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Malayan #1

The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds

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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.

474 pages, Paperback

First published November 1, 2016

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About the author

Selina Siak Chin Yoke

3 books108 followers
Of Malaysian-Chinese heritage, Selina Siak Chin Yoke (石清玉) grew up listening to family stories and ancient legends. She always knew that one day, she would write. After an eclectic life as a physicist, banker and trader in London, the heavens intervened. In 2009 Siak was diagnosed with cancer. While recovering, she decided not to delay her dream of writing any longer. Her first novel, The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds , was published on November 1, 2016 and made an immediate emotional connection with readers. It debuted as an Amazon best-seller in historical fiction, was named by Goodreads as one of the 6 best books of November 2016 and has been compared to the work of Pearl S. Buck and Amy Tan.

Her second novel, When the Future Comes Too Soon – an emotional exploration of betrayal, survival and what courage means – was published on July 18, 2017. It has been described as “intensely visceral”, “atmospheric” and “thoughtfully written with a very human touch”. Following the novel’s release, Siak was invited to be a guest on the BBC World Service, Talk Radio Europe and CBS Boston Radio. She has also appeared in the Guardian, Independent and National Geographic Traveller. In addition, she is a book reviewer, events speaker and blogs at http://siakchinyoke.com/blog.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 497 reviews
Profile Image for Jeanette.
3,271 reviews555 followers
December 11, 2016
Without the major snowstorm of the last 3 days (and it's worse today)- I probably would not have been able to read this book in the time I did. It is LONG. And it is detailed. And I'm sure it would not be for everyone. But I loved it. I would have given it 5 stars except for the Manglish used throughout. (Rather a pidgin Malaya/Cantonese/Hakka/English combination of English).

But don't let that spoil your picking up this book. If you have patience and love actual family pattern of cultural connections under change- you will love this book also. And of course, surnames come before given names.

First, I will tell you what it is NOT. It is not an action tale, unless you consider work and details of work action. It is not a politico slanted tract to any particular and studied world view. It is not centered on the negative or the labeled dysfunction, although some characters have flaws. A very few significant flaws at that.

What this is? It is a linear narrator told tale of a singular life. A life teeming with early molding of strong parental love, intense temperament, strong core of self-identity concerning her own likes, loyalties, and hierarchy of "important". And one who has excellent observer's "eyes" to her brilliantly colored Malaysian world. She, like her mother, holds the Malayan-Chinese mixed cultural strong self-identification called and recognized by dress and manner as Nyonya. A group with its own recognizable costume style, food, ritual, pattern of seeing the world and its inhabitants. And that world may be located on different islands of economic possibility within Malaysia/Indonesia, but always in the same familial structures and traditions or self-identity. One in which the inter-marriage is significant but also one in which the women desire and often by parental demand require a "chin-chuoh" marriage. This being a marriage in which the man moves in with the GIRL'S family for a period of time after the marriage official ceremonies. Quite opposite of the Chinese, for instance. It is negotiated by the match maker and the girl's parents who choose the husband in great measure. It might be for 3 months or 6 months. But the girl is still surrounded by her own family right after she becomes a wife. The male of Chinese, Indian, other surrounding cultural groups in Malaysia consider this arrangement demeaning to the groom. There are also 2 or 3 day rituals with hair combing and a wedding planner/match-maker having huge roles. It's scrumptious enthralling to read- as is the baby 1 month old rituals and celebration. Lots of gift giving and food involved there too.

That is a mere pittance of cultural context to the detail of Nyonya culture in this long, 1838-1941 story that brings a girl's society from a middle ages type existence to the modern Westernized industrial age.

The education story is worth the read alone. How her family branch and others respond to changing and varying education access! As a young girl she wants to go to school. It is denied. And yet her first hate becomes her life's love- working in the kitchen. Cooking the elaborate and dozens of ingredients dishes of her Mother's Nyonya culture. Her father is Chinese and dresses Chinese. Her Mother is a Nyonya of incredible cultural association/knowledge.

This book, for me, was intriguing. I knew nothing of this strong cultural group who speak Malay dialects of Hakka (Chye Hoon our protagonist and narrator- this is her first home word use), Hokkien, Cantonese, Tamil. Most characters in the book speak 2 or these 4 languages first and then later in the 20th century, most also will learn English. But even within the same street, there ARE people who need a pidgin combination to communicate. Or with gestures.

Boys may or may not go to school. Girls rarely or never. And in the Nyonya culture, there is strong intermarriage to Chinese men. The influx from China being very strong during all the Chinese reversals of economics and revolution, famines etc.

So many books upon the different Chinese and Japanese cultural groups but so few on this particular area of the world.

So this reaction and review could go on at length. We are in different island locations at different times in Chye Hoon's life. But Ipoh is the island town with its hills for the great majority of her years. But there are many locations described in which her children settle. From Malacca to Singapore to Penang to London.

The glossary and prologue help. And there are strong introductory sections of language play and context help included by the author. And at times in this reading, I needed them. She has patterned this novel upon her great-grandmother's life.

