大年初一 (the first day)

I was awoken by the sharp ringing of the home phone. The sun was shining in, and I stirred, pillow and blankets still piled atop of my face.

Still blundered in a slight food coma from the reunion dinner last night, and face heavy from staying up late, I peeled myself off from the sheets. 

..before it hit me. 

It was the first day of the lunar new year. And for all my fellow chinese out there, we all know what this means.

Red pockets.

A visit from that one grand uncle and grand aunty that we only see one time each year.

Air conditioning. (absolute necessity in singapore)

Bak kwa (singaporean glazed pork jerky).

More snacking.

Mandarins.

More snacking.

Grandma was still quietly snoozing this morning, her thin, frail engine slowly humming awake.

 The coffee table was arranged with multiple red-lidded plastic containers (the iconic chinese new year symbol) filled with all sorts of traditional new year cookies and snacks. In the middle sat a plate of golden orange mandarins, a symbol of wealth and prosperity.

If you ask me, the snacking and cookies (aside from the reunion of family and relatives), are by far my favourite part of Chinese New Year (i’d even dare say it nearly surpasses the red pockets!).

Almond crunch cookie (second favourite behind peanut candy)
Sunflower seed biscuit

These were some of my favourites this year, however my number one still being the simple peanut candy- made solely of crushed peanuts and malt, it is baked to a delectably crispy, nutty sheet, and then sliced into little bite sized crunchy squares, which makes yo’ girl here smile silly. 

As imagineable, any effort of clean eating and dieting during this festive season…Actually that doesn’t even exist in the Chinese New Year vocabulary.

 Most people speak in 4 syllable chinese idioms today, extending their happy and warm wishes for the new year, all while sipping on fizzy cherry and orange F&N soda, peeling mandarin oranges, and munching on yummy snacks. 

We are all not to sweep or mop the floors today, to make sure good luck and prosperity for the new year will not be ‘swept away’. 

We sit around the couch watching a classic Stephen Chow movie with grandma, awaiting our next visit from relatives.

 It is quiet, but homely and warm.

Advertisements

Reunion.

It was quarter to 6pm, on the eve of the lunar new year.

I stuck my face out of the window- the air was cooling down, sun rays sobering to a sunset. 

There were few joggers and people downstairs, one by one returning home as the minutes ticked by and dinnertime rolled around.

The dinner table was set, a round hot pot with soup, surrounded by plates filled with ingredients- prawns, meat and fish, fresh raw veg, a platter of assorted mushrooms, cuttlefish paste balls, fish tofu.

We all took our places at the table, soup in the pot starting to simmer. It was time for reunion dinner, a time to celebrate strong family ties that last, no matter where in the world we may be.

 Growing up in Singapore, reunion dinners when I was younger meant walking over to grandma’s house, or hopping into a car and stepping into some restaurant. But now, living in another continent altogether and being able to return home for reunion dinner has given it so much more meaning. 

With chopsticks in hand and soup in bowl, all of us ate heartily and happily, a dinner together.

Our reunion dinner.

除夕夜

家家户户都团圆,

火锅里面煮鱼圆。

家里大小看电视, 

耐心等待过新年。

(自己写出的除夕诗, 我已经很久没用中文写短文了, 所以请读者多多包含以下的错误和不通顺的地方嘿嘿😅)

今晚在新加坡跟嬷嬷,父母和佣人度过除夕夜。家里虽然不多人, 但是气氛还是从满温暖, 幸福的感觉。由于我们一家都移民到澳大利亚, 所以跟住在新加坡的嬷嬷重逢的机会挺难得。我们都尽量飞回来陪老人家迎接新年, 给家里的气氛加热闹,制造美好的回忆。

今天是除夕, 在外面的超市场,商店等等都人山人海, 学生都提早放学与朋友逛逛街, 大人都提早下班着着急急地在超市临时买材料, 赶着回家准备团圆饭。

今天的天气炎热, 跟前几天比起来, 太阳终于露出它的真面目, 晒得特别光。我们在下午两点多踏进家门口; 嬷嬷非常清醒地躺在沙发上, 脑海里充满着深入的感想。

我趴在地上, 大理石又凉又滑。老妈坐在周围的椅子, 手握这电视机的遥控器。

我们看了一个下午的春节节目, 都是听着艺人唱金时代的新年歌。虽然表演稍微老土, 但是多少都有一些熟悉, 舒服的感觉, 因为歌曲都是以前在新加坡上小学时被逼唱过的新年歌嘿嘿 ^_^。

