Category Archives: Novel

Ruminations on Food 6: The Food Hawker & Her Overseas Son

At the start of this series when I wrote about the Malaysian obsession with food, I mentioned that some street food vendors have been able to send their children overseas to study. This happens in my debut novel, The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds. In reviews of the book, at least one American reader has expressed scepticism over such an outcome.

But in Malaysia it is perfectly possible for street vendors to become wealthy. To understand why, you have to appreciate the role of food for us. It serves as balm and salve, feeding not only our bodies but also our minds, and possibly even our souls.

The above is not an understatement. Food is everywhere in Malaysia, permeating culture and consciousness in ways I’ve not seen in any of the other 60 countries I’ve been to. Part of this probably has to do with Malaysia being tropical. Colours and tastes seem somehow more vivid in the open-air than in a cold climate and you end up smelling food pretty much all the time. Walk down any street, something is sure to be frying. Avoiding food is impossible, and we all know what heavenly aromas do to our stomachs.

Oyster Omelette – Can’t You Smell It?

Another part of the phenomenon has to do with the melting pot that is Malaysia. There are three main races – Malay, Chinese and Indian – each with its own distinctive cuisine. Food hawkers have therefore long had lots of competition; they’ve had to compete not just with each other but also with vendors of the other types of cuisine. Only the very best survive. The bar was raised from the outset; even foreign chains have to work harder. When I was a child, Kentucky Fried Chicken tasted very different in Malaysia than in the UK, for the simple reason that to entice customers, the Colonel’s chefs had to mix in local spices. The result was jazzed-up chicken that arrived crisp in baskets (instead of boxes).

This led to great food overall and to a plethora of choice. The sheer scale of choice can be mind-boggling, as I mentioned in Ruminations on Food 2: A Malaysian Food Court.

But Malaysia is also dotted with the other extreme: whole coffee shops dedicated to a single dish. Many of the most successful food hawkers specialise in this way.

There’s a good example opposite my old school in Ipoh. The coffee shop is called Yee Fatt, it’s been going since 1955 and it’s famous for curry noodles. Yes, you read right.  The place is known for curry noodles – not exactly a fancy dish. But the dish is so popular in Malaysia that it even has its own Wikipedia entry (as curry mee, which is what it’s also called).

All That They Sell – and Going Since 1955

The boss at Yee Fatt is the middle-aged Chinese man in the picture below. What he’s doing behind the counter is blanching noodles and bean sprouts in hot water, lifting them on to plates, sprinkling barbecued pork over the top and then dousing it all in a thick curry sauce. He does this hour after hour, day in and day out, which may not sound like much of a life to some.

The Big Boss

But here’s the thing: the guy is his own boss. He opens early for breakfast, serves lunch and then closes his shop around three in the afternoon. That’s him done for the day! Afterwards he goes on a strenuous walk up Kledang Hill, one of many beautiful hills around Ipoh. We know because by the time we arrive at five, he’s well into his descent.

Note Yee Fatt’s longevity. How many small eating places do you know that have been going since 1955? Non-Malaysians may also find it amazing that Yee Fatt sells only two dishes: curry noodles and glutinous rice with pork (the mound on the bottom-right in the second photograph above). The curry noodles come in two versions: either dry – with noodles on a plate and spoonfuls of curry sauce heaped over – or wet, where the noodles are dunked in a bowl with curry soup. If you like, you can order extra bean sprouts and pieces of deep-fried bean curd as accompaniments.

My Favourite Dry Curry Mee

I love Yee Fatt’s noodles – soft but not over-cooked – which I guess would be called al dente in the West. Also, their bean sprouts are perfectly crunchy. Of course, it helps that they use Ipoh’s bean sprouts, which I think are the best in the world. I’ve told this to the Guardian newspaper, National Geographic Traveller UK and anyone who cares to listen! I can just imagine a celebrity chef like Anthony Bourdain declaiming the contrasts in this dish: the crunchiness of Ipoh‘s bean sprouts against the softness of just-right noodles. Smeared on top of it all is Yee Fatt’s irresistible curry sauce. I’m salivating as I write this and groaning a little too, since I won’t be having a bite anytime soon.

