Nov 2017 Lee Su Kim
A Morning With Lee Su Kim
In the days when children were seen and not heard Lee Su Kim drank in the stories and events of her Nyonya culture. It was a delightful privilege to hear Lee Su Kim read words from her childhood woven into short stories at the recent Malaysian Cultural Group, author talk. Dipping in and out of character accents and languages we heard a tale of the triumph of first wife over third wife. A battle for power, economic security and happiness that is as relevant today as it was then. As she reads aloud Lee Su Kim brings her cultural heritage into a vibrant present.
Lee Su Kim brought with her a collection of antique kebayas and sarongs so that we could see firsthand the craftsmanship and skill that we do not see in Central Market and its environs. Together with her slideshow of family photos and Baba Nyonya artefacts we gained insight into a unique, intercultural culture that is dynamic and adapting today. A compelling take away from Su Kim’s talk is how rich and harmonious human existence can be when people strive to be inclusive. Su Kim’s Nyonya mother was from Penang and her father a Baba from Malacca, a place that has a long association with Malay, Tamil, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British cultures. Colonialism, intermarriage and migration along sea trading routes led to the development of Baba Nyonya culture, a culture that has included aspects from every culture that it met. Lee Su Kim grew up in Kuala Lumpur.

We learned that in Malaysia and Singapore, Baba Nyonya people are also known as Peranakans and Straits Chinese. In Thailand they are the Babas and in Indonesia the Peranakan Tionghua. Interestingly, Nyonya people from Malacca tend to speak Baba Malay whilst those in Penang speak Hokkien indicating diversity across an already diverse culture.

Lee Su Kim has written ten books, fiction and non-fiction. Her reading for the Malaysian Cultural Group was selected from her recently completed trilogy of books, Kebaya Tales: of matriarchs, maidens and mistresses, Sarong Secrets: of love, loss and longing, and Manek: of Patriarchs, Playboys and Paramours. Su Kim is an academic who undertook her doctorate in Texas and also writes entertainingly and incisively about her East meets West experiences when she arrived in the Lone Star State.Her books are on sale in bookshops but watch out, her book Malaysian Flavours, about the quirks of modern day Malaysian living, is often misfiled in the cookery section of stores.

During question time Lee Su Kim’s responses to questions showed the great breadth of her learning and academic experience in the field of language, delivered with wit, humour and authenticity. She is a former Associate Professor of Language Studies and Linguistics, Universiti Kebangsaan, Malaysia; holds a Doctorate in Education from the University of Houston; and is the Founding President of the Peranakan Baba Nyonya Association of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor.

Su Kim’s energy and enthusiasm were inspiring, making us want to take all her books to a comfy chair and read and read and read. Lee Su Kim has found a successful avenue for keeping what it feels like to live a culture, alive.

As always, thanks to the organizers of this event, especially for the delicious kueh treats that fit so well with Su Kim’s books. Once, again it was a pleasure to be in the company of fellow Malaysian Cultural Group members who made this author talk special through rapt attention, great questions and friendly companionship.




Text:  Margaret Cheng
Photos: Rosemary Chin