The Elusive Recipe, Mumps & Indigo Tigers

I’ve been following the blog Brilliant Viewpoint for some time now, and always enjoy her writing. Her recent post Authentic Italian Cooking recounts her search for an elusive recipe for a cake she enjoyed years ago, and recently found. It was a lucky, happy coincidence for her. It made me think about my elusive recipe which unfortunately I still have not found. For me, the dish — that memory of a taste so impactful that it has followed me for the last 44 years — is a delectable, comforting, soy-infused bowl of savoury oats. If my memory serves me well, it had some mince meat in it, chopped spring onions, possibly soy sauce or five-spice powder,  and a texture that was chewy and bouncy.  I can taste the memory of it now even as I write, and remember the gentle morning sun that accompanied that early gastronomic moment of mine.

I tasted that dish only once when I was five years old, then never again. The day I encountered it is imprinted firmly in my memory. (Funny, the things one remembers.) I was down with the mumps and could not go to kindergarten that day. My jaw was sore and my cheeks were swollen and painful; I could barely open my mouth let alone smile. My parents had to go to work, my siblings were in school and the only thing to do was to be left for the morning at my grandmother’s house.

I was very close to my Por-Por (maternal grandma) and her maid, whom I called Yee Por. Both were about the same age and they were like two grannies to me. Love them both to bits.

Image result for indigo chinese word tigerMy grandmother was very much subscribed to Chinese medical traditions. When I arrived, I found she had prepared a bowl of deep blue liquid. With her finger, she painted the Chinese word 虎 (meaning tiger) on both my swollen cheeks. Then she let me go play in the garden. (Grandma didn’t play with me, but she was loving, a source of comfort and always there when I needed her.)

My mother told me years later that the blue liquid was indigo, and it was believed to be effective in treating mumps, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (now somewhat proven by recent research). The word ‘虎’ (tiger) was significant, because it was believed that the symbolic tiger would eat away the affliction that was causing the mumps.

Anyway, back to that morning in 1973. I soon realised that the blue liquid on my cheek, now dried up, had  a very strong and unpleasant smell. Like the good girl I was, I tried to obey Por-Por and keep the indigo on as was her wish. But it soon became most unbearable, and I decided, quite out of character, to disobey. So while my grandmother was in the dining room towards the back of the house, I sneaked into the bathroom in the front just off the living room and washed off the indigo. As a five year old, that was messy business and I found my clothes rather wet as a result of all the splashing. Then I realised I could not seek out Grandma to fix my wet clothes as she would then discover my naughty deed. So I decided to hang around the living room and lurk about the garden for a suitable duration, after which I would figure out what to do next.

That was when Yee Por, the servant, came out with a small bowl of mid-morning snack. Sitting at the coffee table in the living room, I tucked into this little bowl of what looked like (rice) porridge, but it was nothing I had tasted before. It was bouncy, chewy, with grains I had never encountered; darkly soy infused and rich and comforting in flavour. I enjoyed it so much, I ventured into the kitchen — hazarding being discovered by Grandmother — and asked for another bowl. For the risk I took, sadly Yee Por said there was no more, as she didn’t think I would have much appetite anyway with my painful jaw and all.

Yee Por never made that dish ever again. And it has haunted my palate off and on all these years. As an adult, I tried to replicate it a few times, but never succeeded. The recipe remains elusive.

The two old ladies have since gone and I did not have the foresight to ask them — but I was still a child when they bade their final goodbyes. Perhaps I will try to make it again one of these days. Or with a stroke of luck, I may chance upon the recipe some day, too. For sure, it is a traditional Chinese one, which was the only sort of food Yee Por would have made.

As for my vanished indigo tigers, Grandma did see, but thankfully did not make a fuss. She fixed my wet clothes, and simply let me carry on. She didn’t try to put the tigers back on my cheeks.

