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.