Tag Archives: Ipoh

The Story of Great Grandfather Chin Choon Sam and a Mosque

There is a road in the Greentown area of Ipoh, Malaysia, which is named after my maternal great grandfather Chin Choon Sam. He was the husband of the woman who inspired my first novel.

ipoh_on_malaysian_map1[1]

Chin Choon Sam was also the father of (among others) the late Chin Kee Onn. Chin Kee Onn in turn was the author of Malaysian classics such as Malaya Upside Down – the first non-fictional account of life in Malaya under Japanese occupation (from December 1941 through September 1945) and Twilight of the Nyonyas – a fictional tale of a Nyonya family in the early twentieth century, a period of decline for this mixed-race community (of which more below).

Not much is known about Chin Choon Sam other than that he was an educated man who came from a Hakka village in southern China. Great Grandfather arrived in Malaya at some point towards the end of the nineteenth century and apparently set himself up as a roving accountant to Ipoh’s first entrepreneurs. He didn’t become a millionaire but he did well for himself, so well that he decided to settle in Malaya.

By all accounts, my great grandfather loved his adopted home. He already had a wife in China, but Chinese immigration policy was such that women were not allowed to leave the country in the same numbers as men. In order to put roots down in Malaya, Chin Choon Sam took a local woman as his second wife. He chose a woman from the mixed-race Nyonya community who was shrewd, blessed with a fiery tongue and who delighted in feeding him eye-watering, spicy dishes.

Who exactly were the Nyonyas? Unfortunately, many people today, even in Malaysia, don’t know the answer. This is in large part because the Nyonyas (and their male counterparts, the Babas) do not fit into the political narrative which the Malaysian government and its ultra-zealous supporters would like us to espouse. The dominant narrative in today’s Malaysia holds that the country was “first” inhabited by the Malay people who, by dint of having arrived “first”, deserve “special privileges” – first priority in the civil service, education, public scholarships, land purchases and financial hand-outs. Protection for the rights of this privileged class is enshrined in the country’s Constitution (which incidentally, was generously agreed by our wonderful British rulers prior to their departure).

Moreover, because the Malays converted to Islam sometime between the twelfth and the fifteenth century – a religion brought by traders from India and the Middle-East – it necessarily follows that all Malays born today in Malaysia are Muslim. It must be so, how could they possibly be anything else?

There are some who would like us to believe that it has always been this way in Malaysia: that every person of Malay descent has been incontrovertibly a Muslim since the twelfth century.

Alas, the Nyonyas are thorns in the above narrative. Here were local Malay women marrying immigrants from China and then proceeding to adopt some of their husbands’ customs, including, crucially, their religion. Instead of practising Islam, the Nyonyas adopted Buddhist-Taoism.

Worse, Nyonya and Baba communities were established along the coastal parts of Malaya from the fifteenth century onwards. In other words, a sizable Chinese community began settling in Malaya six hundred years ago – a very long time ago by anyone’s standards. If it were not so, Nyonyas and Babas would never have come into being.

The existence of Nyonyas and Babas is rather inconvenient. Should their descendants (people like me) not also deserve “special privileges”? For how many generations do your forbears need to have been around before you enjoyed such privilege? This question is best avoided, otherwise Malaysia’s racial policies would be shown up for the poisonous, antiquated trash they are.

Therefore, instead of celebrating an interesting part of our heritage, the Malaysian government chooses to ignore it. Evidently, parts of Malaysia’s history cannot be publicised – it would give the citizens ideas. The Nyonyas and Babas point to a time (not even that long ago) when Malaysia was actually liberal, when the Department for Islamic Development (JAKIM) did not exist and there were no officials lurking to poke their noses into people’s daily lives.

It was in that age that Chin Choon Sam married a woman from the Nyonya community. They had nine children together: three girls and six boys. To cement his position in Malaya, Great Grandfather invested in seven plots of land in Ipoh, my family’s hometown. He would have bought them sometime in the first decade of the twentieth century, when Ipoh comprised barely more than a few streets.