The operative word for the entire book is kueh. It is the complex Nyonya sweet delicacy of numerous type that becomes Chye Hoon's business, her creation, her rising everyday at 4am work. She is blessed with a strong Chinese husband. Tall with dimples and a strong decisive, patriarchal mountain upon which her life's journey mounts. Kueh, kueh, kueh- of every stripe and savory or super sweet. Coconut milk, ginger, banana leaves, and endless pounded ingredients.

I won't tell you more. Challenges abound and one of those is her very own "young prince". There is dense pattern of dictation, temper, affection, direction, and whole life sisterhoods of friendship. There is great sorrow too. And not the least is a sad, and heavy foreboding that she has failed to pass Nyonya patterns to her offspring.

Loved this book too because it comes at a pertinent time! Cultural wars of every type abound in Chye Hoon's life as in the present. And she is a soldier for her own and best beloved traditions with great and worthy reason.
Profile Image for Fenyx.
80 reviews9 followers
November 11, 2016
Wow, where to start with a book like this? First, let me say that readers of this review should probably know I've spent the past eight years married to a Malaysian Chinese man, have visited Malaysia twice, had a traditional Chinese wedding ceremony (tea ceremony, banquet, etc), speak Mandarin, and worked full time teaching ESL to Chinese immigrants for three years. I'm also a published writer. So a novel about Malaya (old Malaysia) written by a Malaysian Chinese woman and loosely based on her own family history was a no-brainer for me. 

Understandably, I loved this book. I read the Kindle version, which was formatted well. As a huge audio book fan, I also tried the audio version, but honestly it was one of the worst recordings I've heard. Malaysian English pronounced in a pure British English accent just doesn't work. Aside from pronunciation and accent issues, the narrator over acted and over dramatized the dialogue, making it impossible for me to focus on the text. So definitely go with a written version of this book, *not* the audio version.

Moving on, the story itself was great. I found it to be both entertaining and historically/culturally accurate. The author's writing style was solid. This woman clearly has talent. The characters were realistic, and I found myself alternately loving and disliking almost every single one at various points in the book. There were also several heart wrenching moments, tempered with anger over how things could (and should) have been done differently by a certain character. The ending felt a bit awkward or rushed, and the book itself is rather long, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. 

That said, there is one downside to this book, and that comes in the way the author uses foreign words and Manglish (Malaysian English) throughout the story. Don't get me wrong, the vast majority of the novel is written as first person narrative in perfect English, but any actual dialogue utilizes Manglish. There are also many foreign terms and phrases used throughout the book - so many, in fact, that the author includes a glossary at the end of the book for readers to look up unfamiliar terms.

I can understand the decision to use Manglish to give the novel a more authentic local flavor, but the author used a very strong version of Manglish some readers may find difficult to understand. I'm married to a Malaysian and sometimes even I had to reread things several times in order to get the meaning. The author could have used a more toned down version of Malaysian English and had the same effect with less confusion, and I personally feel that would have been a better choice. As for foreign words - yes, Malaysians use words from a mixture of languages in their daily lives (it's not uncommon to hear two, three, or even more languages represented in a single sentence!). But this is an English novel, and many times I felt that English words would have worked better in the narrative parts of the novel than the foreign words that were chosen.

Also, there were multiple occasions where words or even entire sentences appeared in a foreign language without any translation whatsoever, not even in the glossary. During those times, I found myself asking my husband for help. He thankfully knows all of the languages and dialects used in this novel, which include Malay, Cantonese, Hakka, and Hokkien (aside from English, of course). Most readers won't have a resource like my husband available, and will be forced to guess the meaning of those phrases. Personally, while knowing Mandarin Chinese helped in some cases with the Chinese parts, the fact that the author didn't use anything remotely close to pinyin in writing out the Chinese phrases sometimes threw me off. For example, it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize "Tsin-sang" is the Cantonese/Hakka version of the Mandarin title "Xian Sheng," or English "Mister." I kept racking my brain trying to remember a character named Tsin-sang, until the similarity to Xian Sheng dawned on me (the term Tsin-sang is never explained in the novel, so readers unfamiliar with Chinese are left to figure out the meaning of those words themselves or look it up in the glossary once they figure out it's not a character's name). 

All that aside, this is still a terrific novel. Anyone even remotely interested in history, or connected to Malaysia, or into Asian culture will enjoy this book, as will anyone who enjoys family histories or coming of age type novels. The issues mentioned above really are rather minor within the larger context of the story itself. 

On a more personal note, I would like to thank the author for telling a story that provided a space for my husband and I to talk about his country and culture in more depth than ever before. Things came up that wouldn't have without this book, and I eagerly soaked in every bit of information that came from him during our discussions of the story. This novel also brought up memories for me - of my trip to Malacca, for example (I wish I'd had the opportunity to read this book before going, as it would have increased my appreciation tenfold), and of the wonderful diversity of food available only in Malaysia (PS: my husband grew up in Petaling Jaya and visited your aunt's Nyonya restaurant several times - he says the food is delicious!). This novel took us on a very personal and enjoyable journey at an important time in our lives, and I can't thank you enough for that.

