Saturday, 25 May 2013

The “ice-cream van” (Taiwan)

A friend’s friend Eric was over in Taipei on some training,  so I was asked to look after him, as he couldn’t speak any Mandarin (a common phenomenon amongst Singapore Chinese in those days):  take him sightseeing and shopping, dine with him.  My colleague Lǚ Jìpíng said she’d come along, so one evening after work, we took Eric to Zhōnghuá Road, which is the shopping, eating and cinema area in central Taipei.  At one point, I saw a jacket in a boutique window, so we went in to try it on, as I’d been wanting one for ages.  Being one degree north of the equator, Singapore is too hot for anything other than short-sleeved, or even sleeveless, tops, so jackets were a sartorial novelty, a “must-have” for me at the time.  By the time we emerged from the boutique, Eric was nowhere to be seen.  We waited for a few minutes, then another few more minutes went by, and still no Eric.  Just as we were starting to worry about the boy getting lost, as he couldn't speak Mandarin, he appeared from round the corner.  “Where did you get to?”  He explained that he’d got bored waiting for these two women to finish their clothes shopping, so when he heard the jingling tune of an ice-cream van, he rushed off in pursuit of an ice-cream.  To his horrified incomprehension, he saw workmen tossing the contents of rubbish bins into the back of the “ice-cream van”.

(Taipei 1975)

Consideration for other people (Singapore)

On one of my visits home, I went with my brother Dave and sister-in-law to the market on a Sunday for their weekly shop.  As I was staying with them, they had to buy enough to feed me as well as the three of them.  

As the bus was taking a little while arriving and Dave’s hands were fully laden with bags of shopping (a chunk of cod a foot long, king prawns, various types of meat, vegetables), I suggested he put the bags down on the stone seats provided for people at bus stops.  His response was, “No, some of the bags are a bit wet because of the fish and the prawns, so I don’t want to mess up the seats for other people.”  I felt SO proud of this considerate brother of mine.

(Singapore 2005)

How to tell which stalls sell the cheapest food (London)

In the West, people often say that the way to tell which Chinese restaurant serves authentic Chinese food is to look in and see who are dining in them.  If a particular restaurant is full of Chinese people, then the food will definitely be authentic.

A mainland Chinese chap had moved into the flat above me, so I took him on a little tour of Nag’s Head, an area beyond our district, because there are more stalls and shops there, and their fruit, vegetables and meat are cheaper.  

I said to him, “There isn’t one single stall that’s cheaper than others for all items.  Some of them are cheaper for one vegetable, and some are cheaper for another.  What you can do is go up to the stalls, and have a look at the price tags put up against the respective items, so that you can get an idea of which stall is cheaper for which item, and make a comparison.”  He said, “No, there’s no need to look at the price tags.  Just look at the people in the queues at the respective stalls.”  I asked, “What do you mean?”  He said, “Well, look at that stall: the queue is full of black people and old age pensioners, so their things must be cheaper!” 

(London 1987)

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

My “writing abilities” (London)

An old friend and the most avid reader of my blogs, Valerio, emailed to compliment me on my “writing abilities”, which brings to mind my undergraduate days.

A newly-arrived American teacher in my third year at SOAS, Sarah Allan (see also Chinese etiquette: modesty), taught us Mencius, a Chinese philosopher whose discourses with the king featured the concept of kingship a lot.  At the end of the term, she set an essay on this topic.  

Sarah Allan (now Professor) had told us she was shocked to find us, university students in Britain, still hand-writing essays, because American students had long been handing in typewritten essays.  (This was 1980.)  As I was by then a trained, qualified and experienced secretaryhaving done a secretarial course at age 18 and passed with a distinction in a PSC (Private Secretary’s Certificate) from the LCC (London Chamber of Commerce), then worked for a law firm in Singapore and an American oil company in Taiwan that was the least of my problems.  Also, I had shipped over from Singapore my manual typewriter, an Olivetti.  The problem was: how to write the essay?  I read and re-read source materials, drafted and re-drafted the essay, until it became imperative I put it together.  I duly sat down and typed out whatever I’d managed to garner from my weeks of agonising over it.

