The Poh Piah Parties On!

6 Dec 2021

Holding my homecooked “poh piah” aka spring roll or Chinese burrito after 40 plus years.

“Poh Piah”, is a wrap filled with julienned vegetables. This Chinese burrito is usually served only on special occasions because of the labour intensive prep work behind it.

Every family has its own secret spring roll recipe reflecting its ancestral lineage, dialect and most of all, the matriarch’s personality.

Once a Filipino student described the ingredients in her mom’s “poh piah” which led me to ask if her forefathers were from Kinmen Island. She checked with her people and they confirmed it.

Last year, before social distancing rules got complicated, I had the fortune to be at a “poh piah party” hosted by a friend’s mom. Hers was peranakan style, complete with kueh pei ti. My friend’s dad personally drove to Joo Jiat to pick up handmade poh piah skin/wrap and pei ti cups to hold the precious & time sensitive ingredients.

Poh Piah, a love story.

Looking at the elaborate spread of ingredients and utensils, you realise this is not simply about eating, but it’s also about being part of a love story enfolding right at the table.

Last month at Souperstar, I found the humble spring roll repackaged and marketed as food-on-the-go.

Souperstar gives the traditional spring roll (poh piah) a trendy twist with its colourful wrapper.

I ordered the traditional one out of nostalgia, and made a mental note NOT TO COMPARE it with the ones made by my friend’s mom or my kinmen grandma.

I took a bite and felt vry satisfied as the familiar mix of minced garlic, sambal chilli, & sweet sauce on shredded turnip and assorted condiments danced in my mouth.

When I complimented the service staff for their delicious vegetable wrap, she declared with pride,” 我们的薄饼料是手切的!” (transl: our ingredients are hand cut).

The honour of being part of something made by hand as opposed to machine made was evident in her voice & smile.

With meal gatherings near impossible these days, my heart fills with gratitude each time I look at these pictures.

My friend’s dad drove to Joo Jiat Rd to pick up handmade poh piah wraps/ skins for our party.

And now I’m ever thankful to Souperstar’s business acumen & creativity to ensure that the poh piah parties on, even if it’s just for one person dining. 🙏😄

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.

24 October

24 October 2021
(19th day of 9th Lunar Month)

20 years ago on this day, I removed a puppy that had been kept in a junkyard along a defunct railway track and took him home.

I named the junkyard puppy, Shoya, and took him home.

That puppy lived for 15 years, gave me the courage to live alone and opened my eyes to the plight of street animals.

Shoya waiting to see his first vet, Dr Simms.

I named him Shoya 壽雅 meaning to live long & be gracious.

He gained his angel wings 7 years ago, but not a day goes by without his happy face crossing my mind. ❤️😊

Because of him I dared to venture into abandoned places to feed homeless dogs, walk in dim alleys to locate lost or injured cats and intervene in potentially abusive behaviour towards animals and people.

Feeding & befriending Margo in Jurong Lake Park before she found her forever loving home.

“Do one thing every day that scares you,” or versions of it has appeared on self improvement books, speeches & songs etc. I think taking Shoya home was the beginning of that for me.

With the late Andy of Street Dog Care in Nepal. I see my Shoya in every dog I meet and I just want to give him or her the best I can.

Turning 21

22 Oct 2021

My younger nephew turns 21 today.

Every birthday, regardless of age, is to be cherished. Celebrated in big ways or small, observing the occasion is an act of gratitude, not a gauge of one’s popularity.

Ilario learning to hold Oliver.

It’s amazing that between showing him how to hold a cat properly when he was 7 to looking at his compositions when he was 16 and discussing internship options for his studies just recently, 21 years have gone by just like that!

Studying GCE O level with Oliver.

So this morning I sent a text to the boy who has brought nothing but smiles to his mom & dad good health, kind heart and wise mind as he steps into adulthood to exercise his rights and responsibilities.

Edusave Award with dad
Showing gratitude to mom at Edusave Award.

Intentional Giving

27 Sep 2021

Handstamped envelopes & cards for my tutees taking their first national exam (PSLE).

In 3 days’ time 12-year-old primary school children across Singapore will be sitting for their Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE).

