Tag Archives: Penang

Ruminations on Food 2: A Malaysian Food Court

Below is a photo of a dedicated food court in Ipoh, my hometown. By ‘dedicated’ I mean that it’s not attached to a shopping mall – the GP Food Court is a destination in itself. The building sports ultra-high ceilings that permit an extra floor above. This space houses a gym, though I can’t imagine how anyone would exercise in the midst of such tempting smells. Which may explain why I’ve yet to see the machines upstairs being used.

The GP Food Court, Ipoh

You can smell the food court before you actually enter, thanks to massive doorways in every direction. As if the aroma of so much food cooking wasn’t bound to waft upwards and outwards anyway, at the GP Food Court there are giant fans to aid this drift. The fans here really are enormous. You can glimpse an example above, on the top edge of the photograph. They swing at speed, too, though you can’t see this: you’ll have to take my word for it!

Food courts everywhere excel in choice, but there’s choice and then there’s choice. Take a peek at the photograph below.

Enough to Give You a Headache

This is the selection at just one stall. Notwithstanding the neon sign advertising ‘Rice’, this stall also serves noodles, in case you don’t fancy rice. It’s a well-known fact that you can’t serve rice and noodles on their own – you need things to eat them with  – and this stallholder is thoughtfully offering a panoply of dishes: braised, fried, boiled, double-boiled (all right, I made that up, though I imagine that they would if they could). There are raw dishes too, in the form of salads.

The sheer amount of choice can induce a headache. This is what happens to my partner; on each and every trip to Malaysia there’s always a first time in a food court and it’s as if she has never seen anything like it before. She’s overwhelmed, her eyes don’t know where to focus and her brain stops making decisions. She opts instead for the one or two dishes she knows – and never tries anything else.

Chicken Chop Rice with Guinness Sauce, Anyone?

Malaysians, on the other hand, are so blasé about food choice that stallholders have to be inventive. Ever tried Chicken Chop Rice with Guinness Sauce? Me neither. There’s also Portuguese Style Chicken Chop Rice on the top left hand side – a nod to our colonial history.

Most people know Malaysia as a British colony, but the Portuguese were actually here before them, followed by the Dutch. The latter two powers only conquered Malacca, a beautiful and very historical port town south of Kuala Lumpur. Our colonial past would explain why Cheese Baked Chicken Chop Rice is on this menu – cheese is definitely not Malaysian.

You may also notice that the signboards have Chinese ideograms and English words. This is because the GP Food Court is not halal, you see, which means that its patrons are largely Chinese and Indian. The Malay populace – who by law have to be Muslim in Malaysia – would be frowned on if they entered a non-halal food court – not frowned on by us, but by Malaysia’s religious officials and the religious police among its citizenry. Who said food couldn’t be a political tool?

Nonetheless, there are (for the moment) still Malay vendors selling food inside Malaysia’s non-halal eating places, including at the GP Food Court. They usually specialise in satay – a traditional Malay dish of meat that’s diced and marinated, set on skewers and then grilled over a charcoal flame fanned by palm leaves. Satay is eaten with a rich and deliciously spicy peanut sauce. The woman satay seller in the GP Food Court owns satay stalls in two other food courts – and we eat at all three (I love her satay).

To cleanse the palate, there’s also fruit at the GP Food Court. Not just any fruit, but imported fruit. In England or France, a trader would proudly proclaim his fruit as being British or French, but we in Malaysia still have the whiff of a complex. The subtext from this stallholder’s sign is that the fruit must be good, since it’s imported.

There are thousands of food courts like this all over Malaysia. There are also halal food courts, of course. For instance, the food courts inside Malaysia’s shopping malls are all halal – because only hawkers offering halal food can gain operating licences there. Whether halal or non-halal, whether located in Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, Penang or Malacca, on each of my visits in the previous ten years, every food court I went to was packed. But what people eat and how much they eat has changed – because times are now tough in Malaysia.

So tough, in fact, that even leading entertainers are speaking up. This is unprecedented. Only last week jazz singer, Sheila Majid, tweeted about Malaysia’s cost of living while a popular actress, Nur Fathia Latiff, criticised the government. Not surprisingly, both have been told to shut up.

None of this should affect visitors, however: the country remains stunning, the people welcoming, the food fabulous. Even on my most recent trip the meals I had ranged from good to superb: it’s hard to have a terrible meal in Malaysia. If you ever make it there, I would definitely recommend a visit to a dedicated food court. Be dazzled; be spoilt for choice. Do what Malaysians do: let your nose and eyes guide you. If the food smells good and there’s a queue, chances are, you won’t regret it.

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Filed under Identity, Malaysia

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.


Filed under Malaysia, Novel, Nyonya

Tan Twan Eng, the Garden of Evening Mists and Memories of War

I’m always on the lookout for writers and artists from Malaysia. I get a particular thrill when a piece of literary or artistic work reflects Malaysians as we are, in the places we know and love. It is rare to come across such work outside Malaysia. So when it happens, and the work then goes on to achieve international recognition, I’m doubly excited!

This is what has happened with Malaysia-born Tan Twan Eng. (Surname: Tan, name: Twan Eng. See my blog-post What’s in a Chinese Name?). His two novels have both been long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize – a remarkable feat. I first heard of him in 2007 when his début novel The Gift of Rain was published in the UK. A former banking colleague had recommended I read it. “It’s beautiful,” he told me. He was right. The Gift of Rain is set on the magical island of Penang, home of sandy beaches and swaying palms. The story in it unfolds in lyrical prose as light as stardust.

Yet, Tan Twan Eng is not especially known in Malaysia. This is a shame – because his work ripples with themes Malaysians would find interesting.

To begin with, both novels are about the War and its aftermath. For Malaysians, there is but one War: the Second World War – when Malaya was occupied by Japanese forces. This occurred between 1941 and 1945. Roughly seventy years may have passed, but we continue to be affected by the events which took place then. They changed Malaya irrevocably, in ways we are only beginning to explore and understand.

I know I was obsessed with stories from the War era as a child. Whenever my now-dead maternal Grandmother visited, I would beg her to tell me what the War was like. She would sit, as calm as a lake on a still night, and in her deep voice, would tell me things I simply could not imagine. Soldiers rapping on doors and windows, looking for girls and women; men being rounded up, forced to stand in 30+ degree Celsius heat with no water; the screams that could be heard from one of the hospitals in Ipoh, where the Japanese had set up a torture chamber; heads on spikes, on full display at the front gates of Ipoh’s Central Market as a warning to the headstrong.

I thought I knew much about the War. Yet, both The Gift of Rain and Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng’s latest novel, taught me new things.

For example, I grew up believing that the British Colonial administration had done its very best to defend our country. Not so, according to The Gift of Rain, and my own research confirmed this. Much has been made of the Malayan Campaign. But if we cut through it all, here is the bald fact: Britain largely abandoned us to the Japanese. Japanese forces attacked the north-eastern coast of Malaya first, before swiftly marching across the country: westwards and southwards, over mountains and across jungle our Colonial rulers had said was impenetrable. Yes there were battles – mainly in support of retreat – unlike in Europe, where the British army fought for every inch of ground, to the death. In Malaya, the Colonial troops retreated…and retreated…until they reached the island of Singapore and there was nowhere else to go. At that point, some hopped onto ships bound for Australia, following their women and children. Those who didn’t leave on time were captured when Singapore fell.

I was sorely disappointed by what I learnt. It still rankles today. The only thing I can do with my feelings is to write about what happened.

I imagine Tan Twan Eng must have been similarly affected, though he has worked wonders to weave history into his stories easily. His writing doesn’t feel dense, nor is there any rancour. Amazingly, each novel incorporates a Japanese central character. In Garden of Evening Mists, this happens to be the Emperor’s gardener; in The Gift of Rain, it is an aikido master. Tan himself has first-dan ranking in aikido, and has obviously studied Japanese thinking. He manages to convey some of its Zen-like mystery and beauty through slow, deliberately measured prose, so that even the positioning of stones within a garden becomes pure poetry.

Garden of Evening Mists tells the story of a young Malaysian-Chinese woman, Yun Ling, who goes on to become a lawyer, but who cannot forget the War. After graduating from Cambridge, she takes leave to learn the art of creating a Japanese garden from a man who was the Emperor’s gardener. This fictional garden is located high up in the Malaysian hills, in Cameron Highlands, a dreamy place once shrouded in jungle and mist. It was developed because it reminded British Colonialists of their home. Yun Ling hopes the creation of a garden will be cathartic; instead, it adds layers of intrigue and pain she only comprehends years later. 

Japanese themes also echo in The Gift of Rain. A Eurasian boy, Philip (Note: By Eurasian, I don’t mean someone from that piece of land known as Eurasia, but a person with one European parent and one Asian parent), who lives in Penang, is befriended by a Japanese man, Endo, before the War. Philip is taught aikido by Endo. Perhaps I read too much into it, but what develops within Philip is a depth of feeling which struck me as homo-erotic. (Though I stress this isn’t a ‘gay’ novel.) Philip learns not only aikido, but also the Japanese language. Then, the Japanese arrive, en masse. You will have to read the book to find out what happens to him, his family and Penang.

Incidentally, there is an explicitly gay character in Garden of Evening Mists. I mention this because it shows me that Tan Twan Eng isn’t afraid of tackling a subject we in Asia prefer to avoid.

Like a good story-teller, Tan Twan Eng folds his own experiences seamlessly into his writing. Having lived in Cape Town for the past few years, he inserted an Afrikaner into his latest book. There are therefore plenty of lekker braais (delicious barbecues) alongside descriptions of Cape Dutch houses and flora. And these are all made to fit into Cameron Highlands!

Reading Tan Twan Eng has inevitably made me reflect on my own work. My current novel deals with an equally dramatic period for Malaya – the years after colonisation but before the War. It was a time of great change: cars and airplanes came to Malaya then, Malayans started to learn English and many families became westernised. There was also a Japanese community in Malaya, whom we later learnt were spies. Many were photographers; one of them features in my novel towards the end, just before the eve of the Japanese invasion, when the matriarch in my story dies.

I had always intended my novel to be the first in a trilogy, with the second in the series focusing on the impact of the War years on a particular family in Ipoh. Reading Garden of Evening Mists has made me realise how much is left to explore…What an incredible life this is.


Filed under Malaysia, Novel, Research, Writing

When Resemblance to Real People May Not be Coincidental

A year ago, I began writing my novel. I completed the first draft three days ago – twenty three chapters in all. I thought I would be relieved; instead, I’m numb. When I look back, I see a cycle of dreaming, writing, research…inventing, followed by more writing…followed by more research. Even now, I’m carrying out research in Malaysia, hoping to weave small details into my story. What I’m looking for are the simple everyday things we forget about, because they become as natural as breathing. To find these hidden gems, I’ve had to deploy methods that were at times unorthodox (though perfectly legal). This blog-post is about how I gathered such pearls.

Aunt Lorna at Sri Nyonya

The first victims in my quest for authenticity were my family. This seemed natural, because all I had a year ago were a rough story-line and the raw passion to tell a story linked to Great Grandmother. I conducted interviews with every single family member willing to talk: uncles and aunts, grand-aunts, my mother. They would see me coming with a little black case; it contained an Olympus digital voice recorder, a present from my partner, an apparatus no larger than a small Nokia handset – but extraordinarily powerful. Once, I put it in the middle of a large dining table at Sri Nyonya, the Nyonya restaurant in Petaling Jaya run by my aunt Lorna (see picture) and uncle James, and was pleasantly surprised. Amidst the clanking of bowls and howls of laughter, I could decipher every word that was said.  

While speaking of Sri Nyonya, I can’t avoid mentioning food. Nyonya cuisine plays a pivotal role in my story, and learning about its intricacies formed an important part of my research. Needless to say, eating was equally important. I could hardly have found a better place; the recipes at Sri Nyonya have been passed down for generations – and it’s run by family! 

Through good old-fashioned talking, I learnt about Great Grandmother and the Malaya of times past. The best anecdotes came unexpectedly, spurred by the jerk of recollection, the sort we tend to have once our memories are stirred. In the middle of one conversation, an aunt blurted out, “Very naughty boy-lah! Make my mother so sad…,” about her own father, which of course caused my ears to prick up. I then heard what the naughty boy got up to, and carefully stored the story to see what I could do with it. For a while, that was my modus operandi: listening, transferring what I’d heard onto my laptop, jotting down notes. It might have been different with a less loquacious family, but fortunately mine loves to talk.

My relations were able to make their childhood years come alive in a way no history book ever could. For example, my cousins reminded me of the ingenious pulley system that was used in old Chinese shops (there’s a modern version in the internal courtyard at Sri Nyonya – see photo). A basket suspended on a piece of strong rope which was looped around itself allowed residents on the top floors of the two-storey shop-houses to buy goods without having to descend staircases. If their favourite street vendor passed, residents would shout out of their windows for what they wanted. These could be dry dishes, such as bundles of aromatic rice wrapped in fragrant banana leaves, or wet food, bowls of noodles say. After calling out orders, the people upstairs would lower their basket with a plate or bowl and the necessary coins, and a few minutes later, haul up their basket, noodles and all, with change for their money.

Of course, I didn’t just rely on memories; I also went to the National Archives in Kuala Lumpur, where I spent hours scanning old newspapers to get an idea of what people were reading at the time. Though thin, the papers contained so much gossip that it took discipline not to digress. This is where I acquired fascinating insight into the topics which vexed our colonial rulers. In 1892, the government of Penang (see map) was exceedingly alarmed about an outbreak of cholera – thousands of miles away in Europe.

Map of Malaysia

I learnt things about my country which had been omitted from our history classes.For example, that the British colonial government in Malaya sold opium indirectly to generate revenue, and very openly (while simultaneously banning its import into Britain). It was even accepted practice for the government of the time to place advertisements for opium concessions in leading Malayan newspapers! The 1892 editions of the Penang Gazette advertised one such concession in the state of Perak (where most of my story unfolds). According to the advertisement, the concession gave its holder “the exclusive right to the importing, the manufacturing, sale and licensing others to sell, of chandu (opium), opium dross, and spirituous liquors, free of duty.” I was horrified.

Yet this practice fitted very much with the tenor of that era. The colonial atmosphere is detailed in the book When Tin was King, which charts the rise of Ipoh (more or less in the centre of Perak on the map) as a mining town. During the tin rush which began in the late 1800s, all sorts of adventurers were drawn by the lure of tin. The situation in Ipoh was reminiscent of the gold rush, and it’s no exaggeration to call Ipoh the San Francisco of the East. At the time my story takes place, the area in which Ipoh is located was the world’s largest producer of tin. The metal transformed Ipoh from a sleepy fishing village into a metropolis, and When Tin was King outlines how this happened in entertaining fashion. I was fortunate to have been introduced to its author Dr. Ho Tak Ming, a family physician with a vast knowledge of local history, who has kindly answered many questions.

I must confess to not being the first writer in my family, nor the first to pen Great Grandmother’s story. That honour belongs to my late grand-uncle Chin Kee Onn, whose novel Twilight of the Nyonyas, published in Malaysia in 1984, shares a similar story-line with my own. Thereafter, the similarities end. My story begins in 1878, his in 1915. I’ve told the story from a woman’s perspective, he from a man’s point of view. It’s no surprise we explore different themes; my novel is about a woman’s struggle for survival and her battle for identity. I also explore the consequences she has to face when she spoils her sons. Despite our differences, I owe a debt to my grand-uncle for his book, which at the time of publication, was the first novel ever written about a Nyonya family. I’m grateful to him for leading the way.

My research sometimes went down amusing paths. Because the main character ate everything with her hands, including the Nyonya curries she was so fond of, it occurred to me one day that I should try to do the same. With much enthusiasm, I rolled a ball of rice dipped into gravy in one hand – it looked so easy when I watched an Indian friend do this. Yet, as soon as I tried putting the ball into my mouth, gravy dripped all over my elbows. I gave up after a second attempt, deciding that this wasn’t for the uninitiated.

Then there were the children, of which my central character had plenty. Given the themes I wanted to explore – a woman’s survival and struggle for identity – it seemed appropriate to describe a birth scene. The only problem was my own lack of children. Much as I like children, having a child for the sake of a book seemed excessive. Attending a live birth was out of the question, since I faint at the sight of blood. So I did the next best thing: I interviewed as many friends and family I could find, especially those with three and more children. I also spoke to a nurse in Malaysia who told me in vivid detail the practices of old. In the process I heard amazing stories; I only hope I’ve done justice to them all.

A large family with no illness would be unrealistic, which is why it doesn’t happen in my story. When I needed medical information, I turned to neighbours in London. Veritable doctors, they happily described every conceivable consequence of the illnesses I was asking about. They then plied me with photographic evidence to show how horrible things could become. I ended up borrowing their medical text and staring at grotesque images for several weeks.

That was just before re-visiting Malaysia, where I’ve now completed the first draft of my novel. When I survey the result, I’m a little nervous. Because I know I’ve applied a writer’s prerogative, which is to say that I’ve exaggerated, added embellishments and generally used poetic licence with what I’ve heard and read (except in relation to historical facts and real figures who are named in the story). My creation is a fictional account, but one in which resemblance to real people isn’t entirely coincidental!

It was my partner who spurred my worries. She shot up after reading the latest chapter, telling me how amazing it was to recognise family members she knows from among my characters. Hmmm. It made me wonder how my own family would react. I’ve always told them I was writing fiction, which is true – up to a point. But it doesn’t stop me from worrying that they may not like the characters their relations have become, or their own prototypes have become, or the secrets I reveal, some true, others invented. I only hope they will see my novel for what it is: fiction with a large dose of reality, in which we Malaysians can see ourselves reflected. That after all, is what my research has been for.


Filed under Novel, Research, Writing