March 31, 2016

Sibu Tales : Hai Tang Hua

When we were young we looked at our elders applying the minimal amount of face powder. This Haitang powder was their basic beauty aid. We loved the fragrance from the haitang flower.

My maternl grandmother said that haitang flower was a very beautiful flower in Fujian....but we never had any idea how beautiful it was then. We only had pictures like those on the cover of the box of face powder.

Today, we have lots of photos from Google to tell all about flowers in the world!! My maternal grandmother would have love it , like my 90 year old mother today. My sisters would start their iPad to show her photos and she would be delighted!! She also skypes.

Haitang Flower Face Powder

March 26, 2016

Sibu Tales : Ngu Hiong Dong (5 spice sausage)

While we were growing up, Ngu Hiong Dong sold in the restaurants, like Hock Chu Leu,was a luxury. The people of Sibu could order and buy them from Hock Chu Leu and other restaurants during the festive seasons . Those days take away was not fashionable as the frugal Foochows would think it too expensive. Food should be made at home and would be very much cheaper.

However according to local reports then, the best were made by the Cantonese family known for their excellent  dishes . Their restaurant was called Capitol Restaurant and today after two generations, it is called New Capitol Restaurant, serving fusion Chinese food. Actually a Teochew friend said that NHD is Teochew in origin. But many of us from the Fujian origins also claim we have it in our culinary history.

Two kinds of skins were available in those days, caul oil and bean sheets. We only had these fragrant NHD when we attend wedding or birthday banquets in Sibu at Hock Chu Leu and in the villages when there were home prepared banquets. I have always thought that it is a difficult dish to make.  First mackerels must be bought, the fresher the better and then "beaten or slapped in a basin" Today a blender does the trick. My sister remembers that she was the "beater of fish flesh" in those long ago days when mum made her good NHD.

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My mother and relatives often come together to share recipes. And we don't really remember any one not teaching a newly acquired recipe to their loved ones. Mum believes that the more people you teach the more love would be spread around.

However, today, most women in Sibu have learned (by asking questions, through tiral and error, and reading cookery books) how to make Ngu Hiong Dong for the festive seasons and as more and more inferior quality, commercialized Ngu Hiong Dong, were sold in Pasar Malam. It has turned full circle. Food made at home is the best, not those sold in the shops or restaurants.

Whenever I see Ma Ka or mackerel in the fish market I would think of how our mother would make the fish go a little further by making this delicacy.

An update on the mackerel roll or Five spice Roll, add an additional sheet of Nori, and perhaps add a little more chopped onion and garlic....Our imagination can bring the traditional 5 spice Roll to another level.

But my memories of Ngu Hiong Dong have always been very special and positive.

March 23, 2016

Sibu Tales : Ikan Lumek

Ikan lumek is a very soft bodied fish. But when eaten fresh it is very very nice in a soup with Chinese tang hoon and lots of green onions.

This fish is often smoked and sold in the markets by the Melanaus. The smoked fish can be roasted and pounded to make a nice ingredient for sambal, a tasty condiment to go with rice and a salad.

By as young children we loved the way mum tried to stretch her proverbial dollar in the olden days. She would be a few katis of ikan lumek for just under 2 dollars. She would butterflied the fish and marinate them for a while. And then she would deep fry the fish. It was very very crunchy and taste. We ate everything including the bones. It is a very white and tasty fish.

Whenever we deep fry ikan lumek we would remember our old neigbhour whom mum found to be a good person to talk to. Old Moo (Old Mother) was a widow with many children and she lived across the road from us.

Just before lunch she would come over for a cup of tea and mum, if she was frying this fish, she would give her a big one and she would slowly eat the fish in a very delicate manner while praising my mother for her good heart. Old Moo was always very appreciative. If she had nothing to do, she would come over after her nap and stay with my mum until it was her family's dinner time.

Being illiterate and a child bride, she had suffered a great deal of abuse but in her later life when her children prospered, she did enjoy some good years. Mum was always her counsellor telling her how best to live life. By then we had moved away and she too had moved away.

