Tag Archives: Nyonya Kueh

My New Website

Hello everyone! As promised in a video message late last year, I’ve had a website created – www.siakchinyoke.com – to give you more information about me and my books and also to (hopefully) answer some of the questions you’ve asked. There’s a page – Chye Hoon’s World – which is intended to help you explore the world my protagonist inhabited. As I’m continuing work on the Malayan Series, I’m afraid I’m only going to be able to populate this page very gradually; please bear with me…

Over time, I hope to include

  • Images of old Ipoh, with a focus on places mentioned in The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds;
  • Information about the cooking ingredients Chye Hoon would have used;
  • Photographs of the other mouth-watering Malaysian dishes she prepared;
  • A look at Nyonya attire, jewellery, shoes, practices and anything else you want to see!

Please take a few minutes to browse through the pages that are already up and let me know what you think! You can send a message via the website. I’d love to hear from you!

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Dreams can be Made

I’m thrilled to tell you that my novel – The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds – will be launched on November 1, 2016 in three formats: in print, as a Kindle e-book and also as an audio book.

Below is what the cover will look like. I love the artwork, I think it’s amazing – and I’m not just saying this because it happens to be my book.

The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds (The Malayan Series) by [Siak Chin Yoke, Selina]

If you’ve been waiting for my novel, the good news is that it’s now available to pre-order! Here are some of the stores which will stock it: Kinokuniya in Malaysia ; Kinokuniya in Singapore; Waterstones in the UK; Barnes & Noble in the USA and of course Amazon.

I mentioned before that I was stunned by how much work goes into a published book. I had expected the text to be scrutinised; this, after all, is the heart of a book, but I never imagined I would be taught the fine points of English grammar in the process!

For instance, I was told that I used the “subjunctive were” a lot (one of the copy editor’s comments). Funnily enough, I did not know what a “subjunctive were” was: I had to look it up on Google. It’s a relief to know that there are still people on this planet who understand the rules of English grammar. When I see the types of grammatical mistakes being made nowadays, I have to conclude that such people are a dying breed. So I’m really glad to find them in publishing!

At the outset, I was asked whether I wanted to be consulted about my book cover. Of course I said yes, and I’m glad I did – because it has allowed me to appreciate the amount of thought which designers put into book covers. Everyone sort of knows that book covers are important, but how much attention do you really give them beyond whether they are “nice” or not?

I was flabbergasted when my publisher began to articulate the different elements they felt that our cover had to convey. First, geography – so that it evoked at a glance not just Asia but South East Asia; secondly, the era – vintage yet somehow also timeless; and finally the sense of story, of how central the female protagonist is. I’m really proud of what was achieved even though I did not participate actively in the creative process. I only watched from afar, lobbing ideas when asked and making the odd irritating comment, like “too much yellow, could we have more blue please”. The artist, David Drummond, has featured the work on his own blog, where he describes it as being a “fun cover” to work on. I’m glad he thinks so, because there must have been goodness-knows-how-many iterations! (I don’t actually know how many there were – my editor did a wonderful job in shielding me from the (no doubt) heated discussions.)

I don’t suppose that many authors have much involvement with the creation of their audio books. Because of the peppering of Malay and Chinese dialect words in my novel, I had offered pronunciation assistance to the narrator, a British actress by the name of Christine Rendel. I did not know whether Christine would take my offer up, and was impressed when she not only did but came prepared with an array of of questions. I had to explain how to say “ai-yahh” and “lah” and “ngi cho ma kai-ah”, among other things. And now I can’t wait to hear what she has done with these expressions!

Finally, a word about my publisher Amazon Crossing – Amazon Publishing’s translated works imprint. In line with its remit Amazon Crossing has to date mainly published works written in other languages and translated into English. I’m pleased to be among the handful of authors writing in English whom they have chosen to publish, and especially honoured that they selected my debut novel. I must thank the whole team in Seattle, most of whom I have not met, many whose names I don’t even know, for being so pro-active and re-active and patient with the questions I’ve asked. My editor, Elizabeth DeNoma, has been exemplary. Her job, apart from managing various strands of the book production process, has included holding my hand, especially as publication day creeps ever closer.

