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474 pages, Paperback
First published November 1, 2016
"Peranakan Chinese or Straits-born Chinese are the descendants of Chinese immigrants who came to the Malay archipelago including British Malaya (now Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore, where they are also referred to as Baba-Nyonya) and Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia; where they're also referred as Kiau-Seng) between the 15th and 17th centuries.
Members of this community in Malaysia address themselves as "Baba Nyonya". Nyonya is the term for the women and Baba for the men. It applies especially to the Han populations of the British Straits Settlements of Malaya and the Dutch-controlled island of Java and other locations, who have adopted Nusantara customs — partially or in full — to be somewhat assimilated into the local communities. Many were the elites of Singapore, more loyal to the British than to China. Most have lived for generations along the straits of Malacca. They were usually traders, the middleman of the British and the Chinese, or the Chinese and Malays, or vice versa because they were mostly English educated. Because of this, they almost always had the ability to speak two or more languages."
The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds is the perfect kind of book to my mind. It’s a first-person account (fictional, based on the author’s ancestors) of a woman’s life from childhood to death. It covers day-to-day life and those small decisions we make that shape our lives for years to come. Those are my favorite kinds of stories! Plus, I learned about a culture I was completely ignorant of, the Baba-Nyonya of Malaya. I really love it when I get to read a good book and I have to google stuff every few pages (or every page). A glossary of terms is included at the end of the book for the Malay terms used throughout.
I was hooked on this book from the first page. I purchased it through Kindle Firsts, the program that allows Kindle Users to purchase books one month before their release date at a reduced price. (So, am I the only book lover who gets anxiety at the number of books I buy vs. the number I’ll actually be able to read vs. the number on my want to read shelf vs. all the books I’ve yet to discover?) Anyway… The narrative voice is so natural and took me through her life at such a pace that I often forgot this book is set from 1878-1941. This is partly because the story takes place in a culture very different from my own, so I had no expectations about what life should look like. However, this is due mostly, I think, to the immersive narration. It is not of the exceedingly descriptive sort – I found myself looking up Malayan architecture, dress, etc. to help with my mental picture. Chye Hoon takes the reader through her daily life, her culture, her friendship, and her family. As a reader I grow up with her and felt her deep pride in these things, as well as her concern and dismay as British colonialism gives the younger generations a taste for all things western, even as many of the “white devils” view the Malays, Chinese, and Indian in Malaya as second class. Chey Hoon’s strength of character as she endures many hardships as well as happy times, as she loves and loses the people in her life, make for a very well developed character.
I was drawn to this book in no small part because of the author’s credentials. I am a woman with a varied career (production assistant, broadcast news director, accounting clerk, grant writer) who has developed a chronic illness. I always thought I’d be a writer someday, but I’m more realistic about that now. I’ll stick to reading. The author, Selina Siak Chin Yoke has worked as a theoretical physicist and an investment banker and trader. After her second battle with cancer she decided to fulfill her dream of writing. I am always in awe of the research and imagination that goes into writing a book. Research I can do. Imagination? I don't know if I could ever come up with a book on my own. It amazes me. I’m so impressed by this author's first book.