In a way I do miss having Old Moo at our home. I do miss hearing her say, " Sing Nang Neo si guo hor lor. Guo tiang ngui lor..." (The wife of the teacher is so kind. She really cares for me) my father was more a teacher than a towkay in our community. So mum was away Sing Nang Neo.

And Sing Nang Neo is so much more affectionate than towkay neo in my opinion.

There are other stories realted to the eating of deep fried ikan lumek.

March 22, 2016

Sibu Tales : Money Tales

In the earlier Foochow Pioneer days, our ancestors came from one monetary system using taels to another new system using cents.

Money was precious to the frugal Foochows and they had to learn how spend hardearned quarter cents, half cents, one cents,etc.

These were the coins they used from 1901-1950's.

My maternal grandmother said that sometimes they did not even have half cent in their pocket. And very often they had to barter trade with the Malay and Melanau fishermen who wanted salt, sugar, and cloth. My grandmother had rice which she could sell and do a bit of barter trading in the 1910's, But after the 1920's she and her growing family had rubber and that made them slightly richer.

March 18, 2016

Sibu Tales : Showing Appreciation the Foochow Way

The Foochows have our own numeral coefficients. We have a slice of meat, a bowl of soup, a piece of cake, and specifically when it comes to pieces, we say suoh doi (big chunk of meat)niik, suoh liu (small slice) niik, suoh pien (thin layer) ngii niik (fish can be sliced very thin).

The smallest of anything if to say something sarcastic or insulting, one would say Suoh Pi Sai ( a small bit of snot)

My maternal grandmother was a fast thinking and smart lady who could stand no fools. Any woman or man who did not pay respect to their elders or who did not say the right would get a sarcastic retort from her. She did not go to school, but she memorized every word the school teacher said in the Church room when she was four, in Kay tou Buoh, in Minqing, China. A year later, she was "sold" because her parents were too poor to feed another mouth, particularly a girl. What she learned in one year was to help her live a wonderful life in Sarawak.

She used metaphors when she spoke. And she taught us moral lessons, ancient legends, Confucious' sayings and almost everything which helped us become ethical, God fearing people.

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gong bian photo by KK Ling.
One of her favourite sayings, and it was also my mum's, was "Never even see a small piece of Gong Bian from that ungrateful relative..."

Love was expressed in kind amongst the Foochows. We would give gifts of chickens if we had chickens in our farms, or eggs etc. If we could afford biscuits we would buy tins of biscuits. But those who were poor, could even buy the the cheapest of gifts - yes, a few pieces of gong bian for 10 cents in those days.

A grateful man would bring some gong bian to his benefactor.

We were often trained to remember how to show our appreciation - the Foochow way.

March 17, 2016

Sibu Tales : Timber Company Shares

When the 1960's rubber, rice and pepper industry were at their lowest depths, a bright spark shot into the economic horizon of the Sibu Foochows. Ramin was King!!

Many people were in a hurry to invest in logging camps, sawmills, tug boats. While some were really limited companies, others were more or less cooperatives or a conglomeration of several families like KTS and Lee Hua Sawmill to name two famous ones.

There were scams too in those days.

A family was even known to have been split because of investment in a timber company. An gracious and generous uncle approached the elder son of the family to invest and had requested that all the brothers and sisters should jointly invest. However the oldest sister in law was slightly too clever for the likes of the family. She wanted to earn the commission from the brothers and sisters in law.  So by asking her three brothers in law and two sisters in law to invest at full price of the shares, she earned more than enough to get her own share free.
The Foochow call a log raft, "Char beh."
When the siblings heard about the matter, they were really very angry because by family relationship and transparency,they should all have been given a good discount.

However,as the Foochows have a famous metaphorical saying, "Not all the fingers on our hands are equal in length," there was a poor brother in the family. The mean eldest sister-in-law did not even bother to ask him!! Thus the poorest of the brothers-in-law did not invest although he could have been able to raise enough money with the help of one loving sister.. He and his wife were the angriest of all. For more than 20 years the family were very cold towards each other. And the youngest brother was definitely the most angry of old.

When the old mother-in-law was sick in bed, she was still unforgiving. And she did put a curse on the eldest daughter-in-law. And as all good people have a good ending, the old mother-in-law had lived out her good long life with the youngest and most filial son who led a very humble but hard working life.