Because, with less than two months to go, my emotions are starting to cause havoc. This may sound counter-intuitive but I’ve become increasingly nervous; what if people hate my book? To be honest, I’m having trouble sleeping properly. I fear I may be a wreck by November.

Thank goodness I’ll be visiting Malaysia before then – I’ll certainly need doses of petai and Nyonya kueh to calm those nerves! If any of you are in Malaysia in October, please come and hear me read an excerpt from The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds. I will be at The Sharpened Word in Ipoh, my hometown, on Saturday, October 15, 2016 and then at Seksan, Bangsar Village in Kuala Lumpur a fortnight later on Saturday, October 29, 2016. Details will be posted here in due course.

Meanwhile I’ve been asked for an interview. Part of me cannot believe this is actually happening… For so long I dreamt about having a novel published. But I had other interests too and I pursued these first. If I had not had cancer when I did, I would probably only have started writing seriously much later. Which goes to show that positive things can rise out of the ashes of personal difficulty.

Taking this novel from concept to publication has taken longer than I ever imagined it would. Nearly six years, to be precise : two months of research, two years of writing, another year to secure an agent, nearly two years for him to find a publisher and then the months Amazon Crossing has spent turning my raw manuscript into a printed book. Now it feels as if I’m standing on the threshold of something new, a different stage in my writing journey, when I can look back on the hard slog and think that, no matter what happens next, it has all been worth it. Sometimes, dreams do come true.

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The Things that go into Creating a Book

Your manuscript has finally been accepted for publication, so now you simply sit back and relax, right? Ah… if only.

I had been told that transforming my raw manuscript into a final product would entail a huge amount of work. The trouble with phrases such as “a huge amount of work” is that they’re abstract facts, a bit like knowing how far the Moon is from Earth. I had little appreciation of what was to come.

For the first few days, nothing happened. I signed my contract and the publisher promptly disappeared. I continued working on my second novel, which was then in its third draft. From time to time, I glanced at the publishing contract to make sure it was real. Then, the woman who had bought the rights to my novel, the Acquisitions Editor at the publishing house, contacted me. She is a key person, my point of contact, “my editor” as it were.

We began with a long and detailed questionnaire. (They seem to like questionnaires; I’ve already filled in more than one). The form asked all sorts of things, from basic facts to nightmarish questions. “Describe your novel in one sentence.” I groaned. How do you do summarise a multi-cultural, multi-layered work set in British Malaya that weaves in history, mythology and cuisine as it grapples with identity through the lens of a strong female character with ten children? I suppose I’ve just done it there, but the sentence is convoluted. I spent a weekend coming up with a better version. The marketing geniuses at the publishing house had their own ideas. You will see, once the book appears, whether we succeeded.

The questionnaire held out exciting prospects. There was mention of the book’s cover. A cover! The mere thought of my book having a cover brought a frisson.

However, first things first; what followed next was more mundane, an activity we writers are used to: editing. My publisher asked for a “developmental edit”. Developmental editing usually happens early on, when the outline and structure of a story are shaped and altered.

In the case of my manuscript, the changes the publisher wanted were minimal. Nonetheless, a person called a Developmental Editor, or Dev Editor, was tasked to work with me. In case you’re confused, this is not the same as the Acquisitions Editor. There seem to be many people in publishing whose job titles include the word “editor”. The Dev Editor’s role was to clarify anything in the arc of my story which she felt to be unclear.

Of course, I had to be persuaded that aspects of what I had called the Final Manuscript were actually unclear. Really? After looking through the Dev Editor’s questions, I put my objections aside. She was clearly a professional, and if she found something confusing, who was I to argue?

