The Woman Who Breathed Two Worldsby Selina Siak Chin Yoke
Series: Malayan #1
Published on November 1st 2016
Facing challenges in an increasingly colonial world, Chye Hoon, a rebellious young girl, must learn to embrace her mixed Malayan-Chinese identity as a Nyonyaâ€”and her destiny as a cook, rather than following her first dream of attending school like her brother.
Amidst the smells of chillies and garlic frying, Chye Hoon begins to appreciate the richness of her traditions, eventually marrying Wong Peng Choon, a Chinese man. Together, they have ten children. At last, she can pass on the stories she has heardâ€”magical tales of men from the seaâ€”and her warriorâ€™s courage, along with her wonderful kueh (cakes).
But the cultural shift towards the West has begun. Chye Hoon finds herself afraid of losing the heritage she so prizes as her children move more and more into the modernising Western world.
This is an historical fiction novel set between the 1870s and the 1940s in Malaysia.Â Â In this area of Malaysia at the time it was common for people to be of mixed ethnic heritage.Â But now the British have started to establish a presence.Â Towns and cities are growing.Â Chye Hoon’s father decides to learn English and move the family to a larger city to get ahead.Â Although she is smart, she is not able to go to school.Â She is headstrong and not beautiful so stays unmarried for a long time before becoming a second wife to a Chinese man who left his family behind in China.
This story focuses on the way the world is changing around Chye Hoon.Â She is taken to a backwater town after her marriage.Â She watches Ipoh grow into a mining center.Â She sees her children grow up and learn English as their major language.Â Even her daughters are able to be educated.Â But her family traditions are very important. She longs to be able to pass on the stories that were told to her and the traditions of the families in her area.Â Her children are not interested.
What do we lose in the name of progress?
I had never heard of the Nyonyas and Babas.Â It took me a while to understand exactly what those terms meant.Â This is from Wikipedia.
“Peranakan Chinese or Straits-born Chinese are the descendants of Chinese immigrants who came to the Malay archipelago including British Malaya (now Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore, where they are also referred to as Baba-Nyonya) and Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia; where they’re also referred as Kiau-Seng) between the 15th and 17th centuries.
Members of this community in Malaysia address themselves as “Baba Nyonya”. Nyonya is the term for the women and Baba for the men. It applies especially to the Han populations of the British Straits Settlements of Malaya and the Dutch-controlled island of Java and other locations, who have adopted Nusantara customs â€” partially or in full â€” to be somewhat assimilated into the local communities. Many were the elites of Singapore, more loyal to the British than to China. Most have lived for generations along the straits of Malacca. They were usually traders, the middleman of the British and the Chinese, or the Chinese and Malays, or vice versa because they were mostly English educated. Because of this, they almost always had the ability to speak two or more languages.”
When you try to investigate Nyonya culture, the first things you see are food.Â Food played a big part in this story.Â Chye Hoon is widowed and has to make a living.Â She decides to sell traditional Nyonya food to the men working in the tin mines of Ipoh.Â Her specialties are cakes. Here is a video of a type of Nyonya cake.
I really enjoyed this book. I was immersed in her world that was changing so rapidly that by the time of her death it was unrecognizable. This series will be continuing and picking up with the story of her daughter-in-law in World War II.Â That book comes out in the few months.Â I’m glad for a bit of a break in between because I feel like a need to mourn a bit for amazing life of Chye Hoon before switching the main character of the story to the daughter-in-law.
I loved this book. I will have to watch the cooking video. All the food sounded delicious, didn’t it?
I want to try it all.
I think food = culture and vise versa. Good review. Sounds like a good read.
[…] to everyone who joined in last week while I was in Chicago for a wedding. Heather reviewed The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds, a historical novel about the impact of a British colonialism in Malaysia. Tina got caught up in […]
That sounds fascinating. I know nothing about that history.
I want to get a copy of this book, it sounds very interesting. Ovidia Yu also writes of that Nyonya culture in her wonderful Auntie Lee books. We loved the local food when we were in Malaysia and especially Singapore.
I have one of her books. I haven’t read it yet so I didn’t realize that it was about the same area.