Saturday, December 18, 2010

Grandaunt's Pineapple Tarts

Early last year, I was blogging about my attempts at making pineapple tarts. This year, I wanted to do another batch of tarts and decided that it was a good opportunity to go back to the good old days when the family was roped in to share out the tedious work. And so I got my cousin involved with the jam and tart-making.

This year, I had also managed to lay hands on my Grand Aunt's recipe, courtesy of her daughter. The basic ingredients were similar to those in my recipe posted up last year with one small, but critical difference - the inclusion of 3 teaspoons of lard every 250g of butter. And, she used egg yolks only instead of eggs, reserving the whites to glaze the tarts and to mix with the pineapple jam to get that nice, smooth surface.

I decided to stick to my tangy jam recipe (since I rather liked the inclusion of the pineapple juice rather than sugar to sweeten the jam). I also had problems finding zero-transfat shortening (I was not going to use lard) so we omitted that for the first batch of tarts.  Anyway, we started off with the jam-making process.  My dear mother was only too happy to show how dextrous she was with her knife, as she expertly removed the pineapple skin and eyes, chopped it up and readied it for the blender.  We then blended the pineapple with the juice and stood over the stove for simply ages, stirring and waiting for it to reduce down, change colour from pale yellow to that wonderful orangey brown.  At least we could chat a bit.  Making jam alone is indeed lonely work.

The next day, I popped over to my cousin's to make the pastry (she has a better oven).  Here, we had the benefit of getting assistance from her young nephews, our bakers' apprentices.  I was amazed by the conscientious attitude displayed, especially by the older of the two.  His task was to cut out the pineapple tarts using the cutter and the mould.  It's not an easy task as the pastry mould must be pressed down just so in order to leave an imprint on the dough.  The tart must also be carefully peeled away from the mould without breaking the dough. No small feat for our young apprentice to master.  We completed a batch of some 100+ tarts, from our 500g of flour. 

I subsequently made a second batch of tarts to finish off the jam.  This time round, I got the Crisco from Phoon Huat.  I also bought a plastic pineapple tart cutter/mould for our keen young apprentice chef, which he could use when his aunty makes tarts. I thought the top of the plastic cutter was less sharp than the metallic one, and so he could cut the pastry happily without inadvertently injuring himself.

So is it better with shortening, or without?  My verdict: Go with the shortening - it really gives it a much better, more crumbly texture.  Which makes the ingredients for the pastry as follows:

250g flour; 125g butter; 1-2 tsp of veg shortening; pinch of salt to taste; 1/2 tablespoon of sugar, 1.5 egg-yolks, water.

Rest of recipe and the process remains the same as in the earlier recipe.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Problem of Conversion

In baking, the Europeans use weight measurements; the Americans use volume measurements.  The Europeans also use metric, except for the Brits who stick by their pounds and ounces (as do the Americans).  Most of the time, cook books sold in Singapore use metric weight measurements.  So most of the time, my little weighing scale does the job for me.  And, for older recipes in old cookbooks (which are in pounds and ounces), I have my mother's old measuring cup.

So, I thought I had it all covered.  Until I looked at my grandaunt's recipe for pineapple tarts and found out it was in "katis".  Katis?  I have never cooked anything in katis (although vague memories emerged of visits to the wet market and my mother making her orders in katis).  Going down the pages, I did find a metric-based recipe (I assume my aunt updated her mother's recipe more recently), but my curiosity was piqued and I decided I would find out more about the "kati".

So I tried Ellice Handy (the doyenne of Singaporean cookbook writers).  Surely a book written in the 1960s (or so) would have kati conversion.  And indeed she did.  From katis to pounds and ounces.  Well, that was indeed useful.  So I would have to do a double conversion.  According to Handy,

1 kati = 16 tahils (what is a tahil!)
1 tahil = 1 ounce
16 ounces = 1 pound
Therefore, 1 kati = 1 pound.

Reading another cookbook, I got 1 kati = 21 1/2 ounces (!!)

I decided to check on-line.  Here I found that the "kati" or "catty" weight was used in China and Japan.  And depending on which country it was, the conversion factors are different.  For example:

1 kati (China) = 500g = 17.636 oz
1 kati (Japan) = 600g = 21.164 oz

Don't believe me?  Fiddle with the conversion here.

Going through Wikipedia, I found some more intriguing references to the kati.  First, I found out that the term "catty" is also used in Hongkong (which reinforces the Chinese linkage).  According to the Hongkong weights and measures ordinance

1 catty (kan) = 0.60478982 kg
1 tael (leung) = 1/16 catty
(i.e. my second cookbook appears to be more correct).

I was also delighted to come across, for the first time, a Singlish dictionary! I leave readers of this post to explore the dictionary on their own.  But let me, for the record, reproduce here its definition of the kati:

kati /ke-ti, ˈkɛtɪ/ n. [Mal. & Jav. kātī, katī; > Eng. catty] hist. A unit of weight equal to 16 Tahils, that is, about 1⅓ lb. avoirdupois or 625 grammes (more accurately, 0.604790 kilogramme).

1894 N.B. Dennys A Descriptive Dictionary of British Malaya 177 Kati. – Frequently written “Catty,” a weight of 1⅓ pounds avoirdupois; the kati contains 16 taels, and 100 katis make a pikul, or picul, literally “a load.” The tael, the kati, and the pikul are native words, but the weights they express are Chinese. 1947 Richard Olaf Winstedt The Malays, ch. 6, 112 Soon after the founding of Malacca Chinese annals under 1416 record.. that, ‘tin.. is cast into small blocks weighing 1 kati 8 tahil or 1 kati 4 tahil official weight... They use these pieces of tin instead of money.’ [1955 R.J. Wilkinson A Malay–English Dictionary, vol. 1, 516 kati. .. «catty»; a measure of weight of sixteen tahil or about one and one-third lb. avoirdupois.] 1970 Metrication Act 1970 (No. 52 of 1970), s. 5(b). Conversion of imperial standard units to metric system units. The values expressed in terms of .. the local customary system of weights and measures, may be converted into the values expressed in terms of the International System of Units in accordance with Schedule C. .. Schedule C .. Conversion of Local Customary Units to Equivalent SI Units .. 1 kati = 0.604790 kilogramme approximately 1972 The Straits Times, 25 November, 15 col. 1 The gold bars, weighing 15 katis seven tahils.
Goodness.  I am just glad that we have shifted to metric and so not have to worry about these complicated conversions.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


My cousin came by for dinner the other night.  I proudly showed her my beadwork thus far.  However, my cousin took one look and said "you're going to finish in 10 years' time"!

Sad to say, progress has indeed been slow.  This careful, painstaking work is not for everyone.  And, other projects and activities do get in the way.  But I have been plugging at it slowly.  In the past few weeks, I have reviewed the size of the shoe and decided to make it a little more generous than the pattern suggests, did a row of edging and filled in some of the beads between the edging and the existing work.  Note: this was probably the most tedious part.  So, this is where I'm at now:

Still got a long way to go, but that's ok. I take a look back at where I started and am proud of the progress made.  And, I'll be that much prouder of my accomplishment when I finally finish them off.

See how far I've come: photos on Flickr.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Beading Resources On-Line

I have received a number of queries on how to start beading, where to get courses, etc.  I should repeat that I am really just a beginner too.  Nonetheless, I have done some on-line searching, and found some useful links.  I would also like to thank the various individuals who have left comments or emailed me and given tips, some of which I've included here. 

So here are some beading resources which other beginners may find useful:

i) Mini-tutorial by Craft Passion. There are four parts to this tutorial in total, so here's the link to just the first one.  This provides a good overview and introduction to how to make kasut manek.

ii) Article (from The Star Online) on Ms Khoo Lay Imm, from Penang. Ms Khoo is willing to teach people how to bead, and her email is provided in the article.

iii) Video featuring Mr Robert Sng of "Little Shophouse" in Bussorah Street, Singapore and giving some background on Peranakan beading.

Beads, patterns, thread and other bead-making apparatus can be purchased from Little Shophouse.

iv) Last but not least, Rumah Bebe website. Bebe Seet has been teaching Peranakan beadwork for a number of years and has written a definitive book on the subject: "Peranakan Beadwork: My Heritage" which I mentioned in an earlier post.  Her shop also sells beadmaking stuff.

I do hope this is useful to all. I do apologise that there is not much on Malaysian-based shops or resources, if anyone would like to add on please do feel free to do so.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

My Grandfather's Convent Boyhood

My grandfather was sent away to boarding school when he was about 6 or 7 years old.  Yes, all the way from Katong to the Victoria Street Convent (CHIJ Victoria Street).  He did go home on the weekends, transported on an old rickshaw.  I guess that was why he had to be a boarder - it would not be practical for him to go there and back every day. 

