Women on top

Two prize-winning authors share their thoughts on being voted the most popular writers.

AWARD-WINNING author Chiew-Siah Tei has great hopes for Malaysian writers, saying that the writing scene is very vibrant now.

“Malaysian writers no longer have to hide in a small corner; there is a wider space they can explore to let their voice be heard, to showcase their work on international platforms,” she said in an e-mail interview, after being notified that she had won the top prize in the fiction category of the Popular-The Star Readers’ Choice Awards on Monday.

Tei, 47, won for her critically-acclaimed debut novel, Little Hut of Leaping Fishes, which had also been longlisted for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize while still in manuscript form in 2007.

The Negri Sembilan-born, Scotland-based writer said she was overjoyed when she found out about her Readers’ Choice win: “It was a wonderful feeling to be accepted and recognised by readers from my own country.”

While Tei enjoyed the buzz from afar (her sister, Chew Peng, accepted the award on her behalf), the top prize-winner in the non-fiction category was “enjoying” a case of nerves, being present at the grand prize-giving ceremony held during BookFest@Malaysia 2010 at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre.

When Peggy Tan Pek Tao heard the name of her book, Life: The Malaysian Style!, announced the winner, “I was shivering!” she said after the prize-giving ceremony. “I didn’t expect to win the first prize. It was such an exhilarating feeling,” the 54-year-old said.

“I’ve been teaching for 25 years in the university and I haven’t been promoted, so I felt like crying because ... now I’m recognised by Malaysians as a good writer.... So, it (winning the award) is recognition that you’re an efficient and capable person,” said the Universiti Sains Malaysia English Literature and English for Proficiency lecturer.

What they won

Recognition is exactly why these awards were started three years ago by Popular Book Co (M) Sdn Bhd and Star Publications (M) Bhd. The awards hope to encourage local writers by recognising their talent and providing exposure.

The awards are decided by readers’ votes; this year, they voted between July 1 and 31 for their favourite authors from a list of 20 fiction and non-fiction titles that had been best-sellers in Popular bookstores in 2009. One hundred readers whose ranking matched the overall vote won prizes.

The authors won prizes too, of course. As the winning author in the fiction category, Tei received RM1,500 cash and a trophy; the second and third prize winners won RM1,000 and RM500 respectively. They are, in order, Tash Aw, for Map of the Invisible World, and Dr Shaari Isa for Kirkby: The Life and the Loves.

Prizes are the same for the non-fiction categories. Second prize went to Dean Johns for Even Madder About Malaysia and third, to Amir Muhammad for Yasmin Ahmad’s Films.

The awards are given out every year during the BookFest@Malaysia event at the KLCC that is organised by Popular. Today is the last day of this year’s fest, which began on Sept 4.

Recovering lost history

Both the top winners in this year’s awards are notably experienced, with years of writing under their belts.

Tei has been writing articles, literary prose and columns for Chinese newspapers such as Sin Chew Jit Poh and Nanyang Siang Pao since the 1980s. She has published several books in Chinese, including It’s Snowing (1998), about her life in Scotland, and a collection of arts and film reviews, Secrets and Lies (2000).

She has also won numerous awards for her Chinese prose, such as the Hua Zong International Chinese Fiction Award and the National Prose Writing Competition. The multi-talented Tei has also dabbled in films and screenplays: Her film, Night Swimmer, won the best short film at the Vendome International Film Festival in 2000, and her first play, Three Thousand Troubled Threads, was performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1995.

Tei first left Malaysia for Scotland in 1994 to read an M.Phil in Media Culture, majoring in film studies, at Glasgow University. And then in 2002, she left again for Scotland to pursue a PhD in Creative Writing and Film Studies at the same university. This is when she began working on Little Hut of Leaping Fishes.

“I started the first paragraphs in 2001, but only began to write seriously when I came to Glasgow in October 2002 to enrol for a PhD in creative writing and film studies (Little Hut of Leaping Fishes formed part of her doctorate thesis).

“I was working part-time while writing the book, and took a year off to write a play, Three Thousand Troubled Threads, for the Edinburgh International Festival. So the writing spun over four and a half years,” she explained.

Little Hut is set in this region in the late 19th century, when the invasion of the foreign powers, the corrupt Qing imperial government and natural disasters in China resulted in massive emigration – especially to South-east Asian countries.

“It changed the social, cultural and political landscape in this region. And it has resulted in me, someone of Chinese origin, being born as Malaysian, growing up in Tampin, Malaysia, and not China, as my great-grandparents came from Fujian province,” she said.

Despite the importance of this time, when this part of the world was being made into what it is today, many people from other parts of the world do not know about it. Tei wanted to educate her readers about this “piece of lost history”.

The writer is currently working on her second book, which she will only reveal is “set in early 20th-century Malaya”.

Showcasing unity

Language lecturer Tan has written newspaper articles and an English grammar book for university students. She decided to start writing something “more exciting”, and published a well-received book of short stories, Tales of the Heart, in 1997.

Life: The Malaysian Style, published last year, is a collection of anecdotes based on true incidents that shows the light and sparkling side of Malaysian experiences in love, life and work. As one reviewer put it, our multi-racial, multi-cultural country is full of individuals trying to maintain their identities while learning to live with each other’s quirks and idiosyncrasies, and Tan captures their stories in her book with an observant, humorous eye.

It took her two years to produce the book, with most of that time spent thinking up ideas and about seven months actually writing it.

“It was hard work. I couldn’t even go out for dinner with my husband because of the book. He was getting annoyed with me,” she said, laughing.

Tan’s next book, Gifts from the Heart, a work of fiction, will be published in December. She is currently working on Life: The Malaysian Style 2, and said that she enjoys writing stories about Malaysian life.

“Malaysians like to read short stories about life here because we are a multi-racial country and have so many different kinds of values. My main objective in writing is to remind people how Malaysians live in unity and how this is fascinating for foreigners because we have so many races living harmoniously with each other,” she said.

Present at the prize-giving ceremony on Monday were national laureate Datuk A. Samad Said; Popular Holdings Ltd chairman and director, Chou Cheng Ngok and Vangat Ramayah, respectively; Popular Book Co (M) Sdn Bhd executive director Lim Lee Ngoh; and Star Publications (M) Bhd managing editor June H.L. Wong, who gave out the prizes for the English language awards. The Popular-Berita Harian Anugerah Pilihan Pembaca awards for Malay language works were also announced at the event; Berita Harian group editor Datuk Meor Kamarul Shahid was on hand to give out the prizes.

■ The Popular-The Star Readers’ Choice Awards 2010 are held in conjunction with Malaysia’s largest book exhibition, BookFest@Malaysia 2010, which began on Sept 4 and ends today at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre. For more information, go to or call the Popular Book Co’s customer service hotline at 1-300-88 6336.

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