My new children’s book – The House on Palmer Road

I have been off radar quite a bit lately as I have been quite tied up with the release of our second book, and until yesterday, been involved in two literary festivals back to back. What an amazing journey though – which I would like to share bit by bit over a few posts so I don’t bore you. But I am excited and thrilled to introduce you first to our new book……

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Captures childhood in 1930s Singapore

My business partner and I just released our second book two weeks ago. Called The House on Palmer Road, it’s a children’s chapter book for 7-12-year-old’s. It contains a series of 15 short stories based on the adventures of Sing, a tree-climbing, ‘tom-boyish’ 8-year-old girl together with her 9 brothers and sisters. They are all playful, light-hearted stories set in late 1930’s colonial Singapore, just before WWII and the Japanese Occupation. In its pages, young readers accompany Sing and her siblings on adventures in the vicinity of Palmer Road and nearby Chinatown: from frog hunting in the wasteland, to being chased by guard geese in dark godowns, to evenings in the Great World Amusement Park and getting into scrapes in the Salted Egg Incident.

You get a gentle taste of what life was like in the 1930’s through the people she meets and the slices of grown-up life she encounters: such as the itinerant hawkers, the Patriotic Woman who raises funds to send to China to support its war effort (the Second Sino-Japanese war was taking place then), and overheard conversation among grown-ups talking about war in Europe, and how the Japanese army is marching south. While all worrying, these are half-understood by Sing and the adult characters’ distant conversations shield both protagonists and readers from the worrying ramifications of unfolding world affairs. The focus remains on the playfulness of the stories.

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Frog hunting with Father, Fifth Brother and Sixth Brother in the wasteland

These stories and characters are all real, because they are actually based on my mother’s childhood. The wooden house on Palmer Road — after which the book is titled and where her family of 13 lived — was built by my grandfather, a building contractor. The landscape is vividly detailed, all based on my mother’s amazing memory, which we also verified against old maps and photographs and archival material to ensure accuracy. Landmarks mentioned include the wasteland behind the house, the train tracks along towards Telok Ayer piers, the godowns, the embankment by the sea, Mount Palmer, Mariner’s Club along Anson Road, and lots more which have long been demolished.

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Sing and Sixth Brother get chased by guard geese at the myseterious Black Hole godowns

We released this book two weeks ago, just before Singapore observed the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore in WWII (15 Feb 1942). This is significant to us because the story ends when Singapore fell. What’s particularly unique about this book is it presents pre-war Singapore through the eyes of a local, and a child to boot. There is very little written of this period from a local’s perspective: most accounts of pre-war Singapore have been written by the British colonials then, and many local people of that time — except for the local elite — were not educated enough to do so. So this presents a rarely seen account of Singapore. Rest assured, though, this book is not pedantic, and the focus remains firmly on telling fun, enjoyable stories for kids.

My 83-year-old mother had written this initially as her own private memoir for herself and the family. She wanted to recapture her childhood as she had such an enjoyable time then, she told me. But she had such a lovely writing style and the stories were so playful, I persuaded her to let me turn it into a children’s book. There was some rewriting to do because we had to change the perspective from an adult’s retrospective to a first-person narrative in a child’s voice.

Meanwhile, we got a really talented artist Lim Anling to provide us lots of black and white illustrations to go along with it. And finally after a year’s work on it, the book is done, printed and released during the recent #buySinglit festival, a nation-wide weekend affair which focused on the growing body of Singapore literature.

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I am awfully proud of my mother, who has become a first-time author at 83! Lots of people who saw the book assumed that I had written it for her or translated it for her, assuming that she could not speak English (which indeed is quite typical of people in her age group). However my mother is an exceptional lady especially for her generation in Singapore. She not only speaks and writes perfect English, she also holds a Master’s degree in Chemistry (she was one of just a handful of girls in the university then). So no, I did not have to translate or write the book for her. I did it with her and it was such an honour to capture a slice of history with her!

