Saturday, 16 August 2014

Figs for goitre (American: goiter) (Singapore)

The Chinese name for figs is 无花果 wúhuāguǒ / “not-have flower fruit”.

We initially got these two grafted fig trees for the shade their big leaves could provide our kitchen from the fierce tropical sun, no more.  The variety out in S.E. Asia (don't know about other Asian countries) doesn't have serrated leaves that the European ones do but straight edges.

All we knew was that one could dry the huge leaves, then boil them for drinking as a cooling tea (凉茶 liángchá).  Cooling teas are common throughout S.E. Asia, not for cooling down externally from the tropical heat, but for cooling down the internal heat built up from the air temperature, as well as from eating food that’s too “heaty” or yáng 阳 (yáng 阳 as in yīn 阴 and yáng 阳), e.g., deep fried food, or food of a yáng nature (such as durian).  We also used the green leaves for wrapping up fish that we used to get in huge quantities (my father worked as a bookkeeper at a wholesale fishery place, so we got the unsold ones for free or at greatly discounted prices) to give to friends and relatives.

Throughout the year, the trees would produce clusters of fruit that would go from green to brown, shrivel up, then drop off.  We had to sweep them up and burn them in our garden bonfire (allowed in those early days).  

Twice a year — mid year and end of year — during the ripening seasons, the clusters of fruit would ripen, turning deep maroon and attracting lots of birds, then insects when the birds left big gaping holes in the fruit.  Whatever was not eaten by the birds would drop off, leaving a pulpy mess on the ground, with more insects buzzing around the piles, which made clearing up quite an odious task.  We also had to leave them to dry in the sun for longer before burning as they were so wet.  We used to curse and swear at the trees for giving us all this work.

One day, a little old lady turned up at our gate, asking if she could have some of our figs.  Yes, certainly, we said, but learning from the 灵芝 língzhī lesson (see blog entry: The Tree Fungus), we decided to ask up front this time, “What do you want them for?”  

She said her granddaughter was suffering from a serious case of goitre (called “big neck frame” in my dialect), so bad that her eyes were full of pus and swelled up until she couldn’t see.

When it first happened, the family took her to the (Western medicine) doctor, who said she had to have surgery, and it would be S$600 — as a point of reference, my third sister’s salary as a bank clerk some six years later was S$160 / month.  They agreed, even though the Chinese generally don't like having their bodies cut up.  

Back it came three months later, equally serious.  Back to the doctor.  Another operation.  Another 600 dollars.  

Another three months later, it returned, equally bad.  The family decided that even if they had a bottomless wallet, they couldn’t let her be cut up every three months, so they started asking around.  Someone said to let her eat figs for breakfast, lunch and dinner, nothing else.  So, the old lady went around looking for fig trees, and found us.  We gave her two sack loads, and started eating figs ourselves, recommending and giving them to neighbours, friends and relatives too.  

Six months later, the old lady came back for another lot.  Her granddaughter’s condition had improved hugely:  the eyes didn’t swell up this time, no pus, the relapse was six months later, not three months later like before.  

We gave her another two sack loads, and never saw her again.  

I cannot be entirely sure that she hadn’t decided she couldn’t keep coming back to us for more figs and managed to source another supplier, but I’d like to think that it was because her granddaughter’s goitre had been cured for good by our figs.

(Singapore, mid-60s)

The tree fungus (Singapore)

灵芝 língzhī (ganoderma*) is a tree fungus which is much prized for its near-magical healing properties.  

芝 zhī is the ganoderma bit.  灵 líng, as a noun, means “spirit” and adjectivally, it means “effective” (for cures in particular), among other things.  As demonstrated by the “spirit” and “effective” definitions, 灵 is almost synonymous with “magical” or “miraculous” when used in the name of this tree fungus.  灵芝 is gold dust in Chinese medicine or dried mushroom terms.  They are featured in carvings on gift boxes or decorative boxes, in sculpted paintings or paintings in relief that the Chinese like hanging on the wall, and often look like bonsai trees in these representations.

There’re classical Chinese stories featuring people having to steal 灵芝 from the heavily guarded gardens of the Heavenly Emperor at great risk to their own lives to save an ailing parent (usually a mother) on the point of near death.  I only knew it as a name as a child, and as a vague image from the films.  

We had three casuarina trees in our front garden at home, one of which had a semi-circular woody growth sticking out of the lower part of its trunk, about half an inch thick.  It was so hard that I could play entertaining as a child and put my toy cups on it.  
One day, a man rang our bell and asked us if he could have it.  It’d always sat there, sticking out of the tree trunk, doing nothing, and we didn’t know what to do with it, so we broke it off and gave it to him.  A few months (or years??) later, it grew back to its former size, and the man came again.  Each time, he’d give us a box of chocolate to thank us.  After a couple more times, we asked him what he wanted it for.  He said it was to be used as a Chinese medicinal ingredient.  We didn’t know enough about Chinese medicinal ingredients, so we just let him have it.  About four months ago, some 50 years on, it suddenly struck me that it might be 灵芝.  Googling it produced the image of that semi-circular woody growth in our casuarina tree trunk.  We could’ve made a lot of money from it, but didn’t recognise its value at the time.

(Singapore, mid-60s)

* Ganoderma is a genus of polypore mushrooms which grow on wood, and include about 80 species, many from tropical regions.