The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds by Selina Siak Chin Yoke

The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds by Selina Siak Chin Yoke

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  3,247 Ratings  ·  314 Reviews 
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The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds
by Selina Siak Chin Yoke
Facing challenges in an increasingly colonial world, Chye Hoon, a rebellious young girl, must learn to embrace her mixed Malayan-Chinese identity as a Nyonya—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 heard—magical tales of men from the sea—and her warrior’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.


Without the major snowstorm of the last 3 days (and it's worse today)- I probably would not have been able to read this book in the time I did. It is LONG. And it is detailed. And I'm sure it would not be for everyone. But I loved it. I would have given it 5 stars except for the Manglish used throughout. (Rather a pidgin Malaya/Cantonese/Hakka/English combination of English).

But don't let that spoil your picking up this book. If you have patience and love actual family pattern of cultural connections under change- you will love this book also. And of course, surnames come before given names.

First, I will tell you what it is NOT. It is not an action tale, unless you consider work and details of work action. It is not a politico slanted tract to any particular and studied world view. It is not centered on the negative or the labeled dysfunction, although some characters have flaws. A very few significant flaws at that.

What this is? It is a linear narrator told tale of a singular life. A life teeming with early molding of strong parental love, intense temperament, strong core of self-identity concerning her own likes, loyalties, and hierarchy of "important". And one who has excellent observer's "eyes" to her brilliantly colored Malaysian world. She, like her mother, holds the Malayan-Chinese mixed cultural strong self-identification called and recognized by dress and manner as Nyonya. A group with its own recognizable costume style, food, ritual, pattern of seeing the world and its inhabitants. And that world may be located on different islands of economic possibility within Malaysia/Indonesia, but always in the same familial structures and traditions or self-identity. One in which the inter-marriage is significant but also one in which the women desire and often by parental demand require a "chin-chuoh" marriage. This being a marriage in which the man moves in with the GIRL'S family for a period of time after the marriage official ceremonies. Quite opposite of the Chinese, for instance. It is negotiated by the match maker and the girl's parents who choose the husband in great measure. It might be for 3 months or 6 months. But the girl is still surrounded by her own family right after she becomes a wife. The male of Chinese, Indian, other surrounding cultural groups in Malaysia consider this arrangement demeaning to the groom. There are also 2 or 3 day rituals with hair combing and a wedding planner/match-maker having huge roles. It's scrumptious enthralling to read- as is the baby 1 month old rituals and celebration. Lots of gift giving and food involved there too.

That is a mere pittance of cultural context to the detail of Nyonya culture in this long, 1838-1941 story that brings a girl's society from a middle ages type existence to the modern Westernized industrial age.

The education story is worth the read alone. How her family branch and others respond to changing and varying education access! As a young girl she wants to go to school. It is denied. And yet her first hate becomes her life's love- working in the kitchen. Cooking the elaborate and dozens of ingredients dishes of her Mother's Nyonya culture. Her father is Chinese and dresses Chinese. Her Mother is a Nyonya of incredible cultural association/knowledge.

This book, for me, was intriguing. I knew nothing of this strong cultural group who speak Malay dialects of Hakka (Chye Hoon our protagonist and narrator- this is her first home word use), Hokkien, Cantonese, Tamil. Most characters in the book speak 2 or these 4 languages first and then later in the 20th century, most also will learn English. But even within the same street, there ARE people who need a pidgin combination to communicate. Or with gestures.

Boys may or may not go to school. Girls rarely or never. And in the Nyonya culture, there is strong intermarriage to Chinese men. The influx from China being very strong during all the Chinese reversals of economics and revolution, famines etc.

So many books upon the different Chinese and Japanese cultural groups but so few on this particular area of the world.

So this reaction and review could go on at length. We are in different island locations at different times in Chye Hoon's life. But Ipoh is the island town with its hills for the great majority of her years. But there are many locations described in which her children settle. From Malacca to Singapore to Penang to London.

The glossary and prologue help. And there are strong introductory sections of language play and context help included by the author. And at times in this reading, I needed them. She has patterned this novel upon her great-grandmother's life.

The operative word for the entire book is kueh. It is the complex Nyonya sweet delicacy of numerous type that becomes Chye Hoon's business, her creation, her rising everyday at 4am work. She is blessed with a strong Chinese husband. Tall with dimples and a strong decisive, patriarchal mountain upon which her life's journey mounts. Kueh, kueh, kueh- of every stripe and savory or super sweet. Coconut milk, ginger, banana leaves, and endless pounded ingredients.

I won't tell you more. Challenges abound and one of those is her very own "young prince". There is dense pattern of dictation, temper, affection, direction, and whole life sisterhoods of friendship. There is great sorrow too. And not the least is a sad, and heavy foreboding that she has failed to pass Nyonya patterns to her offspring.

