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.
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!
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 Nyonyakueh 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.
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.
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 lekkerbraais (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.
This blog-post is rather special since it’s the first I’m writing from within Malaysia itself – the land in which my story unfolds. To mark the occasion, I thought I’d provide a short excerpt from the novel itself.
My novel tells the story of a Nyonya (mixed heritage) woman as she struggles for some of the fundamental things in life: survival – her own as well as her family’s – and a meaningful identity. For my main character, whose name is Chye Hoon, the struggle for survival and the struggle for identity are linked; to find out how, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for the book!
Set in the multi-cultural Malaya of roughly 1880 to 1940, the narrative is rich in descriptions of food and places in Malaya, with historical events being alluded to as they happen. In addition, I have woven Chinese and South East Asian mythology into the narrative where possible, usually in the form of stories passed from mothers to children.
The following passages are one such example. They appear relatively early on, when the main character Chye Hoon, also the narrator, has just borne her second child. She’s up early one morning to feed him when she recalls a story her own mother once told her.
As I dragged myself up to feed the latest child, cradling the little one to my breast, watching him suckle greedily with the stillness of morning all around us, I finally understood the heroic efforts Mother had made, and the toll which raising us must have taken on her life.
I felt so close to her then – because I knew that I too, was doing exactly what she had done.
I had also begun to tell my children stories, just as Mother used to. It’s probably because I was thinking so much about her while feeding Weng Koon one night that I suddenly recalled a tale she had told. For no obvious reason at all, it jumped into my mind and refused to go away. It was a fable so long forgotten that at first, I struggled to recollect even its bare outline.
It was the name which came back first. Nu Kua. I couldn’t recall who she was, one of the goddesses perhaps. Or maybe she was more than a goddess? I tried to cast my memory back to the day when Mother had first told us her story. Slowly, the haze of years lifted, and details started to come, bit by bit; once more, I could hear Mother’s lilting voice as she told us the fable, carefully enunciating every word. I remember watching the movement of her lips that day, when all of us children were sitting on the floor, looking up at her, rapt with attention.
Mother had called Nu Kua the divine mother of all humans. She said Nu Kua had come down to repair the sky a long time ago, after a great battle in which the monster Kung Kung had wreaked havoc. During this terrible battle, the earth started falling into itself, mountains were flattened, the oceans overran many lands and everywhere, there were fires which burnt night and day, raging out of control. The chaos caused the earth’s points to be misaligned, and a large hole was ripped right across the sky. On seeing the destruction, Nu Kua became very sad. She knew she would have to repair the damage, for the sake of the earth’s children. Holding five coloured stones in her hand, she calmed the waters, put out the fires, and repaired the sky. Then she said, ‘The sky will now be blue, as an eternal symbol of hope for the children.’
I smiled as I recalled this story, because I had immediately shouted out, “But where is the hole Mother?” in a loud voice.
“It’s not there anymore, Nu Kua repaired the sky.”
“But where was it before she repaired the sky? Can you show me?” I asked insistently. “Maybe we can see where the sky was torn,” I had added in a voice full of hope. For many weeks, I remained fascinated by the idea of a hole in the heavens; with a hand shielding my eyes from the glare, I would survey the Malayan skies, constantly disappointed that all I could see were the fluffy white clouds that floated freely above.
My novel, set in Malaya (now called Malaysia) is multi-layered. I’ve written it in such a way that a reader can enjoy it without knowing any Malaysian history. Of course, the story would be richer for those with some knowledge of the country. Malaysians will see more to the story than Westerners…perhaps even controversy and criticism of present-day Malaysian racial politics.
It’s not intended as such; I simply wanted to tell a powerful and entertaining story. Yet, there’s no denying that at the time the story begins, Malaya was more truly one country than it is today. Which is ironic, because the current Prime Minister has initiated a campaign called “One Malaysia” – 1Malaysia, supposedly to ‘preserve and enhance the diversity which is our strength’. I will explain in this blog-post why the slogan 1Malaysia is farcical when used in today’s Malaysia. Below, I write from my personal experience and understanding.
