Tag Archives: Nyonya

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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The Malaysia We’ve Lost

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?

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She Arrived on an Elephant – Why I’m Writing my Novel

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.

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Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Malaysia, Novel, Nyonya, Writing

My Great Grandmother’s Cakes…

 …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!

 

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Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Malaysia, Nyonya