Malaysians should celebrate unique ‘flavours’

Author Lee Su Kim in the favourite part of her house where she does her writing. — Pictures by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Author Lee Su Kim in the favourite part of her house where she does her writing. — Pictures by Ahmad Zamzahuri

PETALING JAYA, Sept 14 — Malaysians can once again read about Jinjang Joe, Ah Beng, Mak Nenek 21 years after Lee Su Kim wrote best-seller Malaysian Flavours — Insights into things Malaysian.

The author and retired academic who gave readers these colourful and often amusing characters has come out with a reprint of the book that first made it to shelves in 1996 with a second edition in 2004.

Lee, a Peranakan (Straits Chinese) with roots in Penang and Melaka, feels the 54th anniversary of Malaysia is the right time for Malaysians to celebrate their uniqueness as seen in characters in her book.

“The book is a delightful reminder of everyday nuances and quirks,” she said in a recent interview.

Viewing the book as her gift to a new generation of millennials, the former associate professor of English at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia said the book highlighted factors that should keep Malaysians together.

“There are local flavours that go beyond cuisines in the gotong-royong, the hawker stalls and market places that foster friendship, love and collegiality,” she said.

'Malaysian Flavours — Insights into things Malaysian' takes pride of place with Lee’s porcelain plate collection.
'Malaysian Flavours — Insights into things Malaysian' takes pride of place with Lee’s porcelain plate collection.

She wrote the book to make Malaysians aware of their unique cultural identity, be proud of their “Malaysian-ness,” and be able to laugh at themselves.

Her husband, Dr Stephen Hall, helped her rediscover the rich intricacies of Malaysian culture “which many of us take for granted.”

She said it lay in local food, refined culture and the distinctive merging of words into English that constitutes “Manglish.”

“We wear each other’s traditional costumes with ease and accept each race’s religious and cultural norms,” she said.

“While I was a PhD candidate in Texas, I realised although there were many separate ethnic groups there, they were still separate unlike here where we have integrated seamlessly.”

Flipping through the pages of her book readers will smile at Jinjang Joe whose “Chinese-ness” makes him unique, Ah Beng meaning a geek, and Mak Nenek meaning a double nag in a loving manner.

They will also be told why the best way to eat durians is in a group squatting round the fruit, and only-found-in-Malaysia” idioms like “my rice bowl,” “like a duck talking to a chicken,” “shake legs,” and “no head and no tail.”

Personal vignettes of Lee’s life from school at Bukit Bintang Girls School in Kuala Lumpur also allow a peep into the easy camaraderie enjoyed by young Malaysians growing up in the 1960s, as well as personal observations on family traditions and Straits Chinese culture.

“The wealth of Malaysia lies in its multiculturalism, an amazing rojak of multilingual and multi-ethnic people who get along well with each other,” she said.

Lee is amazed by the manner in which Malaysians enjoy facets of each other’s cultures without even realising it, have multiple identities, and switch languages and dialects easily.

A sixth-generation Nyonya, she is an ardent fan of the successful rich fusion of Malay and Chinese culture she has inherited.

It is lovingly depicted in her other books, including Kebaya Tales: Of Matriarchs, Maidens, Mistresses and Matchmakers, Sarong Secrets: Of Love, Loss and Longing, and Manek Mischiefs: Of Patriarchs, Playboys and Paramours.

Lee regrets the falling standard of English among Malaysians, comparing it to the good language of the 1960s.

“There were very good and dedicated teachers then who chose teaching because they wanted to, not because they didn’t have a choice.”

Lee said people of her generation grew up with friends of all races and were not conscious of race.

“At school assembly we raised the national flag, sang the national anthem and then the school anthem. We mixed with everyone, ate and played and studied together with no restrictions.”

On fostering closer racial harmony, Lee felt Malaysians should be encouraged to mingle, socialise and play games together.

For example, efforts must be made to set up multiracial dragon dance troupes, and gamelan, silat, chingay and bhangra groups.

Malaysian Flavours has sold over 10,000 copies.

Available at MPH bookstores nationwide, make a date with Lee at a meet-the-author session at MPH One Utama from 11.30am to 1pm on Oct 7.

Related Articles

Up Next