I have always had an affinity for female characters who strike a perfect balance between discretion and survival, a necessary trait especially for mothers in order to protect their loved ones. Hence, the book entitled “Sarong Secrets: Of Love, Loss and Longing” by Dr Lee Su Kim clamoured for my attention, more so during the past Mother’s Day.
Featuring the colourful world of the Malaysian Peranakan, the tales range from heart-rending, nail-biting, supernatural, to amusing, each one a reflection of this unique cultural heritage particularly when faced with the challenges of modern times. However, the lessons learnt resonate across cultures. For instance, most mothers will agree with Aunty Manis in the story who exclaims, “No nyonya worth her salt will cook from a recipe book, at least not from my generation. I’m quite sure the next generation will be different – my two daughters don’t even know how to cook rice or fry an egg!”
Upon reading, there is much truth on the back cover which aptly depicts the book as “bitter-sweet, light and delicate as the kebaya, spiced with the tang of sambal belacan.” To those who are not familiar with the sambal belacan (a spicy dip made from preserved prawn paste and chillies), no worries! Lee with her sharp senses describes it in vivid detail in “The House of Smells and Noises”, one of my favourite chapters.
The few feisty and sharp-tongued heroines, who will swear in Baba Malay whenever startled out of their wits, are people that you want to love as you will soon discover that their hearts are in the right place.
A collection of twelve short stories seasoned with wit, each chapter ends with either pictures of vintage sarongs and artifacts or the community’s idioms and expressions. Did I mention the family photos of the author too?
Coming right after Sarong Secrets in the trilogy is “Manek Mischiefs: Of Patriarchs, Playboys and Paramours” in which the babas now take centre stage. Hitting the bookstores from May onwards, it will be the ideal Father’s Day book for June!
A former columnist for The Star, Lee is a founder member and the first woman President of the Peranakan Baba Nyonya Association of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. She holds a B. Arts (Hons) degree in English, Diploma in Education (TESL) and Masters in Education from the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur and a Doctorate in Education from the University of Houston. The sixth generation Nyonya with roots in both Penang and Malacca Peranakan communities once graced the Sharpened Word session with a talk on the Peranakan culture in Ipoh last year.
Sarong Secrets (paperback) is available in MPH at RM49.90 or Amazon at US$11.00. For more updates on the latest Manek Mischiefs, visit Lee’s Facebook page at: LeeSuKimAuthor.