According to a friend, if the whole family had bought up the allotted shares sold at that time, they could have become the majority shareholders of the company and would have been rich beyond their dreams. But with family disputes like that, the family members also sold out to others,leaving the oldest sister in-law as one of the minority share holders.

So this lady wasn't that smart after all.

That is definitely only one of the many timber stories of the Rajang.

March 16, 2016

Sibu Tales : Refrigerator and Chicken Livers

When we were younger, anyone owning a refrigerator was much respected.

I remember my younger brother was so happy with my small fridge when I first started teaching. He immediately made Milo ice popsicles and we were quite proud of ourselves. Today, 40 years down the road, he has gone far in life and he can have breakfast in Paris, lunch in London...and have a pint in Glasgow. Most of the hardworking kids of his age have done well in life. And electrical appliances would just be bought with a swipe of plastic at any time.

But of course many people would still be at the lower income group for many many good reasons.

Although affluence has indeed become a matter of fact for many Foochows from Sibu, there are still instances of frugality in some homes.

I remember a school teacher, a spinster who went around looking for a second hand fridge, of a certain height and size and she asked if her electricity bill would go up with her purchase.

She bought one for RM200 in good time. But it was only for chicken livers for her pets!! I remember an aunt said, "So many children even don't have fridge at home, and don't eat chicken liver...What a good life her pets have!!" Those were the days before Shelters for Stray Dogs and Cats.

March 14, 2016

Sibu Tales: Writing a Foreword

In Sibu, where many people are well educated and well connected, the writing of Foreword is often quite a significant phenomena.

The Chairman of the Foochow Association is , for example, often called to write a Foreword for any books written by a Sibu writer. I really think that any man who is the Chairman of the FA of Sibu is very qualified to write a foreword. It is a great honour for him too.

However, one of the most popular person to write a foreword for any Sibu or Sarawak book is of course the local Member of Parliament or the Member of the State Assembly. And especially the Chief Minister if the writer has caught his EYE.

The person selected to write a foreword is usually someone "who has accomplished something, or already published and his name is well known."

The writer of a FOREWORD has a purpose. That purpose is to introduce an author/work to the world.

There are several ways to introduce the book. You can write about a significant incident in the book, the book as a whole or the author's work in general.

Or you could describe your personal encounter with the writer, or your friendship with the author.

If you are writing about a new edition of the book, you could write about the differences between the old and the new edition, and perhaps discuss the cultural or historical impact of the book.

Some one has written, " there is no hard and fast rules about forewords - there is room to be creative and have fun!!"

Chop Suey, USA,The Story of Chinese Food in the USA is a remarkable book worth reading over and over again. It is at once philosophical and historical. It is also light hearted but nevertheless you would find yourself pondering upon the seriousness of food matter.

Now if you are soon to write a book, who would you ask to write the FOREWORD?

March 11, 2016

Nang Chong Stories : Deer Meat and Tragic Death

Fresh deer meat or venison from Sarawak is sold in the native markets from time to time.

Have you ever heard of the story of a Foochow lady who was so angry with her good for nothing gambler of a husband that she bought 2 whole katis)the weights recognised by Sarawakians before 1970's) of deer meat, cooked with half a bottle of brandy...just to be HAPPY? And she was found drunk and dead the next morning by a neighbour?
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The village sinseh proclaimed that there was no foul play because deer meat, brandy and ginger were too heaty as a food on a hot day for an angry person with high blood pressure. I was still a school going child and did not know the importance of post mortem or anything much else related to sudden death.

My maternal grandmother and aunties shook their heads and said some very kind words about the neighbour. How she was buried I would never know and whether the husband beat his chest and cried out out no one did say anything. By the time her coffin was carried out to a waiting motor launch for burial in Sibu, I was already back home in Sibu and at school.

Ever since that day, most of my relatives would not add brandy or too much ginger to deer meat!! Although we would always add a tablespoon or two of the less lethal but very delicious Foochow Red Wine whenever we cook exotic meat from the jungle.

This is a true story from Ah Nang Chong in the 1950's. A tragedy.

