Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Great Peranakans: Learning about the Grandfathers behind the roads

There is a odd little phrase we use in Singapore, typically directed at people who are taking their own sweet time to cross the road - "your grandfather's road is it"? For some people, the answer could be .... ... Yes!

Tan Tock Seng
Today, I visited the Peranakan Museum's exhibition on Great Peranakans: Fifty Remarkable Lives, featuring babas and nonyas who had contributed to Singapore's early economicdevelopment and nation-building, also to its cultural and social development.  Some are well-known, like Mr Tan Tock Seng, who endowed the Chinese Paupers' Hospital, which subsequently was named after him, but still following in his tradition of caring for all who enter its doors.  Or Lim Boon Keng, Tan Cheng Lock, etc, who at least I have heard of within more "modern" times!

Others are less well-known - maybe  remembered best for the roads named after them, such as Seah  Liang Seah of Liang Seah street,  Tan Kim Tian (Kim Tian Road in Tiong Bahru) or Tan Keong Saik of Keong Saik street.(I'm sure he's glad that his street is now a row of nice eateries rather than a row of brothels....).  And who knew that Koon Seng road (the one with pretty pastel houses, see my earlier post here - although I didn't mention the street's name) was known for the development of Malay theatre in Singapore?And of course, Mr Chew Joo Chiat, who owned the land on both sides of the road which bears his name today.

The majority of those mentioned are men, but I was glad to see a few ladies' names subsequently appear.
Painting of Mandalay Villa
Ladiies like Dr Lee Choo Neo, Singapore's first female physician (and Lee Kuan Yew's aunt), her good friend Mrs Tay Lian Teck (yes, there is another road named after her husband - he died during WWII), and Mrs Lee Choon Guan (Mdm Tan Teck Neo, daughter of Tan Keong Saik).  Mrs Lee was a well known socialite and famous hostess, who threw big parties at her mansion, Mandalay Villa on Amber Road (of course it has been long since torn down). It was at one of these parties that a certain Mr LKY asked a young Miss KGC to wait for him, till he came back from his studies in the UK. Back then, I suppose the Peranakan community was small and relatively close.

The other fascinating thread that runs through it - families.  Tan Tock Seng's oldest son Tan Kim Ching (apparently rumoured to be the head of some secret societies) but also a good friend of the Thai Royal family, due to his trading connections; Kim Ching's grandson, Tan Boo Liat; Tan Tock Seng's grandson by his third son, Tan Chay Yan (who started a rubber plantation here in Malaya), and Maggie Lim (nee Tan), a seventh generation descendent of Tan Tock Seng who started family planning in Singapore.

On the left, Kwa GC's wig and on the right, Lee KY's
The political leaders who contributed to modern Singapore are profiled too - Lim Yew Hock, the second Chief Minister of Singapore, and from the PAP - Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye, Lim Kim San, and of course Lee Kuan Yew are featured too. I did not know that Mr Lee never referred to himself as a Peranakan or a Baba, but of course if his mother is the author of one of the best known Nonya cookbooks it is a dead giveaway (to take just one small example).  Mrs Lee is also featured in the exhibition and hers and Mr Lee's lawyers' wigs share a prime spot.

In short, this exhibition, held as it is in Singapore's SG50 Jubilee year, is indeed timely for younger Singaporeans to remember and celebrate the roles and contributions the Peranakan community has played in the development of Singapore.  And find out what it takes to get a road named after you......

P.S. In case you can't make it down, there is an app!  The coolest thing.  Features some of the Peranakans profiled (not all), with a short profile, little audio recordings, etc.  Just search for "Great Peranakans" on your phone and check it out. There is also a book, "Great Peranakans: Fifty  Remarkable Lives" based on the exhibition and available at the National Library.  As at this moment of writing, it is sitting on the table beside me.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Few Stollen Moments

Once upon a time there was a girl called Whitney and she sang like an angel.  This post is not about her, although I could not resist naming this post after one of her greatest hits.  This year, I decided to try out my baking skills on that well-known German Christmas favourite, stollen. 