Of all the places in Ipoh, Chin Choon Sam chose to buy his land in Greentown. Greentown then was not the thriving metropolis it is today. It was actually a bit of a wilderness – far from town, full of rubber estates and mosquitoes. To say that Greentown had uncertain prospects would have been generous. Most people must have thought Great Grandfather mad or very foolish, which is why he probably acquired his seven plots for a song.

Why only seven plots, you may ask, when he had nine children? Because my great grandfather, as typical of any Chinese man of the time, was thinking only of his sons. Each son would need to build his own house, while it was assumed that his daughters would marry and be provided for by their husbands.

But there was one extra plot. This, Chin Choon Sam donated to the Malay community specifically so that they could build a mosque. The only mosque in the area is the Masjid Muhibbuddin Shah (Masjid meaning Mosque in Malay) on Jalan Abdul Jalil. It’s close to where my family used to live and is very likely to have been built on Great Grandfather’s seventh plot. In those days, gestures of friendship between non-Muslims and Muslims were uncontroversial. My great grandfather’s donation was welcomed and a little road in Greentown was named after him.

The Author on Chin Choon Sam Road

The Author on Chin Choon Sam Road

Contrast that with what happened in Malaysia last week, when plans by the Democratic Action Party (DAP), an opposition party, to build a mosque, were condemned as an “insult” to Muslims because funds for building mosques had to be “halal”. The DAP, despite having Muslim members, is conveniently branded a political party of and for Malaysian-Chinese, who are of course not halal.

My great grandfather’s desire to pay homage to his adopted country was natural and highly laudable but I  wonder: would his gift have been accepted now? In the sorry state that is today’s Malaysia, I suspect not.

To Malaysian Readers: I do know that Article 153 of Malaysia’s Constitution safeguards the position not of Malays per se but of “Bumiputras“. The definition of Bumiputra – a Prince of the Soil, a protected class of person in Malaysia – is convoluted though, and not relevant to this blog-post. Article 153 is a minefield in Malaysian politics which would require separate discussion.

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I’ve Finished!

Six days ago, I finished my novel. Yes! It has taken four drafts and almost two years to hone the 150,000 or so words of my historical epic family drama.

Given that I completed the first draft in just twelve months of furious writing, I find it amazing that I then spent another eleven months editing my work, word by precious word. In the early months, when I sat before my personal computer in full narrative flow, I naively wondered why some books took their authors seven to ten years to write. Now I know.

Looking back, I can see that the first draft contained mainly bare bones. It was as if I had to pour the words out onto a page, so that I could tell the story to myself. Many writers say they don’t share their first drafts with anyone else, but perhaps I’m more thick-skinned. Besides, I find I need feedback to get those creative juices flowing. I therefore showed my first draft to my partner, and also to a professional developmental editor. If I had to do it again, I would do exactly the same thing. I was fortunate in having Dr. Nathalie Teitler, formerly a tutor at Spread the Word, among other organisations, as my editor. The drama I’ve written takes place in Ipoh, Malaya (see map), within a complex multicultural setting, and I needed an editor who would be sympathetic to such material. Right from the start, I became used to criticism, to having chunks decimated, even a whole chapter rejected. I write to be read, and I needed such input. ipoh

In that period, I also sent my early draft to two literary consultancies. Both are reputable and advertise themselves as ‘leading’ consultancies, yet they gave opposing feedback: one very encouraging, the other much less so (I had not told either that this was a first draft). The experience confirmed what I had already suspected – that whether your writing is deemed ‘good’ is highly subjective. Much in the writing industry seems a matter of taste.

When I started the second draft, Nathalie worried I would lose momentum. It happens to many, she said. With me, the opposite was true: ideas came quickly and not always in tangible form, often at night in half-dreams from which I awoke, unsure of the words that had been churning in my head. I was in Malaysia at the time. Something about the heat, the food, family and the way people speak there  (Wahh! Like that also can ah?) stirred my imagination. Thanks to a prolific subconscious, large chunks were added to and taken away in the second draft. A major edit, I thought, until I began the third draft.

That was when I really did sharpen every word in every sentence. It is now quite a different book to what I had at the beginning, or even after the second draft. By that, I don’t mean that the underlying story has changed, rather, that I’ve told it using many more motifs and metaphors.

