November 30, 2012

7th Wedding Anniversary : a 1950 Photo

How many couples would purposely go to a photo studio to take a photo just to commemorate an occasion? What is your sense of romance?

Are we more romantic today than people of yesteryears?

I have found out that people from different ages have their own sense of "romance".  During my school days, when girls had a steady boyfriend and were looking forward to their marriage they would start writing on paper, Mr and Mrs Wong....or Mr. and Mrs. Lau Kung XXX. dreaming of their beautiful future. This was called practising writing their married names. I wonder if girls still do the same today, forty years on.

It was extremely touching to discover amongst my grand aunt's possessions a special photo given to her by her friends in 1950 in Sibu.

And at the back of the photo were these words:

62 years later as grand niece of my aunt Chang Yuk Ging I would like to share with you my readers this exceptional find.( My aunt Ik Ding and I were remembering Grand Aunt Yuk Ging last month in Sibu and we took out all her photos to look again when we found it. What a precious gift!)

Mr and Mrs. Wong must have some special fondness for Aunt Yuk Ging.

The fact that they took a 7th year anniversary photo to commemorate their occasion and penning some words behind their photo is  very commendable. Mr. Wong must have loved his wife so much. And they must have some special love for each other. Could he be wearing the same necktie on the day he got married ? Was it a love match (in those days called free to talk about romantic love - zi yew lian ai), or was it a successful match made by a proper match maker?

How many children did they have then after 6 years of marriage?

I wonder how many people still go to a photo studio , dress up and take a photo like this, and send copies to their good friends.

Admirable is the word.

November 26, 2012

Thoughts of Tinned Peaches

Some if not many Chinese would start having creative juices gurgling in their veins when seeing peaches. That might be quite an exaggeration to some people but then it is true for many of my friends.

For since young we have been taught by elders about peaches and peach blossoms. Peach blossoms refer to romance. Love is in the air when peach blossoms appear in the country side! But that may seem so foreign to  the Foochow youths of Sibu.

But for me when my friends in Perth show me their photos of peaches I too feel a little stirred. But for another reason. For they conjure up lots of memories of the past.

When we were young in Sibu, it was very exciting to attend weddings or birthday parties. Those were the highlights of the year. The feast was a bonus. But to me it was the last dish which was really the "icing on the cake". The dessert of peaches and longans in a bowl of ice cubes. 

Hock Chu Leu, the famous Foochow Restaurant, served a big bowl of this dessert I remember. And the peaches were in huge slices. Some restaurants would cut the peaches into cubes and I would feel rather cheated.

Peaches to me then were very soft and very sweet.

Until I went to China where I had my first taste of the fresh fruit. I was disappointed. Perhaps I did not buy the best. Although it was a giant peach, the fruit was not mature enough. It tasted like a piece of wood. That cost us 12 ringgit each!!

May be next year I could go to Perth to enjoy the peaches there.
Photo by Lesley Poole Wells. Lesley is such a fine friend and she has allowed me to use any of her lovely photos to illustrate my writings . Thanks Les.

Another photo by Lesley P. Wells
Here's a lovely bowl of canned peaches.

Extra notes from Wikipedia :  The peach tree is a tremendous Chinese symbol for longevity as well as other auspicious attributes. Each element of the peach tree has significant meaning. The wood of the tree was said to ward off evil, and ancient warriors would craft weapons from the wood. Taoist magic was made with the petals of the peach blossoms - the effects were known to put men into an intense trance of love. It is said that the Peach plant of immortality located in the Kun Lun mountains would produce the fruit only once every 3,000 years. When this happened, the Eight Immortals would gather and eat of the magic fruit, assuring their immortality.

My own photo of a huge bowl of peaces and almond jelly during one of our  family dinners.

We used to get tins of peaches as presents from visiting relatives and mum would always keep them safe. Sometimes we would save them for a festival, other times she would take one tin along when she went visiting a relative. We would never just eat peaches for no reason. No one in the family would think of opening a tin and just help herself.

It has actually taken me 40 years to find out the real taste of peaches. My first peach was in China in Chengdu and I was not really impressed. It was nothing like the soft fruit from the tin. It was hard, it was sour and not juicy at all. This just shows how one can be so encultured by one's environment.

Actually I have bought a tin of peaches to share with my Tuesday meet up with Shirley or Irene or whoever can turn up and share old memories...Do you remember.......?

November 23, 2012

Nang Chong Stories : When a Foochow Man permed his hair

Sibu has its share of stories of hair perming salons. In the earlier days only women were hair dressers. The word perm derives from permanent. So when going to a hair salon to get one's hair permed it really means going to get a permanent hair wave.

