Tag Archives: Ipoh

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.

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Ruminations on Food 5: When Fish Looks Like Fish

Ahead of Donald Trump’s much trumpeted trip to Asia last year, his aides told CNN that he was going to avoid “whole fish with heads still on”.

He did not know what he was missing. The best fish is served whole.

What Trump Missed

Years ago when I was an investment banker, my American bank sent me to New York for a month of training. Those were party days and one evening I ventured into New York’s Chinatown with two Italian co-trainees. They had little idea what dishes to order and thought they were in for a treat.

They were – though it was perhaps not the treat they had in mind. The restaurant into which we stumbled would best be described as ‘authentic’. My nose had led us there, you see, and my nose told me to enter. It wasn’t a hole-in-the-wall, but this was long before New York’s Chinatown became gentrified. Although my colleagues looked doubtful, they bravely followed. It had been their idea after all: they’d given me carte blanche to make decisions. Once inside they seemed comforted by the sight of so many Asians eating together. When I decreed that we sit, they told me to order.

The highlight came in the form of a fish that had been steamed whole, complete with head, fins and tail. It looked pretty much like the specimen below. Our waiter must have had a sixth sense – he positioned the dish so that the fish’s mouth peered directly up at my Italian friends. They went pale; neither said a word. Needless to say, I ended up eating rather a lot of fish that night.

Ahoy!

When you grow up with something, you don’t really think about it. In Southeast Asia, we like our fish to look like fish. Because I’d been staring into the gaping mouths of fish since I was a child, it had not occurred to me that anyone could object.

Our penchant for authenticity is not limited to fish. We like our prawns whole, too, still in their shells with tails and juicy heads perfect for sucking.

Prawns As Real As They Come

Quite often, you actually pull your seafood out of the water. Many Chinese restaurants have tanks showcasing the fish, prawns and crabs you can have for your meal. Here’s our waiter pulling large crustaceans out. See the white cards on the side of the tank? The cards reveal the names of customers and what they’ve ordered. At first glance the impression is surreal: the sign with ‘Mr. Chin’ – my uncle’s surname – on the vitrine made it look as if Mr. Chin himself were swimming in the water!

Waiter Fishing

Below is a dish of roast duck. Notice the pains the chef has taken to remind diners that this is duck. So real you can almost hear quacking on the plate. The photo was taken at the  swanky Chinese restaurant known as Yuk Sou Hin inside the WEIL Hotel, which many say serves the best roast duck in Ipoh. In Malaysia and Singapore, even Chinese haute cuisine isn’t for the squeamish. As an aside, I will vouch for this roast duck!

Authentic Duck

The above dishes should qualify as ‘real food’. According to a blog I found, ‘real food’ – a growing movement in the West – is food that is

  • Old and traditional
  • Whole, complete and intact
  • Diverse (as opposed to processed)

You couldn’t get more ‘whole, complete and intact’ unless you strung your poultry up whole. Which of course, many Chinese restaurants worldwide do, too. They hang the already roasted or steamed poultry up and hack them into pieces as customers’ orders come through. It turns out that we’ve been eating real food in Malaysia for a long time – we just didn’t know it.

As if whole fowl dangling pendulously from metal hooks were insufficient, Malaysian coffee shops sometimes have gigantic images on their walls. This must be their attempts at creating the ‘before’ and ‘after’: at the front whole chickens, already cooked, unceremoniously strung up; on one wall, covering pretty much the entire surface area, what those lovely chickens once looked like when they still had feathers.

In Case You Forgot What You Came to Eat

On a serious note, if you belong to the ‘real food movement’ I’d love to know whether the movement embraces an ethos of no wastage, the way we do. What I mean is that we eat every part of the animal. It wouldn’t do to discard the eyes of a fish when you could eat them, would it? This is why there are folks who are fans of fishes’ eyes – I promise it’s true, there are a few in my family – while many others adore fish head curry. The latter is such a popular Malaysian speciality that it even has its own Wikipedia entry.

As for panel signs, we like ours to look as real as our food. The one below was taken inside a Malaysian food court.  It’s not enough to tell customers not to spit. The warning must come in at least two languages with an explicit picture.

Watch That Tongue!

Now spit if you dare. And you probably would dare. Because the sign says nothing about a penalty, does it? In neighbouring Singapore, it would be made clear that you’d be fined for spitting. And you would – because you’d be caught.

But this is Malaysia, a land with laws aplenty and equally plentiful discretionary enforcement. Apa-apa pun boleh, you see. Anything goes.

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Ruminations on Food 4: …And Now for Durians

I’d planned to write this blog-post in time for the first day of the Chinese New Year, which fell on February 16th this year. Alas, I succumbed to flu a few days before the Year of the Earth Dog commenced. This year’s viruses seem especially virulent. I was told that ‘Australian flu’ was doing the rounds in London. I love this. No doubt when my friends down under get really sick, they blame it on ‘Pommy flu’.

At last, the effects of the virus are receding and I can start thinking again about food! I ended 2017 on a petai note, so it seems only right to begin 2018 with that other potent Malaysian product: the durian. Without doubt, this is the king of Malaysia’s fruits.

Here’s a picture of durians below. Each fruit is covered by a hard, spiky, olive green husk that gives it an almost prehistoric appearance. Durians are not innocuous-looking. Even T Rex wouldn’t want to mess with them.

