"Looking After the Ashes" – unravelling the enigmatic Chinese Peranakan world of taboos and traditions

Looking After the Ashes

I usually stay away from horror stories, especially those that have blood and gore plastered all over the cover. I know that one should never judge a book by its cover. However having been an art director for more than three decades, I feel that a cover has to set the right tone and sell the book. The cover of "Looking After the Ashes" by Kopi Soh shows two wide-eyed kids, enchanted by the storyteller, enveloped with an eerie atmosphere. Picking up the book, I would not have been able to anticipate that it would be a page-turner for me.

Looking After the Ashes © Adrian Cheah

In the book, you are welcomed to the Cheah family, where the quirks, antics and life experiences of its members are observed through Swee Lian's eyes. She is the daughter of Jimmy Cheah Chye Huat and Ong Gim Suan, and granddaughter to Rose Khoo Bee Choo (Ah Ma) and Johnny Cheah Huck Boon (Ah Kong).

Like the Swee Lian, I too was born into a Chinese Peranakan family in Penang. To us, "Looking After the Ashes" is a captivating and deeply personal journey into our "colourful" world, filled with dramatic superstitions, tall tales and tonnes of taboos. As the author took me through her semi-biographical fiction, I was propelled back into my childhood days where tradition, folklore and family dynamics blended seamlessly. I could almost hear similar cautionary tales narrated with gusto by aunties. The Nyonyas, although often soft-spoken, could be melodramatic when they want to get a point across. 

Looking After the Ashes © Adrian Cheah

Swee Lian's extended Taoist-influenced Peranakan family is led by strong women who impart "words of wisdom" with love and in all seriousness. Through her vivid storytelling, she illustrates her childhood experiences where the fear of evil forces, spirits and malevolent entities was ever-present. For instance, stories of the "yellow spirit", See Loh Bun, Pontianak (given Malaysia's multi-cultural context), Hantu KumKum and even Hantu Tek Tek were common. However, in today's technologically savvy world, entities like Hantu Tek Tek (ghost with pendulous breasts) would not stand a chance against Google, as IT-savvy children would quickly dismiss such "absurd" tales. Do you know what Hantu Tek Tek will do to children who come out and play after dark? (Well, you do not have to be a rocket scientist to guess the correct answer.)

In Chapter 6, Swee Lian recounts an event where she reluctantly accompanied her father to an exorcism ritual. She was quite traumatised by what she had observed. Similarly, I also found myself following my Mum to one of those exorcism rituals, assisting my aunty who believed she needed "help". What I witnessed left me dumbfounded! You cannot un-see such things!!! Automatically your perspective on things you do not know and cannot explain becomes part of your reality. This has taught me not to make assumptions when it comes to such matters.

Many would be quick to conclude that such traumatised childhood events would scar one for life. I beg to differ. Instead, I believe that in such instances, our rich childhood filled with a myriad of experiences is set ablaze with the kaleidoscopic colours of the rainbow of life. We learnt that it is alright to acknowledge that there are things "out there" that we cannot explain. As a result, we tend to approach life with respect and humility.

Looking After the Ashes © Adrian Cheah

In Chapter 7, Swee Lian witnessed the horrific and murderous act of killing "her" turtle to make turtle soup. I can very well picture what it must have been like for her! Back then, the Nyonyas took great pride in their culinary skills and believed in using the freshest ingredients for their delicious creations. This often meant stabbing the ketam batu (mud crabs) yourself, killing the lay hu (snakehead fish) yourself or standing before the frog vendor at the market to see that he/she skins the live fat ones you had chosen. On occasion in the past, my Mum would slaughter chickens herself to collect the blood for certain dishes. I would assist in plucking the feathers after scalding the bird. It is fascinating how times have changed and today, children invariably encounter neatly packaged meat at supermarket stalls, shielded from the act of killing the food that ends up on the table.

Looking After the Ashes © Adrian Cheah

Looking After the Ashes © Adrian Cheah

With stories such as these, the flow of the book creatively weaves the Chinese Peranakan culture in Penang, also interlacing moments from confinement to Muar Guay (baby's first full moon celebration) and from weddings to burials, completing the full circle of life. The book beckons readers to experience the rich tapestry of this unique heritage. Cherishing her roots, Kopi Soh's earnest desire to preserve her culture and traditions is well documented in this book.

The inclusion of some ink illustrations by KULit Baru adds another layer of enchantment to the storytelling.

Looking After the Ashes © Adrian Cheah

The fascinating book "Looking After the Ashes" charmingly portrays the essence of Chinese Peranakan culture while displaying Kopi Soh's deep love and respect for her history as well. I could completely relate to the personal narration, which made me think back on my own upbringing and familial ties. The wisdom, superstitions and love included in this book are a true treasure trove; they have stayed with me after I turned the final page. I sincerely hope that it gives many others the same profound experience.


Looking After the Ashes © Adrian Cheah

Looking After the Ashes
Author: Kopi Soh
ISBN: 9789814882101 (ISBN10: 9814882100)
216 pages, Paperback
Published 31 August 2021 by Penguin Random House SEA
Language: English

The title of the book, "Looking After the Ashes," refers to the ritual of inviting the deceased to return home to be worshipped. This practice, known as "chnia abu" in Hokkien or "inviting the ancestors," is further explored by Kopi Soh in the book. For a deeper understanding of this ritual, I encourage you to delve into its pages.

About the author

Photo © Kopi Soh

Kopi Soh is the pseudonym of a US based Malaysian author and illustrator best known for her book "Oh, I Thought I Was The Only One", published by Dawning Victory Consultancy in 2012 distributed by MPH. It is a self-help book oriented towards creating awareness of common psychological issues, which manifest themselves in daily life.

In 2013, Kopi Soh published her second book, "Oh... I Thought I Was the Only One 2", a sequel focusing on how children experience various stresses in their daily lives and teaching them skills on how to overcome them.

In 2019, her original manuscript "Looking After the Ashes" was accepted for publication by Penguin Random House SEA, and the novel was released in 2021.

Kopi Soh was also a former crisis manager with a women’s centre, training social workers and counsellors. She counsels victims in domestic violence situations and children who have been sexually assaulted. Being a crisis counsellor she was also a sexual assault team responder in the US; in her spare time she teaches social media at a community school for the elderly. Her area of specialty is in working with children, adolescents, couples, seniors, refugees, rape victims, abused kids, victims of domestic violence and families.

She founded the Facebook community "Stick It To Me" (currently called Kopi Soh’s Positive Healing Doodles), a page centred around producing "healing art" for the terminally sick and needy, and organises a group of volunteers to produce art for hospitals and charities. Her work with "Stick It To Me" was recognised in the Digi WWWOW Awards 2015, winning an award in the Social Gathering category. She also served as the official illustrator for TEDxWeldQuay 2013.

Kopi Soh is currently pursuing her doctoral degree. Her research focuses on Online Social Support, Social Networking Sites usage and Flourishing in Older Malaysian Women.

Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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30 July 2023