Most Foochow women "before they were old" would love to look attractive. And during the frugal days of the past, most Foochow women from the villages would get their permanent wave only once a year just before the Chinese New Year.

My third aunt Pearl operated a Hair Salon Shop where I had my first perm when I was about 6!!

Town ladies had their hair permed more often. So hair perming was quite something in those days. When Foochow ladies felt that they were old, they would keep their hair long and have a bun. That was the time when they started wearing only black trousers and white or blue tops. They would also forgo wearing of florals and putting powder on their face.

Hair perming can be quite an experience because one has to sit in a very crowded small space.

However when Sibu caught up with Singapore, men hairdressers like Anthony opened their hair dressing salons. Names like Peter and Guys, Alan Inspiration superceded Palace Hair Salon or Mui Mui Hair Salon. While more trendy ladies would get their hair done by men like Anthony and Peter, the more conservative ladies kept going to their old friends. Palace Hair Salon for example has been our "family" hairdressers for three generations!! It is nice to go to Aunty and her daughter whenever I visit Sibu.

This photo shows how a permanent wave is done.

 Now what about men who had their hair permed?

That's a very " entertaining era" in Sibu.

All of a sudden the timber boom of Sarawak brought about new money and new trends. Nang Chong men who worked in the timber camps came home with lots of money and they started going to the night clubs and get entertained by Taiwanese singers. Their wives could no longer control their behaviour any more. Liew Chia Chang sang, "Today I am not coming home.." Jin Tien Bu Hui Chia...which became really the catch phrase of those days.

And all of a sudden the men got their hair permed. Can you imagine the 1960's Foochow men looking like Phua Chu Kang?

They started wearing the brightly coloured Hawaiaan shrits

Many spotted jade rings on their fingers, to indicate they had lots of money.

white trousers were worn by many of these noveau riche Foochow men and they graced the noisy and lively nightclubs of Sibu like Merrido and Sarawak Hotel . It was quite a sight to watch the Foochow men looking like replicas of Elvis Presley..they had black hair but permed, with big buckles and white shoes..and we would all know that they were heading towards a night club for their XO.

and white shoes were the craze in those days.

Well in the era of the timber boom, every thing was LOUD...

And we younger ones really wonder whether anything could be Permanent or not.

November 20, 2012

Foochow Style Food in Kuching-Bau Roadside

Sometimes you one can be rather surprised in the rural areas of Sarawak by the sighting of a  large seafood restaurant. Most people would associate seafood with outlets nearer the sea coast.

I can still remember when I saw a seafood restaurant in Kapit, 120 miles inland I was just a little surprised. And Kapit has no airport to enable air flown seafood.

Now I try not to be surprised by anything.

 Perhaps one day I will find a Foochow seafood restaurant in Xinjiang (China). I know of a nice Muslim lah mien restaurant in Fuzhou City.

So here it was a seafood restaurant near Bau and operated by a Foochow family.

Alhtough the towkay has put up signs to indicate he is operating a seafood outlet he is actually a trained roast duck chef. If you happen to drop by roast ducks are sold by the roadside.

And since Foochow food is liked by a lot of people, even in Kuching, this outlet is slowly buildig up a night clientele with its open space. And with a large compound diners do enjoy the open air and adequate space. Kids run around and it is very easy to park. Crabs are plentiful and the towkay rear his own fish. But according to the towkay neo, it is still just a HOBBY and they are not selling their fish yet.

A young nephew is looking after the roasted duck ...

the name Fu Lin means Prosperous Forest.

this is cangkok manis growing in the backyard.

the pretty towkay neo who is very friendly and helpful.

well done to Foochow towkay neo from Julau.

November 19, 2012

Fried Cabbage with Corned Beef in Sibu

The 8 bombs were dropped by the Allied Combined Airforce on Sibu. My mother and her siblings in Nang Chong Village came out of their home to watch the smoke rising up in the direction of Sibu town .

3 years and 8 months of Japanese Occupation ended and people all along the Rajang River Basin cheered. Finally they could be free of the Japanese soldiers.

Soon aeroplanes were flying every where and food and clothes were air dropped.

My mother remembers people talking about receiving food packages. But she herself never got to get any of those "air dropped food and clothes".

However soon the town was full of soldiers and tinned food . An uncle brought back a precious tin of corned beef and they fried the beef. Most older China born Chinese in those days could not tolerate the "beefy" smell . But being hungry children were not choosey. Mum said perhaps this was the reason why the younger Sarawak Foochow generation could "eat" beef because they had so little to eat during the Japanese Occupation.