Unopened Durians

Each fruit contains six to twelve or more seeds, and each seed is covered by soft flesh. It’s this gooey flesh that is coveted by durian connoisseurs. The flesh is yellow to off-white in colour and turns to pulp in your fingers. ‘Durian’ could refer either to the whole fruit or to each of the individual flesh-covered seeds inside. If you know your durians, you can tell by looking at the colour and texture of the flesh whether it’s your favourite type or not. I like durians with dry, bright yellow flesh (see picture below) because they tend to be the sweetest. Others prefer the slightly wet, somewhat bitter variety of durians.

An Opened Durian

Once the green durian husk has been split open, there is no getting away from its pervasive aroma. In this respect, durians are a lot more potent than petai.

If you haven’t eaten durians, you’re probably wondering what they smell like. The thing to remember is that I’m Malaysian; I grew up with durians and I like their aroma. Many foreigners, on the other hand, describe durians as smelling of feet, gym socks or worse. The chef Anthony Bourdain has apparently said that after eating durians, your breath smells as if you’d indulged in ‘French-kissing your dead grandmother.’

Comparing durians to kissing a corpse? I think that’s rather unfair. It’s akin to saying that France’s famous Reblochon cheese has the stench of milk gone very bad – which it has – or to early Japanese perceptions that Westerners all smelt of cow. A few years ago I discovered that I was lactose-intolerant, since when I’ve avoided dairy products, and having stopped eating dairy, I can assure you that animal milk smells terrible, even when it’s supposedly fresh! In fact, there is an untranslatable Chinese word to describe the smell of milk. This Chinese word, which is cow-related, conjures up a food that is both bad-smelling and unsavoury.

In bygone days, you were forced to buy durians still in their husks from roadside vendors. These had to transported home in the boot of your car. Everyone would be salivating during the journey because there was no way of escaping their delicious aroma. And then, when you finally reached home, you still had the work of breaking the durians open. Now durians are sold peeled and ready-to-eat, in white plastic containers. See how easy life has become?

Ready-to-Eat Durians in Bowl

While I was on a visit to Malaysia last year, my uncle bought several containers of durians and we stashed them away in the boot, taking care to wrap the containers inside not one but two plastic bags. In spite of these precautions, we could still smell the durians from inside the car! This is why hotels across Southeast Asia have signs reminding people that durians are prohibited inside.

Despite this, there is more hope of durians finding their way into world cuisine than petai. Durians have long been used in cakes (a type of Malaysian delicacy aptly called durian cake), as well as in ice cream and ice lollies. Recently durians even made an appearance in coffee! Here they are, on packets advertising the white coffee for which my hometown, Ipoh, is famous. Just in case you doubted our language abilities, the coffee is marketed in French, okay? Durian café blanc.

Durian Cafe Blanc

I have to mention the type of durian used to flavour this coffee: it’s the famous Malaysian variety known as ‘Musang King’. (In Malay, musang is a civet cat.) In 2014, when the Loon Fung supermarket on Gerrard Street in London’s Chinatown started selling Musang King durians, this was such an event that even the Guardian newspaper reported it. And last year, the first Musang King Durian Festival was organised in Malaysia. The festival may yet become an annual event. So beware folks, the Musang King might soon be coming to a place near you!

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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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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.

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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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Video Messages to Tempt You With!

In this short blog-post I’ll share two videos of me. Those of you who also follow me on Twitter or my Facebook Author Page may already have seen these – they were shot in my home library. The first video is a simple but heart-felt Thank You to people who’ve already read and loved The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds, my debut novel (Book #1 in the Malayan Series) which follows the life of a courageous woman in British Malaya.

In the second video, I read a short excerpt from the book. Family, food, friendship and identity are key themes and this video contains pictures of the delicious kueh (or cakes in Malay) that are integral to the story, as well as images of old Ipoh, the town in which the story is set. Thank you to Cafe Rasa in Stratford, London, for supplying the kueh shown and to Dr. Ho Tak Ming for allowing us to use images from his book about Ipoh, When Tin Was King.

If you haven’t yet read The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds, I hope these videos will spur you on!

Order now at:

Amazon USA     Barnes & Noble USA     Amazon UK     Waterstones UK     Kinokuniya MY     Kinokuniya SG

Thank you for watching and for reading!

NB At the time of writing, all the above stores have my book in stock.

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Proud to Announce …

My debut novel, The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds, has been selected by Amazon Publishing’s editors as one of their 6 hand-picked book choices for the Kindle First programme during this month of October. In case you’ve not heard of it, Kindle First is an invitation-only programme for authors. It allows the many book lovers who are also Amazon Prime subscribers to read books on their Kindles a month before their official release dates. This means that Prime subscribers can already download my novel and read it on their Kindles!

Here’s what Amazon’s editors have to say about their selections. If you prefer, you can watch the following video: there are previews of all 6 books. And if clicking on a link seems too much like hard work, below you’ll find the front and back covers of my novel. The overview on the back cover provides a good feel for the unfolding story and its key themes.

front-cover

 

back-cover

I will also be doing two readings in Malaysia this month (October 2016). The first will take place in Ipoh – the town which provides the setting for my novel – on Saturday 15 October. Full details will be posted on my Facebook Author Page, which has just gone live. If you happen to be in Malaysia then, I’d love to see you!

Meanwhile, there are fewer than 30 days to the official worldwide release of The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds. There’s still time to pre-order your book! Click on any of the links below:

USA Barnes & Noble

UK Waterstones

Australia Booktopia

Malaysia Kinokuniya

Singapore Kinokuniya

and, of course, on all Amazon websites

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Dreams can be Made

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Things that go into Creating a Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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