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

Photo 101 – Edge, Alignment & Glass

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Playing catching up after a few days of being super busy, here’s my Photo 101 post that combines Edge & Alignment and Glass into one.

I had taken this in Melbourne, through the window of Coda, a quirky east-west restaurant in Flinders Lane. It was in the evening, and we were just heading in there for dinner. I like how the lights and the reflection on the window (that’s me!) seem to float amid the straight black lines of the metalwork. Incidentally, how many people can you see in the photo?

The Saturday Kitchen – The Best Babi Guling in Jimbaran, Bali

Since returning from my weekend in Bali earlier this week, I have been constantly thinking of my very humble but exceedingly delectable meal of babi guling at warung Karya Rebo, a simple eaterie at Kedonganan in Jimbaran. Babi guling, as many would know, is one of the most iconic dishes of Bali — suckling pig marinated in turmeric and other spices, roasted over a charcoal fire until the skin is crisp, and the meat juicy and tender.

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This warung, or local eaterie, isn’t fancy. There’s no aesthetics to speak of, but it is clean and comfortable. It serves only babi guling, for which it is well known among locals in Jimbaran. Sure, lots of people would have heard of Ibu Oka in Ubud, but there are other good places to find this iconic Balinese dish which is just as good. Rebo is one of these. This is my second time there, and both times, the food was consistently delectable.

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When you enter, just find a table and tell the ladies behind the counter how many are eating. The food comes quickly — rice, a small portion of babi guling with crackling, a side dish of long beans and a lemongrass and shallot sambal. This simple meal is a playground of flavours — piquant, spicy, sweet, umami, fiery, light and low. Depending on how you combine and pair the little morsels with the rice, you get a different combination of taste sensations.

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The pork was good – tender, moist, discreetly flavoured by the spices. But it was the sambal that really struck me. I spent the next few days trying to first identify what it was, then look up the recipe. I think I found it, and tried it yesterday. It isn’t very pretty but the flavours are lovely — sweetness from the shallots, tangy fragrant from the lemongrass and lime juice, a touch of fiery from the chillies, depth from the garlic, and all pulled together by a good lashing of oil. Have this as an accompaniment to white rice, or serve it on the side with slow roasted pork belly or grilled chicken.

(The bill came up to 220,000 RP which is about S$22 or US$16. We are quite sure it was the ‘tourist price’ but it’s still an inexpensive meal for three.)

Lemongrass and Shallot Sambal

  • Servings: 2-3
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

1 bulb garlic, skinned and chopped fine
5-6 shallots, skinned and chopped fine
3 lemongrass (only the tender white ends), sliced fine
2 chilli padi, sliced fine (remove seeds)
3 kaffir lime leaves, middle vein removed, then sliced fine
3 slices galangal, chopped fine
4 Tbsp oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Juice of lime

Method
Combine all the ingredients and serve raw, or sauté all the ingredients except the lime juice, in a pan for about 5 mins. Add the lime juice last and serve.

Photo 101 – Connect + Vast

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Haunting, mesmerising and simply gobsmacking. This is just a corner of Ta Prohm, one of the most famous temples in the vast Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia. Forgotten for centuries, this stone temple which was once an integral part of a powerful Hindu kingdom, had been literally swallowed up by the forest over time. Branches, roots and entire tree trunks have insidiously crawled into the crevices of the temple, and inched between individual bricks and stone until Nature and temple have entwined themselves into each other and become one. It is humbling to see that Nature is infinitely patient, but she will always have her way.

Photo101 #2 – Street

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Assignment #2 of my current Photo101 course, which I am enjoying tremendously, the theme is Street. Here is my chosen image. It is an image snapped on a recent holiday to PingYao, the only completely walled city left in China and listed as UNESCO World Heritage. It is a charming little walkable town, like a China version of York, with winding narrow streets and buildings that date back three or four hundred years — all still standing and occupied as homes, and shops and a few emerging boutique hotels. Pingyao is a fascinating dichotomy of the old and the new.

While in the morning, cars, electric bicycles and design forward tourist shops make up the liveliness of the town, the night hides the gaudiness of the day. What is left are the red lanterns which light up the main doors of almost every home, casting a haunting glow on the ancient walls of the town. At night, the past comes alive and even though a few people are walking the streets, you can imagine the ghosts and spirits of the past emerging and reliving the glory of Pingyao’s past.

(Incidentally, Pingyao was the inspiration for the setting of Kungfu Panda II, and the mansion that was used as the location for the movie ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ is not far away.)

Lunch on Mt Qingcheng, Chengdu

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Often when I travel, the best food experiences are not so much at renown restaurants but the unexpected places where I am surprised by good, honest, humble food.

And so it was the case during my visit to Chengdu last week. We had gone to see Mt Qingcheng, one of the most important sites in Taoism and considered one of the eight ‘fairylands’ of China. Much of it was an uphill climb on perfectly laid out wooden boardwalks through beautiful parkland, heading up, up and up to the Taoist temple where we were anticipating some homecooked food by Taoist monks. By the time we heaved our way to the top, we had worked up an appetite and quite ready to tuck into lunch.

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Unfortunately the monks had decided to slaughter a pig that very morning to make local bacon and the kitchen was far too busy to entertain curious tourists.

So we pottered back down the hill where we came upon a little stall selling ‘xian chai’, a genre of food which was cooked a la minute. The lady proprietor was the only one there, but with few local vegetables displayed on plastic trays, some chicken and gingko nuts, she whipped up in less than 15 minutes, a veritable feast of local dishes.

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The star of the show was doubled boiled chicken soup with gingko nuts, a local speciality which accounted for half the bill. But there was also a wonderful dish of tender winter bamboo shoots stir fried with spring onions and chilli, local bacon (very fatty) fried with leeks, cabbage soup, and other assorted stir fried vegetables.

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I am constantly reminded that good food is not necessarily elaborate, and indeed the simpler it is, the more I am impressed. For its one thing to have an army of trained cooks at your beck and call in a professional kitchen equipped to the nines, but it’s quite another to whip up a fabulous meal over a tiny  stove with limited ingredients and no help.

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