It’s available at several bookstores in Singapore including Books Ahoy, Woods in the Books, Books Kinokuniya and online store localbooks.sg 

The Cat of Hanoi

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The streets of Hanoi are crazy, chaotic, vibrant and exciting. Every pedestrian walkway and space in front of the shops is either filled with tables and chairs for a street-side food stall, or with scooters squashed together handlebar to handlebar. There’s really no place for a cat to find a foothold. But while on a night time food tour in Hanoi just a couple days ago, I came across this magnificent creature, all fuzzy, fat and pristine in its white coat and elegant black accents. Never mind that the horns of scooters were blaring incessantly, and people were trudging past barely a whisker away from its face. Here it sat, most serene; a picture of tranquility and dignity in a messy, crazy world. After a crazy, mind-blowing surprise like today, perhaps there’s something we can all learn from the Cat of Hanoi.

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Journey Back to the Ancestral Village

I headed back to my ancestral village in June. That’s the thing about being an ‘overseas Chinese’. We all have ‘ancestral villages’, where our ancestors lived and made that journey out of the poverty of China at the turn of the century.  In this case, the village I sought out and visited was my maternal grandfather’s childhood home. It is in the district of Kaiping, in Guangdong province, China. This is the Pearl River Delta area where the Sze Yup people come from.

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His village is Tao Yuan Chun (which means Peach Garden Village). He left it in 1919, when he was in his late teens, on a wing and a prayer to hopefully find a better life. Having lost his parents when very young and with no siblings, he was relatively lucky to be a carpenter’s apprentice. But riddled with abject poverty and hunger, things were desperate. So one night as I have often been told, he left the village with nothing but the shirt on his back — like countless young men before and after him —  and made the journey to the coast. From there, he got on a junk and sailed to Singapore. Fortunately for him, he did not get caught in human trafficking rings (which were also rife then) and eventually made a success of himself.

While my grandfather never saw his homeland again, it had always been very much in his mind obviously, as his childhood memories had passed into the collective memory of the family. (I had never met my grandfather. He died a year before I was born, but he had been spoken of so much, his identity is very much a part of my consciousness.)

When we realized we would be in Hong Kong for a bit in June, we decided to pop over for a day trip to see the ancestral village. But it wasn’t so easy to get the details down. A little bit of asking around within the family yielded me the name of the village, and surprisingly even the address of the house where his home had once stood over a century ago. With that information and my grandfather’s name, I contacted a private tour guide in Guangdong – Jennifer Choi – to help me locate this place and bring me there. She was a gem. She wrote to the Kaiping Municipal Government who has a department, I believe, that helps overseas Chinese track down their roots. Apparently, they verified the information (which was a great help) and gave her the GPS co-ordinates of the village. You see, these villages can be as small as hamlets in rural China, and you may not be able to locate them so easily. Getting clarification from the local government gave us some assurance that we weren’t off on a wild goose chase, for the information we had was rather sketchy.

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We based ourselves in Macau the day before our trip to Kaiping. Early the next morning, we headed across the northern land border to Zhuhai, a modern city a far cry from the village, and met Jennifer and Mr Leong, the driver. In his air conditioned MPV, we travelled two and a half hours on 21st century highways to Kaiping. After which it was another half hour on the main roads before we turned off onto a little country lane and bumped our way three and half kilometres past rice fields, dragon fruit plantations, plywood workshops, ponds and little villages. Round a corner, past another rice field, we saw a medium-sized, algae-green pond and beyond it, an even smaller village. Finally we had arrived at Tao Yuan Chun. If I were being dramatic, I’d say my journey that day was 97 years in the making, which started under terribly desperate circumstances.

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Many old houses still stand there, but there are as many new builds that have squeezed their way up in between. The generous car park at the front of the village, while relatively empty, holds a few BMWs and other vehicles. In the late morning, it looks like most people were away at work. Hardly anyone was around to cast a curious glance at this small group of strangers. Being generous, I’d say there are no more than 60 houses here. They are arranged in a grid form, separated by narrow alleys just wide enough for two people to squeeze past.