In conclusion, to those considering reading this book, I say go for it! While the book itself is marketed as fiction, it reads like an immersive autobiography. You will come away feeling like you've visited Malaya and lived and loved and grown as a person via the eyes of its main character, the memorable Chye Hoon. You can't ask for much more than that.
Profile Image for Stephanie Anze.
657 reviews112 followers
June 19, 2017
Chye Hoon is a spirited and feisty child. As she grows up, her siblings are married off with ease but she is not. Her parents fear that she will remain alone but she does eventually catch someone one's attention. When she weds, its an immense relief for her parents and the start of her amazing and tumultuous journey as a wife, mother and ultimate Nyonya warrior woman.

Set in Malaysia in the 1870's through the 1940's, this novel was quite a feat. Dealing with the Nyonya and Baba tradition, this novel introduced me to a culture that I knew very little of. A Nyonya woman is of Malayan and Chinese descent and are particularly gifted in the kitchen. In fact, they are taught to cook at a very early age and its one of their most championed traits. Food and its preparations played an integral role in this novel. Their food, just like Chye Hoon, is quite spicy. She is a tough, no-nonsense lady, one that commands respect. Through circumstances of life, she ends up having to raise her 10 children by herself, ultimately becoming the matriarch of the family. As she struggles to keep her family safe, she has to fight, not just against her personal demons but also the "New World" traditions brought by the British. Chye Hoon takes great pride in her culture and wants to impart it to her children, not an easy feat. This family saga may not exactly be a page turner but its an incredibly intricate and multi-layered narrative. Its clear that Selina Siak Chin Yoke went through great lengths to get this novel historically right.

With a vast cast of characters that inspired both, admiration and frustration, this work took time and patience to read, but it was well worth it. There is a sequel to be published soon and I look forward to it. If ever I get the chance to eat sweet kueh, I will not pass it up. A great read.
Profile Image for Magen.
776 reviews31 followers
March 31, 2018
I'm glad I read this book as I learned so much about several cultures as well as a time in history I am not particularly familiar with. We need more books like this one which capture cultures and times in history not many people in the West, or at least The United States, are aware of. I recommend reading this book simply for that value alone, but, I also recognize that it's definitely not a book all readers will enjoy. It is a slow moving novel which depicts the life and struggles of one woman from childhood through old age. There is not much action and it's not entirely clear what the tension is until a bit far into the book, though the title does help point one in the right direction. But if you enjoy the kinds of slow reads where you gain insight about the characters and learn more about a culture and history, than you likely will enjoy this book. If you are a person who likes things to be happening fairly often in a book and need them to be more than things like baking food, than this book isn't for you. If that describes you and you still want to learn a bit about Malaya, consider checking out the second in the series When the Future Comes Too Soon. While it covers a different time period and does not quite go into the same depth on culture, particularly of some cultures, there is still a lot to learn about Malaya from the second book and it is more action packed, starting with the Japanese invasion of Malaya. It is not strictly necessary to read The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds in order to understand the plot of When the Future Comes Too Soon, but I would recommend reading them in order, if possible.

If you do read this book, I would recommend flipping to the very end and reading through the author's notes about use of language BEFORE you start reading the book (in the second book, these notes are actually moved to the start of the book - or at least that's true of the audiobook version). If you listen to the audio version, know that those notes are within the last chapter at about 5:16/ 5:17. The audiobook version is well done and I do recommend it if you enjoy listening to books like this.

I received this eARC free through the Kindle First pre-release book offer. This did not affect my review of this book. For this review, I listened to the audiobook version offered through Kindle Unlimited and did not read the eARC.
Profile Image for Oodles  .
184 reviews6 followers
February 10, 2017
I absolutely loved it! LOVED IT! I’ve always enjoyed books that deal with eastern cultures and nationalities and this book is one of the best I’ve ever read. It brought me to tears more than once. The book is told in the first person and takes the reader through one Malay-Chinese woman's life from childhood to old age. Selina Siak Chin Yoke clearly did her research well and between the descriptions of clothing and food, I wish I could go back in time and visit Malaya and experience Nyonya culture first hand. It's a beautifully written book.
Profile Image for Amina Hujdur.
413 reviews22 followers
November 29, 2021
Opsežna i detaljna porodična drama koja govori o snazi žene-majke koja čuva korijene svoje tradicije, bori se za egzistenciju devetoro djece i ostaje upamćena kao svojevrsna legenda.
Volim romane koji govore o egzotičnim kulturama i tradicijama, a u sebi sadrže univerzalne životne pouke kakav je ovaj roman.
Profile Image for Iset.
665 reviews473 followers
February 10, 2017
Well I raced through this in just one day. I will admit that it's not usually the kind of book I pick up. I'm very much a fan of novels with a balance of action and character drama, whereas The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds is a wholeheartedly family saga kind of book. As a result, there were moments when I wished for a break from all the relationships... but the novel is such a well done family saga that it kept me interested until the final page. The writing is very clear, but more than that it's full of wonderfully vivid imagery that transported me to the time and place of the story. It was that sense of perfectly capturing a unique place and moment in time that held my attention. The book very much reads like a memoir, and indeed the protagonist is drawn from the author's own great-grandmother even though it is written as fiction. I think this was an intriguing idea, one that appeals to me or anyone else who has done family history research and come away fascinated with the stories they discover. All in all, I would recommend, unless family sagas are really not your thing, because this is one of the standout examples of the sub-genre.