A week or so later, back came my essay, with the following comment from the marker: “Good typing.  Rubbish essay.”  Even if not in those very words, still the same conclusion.

(London 1980)

Chinese etiquette: what to serve (or not serve) guests

One of the reasons the Chinese don’t invite people home for a meal is based on the modesty rule:  one’s amateur cooking is not good enough for the guest, one’s home is not grand enough to entertain guests.  So, people usually meet outside.  However, should a guest be invited home for dinner on the odd occasion, or an unexpected guest arrive just before dinner time, one has to make sure that the ingredients are up to “guest-entertaining” scratch.  Therefore, no bean sprouts, for they are, in the East anyway, one of the cheapest foods around:  in the 1960s, one could get a pound or two (in weight) of them for 10 cents (Singapore money, which was S$8 to £1).

Chinese dried mushrooms were, and still are to this day, very expensive, so they were usually brought out only on such occasions, in addition to special occasions like Chinese New Year.  Such was the frugal practice in my house that years later, when the children were grown up and all working and contributing towards housekeeping, if my father came home and found dried mushrooms served up for dinner, he would say, “Dried mushrooms!  Someone coming for dinner then?”

(Singapore 1960s)

The experience of (some) Westerners in China (China)

These three vignettes have come from three different lots of students.

Marian and Renate were doing a stint in China.  Marian has soft features—light brown hair, blue eyes and a charming smile—and of un-intimidating height.  In contrast, Renate is less feminine looking: quite tall with more angular features and buck teeth.  They’d gone to a photo studio near their dormitory to have some passport-size photos taken—for some application forms (e.g., for permission to travel to places outside Beijing).  When Marian, who wore her hair short, went back to collect her photos, one of the girls at the photo studio asked her colleague, in Chinese, thinking these two foreigners couldn’t speak Chinese anyway, “Is that a man or a woman?”  Another day, Renate went back to collect hers, and heard the girl say to her colleague, in Chinese, “It’s the ugly one, here for her photos.”

When Mark went to a restaurant, the waiters and waitresses took fright, as they couldn’t speak English and were convinced the Westerner couldn’t speak any Chinese.  They stood huddled in one corner of the restaurant, shoving each other to go forward and tackle the barbarian, leaving Mark sitting there for half an hour with no-one to attend to him.  Finally, the one who’d picked the short straw approached him in trepidation and asked him, in very broken English, what he wanted to eat.  When Mark said, in Chinese, “I can speak some Chinese,” the waiter nearly fainted with relief.

Siberian Kristina on her year abroad one day needed what the Chinese call “daily use goods” (e.g., soap) and went to a local shop.  The shop assistants fled to the back half of the shop as soon as she walked in, and hovered just behind the doorway, timorously peering round the door frame now and then to see if the foreign devil was still there.  Eventually, as the barbarian had not given up and gone away, they had to emerge and come out of their hiding and deal with the onerous task of confronting the barbarian.

(China 1980s/early 1990s) 

Making fried rice lunch boxes (Singapore)

For my first secretarial job in Singapore, with a firm of three lawyers, I would get up a bit earlier and make a fried rice lunch box with the surplus rice from the night before.

My second sister could never get out of bed in time for work, never mind get up earlier to make a lunch box.  The first time she found me making the fried rice, she used the same line with me as she had with Dave over his fried rice*, peering over my shoulder, “Ooh, that smells yummy.  Can I just have a l-e-e-e-tle taste?”  Before I knew it, a “l-e-e-e-tle taste” had decimated what was to be a full lunch for me.

So I made a bigger dish next time:  one portion for me, one portion for my sister.  Being the kind of weak-willed person that she is, however, she couldn’t wait until lunch time.  By the time I had put the lid on my lunch box, she had already eaten half of her lunch.  At least she had the grace to say, with a sheepish giggle, “Who would believe it, huh?  You, with a full lunch box, yet so skinny.  Me, with only half a lunch box, yet so fat?”  

