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 intermarried with the locals. Malaysian 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 stories. It is the third 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 collections of short 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, playboys and paramours”, 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 July 1 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.