First, I have to tell you more about Malaysia. Let’s start with where it’s situated. The map below should help. Malaysia is coloured orange and comprises two parts: a western peninsula, and the northern part of Borneo (the island on the right, which belongs mostly to Indonesia). The point to note is Malaysia’s strategic position. India lies to the north-west, China to the north and north-east. Siam (now Thailand) neighbours it to the north, while Indonesia lies directly south. That narrow bit of sea which separates western Malaysia from Indonesia, known as the Straits of Malacca, provides a sheltered channel for ships and is still famous for pirates.
Because of this fortuitous position, Malaysia has been at cultural cross-roads for centuries. Malays themselves are thought to have come from Yunnan in southern China. Traders from as far as Arabia also came, as did Indian princes and of course, some of my ancestors, the Chinese, who arrived in their junk-boats. Nearer home, Malays from neighbouring Indonesia migrated in regular waves, not to mention the south-bound Siamese (modern Thais) on the backs of elephants.
Many of these early immigrants settled in Malaya, which is not surprising – the land I come from is glorious, its people hospitable. It has everything: stretches of sand where palm trees sway, pristine waters always warm to the touch, but also mountains crowned in luscious green.
It’s a piece of paradise on earth. As a result, new communities grew, including mixed-heritage peoples like the Nyonyas.
Then, the British came. (Though there were other Europeans before – Dutch, Portuguese, they’re not important to this narrative). The British arrived in the late 1700s, but their influence reached its nadir during the late 1800s where my novel begins. Under British rule, the waves of migration – which had happened naturally in Malaya until then – were disrupted by the large-scale organised import of labour from India and China. The new workers were needed for the rubber plantations and tin mines which the British opened up.
With all this migration, you might have thought that nobody lived on these lands until the waves of immigrants arrived. Not so, because there are indigenous peoples in Malaysia– the Orang Asli (which incidentally means the ‘original people’ in Malay).
The racial composition of modern Malaysia is: Malay (50%), Chinese (24%), Orang Asli (11%), Indian (7%), others (8%). As with many multi-cultural societies, each community is famous for certain things – except for the Orang Asli, who have been marginalised. Malays have a refined sense of beauty; just look at their traditional dresses and houses (picture on right, below).
Indians are entrepreneurs and professionals, especially in law and medicine. As for the Chinese, well, shrewd business people who work hard, with many self-made millionaires from among the coolies who arrived during the tin years. In fact, the Chinese diaspora in Asia are called the Jews of the East, our priorities being family, children’s education and business. I know quite a few who say, “Let me do my business. I don’t care about politics”.
With such rich heritage and diversity, Malaysia must be the perfect place to live, right? Just like in that world-famous song from the Malaysian Tourist Board ad campaign – Malaysia, Truly Asia –where people of different races dance and smile happily? Unfortunately, not quite.
In the late 60s just after I was born, a series of Chinese pogroms happened. Many Chinese were murdered. Actually as soon as I was born, I had to flee Singapore: my grandmother and her maid took me away from my parents to a safer place (near Ipoh), many hours away by train at the time. For two women travelling alone in that time of calamity, it was heroic, and I am so grateful…
And then, on the infamous day 13 May 1969, I remember my father returning early from work. He rushed up, shouting in Cantonese, “They’re killing us!” “Who, who?” my mother asked, and when we heard that Malay mobs were attacking Chinese with scythes and knives, we could hardly believe it. We’d had Malay neighbours, Indian neighbours, all sorts – people who came to our house and drank from the same glasses. In fact, we were living in a predominantly Malay area then, and almost all our neighbours were Malay. We were terrified: if a mob had come to our house, we could have been killed….
No one really knows who caused the incitement which led to these so-called ‘racial riots.’ However soon after – in order to ‘manage racial tensions’ (i.e. to make Malays as rich as Chinese were), racially discriminatory policies commenced which are still in place today. Note that these policies are supposedly justified on the grounds that the Malays arrived in Malaysia before the other immigrants did. Therefore, they are entitled to ‘special rights.’ They’ve even invented a term to enshrine this quality of specialness: bumiputera, which means the Princes of the earth. (Obviously, they couldn’t call themselves Orang Asli, since there were already indigenous peoples.)
These discriminatory policies have been sold as a programme of ‘positive discrimination’ to allow the Malays to catch up economically with the Chinese and Indians. Policy examples:
Any listed company to have at least 30% of equity ownership in bumiputera hands.
