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Putting on the Nyonya bridal headgear (left). A Baba bridegroom gets ready in traditional garments (right)Putting on the Nyonya bridal headgear (left). A Baba bridegroom gets ready in traditional garments (right)KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 18 — The Peranakan culture is thriving. From its fantastic cuisine (think ayam pongteh and buah keluak) to museums and heritage trails in the former Straits Settlements of Malacca and Penang, everything Baba and Nyonya is popular, to be sure.

But is this a true representation of this unique culture, or merely a crass commercialisation of it?

The latter is what has gotten Peranakan culture activist Dr Lee Su Kim concerned. As a founding member and the current president of the Peranakan Baba Nyonya Association of Kuala Lumpur & Selangor, she hopes that the upcoming 26th Baba Nyonya International Convention 2013 that her association is organising will serve to reconnect members of the contemporary Peranakan community with their roots.

Dr Lee Su Kim jokes, “You can take the Baba Nyonya out of the country, but you cannot take the Baba Nyonya out of the Baba Nyonya!”. - Pictures by Choo Choy MayDr Lee Su Kim jokes, “You can take the Baba Nyonya out of the country, but you cannot take the Baba Nyonya out of the Baba Nyonya!”. - Pictures by Choo Choy MayReturning to her roots

As the author of nine books including Malaysian Flavours and Manglish: Malaysian English at its Wackiest, Peranakan culture activist Lee knows something about what it means to be a Malaysian. But even she admits she took some time to realise and appreciate importance of her own Peranakan heritage.

“My own upbringing was steeped in Peranakan traditions, but not completely. Not as deeply as my elders who were brought up in these traditions. Those in my generation did not appreciate this until much was lost – hence our current efforts to collect, share and promote Peranakan culture for younger generations,” she says.

Growing up with a Malaccan Baba father who spoke Baba Malay at home and a Penangite Nyonya mother who spoke Penangite Hokkien, Lee often felt she had the best of both worlds. Hers was the generation that came from marriages of Malaccan and Penangite Peranakans, and who subsequently settled down in Kuala Lumpur.

She adds with a wry smile, “My friends would tease that I’m a true blue Peranakan because of my parents. I don’t realise it’s unique because I grew up with it, you see. I only discovered how special this was when I visited a friend’s house for dinner and the portion was huge – a heaping plate of rice – so different from what I was used to!”

Most Malaysians are familiar with Peranakan culture through its cuisine, such as these Nyonya kuihsMost Malaysians are familiar with Peranakan culture through its cuisine, such as these Nyonya kuihsIn her early 20s and 30s though, Lee wasn’t interested in her roots. She recalls, “My mother offered me this intan (diamond) pendant when I got married but I rejected it as old-fashioned. Only now do I realise its true value! Good thing it’s still in the family as she gave it to my sister.”

As an academician – Lee is currently an Associate Professor of English at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia – she is able to appreciate that the education of Nyonya women after World War II was a double-edged sword.

“On one hand, we had more opportunities but at the same time because our mothers were busy chasing us out of the kitchens so we could study, less was passed down. My generation of Nyonya women experienced cultural dilution due to our emancipation.”

Lee is grateful she managed to grow up with some traditions rather than none at all though. She explains, “My generation was not 100 per cent in it but at least we had a foot in, unlike the current generation who came after that and don’t even have this. That’s why I’ve become a cultural activist and do my best to upkeep our Peranakan culture.”

After some of her events, she often has younger Babas and Nyonyas coming up to her to thank her for her efforts. “My most memorable tale was this young Baba who told me that he only found out about his heritage during his wedding preparation when his parents requested wedding guests to arrive in their Peranakan attire. He didn’t even know he was Peranakan till then!”

A community gathers

The Persatuan Peranakan Baba Nyonya Kuala Lumpur & Selangor was officially formed in 2008 but its beginnings came about three years earlier when Lee’s husband took her to a symposium on Peranakan culture held at Muzium Negara.

“We met a lot of Peranakans there. We didn’t even realise that there were so many of us in Kuala Lumpur! After the event, everyone was so excited and wondered how we could keep in touch with one another. Mind you, our initial idea was only to meet up and socialise,” she says.

The chanap is a Peranakan display of preserved half-ripe papaya carved in the shape of crabs and flowers that are placed on an decorated boxThe chanap is a Peranakan display of preserved half-ripe papaya carved in the shape of crabs and flowers that are placed on an decorated boxA young Baba learning about his heritage while helping to prepare the chanapA young Baba learning about his heritage while helping to prepare the chanapAs the founding president, Lee sees the need for cultural activism activities especially for the younger generation of Babas and Nyonyas. Their elders, particularly those in Malacca or Penang, continue their traditions to some extent, but these are not passed on to their children and grandchildren who have moved to Kuala Lumpur or even overseas.

“Over time, we discovered other Peranakan associations and communities in the former Straits Settlements (Malacca, Penang, Singapore), the East Coast (Kelantan & Terengganu), other Peranakan hubs (Phuket, Indonesia, Vietnam) and even Peranakan diaspora such as those who migrated to Melbourne and settled down there. We started reaching out to build our fraternity with them.”

Lee shares that most Malaysians only knew of the Peranakan communities in the former Straits Settlements. However, these weren’t the only stops for the Chinese traders who travelled down to Southeast Asia and married local women all those centuries ago.

“This means that there are Peranakans in Vietnam, Burma, Phuket, Indonesia too. In Peninsular Malaysia, besides the Baba Nyonya in Malacca and Penang, there are also Peranakan communities in Terengganu and Kelantan, only they aren’t called Babas and Nyonyas as they weren’t from the Straits Settlements. This is why our association uses the terms ‘Peranakan’ and ‘Baba Nyonya’ in order to be more inclusive.”

Look closer at the intricate and colourful details of this traditional Nyonya attireLook closer at the intricate and colourful details of this traditional Nyonya attireBesides the original settlements of Peranakan culture, Lee notes there is a healthy Peranakan diaspora in other countries. These communities are still active and interested to preserve their culture. She jokes, “You can take the Baba Nyonya out of the country, but you cannot take the Baba Nyonya out of the Baba Nyonya!”

Not only a “museum culture”

As the youngest association to host the Baba Nyonya International Convention, Lee hopes that the Persatuan Peranakan Baba Nyonya Kuala Lumpur & Selangor will be able to fulfil their goals of disseminating knowledge and creating greater awareness about the Peranakan culture.

She observes, “The Peranakan is a unique culture that flourished during interesting times. The Peranakan people had traits of adapting, tolerance and resourcefulness. We are grateful that our culture can encompass many different cultures and take the best from each.

“Ultimately, we would like to prevent our Peranakan heritage from becoming merely a ‘museum culture’ but revive it to become a thriving, living culture for current and future generations. Like a beautiful melody or a fantastic book that you do not want to throw away after finishing it, we do not want this culture to disintegrate or only exist as plates in a museum.”

To find out more and register for the upcoming 26th Baba Nyonya International Convention 2013, Kuala Lumpur with its theme of “The Babas and Nyonyas: Beyond Borders, Across Oceans – Resilience, Resurgence, Reconnection” held from Nov 29 – Dec 1 2013 at Holiday Villa Hotel & Suites Subang, please visit http://www.babanyonyaconvention.com

This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on October 17, 2013.

A Peranakan wedding is a beautiful and unique event, steeped in ritualsA Peranakan wedding is a beautiful and unique event, steeped in rituals

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