*see blog entry My brother’s late-night dinner

(Singapore 1973-74)

My brother’s late-night dinner (Singapore)

Most Chinese kitchens worth their salt would have a stock of staple ingredients on standby at all times: onion, garlic, ginger, if not chilli as well.  In my childhood house, we practically always cooked more rice than the family could eat in one sitting, just in case someone needed a late-night snack.

My brother David was in the habit of coming home late, at 9.30pm or even 10pm.  This often meant that there would be no dinner left.  Step forward, the leftover rice!  One could easily whip up a simple fried rice using the onion/garlic/ gingerand maybe a beaten egg, if there was one to spare.

There he’d sit in the kitchen, chomping away at this dish (see also blog entry Brotherly chivalry) with the delicious smell pervading the whole house, even travelling as far afield as the annexe where we children had our bedrooms.  

My second sister, who has the weakest will power in the family (and possibly in the world as well), would invariably emerge from the annexe, drawn to Dave’s fried rice as surely as a moth would to a candle.  It didn’t make any difference to her that she’d just had her dinner only a few hours before, and that this was his dinner.  

This was what happened:

The first time: 
Eve (sitting down by Dave, and craning her neck in the direction of the fried rice):  Ooh, Dave, that smells absolutely yummy. 

(Silence from Dave but for the chomp chomp chomp)

Eve:  Oh, Dave, do you think..., do you think... I could have a l-e-e-tle taste?

Dave makes the mistake of letting out a little grunt, perhaps more out of surprise than anything else that she should be wanting more food after the main dinner only four hours earlier.

Eve takes this as a “yes”, and before you can say Jack Robinson, she fetches a spoon and helps herself to a spoonful of it.

The second time:
Eve (spoon ready in hand this time, and sidling up to Dave):  "Ooh Dave, can you spare some of this?  It’s so delicious."

This time, she helps herself to more than one spoonful.

The third time:
The niceties are done away with, and she tucks in heartily.  Being the generous man that he is, my brother lets her wolf down at least half his dinner.

But there is only so much one can take, chivalry or not, when one’s dinner is constantly—and increasingly— invaded.  The next time, when my brother saw her approaching, he made a big showvisually and aurallyof spitting all over the fried rice.  Result!  My sister froze in her tracks, looked absolutely horrified and disgusted, turned on her heel and went straight back to her bedroom.  My brother was left to finish his much-deserved late dinner in peace, at long last.  And over all subsequent sittings as well.

(Singapore 1960s)

Friday, 3 May 2013

Rubbish at experimenting (I) (Singapore / London)

As a tomboy and the youngest of five children growing up in a family with two aunts (one maternal, one paternal), three sisters, and two servants, I never had to do much by way of housework.  It was not until I got to 16 that my mother decided it was ridiculous for a girl (note: girl, not boy!) not to be able to cook at all at that age, so she got the servant to teach me to cook some basic stir-fry dishes.  

My first attempt at going solo, brought about by the servant’s day off, produced two dishes.  The stir-fried mange tout (/snow peas) were greasy, limp and dry, with burnt patches.  Greasy because I’d put in too much oil at the beginning.  Burnt, limp and dry because I’d added the water too late, and then too little of it.  The stir-fried pork and French beans came out with the meat rubbery (too much heat and cooked too long) and the whole dish swimming in too much sauce (over-compensated this time by adding too much water).  My siblings came home, took one look at the offerings on the dinner table, and suddenly remembered they all had dinner engagements.

At 12, I was impressed by Yvonne, only two months older than I, producing a jar of cookies, which she said were made by her.  How?!?  She said, “Oh, it’s easy.  Just follow the recipe.”  So, I started collecting recipes and managed to produce cookies and sponge cakes.  