My mother's cousin(Lau Ing Biew) was a cook for the Sibu Sacred Church priests and my grandmother often visited him and learned a few recipes from him. My grandmother brought vegetables and chickens to this uncle and she and I would stay for "tea" ( or what was not eaten by the priests). It was quite interesting to visit the House of the Priests. Uncle being a filial nephew welcomed an aunt's visit. He treated my grandmother as his mother actually, calling him Mui Ling or last aunt. I loved walking to the Sing Hu Chuo (priests' house) which was actually not far from our Brooke Drive home. We passed by a Malay Kampong and then some shop houses.

I truly believe my grandmother learned how to cook Cabbage with Corned Beef from him.

this is a tin of corned beef from Australia. And in a way Corned Beef and Cabbage is a kind of national dish of the Australians.

Many people however feel that the origin of fried cabbage with corned beef originated with the coming of the Australian soldiers in Sarawak soils. My Sg. Aup Iban friends adhere to this origin. they have cooked in this way since the arrival of the Allied Soldiers they say.

A Sarawak version of cabbage with some dried chillies and a bit of dried meat...Cabbage can be such a great vegetable, any time of the year, anytime of the day!!

this is a google photo of cabbage in corned beef..

My friend Mena Westley in Perth cooks a fantastic cabbage with corned beef (with freshly made corned beef bought in Canningvale market) and it is really delicious. Freshly made corned beef is really different from tinned corned beef. I wish I could air fly some fresh corned beef from Perth for my mother in Kuching!!

thanks to the Allied Forces in 1945, people of Sibu not only gained their freedom from Japanese rulers but were blessed with an excellent dish - Fried Cabbage with Corned Beef.

(Other stories another time on this blog so stay tuned)

November 16, 2012

Steamed Bread with Butter and Kaya

My mother and her siblings grew up in the Nang Chong Village of the Rajang Basin, which in the 1930's-50's was a rich agricultural area producing rubber and fruits as well as vegetables. All the Foochow rubber tappers then were themselves subsistence farmers.

The then Brooke Government and later the British Colonial government were not able to provide the best of medical facilities and especially dental service. Fuyrthermore tooth paste with flouride was not at all available. Most people made their own toothbrushes from wood and other materials. Mum used to tell us that she and her siblings when they were very young used salt to wash their mouth after they had brushed their teeth.
Tooth brushes were sold but they were used sparingly.

Some of the poorer relatives even used their own fingers!! An aunt was very clean and she used a small towel to clean her teeth one by one. Of course some people never brushed their teeth.

Thus people all over Sarawak who are now in their 70's nd 80's and even older have very poor dental health. My mother is one of them.

When she was only 30, my father granted her one special wish - to have all her bad teeth extracted by a good western trained dentist in Kuching Dr. Chai. Dr. Chai after examining her teeth shook his head and said that all of them had to come out. And it would also help her have less headaches.  And then she had dentures fitted. I remember neighbours coming around to admire her "artificial teeth". And we were so proud of her. She could give a good smile and she did not need to hide her front teeth with a lacey handkerchief. How much must she have suffered!!

And in  a special corner of our kitchen we would see a glass containing her dentures . We children were told not to mess with that or we would have our just desserts.

As she was a good cook, she started cooking food which could be eaten by her. No more tough pieces of meat. She would steam food, she would chop meat  into small pieces and she would braise ducks until they were chopstick tender.

But the most significant item daily on the table was her steamed bread with melting butter and a smooth layer of dark brown (from burnt sugar)  kaya which my father would lovingly ordered from the Hainanese coffee shop in town.

Later Yeo Hiap Seng started to produce tinned Kaya. We also had those orangey kaya. But nothing could quite beat the coffee shop kaya.

Till today my mum who is now in her 80's she still enjoys her steamed sliced bread. Two slices every morning. Noodles will be eaten by her if she likes at about ten. Our Foochow lunch is at 12.30 and dinner is at 5.30. She has been keeping the Foochow meal times of yesteryears.

The smell of steamed bread always reminds me of my mother and her butter and kaya -  A UNIQUE Sarawak flavour.

November 13, 2012

Nang Chong Stories : Bintangor Tangerines (Mintang Gik Giang)

I wonder how many people still remember the fruit sellers who sold Bintangor tangerines and other fruits at the five foot way (ngu ka kee) of Moi Sung and the alley between Ta Kiong and the sundry shop in Market Road?

The Green Tangerines or Gik Giang(Foochow) are special citrus grown in the Rajang Basin. They were originally brought over by the hardworking Foochows from the Fujian Province of Mainland China.My uncles grew more than a hundred trees of tangerines in the 1960's in Nang Chong. The fruits were really good source of vitamin C and some income.

