Saturday, October 31, 2015

Graves of my Forefathers

November 1 is All Saints' Day.  It is a popular time for the French to visit New York.  As a French friend once joked, "We'd rather shop on Fifth Avenue than sweep our ancestors' graves."  Halloween itself has its roots originating from these few days which in religious terms, are meant to be a time of remembrance of the dearly departed.  But in modern history, Halloween has become the ghoulish festival of dress-up.  Innocent toddler costumes, sexy Goth, carved-out pumpkins, bar-hopping, trick-or-treating, and midnight cemetery tours.

Back in Singapore, there continues to be a debate about the fate of the Bukit Brown Cemetery.  This is a cemetery of 100,000 graves, once considered the largest Chinese cemetery outside of Singapore.
Check out or

This past Friday, the Peranakan Museum conducted a talk about the history of Bukit Brown.  For my family, the cemetery takes on a lot of significance.  Several members of my father's and mother's families, going five generations back, are buried there.  They are sprawled throughout the large piece of land.  For many prominent Peranakan families, for some reason which I have yet to understand (I missed the talk, for sure.), the cemetery became the place to rest in perpetual peace.  In fact, the Cheang Hong Lim family members were reburied there from their original private graveyard off Alexandra Road.

The government has earmarked part of Bukit Brown for a four-lane highway extension, with longer-term plans to turn it into prime real estate in a few decades. Loyal 'Brownies' - volunteer guides who are passionate about history and heritage, advocate turning this into a protected monument site. Read Tan Chuan-Jin's reflections, written when he was Minister of State for National Development.

Yet, descendants like me aren't more involved for various reasons. We are not proficient in the Chinese language or culture of our ancestors after years of creating our own Peranakan identity.  Many of us have converted to Christianity, hence we no longer observe the traditions of ancestral worship, let alone clean up the graves.  Ironically, we hold on to the superstitions of our ancestors and would rather not have anything to do with claiming exhumed bodies, leaving it to the migrant workers to do so.  So while the ministry involved tries to contact us, many decline responsibility.

Swept up in the controversy, I made a personal visit to a few of these graves back in March, 2013. Anything funereal is not my scene….and the warning of snakes in the lush undergrowth made me think twice.  (I have such a phobia of snakes that I decided not to attend a recent Mexican event commemorating the "Day of the Dead" because there was a snake charmer.)  That misty morning in March, Chew Keng Kiat, my tour guide, proudly declared that he had never encountered a snake during his jaunts.  My sisters did not want to tag along as expected.  Eew. Why visit a cemetery if you can avoid it?  "And you, Sharon, of all people?",  "Aren't you always scared of ghosts and spirits?"  
Well, I guess my interest in family history overrode my lifelong fear of the dark arts.  

I arranged for another friend to join us to make it a merrier, noisier crowd.  Always good to be loudmouths among the sleeping dead.  First stop was Gan Eng Seng who buried himself among his wife and several adopted sons, along with a special plot for his faithful servant.  It was quite a large compound and pretty well kept. Keng Kiat later explained that the students of the Gan Eng Seng School made a trip on every Founder's Day to pay homage.  They probably tidied the place up.  

Gan Eng Seng's tomb

Cheang Hong Lim was tucked all the way back, to the point that his large grave was a literal stone's throw away from a luxurious bungalow off Andrew Road.  Imagine sunning yourself by the pool and knowing that Mr. Cheang is lurking at you from the backyard.  After all, he had several wives.  

Cheang Hong Lim's grave 
Us - the descendants of
two enemies who sued each other.
Right behind his tombstone was the grave of his nemesis - a man who had sued him many times over the opium business.  Funnily enough, the person I had invited to join us was the man's descendant.  So we laughed it off that the two old men ended up together.  

Tombstones tell a lot.  Recently, my family visited Arlington Cemetery in DC and I was anticipating a boring tour.  Lo and behold, my children gleaned many facts from those tombstones - the age of the soldier when he died, his religion, the names of his wife or children buried with him, perhaps an infant baby.  Similarly, the Bukit Brown tombstones detailed the names of sons, the number of wives, the date of birth and death according to the year of the Chinese emperor's reign, his official ranking and titles (if he had any).  The origin of his township in China.  