I’m not alone in being a fan, as this feature article in the Malay Mail (a Malaysian English language daily) a few years ago shows. And while polishing up this blog-post I found 7 other blogs praising Yee Fatt! (Here’s one link and another: I told you we were food-obsessed!)

Where, you may ask, does wealth come into the picture? Let’s just say that the boss, who looks as unassuming as his coffee shop, is said to be doing very well. I know you wouldn’t think this by looking at the photos. From a Malaysian perspective, however, the shop’s modest décor is actually comforting. It tells us that the food must be good – you certainly aren’t going for anything else. By keeping overheads low, the boss is making sure that he’ll be serving the town lots more curry noodles.

Unassuming and Brilliant

The man at the Yee Fatt coffee shop is not the only food hawker who has done well; there are others like him. Their success, though, may be peculiar to Malaysia, where people care more about taste than décor and will drive miles through pouring rain for a hawker’s food.

Readers love asking me how much of my stories are fact and how much fiction. One answer is that the historical events are real, but the characters are made up. Chye Hoon in The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds was inspired by my own great-grandmother, who I never met. I know, though, that she earned a successful living as a food hawker, enough to send one of her sons to Britain for further education. So I can assure doubting readers that it’s possible for a food vendor in Malaysia to do this: it happened in my own family.

6 Comments

Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia, Novel

Publication Day!

It’s publication day again! I’m really excited that my second novel, When the Future Comes Too Soon, is out today – July 18, 2017!

I dedicated When the Future Comes Too Soon to my late maternal grandmother, Chang Kim Eng. More than anyone else, she bore the brunt of my curiosity about the war and Japanese occupation. I know how much she shared with me because on my last visit to my parents’ house, my mother dug out sheets of notes in my childish handwriting, which must have been taken during one of the many conversations I had with my grandmother.

She passed away in 1993, when I was already in England and did not get the chance to say goodbye. While writing this novel, I thought a lot about her and about grandparents everywhere, who have so much to offer younger generations. Unfortunately they usually leave this world before we have the chance to have truly meaningful conversations with them. Much of what my grandmother told me, I was too young to understand at the time. I console myself by imagining how proud she would be today.

When the Future Comes Too Soon is an emotional story of a woman trying to save herself and her family in a time of war. It blends the exotic setting of Japanese-occupied Malaya with eternal questions that cross cultures and time. The following comment from an early reader has really touched me:

“…this should be read by women who have felt silenced. Silenced by fate, by bad company, by circumstance. I was moved to crying twice while reading it, and that is not something that often happens.” (From the book blogger with the wonderful moniker of Literary Dust).

As part of the publicity campaign for this new book, I’ll be interviewed on British and European radio and will appear in newspapers, magazines and blogs! I will also be meeting with book groups in London, where I live; in New York City which I’ll be visiting in October; and in Orlando, Florida in December. If you belong to a book and/or women’s group and would like to meet me, please contact my publicist Angelle Barbazon at JKS Communications (Angelle@jkscommunications.com). You can also get in touch via the Contact Form on my website www.siakchinyoke.com.

If you haven’t pre-ordered your book, here are some of the outlets selling it:

Amazon USA                      Amazon UK             Book Depository

Barnes & Noble                 Foyles                        Kinokuniya

And after reading, please do leave a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads. Even a few words would mean a lot to me. Happy reading, and stay tuned for details about my future media appearances!

4 Comments

Filed under Malaysia, Novel, Publishing

Less Than Four Weeks to Publication

In less than four weeks my second novel, When the Future Comes Too Soon, will be published! And I can tell you that publication is as exciting a prospect the second time round, and in some ways even more challenging!

