Tag Archives: Nyonya

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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Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia, Novel, Nyonya

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.

ipoh_on_malaysian_map1[1]

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.

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Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia, Novel, Nyonya

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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I’ve Finished, Now What?

Many readers of this blog have asked when my novel will be published. A few even assumed, after my last post, that it had already been published!

Ahh, if only…

Two years ago, I attended one of the conferences organised by a unit of Bloomsbury Publishing (of Harry Potter fame). The conference was temptingly called ‘How to Get Published – the Insider Guide to the Media’.

Several hundred of us hopeful writers made our way into a hall at the Wellcome Collection in central London. It was a typical conference hall, with seats on an incline that pointed towards a stage at the front. From their vaunted podium, the first thing senior executives of Bloomsbury did was to greet us. Then they proceeded to say that at any point in time,  a million manuscripts were floating around in search of a publisher. Thanks for the welcome, I thought. The message was so razor-sharp, it could have sliced stone-hard bread: British publishing didn’t need us; it already had enough backlog.

During breaks, I heard other people’s stories. A few delegates, having lived through multiple rejections, had been attending the same conference for many years. Some had been told by agents that there was ‘no market’ for their work. While listening to such war stories, I could see the attractions of self-publishing, though none of my fellow writers showed much enthusiasm. They wanted the prestige of traditional publishing. Others didn’t feel they had the business background to self-publish.

While at the conference, I bought a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook without knowing whether or how I would use it. This tome not only lists agents and publishers in major Western countries, it also gives detailed suggestions for how pitch letters and synopses should be written. Covered with such plaudits as ‘The one-and-only indispensable guide to the world of writing’, this from William Boyd, who could resist? It seemed a snip at £18.99. (Older editions are even cheaper on Amazon). For a fleeting moment, the conference on How to Get Published made me wonder whether I even wanted to be published, but this lasted all of a nano-second before natural ambitiousness took over. I could see my Chinese and Nyonya ancestors standing over me, wagging fingers, tsk-tsking. I left armed with a resolve to complete writing my novel. I decided to worry about publication at a later date.

That crucial moment has now arrived. I have to decide how best to get my novel published and into the hands of the readers whom I believe will be there. This may seem presumptious for a first-time novelist, but on the other hand, I’m supposed to know my audience – and I do. My target readership is Isabel Allende‘s, the Chilean-American writer who has sold 57 million books world-wide. That’s a nice number,  not at all bad for a target audience, I’d say. I think my novel would appeal to her readers because I write in the same story-telling style, and also because my work is a multicultural historical epic family drama, as are many of hers.

But I’m looking to attract new readers too, especially those with Asian roots. While writing my book, I consciously set out to portray Asians as we see ourselves, and to weave as much of South East Asia – be it place, ancestral stories or folklore – into the story as possible.

Knowing this is all very well, but what the hell should I do now? Previously, I would have had little choice but to go down the route of traditional publishing. That would mean fighting for the attention of an agent, because with the million manuscripts floating around, agents too are inundated. Even if I succeeded in finding an agent, there would still be no guarantee of publication – the agent would have to place the manuscript with a publisher willing to take on the book and the risk of a new writer.

But we are now in the digital age, and I have the option of publishing and selling the novel myself. Yet, when I think about what this would entail – all of the copy-editing, proof-reading, lay-out, design, printing (since not everyone in my target audience would have an e-book reader) and most of all, the marketing which a traditional publisher would undertake for its authors – I shudder. It would take me light years away from the creative process. I baulk, despite having a business background which equips me well enough to grapple with rankings on Amazon, persuade reviewers to read my book, even trudge from store to store to sweet-talk them into stocking copies. Because I do have business experience, I realise that this would be a very long-term project for a new writer. Not impossible, just extremely tough for my genre. Though it is a perfectly legitimate route, and one which would give me complete control over my work, as well as (in principle) the lion’s share of any royalties.

Whenever I think about publishing, it becomes abundantly clear that writing was actually the easy part!

For the moment, I have decided to pursue traditional publishing. This is mainly because my first novel is intended as the start of a trilogy and – call me mad – I’ve already started the second. Only a small part, mind, and there’s still a lot more research to do. But a start has been made! This second novel will continue the epic family saga beyond 1941, when the Second World War reaches Malaya.

