ESSAY ... Chiew-Siah TEI
From Escapism to Exploration
Début Malaysian novelist CHIEW-SIAH TEI tells us her reason for writing and what she hopes to achieve with her fiction
I GREW UP IN TAMPIN, a small town in the state of Negri Sembilan in southern Malaysia. In the early days, the so-called town centre was a barely tarred street, flanked by about 20 wooden shophouses on either side. The Malays from the villages nearby and the Indians from the rubber plantations came for rice, flour and sugar, and textiles for their sarong, sari and mundu. The shopowners were mostly first- or second-generation Chinese from southern China. They worked hard, and urged their children to work hard too, hoarding money, hoping to return home to China one day.
My grandfather was one of them, though he did not own a shop; he had a butcher stall in front of our house in a side alley. When did he realise that going home was no longer possible? Was it when the number of mouths to be fed kept increasing? Or was it because there was never money left to hoard up to bring home? The answer was unsaid but obvious. The butcher stall that mainly sold wild boar meat never generated enough income to fill the stomachs of the family. As a child, when Grandpa could still manage the business single-handedly, Father went selling kuih (Malaysian cakes and pastries) that Grandma baked door-to-door after school. During his fifth year, Father began to walk the streets all day with his basket of kuih. He never went back to school.
Like many children of my father’s time, when survival was the main concern, education was pushed into a corner. My mother sometimes spoke with a sour tone of how lucky Father was, that he had five years schooling while she only managed three. She would grumble about her brother for leaving her to walk alone for five miles to school while he cycled past, mocking her. This did not deter her from attending class but the Japanese, who were famous for their cruelty against women, did. When the Japanese soldiers marched into the remote village where she lived with her family, Mother went into hiding in the plantations, and her schooldays ended.
Those were the days when a shopkeeper’s children were expected to be shopkeepers, a rubber tapper’s, rubber tappers; so too the children of a butcher. Father later worked at the stall alongside Grandpa, while Mother took up tailoring work from a garment shop. What could books do? Food would not leap off the pages and transform themselves into their physical forms—so they thought. I didn’t.
Perhaps it was the endless shouting and cursing of adults driven by their busyness that I began to find refuge in books. In the house of a playmate whose parents were both teachers, I was amazed by their rare collection of illustrated books: The Happy Prince, The Little Match Girl, Crime and Punishment, The Merchant of Venice, and many others. I wept when the little girl scratches the last of her matches, when the Happy Prince gives out the last of his jewellery. The sketches of the streets, the buildings, the artefacts, the costumes—strange yet pleasant to look at—aroused my imagination. I withdrew into my fantasy world whenever I was excused from helping Mother with her sewing.
People and their noises became more unbearable. There were 13 of us sharing a life under the aluminium roof: six siblings—two brothers and four sisters, my parents and grandparents, and an elderly couple who rented the front chamber of the five-room wooden house. In the small town in the old days, doors were always left wide open and there were always streams of people who came by any time they wished, neighbours or relatives, known or unknown. Some would sit down for a cup of my mother’s favourite sweet coffee or Chinese tea, equally cold and weak, and chat for half a day; some simply entered the front door and walked straight past the long hallway, the many curtained rooms, and exited the back gate—their shortcut to their homes or the marketplace. Others came for Grandpa, who, besides running the butcher stall, was also a Taoist medium. The old man would gladly display a show of communicating with god or ghost, would make a cup of ‘burnt amulet’ drink, the perfect antidote for all sickness—so it was said. I hated it.
I began to create my own stories. At night, when all activities ceased, silence wrapped over me like a soothing blanket, and I would invent the perfect world I longed to inhabit. Sometimes, though, I fictionalised the events I witnessed during the day: the young Indian man who collapsed from alcoholism, his eyes bulging and bleary, stomach protruding out of his skeletal body; the Thai woman who walked around half-naked and the new word (‘prostitute’) I learned to associate with her; the illegal gambling den behind my house with the cursing, the arguments among the gamblers, the fights; as though after writing them down, they would disappear: the noise, the pain, the hatred, the ugly side of human beings.
Did they really disappear? Momentarily, perhaps. As a child, writing helped me to escape from the real world. Ironically, as I grew up, the reality I witnessed and felt became submerged, and writing became my tool to explore and expose the many true faces of life, human suffering, social injustice, and the reasons behind these. Why, for instance, did my great-grandparents leave their homeland for the so-called ‘better life’? Why are people fighting against each other, nation fighting against nation? What has made the world as it is? If I had chosen to write as a means of escaping reality as a child, what I wish from my writing now is a means to improve the real world. We need to be informed in order to understand and act accordingly, to feel for the victims and the voiceless, to promote humanity among mankind.
CHIEW-SIAH TEI is the author of Little Hut of Leaping Fishes (Picador, 2008)
Reproduced from the October-December 2008 issue of Quill magazine