Smorgasbord Book Reviews – #Malaya #1950s – The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly by Kwan Kew Lai

Delighted to share my review for an extraordinary memoir by Kwan Kew Lai – The Girl Who Taught Herself How to Fly. On Pre-order for October 25th 2022

About the book

★★★★★ “A thoughtful consideration of the ways women and girls survive—and even thrive—within oppressive patriarchal systems.” Victoria Namkung, NBC News

Kwan Kew Lai met her first Punjabi woman doctor while lying in a hospital bed with a severe kidney infection at the age of fourteen. Watching the woman walk away down the hall, Kwan Kew was convinced she could, and would, carve out her own destiny.

In the British Straits Settlement of Penang Island, she was born into an impoverished Chinese family of two boys and ten girls on the cusp of the Japanese occupation during World War Two. She did not wish to repeat the life of her uneducated mother, burdened with an endless brood, nor tolerate the fact that her father considered girls useless since they could not carry on their family name.

The newly independent country of Malaya developed a national policy favoring one racial group, the Bumiputras, vastly diminishing her chance of receiving a university scholarship. Her fortuitous introduction to a free library and her determination to continue her education, led to the opportunity of a lifetime: a scholarship from Wellesley College.

When her father saw her off at the Penang International Airport as the first child to attend college, she proved herself to him, but more importantly she started the journey of a lifetime fulfilling dreams that originated as a young girl playing in the mud with the chickens.

In The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly, the author weaves in her family’s story of joy, sorrow, loss, love, and endless struggles with poverty and hunger. This poignant memoir, with universal and timeless themes, will leave you in awe.

My review for The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly October 1st 2022

The author has already published two memoirs about her extraordinary global career in medicine and humanitarian work – Lest We Forget: A Doctor’s Experience with Life and Death During the Ebola Outbreak and Into Africa, Out of Academia: A Doctor’s Memoir

Kwan Kew Lai’s family asked her to write about her upbringing, family and life in Malaya just after the Japanese occupation, and the challenges she faced in obtaining an education at a time when a girl was destined to devote her life to her family, marry young and to bear many children.

Prepare to be amazed, inspired and humbled by this story.

You may have read news articles, books and even seen dramatized accounts of life in Malaya during and after the Japanese occupation, and during the events leading to the nation achieving independence.

But I doubt that you have read such a detailed account of how life really was for those enduring the occupation and the aftermath. Particularly the author’s ancestors, the Hakka and Nanyan Chinese who migrated to Malaya during the nineteenth century.

Growing up in this multicultural society the class system did not favour migrants, including the Tamil Indians in the 1950s. This extended to the education that their children received, and it was a major step forward when primary school was made mandatory and Kwan Kew Lai was enrolled by her mother known by the children as Ah Yee.

The author shares in great detail the daily challenge for Ah Yee to put even the most simple of meals on the table, often going without herself to ensure her husband and family had food. There was also the strain on both her mother and the family of the yearly addition of another baby in the hopes of more sons to continue her father’s bloodline, and the many moves as the family lost both financial support and homes. Her father, 25 years older than her mother, continued to work passed retirement with his own business to provide for his family, but it was a constant struggle to make enough to keep a roof over their heads.

The fortitude of her mother Ah Yee, with 12 children, two boys and ten girls who she devoted her life and every ounce of her being to nurture was inspiring and humbling.

There are moments when you are brought to tears such as when the newest daughter is taken from her mother’s arms without her consent and given to relatives who could not have children of their own. When the author’s father falls prey to scammers that rob the family of their only income. When each move takes the family further down the road to extreme poverty.

Kwan Kew Lai and her siblings had to fight every step of the way to obtain even the basics and yet they thrived and achieved, with an older brother and sister becoming health professionals. This certainly made a difference to the family’s income, but it also paved the way for Kew’s move into secondary school and supported her own ambitions to attend college.

This involved fighting not just the system, but also the expectations within her culture. Undeterred she faced up to both and pursued her dream working day and night to achieve the grades required to apply to colleges in the United States. The reward for these years of determination and hard work was a full scholarship to Wellesley College paving the way for her to become a doctor.

I am awed and inspired by Kwan Kew Lai’s life as I am sure those reading the memoir will be too. ‘Against all the odds’ certainly applies to this remarkable story and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Head over to pre-order the book for October 25th: Amazon US – And: Amazon UK – More reviews: Goodreads

Also by Kwan Kew Lai

Read the reviews and buy the books: Amazon USAnd: Amazon UK – Website/Blog: Kwan Kew LaiFacebook: Kwan Kew Lai Author PageTwitter: @KwanKew

About Kwan Kew Lai

Originally from Penang, Malaysia, Kwan Kew Lai attended Wellesley College on a full scholarship, paving the way for her to become a doctor. In 2005, she left her position as a professor of medicine to dedicate time to humanitarian work: in HIV/AIDS in Africa and to provide disaster relief all over the world, during wars, famine, and natural disasters, including the Ebola outbreak, the Syrian, Rohingya refugee crises, Yemen, and the COVID-19 pandemic in New York and the Navajo Nation. She is a three-time recipient of the President’s Volunteer Service Award.

 

Thanks for dropping in today and I hope you will be leaving with some book… Sally

 

50 thoughts on “Smorgasbord Book Reviews – #Malaya #1950s – The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly by Kwan Kew Lai

  1. Pingback: Smorgasbord Weekly Round Up – 26th September – October 2nd 2022 – Hits 2004, Bocelli, Culinary ‘H’ foods, Basking Sharks, Podcast, Reviews, Health and Humour | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

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