Saturday, 22 August 2015

How to dent male chauvinistic behaviour (Singapore)

My father absolutely loved parties.  When he was put in charge of my maternal grandparents’ grocery shop, he used to rope the villagers in for a drink and titbits, all grabbed off the shelves, once the shop was shut for the day.  

Chinese entertainment style is to have cooked dishes served up one at a time, piping hot, fresh from the wok, without any rice*.  So, my father would make the two shop employees stay behind and cook the food, which produced a lot of grumbling in the kitchen.

When he was found to be hopeless at managing the shop, and was relieved of that post, he transferred his partying to his home, with the womenfolk taking the place of the two shop employees.

He’d set up a big round table in the living room, complete with a lazy Susan.  The women (my mother, paternal aunt, maternal aunt, us four daughters, the two servant girls) would be slaving away in the kitchen.  

Once the men had had time to settle down and take their first sip of alcohol, we’d serve up the first dish.  We’d then retire to the kitchen and quickly eat whatever had been put aside for us, keeping an eye in the meantime on how far the men had got with the first dish, to be ready to cook and serve the second dish.  Sometimes, instead of putting aside some food for ourselves before serving up the dish, we’d eat whatever of the previous dish the men might’ve failed to polish off, which would mean us eating only after they’d had their fill of the dish.

This would go on, dish after dish, with us snatching fleeting feeding moments behind the scenes.  It might be a party at home, but the number of dishes would easily run up to eight, if not the standard ten for a banquet.  Serving five dishes over the span of an evening’s entertaining just didn’t seem hospitable enough.

One day, my second sister, the rebellious one, who was in her late teens at the time, refused to take any more of this treatment.  “We’re the ones doing all the work.  Why should we eat behind the scenes and between courses, sometimes even only the leftovers, like servants?”  

She went to the living room, pulled up a chair and sat down at the table.  The men’s eyebrows went up.  Annoyed, my father asked: “What are you doing here?!?”

“Well, I have worked very hard, helping to cook all this food, so I think I have earned the right to sit down at the table and eat it comfortably.”

Shamed by this, the men’s memory was suddenly jolted:  “Oh, where’s your wife?  She should be sitting down, eating with us too.”

My father never held another men-only party after that.

(Singapore 1960s)

*Rice is the cheap and filling ingredient, which the host would not serve for fear of being thought miserly.  At a proper banquet, the rice dish (a fried rice) is usually Course No.8 of 10 courses, in case the guests are still hungry after all the meat and seafood.

Monday, 17 August 2015

The hidden message in Chinese food 06: consuming vinegar (Taiwan)

Another Conoco Taiwan local staff lunch outing was to a dumpling restaurant.  I was absolutely amazed at how many dumplings my colleagues could each eat.  Even the women could eat something like 25 of them at one sitting.

The simplest dip for dumplings is soya sauce and vinegar (醋 cù).  One can also add one or all of the following: chilli oil, sesame oil, garlic paste, ginger, chopped spring onion, coriander.  Anything that one fancies really, I guess.

My youngest colleague, Mary Fu, then only 21, had her saucer filled with something like one part soya sauce and four parts vinegar.  

Cray, as usual, immediately remarked, “哇,你很会吃醋!wa, nǐ hěn huì chī cù / Wow, you very much know how to eat vinegar.”  

This was an obvious pun, because 吃醋 chī cù / “eat vinegar” in Chinese means “to get jealous”, so Cray was saying to Mary, “You get jealous easily (You’re very good at eating vinegar).”

Mary’s instant response was, 我只会吃湿醋,不会吃干醋 / wǒ zhǐ huì chī shī cù, bù huì chī gān cù / “I only know how to eat wet vinegar, not dry vinegar”.

(Taiwan 1975)

The hidden message in Chinese food 05: eating bean curd (Taiwan)

As already mentioned in another blog, the lunch outings for the local staff at Conoco Taiwan often had ten, if not 12, people at the table.  

On one occasion, there was no lazy Susan on the table, for some reason.  The accountant, Cray Chang, who was sitting at the other side of the big table from me, asked me, looking at the bean curd dish placed in front of me, “我可以吃你的豆腐吗?wǒ kěyǐ chī nǐ de dòufǔ ma? / Can I eat your bean curd?”  Because Chinese meals are communal, I happily said, “Of course you can!”  

Everyone roared with laughter.  Cray’s assistant Peggy said, “You’ve walked into his trap!”

