Two days ago on the eve of Hari Raya Haji, I managed to locate the contact number of my chinese calligraphy teacher and expressed my gratitude for his teaching some 17 years ago.
Mr Khoo speaks Hokkien (Minan dialect) in the same way my grandma did. When I first heard him pronounce the name of my ancestral city during a lesson at the Singapore Buddhist Culture Centre at Upper Dickson Road, I felt a keen sense of familiarity with him.
The author of many books and teacher of local & foreign dignitaries treated me with respect despite my lack of Chinese cultural & literary knowledge.
My inability to master brush strokes and lack of commitment to practice did not deter him from checking my homework. He pointed out that I was drawing lines and not writing. But I did not feel slighted because Mr Khoo spoke truthfully & kindly.
His other students were way ahead. They wrote out line upon line of ancient poems from memory as their paper unrolled and sometimes drapped over the edge of their tables. They made room for him respectfully as he weaved among them to inspect their work. His comments were received with reverence. 😊
Even though I couldn’t really follow the intellectual exchanges between him and his more mature & advanced students who had been with him for a long time, Mr Khoo often explained short chinese sayings to me so that I would feel included. His students took after him in his graciousness and were always welcoming towards me.
One unforgettable ancient saying that he taught me was this: the elegance of a room does not depend on size, just as the fragrance of flowers does not depend on numbers. In Chinese it reads “室雅何须大，花香不在多”. How compact! ❤️
When I apologised for my lack of progress in my writing, I remember Mr Khoo saying something like, “这是我们华人的字，你再写不好，也要写下去.” (Transl: This is our Chinese writing. Even if you’re not good at it, you must carry on.)
How refreshing it is to know that there are other more intangible reasons for doing something other than being good at it! Because of Mr Khoo’s approach to learning, I’ve become mindful of using marks as the only measurement of a student’s suitability & aptitude to continue with a subject.
“Guru” in Sanskrit means “Dispeller of Darkness,” and “Bringer of Light.” In Hindu and Tibetan practices, gurus are essential to one’s path to self cultivation & liberation.
Mr Khoo taught me not because I showed any promise in calligraphy nor was I a deserving student. In the ways he generously shares his knowledge and patiently deals with my ignorance, he is in every sense of the word, my guru.
I wish my teacher and his wife peace & health as they lovingly support each other through the years and I hope to be able to pay them a visit one day.
As these days we can’t travel on a whim, the things I bought on my trips to Nepal and Kinmen Island in the past have taken on a relic-like significance.
In 2019, I visited Kinmen Island, the birthplace of my ancestors for the first time. Kinmen sorghum liquor is well known among wine aficionados. Revenue from its sale world wide plays a huge part in education funding for the island’s children from nursery to university.
The little island between mainland China and Taiwan even has its own ceramic factory dedicated to the creation of sorghum wine receptacles to mark historical and social events.
When I bought these two bottles of sorghum wine during my trips in 2019, I had no idea a pandemic was also brewing.
I got them mainly because the wine came from grains that were grown, harvested and fermented on an island that my grandmother was born, left and pined for all her life. And of course the little glasses that the islanders took their celebrated elixir in had to come home with me!
I love drinking with little glasses and cups. Firstly, they are very very cute. Secondly, they pace my alcohol intake so I can relax without becoming intoxicated. The thimble sized holders of Kinmen Sorghum encourages me to sip and savour, instead of gulp and guzzle.
When I take a sip of this “rocket fuel,” as the liquor is fondly known for its high alcohol content, the sweetness of fermented sorghum caresses my tongue and perfumes my mouth, while heat sashays up my nose, dances my brows and warms my ears.
I don’t know when we’ll be able to visit my grandmother’s beloved birthplace again. So for now I shall drink the precious remaining liquor mindfully, and make every sip count.
And through mindful consumption and usage of resources like in the days of our forefathers, may we turn the little that we’ve got to lots, so that we may win the war against the pandemic.
I was born in the Year of the Water Rabbit. This year my lunar birthday fell on 22nd Jan 2021.