Yesterday was my final English practice with the exam candidates. A few of them had worked with me since last year.

Towards the end of the session, I told them I had prepared a well wishing gift for each of them.

Friendship bands from Nepal

“I still have the friendship band you gave me last year,” the boy who tied the handwoven fabric to his key chain said proudly on ZOOM. Another told me that the gift from Nepal that had travelled 3000 KM is always in his pencil case.

I had given them the friendship band from Nepal at the beginning of last year when they were in Primary 5. I had wished for these children to be hardy and resourceful like the people and land where their gifts came from.

This time I selected decorative paper clips as part of the farewell gift for my tutees. Enclosed with a card in a handstamped envelope I wish the children peace & joy, and the ability to hold their knowledge with ease for their own benefit, and to benefit others.

Doraemon, the cat from the future to accompany the kids taking their exam.

Rabbit Lantern for Mid-Autumn

20 Sep 2021

The rabbit lantern of my childhood is alive & well. Pic source:

Of all the lanterns that were bought for me in my childhood, I remember the rabbit lantern best for the following reasons:

Firstly, my dad bought it. Secondly I was born in the year of the hare. Thirdly, its frame was wrapped in shredded white crepe paper to simulate fur. Fourthly, and most importantly, the whole lantern was set ablaze as soon as the candle that was meant to light it from within tilted, causing fire to meet paper.

Did the wire holding the candle in place not do its job? Or was my dad too clumsy in the lighting ceremony?

You can imagine the shock & pain of a 5 year old seeing her beloved rabbit lantern which she had been hugging all afternoon going up in flames and turning into ashes in seconds.

Me at the age where a paper lantern rabbit was my whole world. (1960s)

I was inconsolable. My young dad was traumatised.

In the mid-autumn festivals that followed, he would buy only battery operated lanterns for my brother and I. And no more crepe paper rabbits!

This evening I was pleasantly surprised to find that the lantern design that I loved half a century ago still exists!

The current model now has wheels, presumably for greater stability to minimise accidents like mine.

Come tomorrow night, I’m sure somewhere in some homes celebrating mid-autumn, paper lanterns will still catch fire and go up in flames.

There will be tears over the destruction & loss of a much loved and perhaps even irreplaceable design, but that shall not keep us from seeking solutions to continue the celebration.

Mid-autumn full moon in Taipei (2019)

Dressing Up for World Peace

14 Sep 2021

This pink cotton *qipao that took me to the Great Wall of China was bought at a market in Beijing in the summer of 2002. The young chinese woman behind me kept telling me how “可爱” (ke ai) meaning endearing I looked in it. We made each other’s day.
The green watch on my wrist was bought by my second younger brother on his first trip to Moderna, Italy.

*qipao – dress with mandarin collar and slits at the side modified from clothes of manchurian people.

Some years back when I was feeding homeless cats, I noticed that neighbourhood bullies who harassed cat feeders were cautious with me.

And it wasn’t my handicap that made them decide to be kind to me. In fact my limp had on some occasions prompted people to have a go at me.

What made the bullies think twice about harassing me in my cat feeding rounds was the way I dressed.

In my teaching days I wore dresses and *qipao. And I was often still in my teaching clothes when I stopped to feed cats.

A talented friend draw this portrait of me in green qipao surrounded by my dog, Shoya, and my 10 cats in 2007.

A couple of times, a person on the verge of passing some nasty remarks about animals would appraise my clothes and asked if I worked for the government. Of course I said yes with great authority since all teachers come under the jurisdiction of the MOE.

I think that was where my understanding of power dressing without brands started.

Gradually, dressing carefully so that people would back off and let a lone woman feed cats in peace evolved from a necessity to a habit.

A couple of years ago, I taught English at a centre for troubled teens.

They were an energetic bunch plagued by anger management & learning issues.

Once in the midst of an expletive storm, one of them shouted, “M’am! You look nice!” when I was spotted sitting in the garden next to their gym.

Subsequently, “M’am, you look nice,” became a regular greeting whenever they saw me.

I think each time these young men stopped to pay me a compliment, or hear their friend make one, they experienced a momentary release from the rage & vitrol that had dominated their speech.