University places reserved for bumiputera, regardless of the academic performance (now modified, but still a two-tier system).
For a limited period, a certain percentage of new housing in any development reserved for bumiputera buyers, with developers required to provide a minimum 7% discount to these buyers.
There are plenty of others, but I’ll be restrained here.
Such blatantly race-based policies are bound to have consequences. They have changed Malaysia – and not for the better. Races have become more separated, less friendly to each other, with a cultivated list of grudges. Nyonya culture – that colourful mix of Malay and Chinese traditions, values and beliefs which emerged through centuries of living together and inter-marrying– could never happen in modern Malaysia.
Policies based solely on race are unjustifiable for other reasons.
First, they de facto assume that Malays would be incapable of competing on merit. As a person with Malay blood somewhere down the line, my Great-Grandmother being a Nyonya, I find this insulting (as no doubt do my mixed Malay-Chinese cousins).
Secondly, who cares whose ancestors arrived first on our shores? Surely what is more important is what we can each contribute to building up our country.
Thirdly, it creates the indescribable reality that not all Malaysians are equal. Which is sad, but true. This has played a large part in making it hard for me to come to terms with being Malaysian-Chinese (evidently, though I have Malay blood, I don’t have enough of it).
In the face of all this, how can we even talk of 1Malaysia?
There may well be Malaysians reading this who call me unpatriotic. Some may even say that if I don’t like it, I should go ‘home’. I don’t know where they think my home is; China? My response would be that if they can’t be criticised, they should stop pretending we have a democracy.
Especially for those who question my patriotism, I describe here what it was like for me being back in Malaysia after seventeen years away. I remember the moment well. It was afternoon when we landed. As soon as I stepped outside the airport, a blast of humid air hit me, and I felt the heat seep into my bones. It was such a familiar feeling, even after so many years, that if feelings could be painted, then that moment is forever engraved in my memory. I knew instantly that I had come home.
That moment made me realise my visceral connection with this land in which I grew up. It’s my country too. I will always have this connection, no matter where I live in this world. And no matter what racist policies remain in place in Malaysia. Policies which make me feel unwelcome and unable to live here to the full. Where is home for me?
My novel is based on my Great Grandmother, whom I first heard about when still quite small. I remember being shown a black and white photograph in which a rather plump woman stood, wearing a patterned blouse that was fastened by an enormous brooch. “That’s grandma,” my mother told me simply. It turned out that was the only photo ever taken of my Great Grandmother and it was brown with age even then; it revealed a forbidding-looking woman, someone a child would be frightened of, despite the semblance of a smile on her round face. This impression was reinforced whenever Great Grandmother came up in conversation; with bated breath, the adults around me would exclaim – “Wahh! Very fierce ah!”
I was told Great Grandmother came from Siam (now Thailand) and was a Nyonya, words I hadn’t heard before and which seemed too complicated for my little brain to deal with. For years I didn’t dig any further, content to simply associate the word Nyonya with spicy dishes and with the kueh I enjoyed (see my previous blog post). Those who know me may find this hard to believe, but the fact that there was something I liked eating was actually a big deal – because I hated eating as a child. Every meal was a tortured ritual in which my mother was forced to slowly hand-feed me. I took so long to eat that by the time I finished, it would almost be time for the next meal. The net result was that for me, all meals blended into a single nightmare, so it must have seemed like a gift from heaven to my poor mother when she discovered that I would happily devour Nyonya kueh.
Over the years as I grew up, I remember being told that I was just like my Great Grandmother – stubborn and fierce. The comments weren’t necessarily intended as compliments, and initially they didn’t please me. But they were repeated so often that I became curious about the woman who had inspired them. Eventually I felt I had no choice except to find out more. It was then that I heard how she raised nine children on her own, unaided, with nothing to fall back on except her wits and business acumen. She couldn’t even read and write, but that didn’t stop her from establishing her own business. For a woman in Malaya in 1910, that must have taken guts, something Great Grandmother appeared to have plenty of.
Hers was a story I had long intended to write, but creative writing didn’t fit in with the fast world of finance. I was seldom at home and worked such insane hours, often in far-flung corners of the world, that there was barely time for sleep. Everything else fell by the wayside; in those days writing seemed a hazy dream to be pursued later, a bit like golf.