When the Future Comes Too Soon is set during the Japanese occupation of British Malaya and continues where my debut novel, The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds, left off. Like the first book, this sequel is fictional. No character is real. But since the characters reflect ordinary Malayans, they go through experiences that many in the country would have gone through. This was my intent: to show what happened through the eyes of an Asian family.

You may think that things are easier for an author on her second book. Believe it or not, they aren’t! On a debut novel no one knows what to expect, but I now feel the burden of expectations. I want readers to love this second book as much as they loved the first, and am terrified they may not.

Secondly, because I have publicists on both sides of the Atlantic working to promote When the Future Comes Too Soon, I’m busier than ever. The more publicity that JKS Communications and Midas PR generate, the more work I have to do! In case you’re wondering how this works, here’s the two-sentence elevator summary. The job of book publicists is to promote books, and they do this by speaking to journalists and media editors in order to land people like me – the authors whom they represent – media slots: in newspapers and magazines, on radio shows and TV programmes, and on blogs. Each slot they succeed in getting me requires preparation, in some cases many hours of work (for instance, when I’m invited to contribute articles). I’m not complaining: this is a great problem to have! But the juggling that’s required is not that different to what I had to do in the business world. At present, while promoting this second novel I’m continuing to promote the first novel and to write the third novel at the same time. Between all of that and trying to retain some sanity, there are simply not enough hours in a day!

For me, When the Future Comes Too Soon was an emotionally charged work. Like many Malaysians, when I was growing up I heard a lot about the Japanese occupation. Each time my maternal grandmother visited us, I would pester her to tell me more stories. I somehow had a sense of unfinished business, that what happened during the war has lingered and we in Malaysia have still not fully come to terms with the wounds. I felt this even more intensely while writing When the Future Comes Too Soon. It’s a book that means a huge amount to me, and I really hope you’ll like it.

You’ve already seen the book’s front cover; below I share its back cover, too.

The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds is the first book in The Malayan Series, but if you haven’t read it yet, don’t worry! Although When the Future Comes Too Soon is the second book in the same series, it can be read on its own. This was exactly what the two prominent authors who praised the book did. Maria Duenas and Musharraf Ali Farooqi read this second book without reading the first and had no trouble following the story.

In less than four weeks, you can read When the Future Comes Too Soon! Meanwhile, if you’re a Goodreads subscriber, please add the book to your To Read shelf. Your feedback after reading the book – thoughts and feelings, questions raised – would all be very welcome! Needless to say your review, whether on Amazon or Goodreads or even your blog, if you have one, would be very much appreciated.

Please pre-order from the outlets below:

Amazon USA                        Amazon UK              Book Depository
Barnes & Noble                  Waterstones             Kinokuniya

4 Comments

Filed under Malaysia, Novel, Publishing

When the Future Comes Too Soon

I’m thrilled to announce that my second novel, When the Future Comes Too Soon, will be published on July 18, 2017, by Amazon Crossing! The book’s stunning front cover is below.

This is the second book in The Malayan Series, but it is a stand-alone novel; in fact, all the books in the series will be stand-alone. In other words, every one of them can be read independently – you need not have read The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds before being able to enjoy this latest book!

In When the Future Comes Too Soon, Malaya is at war and occupied by the Japanese. The story follows an ordinary, middle-class family – the Wong family – through the three and a half years when their country is turned upside down. The narrator, Wong Mei Foong, who is a young woman on the eve of the Japanese invasion, must find ways to survive with her husband and their five children. For those who’ve read The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds, Mei Foong is the first daughter-in-law of the matriarch in that previous novel.

Every Malaysian family has its own memories of the Japanese era. As a child, I was fascinated by that period and clamoured to hear my family’s stories. I devoured these tales without fully understanding their implications, and it was only while writing this second novel that I have come to appreciate how profoundly Japan’s occupation of Malaya changed our country.

