A fascinating story that was a incredible relatable despite the cultures and times being radically different my own. Like Chye Hoon, I am mixed caucasian and hispanic and there are only precarious places to sit when you must straddle two worlds. This is made worse by the way the passing of time shifts our footing in either world.
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.
Let me start off with how interesting the author herself is. This was the debut novel of Selina Siak Chin Yoke, I had gotten it free from Kindle First. Before sitting down to the write review, I checked out the author and the blurb on her was interesting and so was her blog (linked on her Goodreads profile). Check out her profile and blog, you won’t regret it. She’s chronicling her “journey as a writer” on it but before this month it had been about getting to that point where she would publish her first novel. Now here it is!!!
Like I said before, this story is incredibly relatable. It focuses on Chye Hoon, who is a great protagonist. She isn’t another modern woman thrown into a historical world but she also isn’t the picture of her historical world that we often get in the US. She’s actually the definition of why it’s great to read diverse books, especially by own voices.
We get to experience her disappointments, the things out of her reach because she was a girl and then her decision making process with whether or not to make the same choices for her own daughters. We get to experience her hesitation with introducing the West and it’s education with her children. We also get to experience her initial racism toward the whites and her concerns about what they were doing with her culture. Still, not all of her problems are caused by the white people. This is not a story that presents a utopia that was ruined by the white people, though you may see ruining. She has her own ways of dealing with the problems that were always there.
It’s also a great look at the colonization of the East from the point of view of an Eastern person. I loved watching the changes, for good or bad, of the people as they embraced, or didn’t, the white people in their town and what the Western influence was doing to it. I also loved the pace with which the West and Western ideas mixed into their culture. It reminds me of the way cell phones and then smart phones and then social media changed the way people interact in this century. I exist in that strange middle ground where I remember making mixed tapes and having dial-up but have also had a cell phone for almost all my adult life. I feel like I would be Chye Hoon’s eldest daughter in this scenario, having done things the old way already and watching a sibling press for the new way.
Still, things must change, and it’s all about how you deal with it and that brings me back around to how great a character Chye Hoon is. Her attitude toward life and the way she deals with disappointment and tragedy are so practical I want to call them inspiring, though I don’t think they were meant to be. She just doesn’t have time fret or wallow or do anything other than figure out what to do about it. She reminds me a lot of Scarlett O’Hara in that regard. She’s going to make it work, even if it’s unladylike, but she’s also going to remember the long term impact on the family and reputation, which Scarlett never does.
She has the kind of personality that makes me wish I knew her but I also kind of feel like I was raised by her. I’ve long since gotten over what I thought of as bad calls that my mother made in her decisions for me, but it still gave me an interesting perspective to work with, despite the different culture. When a parent turned out just fine with the old ways, it can be hard to adapt to the new for your children. What if it didn’t turn out as good? And when a parent didn’t turn out just fine, than it’s hard to stick with what you knew but that doesn’t mean the new choice is the best either. Parenting is hard enough without having to deal with what women like Chye Hoon did.
Then there’s the other parts of her life that I’d rather not spoil. Let’s just say that her decision making process on how her life pans out is interesting and leads to what sounds like a great life despite some pitfalls and tragedies. No one can get through unscathed by pitfalls and tragedies, but it doesn’t ruin a life either.
This is the first in series, so I’m looking forward to the rest of them, but it only came out this month, so I imagine I’ll be waiting a little while too. Check it out before the next installment at Amazon and the Book Depository.