Then, two years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Because it was cancer, it meant I had to have not only surgery but also radio- and chemotherapy. For someone with needle-phobia who doesn’t take any drugs and faints at the sight of blood, the entire process proved very stressful – although I didn’t feel it at the time. It was only after my treatment had finished that I realised life had changed. For months afterwards, I felt adrift. No matter how much I slept, I couldn’t seem to regain my previous energy. My confidence waned, and there were days when I wondered if I could ever be the person I once was. I knew then that I had to alter the way I lived.
As a result, I began to do things I never did before. I stopped rushing around. I scaled down my business. And I discovered writing. I had heard about cancer survivors who had found a lifeline through creative self-expression, activities like pottery or singing, as well as writing. At a low-ebb one day, I simply sat down with a blank Word page and just started typing. Magically, as the sentences flowed, I could literally feel myself getting better.
Within two months, when I asked myself whether there was anything I would regret not having done if my life were to end tomorrow, I knew at once what the answer was. It was clear then what my next project had to be. Great Grandmother had already waited far too long.
…well, not literally. These are modern photographs, and sadly, not my own, but they convey the wonderful colour and intricacy of the ‘cakes’ my great grandmother would have made.
The ‘cakes’ feature heavily in my novel, as does the cuisine of the Nyonyas (explained below) – to the extent that my editor wryly told me one of the chapters made her very hungry! Which I took to be a good sign, given that I didn’t include pictures in my draft.
Now here’s what’s interesting about the ‘cakes’, which I will refer to henceforth by their Malay name of ‘kueh’ : they are wheat- and dairy-free. This makes them perfect for those of us who wish to avoid gluten and animal milk. Alas, I have to say the kueh are not for the weight-conscious, because they generally include copious amounts of coconut milk, coconut cream or grated coconut (sometimes all three!) as well as palm sugar (that lovely semi-viscous brown stuff you want to stick your fingers into). So the kueh may help with allergies, but not with girth…
Before I write more about the kueh, I should say a little about the formidable women who created them. The kueh you see here weren’t made by just anyone – but by a small community of women in Malaya known as the Nyonyas. This is important in my novel because the main character is a Nyonya (just like my great grandmother on whom the character is based). Therefore, the cakes the women made are known as Nyonya kueh. Which begs the question: who were the Nyonyas?
The short answer is that they are women of mixed Malay-Chinese heritage going back centuries (from the time Chinese traders first arrived on the Malay archipelago). The timeframe is important, because there may be many people with mixed heritage, but very few have managed to evolve a community with a culture as distinctive as the Nyonyas’. The Nyonyas succeeded by combining local Malay values and customs with the beliefs and traditions of their Chinese husbands, in very particular ways. For example, the women – who were Moslem – took on the religion of their husbands, converting to Taoism. I mention this because religion played an important role in Nyonya life, and bowing before an altar table, lit joss-sticks in hand, is a recurring theme in my story.
Of course in modern Malaysia, the fact that local Moslem women were able to convert from Islam to another religion, is never discussed. (It isn’t allowed today; today in Malaysia, if you’re born a Moslem, you remain a Moslem). Which is another reason why Nyonya culture is so unique and fascinating: it developed during a time when Malaya truly was one. I will have more to say about this in a later blog. Watch this space!
Now, to come back to Nyonya kueh. There are many varieties, all delectable and delicious, and some have symbolic significance. For example, the red ones below (angkoo) are traditionally given to relatives and friends to celebrate a baby’s first month on earth. I remember my first taste of angku when I was three: how the skin, made of glutinous rice flour and sweet potatoes, felt soft; the filling, of crushed mung beans, even softer, and bursting with flavour. I didn’t know what the flavour was at the time; now I’ve learnt it’s the scent of the pandanus leaves with which the beans are steamed. Simply delicious!
So, with all these varieties, you may well ask why I haven’t made any Nyonya kueh yet. The answer is partly because I fear the work, Nyonya cuisine being notorious for its sheer labour (when done properly, with no shortcuts), and partly because I haven’t had time to source the necessary ingredients in London. I’m referring here to exotic things like pandanus leaves, green pea flour, and natural colourings from for example, the clitoria flower (I haven’t made that up). Once I’ve made my first batch of Nyonya kueh, you’ll be the first to see the results!