There I sat, hunched before a computer screen, scrutinising pages I had read hundreds of times before. I even explained the intricacies of Nyonya kueh to the Dev Editor. Can you describe what ondeh-ondeh look like, she asked. Given our tight deadline, I wondered whether such queries were necessary. There were times when I’m sure the Dev Editor herself would have preferred eating to reading. ‘Your manuscript makes me hungry,’ she declared, a confession I found gratifying. And yet, with her fresh eyes, she spotted an error in the narrative detail! The error was small, but given how many people had already read the manuscript, you would have thought one of us would have caught it before. This is an excellent illustration of why there can never be too many readings before a book is released.

At the moment, my manuscript is being examined by another type of editor, a “copy editor”. I had not understood what this meant: I thought the copy editor’s remit would be limited to correcting sentences and punctuation, but apparently s/he is also checking facts. This is fascinating. My novel is a history-rich, epic family drama – there’s rather a lot to check. I wonder whether the copy editor and the fact checker are the same person. Is this a Westerner or an Asian, possibly even a Malaysian? I imagine someone in a room somewhere, poring over an old map of Ipoh to look at the streets on which my characters walk. Is s/he making rough measurements to ascertain distances and at the same time sampling copious amounts of food to check my descriptions?

On the one hand, it’s incredibly reassuring to know that what I wrote is being verified in this way; on the other hand, waiting to see what is uncovered is nerve-wracking. I think I did a good job with my facts, but heaven only knows. Better to find errors now though, rather than later. Books have had to be withdrawn due to mistakes not being found in time. Even large publishing houses are not immune, as the case of Jonathan Franzen’s novel showed. (There, the wrong set of proofs was sent to the printers.)

As if the above weren’t enough, work is also commencing on an audio version of my book! I had no clue how an audio book was made, and the team helpfully explained the steps.

In recent years publishers have been vilified. Everyone knows that they act as gate-keepers. Because they hold the keys to distribution, they also keep the lion’s share of revenues. But now that I can see what the book creation process involves, how many strands of work there are and how large the team is, I know I could not do this on my own.

My Acquisitions Editor, who is American, was in town for the London Book Fair. We went to Sedap, the only London restaurant with Nyonya kueh on the menu,  so that she could sample a little of what she had read so much about. We talked about the book, of course. If there is such a thing as pure excitement, I felt it then, as I thought of my novel being created. Alongside the thrill came anxiety too. A book is not like a business project report or a presentation: so much of yourself is invested in the writing of it. At the same time, it’s one of the easiest things to criticise. What that lunch helped me realise was that I was no longer alone on this journey. My editor and her team are as emotionally involved as I am. We all share a sense of anticipation, hope and nervousness. At the end of the day, it is the readers who will decide. The greatest test of all.

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Celebrating the Year of the Water Snake

It began, as all Chinese New Year celebrations must, with food. Paper plates loaded with steaming hot rice and stir-fried vegetables were spread onto tables. “Eat! Eat!” the women running around both floors of the Islington Chinese Association (ICA) exhorted, in a way which brooked no dissent. Disobedience would not have been an option.

A crowd numbering hundreds had gathered on a discreet street in north London where the ICA is located, to ring in the Year of the Water Snake. In addition to fan dances, calligraphy, demonstrations from a kung fu master and of course, the Lion Dance, there was to be literature: poetry from a British-born Chinese writer, and a reading by me of extracts from my novel. We’ve never done this before, Dr. Stephen Ng, ICA’s Coordinator, and Lady Katy Blair, its co-Founder and CEO, had confided; you will be an experiment.

Amidst whispering and much howling (from the younger guests), it seemed to me a brave experiment, especially since part of the audience spoke only halting English. As I watched people run hither and thither, I wondered how the afternoon would go.

Those worries didn’t last long. We were soon distracted by an insistent beat and the clanging of cymbals. On a pavement outside, a round Chinese drum, its black lacquer gilded with golden characters, had been set up. Lion is approaching. boom-boom-boom The drum was extraordinarily loud, inducing a shiver in the pit of my stomach – a frisson I always feel when I know that the epic Lion Dance will follow. Neighbours peeked out of their windows as the Lion approached, bearing its multi-coloured head. This was a friendly beast, so friendly that at least one little boy was tempted to peer solemnly into its ravenous mouth. The Lion wagged cheeky pink tongue and tail in every corner, which I hope was enough to chase away any evil spirits lurking.