Buoyed by my success, I decided to be more adventurous and try making doughnuts.  Yeast was on the list of ingredients, which I knew, in principle, was the agent used in making bread dough rise.  Where to get it, though?  There were only two Western-style supermarkets in those days, both downtown.  The local population didn’t tend to make dishes that required yeast.  “Oh well,” I thought, “I’m sure excluding one ingredient wouldn’t make that much difference.”  I went ahead and followed the recipe, producing a lump of dough.  The recipe said to leave it in a warm place for it to rise.  In Singapore, everywhere would be “a warm place”, so I left it sitting on the kitchen table.  An hour later, the dough didn’t get any bigger, so I waited another hour, and still nothing happened.  “OK,” I thought, “I’ll help speed up the process,” and took the dough out to the garden and left it in the sun.  One couldn’t find a warmer place than directly under the sun, I thought, so I couldn’t go wrong.  I gave it two hours just to be sure.  At the end of the sunning session, I was left with a hot and rock-hard lump of dough.  Into the rubbish bin it went with a thud.  No further attempts at making doughnuts.

At 18, I went to secretarial school.  One day, a male teacher brought in a jar of an Indian snack—which I nicknamed “worms” after the shape of the pieces—made by his Indian wife.  I asked him for the recipe, which sounded really simple: flour, water, salt, curry powder; mix the lot together; press the lump through a colander, which will produce the “worms”; deep fry; et voilà, a delicious Indian snack is born.  (It is sold in England these days under the generic name of “Bombay mix”; the flour is gram flour, I now know.)  I duly proceeded to make my own delicious “worms”: the first mix produced a dough that was too runny, so I added more flour; it became too dry, so I added more water; that was too runny, so I added more flour.  This went on until I ended up with a lump of dough that was double the size of what I started out with.  Into the rubbish bin it went with a thump.  No more attempts at producing Indian “worms”.

I had my first taste of Spaghetti Bolognese in 1974 when Italian food first sprouted in Singapore (to my knowledge, anyway).  During my second year in Taipei, 1976, I’d go to the Italian restaurant in the Taipei Hilton regularly with Pete, the British geologist (he’s featured in the blog entry Ten dollar, ten dollar), and order Spaghetti Bolognese, visit after visit.  

So, it was only natural that, when I came to London in 1977, I should try and make my own.  (By now, the doughnut and Indian “worms” were not dim memories, they’d been completely forgotten.)  My culinary “skills” were limited to the few cooking lessons from the servant back in 1969.  I now applied the techniques she’d taught me.  Trouble is: the techniques were for stir-frying.  The principles of stir-frying, in case you don’t already know, are (put simplistically): heat up the oil very hot (preferably until the oil starts to smoke), then throw the ingredients in.  I did that for the bolognese, but added too much oil as well, so the minced beef went very crispy as it was basically deep-fried in a pool of very hot oil.  This time, I refused to bin it but crunched my way through the dish, telling myself, “You will remember this horrible taste and never reproduce it.”

Undeterred by the bolognese incident, I went on to try and make curry puffs.  They were commonly available from roadside stalls in Singapore, but not in London—no, I had not heard of samosas (the closest equivalent I can think of to curry puffs, only a different pastry) at that point.  I made the filling, which was a dry curry of cubed chicken and potatoes.  Now, the pastry.  I didn’t realise the full significance of the “puff” element in the name of the dish, thinking it was just part of the name, so I mixed flour and water, and made the skins out of the dough.  The end product was a curry-puff-looking thing but the skin was so hard I had to use a hammer to break in.  I ate the filling, and into the rubbish bin went the cases with a loud clatter.  

People say one shouldn’t try out new dishes on one’s dinner guests.  In my case, I shouldn’t even try them out on myself!

(PS:  I have since discovered deep-frozen, ready-made puff pastry available in some supermarkets, so unlike the doughnut and Indian “worms” experiments, I have made further forays into making curry puffs, and even taught a child with dyslexia and dyscalculia to make some.  Whilst I cannot say I can run a roadside stall selling my curry puffs, they are fun to look at, the way I make them—like tropical fish with dorsal fins—and quite tasty.  Even if I say so myself...)