Editing, I was to learn, is an art. An art which I resisted, until I started to enjoy it. Editing is hugely time-consuming, and anyone who has put together a presentation in the corporate world will understand one of its frustrations. Changing a phrase in the third paragraph of the second chapter could impact the flow of what came before, as well as what comes after. Often, you have to re-read a lot more than just the short paragraph you are changing.

Late in the editing process, I discovered a critical tool: reading aloud. I found that if I could not get my tongue around a sentence, it was usually because there was a problem with that sentence. When I re-wrote it in a way that made it easier on the tongue, the prose invariably became clearer. But reading aloud an entire epic drama of 150,000 words twice from start to finish takes a lot of time. It has a cost on family life too, if your partner happens to be your first reader, which is the case with me. Every time I re-wrote a piece, she was asked to read it. This was especially true of the beginning and end, which I re-wrote, re-read and re-wrote many more times than five, in fact, so many times that I fear I may have lost my first reader in the process. I worry she won’t bother to read the published book! Be that as it may, I can finally say I have completed my first novel. Hallelujah!

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What Great-Grandmother Taught Me about Economics

Hang a banker a week until the others improve.” These extraordinary words were uttered by Ken Livingstone, formerly London’s mayor, in a speech in February this year.

His words clearly incite hate, but in the West of today, hating bankers and business, especially big business, seems perfectly acceptable. Livingstone is far from alone. “Outrage over £13 billion lavished on bonuses for bankers while the rest of us struggle to make ends meet,” screamed the MailOnline on 20 September.

With such righteous indignation, it was hardly surprising that two poets, Alice Oswald and John Kinsella, withdrew from the TS Eliot prize on the grounds of its ‘tainted’ sponsorship. The money for the prize was to come from investment firm Aurum, which manages funds of hedge funds. “The business of Aurum does not sit well with my personal politics and ethics”, said Mr. Kinsella, who described hedge funds as being “at the very pointy end of capitalism.” Fair enough. It is laudable to stand up for what you believe in. I only hope Mr. Kinsella never plans to retire, because his pension fund, if he has one, is likely to have exposure to hedge funds (or to mutual funds which employ hedge fund techniques).

Into this charged atmosphere, it would be interesting to see the response to my début novel in which private entrepreneurship is celebrated. My protagonist Chye Hoon fully embraces capitalism, because it offers her and her family opportunities. In colonial Malaya, there is no other lifeline, no entitlement: life is what you make of it. Chye Hoon cannot even read or write but this doesn’t deter her, because she can count. She starts a business in Malaya in 1910, making and selling the delicacies with which she has grown up – the Nyonya kueh of her childhood. On the first morning, Chye Hoon stands in her kitchen inhaling the smells of steaming coconut milk and pandanus leaves, and she knows she will make money.

This she proceeds to do – very successfully. Bahh, you may say. Your book is fiction. Maybe, but my protagonist is based on my great grandmother, who personified the traits of many overseas Chinese. We are the descendants of those who dared leave China. There are plenty of rags-to-riches stories from among us, and all are true. (When I say rags, I mean literally rags. Here is one of many photographs of newly-arrived immigrants at the Chinatown Heritage Centre in Singapore, an excellent museum.) 

Great-Grandmother shared the absolute determination of her Chinese ancestors to succeed. She might even have taught Gordon Brown a thing or two. Ipoh, where she lived, was a mining town, its fortunes tied to tin. And the price of tin, Great-Grandmother knew, went up and down. She understood intuitively that there would be good years as well as bad. If she had heard anyone say, as the former Chancellor did in his pre-budget report of 1999, “Under this Government, Britain will not return to the boom and bust of the past”, she would have exclaimed, Malaysian style, “What? He crazy ah?”

In the good years, Great-Grandmother worked and saved, to prepare for the bad years that were always just round the corner. In the bad years she worked just as hard, but saved less. There was no point complaining, and no one to complain to. Great-Grandmother lived in a world in which no safety net existed: there was no unemployment benefit, no healthcare, or pension. She provided for herself and her children, all nine of them.