What's in there

By the time I returned inside, the upper floor of the ICA had been transformed. In its place was a concert hall decked with rows of chairs. From the stage at the front came the dulcet tones of a Chinese flute, so lulling that even the children stopped squirming. When Anna Chen, poet and activist, took to the stage, she invigorated the crowd by half-reading and most astonishingly, half-singing, her poignant poems. The lyrical Anna May Wong must die was especially powerful – ‘a personal journey through the life and crimes of Hollywood’s first Chinese screen legend’, it says on Anna’s website. (I hope everyone reading this will have the opportunity to watch Anna perform). I could see that people listened, but you had to be able to hold their attention.Anna Chen reads her poetry

All too soon, it was my turn. I had been told I would go onstage after the fan dance. I waited in the wings, tense because I knew it would be the first novel reading at the ICA, afraid also that my story might not be regarded as ‘Chinese enough’ for a community event of this sort.

Indeed, the family in my novel is mixed, the woman who leads it being a Nyonya – part of the Chinese diaspora in South East Asia which dates back centuries. Many people today have never heard of the Nyonyas and Babas, even in Malaysia. This is a great shame, because the Nyonyas and Babas successfully created a unique fusion of Chinese and Malay culture long before globalisation existed. In their way of life, they have something to teach us, especially in present-day Malaysia where race drives your rights, or the lack of them (see blog-post The Malaysia We’ve Lost).

The first passage I read told the ancestral story of the Nyonyas and Babas. Selina introduces the Nyonya themeTo make my reading come alive, I had watched videos of actors and politicians speaking. I also enlisted the help of two Malaysian students, Wahidah and Aufa Dahlia, who gallantly came on stage modelling Nyonya costumes. Wahidah, her hair tied up in the famous Nyonya chignon, looked resplendent in a tailored vintage sarong kebaya.Demonstrating sarong kebaya Her blouse and sarong came from Aufa’s private collection, while her feet were adorned by a pair of hand-made Nyonya beaded slippers which had been purchased from a shop, Colour Beads, in Malacca. This beautiful town is arguably Malaysia’s most historic, and a large Nyonya-Baba community once lived there.

Wahidah was subsequently joined on stage by Aufa Dahlia, who showed off her modern Nyonya attire with great aplomb. The audience sat enraptured, so graceful were the kebaya ladies. Later, many went up to Aufa’s table, where she had placed a sample of the kebaya blouses she sells on her website as a hobby. If the kebaya ladies and I were to form an act, we would surely be hits on a reading circuit!

Modern NyonyaOther artistes followed, including the kung fu master whose rhythmic movements mesmerised everyone. Look at the picture below and you will see why he was a tough act to follow, especially by a writer reading her second passage late in the day. Kung-Fu masterFortunately, I was aided by the dramatic second scene I had chosen to read and by the prop I brought along: the Nyonya kueh (cakes) which feature in my novel. I had only two varieties with me – both from the Malaysia Hall Canteen in Bayswater – but they disappeared in seconds after being shared out!

Afterwards, people came up to say how much they had enjoyed my reading. One woman thanked me for opening her eyes to the diversity of the Chinese diaspora, a few even asked where they could buy my book. Alas, I had to say it was not yet published but I gave them my card nonetheless, as it has the address of this blog on the back.

The grand finale of the afternoon was a Ching (Qing) Dynasty costume parade which starred a Mandarin, a Court Official, a Eunuch, the Empress and of course, the Emperor, all in borrowed robes which had never before been worn in the UK. Truly a fitting way with which to end such an uplifting day.

The EmperorAs we headed off, I thought of those who had come before us. It was not just Emperors and Empresses who made history but the coolies leaving in desperate circumstances, and before them, during the Ming Dynasty, the adventurer traders who left to settle elsewhere. These ancestors, all of them, have left their mark in the sands of history. And we their descendants are immensely fortunate, in having such a rich heritage to celebrate.

