! In case you doubted it, they have a sign telling you what they specialise in.

It’s not as if you need it, since the only things visible are barrels of bean sprouts (I kid you not) and arrays of chickens strung up, ready for the cleaver. a-tub-of-bean-sprouts

The chicken is steamed, the bean sprouts blanched, both are then doused in plenty of soya sauce and sesame oil, garnished with finely chopped spring onions and eaten with aromatic steamed rice or in a noodle soup. Simple and stunningly good! Lou Wong remains an old-style coffee shop, cooled only by ceiling fans and with relatively clean, tiled floors of light blue octagons interspersed with darker blue squares. The waiters move around in casual T shirts, sometimes fat-splattered, adding up your bill in their heads. I invariably eat more than I should. Once, the waiter who was totting up the bill stared in astonishment. ‘Wahh!’ he cried out, not believing his luck. ‘Three persons, eat so much!’ The same waiter is still there, and he smiles each time he sees me.chickens-being-chopped

Ipoh has more than food, of course. It was built on tin and is one of Malaysia’s most historical cities. Therein lies the rub: the town, created to serve British colonial interests, was built largely through Chinese effort – a fact which the Malaysian government does not like acknowledging. For years the most historical part of Ipoh, called Old Town, was left dormant. Beautiful shophouses became dilapidated and decayed. Ipoh’s recent renaissance – through private initiative, not the government’s largesse – is one of the reasons why the town has been noticed by Lonely Planet.

This is heartening to see. I would love for Ipoh, especially its old historical quarter, to thrive again. The limestone hills are still there, of course, fluffy as ever, as are many of the places I wrote about in The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds: the cave temples; Concubine Street, the narrow alley where the towkays, the business bosses, kept their mistresses(which has a real name of Jalan Panglima, or Panglima Road); the sturdy missionary schools; the Padang (large field); the railway station and other colonial buildings.

In my last post, I said that I would be putting up images of old Ipoh on my website www.siakchinyoke.com. I’ve now done this: if you’d like to have an idea of what some of the above places looked like in Chye Hoon’s day, go to the Chye Hoon’s World page of my site and click on the top left window. The images there are from vintage postcards given to me by my highly imaginative partner.

One of my dreams with the Malayan Series – as my publisher Amazon Crossing has called this historical fiction series – is to help put Malaysia and my hometown of Ipoh on the map. Many readers have said that they knew nothing about Malaysia before, and now they feel they’ve been there. One even wrote that “if I ever make it to Malaysia, this book will be a huge reason why” (referring to The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds). My message is simple: visit Malaysia! And make sure you go to Ipoh. If you’d like, you can ask me what to see! Who knows, there may eventually be tours around the places which Chye Hoon haunted.


Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Malaysia, Novel

A Thank You Message

At last, it’s publication day! From today my novel – The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds – will be available for purchase at major bookstores (Barnes & Noble in the US, Waterstones in the UK and at many others) as well as on leading websites worldwide. My book is available in three formats: print, as an audio book and also as a Kindle e-book, the latter from Amazon.

The past month has been exhilarating. When the e-version of my novel was placed on the Kindle First platform beginning October 1, 2016 I sat in trepidation, knowing that early readers would soon be reviewing my work. At heart writing is a solitary activity, and although I knew what I wanted to achieve with my novel I had no idea how readers would actually react. The process of waiting for those first reviews was nerve-racking. I told my editor, Elizabeth DeNoma, that I was not going to check for reviews.

October 1 fell on a Saturday. Bearing in mind that my book is over 400 pages long (nearly 500 pages in the paperback version), I was surprised to receive an email on the evening of Monday, October 3, when it would only have been noon in Seattle. Could anyone have actually finished reading the book? Apparently, yes. Elizabeth’s email said that the first reviews were in, they were “pretty great” and I should take a look.

My heart was thumping when I opened Amazon’s US site. Everything was a blur and my eyes could barely focus. I felt a little like the parents of my protagonist at the moment when they stood staring at the island of Penang. There before them was the object for which they had given up so much, yet as the island rose in front of their eyes, its beckoning shape seemed too daunting.