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We easily found the address we were looking for. It was a small, grey brick house with peeling couplets and pictures of door gods on it. Looks like the remnants of a wedding left behind. A villager who walked past said the house was now empty. The occupants had built a modern one to the back of the village and recently moved there. No matter. They weren’t anyone we would know, anyway.

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It was just amazing to see and stand on the ground where my grandfather, then a  thin, hungry, desperate teenager, started the journey of his life to find a better one. For me, making this trek back was already quite arduous – by plane, ferry (from HKG to Macau), on foot for a little bit, and by a very comfortable car. How did he make that journey all the way to the coast without any of these modern vehicles? It must have been with a lot of resilience, determination and guts to fling your future to the unknown and hope for the best, with nothing more than the knowledge that you would be willing to work to make it — whatever ‘it’ may be. I was  pretty awed, and have an even greater respect for what he did and where I came from. The people then must have very stoic and resilient and resourceful, but one could imagine how miserable life must have been to drive them out on such a long journey of migration. (The terrible migration issue taking place today on the other side of the world has not been lost on me. Some things don’t change, sadly.)

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At the same time, ironically, there was no chorus of angels singing and a feeling that I had come ‘home’. Yes I had connected with my roots by coming full circle physically, and realising a few truths. But this village was in no way ‘home’ to me, and I didn’t feel any massive connection apart from the fact that my grandfather came from there. Which I respect, don’t get me wrong. My distant roots may have started off here, but home is Singapore, where my connection and my living roots are firmly entrenched, and where he, in fact, lived his life.

Every overseas Chinese family would have a similar story to tell, but each family’s story is in turn unique. And I am part of that huge diaspora that flowed out from the Pearl River Delta so long ago.

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By the way, if you are looking for a private guide into these parts, I found Jennifer Choi very helpful and reliable. You can contact her at http://www.synotrip.com/jennychoiman

Today I return to my first love

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The last time I wrote a poem was when I was 19 and in university, doing a BA in English literature. I hadn’t returned to it much in an academic way until just two days ago while helping my daughter with poetry annotation for her IB course. It struck me how much I had enjoyed every aspect of literature and how much I had missed it all these years. So this is a verse that came to me spontaneously – the first that  I have written in almost 30 years…just for fun.

“Today I return to my first love
Art for art’s sake, words for words’ sake.
The sound of words, clipped, flowing, leaping, swish-swashing
Onomatopoeia. Paints thought-coloured landscapes in my head.
What a luxury to have studied poetry in
Times of youth when all the world was far away yet
was the oyster, beckoning, inviting, plump with promise,
yet to be opened
Pried open by a gilded spoon.”

Photo 101 – Scale

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This is my country. I had taken this panorama of the city area overlooking Marina Bayfront in August last year when Singapore celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence. Even when I look at this picture now, I feel a great sense of pride. A little country with no resources, we took ourselves from third world to first world in half a century, and we are happily multiracial. Only thing is, it’s getting seriously expensive living here now, but we cope.

As you can see, it was a big party, and the fireworks had just been set off. There was a big parade at the Padang just to the right of this picture, which I didn’t capture in this frame.

As a family, we love the fireworks on National Day, but we’re not too enamoured with crowds. So we did a staycation at the Fairmont, to soak in the atmosphere, celebrate with the nation but in the comfort of our room. Chips, wine, beer, and nibbles, followed by dinner at a restaurant later.

Photo 101 – Moment & Motion

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As a freelance travel journalist, I sometimes like to capture candid shots of people on the streets to catch the local flavour. But I am aware that some people don’t like having their pictures taken by strangers, and in parts of Asia, the older folk in particular, can be a little superstitious about having their photo taken. To get round that, I sometimes hold my camera at waist level and shoot randomly in the hope of catching good shots. In the heap of bad pictures and duds, there would be a few that turn out well, especially if the lighting and the shutter speed is fast, and the moon and stars all align in my favour. This shot I took in Istanbul turned out particularly well!