To be honest, I did not intend to write about stollen this year.  I meant to share about my first experience creating a beautiful, iced sugee cake.  But the icing turned out a little less stiff and somewhat messy.  Certainly nothing to post pretty pictures about.  So, in the tradition of sharing a recipe every Christmas, I decided to go with the stollen.  After all, there are Eurasians of German descent too (at least I think so).  And we've gone through the pineapple tarts, mince pies, sugee, fruit cake, shortbread etc etc.  

Stollen is essentially a yeasted bread, filled with fruit and marzipan, and covered with a snow-like layer of icing sugar.  I took up breadmaking this year and frankly enjoy kneading the bread, the texture and heft of the dough, the smell of bread baking in the oven and of course the delectable goodness of freshly baked bread.  So when I found a nice-looking recipe from Paul Hollywood (of Great British Bake-off fame), I knew it was time to do a Christmas bread.

It's a straightforward recipe - prepare the dough, add the fruit and spices and let it rise, then roll it out, and add the marzipan.  Many recipes require that the marzipan be rolled up like a sausage in the middle of the loaf but Paul's doesn't - you roll it out thinly and then roll it up with the dough.  This way the marzipan is better distributed in the loaf itself.  (I used half the amount of marzipan stipulated in the recipe.... ours is not a sweet toothed family, and the dried fruit is already sweet.) Let stand for another hour, then bake.

So does it look like a babe in swaddling clothes?
When ready, it is apparently meant to resemble the baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes.  Indeed my effort did have a certain resemblance....

I should probably have left it in the oven for another 15 minutes or so, for it did turn out a little underbaked (as Hollywood would say). But it was still a tasty, buttery, fruity loaf, full of Christmas flavours. Perfect with a cup of coffee, for a stollen moment on a busy Christmas morning.

Merry Christmas to all!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Peranakan Arts Festival 2015

I was intending to make a trip down to Malacca this year end but for various reasons (largely scheduling) it did not work out.  But in the end, I didn't mind too much because I got to go to the Peranakan Arts Festival instead!

Programme booklet - inside cover
The Peranakan Arts Festival was held from 4-8 Nov 2015 and comprised numerous components:
- The Ba-bazaar!  One of my fave events, not just the stalls but the accompanying talks, cooking demonstrations, etc.
- The Baba-Nonya Convention 2015
- Two plays, Pintu Pagar and Bibiks behind Bars, Kena Again
- An art exhibition
- A Tok Panjang wedding dinner to round off the event

Typically, there is an annual Convention and Ba-bazaar but I believe that this year, the intent was to broaden the event into a full-blown festival, celebrating the Baba-Nonya culture.  Thus the inclusion of the plays and the art exhibition too.  

My friend and I picked up tickets for "Pintu Pagar" - the Friday matinee.  We had made a pact to dress up in our sarong kebaya and met accordingly at the Ba-bazaar 2 hours before the show started, to wander around the shops and attend the cooking demonstration.  We had thought that there would be tonnes of people there all dressed up in sarong kebaya.... shall we say that maybe they were planning to come dressed for the evening shows or the dinner instead.  And then at last we spotted at a distance one lady making her way to the big tent, dressed up in her kebaya.... ... and lugging some big bags as well.  She was one of the stall holders!  

The shops themselves had a good variety of makan, jewellery, some kitchenware and curios (including a few shops from Malacca as well).  There was also a books stall, with recipe books and heritage related books.  I restrained myself from buying more cookbooks and bought just one book  - 'Being Baba", a compilation of articles from "The Peranakan", the magazine of the Peranakan Association Singapore.

