With Lee Su Kim, I share a fascination of things Nyonya and a love of reading and writing. She started writing long before I did, and has had several books published. Su Kim also happens to be a founder member of the Peranakan Baba Nyonya Association of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, and its first woman President. Demonstrating true grit, Su Kim very kindly called me up despite being on her way to see a doctor!
Being a Nyonya herself, it’s not surprising that Malaysian as well as Nyonya themes run through her work. The fact that I heard about Su Kim at all was purely down to luck. My aunt happened to attend the launch last year of her latest book – a lovely collection of short stories entitled Kebaya Tales, published by Marshall Cavendish.
As I worked my way through the book, I realised how much I enjoyed reading it, which was why I set out to contact her. I could see how much of herself Su Kim has put into Kebaya Tales – the book comes across as a labour of love. In addition to stories, she has included personal mementoes: family photographs, shots of the vintage kebayas – the beautifully embroidered blouses in diaphanous material worn by Malay women and Nyonyas – which she inherited from her mother, as well as pictures of the beaded slippers for which Nyonyas are famous. All of these help make her culture come alive to a reader with no previous knowledge of what Nyonya means.
On the subject of beaded slippers, when I was last in Malacca, I bought two pairs of these. (As an aside, Malacca was at one point an important port; see map below to understand its strategic position.
To get back to the famous beaded slippers, here’s a photograph of the pair which I gave my partner.
You may not be able to see them, but the top of the shoe comprises tiny beads in many colours. The beads are patiently threaded together to create the flowers and butterflies which adorn the black background, itself made up of the same tiny beads. The smaller the beads (which this shoe happens to have), the greater the expertise required, and the greater the patience demanded. At one time, beading was considered a required skill for a Nyonya, one on which a potential daughter-in-law could expect to be severely judged.
As for the stories in Kebaya Tales, Lee Su Kim succeeded in drawing me in and sometimes, in shocking me. Her tales contain unexpected and occasionally disturbing twists, but she invariably managed to weave in some or other aspect of Malaysia. A few stories touch on folklore, others on parts of our history which remain unresolved, such as what happened during the war years, yet others contain unspoken beliefs which permeate our culture.
However, you don’t need to be a Malaysia expert, because the stories provide easy reading. The collection is also totally self-contained; Su Kim even included brief notes about the Nyonyas as well as ample commentary about their kebayas and sarongs.
What, you may ask, does any of this have to do with being a good daughter-in-law? The answer is that in addition to the mementoes I mentioned above, Kebaya Tales is interspersed with fragments of idioms and poetry. The following ditty, itself taken from a book by another Malaysian writer, caught my eye:
HOW TO BE A GOOD DAUGHTER-IN-LAW
Dried bean curd, sweetened buns,
To be a good daughter-in-law, know your manners,
Go to bed late, get up early,
Comb your hair, powder your face, dab on rouge,
Enter a room holding a needle,
Go to the main hall and wash the crockery,
Praise your elder and younger brothers-in-law,
Your parents in turn will be praised for your good upbringing.
I re-read the ditty above many times, always laughing. It amused me to see how miserably I would have failed! Based on the above criteria, I make a lousy daughter-in-law. Praise be to the Heavens.