7 out of 10
Profile Image for Kim N.
414 reviews72 followers
February 10, 2017
The title character, Chye Hoon, is a woman of mixed Malay/Chinese heritage or Nyonya. She is based loosely on the author’s own great-grandmother, and apparently many family stories were woven into the narrative in addition to material from extensive research. I enjoyed much of the story and learned some interesting things about the culture, but the underlying struggle between tradition and modernization and its impact on family generations is something I’ve read about many times, in stories told with greater skill and more finesse. Chye Hoon was also a bit of a disappointment. I guess I expected her to be stronger and more resourceful than she turned out to be. Were it not for her friend, Siew Lan, and the man she refers to as the patriarch, I’m not sure she and her family would have survived and prospered.

This was a Kindle First selection in October 2016.
November 3, 2016
Beautifully crafted, a worthy read.

This is like being in a room with a master artist who, in the beginning, stands before a blank canvas. She begins with the first stroke of words and smoothly moves on to the next, painting, you are not sure what. The mastery of her medium makes you want to ride the journey she is taking you on, word by word, scene by scene. You can smell the food, see the landscape, palpate the characters. The art is rich and flowing, smooth and masterful. The journey becomes a mural that just carries you along seamlessly, holding your attention ever so gently. This is a rare talent.
At the end, you find yourself experiencing a feeling of being inside the canvas looking out as the final brushstroke completes the expression of mastery. This is a story that will linger in my mind for a good long while. I have never read anything like it. I am weary of same ole, same ole storyline that I have read a thousand varieties of. This was like a cool, crisp, clean, thirst quenching drink of water to the last drop. I. Loved. It.
Profile Image for Dayle.
533 reviews4 followers
October 7, 2016
Wonderful book, I knew nothing about Malaysia or the culture, beautifully written! If you like historical fiction based a a true family story you will love this.
Profile Image for Heather.
580 reviews8 followers
May 20, 2017


This is an historical fiction novel set between the 1870s and the 1940s in Malaysia.   In this area of Malaysia at the time it was common for people to be of mixed ethnic heritage.  But now the British have started to establish a presence.  Towns and cities are growing.  Chye Hoon's father decides to learn English and move the family to a larger city to get ahead.  Although she is smart, she is not able to go to school.  She is headstrong and not beautiful so stays unmarried for a long time before becoming a second wife to a Chinese man who left his family behind in China.

This story focuses on the way the world is changing around Chye Hoon.  She is taken to a backwater town after her marriage.  She watches Ipoh grow into a mining center.  She sees her children grow up and learn English as their major language.  Even her daughters are able to be educated.  But her family traditions are very important. She longs to be able to pass on the stories that were told to her and the traditions of the families in her area.  Her children are not interested.

What do we lose in the name of progress?

I had never heard of the Nyonyas and Babas.  It took me a while to understand exactly what those terms meant.  This is from Wikipedia.
"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)[4] between the 15th and 17th centuries.[5]

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."


When you try to investigate Nyonya culture, the first things you see are food.  Food played a big part in this story.  Chye Hoon is widowed and has to make a living.  She decides to sell traditional Nyonya food to the men working in the tin mines of Ipoh.  Her specialties are cakes. Here is a video of a type of Nyonya cake.

I really enjoyed this book. I was immersed in her world that was changing so rapidly that by the time of her death it was unrecognizable. This series will be continuing and picking up with the story of her daughter-in-law in World War II.  That book comes out in the few months.  I'm glad for a bit of a break in between because I feel like a need to mourn a bit for amazing life of Chye Hoon before switching the main character of the story to the daughter-in-law.


 This review was originally posted on Based On A True Story
Profile Image for Bookshelf.
14 reviews3 followers
November 4, 2016

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.

Profile Image for Lorrie.
730 reviews
December 20, 2016
The author tells the story of a Malayan woman's life, from childhood till death. Considerable research went into the creation of this richly poignant story, and I was introduced to a world which I knew nothing about. The custom of chewing betel seed for both socialization and a little "high" (I imagine) was a deeply rooted custom in this story. I could visualize the blackened teeth of the women as they chewed as well as the spitting of the red liquid into bowls. Even the betel itself was housed in a lacquered case and carried around by the women much like I imagine an old fashioned cigarette case. The pride of the family's culture as Western European influences and inter-marriages were introduced was particularly interesting to read about. The feeling of visiting a time so long ago (the late 1800s/early 1900s) in early China was quite an adventure for me. It took me quite a while to read this rather lengthy novel as it was heavily laden with new vocabulary, custom and dialect-lah. The addition of "lah" at the end of my previous sentence was frequently used.

I would like to thank both Amazon Crossing and Net Galley for the opportunity to read this ARC free of charge.
Profile Image for WhatIReallyRead.
685 reviews494 followers
May 30, 2022
The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds is a family saga that spans decades. I rarely read historical fiction at all, and I never read one set in Malaysia. So it was interesting to learn about Nyonya culture, customs and way of life - a large chunk of the book is dedicated to those day-to-day details rather than the plot.