嬷嬷看着电视上的字幕跟着一起唱新年歌, 声音虽然没以前那么洪亮, 但听起来都依然可爱, 美丽。

老豆在厨房与佣人一起忙着准备今晚吃团圆火锅的材料; 厨房里露出了煎炒, 切菜的声音。五颜六色的材料一盘一盘地从厨房被端出摆在餐桌上, 围绕着热汤滚滚的火锅; 有肉, 有虾,有鱼, 各种蘑菇, 弹性爽口的鱼圆, 鱿鱼圆, 大包菜, 绿色的青菜。

大家都带着快乐的心情和空空的肚子开饭, 把桌上的材料吃得津津有味。家人都有说有笑的, 一边吃饭, 一边享受温馨的时刻, 享受彼此的陪伴。

现在都十点多了, 家里都没有守岁的习惯, 但自己吃了饭候又把一大堆的新年饼和糕点往嘴里塞, 肚子添得非常涨 (不过十分满足), 所以暂时还不能躺下来。

嬷嬷现在仍然坐在沙发上看新闻, 看看目前在新加坡牛车水的情况。虽然家里都没有什么特别的节目或活动, 也没有什么鲜艳的布置, 但除夕夜过得平静, 简单也是一种享福。

非常感激上帝一直以来的保护和帮助, 好让我们一家都平平安安, 健健康康, 顺顺利利地度过了猴年, 现在还有机会团聚迎接鸡年。

祝贺大家新年快乐, 身心健康, 出入平安。

🐓🐔🐣
 

Rochor 

If there is one place that bleeds “singaporean heartland”, it has to be Albert Centre.

A 3-storey food and provision centre sits around the back of Bugis street, its main lane now populated with red tarp tents as makeshift stalls, eager vendors desperate to clear off Chinese New Year goods before the long festive holiday.

It was just after 2pm when I climbed up the steps entering Albert Centre, many tables now left with food scraps, styrofoam plates, cups and utensils; the obvious aftermath of war between the lunch crowd.

 In the corner, a thin, hunched little old lady stood with her armour- a flimsy rubber apron and dish trolley, ready to tackle the battlefield. Her hands swiftly swiped scraps into a bin.

Even though it wasnt peak period, the centre was still full of movement. Many stalls were closed for the Chinese New Year, however some were still open and with God’s blessing, I was able to satisfy my afternoon hanger with some of Singapore’s most nutritious hawker dish- fish soup (鱼片汤).

Angel Horse Fish Soup- okay the stall name is a little bit strange, but I assure you that they serve fish, and only Batang fish, in light broth, complemented with egg tofu, crisp lettuce, bitter gourd and seaweed. 

I’d opted for the medium portion, which cost me 5 dollars. But it was 5 dollars for a huge bowl of soup, very generously filled with large, silky, succulent hunks of fish slices. The soup was the real winner; sweet from the essence of good quality Batang.

And as usual, yo’ girl cannot survive without her chilli, and what I love about this place was that it served small cut red chillis in Teochew bean sauce (tau jio), in place of regular soy sauce. 

After the late noon feeds, I knew I had to venture upstairs, where one would find scoop-and-weigh provision shops, selling all sorts of traditional chinese sundried goods, nuts and lollies from my childhood for a price per kilogram.

The lift door opened and i’m not going to lie-I expected to step into chaos, but the shops were emptier than I was mentally prepared for. This was strange, it is usually crowded, but I guess times are tough this year, and the New Year businesses have slightly slipped.

Nevertheless, the floor was still speckled with pistachio shells, ginko nut shells and various bits and pieces of rubbish left by customers coming by and conveniently poppin’ a couple of nuts and seeds as they shopped- it was free sampling after all. 

These shops aren’t your usual scoop-and-weigh however, and there certainly arent any machines to print neat little labels for your package.

No, the provision shop seemed to run solely on human precision and accuracy, and usually one or two main servers held the shovel, very quickly dealing out packs of products, accurate to the nearest gram.(there was 1 single weighing scale wedged between the sellers, and they werent as frequently consulted)

The entire shop was an artist’s paint palette; and each plastic sack was a well on the palette, filled to the brim with vibrant colour from dried goods- somehow ordered and grouped systematically. 

All the bright reds, yellows and oranges seemed to be sweet, mainly used for sweet soups and desserts; chinese red dates, rose candies, dried persimmons and crystalised rock sugars.

The deep purples and greys were varieties of dried sour plum and prunes, ready to be consumed like candy.

It was a damp, musty, yet fruity smell, somewhat like an old cupboard. But it was a subtle sort of scent, one that didn’t abuse your nostrils. 