My grandfather was not, of course, the only boy to go to the Convent for his early education.  Another (rather more prominent) student was of course, Mr David Marshall, Singapore's first Chief Minister, who went to kindergarten there.  In his oral history interview, he talks about the food, his attempts at learning French, life under the strict nuns and his experience as an altar server.  Of this, he recounts the lasting impression it would make on him:
"...if it was my turn to say mass, some of the other boarders that went with me of course, went into the body of the chapel but I had to go into the vestry at the back of the altar.  Now as soon as I got there, right in the middle or three- quarter way, sat an old nun. She was Madam St Argyl.  I suppose it's a French name and she was also like a man. She was short and rather inclined to be strict.  I believe she must have been there because she must have been in charge of the chapel. I go up to her and say, "Good Morning"....

... The bishop used to come across Victoria street from the bishop's house in Victoria Street there, and then another server would come from outside also...

... The nuns sat right at the back .. and then all the other boarders in the convent, the first-class, the second-class and the section that was known as the "Orphans" were all present at the mass. and the orderly way that they used to go to communion when walking back to the seats and the posture adopted after receiving communion is one that I have carried through even up to today...  ...with my hands together, walking slowly, sedately to my seat."
Unfortunately I do not have a photograph of my grandfather as a schoolboy (he describes himself as having long curly hair when he first went to school, which I would have liked to see!). 

My grandfather stayed in the convent until  he was old enough to start off in St Joseph's Institution.  There, he spent a few more enjoyable years before starting off on his teaching career - which he would spend entirely in the La Salle schools.  His children would all similarly pass through the Convent (Katong Convent for the girls) and SJI as did his grandchildren, for the most part.
Today, both the CHIJ Victoria Street Convent and SJI buildings are being used for other purposes (a commercial retail/food hub and art museum respectively) but the Schools themselves are still going and growing strong, in their newer, larger buildings in other parts of Singapore.  The chapel my grandfather served in is no longer used for worship, but now remains as a national monument.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Cooking Fish Moolie

Fish Moolie
Originally uploaded by Taking5
Fish Moolie is a classic Eurasian dish, one which probably made its way to Singapore via India.  But the recipe for this mild fish curry is not easy to find.  Most recipe books don't have it - but I found it in two - in our ancient copy of Ellice Handy's cookbook, one of the oldest local cookbooks around (probably now out of print) and another in Robin's Eurasian Recipes, a recent publication. Robin is the father of Quentin Pereira, the owner and chef behind Quentin's restaurant, and it is his curry moolie recipe on the menu of Quentin's.

My mother prefers Mrs Handy's recipe as it is the one which her mother used to cook.  And, of course, that's the recipe we've had for the longest time.  Our local daily domestic also learnt how to make the dish and today, I swear her version is the best ever.  She has long retired, and so I have to cook it myself if I want to eat it.  And actually, it is far easier than one would imagine.


Fish - about 500-600g.  Can use ikan kurau (threadfin), red fish.  The photo above features sea bream.
2 stalks lemon grass or serai (white portion only),
1-1.5cm of galangal or lengkuas
4 candlenuts or buah keras
1 teaspoon tumeric powder
2 large onions
1.5cm ginger, cut into strips
250ml coconut milk
Vinegar, sugar, salt to taste; flour for thickening

Pound the lemongrass, galangal, candlenuts together (or blended together), mix in the tumeric powder.
Fry the ginger and onions till soft but not brown, add the pounded ingredients and fry till fragrant.  Add 150ml of the coconut milk, diluted with 500ml water (or so) and pinch of salt.  Gently poach fish in the coconut gravy (gravy should reach at least two-thirds up the fish).  Cover the pan whilst poaching.  When fish is almost cooked, turn it over, and add the remaining thick coconut milk plus vinegar and sugar to taste.  Thicken with flour as required to reach desired consistency.  Top off with deep fried onions/garlic/chillis as desired.  Aside from the topping, this dish has no chilli, so it is not spicy at all.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Pattern Emerging

It has been some time since my last update on the kasut manek beading project.  Partly because there has not been much progress on the shoes.  I must admit that I have been a little lazy, but the other reason was because I developed a few floaters in my eyes.  Got the eyes checked and they are ok, but I wanted to rest my eyes a bit.  Also, the floaters are a little bit irritating and I had to get used to them.  Anyway, I have started up again, and will take it slow and easy. 

At this stage of the project, I am happy to say that with each individual bead, the pattern of floating, pink clouds is really taking shape, as can be seen from the photo.  I am now so familiar with the pattern that I don't really need the pattern sheet to refer to all the time - I just figure it out from the beads which were sewn on earlier. 

In a sense it is easy to familiarise oneself with a regular, repetitive pattern.  When I was in Malacca earlier this year, we visited a number of beading shops.  What was interesting was that instead of referring to a pattern sheet, the pattern is tacked on to the canvas and the beads sewn on the pattern.  One example, with a beautiful beaded peacock is shown in the photo on the right (alas the tail is not spread out though).  I can see why sewing the beads on the paper makes it easier to finish the design, without mistakes.

