Thursday, March 7, 2013

(Not) my grandfather's road

I once had grandiose visions of me posing for a photo standing in the middle of Cheang Jim Chuan Street - which is now relegated to being a slip road leading to a carpark complex in 'town'.   Town meaning the 'Shenton Way' financial area in Singapore.  Cheang Jim Chuan is my mother's paternal grandfather.

Recently, there was a lot of news about the protest rally in Singapore against a government white paper on population.  The venue was at the Speakers' Corner in Hong Lim Park.  When I told my husband, he chuckled momentarily.  Perhaps he too was having grandiose ideas that a political Spring might be born in a park named after his wife's ancestor.  Imagine Tahrir Square......

Hong Lim Park is named after my great-great grandfather Cheang Hong Lim.  As a child, my mother would narrate stories about her family and even helped me trace out our genealogy.  It was amazing that all the names, their years of birth and death, remained so vivid in her memory.  So by the age of eleven, I would visit the public library to read up more about Cheang Hong Lim.  Imagine, research without wiki or google in those days.  I guess local students in Singapore do not study these 'pioneers'.  However, a friend came up to me recently and told me that she had learnt about 'Zhang Fang Lin' when she attended a school run by the Hokkien Huay Kuan, possibly Chung Cheng High.

This is the very first excerpt I came across about my ancestor, in its entirety, written by Tan Ban Huat.....

Cheang Hong Lim, the Big Property Owner and Philanthropist

Philanthropist Cheang Hong Lim (also known as Wan Seng) of 19th century Singapore is well-remembered today by a park, two streets, Cheang Hong Lim Street and Cheang Wan Seng Place, and until recently a constituency named after him.

Born in Singapore, he was the eldest son of Cheang Sam Teo, who had migrated here from China.  
Sam Teo, and his partner, Tay Han Long, ran a monopoly business in opium and sirih (the betel vine) for some time, trading under Chop Teang Wat at Telok Ayer Street. After Sam Teo's death, Hong Lim took over the business and operated under the name of Cheang Hong Lim and Co., which later became Chop Wan Seng. Hong Lim and his partners, Tan Seng Poh and Tan Yeok Nee, also monopolized the opium and spirit farm. He later ventured into shipping and the property business. 

He built a lot of houses along Havelock Road from Chin Swee Road to the upper reaches of the Singapore river, as well as within the town itself.  He became so great a property-owner that there was a saying, "You can be as rich as Hong Lim, but never have as many houses as Hong Lim."

In 1876, Hong Lim donated $3,000 (a large sum in those days) to convert an open space in front of the Police Office at South Bridge Road into a public garden.  His offer was accepted and iron railings were put up around the park, which was then known as Hong Lim Green and later, Dunman's Green. It is now popularly known as Hong Lim Park.

Like many community leaders in 19th century Singapore, Hong Lim contributed much to education by donating funds for building schools and setting up schools for the poor.  He donated $3,000 each to Penang Free School (1876) and Convent School (1890).  In 1875, he set up a school at Cheang Wan Seng Place to teach English.  Poor children attended his classes free.  Later, he set up Cheang Jim Hean Free School at Havelock Road. Headed by his son, Jim Hean, the school had an annual intake of 100 students. 

Another event worthy of mention was his effort in persuading the mother of Lim Boon Keng to let her brilliant son continue his study at Raffles Institution.  Boon Keng had been asked to stop his studies soon after his father's death.  Mr. Hullet, then Principal for R.I., approached Hong Lim for help as the two families were friends.  Boon Keng continued his studies and later became the first Chinese to win the Queen's Scholarship to pursue his medical studies at Edinburgh University.  

In 1863, Hong Lim erected at his own cost, a Chinese temple known as "Geok Hong Tian" at Havelock Road.  He also contributed much to the erection and repair of many temples put up by other clans though he belonged to the Teang Thai clan.  To serve the needs of many residents who stayed in Kim Seng Road and the Havelock area, he built a market at River Valley/Kim Seng Road in 1882.  The market was maintained for several years.  The site is well known as Hong Lim market. 

Another contribution by Hong Lim was the setting up of a fire brigade under his name, Wan Seng Brigade.  The 37-man fully-uniformed Brigade received much praise from the people.  In 1886, a fire broke out at Drummond Hodges and Co.  The Fire Brigade was then unable to put out the fire because of engine trouble.  Wan Seng Brigade was summoned and eventually put out the fire.  

Hong Lim actively identified himself with the public life of the Straits Settlements.  He was for many years on the Committee of the Po Leong Kuk (a body looking after the welfare of women and girls) and several other public bodies.  In 1889, he received thanks from the Governor for being the largest contributor ($2,500) towards the fund for providing Maxim guns for the Singapore Volunteer Artillery.

For all his services to the Chinese community and the public at large, he was made a Justice of the Peace in 1873.  In 1891, he was recognized by the Straits Settlement as the Hokkien community leader.  A procession led by St. Joseph band was held at Havelock Road to celebrate the occasion which was well-attended by his Hokkien group.  Three weeks later, he held a tea-party for his well-wishers.  The Governor, Sir Cecil Clementi Smith, was also present.  

He fell sick the following year and died a year later at the age of 52. 


Monday, January 14, 2013


There was a week in December when the word 'kaya' popped up at least three times.  On one occasion,    I had attended an evening soiree - a book talk by a young writer.  She extolled the wonders of a dish by Susan Fenniger.  It was a stylized version of a Ya Kun breakfast - a poached egg atop kaya toast, drizzled with soy sauce and sprinkled with ground pepper.  Then, I met an old Singaporean friend twice at the doctor's office.  She asked if I could make some kaya because she loved and missed it.

Kaya is this wonderful custardy jam made of eggs, sugar, coconut cream and infused with pandan essence.  It is a ritual to have it for breakfast, spread on toast or smeared on buns, often dipped in a saucer of swimmy half boiled eggs doused with soy sauce and a dash of white pepper.

Recently, our friend sent us a carton of fresh organic eggs.  About three years ago, he had moved upstate and become a gentleman farmer with a ranch full of cattle and chickens.  His eggs looked so shockingly wild! There was no doubt that they were never tainted by chemicals.   I decided to make kaya out of them.  It was just as well.  Last week, my father was hospitalized for a spinal injury and underwent surgery.  Eggs, proteins and muscle-building came to mind.  What better than sweet kaya to perk him up as he goes through rehab.  So I made my egg jam and packed a bottle for my husband to courier back to Singapore.  Alas, it was confiscated at the departure gate for security reasons.

Kaya also means 'rich' and once, while my mother was making it, we talked about what we would do when we became 'kaya'.  We would immediately hire our gardener Muthu to become our chauffeur.  Kaya - the stuff of sweet dreams.  

10 eggs, room temperature (allows for sugar to dissolve more quickly)
3 cups sugar
¾ cups thick coconut cream
4 pandan leaves, rinsed and tied into a knot

In a metal bowl, whisk eggs together.  Add sugar a bit at a time and continue to whisk to dissolve sugar.  
Stir in the thick coconut cream well. 

Bring a small pot of water to a boil.  Lower the heat so that the water in the pot is just below boiling point.  Rest the metal bowl of egg mixture on the rim, over the pot and whisk continuously until the mixture thickens.  
[This is an adapted method to cook the mixture and dissolve the sugar without curdling the eggs.]

Strain the mixture with a sieve into a heatproof bowl, preferably with side handles.  
Add the knotted pandan leaves to the mixture.  Crush the leaves gently with a spoon to release the flavors.

Place a metal stand in a large or Dutch oven pot.   Fill the pot with cold water, almost up to the height 
of the stand.  Bring to a gentle boil.  Wrap the lid with a kitchen towel to absorb water condensation 
droplets which may fall on the kaya jam and impact the texture.  Place the heatproof bowl on the metal stand.  

Whisk or stir mixture frequently for the next quarter to half an hour to break up any clumps. 
[At this point, skim the top of the mixture with a slotted spoon to remove lumps.]

When the mixture begins to thicken, cover and simmer for another half an hour to an hour.    

Replenish more hot water to the pot if necessary.

Turn off the heat when the jam mixture becomes firmer.  Leave the jam to cool completely before storing in air-tight containers. Discard the knotted pandan leaves.  Refrigerate the jam if you wish to keep it for a few 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Humble Good Morning Towel

While in Singapore, I bought half a dozen cotton towels to help me with my house chores.  The towels were going to be my trusty accomplices as I wiped, mopped and cleaned away.  They were the ubiquitous Good Morning Towels - beloved by generations of Singaporeans.  Cheap and good, they cost something like S$5 for three towels and can be found in the friendly kitchenware shops in HDB estates as well as supermarkets such as NTUC and Giant.  I observed tradition by purchasing mine from the local 'karang guni' kitchen shop in Marine Parade - the type that sells brooms, pots, pans, electric plugs, plastic containers etc. etc.

Here are a few other times I've seen the Good Morning towels being used:
- for wrapping the heads of ladies in a hair salon during their dye or perm job
- moistened and left on top of popiah skin to prevent the wrappers from drying out
- for cleaning hawker center tables
- slung around the necks of trishaw cyclists in the sweltering heat
- as face towels for National Servicemen

Perhaps blog readers can add more uses......


Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Barber to the President

Today in Singapore, there is a presidential election of 'historic proportion' (as Obama has said of Hurricane Irene). It also marks the retirement of the current President S R Nathan.

President Nathan is known for many good things - for his humble demeanor and his friendliness among others. My father got to know him when the two kept bumping into each at the beach each morning. They even appeared in the Straits Times together. When my father stopped going for his morning bike and swim routine, President Nathan wrote to check on how he was doing. And the two shared the same barber.

New Star along East Coast Road has been famous for a while, especially now as the barber to the outgoing President Nathan and many other MPs. It's like the Singapore equivalent of Caswell-Massey...which supplied cologne and after-shave products to George Washington and JFK.

The Indian barber has been a fixture in my neighborhood for as long as I can remember. My dad and my brother-in-law have been going to him for years. Lately, my husband has become a loyal client as well. Whenever he arrives from New York in the early morning, he would make his way to New Star by 9am. New Star has overtaken Zam Zam murtabak as his must-do activity. We joked with the barber that we loved him so much, we even bought a new apartment down the street just to be closer to him.

I don't know his name even though he has been featured a few times in the media. For the longest time, we assumed that he only spoke Tamil or sister once spoke to him in pidgin Malay, only to get a reply in fluent English, much to her embarrassment. He is always well turned out in his crisp white long-sleeved shirt and belted grey pants. He has sons who have white collar jobs of their own. And a retinue of fellow Indian barbers who now seem younger - perhaps he is grooming (excuse the pun) a new generation to take over. More soberly, he has this small table right in the middle of his saloon. It has a glass top under which there are all these little passport photos of men. One day, the barber simply told me "These men all worked for me....they have died." Hmmm.......

I can understand why so many men and their little sons go back to him faithfully. (My son is not used to the buzzer. He screamed high heavens.) The cut is affordable, especially when men's hair need frequent trimming. Yet, the atmosphere is an enjoyable step back in time. It's a living museum, dotted with fixtures that these expats would desperately die for but which the barber wisely would never sell. The Rediffusion, the springy barber chairs, the various lotion pumps and the giant glass jar with the antiseptic to treat the combs.

For many years, the barber had been on the north side of the road, tucked in a traditional shophouse that matched his interior. He was booted out in favor of a smelly durian vendor. But no worries, the barber simply moved across the road to a new building because he had cleverly saved up and purchased a storefront many years back. Such a testament to the scrimp and save wisdom of immigrants like him.

He must be in his 70s at least, but we hope to see more of him. Along with my retired Hokkien mee hawker, he is part of what makes it so comfortable when I come home to Singapore.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

My favorite hawker has retired!

Last night, I went to the Lagoon Food Center to buy dinner. I was going to get my usual suspects - oyster omelette (o luak), Hokkien mee, satay.....Alas, when I got to the Hokkien mee stall, it was closed!

Thankfully, the hawker had not died. That was honestly, my first reaction. Apparently, he had sold off his stall and retired. His neighbor joked that he had taken his money and "gone to Hawaii". In a way, I was glad that on my last trip, I had actually taken a photograph of him and had made the effort to chat a bit more than my "Hello Uncle, $8 da bao". I told him that I lived abroad, came back to visit my dad and would make a beeline to have some of his fried noodles. He was flattered and said "I guessed so...."

He was really sweet, always gave me more prawns and I suspect, a tad more than the usual $8 amount.

Yes, there are others who sell the same Hokkien mee all over Singapore. Lately, my sister had been taking me to Changi Airport Terminal 3 for lunch and there is a pretty good stall there too. But it's kind of sentimental for me when one of my must-do's upon my return home is suddenly not there anymore. I hope that he is enjoying his retirement. Perhaps he might be invited to be a Food Ambassador for Singapore....and our paths might cross again.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Golden Agar Jelly Recipe

So not a tech expert, it took me a while to figure out the pageview stats. The most visited page on my blog is an entry back in February 2010 titled "Golden Agar Agar and my Nonya Grandaunt". I assume that most readers googled 'Nonya Golden Agar Agar' and stumbled on my blog.

Here is the recipe:

60g agar agar strips (or agar agar powder)
7 cups water (1 cup being 225ml)
500 g rock sugar
1 teaspoon rose syrup
White sugar according to taste
1 teaspoon yellow coloring
1/4 teaspoon red coloring (approx)

Cut the agar agar strips into 8cm pieces. Rinse. Bring water to a boil in a large pot. Add agar strips (alternatively, the agar agar powder) and rock sugar. Stir continuously, then lower heat to a simmer. Skim the surface to remove froth. Simmer for at least 3 hours until the syrup thickens.

To test for doneness, scoop some syrup and if it hardens in the ladle, it is likely to start setting into jelly. Add the rose syrup, taste and adjust the level of sweetness by stirring in white sugar if needed.

Add the drops of yellow coloring first. Then add a few drops of rose syrup, stirring and adding enough, until you achieve a golden hue.

Pour jelly into the mould which in turn is placed in a baking tray filled with water. (To deter ants from climbing in). Let the jelly harden at room temperature.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

East Coast girl through and through - Katong, that is

We're wrapping up and flying back to the Home of the Yankees pretty soon. I anticipate that I might end up a blog slug for a while as I settle back in and resuscitate all our activities after a long summer. My daughter will have less than 24 hours after touchdown before she starts school. When I get back, I'll probably want to bite into a nice big burger or even better, the kind of juicy flavorful steak that one can only find in the USA. Yup....this is the environment I'll be returning to which makes it not much fodder for the kind of articles I could churn out about Singapore. But I will endeavor to update on The Project. We tried to fly back earlier but hoards of students bound for the East Coast are filling up SQ flights to JFK. I'm one of those East Coast folks too...and I've realized for quite some time that I've been an East Coast girl through and through. There in the US and here, right home in Katong. I would not trade both for anywhere else.

I came home at 2pm today to a home of a starving sister, kids and Dad. I was tasked with buying lunch and I stealthily sneaked out to Joo Chiat. My sister suspected that I was up to some no-good. True enough, I was happily snapping away photos of Koon Seng Road houses and forgot the time. Katong Joo Chiat, as opposed to Katong Siglap or Katong Tanjong Katong is to distinguish it from the former (further east and where we live) and the latter (large home like those in Branksome Road). Well, that's how my mother used to differentiate the various parts of what is amorphously Katong.

Joo Chiat, most recently associated with karaoke bars and other nocturnal activities, is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. Its next reincarnation is supposedly Peranakan Town - a joint preservation effort by the Joo Chiat Community Club and the Peranakan Association. For me, I associate Joo Chiat with my mother's regular furniture supplier (Teong Theng), the bicycle shop from where all our bikes came from, Tay Buan Guan supermarket for Easter eggs and chicken pie, bek-chia (trishaw) rides in the sweltering heat. 318 Joo Chiat Road was also the last residence of my mother's father whom my sisters called 'Ah Kong Katong'. And Joo Chiat, yum yum, was the REAL place to get opau - fried bean curd stuffed with all sorts, i.e. cut up fishballs and boiled egg, minced pork and other delicious stuff I never really cared to identify but gobbled down anyway. It still costs S$1 per opau, quite a bargain I must say. The REAL opau man, by the way, is in the southeast corner of Joo Chiat junction.