March 8, 2016


I have always been fascinated by boots since young.
Red rain boots, yellow wellingtons, Yellow Phua Chu Kang Boots, Black boots, blue boots, you name it,
Cowboy boots for line for marching, boots for stutting the streets with John Travolta....

Here's a light hearted poem for you...On March 8th 2016.

Happy International Women's Day...

Put on your boots,
take a few good steps,
tap tap tap
twirl,turn, bow, turn again,
tap tap tap
one, two, three, kick...

With my little eye I spy  something beginning with the letter B!!
A lady with a nice pair of boots...

Put on your boots,
Let's kick some butts,
Let's do some steps,
Let's tell the world, that we can do something,

Put on your boots,
Let's show them,
What we can do.
Not faint hearted,
Not defeated,
And cannot be marginalized...

Put on your boots,
Dance for a better, equal world.

Pull up your socks,
Put on your boots,
Let there be joy in your hearts
Don't hurt your own sisters.
Take our steps, forward,
back, turn around,
forward, forward.

March 6, 2016

Nang Chong Stories : Fried Eggs

There are many people who love to cook eggs in different ways.

The Foochows have Taiping eggs, which are actually hard boiled eggs which are deep fried in hot oil, to give them a golden and blistered eggs.

Poached eggs are very popular amongst the Foochows who love them in their soups and noodle soups.

But then, one of the loveliest ways of giving a loved one an egg with his or her rice is this special way of fried egg. Just use a bit of oil in the kuali...after heating up the oil, crack an egg into the kuali. The egg white will start to bubble and become crispy. And soon it will be cooked before the egg yolk starts to jell.

Quicky ladle the egg on to a plate of rice...squeeze some soy sauce on top. And that is probably a good lunch for a child who has come home from school, or a sister who has come back from the farm.

March 5, 2016

Sibu Tales : Pisang Goreng

We were living in Kampong Nyabor,Sibu for many years. And by 1980's Kampong Nyabor was moved to Bandung Road and shophouses started to mushroom every where. The urbanisation of Sibu had really taken off by that decade. Our rustic life was changing. The skyline of Sibu also changed with one or two high rise buildings. No one had really thought that a 13 storey building could be built on the peat soils of Sibu. But the Premier Hotel was built and after that, there was no holding back in construction of taller buildings

 As a result of construction of more shop houses and office blocks,many of our Muslim family friends moved away to Bandong Road or Kampong Nangka and elsewhere. It must have been difficult for them to resettle.

That was the time we realised that an era has passed by and gone forever from the social map.

We missed the pulut panggang Haji. We missed the satay men. We missed the pisang goreng boys who carried baskets, or cycled along the road and shouting, "Peeeeeeeeeeeesang eh" and then discreetly rang their bicycle bell.

The pisang goreng boys were tiny little things. And their baskets were always layered with newspapers, some banana leaves and a white cloth cover. We never did both about them using their hands to handle the sweet pisang goreng when we bought them, one at a time, because that was all the pocket money we had.

My mother would never make pisang goreng for these reasons : too much oil used (too wasteful), fried food was not good for girls as they would cause the growing of pimples, the bananas used were not our type of bananas...but behind her back, we ate our pisang goreng.

With the kampongs moving further and further away from the main town, we missed the Hari Raya Visiting. This also meant that the younger generation did not learn how to live with Malay neighbours like we did.

March 4, 2016

Sibu Tales: Soy Bean Paste Spare Ribs

One of Overseas Foochows' favourite dish is the Soy bean paste Spare Ribs. The spare ribs must be fresh and full of the soft bones or cartilage.

My Grandma Siew could cook very well and she served my Grandfather with this dish perhaps twice or even three times a week, in that little pretty ceramic shallow dish. She would steam the dish for hours and he was the only one having it as his personal dish. He would give one piece to his favourite grand child who was to be awarded for good behaviour. We waited for that moment of truth!!

Grandpa was a slow and gentle eater. He would carefully chew the cartilage to his heart's content.

The young children would get the sauce to go with their rice.

Of course during the festivals, grandma Siew would cook a big pot of this "special".

It is still my favourite way of cooking spare ribs (with a bit of brandy for better taste and flavour), not even the best sweet and sour spare ribs would change my mind.

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). ...