A day later, I received my first fan mail. As an author who is keen to be read, I cannot tell you how thrilling that was. Many others have written since, either on this blog or via Twitter or my Facebook Author page. Thank you to all, your words mean a lot.

Thank you, too, to readers who have written reviews on Amazon. To say that I’ve been overwhelmed by my book’s exceptional reception would be an understatement. The start of my novel is somewhat meandering – mimicking life as I imagined it would have been in 1878, when the story begins. With pace being the norm today, I worried that readers would not be drawn in. How wrong I was.

…fabulous job of writing drawing you immediately into an unknown Asian family and their world…

Loved it – it was hard to put down” was a common refrain, but it took a week before I could read such compliments without heart palpitations. A fortnight passed before I really grasped the sentiments readers were trying to convey. It was difficult to take in the adjectives readers were using: “wonderful”, “enchanting” and “epic”. Some of the comments brought me close to tears – and I don’t cry easily. One reader said: “When I started this book I wasn’t sure I would like it. But it turned out to be a very good book and I didn’t want it to end.” For an author, there can be no greater compliment.

There have been highly personal messages from readers who grew up in South-East Asia, for whom my book brought back vivid memories. To be clear, no familiarity with Malaysia is required: readers who knew nothing about Malaysia beforehand have enjoyed the story as much. A few even had their interest piqued: “I loved this book so much I’ve started making a Pinterest board about it so I can see all the items and sites described.” This reader, like many others, described my novel as a journey.

I was sad when I finished this book. Felt like leaving a good friend.

It has been an honor to travel with this courageous, feisty and loving woman, to be her companion. I will miss her.

One of those books you hope will never end and you feel bereft when you reach the final page. Excellent story, beautiful writing.

At this point, I must make a digression to thank my publisher. One of the reasons so many of you have found the reading experience to be unique and authentic is in part thanks to my publishing team at Amazon Crossing and their bold editorial decisions. My editor, Elizabeth DeNoma, loves my book as much as many of you do; she did not want to see any of it cut. As a debut novelist no one had heard of, I’m really grateful for this.

Amazon Crossing made other decisions that preserved the cultural content of my work, notably with respect to dialogue. Some of what the characters say to each other is written the way Malaysians speak, which means that the word order is slightly changed. The vast majority of readers have appreciated the sense of place which this helps to create. Someone put it thus:

I loved the dialogue. Making the word order match the dialects represented made everything more real.

Who said books had to be dumbed down?

I also wanted to depict my homeland, Malaysia, in the fullest possible way, so that people who had never visited would be able to picture it and smell all the smells I grew up with. From the reaction of readers, it’s just possible that I succeeded. “There are some books you devour, and others you savor. This, Selina Siak Chin Yoke’s debut novel, is the latter. Her beautiful descriptions bring the time and place in which her characters live to vibrant life, and turn the setting itself into a character in its own right.

There have been many, many other heart-warming comments; I could not possibly quote them all here. If you submitted a review, please know that I have been deeply moved by the way my story has resonated.

Now that The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds has been published, the cover name of my blog will no longer be ‘Journey of my First Novel’. The blog’s URL will remain the same and if you’ve subscribed to this site, there’s nothing you need do.

Let me conclude with the following lovely comment from another reader:

The rhythm of the words, the flow of the story, the tales that were shared – it all seemed so real. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that tugged at my emotions, culminating in tears for a woman I felt I had grown to know.

As we say in Malay, Terima Kasih Seribu Kali (Thank You a Thousand Times). Thank you for reading, for writing to me and for all your kind words. Your messages make the years of toil worthwhile.

NB All of the above reader comments (and more) can be found on Amazon’s US site as well as on its UK site. With thanks to Amazon Crossing for allowing me to cite them on this blog.


Filed under Malaysia, Novel, Publishing, Writing

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

This Merdeka is Yellow…

Tomorrow, August 31, is Malaysia’s Independence (Merdeka) Day. Shortly after Merdeka Day thirty six years ago, I left Malaysia. I’ve lived away for so long now that I have spent more time in England than in my country of origin.