I was fascinated.  If I had scored a double A for the Chinese language back in school, I would have been recording and translating my family genealogy right there on the spot.  Besides, the cemetery planning was probably filled with references to geomancy, symbolism, and

Illustration of a typical tomb from a history book published before 1910. 

architectural details unknown to the laymen like me but meaningful for learning the Chinese culture.

This all begs the question of the future of such a historically rich gravesite - that memorializes the immigrant story of early Singaporeans.  I hope that one day, UNESCO will recognize it as a World Heritage Site.  If one has visited any of these sites elsewhere in the world, you know that the Botanic Gardens has little to compel when compared with Bukit Brown.  

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Sarong Kebaya

Sarong Kebaya: attire consisting of see-through blouse (kebaya) worn with a sarong skirt.

Right after my mother celebrated her 70th birthday, we made a trip to Penang.  Apart from trying out the "two sisters' char kway teow", my most vivid recollection of that trip was of my father, sister, aunt and I standing in the sweltering equatorial heat for three hours while my mother sat in a cramped seamstress shop with a tailor to discuss kebaya patterns.  That was the highlight of her trip and was her hidden agenda.  Sweating away, I was not very happy to say the least.  I grumbled and quarreled with my mother about her selfish ways.

Made by the Penang tailor. 
Unknown to me until very recently, this tailor was a national artisan and a UNESCO cultural award winner.  My mother, sadly enough, died only a few months after the Penang trip and was dressed in one of those kebayas she had spent much time and money commissioning from this tailor.  "Aiyee!  Sayang!", my female relatives might exclaim if they knew these facts about the tailor.  Then again, in the end, my mother remained the sartorial queen as she arrived in heaven, dressed to the nines.

Lim Swee Kim - the famous kebaya maker in Penang.
The sarong kebaya is the epitome of elegance for a Nonya, if worn with proper decorum.  I am not a fan of the new wave - when the kebaya is worn as a jacket over a flimsy camisole, or paired with jeans.  For that matter, the vibrant colors can be so jarring at times that I often wish the ladies who dress up would co-ordinate their colors so that they collectively look like a fragrant bouquet of flowers.

Not too long ago, there was a comprehensive exhibition at the Peranakan Museum about sarong kebayas.  An accompanying book by the curator, Peter Lee, was launched this year, a heavy tome that I had to leave behind in Singapore due to excess baggage.  I have yet to read it more carefully.  My take is that for the most part of its early history, the kebaya that a Nonya wore was far simpler.  Essentially a white top to pair with the busy pattern of Pekalongan batik.

It was probably with the advent of the Singer sewing machine that the stitched embroidery became more nuanced, with floral motifs, animals, birds, made of varying thread types and colors.  An expert tailor will take a novice through the lessons about the gauge of the thread thickness, how to manipulate the machine and edge those swirls and curls.

I labeled my mother "the original Madonna, she with her pointy bra".  Indeed, my mother had a Triumph corset bra which she would don before she put on her blouse and fastened with her heirloom kerosang brooch.  Preceding any wedding banquet, the bedroom would have full-blast airconditioning while my nimble fingers would be called upon to fix the hooks and eyes of the corset bra.  She would be perspiring and dabbing her make-up with tissue while I squeezed her into her lingerie.  I always marveled at how someone so proper like mother, had no inhibitions parading among hundreds of wedding guests in a see-through blouse and a lacy, pointy bra.

My mother and her obsession with kebayas seemed to be a concoction that caused occasional arguments between her and me.  She took great pains to customize a confectionery pink kebaya to wear to my Singapore wedding.  Her mutterings about the "peacock" befuddled me and I did not realize that she was referring to the pair of peacocks that would anchor the left and right corner edges of her blouse.  I never took a close look or appreciated the details of the kebaya on the night of my wedding banquet and I suspect, it was much to her utter disappointment.  Wistful about my actions after her death, I stashed that particular kebaya and brought it back with me to New York as a tangible remnant of her life.  The peacock's images grace the content pages of my cookbook, memorialized in honor of my mother's excitement for my wedding.  Ironically, for all the passion that she had for kebayas, she left behind fewer than ten blouses.  They were costly to begin with.