I bought my food from Glory today. Located between the Joo Chiat junction and Tembeling Road, Glory is now situated at what used to be S.M. Majeed, a fabric store. My mother bought swaths of blue cloth to make my KC uniforms. She tailored them 'haute couture' for me so much so that I could tell which pinafore was mine just by its slip hemming. Next to the store, in the alley, was a man who sold this red drink with gelatinous seeds which resembled toads' eggs. (It's in The Cookbook.) Sometimes, we would grab some buns from the Red House Bakery or go through an alleyway shortcut to Tay Buan Guan.

Today, I took lots of photos of the houses along Koon Seng Road. I had done a similar photo session of houses along Emerald Hill and noticed a difference. The houses along Koon Seng Road were more colorful in their vibrant pastel shades. It probably denotes the liveliness and gaiety of the community. Imagine all those bibiks in their baju panjang, chewing sireh and passing by in their bek-chias....that's what I witnessed many years ago.

Enough of waxing lyrical about all things nostalgic for now, here are photos to savor.
And here's hola to New York with updates of different sorts.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Charming Changi, Rustic Ubin

My kids' loving godma Angele (NOT a typo) is my go-to person for ideas to 'edutain' my restless monsters. Last Wednesday was a school holiday in Singapore, being Teacher's Day.
Both of us, with four kids in tow, hopped on the public bus No.2 through old Changi. With sprawling grounds that once housed the colonial British military, Changi still retains the essence of an era that no longer exists. A quick travel through it brings to mind what life must have been like when the soldiers lived there and Singapore was still a colony. It's a slice of important history and of all the places I love in Singapore, I truly sincerely hope that the government will preserve the area for generations to experience.
The area is significant for my family for several reasons:
- In the 60s, my older sisters would drive there to buy fresh coconut drinks, fish or just picnic.
- In the 50s and 60s, my family spent weekends and Christmases at a bungalow in Loyang. The beach was reclaimed and the structure and its surroundings were later steamrolled to make way for the airport runways.
- My family would constantly preface every nostalgic moment about Changi with "Poor Sharon, she wasn't born yet and she missed those good old days".

Never mind. While a few of them were living in London in the 70s, my neighbors Aunty Paddy and Uncle Chou would take me, along with their charges, to their Changi Swimming Club on Friday nights. It was a precursor to what my own sister does with my kids today, bringing them to swim at one of the clubs. Back then, the adults played tombola while the kids swam in the pool, had dinner of fried rice smothered with ketchup, and then watched movies in the open-air hall which jutted out into the sea. With seawaves calling in the background, I saw 'The Pink Panther' and 'The Thief of Baghdad' there. When 'Jaws' came out, the kids either wanted very badly to swim in the dark sea thereafter, or run as far away as possible from the beach. Cowardly me was the latter, of course.

We also passed through the famous Changi prison now quadrupled in size but still retaining the old watchtowers with antique search beams. I speculate that this is probably where my addictive Polar curry puffs and chicken pies are made by prisoners. Angele and I also talked about the spooky old Changi Hospital which has since been left empty and derelict. Back in the 70s, even while driving past the well-lit building with its long-stemmed ceiling fans and open-air wards set on a hilltop, one could feel the isolation and grimness of this outpost. It was the military hospital for the British, and was apparently used as a torture site during the Japanese Occupation. No prizes for guessing what supposedly comes after in the paranormal sphere.

The bus ride eventually led us to our destination - Changi Point Ferry Terminal. A ten minute wait to gather twelve passengers enabled us to take a rickety bumboat across the sea. A short ten minutes later and we landed at Pulau Ubin.

Ubin is a good example of the government's effort to preserve something old after a frenzy of building everything new. Yet, there's nothing contrived about this place. There is still lush rainforest and sprinkles of old kampong houses with authentic residents to boot.
The way to the mangrove swamp was to hike or bike there - or in our case, haggle with a van driver for a round trip, in the process receiving stares from nature lovers for polluting hallowed grounds. We strolled on the boardwalk through the swamp. I'm no fan of snakes (only reason why I've never made it to Africa though I am a big animal lover), and was jumpy that one would greet me. Thankfully, they gave me a pass. But by the time we got to the seaside jetty, the breeze and lull of the sea made for a thankfulness that we had come all this way. And for me, a disbelief that this was a cheap and equally good alternative to The Datai in Langkawi. My mind was racing to think up of an eco-resort one could potentially build on Ubin.