The other thing to point out in this picture, is the neat little beaded edging on the shoe.  My friend has taught me the technique, but I have not tried it out yet. Maybe after I've completed another row or two :-)

I'm glad to be back beading again!

p.s.  Because it has been a while, here is the Flickr set which records my progress on the kasut manek project.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

A Peranakan Garden

I brought my mother to the Singapore Garden Festival 2010 a few weeks ago. After exploring the grandeur of the landscape gardens, and the whimsy of the fantasy gardens, we walked two storeys down to look at the orchids and visit the Community in Bloom. This is one of my favourite sections of the show - I love looking at the herbs, and looking at the ingenuity of the wall gardens and vertical gardens, the floral art and so on.  This year, amongst the gardens developed by communities around Singapore, I spotted the "Peranakan Garden".

I thought it charming, with the old style frontage of a Peranakan house, the stools and table in the garden reminescent of the Peranakan tableware.  My mother, however, was looking at the plants.

There were not enough, she felt, of the plants for the Peranakan kitchen.  Nonyas use a fair amount of herbs in their cooking, and most of the time, they source the plants from their very own backyards. She was a little happier when I showed her the chilli plant, and the bunga telang creeper (or the butterfly pea flower - used as a natural food colouring to stain food blue), and some ginger flowers.  But there were others, she felt which were missing.  (I'm sure we must have missed quite a few) But when we went to the "Supermarket Garden" she found some "suitable" plants - for example, the banana tree and sugar cane plant, curry pulai and lemongrass.  I remember munching on sugar cane during the mid-autumn festival, cut from my grandfather's garden, just as I remember the pots of mint at the back.  My mother still maintains a few pots of herbs in the garden, but herbs are fragile things and may die quickly.  Still, our pandan has been going strong for many years. 

So I ask you, gentle reader. What herbs do you grow in your garden?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Family Wedding

Wedding Photo, 1923
Originally uploaded by Taking5
My grandaunt's wedding, in 1923.  She was my grandfather's older sister.  My grandfather was the best man and is standing in the back row, on the left. The flower girls are their younger sister (on the right) and another young relative.  The older couple were the sponsors of the bride and groom.

Besides this group photo, there would be photos of just the couple. They would send a small copy of the photo to their friends and relatives. My grandaunt and her husband received quite a few of these photos, including one for a certain Mr and Mrs Lee Chin Koon...

It is difficult to find a description of Eurasian weddings of the 1920s.
But a more contemporary record can be found in "Singapore Eurasians- Memories and Hopes" (ed. Myrna Braga-Blake) :

"Weddings were Saturday morning affairs with the Mass followed by a cake and wine reception. Curry puffs, sausage rolls, cream puffs, sambal and ham sandwiches were also served. The wedding cake was specially ordered and it would, at one time, havecome from "Ah Teng" in Victoria Street and later from "Cona's" in Katong - bakeries famous for sugee cake...
According to my mother, the typical way to ask an engaged couple whether they had set a date: "When is your cake and wine?"
"A wedding gift had to be something useful for the couple. Though a couple often ended up with five irons, six toasters and lots of Pyrex dishes, they were all graciously accepted. It was not considered in good taste to give money, though tooday the more practical acccept monetary gifts... ... it was also expected that the bride wrote a personal note of thanks to everyone. Even today, a little thing like a personal handwritten note of thanks is a hallmark of Eurasian etiquette."
Indeed, our cupboard used to hold numerous tea sets which my mother received as wedding gifts.

"The wedding reception was a joyous occasion for speech making, toasting and good-natured teasing... ... The traditional song at weddings was "Jinggelly Nona" - a dance in which all, both old and young, would join in.
The reception ended with the bridal couple leaving amidst the clouds of confetti thrown at them."
My earliest recollection of a Eurasian wedding was my uncle's.  My cousin and I were the two flower girls walking in front of them into the church bearing our little bouquets proudly, just happy to be in all the photos.  I remember the confetti.  I think we helped to distribute it.  These days, most churches/ restaurants don't encourage confetti because of the mess it leaves behind. 

For more on Eurasian weddings, read here.

Friday, June 25, 2010

My Great Grandfather

I was visiting my maternal grandmother one day when I discovered an old photo album on her table.  My uncle (who lives with her) explained that his cousin had come by with her family album - full of old photos of her parents and other family members.  Amongst the photos, was this one of my maternal grandfather's father - my great grandfather - and his second wife.  

According to my grandfather, in his interview by the Oral History department (two sessions in Jan 1980), his father was born somewhere near or in Liverpool. He came to Singapore for better opportunities in 1893 or thereabouts, and worked as a draftsman either in an architectural firm or an engineering firm (Riley Hargreaves).

He subsequently left and ran his own company as an estate agent. My grandfather recalls visiting him in his office at 3A Finlayson Green:

"I had sometimes come down with him from Katong, possibly at the age of 11 or 12, I think, and I was always in his office playing with the Empire typewriter, and getting in the way of the clerks...

... He had a Chief Clerk, another Assistant Clerk, a peon, a man named Wahab...

He was estate agent to 17 London rubber companies and supplied them with -from rice to rubber cups, rubber tapping knives, and what else there is to it, I don't know really."

My great grandfather married a local girl, and had a son, my grandfather (born in 1906).  They adopted another daughter.  My great grandmother died a few years later, and my great grandfather married again.  He had 3 more children - one boy, two girls.  His second son died young.  But my grandfather, his adopted sister and his two half sisters lived to a ripe old age.

Afternote: I googled my great grandfather's name and found that:
He is recorded in the 1881 Census of Britain as living in Liverpool.  Aged 15 years at the time, he was the oldest son in a family of 3 boys and 2 girls.  Hence if he came to Singapore in 1893, he would have been around 27 years.  By the time of my grandfather's birth, he would have been 40 years old. 

I found him also on the list of registered jurors in Singapore, in 1904.  He was listed as working for the Shrager Brothers.  Further checks turned up a 1902 newspaper advertisement in the Straits Times indicating that the Shrager brothers operated a fire-clay and pottery works business.

Amazing, all you can learn about your family without leaving the room!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Kerabu, or Penang-style nonya salad

It has been some time since I featured a recipe on this blog, and thought it was time to revisit this theme with a post on kerabu. It is always interesting to see how people react when they see kerabu.  Many are not too familiar with Penang Nonya dishes as there are quite a few differences between Penang nonya food and the Malacca/Singapore variety. 

Kerabu is a nonya salad, it is very much influenced by Thai cuisine with its combination of sweet, sour, spicy favours all wrapped up in a good dose of umami.  There are many different types of kerabu - jellyfish, fungus, cucumber/pineapple, tau gay, etc.  For some reason or other, my family favourite seems to be kerabu made of kacang botol (or winged bean, or four-angled bean). More recently I tried making kerabu out of tunghoon (mung bean vermicelli).  Here's a quick recipe for both.

Dressing - Ingredients

The dressing for kerabu is always the same - sambal belacan, or chillis and toasted belacan (a dry shrimp paste) pounded together.  You can either make your own (adjusting for spiciness) or just buy a bottle from a reputable producer.  Roughly, the proportion is:

4-5 red chillis
1 tbsp of toasted belacan

Add salt, sugar and lime juice to taste (for kerabu, since it is a dressing, probably about 4-5 limes minimum).

Variation: If you don't have sambal belacan handy and are too lazy to make it, you can also try slicing up some red chillis and adding some Thai fish sauce to the dressing

Salad base
For kerabu kacang botol, ingredients would include :

Wingbeans/kacang botol (typically about 1 packet for 4 pax) - blanch in boiling water so that they retain that crispy texture, cut thinly (I like it  about half a centimetre), on a slant.
4-5 shallots, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons dried prawn (haebee) -  soaked, pounded
1 tbsp toasted grated coconut (kerisik) - purists would include it, but it is a pain to toast the coconut so I would call it optional.

When the ingredients are ready, toss together in the dressing.

For kerabu tunghoon,  

100g dried tunghoon - soak in warm water and it will expand
300g prawns (shell, devein, cook quickly in boiling water or microwave them)
2 shredded carrots
8-10 shallots, thinly sliced
100g taugay or beansprouts
1/2 cucumber (shredded, pulp removed)
3 stalks lemon grass (thinly sliced)

Toss together in dressing, garnish with mint leaves or coriander leaves. Can also add other things, like the kerisik, as well.


Note: the kacang botol kerabu is our own home recipe, whilst the tunghoon kerabu is adapted from a recipe for kerabu beehoon found in Nonya flavours: A complete guide to Penang Straits Chinese Cuisine.  Many other yummy kerabu recipes there!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

That Small Town Feeling

Originally uploaded by Taking5
One thing which struck me about Malacca was that the folks were friendly, in the sense that they sort of take an interest in you and your activities.