If only my mother was still alive to teach us the art of discerning a top notch kebaya from a common one.  We can only critique them according to how 'halus' (refined) the stitching is but then again, what makes for refinement exactly?  Besides, the material is meant to be voile, not cotton as is frequently presented in kebaya tops these days.  Apart from the Penang tailor, my mother was very fond of Benjamin Seck, whom she 'discovered' when he started out sewing in a small shop in Frankel Estate.  I would suggest St. Francis (Benjamin's label) although many customers shop at Rumah Bebe and Kim Choo as well.  One very recent addition is a small pop-up store in Suntec City (opposite Din Tai Fung) where I found some admirable floral patterns.  The lady gets her stock from Malacca.

Recently, a few family members and I attended the Peranakan Ball.  I personally have never worn a sarong kebaya.  While I consider it the attire of my heritage and self-identity, I am possibly scarred by memories of my mother and her see-through blouse and pointy bra.  Instead, I wore my Shanghai Tang qipao for the umpteenth time, pretending to channel Maggie Cheung all the while acknowledging that I pass off more so as a mamasan for my nieces.  What encouraged me was the excitement among my nieces and daughter of putting together their individual sarong kebaya outfits.  And what encouraged them was an affirmation from President Tony Tan who exhorted them to keep the tradition alive by continuing to wear the attire in the future.  

My nieces and daughter with President Tony Tan and Mrs. Mary Tan.
Three good books exist.  My favorite is Datin Endon's book if only to look at the beautiful patterns and quality of each kebaya.

1. The Nonya Kebaya: A Century of Straits Chinese Costume, Datin Seri Endon Mahmood
2. Sarong Kebaya: Peranakan Fashion in an Interconnected World 1500 -1950, by Peter Lee
3. Timeless Peranakan Legacy: The Antique Sarong Kebaya Collection of Peter Wee, by Noelle Tan

Monday, September 14, 2015

Gorgeous Cakes
This past Saturday, I threw a birthday party for my son.  The highlight for me was his birthday cake - a buttercream football field complete with green turf; and a Pittsburgh Steelers football helmet made of sugar gumpaste.  My son quipped that the bakers got it wrong….the Steelers logo should only be on one side of the helmet unlike other American football teams.

3-dimensional celebration cakes are a big business.  Google my name 'Sharon Wee' and chances are, you will encounter the more famous Sharon Wee - the cake decorator based in Australia, with a cookbook to boot.

In my mother's time, her Malay/Arab friends were renowned for their decorated cakes, especially the tiered marzipan wedding cake which they would make for their relatives' weddings.  One particular wedding featured a long banquet table showcasing several creations.  The cake which always stood out for me was a fondant rotary telephone.  So fascinated, I then often gazed at my sister's book which had colorful pictures of similar cakes.

From Cupcake Cafe, popular with the publishing crowd. 
Now, I am tempted to sign up for a cake decorating course.  New York has its fair share of talented bakers and cake artists.  A favorite for me is the floral cake - nothing more brilliant than a bouquet of beautifully-sculpted, colorful yet creamy flowers hiding a delicious chocolate cake.

Many years ago,  I sought an emerging cake artist to customize a pug dog for my friend's 30th birthday.  Her respiratory illness meant that she could not own her dream dog, so I came up with the idea of an edible version.  After much discussion with the artist over cake flavors and fillings, plus color photos of cute pug dogs for reference, the artist priced out the cake at US$650.  I almost gagged and blurted out, "What??  How much is a real dog?"  The artist took great pains to explain the number of days it would take to craft the floppy ears and curly tail, not forgetting the spray paint of the tan and black coat.  I gave in.  The dog cake made my friend's night and was mentioned in the eulogy for her three months later.  A small price to pay for a friend's eternal happiness.  The cake artist has gone on to become very successful.

