KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 17 ― Some stories have to be shared before they vanish for good. As the author of Sarong Secrets, a collection of short stories that delves into the unique Peranakan culture, Lee Su Kim knows the danger of the younger generation of Peranakans losing their heritage first-hand.
“It is a struggle to record our stories and a way of life before they all disappear,” she says.
Lee is also the President of the Peranakan Baba Nyonya Association of KL and Selangor, which aims at creating an awareness of the Peranakan culture and community, and an Associate Professor of English at the School of Language Studies and Linguistics, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
Growing up in a pre-war house along Jalan Sin Chew Kee in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, this elegant Nyonya shared her home with an extended Peranakan family with its myriad influences from Chinese, Malay, Javanese, Thai, and European cultures.
“My father was a Malaccan Baba, and my mother a Penang Nyonya. The house was often filled with visitors, ringing with voices, all sorts of dialects and languages, suffused with tantalizing aromas as my mother was always busy cooking the most amazing Peranakan food.”
When writing her stories, Lee found that describing the Peranakan household came easily to her ― from the many languages spoken and the constant code switching, to the clothes they wore and the daily rituals. Her stories chronicle their way of life, something almost lost today.
“The women wore colourful sarongs and kebayas, and chatted in the Baba patois or Penang Hokkien. Every morning you could hear the sound of sambal blachan being pounded or rempah (curry pastes) being ground on the batu giling (grinding stone). Grandma would swear in Baba Malay whenever startled out of her wits. Mother was feisty and sharp-tongued, a repository of amazing stories while my father, the strong silent type, loved to listen to her spin her tales.”
Some of these colourful scenes inevitably crept into her stories. Her love of Nyonya food and cooking as well as knowledge of the Nyonya kitchen and the elaborate preparations within can be discovered in The House of Smells and Noises, a humourously poignant tale of an excellent Nyonya cook with two disinterested but highly ambitious daughters.
Lee’s experience as an academician made her more conscious of stylistics, word choice and organisation of words and sentences. She cautions, however, that “this doesn’t make you a successful writer ― it may even hinder you. You’ve got to give vent to your inner creativity, and be passionate and committed.”
Writers reveal their own struggles, fears and dreams through their work. Lee doesn’t believe that writing needs to be relentlessly autobiographical though.
“I have to let my stories speak for themselves. I remember during those years studying literature at university, we had to analyse a famous poet, his inner thoughts and fears. It occurred to me that perhaps all he was doing was simply writing an ode to beauty, but we over-interpret the poor writer to death.”
Readers may uncover familiar motifs running through some of Lee’s work but she reveals that she allows the stories of the Peranakans to inspire her rather than try to keep to a specific theme.
“I write the stories, the ones I’ve always wanted to tell. This takes quite a lot of time, revising and reworking till I’m satisfied. Then after the collection is complete, I look at the common or dominant threads that run through. In Kebaya Tales I had stories of strong bibik matriarchs, of mistresses turning up at the funeral and even a nosey matchmaker; so I subtitled that book, ‘Of Matriarchs, Maidens, Mistresses and Matchmakers’, using alliteration as a stylistic tool.”
One wonders whether these stereotypes of Peranakan women are a thing of the past, or do they still persist, even in this modern age?
Lee doesn’t think such Nyonya matriachs exist anymore, noting that “modern mothers-in-law bend over backwards nowadays to please their daughters-in-law and are usually more like friends than bossy, dominating bullies. Marriages today are love matches; no more arranged marriages so I guess the matchmaker is also obsolete.”
Smiling, she adds, “As for mistresses, I’m quite sure they are still around in all societies...”
Lee’s love for the unique multicultural aspects of our country and its myriad cultures prevails in her storytelling. Her tales are more than just stories of the Peranakans; they display a yearning for the nostalgia of a more innocent bygone era. That beautiful culture and those singular lives are worth revisiting over and over.
Lee Su Kim’s latest book, Sarong Secrets, is out now in all major bookstores. Visit the author’s website at http://www.leesukim.net for more information.
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on January 16, 2014