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Kopi Soh’s ‘Finding the Ashes’ highlights Peranakan culture through superstition and taboo

by samatha white
Northwest Asia Weekly

Model holding “Finding the Ashes” (image courtesy of Kopi Soh)

Halloween is the time for ghosts, ghouls and other things that collide at night.

While the festival is more observed in the Western world, superstitions, old woman tales and taboos are pervasive—every culture has its own story.

Kopi Soh, who grew up in Malaysia, was surrounded by them: lying down and eating would turn into a snake. Eat all your rice or your future husband will get pimples and pockmarks all over his face. If you swallow watermelon seeds, watermelon plants will grow out of your mouth.

Don’t play in the sewers or you’ll meet a big-breasted woman who has the power to destroy you.

In her book Finding the Ashes (2021), a semi-biographical fictional story available on Amazon, Kopi tells the stories and more that she hears every day from members of her Peranakan family.

A way to deal with nostalgia

The origins of this book can be traced back to 1992 when Kopi immigrated to North America. Before that, she had never left Malaysia — not even visited neighboring countries — and the only knowledge she knew about America was based on TV shows she had watched, such as “Dallas.” It gives her the impression that she needs to drink (even if she doesn’t) and wear tuxedos all the time — because that’s what Americans do, Kopi laughs about her early assumptions. Her initial perception of the country was wrong, but she’s still alone in a new place and especially misses her father. So to cope with her homesickness, Kopi started keeping a diary where she wrote about the different stories he and others told her to remind her of her home.

That diary, for Kopi only, is full of stories rooted in her Peranakan culture.

Peranakan refers to a group of people who were born locally in Malaysia but are not indigenous to the country, she said – however, she pointed out that there are other Peranakans throughout Southeast Asia, such as in Thailand, whose cultures are also different from hers. Over time, Coppi, who now lives in California, has seen her culture fade away. Members of the younger generation do not speak their specific Penang/Hokkien dialect, nor do they know the superstitions and taboos rooted in their culture.

protect her culture

Illustration from “Finding the Ashes” (image courtesy of Kopi Soh)

So Kopi began sharing these stories with her son, who would ask, “Mom, did you grow up this way?” Since her US-born son was interested in these stories, Kopi thought others might find them too. The story is interesting, and it might start a conversation between older and younger generations as she and her son (her son helped edit “Ashes”). It’s also a way for her to preserve some of the Peranakan culture.

Even though she has lived in Malaysia for three years, Kopi says those superstitions and stories are still with her. They even influence some of her behavior as an adult. For example, Kopi said that whenever she stayed in a hotel, before she entered the room for the first time, she always knocked on the door to let any spirits inside know that she entered and occupied the room.

“It’s something I’m still doing,” she said, adding that she did so in recent weeks.
Whether or not superstitions are true, Copi said much of their origins are rooted in logic.

Watermelon seeds can enter your appendix or be a choking hazard—especially in young children. Make the soul aware that you are about respecting space and inanimate objects before entering a hotel room.

Love for Halloween candy and ghost stories

Since moving to the US, Kopi hasn’t given much thought to Western superstitions like walking under a ladder or letting a black cat cross your path will bring you bad luck, but she does love this time of year and always looks forward to Halloween, Especially when her son is little, go trick-or-treating.

“Time to refill my candy,” Coppi admits with a laugh, adding that it works because her son doesn’t have a sweet tooth like she does.

With Halloween only a few weeks away, Northwest Asia Weekly asked Koppy to name some of her favorite Asian ghost story writers. One is the Malaysian writer Zen Cho, who created Sister Blackwater in the UK. She also recommends fellow Malaysian Tunku Halim, who has written many ghost and horror stories for adults and students, and Yangsze, author of Ghost Bride, which was recently adapted into a Netflix show. Choo).

Samantha can reach [email protected].

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