My Mum recommended I read The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds by Selina Siak Chin Yoke, as she knows how much I enjoy reading historical fiction or non-fiction about women in the twentieth century through the interwar and world war two period (see my blogs on Reading Vietnam, Trilogies, Quartets and Quintets). I was also about to go to Malaysia on holiday for the second time, so this was the perfect book to enjoy the build-up. It is brilliant and I was hooked from page one.
It follows the life of Chye Hoon, born into the Nyonya community of Chinese in Malaysia in 1878 in the small village of Songkhla in a family who choose to try their luck by moving to the island of Penang when Chye Hoon is small. It is here in Georgetown (which I was lucky enough to visit on holiday a few years ago) that she grows up, frustrated at being denied going to school despite her clear appetite for learning and for business. Her fiery temper and bargaining skills in the local market soon get her noticed, but don’t prevent her from marrying Wong Pen Choon who is happy to let her run their new household, in the Nyonya tradition. This arranged marriage turns out extremely well and her married life in Ipoh back on the mainland of Malaysia is a happy one, as her husband’s business grows and she makes new friends and brings up ten children. When her husband prematurely dies she is left with the challenge of financially providing for her family and turns to her childhood skill of cooking, successfully setting up a business selling sweet and savoury Kueh – a Nyonya speciality.
As the novel moves through the early part of the twentieth century and the first world war and beyond, the changes in the town of Ipoh and the way of life of Malaysians, as well as the growing influence of the British, are laid out as the life of Chye unfolds. Ipoh sees its first motor car, bicycle and school for girls, and eventually Chye sees her son going to study in London. This book is a fascinating social history of Malaysia, seen through the eyes of what becomes one of Ipoh’s main families. It tantalisingly takes us up to 1938 and the outbreak of world war two, as Japanese drop bombs on Ipoh, and I am already looking forward to reading the sequel to see what happens to Chye’s children in wartime.
I absolutely loved being immersed in the world Selina Siak Chin York so beautifully creates and I can’t recommend this book enough.