There is a cruel Chinese saying: ‘Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.’ It’s derogatory, intended to mean that a person is more Western than Chinese and has lost her way. My own father once said that about me. He was wrong, as I hope my novels demonstrate.
What he sensed was the ambiguity I felt about my roots. We are Malaysians of Chinese ethnicity, and I grew up listening to him expound the superiority of Chinese culture.
I rebelled against his arrogance, and refused to commune with my heritage. Also, I’m not wholly Chinese: my maternal great-grandmother came from Siam and is known to have Minangkabau blood. This makes our ancestry incredibly rich, a fact which should be a source of pride, yet is not fully acknowledged in my family.
After I came to school in England, it was easy to turn my back on my culture. There was another reason for this: I knew quite early on that I was gay, and I had no idea how to reconcile being gay with being Asian. It seemed easier to ignore my heritage instead.
By rejecting my own culture, I cut off a large part of myself, though it took time for me to realise this. In 2010 while recovering from breast cancer, I remembered a dream I’d once had – of writing a novel loosely based on the life of my mixed-race great-grandmother. The time had come to rediscover my roots.
The book which resulted – The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds – is a story about food, family and cultural identity. It’s also an exploration of the mixed-race community my great-grandmother belonged to. In the days when Chinese traders sailed the South China Sea and depended on monsoon winds, they were forced to spend months in Malayan ports. Some of these Chinese men settled with local women, spawning a mixed-race community with its own language, cuisine, attire and porcelain, where the women were called Nyonyas, the men Babas.
It was a fascinating culture, and one I grew up hearing a lot about. I also heard stories about my great-grandmother, a fierce Nyonya who was a wonderful cook. I modelled my protagonist in The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds after her. Because the book is set at a time when Nyonya culture is dying, she grapples with identity – a subject on which I’m an expert!
My second book, When the Future Comes Too Soon, is also set in Malaya – this time during WWII. It’s a different type of war novel: it depicts daily life, and is told from a Malayan-Chinese woman’s viewpoint. This for me was crucial: I wanted the story from a Malaysian perspective, not a colonial one. The occupying Japanese army treated the races of Malaya differently, singling out the Chinese for punishment, something I show.
Am I proud of my heritage? Absolutely.
Am I critical of my culture? Yes also.
It should be possible to be both proud and critical of one’s culture. I don’t think we do this too well in Asia, but I hope we learn!
When the Futures Comes too Soon by Selina Siak Chin Yoke is out now (Amazon Crossing)