Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Other Ancestor - Gan Eng Seng

My sister just sent me another newspaper clip about Cheang Hong Lim.  Much had been written about him in my cookbook because my mother was a direct descendant of his.  Perhaps, I should have elaborated on my other illustrious ancestor, Gan Eng Seng.

As a young bride from a wealthy family with their own cook, my mother had little experience in the kitchen.  She was soon required to prepare meals for her in-laws and was therefore subjected to a punishing regimen under my father's blind grandmother.  This lady was a wife of Gan Tiang Tock, the eldest son of Gan Eng Seng.  

A researcher had recently asked me if there had been a deliberate decision to join these two families, as was common among the high-born Peranakans of those days.  His assertion was that this was often done to preserve the dowry and fortunes of the bride.  My mother had never mentioned anything.

Gan Eng Seng was born in Malacca in 1844.  At least, this is one connection I have to that fabled city.  He came from a poor family and migrated to Singapore at the age of 17 where he began work as an apprentice in the Guthrie Trading Company.  With his diligence, he impressed one of the partners, Thomas Scott.  Eventually, Gan Eng Seng rose to become the chief compradore, a position he retained for 25 years at Guthrie until his death at the age of 55. At the same time, he operated fifteen other businesses of his own, including the supply of labor and transport for the Tanjong Pagar docks.  The latter allowed Gan Eng Seng to amass a fortune, enough for him to become a pioneer in education and a notable philanthropist.

Perhaps his major accomplishment was the founding of the Anglo-Chinese Free School at Telok Ayer Street.  This all-boys' school was later renamed the Gan Eng Seng School and it still exists today.  It was the first and only school in Singapore set up by an individual who provided the land, building and endowment to operate the school, distinct from the many others which had been founded by ethnic clans or Christian/Catholic missionaries.  I sometimes ponder at the irony - the anxiety that went with placing my son in one of New York's boys' schools and the fact that an ancestor founded a reputable boys' school more than 125 years ago.

In addition, Gan Eng Seng was instrumental in the setting up of Tan Tock Seng Hospital by donating the land for its original building along Rochor Road.  Interestingly, he was a founder of one of the most exclusive clubs in Singapore, nicknamed the Millionaires' Club and officially called the Ee Hoe Hean Club.

I went to visit his family gravesite at Bukit Brown earlier this year and was struck by one anecdote.  This clearly represented the kind-heartedness and generosity of a man whose qualities, I hope, will continue down the family line, at least with mine.  Among all the family members buried at that plot, his butler's grave stands beside his.  

Friday, July 26, 2013

Camp Sharon Year 2

My mother did not know how to bring me to museums.  The only one that probably existed in her time was the National Museum and it featured more taxidermy and animal skeletons than anything else.  But inadvertently, by taking 9 year-old me on her shopping escapades to Arab Street jewelers (up creaky wooden flights of stairs), riding in the bek chia trishaw to buy swaths of fabric in Katong, or visiting her relatives in dilapidated seaside bungalows - she instilled in me, for the rest of my life, visual images of a bygone era.

My kids are more fortunate.  We now live in a smaller world aided by jets and international friends.
Summer camps in NY cost anywhere from $800 to $1500 per week per child.  I did the math and felt that as a stay-at-home mom, the cost was not justified, especially for the camps that require a four to six week commitment.  Besides, I wanted a piece of the action.  So we devised 'Camp Sharon' where the kids and I explored new museums and new locations.  This year, we went global.   I've culled the highlights of our excursions this summer:

Stockholm: Vasa Museet
An enormous royal warship named 'Vasa' sank in 1628 on its maiden voyage, just as it was exiting the Stockholm harbor.  It was the Titanic of its time.  The ship was salvaged in the 1960s and is now housed in a museum built around this gigantic wreck.  The kids loved the interactive screens that enable them to theorize on why the ship sank - too narrow hull?  too much stuff?

Copenhagen: Rosenborg Castle
Up close and personal with the Danish Crown Jewels and a tour of the compact but ornate palace above grounds. Surrounded by a pretty park for a perfect picnic under the trees.

Denmark: Kronborg Castle
After several mentions of the longstanding war between Sweden and Denmark, everything comes together when you experience this massive, cold and lonely fort across the straits from Sweden, home of the reluctant prince of Denmark - Hamlet.

Salzburg: Tour of 'The Sound of Music'

I debated whether to do a personalized and private tour.  But the sing-a-long on the group tour bus (to several favorites from the movie) brought back a flashback of my mother standing at the house gate, waiting to take me to the movie right after school.  We discovered that several venues made up the scenes and one of the most interesting was the gated cemetery at St. Peter's which inspired the Hollywood set for the movie's climactic scene as the family hid in the convent.

Salzburg: Monchsberg 
The fortress on top of the hill is a city unto itself and brings knights, monks and forts to real life.

Vienna:  Hofburg Palace Children's Museum 
The children found an opportunity where a museum spoke to their level of understanding.  They chanced upon a real princess' bedroom and managed to set up a royal banquet table for mom.

Vienna: Imperial War Museum 
My son dragged me there and every so often, following a child through his or her lenses opens up a new family this case, World War Two.  It's not much fun for a mother to take photos of her son posing beside tanks and enemy planes, or for that matter, come across some haunting Nazi uniforms.  But the experience opens up many questions to be answered about what led to these great wars and the events that played out in the end.