The book is quite long, about 500 pages, and for the first half of it, I was kind of bored because nothing happened; it was all just mundane domestic life. But the immersion paid off because I started profoundly caring about the characters and finished the second half in no time. In the end, I enjoyed it and didn't regret the time investment, but I won't keep reading the series.
Profile Image for Laurie Reilly.
84 reviews6 followers
June 2, 2017
This story could have easily been whittled down to 300 pages (from 450). Initially, it was interesting to learn about the Malayan and Chinese cultures. Half way through the book, the author seemed to lose her focus and the story droned on for the remainder of the book. The main character's decisions often made no sense to me and left me frustrated.
Profile Image for Saarah Niña.
516 reviews21 followers
April 1, 2017

I feel that writing a review for this book is a daunting task, this is an incredible book- my obsession of the month. I was drawn to the eloquent writing, especially the lovely descriptions of the land- my favourite was the quiet village in Songkhla. And, I was besotted by the beautiful cultural values and Chye Hoon's strength in the face of her fears. We learn of her life which she recounts to her grand daughter, Lai Hin, a young girl so alike to herself when she was of that age: fiery and fearless. Both ever curious and yearning to learn of the stories and tales of their ancestors.

Chye Hoon recognises this for herself, admiring it, 'I had to smile. Lai Hin, then only three years old, was already displaying the verve for which I was famous. She unnerved the world with her intense almond-shaped eyes the way I had once done. My fire and fearless tongue were known throughout Ipoh, the Malayan mining town where I had lived most of my life. This reputation had nearly been my downfall. Temper in a woman is only tolerated, never celebrated. Neighbours had hissed about the potent mix of blood in my veins, lethal for any girl. How would I ever find a husband?'

Chye Hoon was brought up with stories, she thrived on them, hoping that she could possess the courage of the heroes in the tales her mother would tell her. Just like the heroic Hang Tuah, she sought her own magical sword, her own talent, brought to life through her embrace of her Malaysian culture. With the upsetting threat of her culture being no more, she makes it her duty to not allow her children to forget their roots. She wants to raise them properly and not have anyone accuse her of letting them forget the legacies of their people. As a young girl, she fought against her culture believing it to be a barrier. She didn't want to cook or be a housewife, she sought a different life, the kitchen was the place she hated most. This is something I related to, cooking is a skill that doesn't come easy for some of us but, we soon find that she still embraces this part of her identity as a Nyonya woman. This is something that made the book unique, usually you find books in which the character challenges his or her culture and seeks to create their own identity. While I do like those books too, I have to say this difference was interesting.

She soon has an arranged marriage to Peng Choon and finds herself happy with her new life. 'When we were first married, I asked Peng Choon why he had picked me. He laughed. He was a man who knew what he wanted: a family run by a strong hand –a healthy woman who could cook, bear him sons and look after the household. He expected to travel and needed an independent wife who would get things done without him. So when the matchmaker mentioned me, he immediately became interested. "You sure-ah?" she had asked. "This girl has strong will and a temper.".... One morning, when he followed me to the market, he noticed that the stallholders didn’t try to cheat me, as they did other women. That was the day he decided he would marry me. All this he told me, and more. In those first lonely months my husband also became my best friend.'
We witness all the highs and lows of her life: her husband's homesickness, her loneliness, her battle with her mother who she grows closer to as she gets older. Then of her life as a widow, the beautiful friendships she creates; the friend who believes she, too, should change with the times; her survival over the loss of two of her children which only sharpens the divide in her family. We see Chye Hoon's talent with her business and, her relentless pursuit of a better life for her children even if that means to make huge sacrifices.

All the while, many of her children begin to adapt into the ever changing world, they strive to be more modern and so, they begin to follow the ways of the West. Their own culture is foregone and for some of them it seems to have been neglected so severely that it has been forgotten. This book will always be dear to me, I was captured by the author's writing, her attention to detail, in her description of Chye Hoon's struggles, be that of Chye Hoon's realisation in early life of the sexism so prevalent in her society or the great lengths she goes, motivated by her desire to understand her children. I admired her strength in her refusal to change for her children, in spite of their growing refusal of their cultural values. Some things shouldn't change, some values are timeless and should remain.

Her culture, and her mission to sustain it, is a pivotal force in her many decisions, whether she sends her children to English schools where they will only learn the English history or whether she sends her girls at all since she was raised on the belief that educated women don't find husbands. But still, her own love of learning gets in the way, she battles with constant indecision- not knowing how to raise her children, not knowing whether she will later regard her actions as mistakes. Her culture also serves as her survival mechanism, her sword, a gift that her mother had passed on to her and one that she doesn't wish to deny her children. This is a struggle I feel that many parents face, indeed there were many parallels between this book and my own parents' attitudes and my lifestyle- the choices made for me and, those I've made for myself.