A few of my friends in Singapore have now taken up this cake decorating hobby seriously - one has even gone into business.  Check out Serendipity Cakes by Yvonne Chan.
How lovely.  If this is a way to light up any child's face, this painstaking passion brings tremendous joy to the baker as well.

Recommended books:

1. 'Bake and Decorate' by Fiona Cairns
2. Le Cordon Bleu Dessert Techniques
3. 'The Art of the Cake' by Mich Turner


Sunday, July 19, 2015

Muslim friends and southern Spain

The ceiling of La Mezquita, Cordoba.
A few days ago, Muslims celebrated Eid.  Our Afghan driver ferried us to JFK airport while supping his wife's home-cooked food, apologizing profusely for the aroma in the car and explaining that he was breaking his fast and that otherwise, he would not have eaten at all.  While I stopped over in Dubai, the muezzin call to prayer reminded me that that was perhaps an important moment, 8pm in the evening and the last breaking of the fast signifying the end of Ramadan.  By the time I arrived in Singapore, the Malay immigration officer was only too glad to change shift and return home, lontong beckoning at the doorstep.

Growing up, I was surrounded by my mother's Muslim friends.  They made the most delectable cakes and practiced the most gracious hospitality.  My father, on the other hand, worked with Muslim chauffeurs and restaurant owners; and played football with Malays from his workplace and neighborhood.  Many of these family friends were Arab - or 'Ah Rub' as they pronounced it.  The very word conjured exotic images of Ali Baba's cave, the movie I watched at the beach club called "The Thief of Baghdad" and the newsreels of handsome Sheikh Yamani negotiating oil prices in the 1970s.

Sadly, in this day and age, the word 'Arab' almost seems like a dirty one, connoting the terrorists who attacked the Twin Towers and a dreadful nightmare of hijackers lurking around in your airplane.  This is especially reminded when you visit the new 9/11 Museum.  The depiction of Al-Qaeda almost scares you.  And these days, you are greeted almost daily by morning headlines screaming "ISIS" and such.

The famous arches of the mosque in Cordoba. 

A ceiling in the Alhambra.

Real Alcazar, Seville where Games of Thrones was filmed.

The pool in the Real Alcazar, Seville.

Yet, I must not forget that for every rotten apple in the barrel, there are many Muslim friends I still hold dear, descending from a rich heritage manifested in food, architecture, literature and history (violent or romantic or both).  My family recently made a trip to southern Spain and I remain mesmerized by the symmetry and geometry displayed by the mosaics, wood panelling and window lattice frames, strictly adhering to the Islamic command not to create any images of God.  The floral scent emanating from the Alhambra promises me of what heaven will be like, that the real heaven would surely exceed what I could already sense in those lovely gardens in Granada created to be 'heaven on earth'.   And the Nasrid cuisine - a small taste of it one night - evoked murtabak and soup kambing and reminded me of the Muslim influence that spread across the world,  that reached our doorstep many generations ago and culminated in the very friendships my parents made and which I would like to continue to keep.

Generalife, the garden in the Alhambra.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Baba we are all so proud of.

Close to half a million people lined up round the clock to view his Lying-in-State.  

Partaking of history at the National Museum. 
My sisters cancelled a barbecue we had been planning during my trip back to Singapore.  "Disrespectful.  How to party like that?", they lamented.  No one was in the mood.  Lee Kuan Yew, our first Prime Minister and the permanent fixture in our lives, had died.

Singapore became a surreal sight, a vision I had never encountered before.  Mourners in all-white or black, and grey shades in between.  Then, the images of the Sunday funereal deluge that was as torrential as the sadness.  I literally had vertigo on the day he died, seeing coconut trees spinning upside down while sitting in my beach villa on Ko Samui; and later visited the ER.

