The Sharpened Word session held on Saturday, July 16 at the Old Andersonians’ Club was a transition into the colourful world of the babas and nyonyas featuring ornate furniture, vintage sarong kebaya display and titbits loved by the Peranakan Chinese. The highlight of the day was the slide presentations by Dr Lee Su Kim and Melissa Chan, both dressed in their best lace-trimmed floral kebayas.
Author of “Kebaya Tales: Of Matriarchs, Maidens, Mistresses and Matchmakers” and “Sarong Secrets: Of Love, Loss and Longing”, Dr Lee talked about her upcoming third collection of stories for the fiction trilogy. Tentatively named “Manek Mischiefs” with ten short stories, it is currently halfway to completion.
What are the challenges she faced as a writer? “A lot of discipline, perseverance and hard work. How much of yourself do you disclose and keep? Like a craft, you have to keep on working to produce good work. When I decided to try fiction, that was another kind of challenge because to capture the nuances and flavours of a multilingual society which the Babas and Nonyas were, is not easy,” Dr Lee shared with Ipoh Echo.
Her first book took her three years to finish while her second book also took about the same amount of time. Before the debut of her fiction, she penned the bestselling “Malaysian Flavours: Insights into Things Malaysian” and “Manglish: Malaysian English at its Wackiest”. Both books have sold more than 10,000 copies each.
Here is her advice for other aspiring writers out there: “Every culture and society is unique. All of us have got the stories. Do not be afraid, tell your stories because if you don’t who will? In this era of Facebook and all that, it is all going to be lost, so it is important that we should be recording and documenting the stories.”
A sixth generation Nyonya with roots in both Penang and Malacca Peranakan communities, Dr Lee is also the founder member and first woman president of the Peranakan Baba Nyonya Association of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. To get updates on her upcoming work, do swing by her Facebook page at LeeSuKimAuthor.
You must also put Melissa Chan’s first-ever illustrative book on your wishlist. During the prelude, it was amazing to note how the detailed illustrations superimpose onto real-life photos, showing us how buildings such as the Capitol Theatre in Malacca used to be in its heyday. In her writing journey, she conducts multiple interviews to learn the stories of the locals. Among the subjects she is documenting are the art of kerosang brooch making and the pawn shops.
When asked on what keeps her doing what she is doing, she replied, “I see a lot of the developments that is happening and I feel very sad. The heritage voices are getting smaller.” Following is what she wished to convey via her upcoming book, “To appreciate our identity and future, we need to understand our past and roots.”
As the fifth generation of the Chan family, Melissa is the housekeeper for the Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum in Malacca. The museum is the house where four generations of the Chan family lived since the 1861. “I’m working on a school tour programme for children and parents. It’s like a book tour and we are working together with the University of Nottingham,” she explained, adding that the kitchen is her favourite portion of the house.
Melissa’s book will be launched later this year. Interested readers can visit babanyonyamuseum.com for more info.