Certainly, I liked Chye Hoon's patience and her ability to handle situations even when they were new to her, be that of her son wishing marry a white woman, (this wasn't accepted at the time this book is set in), or how she dealt with a son who drained the family finances with no concern for those whose lives he was causing such hardship. Indeed, how she managed was nothing short of admirable and I was pleased to discover that this character was inspired by the author's own great grandmother. I admit there were many times when I forgot that a lot of this book was a work of fiction. It was a very immersive read, and one I do recommend.

I received this book through NetGalley.
Profile Image for Skjam!.
1,384 reviews26 followers
October 14, 2016
This is the life story of Chye Hoon, a Nyonya (Malaysian woman of Chinese heritage) who lives between 1878 and 1941, a time of great change in her homeland. Initially a willful child who wants to break out of her culture’s tradition (why shouldn’t a girl get the chance to go to school like her brother?), Chye Hoon grows into a young woman whose reputation for temper and independent spirit seem to doom her prospects for marriage.

But an enterprising matchmaker brings her together with a Chinese immigrant named Wong Peng Choon. Despite this being an arranged marriage and the pair never actually meeting until the wedding, things work out well. Peng Choon appreciates Chye Hoon’s cleverness and unwillingness to be cheated, and in return is a good husband. The young couple moves to Ipoh, a rapidly growing tin mining town.

The next decade or so is good to the couple; Peng Choon is much in demand as an accountant, and Chye Hoon has ten children! But then Peng Choon must return to China to take care of some family business. He perishes in that far-off land; while he was careful to make sure that Chye Hoon had enough capital for a couple of years, she knows that raising ten children will soon drain that, and jobs for widows with no formal education are few and low-paying.

Chye Hoon applies her cleverness and cooking skills to the problem, becoming an entrepreneur in the field of tasty kueh (Nyonya cakes of both sweet and savory varieties.) There are many difficulties involved in making the business a success, but she and her servants make a go of it.

Meanwhile, Chye Hoon must also raise her children, facing times of joy, times of heartbreak and times of great frustration. In this last category is the increasing influence of the British over the Malay States as they take firmer control of the government, and increasingly the young people adopt Western ways. Chye Hoon has become a traditionalist who fears that her people’s heritage will be forgotten in the rush to modernize.

Chye Hoon is based loosely on the author’s own great-grandmother, and apparently many family stories were woven into the narrative. The parts of the book that give a sense of the time and place are fascinating. Less helpful is that quite a few of the large cast are underdeveloped or vanish from the story–a couple of the sons get brief mentions at times just to remind us they’re still alive but not doing anything relevant.

The author has made some interesting stylistic choices; uneducated characters use traditional Malayan syntax, while those with formal schooling speak British English. (Even when they’re clearly not using that language.) There’s also frequent usage of traditional Malayan filler words and interjections, and the author has chosen to use the older transliteration of some words, as well as some language that is now considered pejorative. In places, this works well, and in other places it becomes intrusive. (It also kind of raises the question of just who Chye Hoon is telling this story to at the end.)

The story ends just before the Japanese invasion during World War Two, which gives a pretty obvious cue for a sequel with the surviving family members.

Worth checking out if you are into family saga stories, and especially if you are curious about Malaysian history and culture.
Profile Image for Catie.
1,332 reviews57 followers
July 24, 2017
4th book finished w/ less than an hour to go for #24in48readathon. It was EXCELLENT! I loved everything about this beautiful book! It was especially interesting to see so many important world events at the turn of the 20th century from a different perspective; the Great War, influenza outbreak, & modernization. Looking forward to the 2nd book in the series, which follows WWII.

The only thing I can see putting some readers off, is the dialogue. The author purposely has the characters who don't speak English or have not been educated, speak how their native language would be spoken. So there is a reordering of the words. She does this to heighten the sense of the place. I actually didn't mind and found I got used to this quite quickly. I know for some this could be an annoyance or take one out of the narrative.

I would compare the author's writing style to Lisa See or the Memoirs of a Geisha.

Favorite Quotes:

“A Nyonya, I told myself, is a woman who breathes two worlds – not just one or the other, not more one than the other, but both equally. My two worlds were alive: Chinese and Malay rolled into one, blended by the centuries that had passed.”

“In those days time stood still. Life was suspended between two worlds: one I hadn’t yet left, the other I hadn’t quite entered”

“Once inside Ipoh’s limestone caves, I was revived. Cool air blew in, breath of the gods which fed the wondrous hills I had loved from the first moment. I imagined my best friend’s soul being freed from her body, rising into new worlds beyond. In this magical place of rock and ancient trees, my turn would one day come.”

Profile Image for Karyl.
1,717 reviews119 followers
August 7, 2017
This is an epic sweep of a book, which is one of my favorite types of novels. What made it even better was its focus on a culture and a country that I'm not terribly familiar with, so there was an element of education as well. Because this book focuses on a woman raising a family in an era of great change from the traditional to the modern, I kept being reminded of one of my all-time favorite novels by Robert A. Heinlein, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, which had the same epic sweep as this novel.