The old belief that it’s not what you eat, but what comes out of your mouth that kills you was evident in the way one of the boys beamed when I thanked him for his gracious words.

Perhaps getting dressed could be a way of promoting peace. And perhaps dressing up to save the world may not be as far fetched an idea as it seems. 😄

*qipao – dress with mandarin collar and slits at the side modified from clothes of manchurian people.

Blessed Ganesh Chaturthi

10 Sep 2021

I just learnt that today is the start of *Ganesh Chaturthi.

My first eye to eye contact with the elephant headed deity was in Nepal in 2011.

Ganesh Shrine at Park Village Resort within the Shivapuri National Park, Budanilkantha, Nepal.

Now, 10 years later, the symbol of resourcefulness and wisdom continues to inspire me to take things as they come without fear or resentment so that I may see clearly and dance lightly through all obstacles.

And while wondering how I could mark the occasion without leaving home, a dancing Ganesh pendant from my brother given a year ago and a recent hand drawn sunflower from a student combined to fulfil my intention.

Dancing Ganesh pandent given by my brother last year sits on a sunflower mandala drawn by a young student this September.

Here’s wishing all friends, family & strangers the blessings of Wisdom & Resourcefulness to meet challenges with ease like my favourite Hindu deity.

Om Gam Ganapateya Namaha! 🙏

*Ganesh Chaturthi marks the anniversary of his arrival from Mount Kailash.

Finding Our Way

10 Sep 2021

My brother guiding his son on the singing bowl.

Markers pointing to roads, exits & entrances, ramp, lift lobby and carpark pick ups are very important for someone with limited energy like me because getting lost has very serious consequences

For most people, mixing up Lobby A with Lobby B in the mall or hospital is a small matter. For me it can mean how many turns and rest stops I need to take before I find my destination.

The frustrations & exhaustion of losing one’s way is real for an ageing person even without dementia or mobility issues.

I seldom accept rides or lifts from well intentioned people because dictating where they should me pick me up, drop me off or where they should park would make me sound like an ungrateful and demanding old woman. 😄

Pre-covid days at the airport check-in counter, any departure gate from letter E onwards on my boarding pass would fill me with unease even before the flight took off. On occasions when I needed wheelchair service, I made sure to tip my airport escort handsomely.

As such I have little desire to go on pilgrimages to make peace and to learn acceptance.

Finding My Way

Each step out of my flat, presents enormous potential to make peace with obstacles.

Ganesha in dancing pose is thus my favourite posture of the deity for obvious reasons. 😄

When I walk, there are detours needed to avoid a wet corridor or curb too high for me. When I take public transport, there’s the anxiety of whether I can find a seat before the bus or train moves and the worry of whether there’s a hand grab for support at my exit stop. Little steps which the able-bodied make almost mindlessly require the focus of a zen master for me.

Over the years, I’ve turned down invitations to meet not because the company is less worthy, but because of what it takes for me to show up.

Singapore may have good medical amenities but its population density, building configurations and fast paced living make it a challenging place for those in advancing years.

Active Aging is a good aspiration provided you have the right set ups, physical conditions and national mindset.

Even in supposedly easy to navigate places with escalators and non-slip flooring I’m either constantly dogding people who are in a hurry, or keeping a distance from those whose eyes are glued to their phone screens. The latter have the tendency to brake suddenly or back into people behind them.

That said, it is also not reasonable to expect human traffic in public places to slow down for the old.

Thus I understand why elderly folks cling to familiar places and are reluctant to move to new neighbourhoods. They would have to learn the terrain of their physical environment all over again. A ramp in their new housing estate may not have the same gradient like the one their legs have been used to in the past 40 years.

“With a click of a button,” as the catchphrase goes, we’re told that digitization has made the world more accessible to many. But precisely when everyone seems so well connected and mobile, the isolation for some feels even starker & more incomprehensible.

And thus I cherish every trip I can make to the grocery store, every step to my tuition class and on special days, a visit to the animal shelter, or a live performance venue while my body and senses do not have too many adjustments to make.

Finally for those of us who harbour thoughts that people who can’t keep up with changes are just being too stubborn, we can try giving up some of the things we’re used to, and see how that affects our sense of calm before we earn the right to call someone too rigid to keep up with time.