Yet, nothing grips me as much as major pieces of Malaysian news. Last July for example, when MH-17 was shot down over Ukraine,  I was riveted: engaged in both heart and mind, emotions veering between horror and utter disbelief, and finally anger. Hours later, when it was already clear that the plane had not crashed accidentally but had been shot down by a missile, major media networks (in three languages) changed their headlines to reflect this appalling new element.  All except for the BBC, which retained its misleading “Malaysian Plane Crashes in Ukraine” as if it had been Malaysian Airlines’ fault, as if the plane’s flight path had not been pre-cleared. I was so incensed that I wiped the BBC app off my iPhone.

This weekend, I have once again been glued to Malaysian news. A 34-hour protest has been taking place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital. People were out in force – two hundred thousand according to the organisers, a mere twenty thousand by the government’s count. Most of the protesters wore yellow T shirts (hastily banned beforehand by authorities), blew into their vuvuzelas and air-horns, prayed when it was time to pray, listened to speeches and made music – all quite peacefully. Many even stayed overnight as had been planned, literally sleeping on the streets and squares of the capital. To see what it was like during the final hour of this marathon rally, see the attached link.

The protest was organised by Bersih (Clean), an organisation which is campaigning for clean, fair elections in Malaysia. This was the fourth rally organised by Bersih. At the previous demonstration before this one, an estimated quarter of a million turned up and police used teargas on the crowds.

Not surprisingly, the Malaysian government – which has a rather low tolerance of dissent – was up to its usual tricks last week. They first declared the rally to be “illegal”. When that didn’t work, the Home Minister banned yellow clothing and T shirts with the words “Bersih 4”. The authorities, knowing that a sleep-in was planned, promptly prohibited the erection of tents.

Despite these absurd obstacles, yellow T shirts abounded on KL’s streets. Demonstrators proceeded with their “sleep-over” – truly a sight to behold. Of course there have been plenty of naysayers, as there always are. People who belittle Bersih for “not going far enough”, and the protest as little more than the huff of a few well-heeled urbanites.

As the former chairperson of Bersih – the redoubtable Ambiga Sreenevasan – has pointed out, Bersih’s rallies take place despite the organisation having little money and no power and in spite of the entire machinery of government being arrayed against them. These rallies rely entirely on “the goodwill of the people”. Which is why they are remarkable: Bersih‘s rallies are tangible signs of a nascent civil society.

Street protest flies in the face of Malaysian tradition. As a nation, we prefer to avoid even the smell of conflict. We stick to safe topics, such as shopping, and of course, food! We can say a lot about food without touching on anything remotely controversial, anything that (we fear) may offend someone. If you spend your life in this “head-down, risk-free” zone, the thought of going on a march where you may be asked to hold a banner or shout and generally take a stand, is rather alien. Mahathir Mohamed, the former Prime Minister who turned up at the rally on both days, gave an interview in which he admitted that it was the first time he had joined a street protest – and he is ninety.

I only learnt about protest as a student at Southampton University in Britain. The experience was incredibly liberating. I discovered what democracy should actually be about. I found that in a truly democratic country, people were free to express legitimate political views, so long as they did not advocate violence on anyone else or infringe on the rights of others. In contrast to Malaysia, I could say what I felt without being shut down, called names or told to leave the country. I went on marches, I held placards, I became an activist. I disagreed vehemently with some people, and still managed to remain friends with them.

The whole process was thoroughly validating. Among my causes: gay rights. There were absolutely no positive gay role models then, and your boss could have fired you if s/he discovered your sexual orientation, no matter how well you did your job. It was such a far cry from today that it is hard to even remember what Britain was like in the mid-eighties. If anyone had told me then that in less than thirty we would be able to marry one another, I would have laughed out loud.

This example goes to show that protest can bring about change. You only have to think of the suffragettes to be reminded that without them, women would never have obtained the vote. Without protest, we would also not be attending universities today.