This is definitely not an action novel. Instead it focuses on one woman over her entire life, a woman who tended to be a little different from the other traditional women around her, but one who took her traditions seriously and hoped to pass them along to her children. As the matriarch of a large family (she and her husband produced ten children), Chye Hoon must make difficult decisions about passing along her Nyonya-Baba traditions or allowing her children to seek Western educations in order to be more marketable in this new world. Her decisions don't always work out well, but she knows that sometimes she has to let go of the control she would traditionally have. It's never easy to realize that modernity sometimes requires an easing of how things have always been done.

I look forward to reading the second book in this series to see how Chye Hoon's children handle the loss of their formidable mother and what, if any, traditions they're able to keep in the new, more modern Malaysia.
Profile Image for Lorraine.
355 reviews
February 7, 2017
I really enjoyed this book, but if I had read it five months earlier, when I wasn't living in South East Asia, I wouldn't have appreciated as many of the Malaysian references that are included in the story. Not necessary to appreciate the story, which at it's core is a mom raising her children in a "new world" where everything is changing. Raising teens in the "twenty teens," my own struggles didn't feel all that different.
Profile Image for Hannah.
197 reviews3 followers
October 12, 2016
I read this novel as part of the Kindle First program, which is basically like getting an advanced copy of a novel for free and explains why I'm reviewing this a few weeks before its publication date in November.

"The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds" is an epic family drama set in early 20th century Malaysia (referred to as "Malaya" in the novel; the name "Malaysia" was not adopted until 1963, after the novel has ended). The story follows the life of Chye Hoon, a woman born into a family descended from mixed Chinese and Malay heritage. The culture that Chye Hoon grows up with is known as Baba-Nyonya ("Nyonya" is a woman and "Baba" is a man) and the central conflict in the novel revolves around Chye Hoon's struggle to keep her heritage alive in the face of imperialism and globalization. This conflict is represented by the struggle between Chye Hoon and her children, notably her oldest son, who learn English and adopt Western customs as they grow older.

The author of this novel is from this same culture, and it shows. "The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds" is heavily researched and the culture really comes alive; the author is clearly writing from a place of familiarity. She also notes that Chye Hoon's character was inspired by stories she had heard of her great-grandmother, which is something that I suspected as I read the novel; most of the time, it felt like I was reading a memoir of Selina Siak Chin Yoke's family.

And that, I think, is the problem. I had a lot of issues with the narrative and its structure; the biggest problem is that there are a LOT of characters and plot lines, but only a handful of characters are developed and a lot of plot lines never get resolved, or are underdeveloped. It felt like the author was trying too hard to show every aspect of Nyonya culture, or perhaps she was trying to incorporate too much of her own family history. In doing so, she forget that as a novelist she has creative control over the characters and stories. I think this novel would have worked better if the the author had cut down on the number of children Chye Hoon has - say, 5 children instead of 10 - which also would have reduced the number of subplots and allowed the children to be fleshed out to a greater extent.

Here's one example: about halfway through the novel, one of Chye Hoon's daughters discovers that her husband is having an affair. The family confronts the husband; he tells everyone to mind their own business; the daughter and husband leave and are never mentioned in the novel again. This plot line is unresolved and I found myself wondering what the point of it was. Indeed, the fact that Chye Hoon never reflects back on this situation was troubling to me as it seemed that she did not care about her daughter's well-being.

In the end, I think this novel would have worked better as a memoir than a work of historical fiction. It is still worth reading, though, because of the level of detail that went into describing Nyonya culture. This is clearly the strongest aspect of the novel; there's much more detail to the cooking, clothing, and customs than there is to the characters and the story.
Profile Image for Julia.
1,311 reviews24 followers
December 13, 2016
The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds begins in 1878. It is the story of Chye Hoon, born in Malaysia. She is being brought up in the Nyonya culture, a mix of Chinese and Malaysian customs. The book follows her life as she grows up, gets married and has 10 children. It focuses on the day to day life in Malaysia, and her struggles to raise her children and provide a good living for them. Her children grow up and become parents themselves. The book concludes with her death at age 63.

This book is not action packed by any means. Instead, we see the world through Chye Hoon's eyes, as changes come to her town. There is the colonization by the white men, the advent of the automobile and electricity. The small mining town of Ipoh, where she moves with her husband, becomes a large city as more and more people move there looking for work.

One of Chye Hoon's biggest worries is that her children are seduced by Western ways. She tries to teach them the Nyonya culture, but they want to be modern. The girls want to attend school, and the boys want to attend University in Europe. It is sad to see a way of life disappear. Chye Hoon is very distrustful of the white people, and tries to prevent their influence on her children, but she is ultimately unsuccessful as the years progress.

My biggest problem with this book is the way it is written. The author makes a point in the beginning to explain that the characters that are uneducated will speak in a grammatically unordered way, while the characters who have attended school will speak as we are used to. This makes for very difficult reading at times. Having to rearrange the sentences in my head until they make sense really took me out of the story. I think the book would have been better if this language device had not been used.

I picked up this book because I am trying to read more books about cultures other than my own. It was very interesting seeing how people lived in Malaysia at the turn of the century. Still, the book was not very exciting, and because of the grammatical differences mentioned above, I give this 3 out of 5 stars.
Profile Image for Julia.
686 reviews
August 3, 2020
Am I missing something? This book has really high reviews and I have no idea why. I think most people would find this book tedious, full of grammatical errors, and just plain boring.