(Singapore 1960s, London 1977/78)

Rubbish at pretending (London)

Summer last year, three days before I was to go out to the French farm for seven weeks to help out, I discovered a 36-episode Chinese series set in the warlord years of China in the 1930s.  The nearest wifi to the French farm was at a neighbour’s 1km down the road, which I should only use for emergencies and for short intervals, even though they’d said I could go anytime and stay any length of time.  So, being someone who cannot sleep with an unsolved mystery, I had to finish watching the series in London to find out what happened at the end.  On the last day in London, I was watching more episodes in the students’ common room, wiping away the tears surreptitiously, with only one other person, a girl, a few sofas away from me.  Then, I had to go to the loo, and asked the girl to look after my laptop for me.  When I came back, she asked me, “Are you watching a Chinese film?”  I said, “Yes,” then wondered why she’d asked.  A few minutes later, the penny dropped:  she’d been wondering why I’d been crying at my computer.  So, I wasn’t so surreptitious after all.

This recalls an incident in 1985 when an old friend, Jin, came over from Singapore to do a short course at the London Business School.  He’d brought a gift—a cloisonné bowl, specially chosen by his mother.   Jin and I had known each other since our teens, and his mother had always been pleased to see me (more so than she had been about the girls who rang Jin up…).  The first thing he said to me was, “Don’t you dare use it as a pot for a house plant, because it is very expensive!” just as I was thinking the green and white of the spider plant (chlorophytum) would counter the busy and dark patterns of the cloisonné nicely.  I put on what I thought was my best happy response, making a big show of pleasure and gratitude, “Oh, Jin!  It is beautiful!!  Please say thank you to your mum for going to so much trouble.”  Jin and I had known each other since our teens, and his mother had always been pleased to see me.

When Jin’s course came to an end, his wife came over to join him for a tour of Europe.  I met her for a coffee, and the first thing she said was, “When Jin rang his mother the evening after he’d given you the bowl, he said to her, ‘Mom, she didn’t like the bowl.’”  So, I didn’t fool him after all with my big show of a happy response.

(London 2012, 1985)

Chinese etiquette: hospitality (SIngapore)

Just before my departure for London, my uncle’s wife told me: “I’ve heard that in the West, if a guest dropped in unexpectedly just before dinner time, the host would excuse himself to go and eat his meal, and leave the guest sitting alone in the living room.”  

This is something that would never happen to an unexpected guest in a Chinese household.  In my house, one of the family would suddenly be “going out for the night”, to ensure that there’d be enough food for the guest.  I was often that member of the family, sitting quietly in my bedroom in the annexe until the guest left (I was meant to be “out for the night”, see), before going to the kitchen to see if there might be any food left.  If not, I’d go out to the roadside stalls and get some takeaway.

Some people would take advantage of this and deliberately visit just before dinner time, or arrive an hour or two before, then stay and stay until it was time for dinner, at which point the host would have no alternative but to invite the guest to join the family for dinner.  One of my maternal uncles, who lived with us until after his second child was born, had such a friend during his bachelor days.  This friend would arrive around 4pm, knowing that we’d be eating at 6pm or 6.30pm.  In the end, we gave him the nickname of “Long Bum”, referring to his hanging around on and on and on until it was time for dinner.  The only counteraction would be to delay serving dinner, but then you’d go hungry as you try and out-wait him, with the meal going cold in the meantime.

(Singapore 1960s)

Chicken or egg?

The Chinese for the verb “to memorise” is 背 bèi, which is “back” as a noun.  In ancient China, when a child (practically always a boy) started his education, the tutor would hand him the Four Books and the Five Classics (四书五经 sì shū wǔ jīng), the standard foundation set on which to start off one’s education.  The pupil would go away and memorise the nine tomes, without understanding a single word.  He would go back to the tutor and, turning his back to the books, would start his recitation.  If he couldn’t remember a section or a line or even a word, he would be sent off, and return later, with this process repeating itself until he was word perfect.  Then, the tutor would declare him ready to start his lesson proper, and he would sit down.  The tutor would then be able to pluck anything out of the nine tomes, e.g., “In Mencius, Chapter xx, when Mencius said yy to the king…”, the pupil should be able to call up the cited section as the tutor analysed the meaning behind the words.  That was the reason for the pupil to be word perfect.

