“Peranakan culture, my Grandmother and I” by Dominic Ang

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Photograph of Mama and Kong Kong at a relative’s wedding dinner. Photograph contributed by Adeline Yuksel

The Peranakan culture is a mystery to me and I am unaware of its origins, historical context, and influence in the lives people back then.The only glimpse I had of it was through my grandmother (bless her soul) who lived with my family and I since I was a baby until I turned 9.

Yet even so, she hardly spoke of her culture and heritage and the best memories I’ve had of this dying culture was purely visual through my grandmother’s dressing, cooking, and lifestyle. I have countless vivid memories of spending time with my beloved grandmother as a child, but as my memory serves me well, there were a few which stood out to me.

My grandmother was an excellent cook, and by Jove she was! Almost every evening she cooked up a storm of spicy, tantalizing dishes that just made your mouth water. Among the many dishes she created, there was one in particular that I still crave for – it is known as Ba Chang, glutinous rice in the shape of a pyramid with pork stuffing. Now the process to make this was no easy task. It took her half a day to make just a few batches but the really interesting aspect of it was how she made it. I must say now that what I am about to describe is purely based on memory

My grandmother was very secretive and always demanded her personal space when cooking. Even I as her grandson was not allowed to sneak a peek. “Tak mou cachou!” she said.

In order to set up the scene for making the Ba Chang, my grandmother would take 3 bamboo poles and tie them in such a way that they formed a skeletal pyramid. She would then begin mixing all the ingredients in a bowl while seated on a stool. I recall her kneading the rice dough away endlessly and cutting the pork slices. I especially enjoyed it when she wrapped the finished product in banana leaves and hung them with raffia string on the bamboo poles. Up till now I can still taste it and I shall say that even though I can get this easily at the food court of a Singapore mall, they just do not taste the same as my grandmother’s. Thinking about all the other recipes that my grandmother concocted, I do regret that she did not pass them on to any of her daughters (she was secretive, as I mentioned). There is just nothing like learning from the chef herself, but sad to say many Peranakan recipes died with my grandmother.

Well, what about me? What experiences do I recall about myself relative to my grandmother’s life? Being a young child I was of course playful and ignorant to the adult “way of life” and so what I describe here is from my childhood’s perspective. My grandmother was very loving and kind, and living in a house where she had only two grandchildren to spoil, I was privileged to be one of them! When I turned 7 I entered the next phase of my education in Primary School. My mother saw this as an important step in my growing up and she decided to make some changes in my life (and big changes they were to me!). All along I had been drinking milk from the bottle with the pacifier attached to it (I don’t know why I found it SO addictive), but now my mother told me I was a “big boy” and it was time to drink milk from the cup. I clearly recall this being implemented on my very first day at my new school. And when I returned that day I started craving for milk like every other day. I headed for the refrigerator and guess who was there with a fresh bottle of milk WITH the pacifier attached to it? Yes, it was none other then my grandmother just waiting to spoil me again! It is such a laugh until now. I remembered telling my grandmother that “mummy said I shouldn’t drink from the bottle” but I failed to see that the person I was talking to was the mother of my mother. My grandmother simply brushed my comment aside and told me cheekily to drink it quietly in the corner. And so I did. What a laugh it was!

Well, these are but some of the things I recall about my dear grandmother. When writing this article I begin to think about how I could have learnt a thing or two from my grandmother. It has me regretting that I didn’t but I suppose I cannot blame myself since I was at such a tender age. As I mentioned, my knowledge of the Peranakan culture is little to none. However I will say that even though it is the community that informs culture, it is up to individuals to pass on that heritage. Perhaps other Peranakans of my grandmother’s time did choose to pass on what little they knew, but as a proud grandson I emphatically say that my grandmother was a true Nyonya in every way.

Dominic Ang holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Canterbury. His accolades include winning the 2012 Toastmasters International Speech Contest (Division G) in Christchurch, New Zealand. Dominic is also a specialist in public speaking and speech training. To contact Dominic for speech training/public speaking classes, please contact me.

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