Though she’s not quite the original Ipoh mali girl, London-based Malaysian author Selina Siak Chin Yoke has helped put her beloved town on the radar of big names like National Geographic and The Guardian.
It began with her debut novel, The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds, which is set mostly in Ipoh. The book, inspired by Siak’s nonya great-grandmother, followed the story of a young woman who has to learn to embrace her nonya identity.
“Readers find out what the town looked like, how it was cooled by breezes from the hills, its smell of freshness after tropical rain. In short, Ipoh itself becomes a character in my story,” says Siak in a posting on her blog, chinyoke.wordpress.com.
The book, which came out in November last year, was a success, garnering positive reviews and feedback.
On the strength of the book, the National Geographic Traveller has asked Siak to write a piece about Ipoh that will appear in the magazine’s December edition.
And she was featured in British newspaper The Guardian on Sept 1 where she points out Ipoh’s natural beauty and praises its bean sprouts, which she describes as the best in the world: “Local lore says it’s because the limestone makes the water special. We have the fattest, crunchiest bean sprouts I’ve ever come across – nowhere in Malaysia, America or Europe has them as good.”
Take it from someone who has lived on three continents and visited 56 countries.
Born in Singapore but moved to Ipoh, her mother’s birthplace, when she was a baby, Siak naturally set her second novel in Ipoh, too.
When The Future Comes Too Soon is the sequel to her debut novel, focusing on a middle-class family when then Malaya was occupied by the Japanese during World War II.
These books are part of what Siak calls her Malayan Series but they can be read independently.
“Every book in the Malayan Series will be different in terms of era, protagonist, and themes. The pace of each book will reflect the temperament of both the times and its narrator,” Siak explains in an e-mail interview.
She acknowledges that some readers found the pace of the first book rather slow at the start.
“This was deliberate. The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds starts in 1878, when people travelled on elephants and life was meandering. I had to slow the pace to immerse readers fully in this way of life.
“In When the Future Comes Too Soon, war comes suddenly to Malaya. The Occupation is frenetic and full of fear, there’s little time for reflection. The pace of the book reflects this.
“Making the books so different was a risk, but I’m a writer who takes risks.”
When The Future Comes Too Soon is dedicated to her maternal grandmother, Chang Kim Eng, who died in 1993.
“I remember what she looked like – slim, slight, and elegant – and she always wore Chinese dresses when she went out and Malay sarong at home. She made herself scarce, yet I could feel her toughness. If she had been born in another time, she would have made a lot more of her life.
“She had infinite patience, at least with me. Each time I saw her, I would ask about the war and what the old days were like,” Siak adds.
Writing is a “fourth career” for Siak, who has begun working on her third book.
She told a Lancashire-based website in August: “Writing is my fourth career, and the first one everyone understands.
“I was previously a theoretical physicist, an investment banker, and a quantitative trader. Dinner table conversation would stop. Physics made everyone think of maths – something they couldn’t do. When I became a banker, no one knew what that was. And as for quant trading, err…. Enough said.”
That sort of humour is also evident in her blog postings.
“I adore pandas. Maybe it’s because I look like one (black hair streaked with white, just less fluffy),” she writes in one post.
Siak, who has a PhD in condensed matter theory, told the South China Morning Post newspaper in an interview that she studied physics to prove her father wrong.
“What spurred me on was sexism on the part of my father. He said I should forget my fanciful dreams because in his mind only boys did physics,” she was quoted as saying.
Siak was back home in Malaysia recently for a family celebration and “spent 10 days eating far too much!”.
But besides her love for reading and eating, on a more serious note, Siak says she is passionate about topics concerning racial discrimination and corruption in Malaysia.
So it pained her when one reader accused her of propagating racist stereotypes.
“She took issue with the dialogue in the first book, which she claimed made the characters sound ‘stupid’. Being accused of propagating racist stereotypes was painful – I work hard not to perpetuate stereotypes, and I try to show the rich complexity that makes Malaysia so interesting.
“I take comfort from the fact that no Malaysian has objected to my local dialogue. Indeed, more than one has written to say that s/he loved the dialogue especially.”
But other than that, most of her readers have reached out to her to let her know how much they have enjoyed her writing.
“Many readers said they did not want the first book to end because they felt so close to the protagonist, Chye Hoon. Given that the book is nearly 500 pages long, this was a huge compliment.”
At the end of her newest book, Siak pays tribute to several people, two of whom Malaysians would be familiar with: her late uncle, former Perak chief police officer Tan Sri Yuen Yuet Leng, known for his battle against the communists; and another late uncle, banker Datuk Malek Merican, who laid the foundation for Amlnvestment Bank. He had also served at the Treasury for 15 years. Both men died in 2015.
“Uncle Malek was one of the kindest, most soft-spoken people I’ve ever met. The most enduring image I have is of him holding onto a crutch, utterly determined in spite of his own ill health to make his way down a church aisle so that he could pay his last respects to one of our family members. That was the type of man he was: open and independent-minded.”
As for Yuen, Siak writes: “I saw Uncle Yuen many times over the last 10 years when we had the chance to discuss not only events which occurred during the Japanese Occupation but also the state of Malaysia today.
“It’s no secret that he was troubled by the direction Malaysia has taken. He was surprised by how strongly I, too, felt. He had assumed that I no longer cared about Malaysia, having been away for so long.”
“This is not the case. Malaysia will always be in my heart and soul,” Siak says.