In the Fujian province of China, tangerines have orange skins which peel off easily, whereas those in Sarawak are green. We have always wondered why they are green skinned in Sarawak. Some tangerines have no seeds at all while some have huge seeds.

Do you know that tangerines have been cultivated in China and Japan for more than 3000 years?
However they are called tangerines because they are named after Tangiers of Morocco, the  port where the fruit were first shipped to Europe from in the nineteenth century.
China produces more tangerines than any other country. Most of the tangerines produced in the United States come from Florida, California and Arizona.
Sibu is often remembered by people for the tangerines. 
For many years my grandmother's Nang Chong farm produced a lot of tangerines until one year the floods and the disease wiped out all the trees. We thus lost one our means of income. It was sad to see only trunks and empty branches of the trees for several years. No one in the Sarawak Agriculture Department could find a way to save the industry. In fact it was also in those years that the Bintangor's Green Mountain Orange Drinks went under.

Later, whenever my grandmother returned from Sibu she would bring a huge paper bag of these tangerines tied with straws. And we would enjoy eating them. We would feel sad that we no longer had our own tangerines.

Today many Nang Chong houses still have a few tangerine trees growing in their yard. The memories of fifty or a hundred tangerine trees still linger in my mind. The prosperous tangerine industry never recovered till today.

November 12, 2012

Special Banana Leaves for Pulut Pangang

Do you know that in Sibu, special banana leaves are used for the wrapping of the delicious and famous Pulut Panggang?

Even though I was born and bred in Sibu I did not know about this special kind of banana trees which provide leaves for pulut panggang makers.

These banana trees stand very straight and are not very tall.

The leaves do not hang down or break easily. Apparently these are the only banana trees found in large numbers on Pualu Kerto in the Sibu division.

These banana trees grow very close together and the leaves are cut as often as the owners like. The trees are fairly hardy.

The Pulau Kerto Banana Trees

These banana trees have been grown by one special family in Pulau kerto for many generations. They have made it their niche business. Each morning the family members and their workers will cut the leaves and bundle them up . They had in the past sent their banana leaves by boat to Sibu. Today because a road has been constructed they can use their own pickup.

I wonder how many people know about this.

November 9, 2012

Old Town - Old Flavours : Hainanese Chicken Chop

"Old town old flavours" never rings more true when my friend and I visited Johor Bharu recently.

The famous Hua Mui Hainanese Coffee Shop founded in 1946 beckons to us the moment we set eyes on it. Ladies in sari with some midriff exposed, young men in ties with iPads on the small tables, and old Indian men with some shadows of grey beard appearing and Chinese towkays all sit comfortably under the antique ceiling with old style swirling fans.

We are given the menu almost immediately. This is one of the places where you don't have to stretch your neck and snap your fingers to get the attention of the wait staff. The young girl wearing a nice Hua Mui t-shirt is all smiles. I give her a 10 for her nice body language of understanding her customers . What an array of choices!! We are not wrong in our first impression.

located at the junction of Jalan Trus and Jalan Dhoby of Johor Bahru town. This chicken chop is priced at RM 9.80 (Photo courtesy of Phyllis Wong)

As we sit waiting for our kopi-o to arrive we drink in the surrounding. What a lovely place, old town feel. red buildings and red lanterns and  interesting windows.

We are impressed by the multi-cultural mix of the people  in the streets:  some hurrying to their destinations, others walking slowly and perhaps thinking of what next to do. Two ladies are keeping the streets clean.

Next to our table  the two young men with their iPads are eating trditional just nearly hard boiled eggs when their order of chicken chops arrive. It is only 3 p.m.

The aroma of the chicken chops whiff into our nasal passage and even though we have already had our lunch, we unanimously decide to share a Hainanese Chicken Chop.....we are not disappointed. It is crispy and the peas are just right. This is the day we have two lunches!

The sauce is exceptional is the original Hua Mui Chicken chop sauce made with Worcestershire sauce and other secret ingredients. The crispy chop is definitely made with egg and flour batter and breadcrumbs.

The Hainanese Coffee shops go way back in the history of South East Asia. They provide the best coffee and the best kaya and butter toasts. And they also cook up the best Asian European fusion Chicken Chops. The original Hainanese cooks were houseboys of the European colonial civil servants or "planters" and with their training they started a long history of great coffee shops. This tradition lives on to make the kopitiam of Malaysia and Singapore so famous...Iconic is the word.

If you cannot be in Johor Bharu you can look out for other Hainanese Coffee Shops in other parts of Malaysia and Singapore.

It may be old town and old flavours but the Hua Mui  Hainanese Chicken Chops in particular really has a strong long staying power!! We must not forget and forsake our own home grown dish.