After a hiatus of three months, it seemed only appropriate that my first blog entry would be to commemorate the passing of one of the most prominent Babas (Straits-born Chinese).  I wanted to wait for the tributes to settle.  After all, I was only going to be outwitted by the outpouring; the re-postings of sentimentalism online and what he meant to the individual.  Everyone had an opinion about his legacy.  Everyone had a take on his work.  The fact is, LKY wrote his memoirs and his testament of how Singapore succeeded need not be paraphrased by so many.

The commentary was a long time coming.  It depended on who wrote or spoke, and from what angle.  The dutiful politician or civil servant…..the opportunistic overseas Singaporean writer/commentator, the everyday man who felt a debt of gratitude. The tactless man who was relieved that LKY had transformed the nation so that he was spared the torment of being a "foreign worker digging roads in another country". (Now, how would our Asian neighbors feel about this comment? Seriously?)  Others started to compare and contrast, frequently resulting in the Ugly Singaporean pastime of bashing the USA.  Suddenly, everyone wanted to sound as 'clear and crisp', as insightful and articulate as the real man was.  And for the most part, we don't measure up because he was a giant of a different sort.  He still instilled fear and perfection, even in death.  As I was writing an entry into the condolence book, I stopped in my tracks, a panic attack over how to spell 'perseverance' properly.  No mistakes, please, even though he was never going to read it.

After days of cramming the facts, gleaning his autobiographies lining both homes in Singapore and New York - what touched me most were the family portraits.  LKY was a true-blue Baba boy who loved his mother's cooking, "had a sweet tooth for Peranakan desserts" and for much of his life, bathed using the gayong  (scooped up water from a large traditional dragon jar of water).

LKY and my father grew up in Telok Kurau.  My father remembered him as being bookwormish and seriously studious, though he occasionally joined his more boisterous brothers and their playmates (like my father) for a game of football.  My mother - a good friend of his maternal aunts - relayed the tale of the fortune teller who said that the little boy was going to grow up to become a 'ruler' (of sorts), a prediction so impossible and that baffled his mother because then, they only knew of their colonial rulers.

Visual memories and newsworthy snippets came back to me, which interestingly, did not resurface in the media.  One National Day, LKY turned up at the parade wearing a black armband.  His mother had died the day before.  I vaguely remembered her when I accompanied my mother to Mrs. Lee's cooking classes where the ladies chatted in their comfortable Baba patois.  (She, in turn, had taken cooking lessons from my father's grandmother.) Another time, LKY cut short a trip to return to the local hospital for a hushed procedure which he later, embarrassedly admitted, was related to hemorrhoids.  He was human after all.

I had previously credited LKY for incorporating Mandarin and other mother tongue languages into the educational curriculum.  Yet perhaps one of his best initiatives was possibly an extension of experiences from his own upbringing.  The Babas had gained an advantage early on through having acquired the English language, the colonial lingua franca.  This in turn enabled them to communicate fluently with the British and paved their way in business and advances in the civil service.

LKY made English the primary language in Singapore - which therefore allows us Singaporeans to get asked that question worldwide, at least once in their lives…."Your English is good!  Where did you learn it from?"

As a tribute, I am enclosing my mother's recipes for Mee Siam and Putri Salat.
Thank you, Mr. Lee, for sacrificing your life for the greater good of your fellow countrymen.

Mee Siam 
Spicy Fried Vermicelli with Shrimp and Egg Garnish

8 servings

170 g or 6 ounces dried shrimp, soaked in warm water for ten minutes and pat dry
60 g or 2 ounces dried chili, stems and seeds removed, soaked in warm water
60 g or 2 ounces belachan, cut into small cubes
230 g or 8 ounces shallots, peeled and diced
¾ cup oil for frying
700 g or 1 ½ pounds dry vermicelli
900 g or 2 pounds bean sprouts (taugeh), roots discarded
2 cups water
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoon sugar
150 g or 5 ¼ ounces salted soya bean paste (taucheo), finely pounded
100 g or 3 ounces tamarind (assam), soaked in 2 ½ cups or 20 fluid ounces of water
4 cups thin coconut milk*
2 big red onions, sliced
2 to 6 tablespoon sugar, or more if gravy is salty