People want to know where you are going for dinner and like making food recommendations. Our hotelier started telling us where we should eat and one day as we were leaving the building for dinner, asked us where we were off to. Certainly in a big hotel you won't get this. It is not busy-bodyness but a genuine interest in what you are doing.  The jeweller we visited also asked the same questions. He recommended a small out-of-the-way restaurant and even offered to make a reservation for us. It was an attractive offer - when you make your reservation (a few hours in advance) you place your order. I liked that as it implies that the food is really genuine, the rempah prepared by hand just for you. But I didn't fancy his advice that we would need to tell the taxi to come back for us. Memories of the last time I was in Malacca came back to me, when we went to the Portuguese settlement for dinner not knowing that it would be half deserted and that we would need to get the restaurant owner to drive us back to our hotel. Which brings me back to my main point, that people in Malacca are friendly and helpful. (We did tip the restaurant owner for the taxi ride though).

We found that the shopkeepers were generally friendly. This picture was taken in a shop off Heeren Street, which was serving as an artist's (Stanley Ho's) studio-cum-gallery. The long low building suited him admirably, with the bright courtyards providing light for his painting.  He invited us to take more photos. 

We also visited two shops which made/sold beaded shoes, or kasut manek. One was just opposite our hotel and was run by a man, his wife and her sister. The two ladies sewed the beaded tops and he was the shoemaker who made the shoes. One sister showed us around the place. Once upon a time, their whole family had lived there. Today, the place is half in ruins, as it is too difficult to keep up and they live in the few rooms nearer the front of the house (which is the shop). But she was happy to tell us about her life there and show us her completed shoe tops. I was wondering about getting a pair made but then, it would be necessary to come back in a month or so to pick up the shoes. But would that be so terrible a thing to do? Hmmm....

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Visiting Malacca

Malacca, Penang and Singapore- the three trading hubs known as the Straits Settlements, and governed collectively as a Crown Colony by the British.  But Malacca's history of colonisation goes back much further.  It was captured by the Portuguese under Afonso de Albuquerque in August 1511.  In 1641 the Dutch defeated the Portuguese to capture Malacca.  Subsequently, the Dutch traded Malacca with the British settlement of Bencoolen in Sumatra. Because of these successive waves of colonisation, Malacca, more so than Singapore or Penang, displays a deeper cultural diversity than either city.

My own family history says that my maternal great-grandmother, was from Malacca before she came down to Singapore and married my great-grandfather.  But my visit to Malacca was prompted more by the wish to have a little break from work and at the same time to do some shopping (hopefully a kebaya or a pair of beaded shoes).  I came back with a pair of antique earrings instead, and a comfortable feeling that my kasut manek creation will indeed stand out in comparison with anything in Malacca. 

Visitors to Malacca can't really miss the "Red Square" - the Dutch Studhuys, Christ Church and other municipal buildings. 

But one highlight of my visit has to be the climb up to St Paul's church.  The church was built by the Portuguese in 1521, surely making it one of the oldest Catholic churches in Southeast Asia.  Originally named "Our Lady of the Hill", the church was renamed by the Dutch when they took over Malacca and converted it to a Dutch Reform church. It was subsequently abandoned and has fallen into ruins over the years.  Walking around the ruins today, and looking at the tombstones around the sides of the church, the sense of history still remains strong.  Some names on the tombstones are familiar, like Westerhout and de Wind, as their descendents are still living in Malaysia and Singapore today.  Tour groups, student groups, individual tourists/families walk quietly around the site. 

In the middle of the chapel is a wired cage, marking the spot where St Francis Xavier was buried (in 1553). the saint's body was disinterred subsequently and transferred to Goa in India (another Portuguese settlement).  I was amused when a Malay family also made a little donation (maybe the little boy simply wanted the fun of putting coins through the donation slot). 

The colonial heritage  is largely in the buildings, the Peranakan influence surely permeates the culture of Malacca.  Busy Jalan Hang Jebat or Jonker Street (I love the convenience of one-street shopping!) contains shop after shop selling kebaya, pineapple tarts (I much prefer Singapore ones), kasut manek and antiques. 

Behind it,  Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock or Heeren Street is lined with the residences of the Peranakan families of over a hundred years ago.  These houses had narrow frontages but go back quite a way, with rooms arranged around 2-3 courtyards.  Today, they are in varied condition - some are part ruined, with the costs of maintenance way above the means of the families living there.  Some have been converted for other use - restaurants, or hotels (like our very nice residence).   It may be a little sad that the place is getting commercialised, but frankly since the other alternative seems to be abandoned/ruined buildings, I'm all for it.  But there is one feature which makes it so much more difficult to walk down the street compared to comparable houses in Singapore and Penang - the walls on the traditional 5-foot way, dividing one house from another.