At some point Great-Grandmother made enough money, and was approached by others for loans. That was when she became a money-lender in Ipoh. My own protagonist Chye Hoon also becomes a money-lender in my novel. Chye Hoon discovers an under-served niche (women), and her activities play a vital role in the growth of micro-enterprise in her town. In writing about how Chye Hoon builds her business, I drew from twenty years of experience as a banker and entrepreneur. 

Business is about survival, and growth. Always, you have to make sure you survive, no matter how large your business. This is the stuff of life. It’s what I write about in my novel. In the anti-capitalist discourse of today, we sometimes forget that businesses serve needs. As does banking.

Make no mistake: Great-Grandmother’s enterprise may have been small, but she was as keen on profit as any large corporation. Without profit, she could not have survived; our family wouldn’t be here, and I wouldn’t be completing a novel.

As I read some of the headlines in the West today, I can’t help thinking about her. Her golden rules were simple: work your butt off, save like crazy, and take advantage of every opportunity. Oh, and don’t borrow. This last was ironic, given her money-lending activities.

But perhaps a dose of such conservatism has its uses. At the last count, Britain’s households held £1.4 trillion of personal debt. This means that the average amount owed by each person in the UK represents 117% of average earnings.

Some people say this level of debt doesn’t matter (BBC News: The Truth about the UK’s Debt). Perhaps, but surely having less debt could do no harm.

In any case, are bankers solely responsible for the debt mountain? The facts speak for themselves: personal debt climbed during the go-go years between 1997 and 2007.  Loans were given too freely then, but no banker forced anyone to take a loan under duress. Somewhere in the narrative of entitlement, personal responsibility has got lost.

My novel goes against that grain. It is about identity and loss of culture yes, but it is also a story of personal responsibility, and the power we have as individuals. In this time of crisis, it offers a message of hope. Against all odds, a woman faces the Great Depression of the 1930s on her own, with no help whatsoever. She succeeds on her own terms. We can too.

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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.

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

“Chinaman!”

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

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

Thank you for sharing your experience.

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

But they were lying.

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

As I grew up, I learnt its many connotations.

Uncouth.

Lower class.

Untrustworthy.

Dirty.

Greedy.

Rude.

Slitty-eyed ugly.

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

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

—————

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

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

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

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

Uncouth.          Lower class.   Untrustworthy.

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

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

—————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Smart Girls don’t find Husbands?!

The first day I went to school, a Methodist kindergarten, I cried. My mother stood outside watching for a few hours, but I knew she would leave at some point and I dreaded the moment. Nonetheless, when the teacher asked whether any of us knew the song ‘Ten Little Indian Boys,’ I put up my hand. Drying tears, I opened my mouth to sing.

“One little two little three little Indians, four little five little six…”

I became so carried away that when I finished, I repeated the song in reverse, but the teacher told me I had done enough.

That was how my educational adventure began – with a humble rendition of a children’s song. I was not to know that this karaoke debut, full of fear and trembling, would one day lead me to the spires of Oxford University.

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While growing up, I was fortunate to have an enlightened mother who emphasised the value of education. The girls in my novel aren’t so lucky. They live in an era when education for girls is deemed unimportant or ignored altogether. Even my feisty Nyonya matriarch struggles with sending her daughters to school. She fears that education would make them too clever to be appreciated by men.  Below is an excerpt:

COPYRIGHT SIAK CHIN YOKE 2012 (from Spirit of Kueh, my unpublished novel)

I wanted to send them to school but at the same time, was concerned not to damage their ability to find husbands, instinctively knowing that men didn’t like wives who were cleverer than they. Even my beloved Peng Choon, wonderful husband that he was, liked to think of himself as being the smarter of us two, which for the sake of peace, I of course allowed. He would make comments, “Ai-yahh! That is rubbish-lah! You talk just like a woman!” in a particular tone, as if talking like a woman were such a terrible affliction.

COPYRIGHT SIAK CHIN YOKE 2012

Attitudes may not have changed as much as we like to think. Even while I was at school, one or two of the older girls warned me that it would be hard to find a man prepared to ‘put up’ with my brains. Therefore, they suggested I play down my intelligence, just a little. How many girls have been told the same thing, I wonder? To dumb ourselves down for the sake of boys?