It turned out that 吃豆腐 chī dòufǔ / “eat bean curd” means “[a man] taking advantage of [a woman]”, usually in the sexual way.  

Some 20-odd years later, in my middle age (and therefore less easily embarrassed about such things), I discovered the imagery behind this phrase:  bean curd has the same texture as a woman’s breasts.

(Taiwan 1975)

The hidden message in Chinese food 04: carrying a whole watermelon in one’s arms (Taiwan)

One day in the summer, I went out for a quick simple lunch in the back alley with the accountant Cray Chang (the one who gave me the advice featured in the blog entry Gender Politics) and his assistant Peggy Lü.  

On the way back, I decided to buy a watermelon for everyone in the office to share.  The head count came to 8 bosses, 8 secretaries, and 4 drivers, so I bought the biggest one I could see.  

The accountant offered to carry it for me, and I said, “No, it's all right.  I can carry it in my arms.”  In Chinese, for carrying something in one’s arms (e.g., a baby, a big bundle), embrace-fashion, the verb is 抱 bào.  Cray immediately said, “不行,你还没结婚,你不能抱西瓜 / No, it won’t do.  You’re not married, you can’t carry a watermelon.”  抱西瓜 bào xīguā is one of the Taiwanese euphemisms for being pregnant.

(Taiwan 1975)

The hidden message in Chinese food 03: making a coy announcement (Taiwan)

For the two years that Conoco Taiwan was drilling off the west coast of Taiwan, it was decided that it would be much easier to fly over from Singapore (the hub for the oil wells in Indonesian/Malaysian waters) all the oil rig personnel, because of the hassle involved in getting them visas and accommodation in Taiwan.

The men worked two-week shifts on the rig, so there was a fortnightly flight carrying them from, then back to, Singapore on the company’s Electra plane.  

The Singapore office would throw in a black doctor’s medical bag containing correspondence between the Singapore and Taipei offices.  This didn’t take up much room, so my eldest sister (who was at the time the geological secretary in the Singapore office) would throw in all sorts of goodies for me:  a scarf/hat/shawl set knitted by her for me, and other things that I wouldn’t be able to get in Taiwan.  

One day, a packet of durian* sweets turned up in the bag, so I went round the office, offering them to my colleagues.  They said, “Oh, are you treating us to sweets?” which, in Chinese, is: 请吃糖 qǐng chī táng / “treat eat sugar”.  The Chinese make a lot of remarks that a Brit would find too obvious (and therefore totally unnecessary), such as “Ah, you’ve come back” / “Ah, you’re home”, so I thought nothing of it, and said, “Yes!”  Everyone laughed and asked me when the happy event would be taking place.  

It turned out that the Chinese way of announcing one’s engagement is to offer sweets to friends and colleagues.  

If one wanted to know when a friend or colleague would be getting married, one would ask, "When are you going to treat us to some sweets?"(什么时候请我们吃糖啊? shénme shíhòu qǐng wǒmen chī táng ah?

*durian: a spiky tropical fruit the size of a rugby ball that’s native to S.E.Asia.  Regarded by the locals as the “king of fruits”, it is similar to cheese in the intense love/hate feelings it arouses.

(Taiwan, 1975)

Friday, 7 August 2015

The hidden message in Chinese food 02: how to sack an employee (Taiwan)

When I was working at Conoco Taiwan (1975–76), the staff would go out regularly to eat at restaurants as a group, often numbering ten or even 12.  We’d have a lazy Susan* on the table, so that everyone would be able to reach all the dishes.  

On one occasion, my boss, the Chief Geologist Dr. Page, came along, so we ordered a whole Chinese roast duck.  It came with all the slices laid out in the middle of the platter, and the head, wings, and parson’s nose in the same respective positions as on the real bird.  One of my colleagues twirled the lazy Susan and everyone waited until it came to a halt, then the rest of them laughed at the person the head of the duck was facing.  

It was explained to Dr. Page and me, the two outsiders, that if an employer wanted to remove a particular employee, he’d instruct the waiter to serve the duck dish with the head pointing at the person about to be sacked.  

My immediate thought was I hoped the duck dish would come last, so that at least the poor person could eat his/her meal in blissful ignorance of his/her impending fate.

(Event happened Taiwan, 1975)

* lazy Susan:  “a revolving stand or tray on a table, used esp. for holding condiments.”