*(preferably squeezed from ½ to 1 lb. grated coconut, with water added) (or 4 cups [32 oz.] milk diluted from one 13.5 oz.  tin of coconut milk)

Garnish (can be prepared ahead of time)
4 large pieces yellow firm bean curd (taukwa), fried lightly and cut into 1 cm or  ½  inch small cubes
450 g or 1 pound medium shrimp, boiled, shelled and sliced into halves
12 small green lime, cut into halves
10 eggs, boiled and sliced or quartered
1 bunch chives ( khoo chye), chopped finely


[Tip: This spice paste can be prepared ahead of time and frozen.  Thaw before cooking.]

Having soaked the dried shrimp in warm water for at least ten minutes, drain and pat dry.  
Also drain the chopped pieces of dried chili.

Pound or blend the dried shrimp, followed by the dried chilies, shrimp paste and shallots in order.

[On the day of cooking.]

Soak the dry vermicelli in water for at least an hour to soften the noodles.  Then drain the vermicelli.

Line a baking sheet with grease-proof paper.  This will be used to hold the noodles later.  

Place the frying pan or wok on high heat and when it is sufficiently warm, add the oil.  
When there is a slight smolder, lower heat and pour in the spice paste.  
Stir and fry until fragrant and ‘red’ oil bubbles through.  
Scoop out some oil and approximately half a cup of the spice paste to reserve for the gravy.  

With the remaining spice paste in the wok, add in water, salt, sugar and let it boil.  
Then add in bean sprouts and stir for one minute. Set aside the bean sprouts.  

Next, add in the rice vermicelli to the wok.  
Stir with tongs and let the vermicelli soak well with the spice paste. 
Reintroduce the bean sprouts back to the wok. 

Lower the flame, fry on medium flame and stir continuously, be careful not to let the vermicelli stick to the bottom of the wok. 
Cook until vermicelli is soft and slightly remains moist.  
Transfer to a tray lined with grease-proof paper. Let it cool before serving.

Meanwhile, in a pot, add in the half cup of spice paste and oil, along with the pounded salted soy bean paste.  Strain the tamarind juice.  Pour the tamarind juice and the coconut milk slowly into the pot and let boil.   
Then add in the sliced red onion.  Turn down heat to simmer.  
Finally add in sugar for taste.  [If gravy is salty, add more water and sugar and stir.]

To serve, dish out vermicelli, sprinkle bean curd cubes, sliced shrimp and spoon gravy over the dish. 

Squeeze lime over the dish, arrange sliced eggs on top and sprinkle with chopped chive.   

Putri Salat
Steamed Coconut and Egg Custard Layered on Glutinous Rice

This quintessential Nonya dessert goes by many names: Serikaya, Serimuka, Kueh Sarlat.  
I grew up knowing it as Putri Salat and recall my mother making the custardy kaya top in either green or yellow.  The glutinous rice base was always laced with blue rice, very much like the blue rice grains in Nonya Bak Chang.
12 servings

450g or 1 pound glutinous rice (pulot), to be soaked for at least 2 hours
325ml or 11 fluid ounces coconut cream
125ml or ½ cup coconut milk
¾ teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons sugar, to add to part of the coconut cream
3-4 drops blue coloring, or extracted from ½ cup of bunga telang (peaflowers) soaked in warm water
8 eggs
300 g or 1½ cups  sugar
6 pandan leaves, tied into a knot
1 tablespoon rice flour
1 tablespoon wheat flour
3-4 drops green coloring

Method for soaking rice
Rinse the rice three times.  Place the rice in a pot and cover with enough water, at least 2.5 cm or 1 inch above the level of the rice.  Soak for at least 2 hours before steaming the rice.

Preparation of coconut milk
Divide the cream into two portions: 
i)          90ml or 3 fluid ounces for cooking the glutinous rice  
ii)         225ml or 1 cup for the egg mixture

Set aside the 125ml or ½ cup of coconut milk for the rice.

Method for glutinous rice
Drain the glutinous rice and place it in round tray.  Use a baking tray that could be round, 20 cm or 8 inches in diameter.  You could also use a square tray with sides of 20 cm or 8 inches.  
Place the tray in the steamer pot that you have set up.

Steam the rice until it turns translucent, about 30 to 45 minutes. 
Remove the tray from the steamer, stir in the 125ml or 4 fluid ounces of coconut milk and place it back in the steamer. Continue to steam for another 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, add in the salt and the 1½ teaspoons of sugar to the 3 ounces of coconut cream.  
Divide the cream into 2 bowls.  In one of these bowls, add the drops of blue coloring. 

Remove the rice from the steamer.  Mix half of the rice into the bowl of plain coconut cream, and the other half into the bowl with the cream with the blue coloring.   
Transfer the two batches of rice back to the original bowl, making sure the two batches lay side by side.  
Do not stir them together as yet.  Place back in the steamer and continue to steam the rice for a further 30 minutes. 

Remove the tray.  Now use a scoop to stir the rice. Alternate the white and the blue rice so that you achieve a marbled layer of blue and white rice.  Fold a double layer of tin foil and line it on the rice. 
Press down with something preferably heavy, such as a pestle so that the layer of rice is tightly packed.

Bring back to steam for another 15 minutes.  Leave it to rest while you work on the kaya.

Method for making the top layer of kaya custard
Add water in a saucepan and bring it to a gentle boil. With a metal mixing bowl (that sits nicely on the saucepan), break the eggs into the bowl.  Handbeat in the 300g or 11 ounces of sugar.  Add in the pandan leaves.  
Place the bowl over the saucepan to form a double boiler, cook over low heat, stirring consistently.
[It is important to stir and use a gentle heat to ensure that the eggs do not cook into scrambled eggs, hence the need to use the double boiler method.]

In the meantime, place the rice flour and wheat flour in a bowl.  Add some of the 8 ounces of coconut cream reserved for the egg mixture, to the bowl and whisk to remove flour lumps.  
Then pour the remaining cream, whisking again to remove any additional lumps.  
If necessary, strain the flour mixture.  Then add to the egg mixture in the saucepan, along with the drops of green coloring.  Continue to stir until the mixture thickens.

Remove from heat.  Discard the pandan leaves. 
Pour the custard through a strainer, over onto the tray of pressed rice. 

Cover the tray with a wet cloth hanging over the edges and steam on low heat for approximately an hour until the kaya custard sets.   The cloth lining absorbs the condensation from the steam.  
Otherwise, the droplets will fall back on the surface of the custard and spoil the intended smooth finish.

It is necessary to use a gentle heat.  Turning the heat up would no doubt cook the custard faster, but it will cause ridges to form in the layer of custard.  Aim for a nice smooth surface

Cool the dessert before serving.


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Last of the Big Spenders

The new year is usually a time to make resolutions.  While I don't think I could ever complete one, I make an endeavor to spend less.  Or at least start the year spending less…..

I have just read this autobiography called "No Feast Lasts Forever".  It's obscure and out-of-print.  "Crazy Rich Asians", the voyeuristic, thinly-disguised book that allows people to peer into the lives of the wealthy in Singapore, pales in comparison.  Written by Mrs. Wellington Koo, "No Feast Lasts Forever" is a frank telling of her rich and privileged lifestyle which spanned Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Paris, London and New York.

A few months back, a confluence of coincidences had piqued my interest in this particular writer. 1) I had just attended a close friend's wedding where there were several Chinese-Indonesian relatives (I understood what they were saying and chuckled at the conversation concerning the need to don a corset  to look slim), 2) a newspaper article featured the 109th birthday celebration of a Mrs. Wellington Koo, 3) Park Avenue acquaintances who told me that this same matriarch lived upstairs and played mahjong with equally elegantly-clad Chinese friends, and finally, 4) a PR release by the Met Museum about their upcoming Chinese-themed fashion exhibition which will feature clothes once worn by Mrs. Wellington Koo.

