Fun in a foreign land

This week YVONNE TEW focuses on life as a Malaysian in a UK university and addresses important issues such as how to survive without Malaysian food. 

It was hard to believe that the Chinese New Year steamboat party was taking place in Britain.

One of the questions I have been asked countless times, with thinly disguised pity, by well-meaning relatives and friends in Malaysia is how I celebrated my Chinese New Year. Or, rather, whether I celebrated it at all.  

The common perception seems to be that of a poor, cold, lonely Yvonne stuck in a gloomy foreign land having soggy fish and chips for my Chinese New Year Eve dinner and trudging through the snow to lectures and supervisions amidst such an important holiday. Whilst the latter part of the statement is wholly true, I have to admit (at the risk of the pity factor which no doubt contributes to the size of my ang pows being significantly reduced) that the former could not be further from the truth.  

Although Chinese New Year is hardly noticed by the locals, there is an almost palpable stirring amongst the Malaysians (and other Chinese) all over the UK whenever festivals like that creep up. 

The seriousness with which some approach the preparation of such an important event was illustrated through a conversation I had with a Singaporean senior who invited me to a ‘cook-out’ (or a ‘pot-luck’) on Chinese New Year Eve. Naturally, I accepted readily and asked whether I would have to bring a dish along.  

“No,” was the immediate reply. “We don’t trust just anybody to do the cooking.” 

“Oh,” I said, wondering rather amusedly whether to feel insulted at their obvious estimation of my culinary abilities or glad that I wouldn’t have to put those aforesaid culinary abilities to the test. “Well, alright then, will we be doing the washing up then?” 

Whereupon the reply was, “If by ‘we’ you mean ‘you and I’, then yes, we will.” Pause. “My cooking has not been deemed worthy enough for such an important event as well.”  

My curiosity and anticipation was then, quite understandably, very piqued at just how expert these cooks were who had been given the honour to cook for this “important event”. The Singaporean chefs that night (mostly second year students and male with the exception of one female) came up with a real Chinese New Year Eve dinner with enough dishes to rival the feasts everyone was enjoying back home.  

I gaped at the first dish on the table, which was the traditional standard – yee sang.  

Yes, of all things, yee sang! Home-made with grated fresh vegetables and sauces lovingly brought over from Singapore in preparation for this very event. It made a very pretty dish but not pretty enough to stop us all from gleefully loh-ing it, much to the discomfort of the guy whose room we were in who was justifiably worried about his carpet.  

The dishes that followed were also so typically Chinese that you could be forgiven for forgetting you weren’t actually back home. We had duck in soya sauce (tau eu ak), roast pork (sui yoke), fried chicken wings, abalone on lettuce and a whole host of other dishes which I can’t even remember the names of. To top it off, we even had barley foo chok for dessert!  

As if that wasn’t enough to impress my disbelieving family and relatives back home, for a Chinese New Year Day celebration itself, the Malaysians in Cambridge (not to be outdone) had, in true Chinese New Year tradition, a steamboat party. How? Why, in our rice cookers, of course. There must have been about eight rice cookers of various sizes and models on the table.        

The cast of the play before taking a well-deserved bow.

The table was also loaded with wan tan (wrapped up with mathematical precision by a Maths student and deep fried at an accurate temperature by an Engineering student whilst Law students like me helpfully volunteered to sue them if the oil in the deep-fryer was carcinogenic whilst happily eating it anyway), vegetables, crabmeat, mussels, sea food and beef strips all to be cooked in a choice of either chicken or tom yam soup. I was also utterly gleeful to find that we even had tong yuen (flour balls with a sweet filling) in ginger soup for dessert.  

These are just some events which are best celebrated with fellow Malaysians. Fellow Malaysians who can cook, I may add. 

In fact, although Cambridge does offer a multitude of different activities and the experience to immerse yourself in British culture at its best (or worst) which is indeed something every student abroad should do, there is something distinctly close-knit about the Malaysian student community. 

Perhaps it’s the feeling of familiarity in a foreign country, the shared lahs or our common passion for food but it would be difficult to find a Malaysian in Cambridge who was not an active and enthusiastic part of the Cambridge Malaysian Society. 

It is with this spirit in mind that the Malaysians throw themselves into the Annual Malaysia Night which is open to all the students from Cambridge or other universities and showcases what is touted as a cultural talent show with plays, traditional dances, wayang kulit and a lion dance by the Cambridge Lion Dance Team. (How cool is that! I never even suspected such a thing existed.)  

So there I was in the Malaysia Night play, acting as a ditzy Nyonya bimbo who makes kuih and flirts shamelessly in Hokkien. I kid you not. The play was an archetypal Malaysian play with exaggerated, stereotypical, over-the-top acting complete with the must-have Ah Beng, Chinese towkay, melodramatic Nyonya mother, head wagging Indian and even a rap-dancing kopitiam sweeper.  

There were literally times when I would shake my head and say to myself in disbelief, “I can’t believe I came all the way to Cambridge to act as a Nyonya bimbo in a play like this.” 

It was however tremendously fun to slip out of proper British life every once in awhile and immerse oneself in the loud, colourful world of Malaysians during rehearsals and, of course, Malaysia Night itself. 

Whoever said it would be difficult for Malaysians to feel at home in the UK?  

  • Yvonne Tew is currently reading Law in Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge. She can be reached at

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