Tag Archives: Malaysian-Chinese

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

One Small Step, A Giant Leap

In the course of writing my novel, I had many opportunities to compare the Malaysia I knew with the Malaysia of today. I have already shared my sadness, disappointment and worry elsewhere (The Malaysia We’ve Lost; Where is Home?; Ambiga, Allah and this Visit Malaysia Year).

This past week has been markedly different. On May 17, 2014, my country finally took a step in the right direction, and raised my spirits in the process.

On that day, a brave young woman of Malay ethnicity became the Opposition candidate in a predominantly Chinese town. If this sounds trivial, it is not. In Malaysia, race and religion are used as political weapons, and Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud’s story marks a water-shed.

As it happens, I had already been thinking about Teluk Intan, the town where Dyana is standing for election. My agent Thomas Colchie (see previous blog post), had asked to see the synopses of my entire trilogy of books, and I had been pondering Teluk Intan because the town will be mentioned in my second novel (where it will be called by its colonial name of Telok Anson). I am still at the planning stage for this second work: jotting down ideas, looking at maps, dreaming… But I digress; my purpose here is to share why Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud has given me such hope.

She is a lawyer from a family of active government supporters. In Malaysia, this means that Dyana could enjoy a good life by not rocking any boats. Instead, she joined an Opposition political party. Not only that, but she chose a party that is widely regarded as “Chinese”.

Why did she do this? Here is a quote from her: “Malaysia needs a new form of politics and to drop the old race based politics. I choose to forge a path towards a better Malaysia.” Bravo, absolutely spot on.

In truth, the party which Dyana joined – the Democratic Action Party or DAP – welcomes all races and religions, but because it has historically appealed more to Malaysian-Chinese voters, the incumbent government likes to stick it with a “race” label. The fact that Dyana chose this party was a courageous step, demonstrating an independence of mind and a willingness to go beyond her comfort zone to further her ideals. How many of us can say we have done that?

Almost at once, the backlash against Dyana began. She was wolf-whistled at her own nomination. Photographs of an actress who looked like her but was dressed in a bikini floated around the Internet. There were whispers about her age: too young at twenty seven, apparently. Malaysia’s incumbent Prime Minister was only twenty three when he was handed his seat on a plate. Did anyone complain about his youth? I doubt it. One rule for men, another for women. Same old, same old.

The great and the good of Malaysian politics have come out in force to denounce Dyana as a traitor (to her race), to bait her on religion, even to scold her mother for not sufficiently indoctrinating her! This, unsurprisingly, came from our former Prime Minister, an expert in the gutter politics of tribe. All kudos to Dyana’s mother for standing up so publicly for her daughter: “As a mother, I will support my daughter. I will campaign with her because she is my daughter.” Quite. But when so many have so little to say about so few, you know that something momentous is happening.

And what is happening is that the old politics of tribe are being challenged in highly public fashion. A young Malay, Malaysian-born and bred, has stood up and said NO to the race-based politics that have held sway since the 1970s. She is too young to know the Malaysia which I knew, and I have always worried about what would happen to Malaysia when those of us who remember what it used to be like, pass on from this Earth. Now I have glimpsed the answer: just because you have not experienced what Malaysia once was, it does not mean that you will be blind to injustice when you see it.

Dyana is a tangible challenge not just to Malaysia’s old politics but also to the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism, and strong forces are lined up against her. They do not want her to succeed. They do not want her to win, and if she wins, they do not want her to do a great jobs, and if she does a great job, they do not want her to remain with the DAP. Because if she succeeds, she will be living proof of exactly the sort of progressive, modern, inclusive Malaysia which many in my country are terrified of. If she succeeds, more may follow her. If more follow, what would become 0f vested interests? What would be the raison d’être of single-race and single-religion political parties? Heaven forbid, we may actually move forward and build the truly embracing society we are capable of building together, the real One Malaysia, not the slogan-bound 1Malaysia the government likes to trot out for tourists.

For all these reasons, I wish Dyana and the DAP the very best on 31 May 2014 and beyond. (For the record, I am not a DAP supporter).


Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia, Novel