 I shuffled my way across the tight walking paths within the store (squeezing past a couple of nosy old ladies who were haggling), and found its savoury side- the colour scheme now more dull and organic. 

There were all sorts of sea creatures, exotically wrinkled and preserved with salt. Alien-like dried squid were stacked in a pile, brittle and stringy, its dried beaks flat and tentacles curled from dehydration. 

Millions of shiny eye balls stared straight back as me as I looked into the plastic sack filled with dried anchovies(Ikan Billis). 

Boxes of dried shrimp stacked next to each other, bright orange and redolent of an oddly delicious, salty scent that I slowly savoured.

The dried aquamarine life didnt seem to end-scallops, octopus tentacles, fish maw, all the incongruent odds and ends that contribute complexity and completion to the Chinese cuisine like the ornamental star to the top of a Christmas tree.

I made a little loop around and arrived back at the front of the shop, where there was a healthy collection of nuts, seeds and beans, assorted snacks, and medicinal and herbal condiments. 
The tid-bits garnered most attention from housewives and elderly customers, purchased in bulk as the finishing touches to the Chinese New Year gatherings to come for the next week.

From bright green wasabi broad beans to roasted almonds, from lucious honey cashews to bbq walnuts and sunflower kernels, from bite sized crispy chicken floss dumpling to prawn floss rolls..

 I, (like every other customer present) also couldn’t resist ‘casually’ picking at everything with my index finger and thumb, taste buds joyfully stimulated by the sweet, the salty and the spicy. 

I left Rochor that evening with a warm feeling (it wasn’t the heat, it was raining). I strolled down the main lane of Albert Centre with a 300 gram bag of wasabi broad beans in hand, satisfied at rediscovering nostalgic smells and flavours. 

This was something that the Singaporean heartland had to boast, it was quirky, unwonted and abnormal. I couldn’t help but smile. 

Chinese Gardens

It was an overcast, muggy sort of Saturday afternoon. The sun was trying, its rays muffled, reduced to just a dull,warm sensation by light grey clouds. 

There wasn’t much to do; I was just idling around the heartlands, mindlessly browsing through the Chinese new year bazaars.

“What awesome weather for a walk,” as you’d hear quite a few Singaporeans comment, relieved to take a break from the usual beating hot sun.

And that’s exactly what happened. It was a spontaneous decision, and now a race against time to explore the Chinese Gardens before the sky begins to pour. 

Conveniently located 5 minutes away from the train station (literally Chinese Gardens on the east-west line), I was able to arrive at the gardens in half an hour flat from the heartland of Serangoon.

As the train, which travelled above ground along a sky track, ventured out to further east of the island, tall buildings became fewer, broader, and land became more abundant. 

By the time I’d arrived at Chinese Gardens station, I was standing in the middle of a spaciously large, green field. Feeling a little bit disorientated, I followed the sign and headed towards the gardens, thunder very softly clapping behind me.

The Chinese Garden is a precious, 13- hectare piece of land, filled with intricate replica of Chinese architecture from the Sung dynasty (960-1279AD). Cleverly  designed by Taiwanese architect, professor Yuen Che Yu, this peaceful place allows one to be utterly whisked away to the Sung dynasty times- that is, the little corners of high rise HDB (government) flats peeking out behind picturesque scenery serving as the only reminder of reality and the 21st century.

I was greeted at the entrance by a long, wooden bridge lined with bright red railings, connecting civilised land and the other side over a large body of water, where the gardens lay. 

(Now this bridge really resembled the one in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, where Chihiro crosses the bridge to the bathhouse. I also made the mistake of attempting to hold my breath while crossing the bridge as she did, and sputtering, gasping for air in front of the stall vendor selling drinks on the other side really wasn’t the best way to announce my arrival at the Chinese Gardens I tell ya)

I’d crossed the bridge into serenity. A 7 -storey pagoda stood  majestically in the middle of the garden, a standing emblem surrounded by lucious greenery.

 There was just something about this place that made your footsteps slow to a relaxing stroll, and your racing thoughts halt to a calm. 

I was slowly sucked in, feet carrying me further. Along my left was Ixora Land, also home to statues of the 8 great heros of ancient Chinese culture.

 I saluted Zheng He (郑和), navigator of the sea, whose wanderlust led to harmonious relationships between China and the West.

I observed Yue Fei (岳飞), loyally kneeled over in submission before the war, his mother burning words into the small of his back, a mark of courage on a soldier before his battle to come.

I smiled at MuLan (花木兰), the look of feminine determination and bravery in her eyes, her taut body disguised in bulky, masculine armour,  arms equipped with a sword that would lead her people to safety.

Behind me, the clouds were darkening, and thunder protested, a louder clap this time. The breeze blew a little bit stronger behind me now, rebelliously urging me further in its direction. 

I found myself wandering into an open door and into a courtyard of a wealthy, ancient Chinese teahouse. Its simple looking exterior was actually a maze on the inside; i’d crossed large holes in the walls into section after section, each showing me a different slice of Sung dynasty life- bonsais, plants, stone tables and chairs, ornaments.

I hadn’t realised how long it’d been since I had walked into the teahouse (was this how it was living in the past with little means of time keeping?) and it wasn’t until later that I came across what I assumed to be the main courtyard, holding a large pagoda suspended atop a stone waterfall. 

I could smell the wet scent of a threatening thunderstorm, and felt the first few dots of drizzle from the sky. Unwilling to submit to natural elements, I took cover under a little side shelter that over looked the languid courtyard, resting myself on a small seat. 

I watched as the clouds tinted the entire scene grey, powdered moisture beginning to fall thinly from the sky, leaving miniscule dark stains on the stone ground. 

From the safety of my little seat, I watched as photographers and cosplay models scuttled into shelter, annoyed at the disturbance of their outdoor shoot. 

Leaves rustled roughly in the background, huskily voicing the growing strength of the wind. The stone waterfall trickled rhythmically, it’s small, green bed of water rippling with drizzle from the rain. 

I absorbed tranquil in the cool air, savouring every rare moment of peace I had to myself. Every now and again a lone bird would chirp; a warning of the storm to come. The sombre scene was strangely splendid. 

I started awake, still perched on the little bench. The sky was angry now, turning darker with indignance. I was alone; everyone left to find escape from the oncoming storm. Feeling a tinge of sadness, I jumped onto my feet, finally deciding it was time to leave. 

Thick drops of rain began to pelt urgently as I tried to navigate my way out. The walls no longer worked to my favour, and the corridors became confusing. I moved as quickly as i could like a thief through the house, refusing to get drenched in rain.

I’d arrived at the mouth of the long wooden bridge lined with red railings again, only to find waterproof tarp and string covered across the mini fridge and stands of the small stall selling drinks. The vendor was busy slipping his arms into a plastic rain jacket.

I glanced over my shoulder for a last glimpse. Behind the tip of the 7 storey pagoda, a bolt of lightning flashed, boldly contorted. It was still beautiful.

People and peak periods.

The clock was ticking. 

As the long arm struck 6pm, Serangoon train station (MRT as we know it here in Singapore) was flooded.

FLOODED WITH A SEA OF PEOPLE.

I descended down the escalator into a blur of limbs and mostly black haired heads, moving quickly in all different directions. 

Some were coming, most were going. Some were students, uniforms messily untucked, eagerly setting off for a Friday night feast and shopping. Majority were adults wrapped in tight, restrictive A-line work skirts and dress pants with takeaway plastics swinging in hand, relieved to finally meet the restful end of yet another mundane work week.

I walked- no, weaved, slid and dodged as I made my way down the long corridor to access the North East line. 

The station, which is usually quiet during the day time, now pulsated with a type of rush- sort of like when you take a hose that’s calmly flowing water and squeeze a part of the small opening, suddenly increasing pressure and force. 

I scuttled along, somewhat overwhelmed and frazzled. Everyone seemed to move in sync with each other, filling what little space there was left efficiently. People moved at quick speeds, but their trajectories never crossed; no one crashed clumsily into each other, tripped, or found themselves in those awkward moments when the paths of two strangers intersect and they both wrongly anticipate each other’s movements. 

Everyone seemed to already have their train cards ready in hand or easily accessed, and people entered and exited the barriered train gates in an undisrupted flow- all until I arrived, clumsily fumbling and tossing in an effort to find my train ticket. People behind me sighed, showing slight annoyance at the disturbance of their journey (i’m sorry).

The trains were no better. People were stuffed and squeezed into every carriage, desperately trying to take up as little space as possible.  

“Bags on the floor makes space for more” read a colorful decal that I was just barely able to catch a glimpse of above the heads of the people I found myself stuffed in between.

The train carriage became an overfilled sardine can, and it certainly wasnt the best feeling being one out of what felt like a million fish in it.

And this is how to truly experience how populated this tiny little red dot has really become (and also how to discover that you suffer from low key claustrophobia after all).

 I don’t remember it being like that when I was a smol kiddo living here back in 2007.

 It was so spacious back then that I could still dangle from the little handles suspended along the metal bars of the carriage, allowing the momentum of the ride to swing me back and forth.