In the 50-episode Korean drama, set in the 1400s to 1500s, that I’ve been watching on DVD, there is a scene where the woman on the exile island, who was a brilliant healer, handed the heroine a huge pile of medical texts and asked her to go and memorise them.  The heroine said, “What?!  Memorise all this?!?”  The miracle worker said, “Yes.”  The heroine said, “Oh well, I can ask you about anything I don’t understand.”  The miracle worker said, “No, you will automatically understand once you have memorised it all.”

So, chicken or egg?  Do you understand the meaning behind the text once you know the wording of the text, or do you remember the wording once you start to understand the meaning?

Passive resistance (Singapore)

I have never been a “fight” person, being more instinctively a “flight” one.  It is certainly not in my upbringing, as a girl, to fight, even if only metaphorically.  It had always been drilled into me that one didn’t behave like a fishwife -- this was, of course, doled out only to the girls; the boys were not actively encouraged to fight, but they were not held back either, and certainly not with such deterrents as “undignified behaviour”.

On the odd occasion when I did have to “fight” for what I wanted, I’d go for the middle way—that must be the Libran bit in me, then.  When I was 10, the girl next door invited me over for a game of Monopoly, but when I asked my mother for permission (yes, we had to ask for permission to do practically anything), she said no.  There was really no reason for her refusal, because I’d done my homework (not that she ever played any rôle in supervising my life, least of all schoolwork) and it was the school holidays.  So, at lunch time, with my mother and I being the only two at home, I put in a presence but didn't touch the food.  My trump card was my acidic stomach condition, brought on by years of not eating breakfast (the time was more precious for an extra few minutes in bed).  Sure enough, this attracted my mother’s notice, “Why are you not eating?”  “Because you won’t let me go next door to play.”  Instant result!

Some 40 years later, on a visit home, my mother recounted a similar incident (not triggered by recollections of the one-meal "hunger strike", as I’ve never referred to it, not wanting her to get wise to my wiles, even though I’m no longer a little girl now…).  Apparently, when I was aged four and out with my mother somewhere, we walked past a shop which had some “masak masak” sets displayed on the trestle tables at the front.  (“Masak” is a Malay word meaning “to cook”, so these toy cooking sets were called “masak masak”; ditto the children’s game of cooking.)  I wanted one of those sets, but my mother said no, so I sat down on the pavement, most likely—even at that early age—knowing full well that it would be frightfully embarrassing for her, as the pavement would be dirty, for one thing.  Instant result again.

So, it looks like passive resistance, rather than fight, is more my style, even going back to when I was four.

(Singapore 1950s/1960s)

Chinese etiquette: what to serve (or not serve) guests (Singapore)

One of the reasons the Chinese don’t invite people home for a meal is based on the modesty rule:  one’s amateur cooking is not good enough for the guest, one’s home is not grand enough to entertain guests.  So, people usually meet outside.  However, should a guest be invited home for dinner on the odd occasion, or an unexpected guest arrive just before dinner time, one has to make sure that the ingredients are up to “guest-entertaining” scratch.  Therefore, no bean sprouts, for they are, in the East anyway, one of the cheapest foods around:  in the 1960s, one could get a pound or two (in weight) of them for 10 cents (Singapore money, which was S$8 to £1).

Chinese dried mushrooms were, and still are to this day, very expensive, so they were usually brought out only on such occasions, in addition to special occasions like Chinese New Year.  Such was the frugal practice in my house that years later, when the children were grown up and all working and contributing towards housekeeping, if my father came home and found dried mushrooms served up for dinner, he would say, “Dried mushrooms!  Someone coming for dinner then?”

(Singapore 1960s)