Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Chen May Yee

I've been combing the internet for stories about BBGSians when I chanced upon this article from the Star dated April 4, 2005. May Yee and I were at school together and she went on to become a journalist and author. This article describes how May Yee traced 4 generations of her family's history and compiled it into a narrative entitled "Born and Bred in Pewter Dust"

Name: Chen May Yee

Education: Bukit Bintang Girls’ School, Kuala Lumpur; Bristol University (BSc in Economics and Sociology), UK; Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism (MSc in Journalism), New York, United States

Profession: Journalist/author

Current base: Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States

What do we know about our own ancestry? Most of us are so engrossed in making money that we think little of it. For this reason, Chen May Yee deserves our envy. Not only has she managed to chart four generations of her family’s history, but she has managed to compile everything into a poignant 132-page narrative.

This will be an invaluable asset to her family for generations to come. Chen May Yee traced four generations of her family’s history and compiled everything into a poignant 132-page narrative called Born and Bred in Pewter Dust: The Royal Selangor Story. The book was published in November 2003, but it has been on the backburner since the 1980s.

Perhaps, it was a matter of commissioning the right person to capture in writing the legacy founder Yong Koon started 120 years ago. As the only journalist in the family, Chen was the obvious choice.

In mid-2001, having just left her job at Asian Wall Street Journal (AWSJ) in Singapore, Chen felt she needed a break from journalism after seven years. She returned home to Kuala Lumpur to begin work on the book. It took two years and a lot of “emotional investment”.

“Most of the research involved oral history, talking to employees, some of them in their 60s and 70s. They were eager to share their memories. For so long, no one asked them what it was like in that era. It was fairly emotional for them, and for me too. They would look at me and say things like, ‘Your grandfather (Yong Peng Kai) told me to save money. He booked my house for me in Taman Melawati and I’m still living there now’,” Chen, said.

She was back recently for her book-signing at the Royal Selangor Visitor Centre in Kuala Lumpur.
“All these things fleshed out my grandparents and what they were like when they were at work and interacting with other people. I just knew them as my grandparents. It gave me a sense of what it was they had built up, how difficult some of those years were and how everyone was in it together.”

Undertaking the project also helped Chen gain a better appreciation of why her mother and three siblings are so driven and married to their work. Till today, they remain active in the business.

“I guess I didn’t understand that when I was growing up because as children you just want your parents to be home,” added Chen.
Writing a book of such personal nature was not an easy task, especially for a journalist who was used to “objective journalism”. When she completed her first draft and circulated it among family members, there were surprisingly no objections.

She revealed that one of her cousins confessed to crying when reading the book. Before this no one had ever called her to say an AWSJ article made him or her cry. That made it all worthwhile.

“But I hope when readers read the book they are not going to think that this is the story of one little company that grew.

“It is also the story of Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia. Without tin, there would be no mass immigration in the 1800s, which changed the face of the country,” she explained.

In 2002, Chen and her husband Chris Beck, moved back to his hometown in Minneapolis. Then last April, she was appointed assistant business editor at the Minneapolis-Star Tribune in Minnesota.

Chen has no immediate plans to write another book. She has a job that she’s still feeling her way around and a one-year-old daughter, Zoe, so for now, she has her hands full.

She admitted that she missed going out, talking to people and getting stories firsthand.

“Every so often I try to get out. I like to meet people in the community, for example those who are involved in companies that my reporters cover. Seeing that I just moved to Minneapolis, I’m still figuring out the lay of the land, the industry players and how they interact,” she said.

When she joined the newspaper, Chen sensed the staff had their reservations, especially since many of the reporters were older than her and had been with the paper a long time.

“Being young was probably a question mark for them as was the fact that I was not from Minnesota. They were probably thinking, ‘what do you know of local businesses?’ But my job is not to know everything. It’s about asking what they (the reporters) know. Then I try and help them frame their stories.”
Chen confessed that she is still figuring out what an editor does. As no one has quit, she jested that she must be doing something right.

During her years as a correspondent for news wire services AFP and AWSJ, Chen said her most interesting stories were not about prominent politicians or businessmen.

“Talking to the people on the street, out of the kampung, and trying to figure out where the country was heading. This country (Malaysia), which used to be a kampung-based society, has been through so much development in the 1980s and 90s. I think it makes for very interesting stories on the ground.”
Chen was fortunate that she never had to choose between journalism and the family business. For her siblings and their mother, it was never a choice. Business was growing and their father, who was soldiering on what his father Yong started, needed them.

“And he really wouldn’t hear them doing anything else,” she pointed out. “There are 11 of us in my generation, and six are in various positions in the company (including brother Tien Yue, 27, who manages the company’s corporate sales). They all worked in various capacities elsewhere and only later went into their own professional specialities within the company. “It was always impressed on us that there should be a good fit, that we shouldn’t go in just because you are a family member. And for me the best fit is writing a book.”

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