Sylviane the Sino Mauritian

This is the way to hold a wine glass
Sylviane Siah, a specialist in the selection and appreciation of fine wines, is the owner of S & L Vintners, direct importers of French wine.

I was born in Rose Hill, the third largest town in Mauritius, about 10km south of Port Louis on the west coast of the island.  My younger brother and I are third-generation Chinese Mauritians.  Like most Sino-Mauritian children, we are tri-lingual and conversant in French, English and Mauritian Creole.

The population in the Republic of Mauritius is made up of descendants of people from India, Africa and France with a minority from China.  In school, I was often the only Chinese child in class.  I continued my studies in a Canadian university and there, I met the Malacca-born Malaysian man who is now my husband.

Sylviane speaking at a wine appreciation event
After we were married, I lived with my in-laws in Malacca for a year and another year in Kuala Lumpur before we moved to Johor Baru in the late 1980’s.  Even though it is more hot and humid here, I easily adjusted to the climate because Mauritius is typically tropical with warm, dry winters and seasonal cyclones. 

While cyclones are destructive to the agricultural economy in Mauritius, it was fun for me because when there were Class 3 cyclones, I used to enjoy welcome breaks as all schools had to be closed!

I remember experiencing a culture shock when I first arrived in Malaysia.  The Chinese are a minority in Mauritius but there is a large Chinese presence in multi-racial Malaysia.  So it was a while before I got used to living among many people who looked like me! 

My husband is Hokkien so I picked up a few useful phrases like, “Kam siah” (Thank you) and “Lu ho bo?” (How are you?)  I hardly speak French here but it was uncanny that a French tourist, who had lost his way around Malacca city, happened to turn up at my in-law’s house to ask for help.  When I opened the door to him, it was a pleasant surprise for both of us to suddenly find someone who could chat comfortably in French!

Sylviane on how to read labels on wine bottles

I’m not traditional or conservative but I’m learning some interesting traditions and taboos from this country’s rich culture.  During the confinement month after my son was born, I remember the shock on the faces of my mother-in-law and eldest sister-in-law when they found me hand-washing the baby’s nappies.  They were horrified and insisted that I stop immediately to let the maid do all the washing, and I did so obediently but only learnt the reason why much later.

I find Malaysia similar to Mauritius in that it is common for a combination of several cuisines to form part of the same meal.  While we often have a blend of Chinese, Malay, Indian and European influences in our food here, back in Mauritius, it is a blend of Indian, African, Chinese and European dishes.  I grew up with French and local cuisine but in Johor Baru, I’ve discovered a taste for Teochew food.

In Mauritius, the production of rum – made from sugar cane – is widespread and beer is also produced on the island.  I grew up in a culture of drinking wine with our meals and I know how to enjoy a glass or two with my meal.  About ten years ago a Malaysian friend imported some wine from Provence, France, for himself and shared six bottles with me. 

When I brought these bottles of French wine to a party, it was very well received.  My friends quizzed me about my source and when I explained how I came to have those bottles, they wanted me to order more and import them on their behalf.  These orders became so frequent and in increasing quantities that it started to be a business for me.

Sylviane discussing the details on a wine bottle label
I’ve always wanted to do something that interests me and wine appreciation is something I already know.  It was also an opportunity for me to stay in touch with the French part of me.  So I started a business as an importer of French wine.

To me, every bottle of French wine is like a book because the information on its label may include the name of the producer and the bottler’s names, or if the wine was bottled at its place or origin.  The French are passionate about what they do and I can read so much history and experience of the winery just from the bottle’s label.  I always tell French wine connoisseurs that there is a story behind every label.

Through distributing French wines, I made many friends in the food and beverage industry in Johor Baru.  I feel that foreign restauranteurs who operate French, Italian, English, Japanese, Korean, and fine-dine specialty restaurants in the city are contributing a great deal to make Johor Baru more exciting.  In the last thirty years, I’ve seen many changes in the city and it find it interesting to meet more discerning wine drinkers who know how to appreciate high-quality, nuanced wines from the evolving wine world. 

A version of this interview was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 10 November 2011

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