My paternal Kinmen grandmother was 50 years old when I was born. I was her first grandchild. As a mother who had lost two daughters even before they turned 5 years old, my arrival must have felt as if one of her little girls was being returned to her.
Thus I was raised with much care, and given every chance to wear whatever beautiful clothes available to children of my neighbourhood.
On the same day as I gave thanks for my birth, I was happy to see a Facebook feed from Kinmen Blog explaining the origin of my grandmother’s surname, 翁 (pronounced as “weng.”)
One of my dominant childhood memories was of her pointing out the chinese character of her surname on her citizenship document, and getting me to pronounce it accurately. That could have been the first chinese word I laid eyes on.
I made my first trip to my grandmother’s birthplace on her behalf in 2019 and walked the streets she might have played on in her childhood.
As I stood under the golden brush strokes bearing my grandmother’s family name above the entrance of one of the many ancestral shrines that dotted the island, I felt energised.
Perhaps there’s a reason for my deep affinity with black ink strokes against vermillion & scarlet, and gold characters against black. What may appear tacky to some feels like home to me.
I think when ancestor veneration is forbidden or discouraged in the name of progress, religion or politics, we lose our connection to the wisdom and protection of our forebears.
And for me this loss can never be compensated by promises of power or paradise.
When 84-year-old Granny Weng (翁奶奶)knew that we were coming to Kinmen Island the next day, she hopped on the bus to do some shopping in the city.
Among the gifts she bought us were little round biscuits called “Kao So,” (口酥) which means crispy in the local Kinmen dialect.
Over tea by the doorway of her ancient courtyard she offered us the treats which my grandmother would have eaten during her childhood more than a 100 years ago.
As she eagerly removed the packaging, the hardy grandmother explained in our dialect, “kao so si lin ah ma zou gin na eh si zun siang si kiah.” (Rough translation: This biscuit was popular during your grandma’s childhood).
November is a month of harvesting, uprooting & stock taking. The biscuit episode happened last June, months before border closures because of the pandemic.
Some of us may not have pedigree lineage to speak of, nor scholars or high fliers among our forefathers. But as ordinary as some origins may be, they are worth remembering.
Biting on a “Kao So” biscuit that day felt like breaking bread to renew a shared heritage that had been quietly waiting for me all these years.
And I have an octogenarian’s affection and efforts to thank for this realisation.
In our village home at Covent Garden along one of the Singapore canals, there was a fallen tree trunk by the doorway. Depending on who was using it, it was sometimes a bench and sometimes a table.
The tree trunk of nearly black wood was often my grandma’s work bench.
On it my grandma could often be seen crafting her much sought after anklets and necklaces made from embroidery threads of 5 colours.
These “Five Coloured Threads,” or “ngoh sek sua,” as they are called in our minnan dialect, were meant for babies and toddlers, especially those who cried for no apparent reason at night.
Judging by the visits of parents to our home, grandma’s handiworks must have some positive outcomes.
My grandma had suffered unexplained losses in her life. Yet she could provide this support to her community willingly & cheerfully, as she rolled the 5 threads representing the 5 elements into one wearable work of Peace to soothe a restless baby and to calm an anxious parent.
Years later when I wear rudraskha beads on my wrist and pass them over the head or back of animals as I pat them, my grandma’s hands were on me.
And who have known that my grandma’s simple blending of the elements to make peace would prepare me for my affinity with prayers flags 40 plus years later in Nepal?
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.
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.
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.
According to chinese folklores, horses were born on the 6th day of the lunar new year celebration.
My Kimenese grandma was very mindful of animals, flowers and trees even when she was observing mainly human-centric rituals.
For example we were not allowed to sew anything on the first day of the lunar new year lest we sewed shut the eyes of baby animals born around this time.
It seemed like a load of superstitious nonsense in my youth, but my exposure to animals over the years taught me that my grandma’s belief & practice was her way of not causing harm to others in whatever ways she could.
The Chinese characters on the red paper, [敬土爱人] which came from her birthplace of Kinmen Island can be translated into “Respecting Earth, Loving Humans.” It is an exhortation to love the soil that we walk on and to love people as well.