November 3, 2012

Facebook Slippers for Upriver (Ulu) People

FACEBOOK Slippers Anyone?In Batu Niah.  

Travelling in Sarawak reauires special footwear depending on where you are going. If you visit a longhouse a pair of Japanese slippers would be best. And you can be really spoilt for choice. Here is a wonderful pair which caught my eye!!                                                      

November 2, 2012


The name of this Brunei  speedboat and the scenario brought back a lot of memories......

In 1974 I served in Limbang Government Secondary School as a trained teacher, joining the force of hundreds of  newly trained and starry eyed first year teachers to serve as "Federal Officers" all over Sarawak.

One of the new experiences I had was getting on to speed boats to go to  Brunei for icecream and the occasional lunch treat from Limbang. We would go at the end of the month when we had extra money in hand. Brunei dollars = Malaysian dollars in those days. It would a one hour pleasurable and windy river journey cutting across distributaries and passing lots of nipah palms and riverine villages. Some of the speedboats would be covered boats and other cheaper ones were not covered and slower in speed. We usually boarded the fastest to save time which we did not have much on our hands.

That first year of teaching and posting also gave me the experience of living on very little.  We were on 6 months probationary posting and were given a mere salary or allowance of RM650  per month . That was a already quite a huge sum of money to many because it could buy a family more than a refrigerator and a stove!! "Whatever we can ...we had to spend bah ". That was very meaningful to most of us who earned so little.

Housing was government supplied and I  was given a very old house which I could not clean too well as I was preparing lessons 24/7 and involving in never ending school work parties and student counselling. We were in the school premises more than at home. I did not even get a proper bed throughout my year in Limbang. I just made do with the rickety bed provided by the government. Whatever. Sometimes I slept on the floor on a thin mattress when it was too hot.

We had no air conditioning in the school in those days. Only the Principal had air conditioning in his office. So sometimes we would go to his office for "whatever" reason ...even if it was just to have a short five minute chat with the clerk, Miss Evelyn. We get cooled down.

I heard the next occupant of my quarters bought new furniture and had the whole house painted. Did I think of the same? It never crossed my mind to bulldoze the PWD (Public Works Department) or school for a new coat of paint or a new floor. For I knew with very little clout my application would be in the KIV(Keep in View)  tray until I was transferred. There were too many requests for PWD to entertain. Many more urgent needs than a new chair or a new table for a Class Two Quarters and a first year teacher. A few friends would say "Whatever lah, never mind. Just do with what you are given. Next year we will be out of Limbang." Most teachers wanted to be transferred out of Limbang that year so that they could teach in their own hometown. I did not ask for transfer instead I was given a transfer to Kanowit.

That year I met up with a poor lady who lost her husband to a " new model" and she had to raise her 5 children all by herself with the help of a mother and a food stall. She was the first one I know to use the word "whatever" a lot because she did not want to dwell on her problems and she moved on with her life. Her 5 children after 30 years are now all grown up and working well. She drives a Hilux and has a good business somewhere in Malaysia. I have loved her "whatever" each time I met up with her.  And I do suppose I was one of the few she shared some laughter.

In school whenever we teachers could not solve some longstanding problems we said to each other "whatever"..and wished for the situations just to disappear...they would pop up again..and we just had to have the patience to bear with them.  A pinch of salt..and a great sense of humour helped us through the year. But we did try our very best to plan our lessons well and help our students  get top grades. That would be the most important role of ours. Most of our Limbang students remember our hard work till today. Teaching definitely was not a "whatever" business.

Sometimes our school's  non academic staff would say "whatever" when they just seemed unable to do anything..they mean "give up". Shrugged their shoulders, went away and left things undone..and said "whatever".

I believe some Malaysian politicians would shrug their shoulders and say..."Whatever"...

An Australian friend of mind told me that Aussie kids say "Whatever"  when they don't want to hear anything...when they don't want to listen..

"Whatever" is a casual word we use when we are exasperated. It is like "oh yeah?" or "what to do?" or "no worries"..."I don't care"...and in Malay it is "Apa boleh buat?" ...(what can be done?) .and our voice would trail off...

What does the word "Whatever"  conjure up for you? What would you use it for?

I am glad I have a photo of a Bruneian speedboat named "Whatever"...Whatever comes, the boat can help you...I would love that name to have that special good meaning...and the song..Que Sera Sera says..Whatever will be will be.....

Hope more stories can be added to just this one word.

Sibu Tales : Making Bah Gui from Scratch

The pioneering families of Sibu Foochows continued to practise the  adoption of girls from poor families who become their maids (slaves). ...