Could the same natural evolution happen in Malaysia?

On this, the signs are not good. The Malaysian government is one which loves the legitimacy that its veneer of democracy confers, at the same time as it hates the reality. Citizens wanting to hold Ministers accountable: what a nuisance. As for the possibility that the government might actually be voted out of office, perish the thought!

After fifty eight years in power, any government would be tired; this one is especially tired – of criticism from those pesky citizens. In recent days and weeks, Malaysian Ministers have acted with their usual brilliance. In late July, a leading business publication exposed the fact that US$700 million had entered the Prime Minister’s personal bank account. The official response? Suspend said publication for three months. How dare journalists do their jobs! This week, when it became clear that threats and intimidation were not going to prevent the weekend’s rally, the government blocked access to Bersih’s website (within Malaysia).

No wonder America’s former ambassador to Malaysia has voiced his worries. In a recent opinion piece, Mr. John Malott described how there are two faces to Malaysia’s current Prime Minister Najib Razak: the international man who knows what Westerners want to hear, and the domestic man who happily lines his and his wife’s pockets while curbing individual liberties and meddling with institutions.

As if to confirm his increasingly authoritarian streak, the Prime Minister told the nation yesterday: “All forms of street demonstration have to be rejected as they adversely affect peace and order and cause problems to the public.” Apparently, only “immature” people express their views by protesting on the streets. Such words (and his actions) do not bode well.

Where will Malaysia go from here?

Will the Prime Minister step down tomorrow? Unfortunately, this is unlikely.

Will we see greater restrictions on freedom in Malaysia? Possibly.

Could the country veer towards dictatorship?

As an optimist, I believe that positive change will come, but this will take longer than we either think or would like. What is important is for concerned Malaysians not to give up. We need to remain engaged, to stay strong and show that we will demand good governance, no matter how much our own government threatens us. For the sake of Malaysia’s future, we will not go away. Not until we have clean, fair elections and an end to rampant corruption and cronyism.


Filed under Identity, Malaysia

The Story of Great Grandfather Chin Choon Sam and a Mosque

There is a road in the Greentown area of Ipoh, Malaysia, which is named after my maternal great grandfather Chin Choon Sam. He was the husband of the woman who inspired my first novel.


Chin Choon Sam was also the father of (among others) the late Chin Kee Onn. Chin Kee Onn in turn was the author of Malaysian classics such as Malaya Upside Down – the first non-fictional account of life in Malaya under Japanese occupation (from December 1941 through September 1945) and Twilight of the Nyonyas – a fictional tale of a Nyonya family in the early twentieth century, a period of decline for this mixed-race community (of which more below).

Not much is known about Chin Choon Sam other than that he was an educated man who came from a Hakka village in southern China. Great Grandfather arrived in Malaya at some point towards the end of the nineteenth century and apparently set himself up as a roving accountant to Ipoh’s first entrepreneurs. He didn’t become a millionaire but he did well for himself, so well that he decided to settle in Malaya.

By all accounts, my great grandfather loved his adopted home. He already had a wife in China, but Chinese immigration policy was such that women were not allowed to leave the country in the same numbers as men. In order to put roots down in Malaya, Chin Choon Sam took a local woman as his second wife. He chose a woman from the mixed-race Nyonya community who was shrewd, blessed with a fiery tongue and who delighted in feeding him eye-watering, spicy dishes.

Who exactly were the Nyonyas? Unfortunately, many people today, even in Malaysia, don’t know the answer. This is in large part because the Nyonyas (and their male counterparts, the Babas) do not fit into the political narrative which the Malaysian government and its ultra-zealous supporters would like us to espouse. The dominant narrative in today’s Malaysia holds that the country was “first” inhabited by the Malay people who, by dint of having arrived “first”, deserve “special privileges” – first priority in the civil service, education, public scholarships, land purchases and financial hand-outs. Protection for the rights of this privileged class is enshrined in the country’s Constitution (which incidentally, was generously agreed by our wonderful British rulers prior to their departure).

