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 chilies 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.
I received this book on Kindle Unlimited and I put it off because it’s just under 500 pages long and I thought it would take me ages to read. Of course, if it’s a good book you’ll be amazed at what you can get through. This book flew for me, despite its length, and I don’t think it could have been any shorter without losing something. There wasn’t a main plot, I can’t say this or that was the main conflict, but it’s a story about a woman, Chye Hoon, and her life, from her earliest memory to her death. This woman has to deal with getting married to a Chinese man, having ten children, trying to pass on the traditions and culture which is so important to her, having to help support her family, while dealing with the British who rule over her country and look down on her and her countrymen.
The characters in this book were all so alive, so varied that you couldn’t feel apathetic towards any of them. They all made stupid decisions, Chye Hoon included, and you knew that they would come to regret them but they all had their good qualities which just shone through. Not to mention they were such fascinating characters (Chye Hoon running three businesses, her friend Siew Lan standing up to the white man she worked for in order to get the best thing for her children, Chye Hoon’s children trying to find their own place in the life between Malaya and the rest of the world). Although some reviews said they found the language hard to understand, I never found I had that problem. I understood the characters and where they were coming from, even if I didn’t agree with their choices, and I think that helped the book to flow for me.
The historical setting was done so well, the details flowing so thickly that every word just helped to build up the atmosphere of the book. It made me yearn to see Ipoh as Chye Hoon would have seen it and it filled me with knowledge about Malaysia’s history which I never had before. How culture was discussed and the importance of it was something that struck a chord within me because I hate the thought of stories and cultural traditions being lost to time and globalisation and I was worried with Chye Hoon about Nyonya traditions being lost through the generations.
This book was just beautiful. I read it on my Kindle but when I get back to the UK, I’m going to try and see if I can get a physical copy of it because this is definitely a book I want to have on my shelf. Five stars!