Compared to my last visit to Malacca, some 5 years ago, it seems to me that the little town is busier than before.  Maybe it's the status of being a UNESCO Heritage site.  But maybe its also the free publicity Malacca got as one of the filming sites for the very well-received "Little Nonya" Mediacorp TV series.  Pictures of "Little Nonya" actresses could be seen in quite a few shops (no photo, I don't waste my bytes on things like this). 

More Malacca photos here.

p.s.  Hope my readers like the new look.  Yeah Blogger Template Designer!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Clouds receding into the distance

There are some people who find these beading progress reports fascinating, annd there are some who find it just about as interesting as watching paint dry.

The latter will probably be glad that I decided that I'd update only for real substantive progress. Not because I want to placate them but because the time spent uploading and blogging could be better spent beading (thus having something to show in the first place).

I am pleased nonetheless to announce that I've finished the top left corner of my left shoe; that leaves still a lot of canvas to cover but it is for me a mini-milestone. The only problem is that the pattern I'm using is a little smaller than the template. Willl have to figure out which of the two I want to follow....

The process of beading requires a fair amount of concentration.  Not attending at the right time could result in messy unpicking.  Yet, surprisingly, I find it quite absorbing and enthralling.

See progress thus far, aka watching paint dry.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


Just wanted to draw some attention to the new links to pages at the top of this blog (just below the masthead).

p.s. I'm especially proud of my map!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Lilies for a Tiger Year

Some time last year, I reported that I had for the first time bought a kebaya at the Babazaar.  The sarong kebaya is not uncommon amongst the Malay community in Singapore and Malaysia but amongst the Chinese, it is typically worn only by the Nonyas in the Peranakan community.  Indeed, Nonyas would have many kebayas for different occasions, or just for every day.  But, not many young Nonyas do so today and maybe would not even have owned one.

So, I thought I would just put down a few pointers on "what to look for when buying a kebaya". At least, my version of it.  Others may disagree (and probably should, considering this was the first time I bought one!). Anyway, let's start off with:

1.  The material.  Traditional kebaya tops are made out of swiss voile, a semi-transluscent material which means that a camisole has to be worn below to protect modesty.  Kebayas can also be made out of cotton, which is what I chose (check out the price differential!).

2.  The embroidery. The back of the embroidered material should look as neat as the front (reversible clothing!). But of course this is at a premium.  For a cheaper kebaya, you can get one with only "one-sided" embroidery.  Note also that there are "machine-embroidered" kebaya as well, which are cheaper but less thickly embroidered and finished compared to hand-embroidered kebaya.

Look out also for the subject.  For my kebaya, the flowers climbing up the front are also slightly less traditional - lilies, rather than roses or peonies. (The lady who sold it to me told me it was her own design.) Of course, it is double-sided too.

3.  The fastenings.  Kebaya tops are supposed to be held together with kerosang rather than buttons. I admit I used press-studs rather than kerosang.  Of course kerosang is more traditional. But, press studes mean that the flowers are in place every time and it's much faster to put on the top. 

4.  The sarong.  The sarong should match the kebaya top - but doesn't need to be the same colour.  Just so long as it is complementary.  My sarong echoes the kebaya top as it has purple lilies on a black background. 

5.  Cut and fit.  The benefit of getting a tailored kebaya is that you know it fits just right.  My tailor (the lady who sold me the kebaya top) also put in a neat row of "kotok" at the seams, which also reminds me of my granny's clothes.

Hope that this list is useful.  Certainly, wearing a kebaya is an experience which made me feel proud to be a Nonya.  So I admit I can't exactly stride about in  it, especially with my high-heeled beaded shoes.  But I wore the whole ensemble for the first time at the Holy Family Peranakan mass on CNY Eve celebrated by Father Alfred Chan,and then at lunch with my family on the first day of CNY.

[The last time I went to the Peranakan mass was some 3 years ago, when it was the year of the Pig. This year, it's Selamat Taon Baru Harimau to all! It was nice to be at the mass and to see all the kebaya-clad ladies in the choir. And this year, of course, I could surreptitiously compare my kebaya to all the others too :-)  As always, the mass is full of warmth, good humour, a very appropriate CNY sermon reminding us that it is God who provides. ]

Here's to a good year ahead.

edited/updated: 26 Mar 2010

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Clouds on the horizon

I was very busy over this past week so I did not have much time to do any of my beading work.  So, I spent a few hours this weekend working on my shoes.  I am still very slow, but definitely a lot faster than before.