One way or another, I intend to get published. Meanwhile, if you’re in London over the next two months, I’ll be reading extracts from my novel at two events:

16 February 2013 at the Islington Chinese Association, as part of a Cultural Day to celebrate Chinese New Year

8 March 2013 at a lunch to be hosted by the Hong Kong Society Women’s Group, where together with Kerry Young, author of the acclaimed novel Pao, I will read and explore perspectives on the Chinese spirit for International Women’s Day

Do come if you can!

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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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My First Book Reading

It is a wonderful time to be in the New Forest (the brown blob at the bottom of the map). The New Forest lies in Hampshire, and is now one of England’s national parks. In early October the trees are still green, but the oranges and gold of autumn have crept in.

Ponies meander in open fields; along the streets of Beaulieu village, famous for its National Motor Museum, wild donkeys poke their curious nozzles into the doorways of shops.

It was in this pastoral setting that I gave a book reading on the evening of October 3. I had been invited by Monty’s Book Club, whose members meet once a month in the Montagu Arms, a pub and hotel located in the heart of Beaulieu. The club reads the whole range of literary fiction, from contemporary works through to classics. This book club has existed for three years and is thriving; it even has a waiting list. Membership is restricted to ten at any time, because the club borrows books from the local library and ten was felt to be a manageable number. A member told me the size is just right, as it allows for varied discussion without being intimidating.

I was only the second writer to read to Monty’s, the first being Natasha Solomons. To publicise her debut novel Mr Rosenblum’s List, Ms. Solomons went on a quest to visit as many British book clubs as she could. She duly arrived in Beaulieu. There, she paved the way for others, because her reading was such a success that Monty’s members welcomed me too.

My own invitation came about through personal links. During the six years I spent at SouthamptonUniversity as a theoretical physicist, I often sought refuge in the New Forest. I loved its peace, its trees and the colour of its skies. I still visit, to see a long-standing friend whenever I can. On one such visit in the summer, I heard about Monty’s Book Club, and wondered aloud whether the club would be interested in a reading of my novel.

The club said yes. Like Ms. Solomons’ reading, mine was also to be a special event, held not in the Montagu Arms but in a member’s house. I arrived with some trepidation. I had never given a book reading before and didn’t know what to expect. I knew the atmosphere would be genteel and its members polite, but I didn’t want people to say nice things just because they felt obliged to. If anyone became bored during the half hour or so while I read, it would have been obvious to me – and the rest of the audience.

So I practised, many times. I recorded my voice on a sleek, silver Olympus recording machine my partner had given me as a present. It’s a fabulous gadget: pocket-sized yet powerful. On it, you can hear everything, even the rustle of paper. I listened to my enunciation, making sure there was enough nuance in my voice to keep everyone’s attention. I learnt to pull my stomach muscles in when my voice fell, so that I could better project sound across a room. I imagine that this is what singers have to do.

I read from a Kindle reader with a special leather cover that has its own discreet lamp at the top. The light flicks in and out; it can be fully tucked in unless needed, a highly ergonomic design. Much as I love holding a physical book, I also love my Kindle and its cover. Its leather feels wonderful in my hands, and the fact that its light shines directly onto the page is a huge bonus. The Kindle proved incredibly useful during my reading. 

In the end, I read two sections, one short, the second longer. The first was the ancestral story of the Nyonyas, the people from whom my main protagonist, Chye Hoon, is descended. I looked at my audience as I read, watching for any sign of a yawn or of eyes glazing over. None came. I could see that the members of Monty’s Book Club were imagining the scene in their own minds, seeing the character in my story who is herself telling a story.

When I began the second, longer section, the eyes of my audience were still on me. The scene takes place on the island of Penang, which a few in the room had been to. But my Penang is the Penang of 1898, and I invoke a place covered in virgin jungle, where elephants are still a form of transport. In this scene, Chye Hoon is about to get married. It is a huge celebration, because Chye Hoon is an independent-minded girl with a fearsome temper and no one believes she will ever find a suitor. But get married she does, in the colourful Nyonya-Baba tradition of the day which left my modern British audience wide-eyed.