Moreover, because the Malays converted to Islam sometime between the twelfth and the fifteenth century – a religion brought by traders from India and the Middle-East – it necessarily follows that all Malays born today in Malaysia are Muslim. It must be so, how could they possibly be anything else?

There are some who would like us to believe that it has always been this way in Malaysia: that every person of Malay descent has been incontrovertibly a Muslim since the twelfth century.

Alas, the Nyonyas are thorns in the above narrative. Here were local Malay women marrying immigrants from China and then proceeding to adopt some of their husbands’ customs, including, crucially, their religion. Instead of practising Islam, the Nyonyas adopted Buddhist-Taoism.

Worse, Nyonya and Baba communities were established along the coastal parts of Malaya from the fifteenth century onwards. In other words, a sizable Chinese community began settling in Malaya six hundred years ago – a very long time ago by anyone’s standards. If it were not so, Nyonyas and Babas would never have come into being.

The existence of Nyonyas and Babas is rather inconvenient. Should their descendants (people like me) not also deserve “special privileges”? For how many generations do your forbears need to have been around before you enjoyed such privilege? This question is best avoided, otherwise Malaysia’s racial policies would be shown up for the poisonous, antiquated trash they are.

Therefore, instead of celebrating an interesting part of our heritage, the Malaysian government chooses to ignore it. Evidently, parts of Malaysia’s history cannot be publicised – it would give the citizens ideas. The Nyonyas and Babas point to a time (not even that long ago) when Malaysia was actually liberal, when the Department for Islamic Development (JAKIM) did not exist and there were no officials lurking to poke their noses into people’s daily lives.

It was in that age that Chin Choon Sam married a woman from the Nyonya community. They had nine children together: three girls and six boys. To cement his position in Malaya, Great Grandfather invested in seven plots of land in Ipoh, my family’s hometown. He would have bought them sometime in the first decade of the twentieth century, when Ipoh comprised barely more than a few streets.

Of all the places in Ipoh, Chin Choon Sam chose to buy his land in Greentown. Greentown then was not the thriving metropolis it is today. It was actually a bit of a wilderness – far from town, full of rubber estates and mosquitoes. To say that Greentown had uncertain prospects would have been generous. Most people must have thought Great Grandfather mad or very foolish, which is why he probably acquired his seven plots for a song.

Why only seven plots, you may ask, when he had nine children? Because my great grandfather, as typical of any Chinese man of the time, was thinking only of his sons. Each son would need to build his own house, while it was assumed that his daughters would marry and be provided for by their husbands.

But there was one extra plot. This, Chin Choon Sam donated to the Malay community specifically so that they could build a mosque. The only mosque in the area is the Masjid Muhibbuddin Shah (Masjid meaning Mosque in Malay) on Jalan Abdul Jalil. It’s close to where my family used to live and is very likely to have been built on Great Grandfather’s seventh plot. In those days, gestures of friendship between non-Muslims and Muslims were uncontroversial. My great grandfather’s donation was welcomed and a little road in Greentown was named after him.

The Author on Chin Choon Sam Road

The Author on Chin Choon Sam Road

Contrast that with what happened in Malaysia last week, when plans by the Democratic Action Party (DAP), an opposition party, to build a mosque, were condemned as an “insult” to Muslims because funds for building mosques had to be “halal”. The DAP, despite having Muslim members, is conveniently branded a political party of and for Malaysian-Chinese, who are of course not halal.

My great grandfather’s desire to pay homage to his adopted country was natural and highly laudable but I  wonder: would his gift have been accepted now? In the sorry state that is today’s Malaysia, I suspect not.

To Malaysian Readers: I do know that Article 153 of Malaysia’s Constitution safeguards the position not of Malays per se but of “Bumiputras“. The definition of Bumiputra – a Prince of the Soil, a protected class of person in Malaysia – is convoluted though, and not relevant to this blog-post. Article 153 is a minefield in Malaysian politics which would require separate discussion.


Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia, Novel, Nyonya

Of Hot Cross Buns and Croissants

An email arrived recently in my mailbox screaming “JAKIM bans hot cross buns in its bakeries”. In case you hadn’t guessed, JAKIM stands for JAbatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia – the Department of Ismalic Development in Malaysia. The headline I saw was therefore entirely plausible.

Digging a little, I found out that the article was old news. The story had done the rounds a few years previously, when it was said that in JAKIM bakeries, the crosses on hot cross buns had been turned into mere ropes. In other words, one of the lines on the cross (see photograph) had been removed, purportedly to avoid “offending” Muslims.

A Hot Cross Bun on a Plate

There was just a small problem: a hot cross bun with no cross is no longer a hot cross bun. This observation prompted an imaginative local blogger to christen the new bun with the name “tali-bun”, “tali” being the word for rope in Malay. Talibun is also deliciously close to Taliban, and we all know what that connotes.

If JAKIM has indeed banned hot cross buns, it will not have been the first time that this innocuous pastry has sailed into controversy. Which is mind-boggling if you think about it – how could a sweet, spiced ball of dough possibly cause such fuss? Yes a cross sits astride its top and yes, the bun is traditionally eaten at Easter, but the bread holds barely any religious connotation today.

And yet, the sign of the cross still has the power to terrify.

As early as 2003, Britain’s Daily Telegraph ran a story saying that a handful of local councils in Britain had banned the traditional hot cross buns at schools to avoid causing “offence” to “non-Christians”. When it emerged that the councils named by the Telegraph did not in fact have policies on hot cross buns, the paper had to apologise.

However, the debate over hot cross buns just wouldn’t go away. A few years later, it was the turn of a British hospital to cause a furore by not serving hot cross buns at Easter. This decision upset so many people that the hot cross buns were soon reinstated.

The Brits who spent time worrying about how the sight of crosses could “upset”, “offend” or otherwise imperil Muslims had obviously not heard the story of the croissant. The croissant is today associated with France but it did not originate there: the bread actually came from Austria, from Vienna to be precise. Anyone familiar with the extraordinary variety and quality of Austrian pastries will not find this revelation surprising.

Among the most memorable characteristics of the croissant is its shape: the bread looks like a crescent. Croissants in a WindowIndeed, the croissant may well have first been baked after the siege of Vienna in 1683, when bakers working in their cellars throughout the night heard burrowing underground – the sound of Ottoman soldiers invading – and alerted the authorities, thus saving Austria. As a reward, legend has it that the Viennese bakers were given the right to make a pastry in the shape of the Ottoman crescent.

I first read the above account in Stephen Clarke’s wonderfully entertaining book 1000 Years of Annoying the French. The author makes plain that there are other theories regarding the origin of the croissant, one of which is that it derives from an Austrian pastry known as the kipfel. There are records of the kipfel going back to the middle ages. In contrast, croissants do not appear in French literature until 1853, when a chemist named Anselme Payen wrote a book called Des Substances Alimentaires (Dietary Substances) – a title almost designed to put you off your food. In his book, Monsieur Payen discusses croissants under the section “fantasy or luxury bread”.

Regardless of who is right about the origins of the croissant, what is clear is that it was introduced from Austria into France. In its adopted country, the croissant soon became a breakfast favourite. Since then, millions of people – Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and otherwise – have been gulping down crescents – the sign of Islam (and of the moon) – without even being aware of the fact. Ingesting a crescent every morning, with and without butter and almonds and chocolate, has not upset anyone, irrespective of religion, nor has it dented faith itself.

The benign nature of the croissant did not stop a group of rebels in Syria from issuing a fatwa, a Muslim religious edict, against the bread because its “crescent shape celebrates European victory over Muslims”. Evidently, there are Muslims who need protection from both the cross and the crescent. That is the absurd situation we could end up living in, if ideologically-driven political correctness is allowed to become the norm.

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. It was the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who came up with this perceptive saying. The people who are so busy pronouncing fatwas and other rules obviously cannot just allow a cigar to remain a cigar; otherwise, they would be out of work. Our only hope is for common sense to eventually triumph over ideology.


Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia