This blog-post is rather special since it’s the first I’m writing from within Malaysia itself – the land in which my story unfolds. To mark the occasion, I thought I’d provide a short excerpt from the novel itself.
My novel tells the story of a Nyonya (mixed heritage) woman as she struggles for some of the fundamental things in life: survival – her own as well as her family’s – and a meaningful identity. For my main character, whose name is Chye Hoon, the struggle for survival and the struggle for identity are linked; to find out how, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for the book!
Set in the multi-cultural Malaya of roughly 1880 to 1940, the narrative is rich in descriptions of food and places in Malaya, with historical events being alluded to as they happen. In addition, I have woven Chinese and South East Asian mythology into the narrative where possible, usually in the form of stories passed from mothers to children.
The following passages are one such example. They appear relatively early on, when the main character Chye Hoon, also the narrator, has just borne her second child. She’s up early one morning to feed him when she recalls a story her own mother once told her.
As I dragged myself up to feed the latest child, cradling the little one to my breast, watching him suckle greedily with the stillness of morning all around us, I finally understood the heroic efforts Mother had made, and the toll which raising us must have taken on her life.
I felt so close to her then – because I knew that I too, was doing exactly what she had done.
I had also begun to tell my children stories, just as Mother used to. It’s probably because I was thinking so much about her while feeding Weng Koon one night that I suddenly recalled a tale she had told. For no obvious reason at all, it jumped into my mind and refused to go away. It was a fable so long forgotten that at first, I struggled to recollect even its bare outline.
It was the name which came back first. Nu Kua. I couldn’t recall who she was, one of the goddesses perhaps. Or maybe she was more than a goddess? I tried to cast my memory back to the day when Mother had first told us her story. Slowly, the haze of years lifted, and details started to come, bit by bit; once more, I could hear Mother’s lilting voice as she told us the fable, carefully enunciating every word. I remember watching the movement of her lips that day, when all of us children were sitting on the floor, looking up at her, rapt with attention.
Mother had called Nu Kua the divine mother of all humans. She said Nu Kua had come down to repair the sky a long time ago, after a great battle in which the monster Kung Kung had wreaked havoc. During this terrible battle, the earth started falling into itself, mountains were flattened, the oceans overran many lands and everywhere, there were fires which burnt night and day, raging out of control. The chaos caused the earth’s points to be misaligned, and a large hole was ripped right across the sky. On seeing the destruction, Nu Kua became very sad. She knew she would have to repair the damage, for the sake of the earth’s children. Holding five coloured stones in her hand, she calmed the waters, put out the fires, and repaired the sky. Then she said, ‘The sky will now be blue, as an eternal symbol of hope for the children.’
I smiled as I recalled this story, because I had immediately shouted out, “But where is the hole Mother?” in a loud voice.
“It’s not there anymore, Nu Kua repaired the sky.”
“But where was it before she repaired the sky? Can you show me?” I asked insistently. “Maybe we can see where the sky was torn,” I had added in a voice full of hope. For many weeks, I remained fascinated by the idea of a hole in the heavens; with a hand shielding my eyes from the glare, I would survey the Malayan skies, constantly disappointed that all I could see were the fluffy white clouds that floated freely above.
Usually, when people say they come from somewhere, they have a particular town in mind – somewhere they think of as home, whose very name evokes nostalgia. For me, this special place is Ipoh. Whenever I hear Ipoh (i:pou) mentioned, I feel a familiar tug in my heart. Ipoh is my family’s hometown. It’s the place I spend most time in when I visit Malaysia. It also happens to feature heavily in my novel – most of my story unfolds in this often overlooked town.
Ipoh is famous for many things. In this blog-post, I want to share personal reminiscences of the three Ipoh things that are dearest to my heart: its wondrous limestone hills, the Chinese temples that have been built into caves, and last but not least, one of Ipoh’s best-known dishes.
I don’t know how old I was when I saw the limestone hills for the first time. Like the main character in my novel, I have loved these hills from the very first. They surround the town, many covered in trees, thickly, so that they look like furry animals you want to hug. As you get closer, you can see exposed rock faces that glint pink and white in the sun. Some of the trees have grown in strange formations along rock crevices; I remember from childhood a hill which looked like the face of a man, two curves of green drooping like eyebrows and another one beneath that resembled a moustache. The lovely photograph above was taken by Boon Low, an Ipoh boy now living in Edinburgh, whose work I discovered while researching for this post.
Not only are Ipoh’s hills beautiful to look at, but you can actually go right inside, into their belly! There are stretches of limestone rock into which Chinese temples have been built, visible from the main road. I was taken to one when still a small child – to the world-renowned SamPoh Tong Temple which penetrates deep inside a cave.
The visit to Sam Poh Tong was my first cave trip, so you can imagine how exciting it seemed. I remember the darkness. The air was cool and damp and musty. My mother had to hold my hand because we climbed many steps that were wet with water. We went higher and higher, up towards what looked like the ceiling of a monstrous room. There were monks dressed in saffron-coloured robes walking about, wearing simple sandals on their feet and with their heads completely shaven. The smell of incense just added to the mysteriousness of the place. I know I was wide-eyed, especially when a clearing suddenly opened up and I saw turtles frolicking in a pond. My parents bought a handful of kangkong (water convolvulus) which the creatures gobbled happily. In the distance I heard an unusual chorus of voices – monks chanting, I was told. When the main character in my novel has occasion to visit a temple inside Ipoh’s limestone caves, I re-visited these caves many times. But I also called upon childhood memories and my imagination – a must, seeing that the fictional visit took place around 1914.
Another thing Ipoh is famous for is tin. In fact, this metal is what put Ipoh on the map, for until tin began to be mined on a large scale, Ipoh was just a small fishing village. With the discovery of rich tin deposits in the Kinta Valley where Ipoh is situated, the village came to life. People flooded in to seek their fortunes, and it was exactly then, in 1900, that the main character in my novel arrives with her husband.
In retrospect we know that Ipoh grew voraciously and many of the Chinese coolies who arrived to do the back-breaking, dangerous work in the mines became millionaires. But in 1900, the future of the town was far from clear. As a result, the story of the Wong family in my novel is very much intertwined with Ipoh’s own story as a town (although I hasten to add that what I’ve written is fiction, not history). Many local landmarks have been woven into my story, which I hope will make it of interest to the people of Ipoh (known locally as Ipohites). For example, the main character’s sons eventually attend the Anglo Chinese School, and this school, together with its founder and then Principal Reverend Horley, play important roles in the family’s lives.
So far, I haven’t mentioned food, and I couldn’t possibly write a whole blog-post about Ipoh without talking about food. Whenever I’m there, the whole town seems obsessed with eating (or perhaps it’s just my family, who will fight traffic from one end of Ipoh to the other for ‘tastier’ Chinese steamed buns or ‘more fragrant’ durians). With Chinese New Year coming up, this really could set me off, so I’d better be careful. I’ll just tell you what I most like to eat when I’m in Ipoh: ‘bean-sprouts chicken’. This dish really is as simple as it sounds, so you’ll think I’m crazy unless you’ve tried it. It comprises a plate of steamed chicken, chopped into bite-sized pieces and lightly seasoned with sesame oil and soya sauce, together with a separate plate of bean-sprouts, also seasoned and similarly garnished with sliced chillies. What, you may ask, could possibly be so exciting about steamed chicken and boiled bean-sprouts?
Well, with Chinese food, it’s often the mix of texture and taste that we look for. And with bean-sprouts chicken, it’s important that neither chicken nor bean-sprouts is over-cooked. When done just right, the chicken simply slips along your tongue, releasing delicious flavours as it does so; if accompanied by a chopstick-full of crunchy bean-sprouts, the effect is hard to beat. Both chicken and bean-sprouts can be eaten on their own or gulped down with Ipoh’s very own rice noodles (‘hor fun’ or ‘kuay-teow’).
Now, during my seventeen years away, I had completely forgotten about bean-sprouts chicken. My re-initiation into this spectacular dish was somewhat hard. I arrived late on a Friday evening after a week at a fancy hotel in Thailand, and my aunt and uncle took me to Ipoh’s most famous coffee-shop for bean-sprouts chicken. This shop – Lou Wong – has become an institution: it serves nothing but bean-sprouts chicken, and has done so for years. It’s also full every night; you have to queue unless you get there early. Now, what’s important to understand is that traditionally, the Chinese focus in restaurants has been on food and nothing else – not décor, certainly not service, least of all hygiene. There was a rule of thumb that the dirtier a restaurant, the better, because it showed it was popular.
The result was that by the time we arrived at the Lou Wong Coffee Shop, a good fraction of town must already have stepped in. As had other creatures; in one corner, I was sure I spotted a cockroach on the wall. The table tops were so marked that I didn’t dare rest my elbows on them. Yet the cooking smelt heavenly, and I could see the chefs in front of me, chopping their chicken with cleavers and dunking handfuls of sprouts into boiling vats of water. Not being able to resist the food, I opted to put on my sunglasses. Sometimes, see no evil works a treat.
Interestingly, there appears to be a connection between Ipoh’s limestone and its delicious bean-sprouts. I’m firmly of the opinion that Ipoh’s bean-sprouts are plumper and crunchier than those I’ve had anywhere else. And from the number of Malaysian blogs on this topic, I know I’m not alone! Now here’s the connection with limestone: the bean-sprouts are grown in a part of town where the underground water is rich in limestone. Once harvested, the bean-sprout seeds are apparently watered every five hours for five days until they’re judged ready (a fact I’ve gleaned from my Russian partner who’s mad about Ipoh food).
Which brings us once again to limestone and Ipoh’s magnificent hills. I still gaze at them for hours whenever I’m there, the way I used to as a child. I watch the hills in their varied moods – in bright sunshine, after rain, also when partially covered by mist. I see how they change in the middle of raging thunderstorms, when they turn blue with the darkening skies. I know no other Malaysian town with this topology or range of temperament, where the same view looks different every day. I can hardly wait to see those hills again.
My novel, set in Malaya (now called Malaysia) is multi-layered. I’ve written it in such a way that a reader can enjoy it without knowing any Malaysian history. Of course, the story would be richer for those with some knowledge of the country. Malaysians will see more to the story than Westerners…perhaps even controversy and criticism of present-day Malaysian racial politics.
It’s not intended as such; I simply wanted to tell a powerful and entertaining story. Yet, there’s no denying that at the time the story begins, Malaya was more truly one country than it is today. Which is ironic, because the current Prime Minister has initiated a campaign called “One Malaysia” – 1Malaysia, supposedly to ‘preserve and enhance the diversity which is our strength’. I will explain in this blog-post why the slogan 1Malaysia is farcical when used in today’s Malaysia. Below, I write from my personal experience and understanding.
First, I have to tell you more about Malaysia. Let’s start with where it’s situated. The map below should help. Malaysia is coloured orange and comprises two parts: a western peninsula, and the northern part of Borneo (the island on the right, which belongs mostly to Indonesia). The point to note is Malaysia’s strategic position. India lies to the north-west, China to the north and north-east. Siam (now Thailand) neighbours it to the north, while Indonesia lies directly south. That narrow bit of sea which separates western Malaysia from Indonesia, known as the Straits of Malacca, provides a sheltered channel for ships and is still famous for pirates.
Because of this fortuitous position, Malaysia has been at cultural cross-roads for centuries. Malays themselves are thought to have come from Yunnan in southern China. Traders from as far as Arabia also came, as did Indian princes and of course, some of my ancestors, the Chinese, who arrived in their junk-boats. Nearer home, Malays from neighbouring Indonesia migrated in regular waves, not to mention the south-bound Siamese (modern Thais) on the backs of elephants.
Many of these early immigrants settled in Malaya, which is not surprising – the land I come from is glorious, its people hospitable. It has everything: stretches of sand where palm trees sway, pristine waters always warm to the touch, but also mountains crowned in luscious green.
It’s a piece of paradise on earth. As a result, new communities grew, including mixed-heritage peoples like the Nyonyas.
Then, the British came. (Though there were other Europeans before – Dutch, Portuguese, they’re not important to this narrative). The British arrived in the late 1700s, but their influence reached its nadir during the late 1800s where my novel begins. Under British rule, the waves of migration – which had happened naturally in Malaya until then – were disrupted by the large-scale organised import of labour from India and China. The new workers were needed for the rubber plantations and tin mines which the British opened up.
With all this migration, you might have thought that nobody lived on these lands until the waves of immigrants arrived. Not so, because there are indigenous peoples in Malaysia– the Orang Asli (which incidentally means the ‘original people’ in Malay).
The racial composition of modern Malaysia is: Malay (50%), Chinese (24%), Orang Asli (11%), Indian (7%), others (8%). As with many multi-cultural societies, each community is famous for certain things – except for the Orang Asli, who have been marginalised. Malays have a refined sense of beauty; just look at their traditional dresses and houses (picture on right, below).
Indians are entrepreneurs and professionals, especially in law and medicine. As for the Chinese, well, shrewd business people who work hard, with many self-made millionaires from among the coolies who arrived during the tin years. In fact, the Chinese diaspora in Asia are called the Jews of the East, our priorities being family, children’s education and business. I know quite a few who say, “Let me do my business. I don’t care about politics”.
With such rich heritage and diversity, Malaysia must be the perfect place to live, right? Just like in that world-famous song from the Malaysian Tourist Board ad campaign – Malaysia, Truly Asia –where people of different races dance and smile happily? Unfortunately, not quite.
In the late 60s just after I was born, a series of Chinese pogroms happened. Many Chinese were murdered. Actually as soon as I was born, I had to flee Singapore: my grandmother and her maid took me away from my parents to a safer place (near Ipoh), many hours away by train at the time. For two women travelling alone in that time of calamity, it was heroic, and I am so grateful…
And then, on the infamous day 13 May 1969, I remember my father returning early from work. He rushed up, shouting in Cantonese, “They’re killing us!” “Who, who?” my mother asked, and when we heard that Malay mobs were attacking Chinese with scythes and knives, we could hardly believe it. We’d had Malay neighbours, Indian neighbours, all sorts – people who came to our house and drank from the same glasses. In fact, we were living in a predominantly Malay area then, and almost all our neighbours were Malay. We were terrified: if a mob had come to our house, we could have been killed….
No one really knows who caused the incitement which led to these so-called ‘racial riots.’ However soon after – in order to ‘manage racial tensions’ (i.e. to make Malays as rich as Chinese were), racially discriminatory policies commenced which are still in place today. Note that these policies are supposedly justified on the grounds that the Malays arrived in Malaysia before the other immigrants did. Therefore, they are entitled to ‘special rights.’ They’ve even invented a term to enshrine this quality of specialness: bumiputera, which means the Princes of the earth. (Obviously, they couldn’t call themselves Orang Asli, since there were already indigenous peoples.)
These discriminatory policies have been sold as a programme of ‘positive discrimination’ to allow the Malays to catch up economically with the Chinese and Indians. Policy examples:
Any listed company to have at least 30% of equity ownership in bumiputera hands.
University places reserved for bumiputera, regardless of the academic performance (now modified, but still a two-tier system).
For a limited period, a certain percentage of new housing in any development reserved for bumiputera buyers, with developers required to provide a minimum 7% discount to these buyers.
There are plenty of others, but I’ll be restrained here.
Such blatantly race-based policies are bound to have consequences. They have changed Malaysia – and not for the better. Races have become more separated, less friendly to each other, with a cultivated list of grudges. Nyonya culture – that colourful mix of Malay and Chinese traditions, values and beliefs which emerged through centuries of living together and inter-marrying– could never happen in modern Malaysia.
Policies based solely on race are unjustifiable for other reasons.
First, they de facto assume that Malays would be incapable of competing on merit. As a person with Malay blood somewhere down the line, my Great-Grandmother being a Nyonya, I find this insulting (as no doubt do my mixed Malay-Chinese cousins).
Secondly, who cares whose ancestors arrived first on our shores? Surely what is more important is what we can each contribute to building up our country.
Thirdly, it creates the indescribable reality that not all Malaysians are equal. Which is sad, but true. This has played a large part in making it hard for me to come to terms with being Malaysian-Chinese (evidently, though I have Malay blood, I don’t have enough of it).
In the face of all this, how can we even talk of 1Malaysia?
There may well be Malaysians reading this who call me unpatriotic. Some may even say that if I don’t like it, I should go ‘home’. I don’t know where they think my home is; China? My response would be that if they can’t be criticised, they should stop pretending we have a democracy.
Especially for those who question my patriotism, I describe here what it was like for me being back in Malaysia after seventeen years away. I remember the moment well. It was afternoon when we landed. As soon as I stepped outside the airport, a blast of humid air hit me, and I felt the heat seep into my bones. It was such a familiar feeling, even after so many years, that if feelings could be painted, then that moment is forever engraved in my memory. I knew instantly that I had come home.
That moment made me realise my visceral connection with this land in which I grew up. It’s my country too. I will always have this connection, no matter where I live in this world. And no matter what racist policies remain in place in Malaysia. Policies which make me feel unwelcome and unable to live here to the full. Where is home for me?