Baba Philip Chia demonstrating his signature laksa

The cooking demonstration was hosted by Baba Philip Chia, who was making his signature laksa for the audience.  Baba Chia explained that he picked up his cooking from his various aunties, each of whom had her own special dish.  He discussed the herbs and rempah which go into the traditional Singapore/Malacca laksa recipe and the audience got to play with the various herbs as well.  Of course, the highlight of the event was sampling his yummy, super-lemak laksa. His other cooking demonstrations include mee siam and peranakan canapes (paired with wine).  His cookbooks were also on sale at the little bookshop.  More about him in this article

After the cooking demo, it was time for the play.  The theatre was not full - I guess most people were more attracted by "Bibiks behind Bars".  But "Pintu Pagar" was something a little different.  It was not in the Baba Malay patois but in English, with occasional words here and there (but not many).  It had just four actors, two of whom played dual roles as the parents of the star-crossed lovers who were the focus of the play.  "Pintu Pagar" refers to the half-door entry to a Peranakan home.  The typical home has a full door, which is open during the day and only the half door is closed, providing privacy whilst allowing for some ventilation into the house.  The analogy to our loving duo?  That the two doors swing together side by side, but never meet...

Anyway, our two lovers are star crossed indeed.  Our 14-year old nonya meets her 17-year old (non-baba) neighbour but the families don't get along.  So they marry other people and whilst their paths cross occasionally, they live their lives apart.  I liked the premise of the play, but did feel that it was a little too dramatic for me - arranged marriage to older husband, sickly child, wife with mental condition etc etc.  And of course by the time they get together, it is (almost) too late.  Could it have been equally effective without such drama?  I think so, personally.  I was also not sure whether the dialogue reflected accurately the phrases in use at the times (eg in the 1960s) - sometimes it sounded just too "2000s" to me.  Nonetheless the two leads delivered competent performances.  The star performer, however, was definitely Nora Samosir's performance as the mothers of both our nonya and her beau.  Her elegantly slim kebaya-clad figure (and outrageous hairdo) and nonya "accent" contrasted completely with the simple clothing and gentle tones of the young man's mother.  Her husband(s) too was able to show an effective contrast in performance as he played his dual roles.  

In short, I had a thoroughly enjoyable festival, reconnecting with my nonya self.  Looking forward to putting on my kebaya again for CNY....     

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Singapore food heritage - Shashlik

Shashlik's interior.  That's our empty table.
Fans of Singapore's food heritage were saddened when Shashlik restaurant announced its closure, at the end of the year. (ST, 17 Jul 2015).  To be honest, I'd never gone to Shashlik before - it was always one of those things I would get to at some point in time.

But with the restaurant's impending closure, I had run out of time.  My kind cousin kindly took me there for my birthday treat, so I trotted down to Far East Shopping Centre (on a day which recorded one of the highest PSI readings of the year) to sample the food.  Indeed, despite the hazy conditions, many people had the same idea because there was a queue!  The restaurant was packed and we were told that we may need to wait for our food. Typical Singaporeans - nothing can keep us from our makan.

Lamb and vegetables
In a way going to Shashlik was stepping back in time.  It had an old fashioned charm - no fancy plating here -  but with good, simply presented food.  We ordered (obviously) the food that made the restaurant famous - the borscht (that was me) and the shashlik meat skewers.  I ordered lamb, which came with the vegetables and chips on the side.  My cousin had a beef skewer which came with a Russian salad on the side (looked to me like a normal garden salad though).
Baked Alaska
For dessert, we shared a Baked Alaska.  Now that's one dessert I've not had for years!  I used to enjoy this as a child - watching the flames lick the meringue and then breaking it open to get to the ice cream within.  And I must admit that the thrill hasn't completely disappeared, all these years. Unfortunately I couldn't quite capture the Baked Alaska when the flames were licking around the sides.

Hmm.... I wonder if there is time to squeeze in another visit before the closure (braving the queues?).  But then, Shashlik's owners say that they are prepared to sell the business, recipes and all, to interested parties.  So is there the chance that the restaurant will stay after all ....

