Cover Rosita on the set of a documentary entitled 'The Last 800 Meters'

In her new book 'Waterfront Heirlooms: Reflections of The Kampong China Peranakan', Rosita Abdullah Lau explores the legacy of Chinese Peranakan culture as related to her by the community of her childhood village

"At 19, I left my beloved hometown of Kampong China in Kuala Terengganu to get married." So goes the very first sentence in the introductory chapter of Waterfront Heirlooms, the culmination of a woman's ambition to preserve not only her past in written words but also the legacy of a village near Terengganu River. 

The woman is Rosita Abdullah Lau, 73, who wrote nostalgically about the women in the village playing the see sek card game in their embroidered kebaya and her mother cooking up a storm in the kitchen. Rosita spent 8 years working with a creative team to realise the book. To complement her book, she's also producing a documentary on her childhood village entitled The Last 800 Meters.

In addition to personal musings, the book also unfolds the history of pioneer Chinese settlers in Terengganu's Kampong China, contains recipes passed down through generations such as kusui (palm sugar cake with grated coconut) and illuminating details about the Chinese Peranakan sarong kebaya.  

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1. Her Chinese Peranakan Roots

"Peranakan means local-born descendent. I'm Hokkien Chinese by origin and proud of it. The Kampong Chinese Peranakan are early descendants of Chinese immigrants who have entered into marriages with local Malay women; they probably also married Thai and Indochinese women, which made many of us a unique mix of races. We call ourselves Cheng Mua Lang (sarong clad community). Yet, absolute definitions about our identity tend to be more diluted."

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2. The Writing Process

"In our first book Kulit Manis: A Taste of Terengganu's Heritage, Kampong China was covered in one chapter. When we conceived the idea of expanding this chapter into a comprehensive book, we had to extend the production timeline to accommodate a proper documentation of our heritage. 

The production of Waterfront Heirlooms spanned over 8 gruelling years. We knocked on every door, undertook painstaking research and meticulously designed the layout so the rich diversity of Kampong China's Peranakan community is properly highlighted."

3. Motivation Behind The Book

"Publishing my first book, Kulit Manis gave me a new perspective on life. It ignited deep nostalgia and drove me to ponder on my life's purpose and aspirations.

Conserving and preserving the rich heritage of my ancestors became my driving passion. This is a legacy that I want to leave behind for my children and grandchildren as well as the Kampong China community."

4. Surprising Details

"We elaborate on our death rites complete with illustrations. When there is birth, there is death; it's the natural cycle of life. I'm glad we managed to document this part of the culture as they are no longer practised fully today."

5. Favourite Peranakan Dish

"Ah Mak Hu gulai or Mother's Fish Curry. It's a spicy delicacy served with kaychiap dipping sauce (Peranakan sweet sauce). I like to add one kuay from my grandmother's recipe, which is koleh sagu or sago pudding with caramelised coconut milk crumb."

6. Balancing Modernity and Tradition

"It's hard to balance both. Kampong China was home to more than 200 shop houses and a 200-year-old temple. It's one of the oldest settlements in our country. But it's been overtaken by urban redevelopment since the mid-1990s.

This gradual demise of our architectural heritage is why we need a book like Waterfront Heirlooms: Reflections Of The Kampong China Peranakan, so that its legacy lives on."

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  • PhotographyCourtesy of Rosita Abdullah Lau
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