Afterwards, the members of Monty’s asked many questions. We talked about the Nyonyas and Babas, whom none had heard of previously. We talked also of Malaysia, the real Malaysia, not the one touted on Tourism Malaysia billboards. I was impressed that this group – educated women, some with careers, many who stayed at home, some now pursuing post-graduate studies, and all juggling a host of family commitments – remained late into the night to engage in a culture they had never heard of, in a country some had yet to visit. I took it as a good sign that there would be interest from a Western audience in my multi-cultural novel. Its themes are topical today: the ongoing tension between modernity and tradition, and the invisible cost of the cultural assimilation which some of us must face.

In my novel, the characters speak like real-life Malaysians. I mentioned this in a previous blog-post What Does it Cost to Write a Novel?, in which I had said I was unsure about this point of style. A member of Monty’s, a speech therapist, said she loved my dialogue. She especially liked the way I had changed the order of words. She put it very aptly: “Language isn’t just about communication; it also conveys a sense of place.” In a number of novels she had read, the characters had spoken in ordinary English even though the stories were set in foreign lands, and she had felt this sense of place to be missing. Others in the group agreed. I breathed a sigh of relief, because my audience had validated an intuition which I, as a Malaysian writer, have long had.

My grateful thanks to Monty’s Book Club; they made the evening what it was, and also helped clarify an ambiguity in my own mind. A few members asked when my novel would be published. Some worried it might not. But it will – because I write to be read, not so that my script remains as bits on a motherboard. When and in what form my novel will be published, I cannot say. But I will work to get it there, even if it means having to start a publishing company.

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Lost Cells 2: Chinaman, Englishman and the Malaysian-Chinese Divide

“Chinaman!”

I remember the first time I heard the word. It was more a cry really, a shout which came back in a dream, stirring the depths of my memory.

I wonder what the word conjures up for you. Does it evoke an image? I would love to know. Please click below to answer a simple question.

Thank you for sharing your experience.

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It was the tone in which ‘Chinaman’ was said which must have caught my attention, because I began to ask questions. The adults around me squirmed, and then became evasive as they pretended that ‘Chinaman’ was an innocuous word. They told me it referred to a man from China, in the same way that ‘Englishman’ referred to a man from England.

But they were lying.

‘Chinaman’ had a ring to it; the word shook the dust, as if phlegm were being expelled. No one said ‘Englishman’ in the same way, or ‘Frenchman’, or any other word which contained the name of a country.

As I grew up, I learnt its many connotations.

Uncouth.

Lower class.

Untrustworthy.

Dirty.

Greedy.

Rude.

Slitty-eyed ugly.

No wonder the adults had been ambiguous. There is nothing attractive in the descriptions above, and they must have been embarrassed at having to explain themselves. Every one of them was of Chinese ethnicity, and I wonder what they could have been thinking. If you were Chinese – a Chinaman or a Chinawoman – what did you have to tell yourself in order to be able to spit out ‘Chinaman’, a word loaded with implications, so easily? How did you deal with the confusion which must have lurked somewhere inside your head and your heart?

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As I held the contradictions inside, I veered between shame and outsized pride. There were moments when I shuddered, disgusted at my association with a race of coarse, yellow-skinned peasants who spat on the street and spiced each meal with slurping and burping. How could I have come from the same stock? There was no escaping genetics, but I sometimes pretended I could. I had to make these ‘Chinamen’ separate from me.

—————

Before I came into the world, my grandfather and granduncles did the same. They were born in Malaya in the early 1900s, a time when China was fast declining while Britain’s star remained in the ascent. My great-grandfather Chin Choon Sam was a first-generation Chinese immigrant who married a Nyonya woman, my legendarily fierce great-grandmother. When my great-grandfather settled in Ipoh (see map and blog-post My Ipoh), he raised a second family, as was common with Chinese immigrants of the time who had left families behind in China. We know little about his first family other than that he had a China-born son, who often visited his half-siblings in Malaya.