It really amazes me how such a tiny little island with its compact infrastructure can house such a large (and veeery slowly growing) population without already breaking down into dysfunction and chaos. 

(I have no pictures here due to spatial and social constraints whilst being on the train- while it might be a little creepy pointing a phone camera at so many random people, it was also virtually physically impossible to do so being squished into a corner).

Exchange rates and Bak Kut Teh (肉骨茶)

Am really not an economics student- currency, stocks and dividends generally fly straight past my head. 

But what I do know is the exchange rate, and the Malaysian one currently works beautifully to our favour. 

At the moment, every Singaporean (and Australian) dollar will yield us about $3.10 ringgit (Malaysian dollars)

It was time. Time to depart the shores of Singapore by a 30 minute bus ride and passport stamp to Johor baru- a Malaysian province located on the outskirts of the country. 

Because of economics and its glorious exchange rates, my parents and I were able to live a little like royalty for just this day trip. What would usually be considered atrociously expensive was now dirt cheap after dividing every figure by 3.1.

Talk about the ridiculously high cost of living in Malaysia however, the friendly cabbie who safely ferried us from one place to the next made a very good point-only the costs of living in Malaysia has risen, yet not the standards of living. 

Oh yeah, he also mentioned something about not wearing a seatbelt while driving as well because it’d be a hindrance to his escape out of the vehicle should any armed robbers enter his cab posed as passengers. 

What?? Malaysia that’s craazy. 

Anyhoo, 

We arrived in Johor today by bus, and I couldn’t help feeling a little (juust a little) like an illegal immigrant, alighting from a bus and having to walk across the border and into immgration and customs. 

One of the highlights today was lunch, a sumptuous spread of traditional chinese claypot pork rib soup, more commonly known as Bak kut Teh (肉骨茶). 

But this really wasnt your typical Singaporean Bak kut Teh, served in a stingy little pot in a well furnished coffee shop- nooooo this was next level.

We walked into 顺发肉骨茶 (Shun Fa, or Soon huat for all you teochew-ians out there), and it was chaos. 

I am now somewhat traumatically enlightened as to where and how our Bak Kut Teh ends up in the boiling hot claypot. 

To put it in a fancy way, the coffee shop uses an open layout concept; 

..But in reality, the front of the shop was it’s kitchen; and its chefs- skinny, tanned Malay males, were out at full force to feed the lunch crowd, yelling at each other, taking orders, all while swiftly tossing mushrooms, veg, fish maw, pork ribs into multiple Claypots filled with soup, angrily bubbling over open flames. 

Did I mention that these Claypots were also perched on what appears as a pretty dangerous excuse for a stove? (gas canisters and rust all exposed, but that’s pretty much Malaysia for you) 

Fire was licking at the worker’s fingertips- it was literally hell’s kitchen (Gordon ramsay would have had a real fit).
The interior of the shop was hazy with steam from the boiling claypots, and the hot, suffocating air on top of the stressful noise was unforgiving. 

Thank goodness we were offered seats around the back of the store, where there was a second room equipped with ventilation, a small AC, and a less frantic dining scene.

Bak kut Teh is all about the remnant meat remaining on the pork ribs, considered one of the parts that are usually discarded after butchering up the pig.

..and to us Asian people, frugality will always run in our blood.

Alas, Bak Kut Teh (literally translates to meat bone, or rib tea) was born- a hearty delicacy made of scraps.

And I must say a very delicious one too, meat around the pork ribs is often the most tender and collagenous- all plus the satisfaction of sucking the flavour out of the pork bone. 

The pork ribs are slow cooked in a wholesome broth, and in this particular store, served with all sorts of add ons of your choice- from plump button to stringy enoki mushrooms, fish maw, bean curd skin, and more spare parts- pig’s liver, kidney, intestines etc. (following the theme of asian frugality)

And like all bak kut teh ever, every claypot is also served with sides of salted veg, fried bean curd puffs in black soya sauce and lots, LOTS of fresh cut red chillis (just the way I fancy). 

We also ordered a side of 姜酒鸡, chicken cooked  in another claypot with ginger and chinese rice wine, which was also very good.

Everything only came up to 93rm, which is just under SGD 31. For a claypot  the size of my head full of pork-y goodness, about 15 pieces of large, premium, lean pork ribs, plus endless enoki mushrooms, bean curd skins and veg, a free refill of broth, plus drinks, this was a meal that left us feeling not only physically satisfied, but also mentally at ease for the fact that our wallets were not weeping (or mostly dad was feeling at ease that his wallet wasn’t weeping, thanks pa!).