Paint­ing a Per­anakan pic­ture

Dr Lee Su Kim’s lat­est book takes a dif­fer­ent perspective this time: She tells sto­ries from the men’s point of view.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Reads - By TER­ENCE TOH star2@thes­tar.com.my

WHEN au­thor Dr Lee Su Kim was a young girl, she some­times won­dered why her Can­tonese, that she picked up from her Amah, sounded so dif­fer­ent from the Can­tonese that her friends spoke. An­other mys­tery was why she tanned so much faster than them in the sun – so much so that her fa­ther called her “Hi­tam Ma­nis” (an af­fec­tion­ate nick­name for those of darker com­plex­ion).

As she grew up, Lee learnt all this was due to her Per­anakan her­itage; her fa­ther was a baba from Melaka, while her mother was a nonya from Pe­nang. Her her­itage is some­thing Lee is now fiercely proud of: she has been ac­tive in cul­tural ac­tivism over the last 10 years, and was the found­ing pres­i­dent of the Per­anakan Baba Ny­onya As­so­ci­a­tion of Kuala Lumpur &

Selangor. “It (Per­anakan culture) is such a flam­boy­ant, colour­ful and unique culture with its share of ec­cen­tric per­son­al­i­ties, com­plex cul­tural rit­u­als, and a rich ar­ray of tra­di­tions and be­liefs. It’s a wonderful con­flu­ence of cul­tural in­flu­ences from so many cul­tures, that it’s im­pos­si­ble not to be in­spired!” Lee says in a re­cent e-mail in­ter­view.

“My fam­ily ob­served the tra­di­tional rit­u­als, cel­e­brated the many fes­ti­vals, hon­oured our an­ces­tors, and cooked fab­u­lous feasts, thus I grew with an in­sider knowl­edge of the smells, sounds, aro­mas, flavours, noises and ca­dences as well as the be­lief sys­tems of a tra­di­tional baba nonya house­hold.”

(For those not in the know, the Per­anakan, or Straits-born Chi­nese, are the de­scen­dants of Chi­nese im­mi­grants who came to the Malay archipelago be­tween the 15th and 17th cen­turies and in­ter­marMalaysian ried with the lo­cals. mem­bers of this com­mu­nity re­fer to them­selves as baba and nonya – baba is male and nonya is fe­male.)

Lee’s Per­anakan her­itage forms a ma­jor part in the sto­ries of Manek Mis­chiefs, her most re­cent col­lec­tion of short stothird ries. It is the in a tril­ogy, fol­low­ing 2010’s Ke­baya Tales (which won the first prize in the fic­tion cat­e­gory in the 2011 Pop­u­lar-The Star Read­ers’ Choice Awards) and 2013’s Sarong Se­crets.

Ac­cord­ing to Lee, Manek Mis­chiefs almost didn’t get writ­ten at all.

“Af­ter hav­ing writ­ten two col­lec­short tions of sto­ries be­fore, I thought I could move on to other projects. How­ever, I still had a few more juicy tales!” Lee says. “The push fac­tor came from my edi­tor who en­cour­aged me to write a tril­ogy, even send­ing me a beau­ti­ful book cover with the ti­tle Manek Mis­chiefs and a beaded mo­tif. It was tempt­ing as I had never writ­ten a tril­ogy be­fore.”

Lee is As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor of English at the School of Lan­guage Stud­ies and Lin­guis­tics, Univer­siti Ke­bangsaan Malaysia. She has writ­ten nine books, in­clud­ing two bestsellers, Malaysian Flavours: In­sights Into Things Malaysian (2004) and Man­glish: Malaysian English At Its Wack­i­est (1998), which have both sold more than 10,000 copies each. Manek Mis­chiefs (“of pa­tri­archs, play­paramours”, boys and elab­o­rates its sub­head) is a col­lec­tion of sto­ries set in the vivid, multi-hued world of the Per­anakans, told with Lee’s trade­mark wit and elo­quence. This col­lec­tion fea­tures mas­cu­line per­spec­tives, as it fo­cuses on the babas, a voice Lee feels has of­ten been side­lined.

“The babas were renowned for their business en­ter­prises, business acu­men, great con­tri­bu­tions to so­ci­ety and na­tion build­ing from the 18th to the mid-20th cen­tury, up to the Ja­panese oc­cu­pa­tion of Malaya dur­ing World War II.