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What Great-Grandmother Taught Me about Economics

Hang a banker a week until the others improve.” These extraordinary words were uttered by Ken Livingstone, formerly London’s mayor, in a speech in February this year.

His words clearly incite hate, but in the West of today, hating bankers and business, especially big business, seems perfectly acceptable. Livingstone is far from alone. “Outrage over £13 billion lavished on bonuses for bankers while the rest of us struggle to make ends meet,” screamed the MailOnline on 20 September.

With such righteous indignation, it was hardly surprising that two poets, Alice Oswald and John Kinsella, withdrew from the TS Eliot prize on the grounds of its ‘tainted’ sponsorship. The money for the prize was to come from investment firm Aurum, which manages funds of hedge funds. “The business of Aurum does not sit well with my personal politics and ethics”, said Mr. Kinsella, who described hedge funds as being “at the very pointy end of capitalism.” Fair enough. It is laudable to stand up for what you believe in. I only hope Mr. Kinsella never plans to retire, because his pension fund, if he has one, is likely to have exposure to hedge funds (or to mutual funds which employ hedge fund techniques).

Into this charged atmosphere, it would be interesting to see the response to my début novel in which private entrepreneurship is celebrated. My protagonist Chye Hoon fully embraces capitalism, because it offers her and her family opportunities. In colonial Malaya, there is no other lifeline, no entitlement: life is what you make of it. Chye Hoon cannot even read or write but this doesn’t deter her, because she can count. She starts a business in Malaya in 1910, making and selling the delicacies with which she has grown up – the Nyonya kueh of her childhood. On the first morning, Chye Hoon stands in her kitchen inhaling the smells of steaming coconut milk and pandanus leaves, and she knows she will make money.

This she proceeds to do – very successfully. Bahh, you may say. Your book is fiction. Maybe, but my protagonist is based on my great grandmother, who personified the traits of many overseas Chinese. We are the descendants of those who dared leave China. There are plenty of rags-to-riches stories from among us, and all are true. (When I say rags, I mean literally rags. Here is one of many photographs of newly-arrived immigrants at the Chinatown Heritage Centre in Singapore, an excellent museum.) 

Great-Grandmother shared the absolute determination of her Chinese ancestors to succeed. She might even have taught Gordon Brown a thing or two. Ipoh, where she lived, was a mining town, its fortunes tied to tin. And the price of tin, Great-Grandmother knew, went up and down. She understood intuitively that there would be good years as well as bad. If she had heard anyone say, as the former Chancellor did in his pre-budget report of 1999, “Under this Government, Britain will not return to the boom and bust of the past”, she would have exclaimed, Malaysian style, “What? He crazy ah?”

In the good years, Great-Grandmother worked and saved, to prepare for the bad years that were always just round the corner. In the bad years she worked just as hard, but saved less. There was no point complaining, and no one to complain to. Great-Grandmother lived in a world in which no safety net existed: there was no unemployment benefit, no healthcare, or pension. She provided for herself and her children, all nine of them.

At some point Great-Grandmother made enough money, and was approached by others for loans. That was when she became a money-lender in Ipoh. My own protagonist Chye Hoon also becomes a money-lender in my novel. Chye Hoon discovers an under-served niche (women), and her activities play a vital role in the growth of micro-enterprise in her town. In writing about how Chye Hoon builds her business, I drew from twenty years of experience as a banker and entrepreneur. 

Business is about survival, and growth. Always, you have to make sure you survive, no matter how large your business. This is the stuff of life. It’s what I write about in my novel. In the anti-capitalist discourse of today, we sometimes forget that businesses serve needs. As does banking.

Make no mistake: Great-Grandmother’s enterprise may have been small, but she was as keen on profit as any large corporation. Without profit, she could not have survived; our family wouldn’t be here, and I wouldn’t be completing a novel.

As I read some of the headlines in the West today, I can’t help thinking about her. Her golden rules were simple: work your butt off, save like crazy, and take advantage of every opportunity. Oh, and don’t borrow. This last was ironic, given her money-lending activities.