—————

The matriarch in my novel eventually sends her daughters to the Anglo Chinese Girls’ School in Ipoh, where they thrive. The school, now called the Methodist Girls’ School (see photograph), happens to be my alma mater. It is also the school which my mother and her mother before her attended.

I have fond memories of the place. I remember our old wooden desks, always badly scratched, with doodles all over, sometimes with the marks of penknives etched into them. We had a desk each, and a wooden chair on which we sat for five hours and forty minutes every day, facing a succession of teachers who would come in to teach us different subjects.

Presumably to ensure that we girls would become good homemakers, we were forced to take Domestic Science. It was a subject I loathed. We learnt sewing, the different types of stitches, cooking and I can’t remember what else. Because Domestic Science didn’t have to count towards my end-of-term mark, I would do as little as I could get away with. Once, I actually failed the subject. That proved too shameful; the next term, I made sure I scraped through. Still, I learnt nothing, not even how to sew a button. (If I need a button sewn now, I take the garment to a tailor.)

My best memory is the canteen. It served food which, living in England today, I would kill for. Fried noodles, rice dishes, steaming laksa, juicy tropical fruit. During a twenty-minute break, we would devour our food while sitting on benches in a large open-air area, under the cool of ceiling fans (see photograph).   

Our facilities would have struck many in the West as ‘basic’ for a leading school. Yet, we had everything we needed: laboratories, a library, a single set of courts for netball or badminton, an open-air performance hall, and a playing field where we had to do timed runs of six hundred metres in the heat once a term.

Whatever we may have lacked, we more than made up for in attitude and spirit. All of us wanted to do well. Amongst my classmates, it was assumed we would go to university and graduate with a degree.

When I arrived at a private school in England, the opposite was true: facilities were better, but ambition and desire to learn were in scarce evidence. To be honest, I was stunned. My new classmates thought they did well if they passed O-levels in five or six subjects, whereas the norm in Malaysia at the time was nine or ten subjects. And it didn’t occur to my English peers that A-grades were there for a reason: to be attained.

It was only after reaching British shores that I appreciated what Malaysian education had given me. I discovered I had a solid base from which to build, so solid that the transition to England proved seamless, the lessons easy.

I cannot thank my Malaysian teachers enough for all that they taught me. When I say that, I’m not referring to what they explained from our textbooks. Rather, I mean the values they carried within, which seeped into the air to mould us into the people we eventually became. I’m grateful also to my former classmates, for the unique spirit they helped us engender. Unconstrained by expectations of who we would one day be, we accepted each other as we were then: pimply adolescents still unsure of ourselves, burning with hope for the future. We competed hard, but we also played hard. That easy mix of friendly competition, can-do and fun warms my heart whenever I remember those times.

We had a good life. And we probably appreciate it even more now.

—————

The story of my Malaysian school started, ironically, in the country in which I now live, with an English vicar.

In July 1895, the Reverend William Horley was already in Singapore. From there, he was sent by the Methodist Mission to the-then frontier mining town of Ipoh, his remit being to open a school. Reverend Horley was, by all accounts, an energetic man. Five days after reaching Ipoh, he began teaching a class of boys in a small rented Malay house with a thatched (attap) roof. When girls started arriving, he taught them as well. This was how my alma mater started.

The thirst for learning among the local population was great, and classes of both boys and girls grew quickly. Reverend Horley literally had jungle cleared before arranging for buildings to be constructed. The buildings were financed not by the colonial government but mainly by wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs. Hence their names Anglo Chinese School Ipoh, or more affectionately, ACS Ipoh, and Anglo Chinese Girls’ School. ACS Ipoh went on to become one of Malaysia’s top boys’ schools. You can read the story here.

As for the girls, their school was located within the grounds of ACS until a separate piece of land was bought and a school constructed for them. (The schools remain twinned; at seventeen years of age, the young women move to the boys’ school to continue in the sixth form.)

Whenever I hear this story, I am filled with awe. I imagine the men and the elephants they would have driven. I smell their sweat as they haul trees in thick jungle, clearing the land so that our schools could be built. I think too, of the progressive Chinese entrepreneurs who gave Reverend Horley the funds. Without them, our schools might never have risen from the ground.

Of course, Reverend Horley and his fellow-missionaries didn’t do the physical work themselves: they hired local help. Nonetheless, they would have had to put up with the vagaries of the tropics: the mosquitoes and insects, the inhospitable climate, the uncertainty of how their efforts would be received. It is true that they arrived to ‘convert the natives’. Yet, this didn’t stop them from teaching children of all races and religions.

Many generations of Malaysians have passed through both the Anglo Chinese School and its sister Methodist Girls’ School (formerly called the Anglo Chinese Girls’ School) in Ipoh. We owe a debt to Reverend Horley and the men and women like him, who braved unknown climes to teach us.

I have acknowledged this by including missionary characters in my novel and depicting the vital role they played in education. Because the timeframe fits, I even imagine meetings between my Nyonya matriarch and the Reverend William Horley himself. This is an intriguing possibility: on the one hand, a fierce Nyonya who is sceptical of British rule, on the other, a genial, larger than life English missionary. I hope you will read my novel to find out what happens.

Meanwhile, on 1 August this year, it will have been a hundred years since the foundation stone for the grand buildings by which ACS Ipoh is known, was laid. Undeterred by the fears Nyonya matriarchs would once have had, I’ve donated a small sum to encourage the girls onwards. It is to be awarded as a prize to the best sixth-form pupil in Physics, if she is a young woman, or to the top sixth-form pupil, also if she is a young woman. Even better if there are two winners (in which case, the prize will be doubled)!

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The Miracle of Writing

“Do you write when the inspiration takes you?” you ask. No, I say, I write every day, whether inspired or not. Otherwise, I’d never finish my novel. You look surprised. It’s obviously not what you expected to hear.

I am perhaps fortunate, I add. Some people say they find it hard to begin writing. I have no such problem. I simply sit in front of my machine, and write. Just like with this blog-post.

The act of searching for words, of putting them together to form sentences, does something to my whole being. When I write, it’s not just my brain which is engaged – it’s also my heart. I see what my characters see, feel what they feel. Writing awakens my soul.

With each word comes a new idea. Or a memory long cast aside. Often, the thoughts and ideas and memories appear in random order, yet there are nebulous connections between them, strange pathways I can use or store as I wish. Sometimes, it’s not a thought I tap into, but the reservoir of emotion I know is there. The act of striking little black keys on a silver board unleashes a side of my psyche that has been kept in check for many years and can’t wait to be let out.  

It isn’t always so. In everyday life, I often can’t find the words. But when I write, I inevitably find the words. Even if it takes half a year.

 

The words sometimes come in dreams. I have only ever remembered a handful of dreams, yet I’m conscious of writing parts of my novel when I sleep. Or of adding to and subtracting from it, as I’m doing now. I will wake up with the exact phrase I had been searching for, which happened to come while I was still asleep. It’s uncanny.

 

I’ve known for a long time that I have some sort of talent for creative fiction. When I was nine, I was runner-up in a national essay competition in Malaysia (in the English language). There were only two submissions from my school: mine and a classmate’s. We both wrote about tragedy; my essay was about a girl who survives a plane crash, his about two children who are involved in a boat accident with their father. Mine was pure fiction, inspired by the tale of the survivors of a plane crash in the Andes. My classmate’s story, on the other hand, was based on his first-hand experience of surviving a terrible boat accident in which he watched his father drown while trying to save him and his sister. I still remember the title of his essay – Labyrinth of Fear. I handed my story in and thought no more about it. To my amazement, I was named runner-up nationally while my classmate was left without a prize. I felt embarrassed at the result. How could a made-up story trump real-life experience?

I thought of giving my classmate the trophy I won, but something held me back. 

 

As I grew up, I put story-writing away. There were too many other things in life. I continued to write, but only articles full of facts and figures. In the early years, they had titles like ‘The Quasiparticle Lifetime at the Mobility Edge’; later on, they described companies and the different elements of capital that could fund them. My pieces were lengthy tomes which required grammatically correct sentences, proper syntax and punctuation, but which had neither soul nor heart. In them, the equations and facts were more important than the writing. Yet, it was my words which stood out. Colleagues would comment on how well I wrote. I acknowledged their praise before promptly moving on. There were still too many other things I wanted to do.

 

Somewhere inside though, I must have stored all the words I have ever heard in my life. Because when the moment came, I was able to retrieve them.      

  

It started on a low day. Months after my final chemo session, I felt desperate. My hair had come back, but my energy hadn’t. What is life, I asked myself, without energy? When you lack the energy to move, life passes by in slow grinding motion. I slept, woke, read, went back to sleep, woke again, listened to the birds in the study, returned to sleep. Always, sleep overcame me, as if I had never slept before chemo and would never sleep enough again afterwards.

I couldn’t understand why it was so hard to regain my footing. My body had survived the ravages of illness and of drugs, and I was supposed to be well. Yet, I felt far from any state of equilibrium. “Why don’t you write?” my counsellor at MacMillan Cancer Support suggested.   

Reluctantly, I began. I felt all of the inertia which writers speak about, the resistance to sitting down with a blank page. It was a beautifully sunny autumn afternoon. I made endless cups of tea before carrying my laptop into the dining room where I wouldn’t be disturbed by the chirping of birds. I had only a vague idea what I would write about. Just start, my editor friend had said. So I did. I embarked on a short story involving four students who shared a house in a university town.

And then an extraordinary thing happened: I became immersed in the world of my characters. When I next went to the gym, I found myself imagining the scene to come, tweaking words in my head. I couldn’t wait to get back to my story.

In the fifth decade of my life, I finally experienced that cliché known as the creative spark. With every word I wrote, I felt my body becoming stronger. I commenced on a novel that had long lain dormant, and by the time I had written three chapters, was a rejuvenated person. Writing became as natural as breathing. No longer could I sit back in this life and not write. I now have to write to live, and to suffer all the consequences of this art in their full-blown form.

 

Ichtyandr is a young boy who needs a life-saving operation to survive. His father, a surgeon, implants a set of gills onto his lungs. Thereafter, Ichtyandr is able to live in both water and on land, but he must keep this a secret from his friends in Argentina where he has his home. He moves surreptitiously between two worlds: one full of beaches and open fields, the other a silent world in which the only sound is the gurgling of his breath.

Invented by Alexandr Belyayev, Russia’s equivalent of Jules Verne, Ichtyandr appeared in the novel Amphibian Man in 1928. I often feel like Ichtyandr as I scurry between the folds of my imagination and the vast terrace of day-to-day existence. My real life is quiet, while the world my characters inhabit is full of noise, and bustle, and people…always so many people everywhere. It is also full of food – that central plank of Malaysian identity – and I’m constantly hungry when I write. I smell the garlic and lemongrass being pounded in a grey granite pestle-and-mortar, see the juicy roasted ducks hanging on spits. Unwittingly, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I will taste the saliva in my mouth. “What to do lah?” as one of my characters would say. “Of course must eat!”

 

Sometimes, being in two worlds or even three makes me schizophrenic. I can understand why writers become cranky. It forces me to look at Malaysia and at myself in a new light. I often imagine the characters in my novel as they would have moved around Ipoh, the tin mining town in which my story is set, a hundred years ago.

They were all alive then, going about their lives in rickshaws. If they could see Ipoh today, they would be astonished by the changes. There are many things I think they would love, and also much that would make them sad, as I am sad.

But sadness is not what I wish to dwell on here. Rather, I want to describe the sheer exhilaration of being able to tell the story I’ve kept inside my head all these years. I make up characters and sometimes I kill them; I find the words, thread them into sentences, move paragraphs around.

All this I do, so that I can guide my reader into a world that once was, down the very street she or he may still live on.

“You write and you erase. And you call this a profession?” says Nicole Kraus in her novel Great House.

No, I don’t call it a profession. I call it a miracle. And I’m thankful I have the vitality to share in this miracle, however imperfect my participation may be.

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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.

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My Ipoh

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.

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