KUALA TERENGGANU (Terengganu) - If Penang and Malacca are famed for their Baba and Nonya, Terengganu can lay claim to its own Mek and Awang.
Not many people know that this East Coast state also has a substantial Peranakan Chinese community whose women are called Mek and men Awang.
Peranakan, meaning locally born, refers to migrant communities who have assimilated with the Malays over many generations, often through inter-marriage. The blend of the two has created a distinctly new culture, especially in the kitchen where the merging of flavours has brought out a deliciously fused cuisine. It has also helped fuse ties between the races.
Whether Peranakan or not, the East Coast Chinese community is known to have much closer ties with the Malay community there. And this holds important lessons on how Malaysia's different races can learn from one another and learn to live in harmony.
Chinese make up about 10 per cent of the population on the East Coast. They take pride in being part of a melting pot, especially amid Malaysia's current political turmoil wherein the Chinese and Malays are pitted against each other.
They see themselves as creating a more honest sort of multiracialism, which mixes and blends, yet remaining a distinct part of the whole. "Our community is small, and we have to mix with the other people. On the West Coast, there is less integration," said Mr Teo Ken Bin, who can trace his family tree back nine generations.
In the East Coast states of Terengganu and Kelantan, some Peranakan Chinese can trace their family tree back 10 generations. "It's now very much part of our own lifestyle, the way we cook, our dress, and how we eat with our fingers," Mr Teo said. The urbanite Chinese of the West Coast are much more segregated from the community around them.
Mr Teo, 60, said his family believed their ancestry dated back nine generations based on a tablet on his grandmother's prayer altar. It was a tablet for Kapitan Zhang Zhaorong, an 18th-century Chinese community leader.
The Teo ancestral home is a 200-year-old house in Kampung Cina, which is essentially a row of old shophouses built over the centuries in various styles from art deco to southern Chinese. Reminiscent of the more famous George Town in Penang, the picturesque street was once mainly settled by the Chinese but now has a more mixed population.
The Teo house is a hybrid of traditional Malay wooden architecture at the back with a southern Chinese shophouse frontage. Part of the structure has been turned into a small restaurant offering local Peranakan food - Madam Bee's Kitchen - run by Mr Teo's wife, Tan Choo Bee.
She said their cuisine, while similar to the Malaccan or Penang Peranakan cooking - which fuses the Chinese and Malay food cultures - has a more distinct East Coast flavour. Terengganu Peranakan cooking makes liberal use of the local pungent fish sauce called budu, Malay spices as well as a lot of local seafood.
Popular dishes are the local version of crab cake, ayam pachok which resembles satay with a stronger flavour, fish in spicy tamarind sauce and slow-cooked chicken with palm sugar. Their desserts bear close resemblance to Malay kuih including sekaya pulut (glutinous rice with coconut-egg jam), akor (egg and coconut pancake) and jackfruit tarts.
Mr Alex Lee, an energetic tour operator, agrees that the East Coast Chinese are better integrated. An enthusiastic collector of old Malay houses, he has come to appreciate Malay culture and philosophy, and is prone to reciting Malay poetry to illustrate these ideas.
Mr Lee, 46, grew up in the small Malay town of Marang, about 20km from the state capital Kuala Terengganu.
"When you speak the language, you understand the culture better, and you know better how to live together," he said. "The East Coast Chinese understand the Malay culture better."
For him, it began with the floral carvings on his grandfather's shophouses where he had run a backpackers' guesthouse in the 1990s. They were the first things he salvaged when the century-old shophouses were demolished.
From there, he began to collect wood carvings and later, entire houses of Terengganu Malay origin. Eventually, he ended up with 29 whole houses, and over 100 partial houses which provide spare parts for restoration work.
In 2005, he began reassembling them on a piece of seafront land in Setiu, an hour's drive from Kuala Terengganu. These houses fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, and no nails are used. They also do not rot as the hard wood resists moisture and termites.
With 17 houses now reincarnated in a landscaped garden resembling a palace of old, Mr Lee opened it as the Terrapuri Resort. Each house is now a guest room.
For him, Terrapuri is a repository of the Malay stories, history, philosophy and heritage of his homeland. As the largest such project in Malaysia, it had cost about RM10 million (S$3.7 million) but he has refused lucrative offers for the houses.
He said the more he learnt about Malay houses, the more he saw them as a reflection of the Malay philosophy on life.
"Community values are very important in understanding the architecture and stories," said Mr Lee, whose family has been in Terengganu for five generations.
For instance, he said, floral carvings follow a Malay verse which describes how vines are to be carved - never strangling or pushing the other out of the way. It is a reflection of the Malay philosophy of sharing.
His obvious love for Malay culture is often what persuades house owners to sell to him; in one case, it took 15 years to clinch the sale. One house had belonged to an influential Islamic teacher, and carvings in Jawi writing depicting an old fable found in the Quran were found on its outer wall. "There are just so many exciting stories to tell," he said.
Having seen how his appreciation for the Malay culture has brought him closer to the community, Mr Lee has now turned his energies to bringing the two communities closer.
He hopes to do this through the Peranakan Terengganu festival held in September. Organised by the Terengganu Chinese Chamber of Commerce, it was not just to showcase the Chinese Peranakan culture, but also to get people of all races to mingle.
Mr Lee, though, sees a growing gap among the races as the younger generation increasingly finds they have less in common with each other. "The Malays need to understand the Chinese culture, and the Chinese need to understand the Malay culture," he said. "Here, for generations, it was not just tolerance that we had for each other, but a real blend of cultures."
The Peranakans had played a very important role in nurturing this relationship, he said.
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