Tag Archives: Ipoh

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

16 Comments

Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia, Novel, Publishing

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.

24 Comments

Filed under Malaysia, Novel, Publishing, Writing

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.

17 Comments

Filed under Novel, Publishing, Writing

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.

4 Comments

Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia, Novel, Nyonya

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!

30 Comments

Filed under Malaysia, Novel, Writing

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.

3 Comments

Filed under Identity, Malaysia, Novel

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Malaysia, Novel, Research, Writing