But perhaps a dose of such conservatism has its uses. At the last count, Britain’s households held £1.4 trillion of personal debt. This means that the average amount owed by each person in the UK represents 117% of average earnings.

Some people say this level of debt doesn’t matter (BBC News: The Truth about the UK’s Debt). Perhaps, but surely having less debt could do no harm.

In any case, are bankers solely responsible for the debt mountain? The facts speak for themselves: personal debt climbed during the go-go years between 1997 and 2007.  Loans were given too freely then, but no banker forced anyone to take a loan under duress. Somewhere in the narrative of entitlement, personal responsibility has got lost.

My novel goes against that grain. It is about identity and loss of culture yes, but it is also a story of personal responsibility, and the power we have as individuals. In this time of crisis, it offers a message of hope. Against all odds, a woman faces the Great Depression of the 1930s on her own, with no help whatsoever. She succeeds on her own terms. We can too.

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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.

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She Arrived on an Elephant – Why I’m Writing my Novel

My novel is based on my Great Grandmother, whom I first heard about when still quite small. I remember being shown a black and white photograph in which a rather plump woman stood, wearing a patterned blouse that was fastened by an enormous brooch. “That’s grandma,” my mother told me simply. It turned out that was the only photo ever taken of my Great Grandmother and it was brown with age even then; it revealed a forbidding-looking woman, someone a child would be frightened of, despite the semblance of a smile on her round face. This impression was reinforced whenever Great Grandmother came up in conversation; with bated breath, the adults around me would exclaim – “Wahh! Very fierce ah!”

I was told Great Grandmother came from Siam (now Thailand) and was a Nyonya, words I hadn’t heard before and which seemed too complicated for my little brain to deal with. For years I didn’t dig any further, content to simply associate the word Nyonya with spicy dishes and with the kueh I enjoyed (see my previous blog post). Those who know me may find this hard to believe, but the fact that there was something I liked eating was actually a big deal – because I hated eating as a child. Every meal was a tortured ritual in which my mother was forced to slowly hand-feed me. I took so long to eat that by the time I finished, it would almost be time for the next meal. The net result was that for me, all meals blended into a single nightmare, so it must have seemed like a gift from heaven to my poor mother when she discovered that I would happily devour Nyonya kueh.

Over the years as I grew up, I remember being told that I was just like my Great Grandmother – stubborn and fierce. The comments weren’t necessarily intended as compliments, and initially they didn’t please me. But they were repeated so often that I became curious about the woman who had inspired them. Eventually I felt I had no choice except to find out more. It was then that I heard how she raised nine children on her own, unaided, with nothing to fall back on except her wits and business acumen. She couldn’t even read and write, but that didn’t stop her from establishing her own business. For a woman in Malaya in 1910, that must have taken guts, something Great Grandmother appeared to have plenty of.

Hers was a story I had long intended to write, but creative writing didn’t fit in with the fast world of finance. I was seldom at home and worked such insane hours, often in far-flung corners of the world, that there was barely time for sleep. Everything else fell by the wayside; in those days writing seemed a hazy dream to be pursued later, a bit like golf.

Then, two years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Because it was cancer, it meant I had to have not only surgery but also radio- and chemotherapy. For someone with needle-phobia who doesn’t take any drugs and faints at the sight of blood, the entire process proved very stressful – although I didn’t feel it at the time. It was only after my treatment had finished that I realised life had changed. For months afterwards, I felt adrift. No matter how much I slept, I couldn’t seem to regain my previous energy. My confidence waned, and there were days when I wondered if I could ever be the person I once was. I knew then that I had to alter the way I lived.

As a result, I began to do things I never did before. I stopped rushing around. I scaled down my business. And I discovered writing. I had heard about cancer survivors who had found a lifeline through creative self-expression, activities like pottery or singing, as well as writing. At a low-ebb one day, I simply sat down with a blank Word page and just started typing. Magically, as the sentences flowed, I could literally feel myself getting better.

Within two months, when I asked myself whether there was anything I would regret not having done if my life were to end tomorrow, I knew at once what the answer was. It was clear then what my next project had to be. Great Grandmother had already waited far too long.

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