This novel means a huge amount to me, so I’m pleased that the book has already received accolades from leading authors. Here’s what María Dueñas, who wrote the New York Times bestselling The Time in Between, has said about When the Future Comes Too Soon:

“Selina Siak Chin Yoke has created an intensely visceral evocation of life in Malaya during World War II, when a young wife and her family confront the harshness of life under the Japanese occupation and the ethnic polarization it causes. Mei Foong is a hauntingly original character, torn between loyalty to her family and the risk of betrayal — a woman who fatefully defies the constricting conventions of her society.”

And from Man Asian Literary Prize-shortlisted Musharraf Ali Farooqi, author of Between Clay and Dust, has come the following praise:

“As Malayan society grapples with the changes brought on by war and occupation, Mei Foong barters away pieces of her existence in order to survive, and rebuild and reclaim her life. She must finally contend with the realization that one could only wholly reclaim oneself by acts of self assertion requiring greater courage than needed merely to survive. When the Future Comes Too Soon by Selina Siak Chin Yoke is an intricately drawn network of human relationships.”

Some of you must be wondering how it is that my second novel is coming so quickly! My literary agent, Thomas Colchie in New York, spent nearly two years looking for a publisher for my first manuscript, but when Thomas agreed to work with me, he knew I was planning a series. Naturally, he advised me to start writing the second book while he continued searching for a publisher for the first work.

I had already completed two drafts of When the Future Comes Too Soon when Thomas came bearing the sort of message every aspiring author wants to hear. At that point, I had to stop writing – life just became too exciting! As the process of preparing my debut novel for publication got underway, I went back to my second manuscript and continued polishing it.

When I finally felt that it was ready to be shown to the world, I sent it off to Thomas and his wife, Elaine, who approves all the manuscripts that pass through their literary agency. I cannot tell you how nervous I was! This second novel is quite different – necessarily so, since the country is ravaged by privation – and I had no idea how anyone would react. When Elaine’s response came through one night, I had to calm myself before daring to open her email. I then walked on air for the next few days because she told me how much she loved it.

And it is thanks to you, dear readers, who gave my debut novel – The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds – such heart-warming reviews, that Amazon Crossing quickly made an offer on the second manuscript and is bringing the finished book to you as early as they can. I hope you adore the front cover as much as I do – it presents a powerful image, as vivid as the first. For this superb art work, I must once again thank the entire design and production team at Amazon Crossing, plus the artist, David Drummond, and of course my editor, Elizabeth DeNoma.

There are now three months to go before publication. Am I nervous? Absolutely. Excited, but nervous, too; I’ve poured so much of myself into this book. I really hope that you, the reader, will like it. When the Future Comes Too Soon is already available for pre-order. Below is a selection of links you can use.

 

Amazon USA              Amazon UK                Book Depository

Barnes & Noble         Waterstones              Kinokuniya MY

 

2 Comments

Filed under Malaysia, Novel, Publishing, Writing

Ipoh is Among Top 10 Places to Visit in Asia!

Last year Lonely Planet, the world’s largest publisher of travel guide books, discovered my hometown. And its reviewer was charmed. Ipoh, the town in which my debut novel – The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds – takes place, was duly placed 6th in the publisher’s Asian destinations to visit in 2017!

There was special mention for Ipoh’s food, which has long been a favourite with Malaysia’s many foodies. One of Ipoh‘s specialities is bean sprouts and yes, I do mean that quirky-looking vegetable with a whitish stem and yellow head! Ipoh’s bean sprouts are special: fatter and crispier and therefore tastier.beansprouts

I’m told that this is because they are fed the limestone-infused water from the hills which my heroine, Chye Hoon, loved. Whatever the reason, Ipoh’s bean sprouts are so good that I once wrote a blog-post about them. Naturally, I was thrilled that Lonely Planet mentioned bean sprouts and good old Lou Wong, one of my favourite coffee shops.

lou-wong-from-outside

Lou Wong is an institution, a bit like the town’s Padang (the large field around which our British occupiers built their administrative offices. I had to explain this to the copyeditor when he tried to reduce ‘Padang’ to a small ‘p’). Like some of Malaysia’s best eating places, Lou Wong doesn’t look like much from the outside. But they serve delicious food! In case you doubted it, they have a sign telling you what they specialise in.