Ubin was a highlight for me when I was 14. As part of the National Cadet Corps, we were required to attend the Outward Bound School. We learnt how to tie the ends of the legs of pants to make an emergency floating device if stranded at sea. I learnt to sail. Most memorable is the exercise where we were shuffled down a manhole, only to get stuck in the middle of the dark tunnel because the OBS instructors had sent down another team to the manhole on the other end. The objective was overcoming panic, the fear of darkness and confined space.

We ended our trip with lunch at the seafood restaurant not too far from the jetty. The restaurant was a throwback to the old Punggol seafood stalls in the 70s, with natural sea breeze and sunlight filtering in, amidst upright plastic tanks of fish and crab.

The excursion was one that my father would have done in a heartbeat ten years ago with his posse of old retirees. A bus ride, a cheap boatride and a leisurely outing to an environment of their youth. Ange and I were very satisfied with our day's activity and so were the kids. They may not have exhibited any form of epiphanous insight but I'm sure they will recall the adventure with fondness sometime later.

The next day, Ange and I met up with an old KC friend for breakfast. We got a kick out of taking a drive to see the old Changi Hospital, up close.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Golden Agar Agar and my Nonya grandaunt

My Koh Poh Beng Neo (Koh Poh is the term for grandaunt, Beng Neo her very Nonya name) is one of the old relatives I had interviewed for my project. Sadly, she passed away two years ago. The reason I bring her up is because of the agar agar recipe I tested last week, which I will detail as well.

Whenever Chinese New Year rolled around, Koh Poh was one of the most important relatives whom we had to visit. She was a grande dame within the extended family and particularly for me, the closest I had to a grandparent considering that all of mine were not alive when I was born. There were three things I did whenever we visited:
i) it was absolutely customary to 'soja' (kneel before her) to wish her "Panjang panjang omor" (which literally means 'long life'). She lived into her 90s so all such blessings work indeed.
ii)mill around the dining room to gaze at her wedding photo
iii) partake of her signature golden agar agar

Koh Poh got married at around sixteen years old. I believe that she was matchmade. Yet, while she in many ways embodied the old-fashioned Nonya in her traditional garb, her patois and her manners, she was also modern. She attended a girls' school, played the piano and swing-danced. She spoke and wrote English fairly well. I even tried to get her to dance at my wedding but by then, she had downed more than her fair share of Courvoisier. She once came in her sarong kebaya to swoop away into a taxi the Pekingnese puppy that I had dognapped. To me, she was a most elegant lady and I am glad to have known her.

Here is an excerpt from the manuscript:

This agar jelly often came in the shape of a rabbit or a fish. The classic moulds were white porcelain containers made in England which over time, bore the vintage fine gray crack lines.

Koh Poh’s secret in the early days was to apparently use rainwater collected in large dragon pots. She said that rainwater produced the clearest and hence most exquisite jelly. Sometimes, crushed egg shells would be added while cooking the agar agar to gather up the froth from the surface. The shells would clarify the jelly in the same way that consomm√© is prepared.

To produce the golden color, the jelly syrup was boiled in a brass pot, just like the way pineapple tart filling was cooked in the same type of pot to achieve its golden shade. Nowadays, there is skepticism in using brass pots, so a large non-brass pot would have to make do. To produce the golden sheen these days, you will need to use food coloring.

The longer you keep the jelly, the more "crunchy" it gets. In fact, the Nonyas would sun the jelly for a few days. It could then store without refrigeration and still be served several months old.

So what was the outcome of my tested recipe? My mother was right - I can be too impulsive. Without the benefit of a brass pot, I had to make do with food coloring and alas, I added too much red and yellow drops at the same time and produced a beautiful orange "koi carp" jelly as opposed to the golden classic. The lesson I learnt - "Add a few drops of yellow coloring first and then sparingly, add drops of red coloring until you achieve a golden hue. Stir."

See recipe in 17 February 2011 entry.

My mother's kitchen and mine

Today is Mothers' Day.  Recently, a few of my daughters' friends (through their mothers) purchased the cookbook and earmarked what ...