Long story short, who was this Mrs. Wellington Koo?  Well, there were two (and actually, more) and the most famous one was the Mrs. Koo of the 1930s and 1940s whose clothes will indeed be featured at the museum.  The 109 year-old is a later wife.  It was the former Mrs. Koo (nee Oei Hui Lan) who wrote her autobiography and who was the person of interest because the Peranakan Association had once featured her in an article.  The indulged, favored daughter of Indonesian sugar tycoon, Oei Tiong Ham (Oei is pronounced Wee), she was considered the first Nonya to make it to the international scene as the wife of Nationalist China's most famous diplomat and a founder of the United Nations.

"No Feast Lasts Forever" is a cautionary tale of how unimaginable riches dissipated in a lifetime after a series of memorable opportunities to hobnob with the most notable figures of the 20th century. Mrs. Koo wrote this in her twilight years after her husband had moved on to another wife.  She was never to return to Indonesia to reclaim her assets, her father's business was broken up by the anti-Chinese government and he himself, had several children claiming a piece of their trust fund pie.

It made for fascinating reading because Oei Hui Lan was a glamorous, cosmopolitan and sophisticated woman who had an unusually unrestrained lifestyle compared to most of her Nonya peers back in Southeast Asia.  She was a generation before my mother, born in the late 1890s and she witnessed the unfolding of War World Two in Europe and the emergence of Communist China and Nationalist Taiwan.  This book was her firsthand account.  Her mother's separation from her tycoon father enabled her mother, sister and her to move to Europe where they parked themselves in the most exclusive residential enclaves and spent extravagantly.  To have mingled among aristocrats in London and their weekend country houses  in the 1920s illustrated that with money, race was not an issue so long as you had class.  She was, in essence, the Lady Mary Crawley of her crowd.  Her mother only spoke pidgin English, yet made fast friends with the princess of Monaco.  They brought along her mother's Malay maid and a cook who could prepare her mother's favorite spicy dishes wherever they travelled in the world.

Before they had moved, Hui Lan had actually been educated by a British governess in Java.  Of languages, she wrote "Being multilingual is a natural way of life to me.  I slide easily from one language to another when I move from country to country.  I speak English with a British accent or an American, depending on where I am.  My French became polished and authentically Parisian when Mamma bought a house in Paris….The Chinese in Java spoke Fukien which is very difficult.  In family circles, Fukien was the official tongue…. Lower Javanese is spoken when addressing inferiors, middle Javanese is spoken to equals.  All the servants spoke Malay; it was a servants' language."

There were the gilded dinner sets and jewelry…"I had left the house on Curzon Street, sadly saying goodbye to my little Daimler….Mamma was ordering a specially built gray Rolls-Royce with windows so large, people would refer to it as 'The Crystal Palace'.  It was her idea of what was proper for the wife of a minister and would arrive with a chauffeur outfitted by Dunhill, of course.  As a wedding present, she ordered a 36-piece dinner set from Regent Street.  The soup and dinner plates were solid silver, the dessert plates and serving dishes were gold….."

In the first section of the autobiography, Hui Lan described in vivid details the plantation compound she grew up in, in Java.  She was also honest about the subtle racial disparity between the Dutch colonials and the Chinese immigrants despite their newfound entrepreneurial success.

Most interesting for me, she explained her ancestry which helped me understand how Peranakans evolved as a community.  Her paternal grandfather left Amoy, China and moved to Java, Indonesia.  There, he sought refuge in a camp and impressed the camp owner with his intelligence, so much so that the camp owner, a local Chinese, offered him one of his many daughters.  In typical Chinese immigrant fashion, he worked hard and lived frugally, eventually becoming prosperous.  Yet, he maintained his Chinese identity closely because he was not accepted by the Dutch and the Indonesian natives considered him a 'singkeh' (new guest).

I once had to educate my first boss, an Englishman, about who the Peranakans were.  After he read the book I'd lent him, Felix Chia's "The Babas", he quipped, "Ah, now I understand your lot.  Last of the big spenders."

Truly indeed, this other book by Mrs. Koo, would put that description to practice.

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...