Loved this book too because it comes at a pertinent time! Cultural wars of every type abound in Chye Hoon's life as in the present. And she is a soldier for her own and best beloved traditions with great and worthy reason.
Chye Hoon is a spirited and feisty child. As she grows up, her siblings are married off with ease but she is not. Her parents fear that she will remain alone but she does eventually catch someone one's attention. When she weds, its an immense relief for her parents and the start of her amazing and tumultuous journey as a wife, mother and ultimate Nyonya warrior woman.

Set in Malaysia in the 1870's through the 1940's, this novel was quite a feat. Dealing with the Nyonya and Baba tradition, this novel introduced me to a culture that I knew very little of. A Nyonya woman is of Malayan and Chinese descent and are particularly gifted in the kitchen. In fact, they are taught to cook at a very early age and its one of their most championed traits. Food and its preparations played an integral role in this novel. Their food, just like Chye Hoon, is quite spicy. She is a tough, no-nonsense lady, one that commands respect. Through circumstances of life, she ends up having to raise her 10 children by herself, ultimately becoming the matriarch of the family. As she struggles to keep her family safe, she has to fight, not just against her personal demons but also the "New World" traditions brought by the British. Chye Hoon takes great pride in her culture and wants to impart it to her children, not an easy feat. This family saga may not exactly be a page turner but its an incredibly intricate and multi-layered narrative. Its clear that Selina Siak Chin Yoke went through great lengths to get this novel historically right.

With a vast cast of characters that inspired both, admiration and frustration, this work took time and patience to read, but it was well worth it. There is a sequel to be published soon and I look forward to it. If ever I get the chance to eat sweet kueh, I will not pass it up. A great read.
I absolutely loved it! LOVED IT! I’ve always enjoyed books that deal with eastern cultures and nationalities and this book is one of the best I’ve ever read. It brought me to tears more than once. The book is told in the first person and takes the reader through one Malay-Chinese woman's life from childhood to old age. Selina Siak Chin Yoke clearly did her research well and between the descriptions of clothing and food, I wish I could go back in time and visit Malaya and experience Nyonya culture first hand. It's a beautifully written book.
Beautifully crafted, a worthy read.

This is like being in a room with a master artist who, in the beginning, stands before a blank canvas. She begins with the first stroke of words and smoothly moves on to the next, painting, you are not sure what. The mastery of her medium makes you want to ride the journey she is taking you on, word by word, scene by scene. You can smell the food, see the landscape, palpate the characters. The art is rich and flowing, smooth and masterful. The journey becomes a mural that just carries you along seamlessly, holding your attention ever so gently. This is a rare talent.
At the end, you find yourself experiencing a feeling of being inside the canvas looking out as the final brushstroke completes the expression of mastery. This is a story that will linger in my mind for a good long while. I have never read anything like it. I am weary of same ole, same ole storyline that I have read a thousand varieties of. This was like a cool, crisp, clean, thirst quenching drink of water to the last drop. I. Loved. It.
Well I raced through this in just one day. I will admit that it's not usually the kind of book I pick up. I'm very much a fan of novels with a balance of action and character drama, whereas The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds is a wholeheartedly family saga kind of book. As a result, there were moments when I wished for a break from all the relationships... but the novel is such a well done family saga that it kept me interested until the final page. The writing is very clear, but more than that it's full of wonderfully vivid imagery that transported me to the time and place of the story. It was that sense of perfectly capturing a unique place and moment in time that held my attention. The book very much reads like a memoir, and indeed the protagonist is drawn from the author's own great-grandmother even though it is written as fiction. I think this was an intriguing idea, one that appeals to me or anyone else who has done family history research and come away fascinated with the stories they discover. All in all, I would recommend, unless family sagas are really not your thing, because this is one of the standout examples of the sub-genre.

8 out of 10
4th book finished w/ less than an hour to go for #24in48readathon. It was EXCELLENT! I loved everything about this beautiful book! It was especially interesting to see so many important world events at the turn of the 20th century from a different perspective; the Great War, influenza outbreak, & modernization. Looking forward to the 2nd book in the series, which follows WWII.

The only thing I can see putting some readers off, is the dialogue. The author purposely has the characters who don't speak English or have not been educated, speak how their native language would be spoken. So there is a reordering of the words. She does this to heighten the sense of the place. I actually didn't mind and found I got used to this quite quickly. I know for some this could be an annoyance or take one out of the narrative.

I would compare the author's writing style to Lisa See or the Memoirs of a Geisha.

Favorite Quotes:

“A Nyonya, I told myself, is a woman who breathes two worlds – not just one or the other, not more one than the other, but both equally. My two worlds were alive: Chinese and Malay rolled into one, blended by the centuries that had passed.”

“In those days time stood still. Life was suspended between two worlds: one I hadn’t yet left, the other I hadn’t quite entered”

“Once inside Ipoh’s limestone caves, I was revived. Cool air blew in, breath of the gods which fed the wondrous hills I had loved from the first moment. I imagined my best friend’s soul being freed from her body, rising into new worlds beyond. In this magical place of rock and ancient trees, my turn would one day come.”

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