It’s not as if you need it, since the only things visible are barrels of bean sprouts (I kid you not) and arrays of chickens strung up, ready for the cleaver. a-tub-of-bean-sprouts

The chicken is steamed, the bean sprouts blanched, both are then doused in plenty of soya sauce and sesame oil, garnished with finely chopped spring onions and eaten with aromatic steamed rice or in a noodle soup. Simple and stunningly good! Lou Wong remains an old-style coffee shop, cooled only by ceiling fans and with relatively clean, tiled floors of light blue octagons interspersed with darker blue squares. The waiters move around in casual T shirts, sometimes fat-splattered, adding up your bill in their heads. I invariably eat more than I should. Once, the waiter who was totting up the bill stared in astonishment. ‘Wahh!’ he cried out, not believing his luck. ‘Three persons, eat so much!’ The same waiter is still there, and he smiles each time he sees me.chickens-being-chopped

Ipoh has more than food, of course. It was built on tin and is one of Malaysia’s most historical cities. Therein lies the rub: the town, created to serve British colonial interests, was built largely through Chinese effort – a fact which the Malaysian government does not like acknowledging. For years the most historical part of Ipoh, called Old Town, was left dormant. Beautiful shophouses became dilapidated and decayed. Ipoh’s recent renaissance – through private initiative, not the government’s largesse – is one of the reasons why the town has been noticed by Lonely Planet.

This is heartening to see. I would love for Ipoh, especially its old historical quarter, to thrive again. The limestone hills are still there, of course, fluffy as ever, as are many of the places I wrote about in The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds: the cave temples; Concubine Street, the narrow alley where the towkays, the business bosses, kept their mistresses(which has a real name of Jalan Panglima, or Panglima Road); the sturdy missionary schools; the Padang (large field); the railway station and other colonial buildings.

In my last post, I said that I would be putting up images of old Ipoh on my website www.siakchinyoke.com. I’ve now done this: if you’d like to have an idea of what some of the above places looked like in Chye Hoon’s day, go to the Chye Hoon’s World page of my site and click on the top left window. The images there are from vintage postcards given to me by my highly imaginative partner.

One of my dreams with the Malayan Series – as my publisher Amazon Crossing has called this historical fiction series – is to help put Malaysia and my hometown of Ipoh on the map. Many readers have said that they knew nothing about Malaysia before, and now they feel they’ve been there. One even wrote that “if I ever make it to Malaysia, this book will be a huge reason why” (referring to The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds). My message is simple: visit Malaysia! And make sure you go to Ipoh. If you’d like, you can ask me what to see! Who knows, there may eventually be tours around the places which Chye Hoon haunted.

10 Comments

Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Malaysia, Novel

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!

6 Comments

Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia, Novel, Nyonya

My Second Book is on its Way!

This is a short post to let you know that the second book in the Malayan Series will be published during the summer of 2017. (And yes, I’m referring to the northern summer!)

At this time, I can’t give you the exact publication date nor can I reveal the book’s title, though there is one. What I can say is that the sequel to the multi-generational family saga begun in The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds (Book #1 in The Malayan Series) will continue to follow the Wong family, so that anyone who has read my debut novel will recognise many of the characters. The characters themselves, however, are about to enter a world which nothing in their experience could have prepared them for.

Stay tuned! There will be further news early in 2017, as well as the chance to pre-order! On that high note, I will sign off for this year and wish you all Season’s Greetings, be it Happy Hanukkah or Merry Christmas or simply the very best in the year ahead.

7 Comments

Filed under Malaysia, Novel, Publishing