Olfactory Healing

18 Nov 2021

Fire turning sage leaves into ephemeral beauty of healing and comfort.

When we were children, my Kinmen grandma had the practice of waving smokes from burning sandal wood towards us.

My brother and I in our clean pyjamas would stand obediently facing her as the comforting aromas filled the space. We did not choke nor feel suffocated.

As a result, juniper incense makes me feel at home in Nepal.

The caregiver of the animal shelter gives me the chance to make a burning sage offering for the resident cats and dogs whenever I’m there.

As I move about the shelter systematically & wave the sage smokes towards each refugee animal and offer words of blessings and aspirations of finding good homes, a number of them will start gathering around me.

Old lady carrying old lady: Hoonie aka Divina & me.

At such a moment I sometimes feel I’m my grandma and the animals are my brothers and me. 😊

At a recent visit, one elderly dog perked up when I passed the sage smoke over her head. Alexi is 16 and feeling disorientated. She used to be the first animal to toddle towards me and place her head below my palm to take in the sage blessings. After that she and one of her cat sidekicks would follow me around as I moved from enclosure to enclosure, as if to assure everyone of my benevolent intentions.

That day after the blessing, HK helped Alexi put on her wheels and took her to walk the shelter grounds like in the old days.

Perhaps despite Alexi’s aging form and neurological issues, the sage smoke reminds her that all is not lost.

However, olfactory memories can hurt too.

Adeline Yen Mah of “Chinese Cinderalla,” couldn’t bear the fragrance of magnolia flowers. In her childhood she had to bury her only pet chick whom she had named PLT ( Precious Little Treasure) under the Magnolia Tree after it was killed by her father’s german shepherd.

It is my wish that no children or anyone will ever have to hold such tragic olfactory associations. And for those who do, may they be guided to transform traumas to peace.

And may all cherished olfactory memories heal & comfort us when time renders all other senses unreliable.

Alexi used to be the first to come for sage smoke blessing when she could walk on her own. The sage smoke perks her up & gives her the strength to put on her wheels so that she can inspect her beloved shelter. ❤️

Threading Through Terrors

11 November 2021

Seeing colourful friendship bands from Nepal transports me to my childhood days of watching my grandmother roll coloured cotton threads into necklaces and anklets for babies in our village near the Singapore River.

Beaded friendship bands from Nepal.

Parents of restless babies, or babies with no appetites would come to our verandah to ask my grandma to make a thread necklace or anklet for their child.

Apparently her hand rolled cotton accessories worked like a charm because babies’ mood and appetite improved once they started wearing them.

I have no idea who taught my grandma to make these things or how they came to be associated with auspiciousness & protection for babies & children.

After all, my grandmother’s personal life was far from auspicious. At 7 years old, a change of family fortune sent her sailing from Kinmen Island to Singapore to be raised as my grandfather’s future bride. She never saw her own parents again and would spend her whole life pining for her childhood home.

An aerial shot of my grandma’s city of Houpu on Kinmen Island where she was born.

At the age of 26, my grandma lost her husband and her two little daughters to a lightning mishap. Her last child who was my dad was only 8 month old then.

Overnight, by “an act of God” as lightning strikes are categorised in insurance claims , my grandmother became a widow and a single mother.

She laboured at a factory shelling prawns to provide for her in-laws and son. Her gnarled fingers bore witness to her contact with the unbearably icy water that would also give her a lifetime of aches and pains.

Later on the bank where she kept her hard earned money would go bankrupt and her first grandchild who was me, would contract childhood poliomyelitis.

So by the above accounts, my grandmother was an incredibly unlucky woman. Logically, she should be shunned and babies shouldn’t be wearing anything her hands had touched.

Yet parents regularly dropped by our home to seek my grandmother’s advice or ask reverently for a piece of her cotton threads to soothe their sickly child.

Perhaps ironically, my grandma’s incredible ability to absorb terrible losses and misfortunes, and still lived to produce beautiful embroideries for wedding couples and cotton anklets for babies, have given her the status of a lucky charm. 😊

And because my grandmother refused to be defeated by the bad luck in her life, her only grand daughter whom she constantly worried about because of her handicap had the opportunity to speak at an event to honour women brilliance where she was seated at the table with women leaders, including Singapore’s first female president.

Because my grandmother did not give in to bad luck, but pressed on to give the best life she knew to my dad, I had the opportunity to speak at an event to promote women brilliance & share a table with women leaders, including Singapore’s first female president.

Harbour Girl

19 Oct 2021 (Full Moon Eve)

Bare faced and spotting a short bob, the harbour staff assigned to assist me on wheelchair to the ferry boarding gate looked like a student.

It was June 2019, and I was crossing from Kinmen to Xiamen for my flight back to Singapore.

Harbour Girl addressed me as “Ah Yi,” meaning aunt in mandarin and asked kindly if I would like to use the washroom or buy souvenirs before she took me to the boarding gate.

When we passed the windlion display, I asked if she could take pictures of me with Kinmen’s Mythical Guardian.

Her unease at my request looked as if I had asked her to perform a brain surgery on me. I learnt that she had been told that she couldn’t take nice pictures.

“Don’t worry. I’m very beautiful. You simply cannot take a bad picture of me!” I assured her in my desperation to have my last shots with Kinmen’s ancient mascot.

Kinmen’s mythical windlion chortling merrily behind me. (June 2019)

Upon my very ridiculous claim, Harbour Girl burst out laughing. Her hesitation evaporated.

So she took my phone and started snapping non-stop. As she trained my phone camera on me, while moving around freely, I felt her gaiety.

By then it didn’t really matter how the pictures turned out.

Till now, I still keep the 22 shots she took. I have no intention of deleting them. They were the last pictures of me before I left Kinmen. But mostly because they remind me of a very lovely & happy Kinmen daughter.

Her parting words when she walked me up the ferry were,”Ah Yi, I’m very happy to be of service. When you visit again, I will look out for you. I will remember you.”

As a noun, the harbour is associated with safety and shelter. As a verb, it has a negative connotation of keeping a dark thought or feeling over a long period of time.

Harbour Girl guided me safely to my boat. May her enthusiasm to indulge an old lady’s wish to take pictures with the windlion free her from all doubts that she might be harbouring about her capabilities. 😊🙏

Calling My Guru


21 July 2021

Film poster celebrating full moon of the lunar new year in my ancestral home of Kinmen Island where my Chinese calligraphy teacher and his wife came from

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.

With my Chinese calligraphy teacher, Mr Khoo Seow Hwa, on Racial Harmony Day where he was guest speaker to students of Nanyang Girls’ High School. (2003)

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.

I found this picture of my teacher online recently.

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.

Territorial Instincts


9 June 2021

Despite being only the size of a cushion, and weighing less than 6kg, Emmanuel growls menacingly when Ollie tries to cosy up on the couch he’s on.

Emmanuel, the cushion sized cat with a loud voice and a ready bite.
Different locations, same bickering over who occupies where.

In return, Oliver sneaks up at night on Emmanuel ensconced on the cane chair, and scares the wits out of him.

My counselling falls on deaf ears.

Both cats are loved, have free run of my home and access to food and clean water 24/7.

Once in a while they grudgingly share space.

Furthermore they are also somewhat related, having been born on the grounds of a girls’ school I was teaching in some 14 years ago.

Yet they bicker constantly about who occupies where as much as they can only bodily be in one location at a time.

Perhaps this fear of losing out & needing to own more than what one needs is hardwired into the survival instincts of all living beings.

Oliver posing with a literary magazine from Kinmen Island, a political pawn used by warring parties since the Ming Dynasty. My grandmother was born there in 1914.

Unlike cats, we humans have the advantage of analysis, and perhaps even tame some of our natural inclinations for power and control, and be free from fear and possessiveness to some degree.

When Less Becomes More

6-6-2021

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.

War Hero edition of Kinmen Sorghum Liquor.

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.

A lunch of Vietnamese spring rolls, papaya salad and noodles is augmented by Kinmen liquor.

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.

Ancestral Protection

2 Feb 2021

I welcomed 1 Feb 2021 by bringing home a pot of Desert Rose. This is one of my late father’s favourite plants. He was hugely successful in growing them. Till this day, the balcony of my mom’s little flat is a hanging garden of “Flowers of Abundance,” (Fu Gui Hua 富贵花)as the Desert Rose is known in chinese.

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.

Full Moon rising on the old city of Houpu, Kinmen Island, Taiwan.

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.

At the doorway of an ancestral shrine belonging to the descendants who share the same family name as my grandmother.

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.

Ollie and the map of Kinmen Island.

Biscuit to My Lineage

5 November 2020

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.

Granny Weng put on this dress called qipao for this picture taking.

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.

El sharing a joke with Granny Weng at the ancient doorway of her home. We saw the full moon together the next day.

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).

Granny Weng (翁奶奶) went to town to buy us the biscuits the day before we arrived. She married at 17 and raised 10 children with her husband through the war. She is now a great-grandmother of 6. The next day we watched the full moon rise together, not knowing that in a few months’ time cross border traveling would become impossible because of the pandemic.

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.

Wearable Peace

9 June 2020

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?