Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Sound of Singapore.

In my last post I mentioned that I was born in Singapore. There's been quite a bit of reporting from that country of late on The World, as their correspondent Patrick Cox sends in stories on the island nation. The last, aired on Friday, was about the country's unique expression of the English language: Singlish.

Here's the link to listen to the report, and some samples of that language.

All I can say is, in the school I attended, teachers didn't encourage Singlish. Some of them simply wouldn't tolerate it. For me, it was just one of several "languages," dialects and other variants I spoke growing up. "Proper" English at school and most of the time at home. A smattering of Peranakan Malay with my paternal grandmother. A dash of Cantonese with my maternal grandmother and our maid. A forced dose of Mandarin as my mandatory second language in school. And of course, Singlish, as the company or occasion demanded. I also understood a tiny bit of two other Chinese dialects, Hokkien and Teochew, widely used in Singapore. This was not at all unusual: most Singaporeans switch from one language or dialect to another without batting an eyelash.

For all this, it pains me to say that today it is only my first language with which I am very comfortable. When necessary, I can stumble through rudimentary Mandarin and Cantonese. But fortunately, great expressions and phrases in Singlish are easy to recall.

One example: catch no ball

A word-for-word translation of a Hokkien phrase liak bo kyew, it's used when someone is trying to say they don't comprehend something. For example, if a math teacher launches into an explanation of some esoteric concept, a student who failed to grasp it could mutter, "Sir, (I) catch no ball!" Isn't that a great expression? So economical!

Here are more examples of Singlish.

And this is a linguist's take on Singlish on Wikipedia.

So, like dat, lah!

Asian Mothers and Daughters, In the Kitchen.

"Your mother is in your bones!"
- Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club

This morning, I watched the delightful Australian chef Kylie Kwong on the the Discovery Home Channel. Kylie is fourth-generation Chinese.

This morning’s episode of Simply Magic was entitled A Chinese Family: Mothers and Daughters.

Mum stepped in to Kylie’s kitchen, and I’m telling you – the exchange was déjà vu for just about every Asian daughter.

As she toasted sesame seeds to toss in a pickled celery salad, Kylie said if her Mum ever gave her "a certain look," she’d be reduced to the size of a sesame seed, in seconds. Asian daughters everywhere, I ask you, does this not resonate?

When offered a cup of tea. Mum promptly asked for a simpler vessel, saying the proffered cup was too special and she was afraid to break it. Asian daughters know that sentiment well, getting frustrated because Mother refuses to use the new sheets or tablecloth or blouse or china they sent, because it’s too special.

Daughters also know that competition and conflict with Mother can translate itself into culinary tasks with mother is in the kitchen, as Kylie demonstrated in a mashed potato challenge.

Mum made her mash the way most of us do, boiling potatoes, draining, mashing with the old trust masher and adding butter and milk. Just one pot to wash.

Kylie's method involved steaming potatoes (boiling makes the spuds absorb too much water, she said) for 35 minutes, then running them through her French mouli, (food mill). Next, she melted French butter, and heated milk. “Cold milk shocks the potatoes,” she said. Mum: “I didn’t know potatoes could be shocked.” Setting her mouli over the milk and butter, she turned the handle and the mashed potato fell into the creamy mix.

The judgement came from Mrs. Kwong’s granddaughter, Indy. In favor of Kylie. Then Indy slyly said, “Kylie, can I have my money now?”

Precious. If only all mother-daughter exchanges in the kitchen could be so innocuous!

Watch Kylie's show if you can. The dishes are simple, very healthy, traditional but with a modern Asia-Pacific twist, and gorgeous.

(L: Stir-fried King prawns)

I think you’ll really enjoy her warmth and self-effacing of humor. She's not corny, and doesn't show off. Apart from Ming Tsai and Martin Yan, I can’t think of any other Chinese chefs on TV. What a shame the Food Network can’t find any time in a whole week of oft-repeated shows to work in a measly half hour of Asian cooking.

Asian Mothers and Daughters, Part 2

(Part 2 is made necessary by Blogger's 200-character limit on each post)

Mrs. Kwong made the point that her mashed potatoes made use of a trusty old pot and a masher that cost only a few dollars, and involved a lot less washing up. Beat that, Kylie, she all but said.

In so many movies involving Asian families, scenes involving food are memorable, because that area really is where the raw elements in relationships are distilled. Often, Mother knows best, and there is simply no other way. Daughter may grudgingly go along with it as she struggles with her life lesson of the moment, at complete odds with what she has heard all her life from Mother.

As for my own Asian background, I’m Straits Chinese, also known as Perankan, Baba and Nonya, from Singapore. The short-form description of my culture: after the British established its three settlements in the Straits of Malacca, immigrants poured in to Penang, Malacca and Singapore. Some of the men from southern China married the local Malay women, and the resulting blend of cultures became separate and distinct. The language was a patois of Malay with Hokkien (Fujian) inflections, the women wore the sarong kebaya, which looks more Malay than Chinese.

As for Peranakan food, it's a fabulous blend of Chinese and Malay ingredients and techniques. It’s a very time-consuming to prepare this food, with a ridiculous amount of attention given to prep and mise-en-place. Back in the day, Nonya matchmakers would arrive at a prospective bride’s home in the mid-morning, when the girl would be preparing lunch; the matchmaker (and sometimes, the mother-in-law to be) would listen to the sound of the mortar and pestle (lesong) and were said to be able to tell from that alone if the young lady was a good cook. So, it boiled down to these factors – was she strong enough to wield a heavy granite pestle, could she cook well, and bear numerous sons?

Naturally, once the girl married into a family her actions were scrutinized, and many a conflict would play itself out in the kitchen.

I say, so long as the skills are passed on from one generation to another, c’est la vie, eh?

I plan to get Kylie's books soon.

From everything I've seen and read, her books are as beautiful as they are good. They are: