Author:
• Saturday, January 27th, 2018

Selina Siak Chin Yoke was born from a Malayan-Chinese family in Singapore which was, at the time, part of Malaya, becoming Malaysia in 1963. In 1979 Selina was sent, with some of her school friends, to study at a boarding school in Kent, England. Afterwards, she studied physics at Southampton University, obtaining a scholarship for a PhD.

With her degrees in hand, she worked for the Atlas Research Fellowship at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford University, followed by investment banking at Goldman Sachs in London. After her brain cancer, she changed to quantitative trading before dedicating herself full-time to writing, following the success of her first novel: The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds, published in 2016. It took Selina one year to write it and another year to edit it.

Having undergone two major operations, brain cancer in 2009 and breast cancer to follow, Selina felt apathetic for a while until she remembered an old dream about writing a story, vaguely influenced by the life of her great-grandmother.

Her aspirations became a reality with the publication of her debut novel dedicated to the memory of her Nyonya great-grandmother, Chua Paik Choo. This significant achievement gave Selina a great sense of joy and satisfaction as well as meaning to her life and enhanced her devotion to writing.

Her second book, When The Future Comes So Soon, was published in 2017 and is a new addition to the Malayan series. It follows the Wong family through the life of Mei Foong, Weng Yu’s wife and Chye Hoon’s daughter-in-law, during the second world war in Malaya, with the Japanese occupation of the country as a background to the story. Selina Siak Chin Yoke lives in London.

The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds is a slow-paced novel about the Wong family saga, recounted by the matriarch and main character, Chye Hoon, who, being from a Malayan-Chinese heritage, is the woman who breathed two worlds equally. Throughout the novel we follow Chye Hoon from her childhood, starting in the late nineteenth century and ending on the eve of the second world war, when she passes away in her sixties, afflicted by diseases and wearied by a life filled with worries and struggles.

The story starts with Chye Hoon, a spirited young girl, very keen to learn and eager to go to school like her brother, Chong Jin. However, her parents have limited means and think otherwise. They decide it is unnecessary to send her and her sisters to school since they will get married one day and have a husband, children and a household to look after. In the Nyonya community – Malaysian female of Chinese immigrants as opposed to Baba for men – girls had to learn how to be good “in women’s work: cooking, sewing and home-making”.

Although not as beautiful as her elder sister, as well as having an ill-tempered reputation, Chye Hoon, with the help of a matchmaker, becomes the second wife of Wong Peng Choon, a Chinese immigrant, who has left his wife and son behind in his native Chinese village. The couple leads a happy life until Wong Peng Choon returns alone to China to visit his family and dies there, leaving his wife behind in Ipoh – a Malayan village located by the Kinta river – to provide for their ten children.

Chye Hoon, although illiterate, is a resourceful, energetic, persevering woman. She decides to earn a living for herself and her children by starting a business in what she is best at Kueh – Malaysian cakes. She organises the deliveries, proposes a party service, manages her finances, overcomes challenges, proving to be successful at her entrepreneurial skills.

The novel is divided into four parts: the first part covers the period 1878 to 1898, followed by the second, from 1899 to 1910, then the third from 1910 to1921 and the fourth and last beginning from 1921 to 1930.

The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds is a historical fiction, loosely biographical. It is a delightful novel in which the author transports her reader to an enchanting journey of myths as well as long-established traditions, that have continued for many generations in this part of the world. It is a culture where grandmothers tell their grandchildren bewitching tales of genies and fearsome warriors with magic swords.

The novel has a variety of themes like identity and the necessity to protect one’s traditions from fading away through time. With growing cities, rapid changes everywhere, as well as the threat to Malaya being occupied by the British at the time,“the white devils”, as the natives call them, there was a tendency for the young generation to shift toward modern, western ways.

The author emphasises the importance of real friendship, loyalty and availability when in need. There are also the established rules between husbands and wives which are adhered to in everyday life, not forgetting the obligation of each member in a family and how young people owed respect to their elders.

The rich, colourful description of food is an integral part of the story and is one of the essential themes in the novel. The author vividly writes about the frying of garlic, the toasting of dried shrimp paste mixed with chopped chillies producing “a pungent aroma in the air” and the making of different kinds of pickles. She even goes to great lengths in her account of the many varieties of Malayan kueh (cakes), describing their ingredients, shapes, layers, textures, various colours and delicious taste.

The characters are well depicted and made to feel real by the author’s liberal use of the suffix “lah” which Malayan intermix abundantly in with their English spoken language and the Malayan utilisation of interjections for surprise or shock: “Ai-yahh”. Also, the dialogues used by uneducated Malayan-Chinese people, are enhanced by having the spoken English words rearranged in an incorrect order, like: “How can more one than the other?” the girl asked.

Selina Siak has researched all the historical facts about Malaya in depth and especially about the time in which she set her story: “she went to the National Archives both in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and sifted through thousands of files and then checked facts online”. She says: “Writing the book was an incredible journey and very healing”.


Following the meeting with The Book Club ladies of the United Nations Women’s Guild in Geneva on Friday, 26th January 2018, the author, Selina Siak Chin Yoke, kindly answered our questions about The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds, which you can read here.

Category: Book Reviews
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