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Five years nine months

Not much done since the last update, but there was a pick up in pace over the last few weeks.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

New year, (more) new clothes

One of my favourite things about Chinese New Year is that I get to wear all my nonya baju without people looking funnily at me, or maybe I mean that I can buy new nonya baju to wear at Chinese New Year.  So when I was last in Malacca, I took the opportunity to buy myself a new kebaya top. And of course, I got all gussied up today in my new kebaya, and my new Intan bracelet.

I really like the fresh pink flowers and fresh green leaves on the white Swiss voile background.  And the little lines of kotok or the special "holey" seams make it oh-so-traditional too.

So now I have three kebaya tops, one each from the three nonya strongholds of Malacca, Penang and of course Singapore.

But going back to my earlier point.  I recall that when I was in Japan, I did see ladies walking around in their elegant kimono. Of course, maybe this was because I was in the traditional part of old Kyoto.  But I do think that people feel comfortable and confident in wandering around in their traditional dress, in a way we don't quite do here in Singapore except on these rare occasions.  So maybe I should throw all this diffidence about wearing the sarong kebaya out of the window and glide out confidently in my lovely clothes whenever I can.

Have a Happy Chinese. New Year, or as someone smsed me in this strange combination of Chinese and English puns, "yang yang dou very goat".

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Five whole years!

I never really expected I'd take so long.  An exercise in perseverance, I like to call it.

What feels good is the sense of progression now, as I can do two or even three rows at a time, as I go down to the bottom of the shoe.  So maybe I'll be inspired to push on, and finish quickly. the end is in sight! (Or have I said that before.)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Malacca - old and new

Since my last visit to Malacca three years ago, there have indeed been a number of changes. Malacca (together with Georgetown, Penang, were awarded UNESCO World Heritage site status in 2008.  This has resulted in a lot more visitors to Malacca, and a lot more tourism-related investments.

Casa del Rio - view from our window
So when I go visiting Malacca, it is a little bit old, a little bit new.  This time round, we stayed in Casa del Rio, this swanky new hotel along the Malacca river.  It has a slightly Mediterranean (Portuguese?) vibe, and a great view from our hotel room out on the river, and out to the Straits of Malacca beyond.  It was kind of pricey, but after I got a refreshing ice-cold towel and ginger and lemongrass sorbet at reception; and checked  into our lovely spacious room, complete with a little balcony, large bathroom, and another welcome snack of a little cup with ondeh-ondeh waiting for us to tuck in, I didn't mind at all.  There were a few books left for guests to read - including "Kebaya Tales", by local girl Lee Su Kim.  Of course, I had already read it :-)  

From our hotel, it was a short walk to Jonker Street (Jalan Hang Jebat).  We walked down the familiar streets and looked for our old, favourite shops - the goldsmith shop, San Shu Gong (the biscuit and snack shop), the kebaya shop where my friend also buys her ground coffee, our regular kasut manek shops and pineapple tart shops.  They were all there and seemed to be doing well.  In fact some had expanded! I bought my Pineapple tarts from Christine Ee at Jalan Hang Lekir, together with some good quality gula melaka. It was good to be back.  

There were new shops too - a chocolate shop, a shop selling essential oils and soaps, and the like.  The hotel we stayed in previously has expanded across the road and has gone into retail as well, with yet another shop a few doors down the road  -  I actually managed to buy myself a kebaya top (my third) - white, with pink flowers and green leaves, with the delicate line of "potong" running around the seams.  Simple, but very charming and can probably be used with my pants and skirts (not just the sarong).  Also picked up some nice enamel mugs for my morning coffee.

Interior of the old Dutch House
There were other new boutique hotels to be seen, as well as new indie cafes, occupying the old, long, narrow courtyard houses around Heeren (Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock) and Jonker Street.  On a more plebian but very practical note, pavements are being extended onto the road, so that pedestrians can now walk in greater comfort and safety on the narrow streets.  We also visited one of the few remaining Dutch houses on Heeren street.  It's a restoration project, aimed at giving an example of what housing was like many years ago. We met an elderly gentlemen here, who told us about the history of Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock.  The street is named after him because this is where he used to stay.

