She embraces her Chinese-Malay heritage and discovers her true talent

  • Books
  • Friday, 21 Oct 2016

Two months before the launch of her debut novel, Selina Siak Chin Yoke confessed in a blog posting that her “emotions are starting to cause havoc”. What if people hate her book?

“I fear I may be a wreck by November,” she wrote at

As it turned out, the Ipoh-born, London-based former investment banker has no cause to worry.

Her novel, The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds, was selected by editors of Amazon Publishing as one of their six choices for the Kindle First programme for the month of October, prior to its Nov 1 official release.

Loosely based on Siak’s baba-nonya roots, the story tells of a girl who embraces her Chinese-Malay heritage and in so doing discovers her talent as a cook. Readers have given it enthusiastic reviews at One describes it as “a masterpiece”, saying that the descriptions of nonya food in the book are so vivid that one can almost smell the kuih being made. The book’s editor, Elizabeth DeNoma, agrees, saying her senses were “bewitched by descriptions of sizzling garlic and burbling coconut milk”.

The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds was inspired by Siak’s maternal great-grandmother who died in 1941.

“I heard a lot about her while growing up but all I did was to store those stories somewhere inside,” Siak says in an e-mail interview.

“Then I remembered the dream I had of writing a story loosely based on her life. The resulting story, though, is fiction. None of the characters resembles a real person – many are entirely made up, as are the events.”

Basically, the book is a “historical epic family drama”, as Siak puts it. In that, she’s following in some familial footsteps: Her maternal great-grandfather was the father of the late Chin Kee Onn who wrote about the Japanese Occupation in the nonfiction book Malaya Upside Down (Jitts & Co, Singapore, 1946).

Siak, who has a degree in physics from Britain’s Southampton University and a doctorate in Theoretical Condensed-Matter Physics, turned to writing when she had to battle cancer in 2009.

“I started writing a year after chemotherapy, when I felt very low. Writing saved my life; I don’t know what would have happened if I had not started putting words down on paper. With every page I wrote I could feel my energy returning.”

Before she started writing seriously, Siak had been a research physicist, investment banker and quantitative trader.

“Of all of these, I have enjoyed writing the most,” she says.

Siak: ‘Writing saved my life.’ — Handout
Siak: ‘Writing saved my life.’

Siak says she lived her protagonist’s life during the two years she took to write the book.

“When I was back in Ipoh, I imagined walking the old streets as she would have.”

It took another 11 months to edit her manuscript; in a 2013 blog posting, Siak said she once wondered “why some books took their authors seven to 10 years to write”. “Now I know,” she said wryly.

One of the toughest parts in completing the book project was to come up with the title, she says.

“I ran this one past my agent, who liked it, and my publisher liked it too so we stayed with this title. The editing process at Amazon Crossing, my publisher, is very rigorous.”

When the book finally came out, Siak says her heart skipped a few beats.

“It was the most exciting moment, more exciting than when I held the finished work in my hands. I love the font and the way the text has been typeset, it’s really beautiful.”

Siak is now embarking on her second novel, a continuation of the family saga begun in The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds.

Currently, she is back in Malaysia to promote her book, which will be available from Nov 1 in Kinokuniya Bookstores in Malaysia and at

“Like most Malaysians, I eat when I come back!” says Siak, who has lived abroad for almost four decades.

“Though I’ve lived longer in England than in Malaysia, I still feel very Malaysian. My earliest memories are of Malaysia and nothing can break those childhood bonds to this wonderful land.

“That being said, England has allowed me to express myself fully in every way and I’m grateful for that.”

Selina Siak Chin Yoke is participating in MYWriters Fest 2016, a month-long festival that celebrates local authors with events held nationwide every weekend and public holiday in October. Siak will be at the Readings@Seksan event tomorrow at 2pm at No.67, Jalan Tempinis 1, Lucky Garden, Kuala Lumpur.

Article type: metered
User Type: anonymous web
User Status:
Campaign ID: 7
Cxense type: free
User access status: 3

Across The Star Online