His two families were raised very differently, however. With the onslaught of British colonisation, his Malayan sons were educated in English – at the Anglo-Chinese School in Ipoh. This is one of Malaysia’s most famous schools and among the first to be founded by missionaries (as detailed in my blog-post Smart Girls don’t find Husbands?!). My grandfather and granduncles learnt to speak and write fluently in English; they wore Western clothes, adopted healthy doses of British manners, and converted to Christianity. In contrast, their China-born half-brother, having been schooled in China, spoke only Chinese and was more comfortable with traditional Chinese customs.

It was perhaps inevitable that my grandfather and granduncles thought themselves superior to this ‘Chinaman’ among them. We have no photographs of my China-born granduncle; whenever I try to imagine what he looked like, all I can see is a man with a brown face, clad in a Mandarin suit, his hair covered by a cloth cap or a hard conical hat. This, I realise, is simply an image of a Chinaman I have picked up somewhere along the way, a picture not unlike that well-known photograph of Yap Ah Loy, the founder of Kuala Lumpur (see map), Malaysia’s capital city.

I wonder what my Westernised grandfather and granduncles must have thought as they sat with the supposedly flesh-and-blood intruder inside their home. Perhaps choice words came into their minds?

Uncouth.          Lower class.   Untrustworthy.

My aunt who remembers the visitor from China confirmed the disdain with which my China-born granduncle was treated. “Like a second-class citizen!”

The poor man eventually decided his prospects would be better in his native country and returned there for good. I only hope life wasn’t too harsh for him after the Communists came to power.

—————

My family’s story was not atypical. In the decades when Malaysians looked up to the West and regarded English as superior, Malaysians of Chinese descent who came from English-speaking homes looked down on their Chinese-speaking compatriots. (Of course, all Malaysian-Chinese speak both English and Chinese to some extent; what I’m referring to is our primary preference, our modus operandi: the language in which we feel the most comfortable and which shapes how we behave in this world.)

For a long time, we English-speaking Malaysian-Chinese walked with a swagger. Our compatriots felt our condescension, as I was reminded by a Malaysian-Chinese friend from a Chinese-speaking background. She herself attended a Chinese language primary school before continuing to one of the former mission schools for her secondary education.

There, she met Malaysian-Chinese students from English-speaking homes. It was then that she felt the subtle divide which separated her from her English-speaking peers. Nothing was ever said and no one was openly rude, but she knew she was perceived as a lesser person: less wealthy, more ulu (market Malay for backward), not as well-dressed. In the canteen, social segregation took place; English and Chinese speakers usually sat in separate groups. Segregation continued inside the classroom, because in Malaysia, students are streamed according to ability and in general, English-speaking students achieved better examination results.

For my friend, what she felt palpably from one day to another drove her. She wanted to prove to her English-speaking classmates that she was their equal. She has succeeded admirably in this goal; after university in Australia, she worked for a multinational company and now lives a global lifestyle. Years later when she recounted her story, I could still hear the anguish in her voice. My friend’s success has come at a price though: she has now forgotten her Mandarin.

—————

This is largely in the past. With the rise of China, social perceptions have changed. Malaysians no longer look to the West in the same way, and Malaysian-Chinese now prefer their children to be educated in Chinese (for political reasons which I will not discuss here).

In this brave new world, even the word ‘Chinaman’ has lost some of its sting. But a shifting state of affairs always brings its own challenges. A recent review in the UK’s Guardian paper  brought home to me what some of these may be. The reviews was of the much-acclaimed novel Chinaman which is about, of all things, cricket.

Here’s what it said. “A Chinaman in cricket is a particular delivery, a slower ball designed to fool the batsman into thinking it will bounce in the opposite direction to the one it does. It also, in Sri Lankan argot, is a term indicating gullibility.”

Guile and gullibility, juxtaposed effortlessly over one another. This tells me that there are people – perhaps many – who fear and loathe the Chinese (us Chinese?) at the same time. (I rewrote that last sentence repeatedly and still couldn’t decide which phrase to use. Who do I stand with here? Do people regard me in the same way as they do the mainland Chinese? Do they fear us too but would never say so openly?) Their fear and loathing may well increase as China continues to ascend, as it surely will. And while this happens, we overseas Chinese will have to continually reassess our relationship with the land our ancestors once graced, as well as with each other, whether or not we wish to.

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Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Malaysia