Let me say at the outset that I am a huge fan of family sagas and multi-generational tales. Some of my favorite books, like THE THORN BIRDS or THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH are just that. But THE WOMAN WHO BREATHED TWO WORLDS should be a lesson on how NOT to write a family saga.

First, the book focuses on one main character, the matriarch of the family (even though I just finished this book, I couldn't tell you any of the characters names because they were all so similar to each other and there were so many characters). The matriarch lives in late nineteenth century Malaysia and ends with the beginning of World War II. Yoke does not give the matriarch any character or verve, nothing memorable, not even her name. When she was younger, she was spunky and wanted to go to school - but once she got married, she turned into a blah character.

Next, not much actually happens in this book. Except that the matriarch has lots of kids. And her kids have lots of kids. And some of them die and we're supposed to be sad, even though we have never gotten emotionally invested in these bland characters. In addition, you don't learn much about Malaysia except that there were tensions between them and the white people. And kueh is some kind of cake.

Another huge problem, that almost made me stop reading the book when I first started it (and looking back, I should have trusted my gut instinct), is that while the writing is grammatically correct, all of the dialogue is not. And the book is in the first person. So the matriarch thinks all these grammatically correct thoughts, yet she talks like a stereotypical Asian and says things like "Me no like oldest son." If a white author had written this book, this kind of stereotypical dialogue would be highly offensive. Hell, even though an Asian writer composed this dialogue, I still find it extremely offensive.
Profile Image for Anna.
121 reviews13 followers
July 5, 2018
Almost five hundred pages to describe someome's life with all its ups and downs - is it too much or too little? I don't know, but by the end of the novel I was overtaken by feeling of transience.
It's a story of a woman who did her best to preserve her ancestors' heritage and to adapt to the changing times, to survive and to bring up her children while staying true to herself and never shrinking from the challenges she faced.
I really enjoy reading books about Southeast Asia of the late XIX - early XX century (though I've read just a few) - it was such a tumultuous time for the region with so many changes brought to people's lives. The mixture of old traditions and new trends and the way people dealt with them can't help but excite interest.
I'm going to read the second book in the series as soon as I can lay my hands on it.
Profile Image for Kara-karina.
1,658 reviews252 followers
April 30, 2017
A really lovely, rich cultural immersion in Malaysia on the brink of major changes. The main heroine's life begins in the country before the Great War and any modern developments, and ends in a very different environment. It's sentimental, a bit heart-breaking and with a lot of feeling. I'm not ashamed to admit I had tears in my eyes a few times. Recommended to everyone interested in the history of the region.

* * *

Замечательный, насыщенный культурными деталями, погружающий в атмосферу Малайзии роман, рассказывающий о жизни женщины в эпоху традиционализма, поднявшей свою семью через все сумбурные и радикальные перемены начала 20-го века. Очень интересно, грустно и колоритно. Аж слёзы стояли на глазах временами. Рекомендую, особенно тем, кому интересен регион.
Profile Image for Lori.
665 reviews68 followers
December 8, 2016
Thank you Net Galley for an advanced read of the book! I always love when a book takes place in a foreign culture which was pre oily U own to me. If the book is good enough I go off on a Google search to learn more, and for this I most definitely did. The culture and characters became very vivid and utterly alive. In spite of differences the striving a and hopes of all people remain the same, and as I followed our main character through her life I cheered, cried, and struggled with her. And I want to eat her food!

I see this is the first of a series and I will definitely continue.
Profile Image for Laz the Sailor.
1,478 reviews75 followers
February 21, 2017
This fictional biography follows one woman from childhood to grandchildren. It describes the confluence of Malay, Hakka, Chinese, and Imperial British through the early 20th century. The tales are colorful, and the food is mouth-watering. I'm told that it brings back fond memories for those who remember these places and traditions.

But in the end it is just a collection of vignettes with only the central character to tie them together. There is no grand wisdom to impart, nor is there really closure. If there was a theme hidden among the careful details, I missed it.
Profile Image for Claudia.
283 reviews2 followers
October 16, 2016
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I liked the way it was written and I enjoyed learning a little about another time and another culture. The bravery of the heroine of the story was awe inspiring. Even when she developed diabetes, and there were no medications available, she kept on selflessly. This book said a lot about families and friends and children. It was inspiring and enjoyable. Do yourself a favor and read it.
Profile Image for Laurie Buchanan.
Author 5 books301 followers
November 26, 2016
Handed from mother to daughter for generations, their “sword” (no spoilers here) was wielded with strength and wisdom. An excellent account of the power of women in a time when women had virtually none.

In THE WOMAN WHO BREATHED TWO WORLDS, author Selina Siak Chin Yoke gives readers an up close and personal look at a woman who picks up her “sword” to save her family time and gain—when the males in the household couldn’t.
Profile Image for Kathleen Ray.
152 reviews2 followers
August 17, 2020
What a great story! I loved every page. It made me realize how most mothers are the same and will do anything for their children no matter what culture you are from. I can't wait to read the next book.
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