Sun May Hiong Satay
Gula Melaka Chicken Wings!
Foodwise, I had checked for new food options and found a useful post from ieatishootipost.   I was a little disappointed that Baboon House appeared closed when we walked past it but we managed to eat at both of the satay stalls on the list, "Loi Satay" (on Lorong Hang Jebat) and Sun May Hiong, (at Jalan Kota Laksamana).  What struck me was the sauce!  Loi Satay apparently uses belimbing, so you get this sharp sour taste contrasting with the richness of the pork and in Sun May Hiong you get loads of sweet pineapple in the sauce.  I preferred the sauce with the pineapple inside, but I must say that I preferred the slightly more chunky satay meat at Loi's.   We also went to Geographers' Cafe, as my friend wanted to try the "no coconut milk" curry mee.  The curry used ground cashew nuts to thicken the gravy but I must say that I would rather consume the calories - nothing beats the lemak-ness of coconut.  I also tried Eleven Bistro - the Portuguese restaurant which seems to have expanded considerably since my last visit.  We had the green curry mussels, which reminded me a little of a mussel dish I had in Macau.  I suppose this means that it is authentic!  My favourite though was the gula melaka chicken wings - chicken wings well-marinated in a gula melaka based sauce. Sticky on the fingers but really rather yummy.

A little shopping, a little sightseeing, a little eating, a little lounging around in a comfortable hotel room.  That's what a good holiday is all about! 

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Blinging out in Malacca

Bridal Head-dress
Checking back through this blog, I was surprised that I had not been to Malacca for over three years, since 2011. I note that my post was all about buying cooking equipment!  Am glad to report that this time round, I have a more "cultural" highlight - my visit to the Straits Chinese Jewellery Museum in Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock (Heeren Street).  Set up by the same folk behind the Pinang Peranakan Mansion in Penang, the museum features a typical Baba-Nonya home downstairs, with the jewellery displays on the second floor. 

Exhibit - Necklace studded with intan
My favourite section of the jewellery display was the  bridal jewellery.  Indeed, this was the occasion when the nonya displays all her bling-bling to showcase her family's wealth and prosperity (and to ensure that she would have some form of insurance if life went wrong).  I really liked the beautiful head-dress, with the delicate streamers hanging down from the front.   Of course, some times this ostentatious display of wealth can go a bit too far - the golden Chinese spoons used by the wedding couple being a prime example.  In general, however, the beautiful, delicate golden pieces - intricately patterned, studded with intan diamonds - take my breath away.

Another room features the jeweller's equipment.  Now, everyone who knows antique jewellery in Malacca knows Ban Onn, the goldsmith shop on Jonker Street.  This is a family-run business, now moving into its third generation.  Check out the corporate video here.  It's my first stop every visit to Malacca, and I often succumb to temptation - so it is a good thing that I've not been to Malacca for a few years!  Anyway, it was no surprise to see uncle's photo (big-big) on the wall of the museum!  I suppose it is reciprocal since there is a large poster of the museum in front of their shop as well.

Josephine Wee's bedroom
The next room was a bit of a surprise.  Everyone in Katong knows Katong Antique House - and its owner, Baba Peter Wee.  Well, some of Peter Wee's mother's old furniture and clothing can be seen here, in this little display of a typical nonya's bedchamber!  I asked our guide who indicated that her boss and Baba Peter Wee are old friends.  Hence he donated these items to the Museum.

In short, this little museum may be much smaller than the palatial Mansion over in Penang but it is literally a little gem.  So do visit!

The museum also has a very good book for those who want to know more.  But there's a useful and informative write-up here.

More photos of the jewellery museum here


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