“Many were prom­i­nent busi­ness­men, po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, re­form­ers, cham­pi­ons of ed­u­ca­tion, pa­trons of the arts and phi­lan­thropists,” Lee says.

“They were the in­ter­me­di­aries be­tween the Bri­tish colo­nial rulers and the lo­cals, and were cul­tur­ally savvy, ne­go­ti­at­ing skil­fully among their Chi­nese, lo­cal, and Angli­cised iden­ti­ties. Post World War II, the em­pha­sis has been on the more fem­i­nine as­pects of the Per­anakan culture.”

“Manek” means beads, and beads are the fo­cus of many of the book’s vi­su­als; there are im­ages of beau­ti­ful beaded per­sonal be­long­ings of the babas, such as manek shoes, wed­ding para­pher­na­lia, or­na­ments, and even beaded mag­ni­fy­ing glasses and stop­watch cases.

“Many of the im­ages come from pri­vate col­lec­tions. I was for­tu­nate to have them made avail­able to me by some very kind friends. I was also priv­i­leged in that the cu­ra­tor of the world-class Per­anakan Mu­seum of Sin­ga­pore in­vited me to use im­ages of items from its ex­quis­ite col­lec­tion of bead­ing and em­broi­dery from the South-East Asia re­gion,” Lee says.

The sto­ries in the book range from whim­si­cal to weird, from stir­ring to sor­row­ful: in “The Bride Who Re­fuses To Strip”, for in­stance, a bliss­ful bach­e­lor dis­cov­ers some­thing strange about the woman he mar­ries. “The Stump” fea­tures a fam­ily feud­ing over a large piece of land willed to them. And “The Kueh Broth­ers” is based on Lee’s own fam­ily his­tory, in­spired by sto­ries told to the au­thor about her grand­mother, a feisty Pe­nang nonya who sold nonya kuih and asam laksa dur­ing the Ja­panese oc­cu­pa­tion!

The last story in the col­lec­tion, “Through Lara’s Eyes”, holds spe­cial weight for Lee, as it is based on a real-life ex­pe­ri­ence and was the hard­est for her to write.

“It was a story that friends who know me and the street where I grew up on had urged me to write. But it in­volved a great per­sonal loss and I was re­luc­tant to re­visit the heart­break. But as Manek Mis­chiefs is my last col­lec­tion in this tril­ogy and fo­cused on the babas, I re­alised it was now or never,” the au­thor ex­plains.

“So I wrote a semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal story about a tragedy that oc­curred. It was very hard and I went about my ev­ery­day life like a chicken left out in the rain, dis­solv­ing in tears when try­ing to ar­tic­u­late my feel­ings and the in­ci­dent.

“But I jux­ta­posed the para­graphs of sad­ness with mem­o­ries of pure hap­pi­ness and joy. I still avoid read­ing the sad parts when I re­visit that story, though.”

What’s next for Lee? Plenty, it seems. Her first main­stream book, Malaysian Flavours (a col­lec­tion of her col­umns writ­ten for The Star from 1993 to 1996) will soon be reprinted. The au­thor will also be co-au­thor­ing a new book on Malaysian English with her hus­band, Prof Stephen Hall; it is due early next year.

“I’d also like to try my hand at turn­ing some of my sto­ries into plays or scripts for TV or film if the op­por­tu­nity arises. And on the hori­zon, I’d very much like to try and write a novel one day!” Lee says.

Lee will be ap­pear­ing at the BookFest@ Malaysia 2017 on Satur­day at 6pm to talk about her books and Per­anakan his­tory and culture.

BookFest@Malaysia 2017 is cur­rently on daily, from 10am to 10pm, un­til July 2, at the Kuala Lumpur Con­ven­tion Cen­tre. Ad­mis­sion is with pur­chase of the BookFest cat­a­logue at RM2.50 per en­try or RM10 for mul­ti­ple en­tries. Cat­a­logues are avail­able at all Pop­u­lar and Har­ris book­store out­lets na­tion­wide and also at the event’s en­trance. En­trance is free for stu­dents 18 years old and be­low and se­nior cit­i­zens aged 60 and above. For more in­for­ma­tion, visit face­book.com/BookFestMalaysia. Star Media Group is a media part­ner of BookFest@Malaysia 2017.

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