This pair of handsewn donkeys represents all equine animals, including horses. I got them from a craft fair years and years ago.
So on this Day of the Horse, may we respect Earth and all her inhabitants, animals included, and become loving people.
But there was this Chinese magazine that I wanted badly, but couldn’t get hold of or subscribe to because of my weak command of the Chinese Language.
This elusive magazine is known as 金门文艺 or Kinmen Literature. It is a collection of mostly Kinmen inspired literary and art pieces published bi-annually by people who are determined to promote & preserve Kinmen’s intangible heritage.
I like the artistic layout of its cover page, and the feel of its paper quality. I cherish the chance to have a glimpse of the Kinmen spirit through the poems, essays, artworks, photographs and even advertisements of Gaoliang wine that appear in the magazine.
But mostly I’m in love with this magazine because Kinmen is where my grandma was born.
As a Chinese woman who makes a living teaching English Language and Literature, I felt that an annual subscription of Kinmen Literature would let me stay connected to Kinmen while honoring the team behind this labour of love.
Last September in 2019, on the day we were flying out of Kinmen to be in Taiwan for our flight back to Singapore, I saw copies of the 67th edition of Kinmen Literature at the airport reading lounge.
Should I just “take” one copy to Sg as a souvenir? Who knows when will I be able to return to Kinmen again?
And after all there was no cashier counter where I could make payment for the copy even if I had wanted to, the thief in me reasoned.
Furthermore there was no sign saying that the magazine had to be returned, the justification for dishonesty strengthened.
But then again there was no announcement anywhere that said the magazine was free either, a sliver of light broke through my muddled mind.
Pre-boarding, my thoughts continued to oscillate between keeping the magazine which was actually stealing, and letting it go.
Finally at the last moment, I decided to return it to the shelves where I found it.
But not before taking many many shots of the copy next to my walking cane as if the magazine was a person.😊
In mid-November 2019, a couple of months after I triumphed over the temptation of taking what’s not mine in Kinmen, an Facebook friend from Taiwan asked if we could meet up. She was in Singapore for a very short visit.
Miao Ling (陈妙玲)had read my Facebook posts about my grandma’s childhood and my journeys in Kinmen for her. Even though Miao Ling knew I wasn’t proficient in Chinese and might not even get to to meet up with her, she decided to bring a copy of the latest edition of Kinmen Literature for me!
At the Nanyang Cafe in Chinatown Point on 16 Nov 2019, I received my very own copy of the literary magazine from Ms Chen Miao Ling, who was also on the editorial team of the magazine that I coveted.
Miao Ling indulged me as I gushed in a mixture of English, Chinese and Minan Dialect about my encounters with Kinmen Literature, including the attempt to steal one from the Kinmen Airport.
And so there we were, two modern day Kinmen daughters exchanging information of our family histories.
As we spoke, we felt the fears & tears of daughters before us in olden times, many as young as 7 or 9 years old, forced to be sold, abandoned or fostered by near strangers because of changes in their family fortunes brought about by upheavals in politics & wars.
Before we parted, Miao Ling & I took some pictures together. A Filipino lady from across our table helped us to record this meet up that started a century ago, in 1914, the birth year of my grandma.
It’s now 2020. Last week I learnt that my grandma’s love for Kinmen and my visits have found their way to Kinmen Daily (金門日報) and Indonesian- Chinese Daily (印華日報) through Miao Ling’s writing.
In her essay, Miao Ling likened the 108 chimes of the temple bell in her childhood to my grandma’s constant pining for her birthplace.
She communicated poignantly my attempts to sync with Kinmen and my grandma’s 3 phrases of attachment to her birthplace that she recited like a mantra throughout her life.
Miao Ling’s publication in the newspaper has enabled an unknown 7 year old girl, born more than a 100 years ago in Kinmen, to return to the embrace of her birthplace.
Love can really cross oceans and seas, transcend histories and navigate round all kinds of logistical & language difficulties.
Our duty is perhaps not to be disheartened or feel silly, and talk ourselves out of loving.