A Very Special Tea

21 Feb 2020

Selina Lin (林秀惠), founder & owner of La Meme Histories (旧事书坊) gave me my first Taiwanese Tea when I visited her bookshop at Houpu (后浦) city, on Kinmen Island. My grandmother was born there.

Last September, a packet of Taiwanese Tea was given to me at our first meeting with Selina Lin, who keeps a lovely bookshop called 旧事书坊 (La Meme Histories) in the old city of Houpu on Kinmen Island, where my grandmother was born.

Selina bidding me goodbye last September. I was making sure the packet of tea was properly kept. Above me was one of the many red lanterns that had “Houpu” 后浦 written on it. Who knows? My grandma could have walked on the very spot I was standing on.

I didn’t use the tea leaves soon after I got back to Singapore because firstly I didn’t own a tea pot and secondly such a present deserves an occasion.

A few days ago I bought a glass tea pot from IKEA.

Today Krison dropped by my home with tea snacks from Joo Chiat. There were savoury “soon kueh” (turnip & bamboo dumpling) and “png kueh” (glutinous rice dumpling), as well as Malayan sweets of “ondeh ondeh,” “lapis sagu” & “kuih seri muka,” all full of palm sugar and coconut goodness.

Krison boiled water and brewed the Taiwanese Tea, while I got the mostly Daiso crockery ready. I believe Queen Elizabeth 2 would have approved of our old school gestures of tea serving even though her tea & crumpets are served on silverware & Wedgwood china.

Facing the flowers of the red radishes, we savoured our local snacks and sipped the Taiwanese Tea slowly, as our hunger eased while our senses relaxed and came alive from the warmth & aroma of the beverage.

The tea had a sweet milky aftertaste, although no sugar was added to it. It also didn’t turn tart after successive brews or when its temperature dropped.

Then the wind rose, lifting the windhorse prayer flags hanging outside the sparkling windows and scattering tiny petals of pink and white on our “tea set.”

Pink & White 4-petalled blossoms from Red Radish 1 (Revival) & Red Radish 2 (Numen).

It felt like a miniature Hanami (sakura viewing season) moment was taking place right in the living room of a Singapore flat.

Purification

20 Feb 2020

At each unit where the windows were left opened by absent owners, the workers doing the block washing used a metal rod to push shut the window panels before they started directing jets of water to remove dust & dirt.

The worker uses a pole to shut windows that had been left opened.

Jets of water to flush out dirt and algae from walls & window panels.

When they reached my unit, my windows were all shut. But still, one of them gestured if I wanted to remove the windhorse prayer flags hanging outside.

I gave the worker a thumbs up so that he could proceed with the cleaning while the prayer flags remained hanging. I could tell he was careful not to direct the jets directly at the windhorses.

I gave him the thumbs up to show that he could carry on.

He cleaned well, leaving the glass surface outside sparkling and the prayer flags dust free, while receiving the windhorse blessings.

Dust came off the prayer flags.

Outside the windows of the cats’ room, the thunderous roar of water upon impact with concrete and glass frightened Hakim and his siblings. They huddled pitifully at the door, wanting to be let out as far away from the strangers outside their windows as possible.

I waited till the workers had moved onto a few units below before I let the cats out to play in the living room to release their stress.

As a compensation for their 2 minute trauma while their windows were being washed, the cats had their early dinner of tuna.

Helmets and some wraps around the face were the protective gear they had on. The nature of their cleaning tasks and the height they are on probably need them to dress as lightly as possible so that they can move easily in the cramped gondola.

Finally a sweet offering was made to give thanks for the workers’ continued safety and good health, as they carry on purifying our living spaces.

May these workers have a sweet life while they go about making ours sweet. 🙏

Thanksgiving Offering of sweets while the blooms of red radish plant adorned Ganesha’s head.
Giving thanks for the ones who laboured and took risk in the hot sun and gusty winds to give me sparkling windows, clean walls & dust free prayer flags. May their life be full of sweetness.

Sweet Potato Porridge

20-02-20

The ritual dish that binds me to my ancestors – sweet potato porridge.

Today I cooked sweet potato porridge in memory of my Kinmenese grandmother.

Where she came from, the soil was not conducive to rice farming, but good for growing sweet potato, yam(taro) and groundnut.

Adding sweet potato to rice porridge created bulk that filled the tummy. It also sweetened the plain porridge, and augmented the aroma of cooked rice.But most of all, it kept big families with little money from going hungry.

The only picture we have with our Kinmenese grandmother. This was in our first HDB flat in the 70s, where the refrigerator occupied pride of place in the living room. 😊

Each day after school, we would come home to my grandmother’s sweet potato porridge. Whatever meat side dishes were reserved for the evening meal when everyone was home. For lunch, my brother and I were happy with fried eggs and fermented bean curds or braised groundnuts to go with our porridge.

I can still see my brother in my mind – crew cut and bare torsoed in his primary school maroon shorts fanning his piping hot porridge with his exercise book impatiently.

Braised groundnuts and fermented bean curd.

Sometimes on a hot day, a watery bowl of rice porridge with sweet potato bits in it was all the nourishment I needed.

Over the years I’ve seen the humble sweet potato porridge listed in restaurants and hotel eateries. Many people who have the means to order far more superior staples on the menu gush over the sweet potato porridge.

Like some ritual food that binds a people to their cultural origins, the sweet potato porridge is more than a comfort food to me.

It reminds me of the generosity & ingenuity of Providence, and the faith of our forefathers that life would improve despite being confronted with evidence of scarcity & uncertainties everywhere.

If people before us could survive on such humble food and open up so many opportunities for others, our generation will definitely do better.

Flowers from Red Radish 2 (Numen) blessing Sweet Potato Porridge.

Self-blessing

20-2-2020

“The bud

stands for all things,

even for those things that don’t flower,

for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;

though sometimes it is necessary

to reteach a thing its loveliness,

to put a hand on its brow

of the flower

and retell it in words and in touch

it is lovely

until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;”

– part of “St Francis & the Sow,” poem by Galway Kinnell

I found this poem years ago in Oprah’s magazine. When it was time to discard the magazine, I removed the page that featured Kinnell’s poem & used it to dress up the cover of my journal.

Since childhood, I had compulsions to touch tree barks and flowers, and greet them. Warnings about getting bitten by insects on the vegetation, or simply that they were “dirty” kept me from acting out my fantasies.

Galway Kinnell’s poem liberated me. 😊

And now I’ve even got a cat to join me.

So here’s wishing the gift of self-blessing on all my friends. May our flowering from within grant us the capabilities to help others from without to flower.

Goodbye, Styrofoam

17 Feb 2020

Lunch of rice porridge and its accompanying condiments on clay/ ceramic crockery.

For years I had been eating my lunch, and sometimes dinner, out of styrofoam boxes.

I would be shoveling food absent-mindedly into my mouth with a flimsy plastic spoon that threatened to snap at any moment, while staring at the school computer screen, and trying to process the flood of emails worded by equally stressed out co-workers.

Meanwhile, I was also tracking time on the bottom of the screen and waiting for the dreaded bell that signalled the end of my meal break and the start of lesson, to ring.

Is this what being a full time school teacher has made me?

Meal times are sacred. It honours earth’s bounty and the hands that prepare food, not to mention my salary that goes to pay for them.

Yet most of the time, I was too anxious to even finish my styrofoam box packed lunch of 1 meat and 2 vegetables combo, much less to savour the flavours.

The table cloth is a humble old world feature that seems to have disappeared.

When I stopped working full time, one of the things I was very determined to do was to prepare my own meals in the most fuss free manner possible, and serve them on REAL crockery. The crockery could be clay, metal, or glass, because the time of eating from receptacles made of petroleum by-products had to end.

My misgivings of disposable food containers did not originate from health concerns or from the love of the environment. It was a lot more self-centred.

Using disposable food containers on a near daily basis makes me feel cheap. It tells me that I’m not worthy of real plates & real spoons or real chopsticks. Like the disposables, I can be carelessly thrown away too.

I’m fine with eating food wrapped in paper because paper is flat. Paper doesn’t try to look like a container & mock me.

As the anxieties of holding a full time job and courting approvals decrease, my satisfaction with the simplest of meals taken without hurry or without people talking over my head increases.

My cats eat from stainless steel plates from Thailand (yes, Zebra Brand) and Ollie drinks from a clay bowl made in Japan.

As a human being I delight in cakes served on paper doily and food on washable ceramic wares or banana leaves. A well seasoned but clean table cloth made from real cotton adds a special charm of its own during meal times.

“吃饭皇帝大” meaning “every person is emperor at meal time,” is a Chinese folk saying. It shows respect accorded to someone who is having his meal (eating rice). And by this gesture to honour Rice, a gift from Mother Earth.

These days I get to eat my rice porridge where plants by my window quietly grow.

I think of people eating from styrofoam boxes while being harassed by all kinds of demands & deadlines. And I remind myself to always try to be considerate and respect people when they are taking their meals, especially if they’re eating out of styrofoam containers.

The Taste of Respect

16 Feb 2020

One time in a housing estate coffee shop, a foreign labourer was sitting alone at a table that was meant to accommodate a larger group.

A group of Singaporean men came by for their usual dinner and drinks. Their number necessitated the use of the table where the lone man was.

Without a word, the foreign worker picked up his things and moved to a smaller table.

One of the Singaporean men then gestured to the coffee shop staff who saw the move, to make a glass of hot milk tea for the foreign worker.

When the milk tea was brought to him, the coffee shop staff explained that it was from the Singaporean group. The foreign man nodded briefly.

We pay men born in villages to build skyscrapers for us. We pay sons of farmers to scale hundreds of meters to clean our walls. And many who can recite sacred texts in their own tongues by heart were paid by us to pick up our trash.

The foreign worker sat a bit longer and sipped his tea quietly. This is what respect must have tasted like.

Before he left the coffee shop, he asked for a plastic carrier to bring the remaining tea back to his dormitory.

Daryl

13 Feb 2020

Yesterday I spent some time at the Metta Cats & Dogs Sanctuary in Lim Chu Kang, Singapore.

The location of the shelter is among plant nursery and landscaping companies, which makes it not that readily accessible to people who do not drive.

I was therefore very touched to meet a 17-year-old volunteer who came all that way to do some chores for the animals. His name was Daryl.

Daryl and my two friends would hang the newly unwrapped metal frames inside the cats’ enclosures and slip pillow case beddings over them to form little airmocks for the kitty residents.

I love this picture because of the contrast between the human’s focus and the cat’s relaxed look.

The airmocks create vertical space for the cats and allow them to sleep suspended from the floor.

I felt very useful seated on a low stool unwrapping the frames and asked Daryl if he could take a couple of pictures of me.

I wanted my pictures to show that animal volunteerism can also include doing chores that don’t necessarily involve handling animals.

Daryl ended up making a video recording of me instead of just taking stills.

And this old woman was still wondering why was he taking so long to capture a couple of pictures! 🤣

When it was our time to bid goodbye to the shelter cats, the young man was still scrubbing the wicker furniture with another volunteer.

And I was very happy to overhear one of the young adult volunteers saying to Daryl that she would give the kind hearted JC boy a lift out to the main road after she had fed all the cats.

The day ended for me full of hope for a better world through kindness to animals & people.