My friend suggested that instead of sewing beads on line by line, I could consider sewing the individual clouds on.  This, she hoped, would result in fewer errors being made.  Didn't quite turn out that way, but indeed, I felt a certain amount of gratification at seeing the pink, rosy clouds take shape quickly beneath my fingers. 

However, due to the design of the clouds, it is resulting in the creation of little corners which are then harder to bead effectively.  So, I may go back to sewing the beads line by line.

I have also been reading the book, "Peranakan Beadwork: My Heritage", by Bebe Seet.  She writes about how she found it difficult to find someone who was willing to teach her to made the beaded shoes.  Finally she found an old lady but after a few months, this old lady passed away.  By then, Bebe had learnt enough to proceed on her own.  I find Rumah Bebe's things a little on the pricey side, but then again, I suppose the knowledge which she took such pains to gain and then to share is priceless.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Turning the first corner

Beading Frame
Originally uploaded by Taking5
I wonder sometimes whether it is wise to natter about my beading progress (or lack of it) in the public domain. Will the fact that I am posting about my "kasut manek project" give me the added motivation to finish the job, or will I eventually slacken off, leaving online only an unfinished tale? We shall see.

After one week, I have completed 1½ rows of beads. It does not sound impressive, I know. But it is much better than 10 beads which is where I was when my friend started off for before she handed over to me.

There is quite a bit of specialised equipment involved in beading – the beading frame, the needles (one extra fine, one large and thick – meant to poke the beads in place), the thread (finer, sturdier than normal cotton thread thread), and the beads of course. Fortunately for me, my kind friend lent me the entire package. I suppose I will get round to buying my own after I finish this pair of shoes (a long way I fear).

The week has been one of ups and downs. I started off fairly well, finishing the row which my friend started me off on. Then, when I turned the corner to start off a new row (we started in the middle of the shoe) I made a mistake, requiring me to unpick. For the uninitiated, this requires that I pass my needle back through the point at which I'd just pushed it through. Not easy. I did it eventually, continued with my beading, and made another mistake. Tried to unpick and managed to snap the thread. Started again, and after another few beads made yet another error. By now, I was feeling a little frazzled. I decided that I'd just continue as a light pink bead being substituted for a white bead did not seem to be something one would notice in the grand scheme of things. Carried on blithely and at the 1¼ row mark, I discovered that I had inserted an extra light pink bead some 15 beads back. (The photo shows my beads and beading frame just before I found out about the error.) This was unlike the previous errors whereby I realised my mistake practically immediately and could adjust very quickly. This extra bead could have ripple effects for my whole shoe pattern. So I unpicked the whole ¼ of my row of beads!!! Sigh. Moral of the story: rectifying mistakes when they are small is so much better than having to clean up larger messes!

Anyway, after that, everything seemed to go quickly. I must be getting the hang of it. Managed to turn yet another corner to start on a fresh row. So that's where we are, 1½ rows after 1 week.

Interested in my progress?  You can see the photos here.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


Yesterday, I started off on my first kasut manek project. For those who do not know, the making of kasut manek, or nonya-style beaded shoes, has been enjoying somewhat of a revival here in Singaporer.  Like the embroidered sarong kebaya, kasut manek are instantly identifiable with the peranakan community.These beautifully hand-made shoes are the result of many hours of patient, painstaking work.  In the past, young nonyas would be judged on the quality of their beadwork in the marriage mart.  Today, many people try their hand at it because they want the satisfaction of making and owning a pair of patterned, beaded shoes.

Like myself, for example.  My friend kindly started me off with the loan of a frame and a lesson, Beading 101.  The first lesson I learnt was how to start sewing the beads on, as she started me off with a practice row. Then things got serious.  We selected a pattern - a single large flower, identified the beads and then tried to find a suitable shoe template.  Here, problems arose.  Carefully estimating how big the pattern would be on the shoe, she told me that the open-toed shoe I was planning on was too narrow to support the pattern.  We had to try again,  and this time I selected a simple repetitive pattern - a "Cloud Forest" which would stretch across the shoe.  She then carefully traced the outline of the shoe template onto the canvas on the top of the beading frame, and started off on the first row for me.  Then, she felt that the thread we were using was a little too thick for the needle, unpicked the beads she had just sewn on, and started again, observing sagely that if she was having problems, it was likely that I too would have difficulties with the needle.

Reflecting on her efforts, I realised that the truly important lesson was the importance of planning - she had really taken the time and effort to visualise the end product, and also to make sure that the technical aspects of the beading process were carefully attended to.  With her clarity on the desired end state, and meticulous checking of implementation details, she prevented my kasut manek project from being doomed to failure before I had even started.


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