New York: Museum of Mathematics 
I have no high-level intellectual understanding of the hands-on monitors but I am sure there is some logic.  Everything is meant to be intuitive for the children of whom there are many to this new and popular site.

New York: Tenement Museum 
This has always been a favorite of mine, especially after a visit to Ellis Island as a carry-over of what immigrant life was like after landing in New York.

New Jersey: Liberty Science Museum
Great exhibitions, particularly the one on gross body issues that involve gas, snot and nose hair.  I won't have to explain anything to my children any longer.  The displays were clear, even I understood them.
My daughter had a chance to 'Be a Surgeon' and operated on a banana with a staple in her gut. And one would have thought that a banana would solve that problem on its own.

Friday, July 19, 2013

A Midsummer Night's Dream

My daughter taking a dip at 10pm. 

Last June, our Swedish friends invited us to join the New York Swedish community at Battery Park to celebrate Midsummer.  My kids and I meandered our way there a little too late because it began to pour heavily just as we arrived.  I stood in the shade, staring at the Statue of Liberty amidst the grey sky and rough waves, determined to have a 'do-over' the next year.  That was assuming my Swedish friends were going to stay on.  They returned back to Sweden in the early part of this year and the 'do-over' became a bit more complex.

So this June, we trekked all the way to Stockholm to visit little Erik's family.  We timed it for June 21 so that we could have the full experience of what is perhaps their most important holiday after Christmas.  Among the Scandinavians, the Swedes are the most observant and enthusiastically celebrate this holiday, a leftover from ancient times to commemorate the summer equinox.  The city wound down on Thursday June 20 as everyone went away to spend time with family and friends, mostly out in the country.  My friends hired a vintage boat to take us through a canal that then led out to the Swedish archipelago, eventually to an island called Grinda.  They were very concerned that it would rain, as tradition dictated year after year.  We packed newly purchased rain gear, only to be rewarded with glorious sunshine throughout our entire time in Sweden.

Sweden is north enough to experience long dark winters and probably feels cheated by short sprints of summer.  Yet, the summer days are long and I wanted to get that sense of the 10pm sunlight, having grown up in Singapore where the sun predictably set at 6.38pm every single evening.  Our Swedish companions enlightened us to the delirious joy of soaking in the sun at its best - with rounds and rounds of schnapps and wine,  interjected with top quality coffee to stay up all night.  We feasted on different types of pickled or marinated herring, fresh and creamy boiled baby potatoes and cubes of Vasterbotten cheese. The children had delicate pancakes and Swedish meatballs, but of course.

It was a delightful time to see pure happiness amidst some of the most beautiful people I've ever met - inward and outward beauty.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Bread and Butter

It's been one of the most action-packed summers for my family.  We literally took planes, trains and automobiles (and sailboats) to travel far and wide.  Fun and insightful, I will begin a series of our adventures these past weeks.

Yesterday, I indulged in my annual "one-day-away" time to myself.  Last year, I had spent a good part of a hot and humid afternoon biking around Manhattan.  This year, I decided to try the new Citibike rental program while incorporating a day of all things Danish.  Perhaps I wanted to relive the good time we had in Copenhagen recently.  I went for lunch at Aamanns in Tribeca; followed by a compelling Danish movie "The Hunt" starring the magnificent Mads Mikkelsen.

Aamanns serves smorrebrod - lavish rye bread open sandwiches elegantly displaying main features such as roast beef, roast pork loin, fried fishcake or pork pate;  garnished with parsley, cubed pickles or dill;  spread with remoulade or tartar sauce for example.  Various combinations.  There are a few famous smorrebrod restaurants in Copenhagen.  These include Ida Davidsen (mentioned in "1000 Places to See Before You Die') and Schonnemann, both within walking distance of the fabulous Rosenborg Castle.  We did not try these two but were wowed by what we ate at 'Told and Snaps' close to Nyhavn ('Told and Snaps' in the Danish language is apparently something about protesting about paying high close to my husband's heart.)  What caught us unawares was the fact that these smorrebrod restaurants are not the ubiquitous sandwich delis we are accustomed to in New York.  These delectable open sandwiches are serious meals unto themselves and diners make reservations to get into these establishments.

Weeks later, while we were staying in an old Austrian castle, our hostess served us sandwiches for dinner.  It was light and surprisingly refreshing for a summer evening.  We concocted our own combinations with sliced cucumber, tomatoes, bologna, prosciutto, butter, with an offering of various types of bread - kaiser rolls, rye, white.  Having sandwiches for dinner was indeed a revelation for me. Growing up in an Asian family, it would have had to be white rice, white rice, white rice......

My best memories of sandwiches are of those which my mother packed for my annual primary school excursions.  White bread, Plumrose ham, sliced cucumber, Buttercup butter. These sandwiches became 'softer' as I carried them in a Tupperware container through the sweltering heat before we settled down for our picnic.  I also thought about my first time ordering a sandwich at a NY deli.  I asked for "ham and bread".  "That's it?", asked the puzzled counter server.  Indeed, I got ham and bread with nothing else.  Different cultures, different styles.

Indonesia in Amsterdam

For years, my daughter had wanted to visit Amsterdam. We were cautioned by friends that parts of the city - particularly Dam Square - m...