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Food as discipline

Food as discipline Posted on 17 June, 20222 Comments

Over a month after my grandmother (porpor) had passed, my family is still in mourning. According to Buddhist thought, this period lasts for seven weeks with the start of each week marked by fasting and will culminate with her ashes being rested next to my grandfather’s at the end of the 49 days.

The last time we saw my porpor was at Chinese New Year in Hong Kong, just before the city was crippled with the surge of Omicron that led to many restrictions in hospital visitations and the tightening of social distancing measures. Thanks to technology and a wonderful personal carer, Ms Tim, I was able to connect with her despite being miles away, and for the children to say hello to their Great-Grandmother. On our last video call, she was still able to recognise me as ‘Georgine’, ‘Poh Suan’s daughter’, in her heavily weakened voice. I showed her my growing bump and reassured that we will meet again soon. Her health deteriorated very quickly and a few days after, she passed away peacefully in her sleep.

My porpor was a devout Buddhist – she would always be holding her prayer beads whenever we visited, sometimes with chants played on the recorder in the background. I think this explains perhaps why she talks quite a bit about suffering, or “eating bitter” 「吃苦」and often recalled her ‘bitter’ earlier years: as a child growing up during the Japanese occupation which killed her older brother, bearing the brunt of feeding the family and later became a foreign bride through arranged marriage to my grandfather as a second wife, surviving in a large family.

Born in 1931 in Changzhou (常州) in the outskirts of Shanghai, my porpor was the second child and first daughter of a rural family. I only managed to work this out from her Chinese birth zodiac sign (生肖), as her ID card shows that she was five years older – common practice to report an older age at the time to find work – in the absence of proper birthing records. Reportedly, her brother fought alongside Mao, was tortured and died during World War II, which left her as the breadwinner of the family. Later, just shy of 18 years, she was married to my grandfather, ‘chosen’ by his first wife, in hopes to bear sons to continue the family name that was important for my grandfather as the first-born to a large Hokkienese family.

Of course being family doesn’t necessarily promise harmony. My grandfather’s first wife treated her as equal, but the largest conflict seemed to occur between her oldest daughters and my porpor – I could not imagine how life was back in the day: having to learn the social etiquette cohabiting with her in-laws, later with her own children, and a new language altogether (she only spoke Shanghainese, but my grandfather spoke Hokkienese – both Chinese regional ‘languages’ but very different in how they sound). Having moved with the family to Singapore for a few years, she had to learn some English too – something we take for granted now, but how difficult it must have been in her time to communicate just to get around.

A large family. My grandmother seated on the left, and my mother as an infant seated on her ‘dai-ma‘ (大媽/ big mum) who had bound feet showing she came from a wealthy family.

Favouritism gave rise to differential treatment between sons and daughters, but not uncommon back in the day. My mum, for example, would recall how the best parts of the chicken, the likes of chicken thighs and dark meats, were always given to her brothers. This sounded very unfair, but now I think all the more how the way my porpor fed her children – dependent whether she was given household allowance that day/week, as she told me – was intertwined with her social status in the family: having boys meant she gained footing at home, the respect, and probably material means too. I could only think about how insecure this would have been as a young mother juggling with feeding mouths and maintaining order in the household.

My porpor often said to me me, it’s no mean feat to raise a child(養大一個細路唔容易). And only in recent years as a mother that this resonated with me. She would tell me even with help at home, she insisted on feeding her six children before she ate – when the food would have already turned cold. In line with Buddhist practice, she did not eat beef and preferred simple veg, rice noodles or sweet potatoes, to meats and seafood, and cooled-down boiled water, even as she prepared meals of plenty for my grandfather and her children. I remember asking about her nursing experience, I had no milk as I had not have enough to eat, which must be really tough times for her.

This is why I think food for my porpor had always been a taste of her bitter memories which structured around discipline. Perhaps this was also somewhat reflected forward, in how my mother fed me when I was younger – there would always be a certain things on my dinner spread – soup, rice, a small plate of the best parts of the fish that she picked from the whole fish, vegetables, followed by cut fruit – apples, pears or oranges. This might have explained why both my mum and porpor were shocked to see how I allowed my children to fiddle with finger foods – something which was strictly disallowed.

My porpor‘s focus on discipline had quite an impact on me as a growing child. Table manners were a given: chopsticks should be held properly, never place your hands under the table, dress appropriately and always tie back long hair or clip it up – before she would tell me how she cared for her long hair and washed it by the river when she was young, ‘shampooing’ with crushed hibiscus flowers. I felt like she was being strictest on me being the youngest granddaughter and the one who was always around as most of my other cousins went to study abroad. But it allowed me to learn many things from her, which included mahjong as I filled in as the missing player, a game which took her mind off in her final days too.

Perhaps my porpor‘s ‘old-school’ thinking was shaped through her early years. Her missed opportunities for education meant she wanted it for all her children and sending them to the best schools possible, and many of them to universities in America. She would always remind my daughter to study hard (勤力讀書). Though she came across as conservative, there were many incidents where I reconsidered how she also embraced changes in society, her acceptance to my mum’s decision on becoming Catholic at school, and for my grandfather to walk her down the aisle at a Catholic church. Previously over Easter, my porpor would talk about how amazing Jesus was with his sacrifice for people – something which I never expected to hear from her.

Eating together was important especially on special occasions, and after my grandfather passed over 20 years ago, we would meet at the crematorium for offerings and sometimes ate at the temple restaurant which remained one of her favourites. As I had children, I came to realisation that many of the extended family dinners became far too ‘transactional’ – people came, went, and just somewhat ‘tick the box’ for being there. So I chose to spend time to make personal visits to see my porpor especially in the last couple of years being in Hong Kong. It was through these, that I was able to relive some of the memories – often through food – and getting to know her from a renewed perspective.

She would always have a small table in the kitchen to help her prepare the foods needed for the day. Seeing her peel a pear in one go (skin is considered dirty and especially inappropriate for children) and picking beansprouts reminded me how skilful of a home cook she was. But simple foods such as hardboiled eggs (she was particularly fond of eggs called ‘力康蛋’)are considered one of the best foods to feed children, so we would always be greeted to a bowl of these – on a particularly early morning visit, my husband would leave her home with a few hardboiled eggs to carry with him to work.

To this day, I remember she once made popiah – a Hokkienese dish consisted of a thin pancake and a myriad of vegetables and meats which were finely shredded (or julienned) by hand – the spread on the table to this help-yourself dish was simply remarkable. We would always get kuihs (steamed cakes) to mark special occasions such as on my grandfather’s birthday and religious festivals – with various fillings of mung (green) bean and peanuts – the ones shaped as turtles and embossed with long life (壽) were most memorable. And on New Year, a special tea of red jujubee dates and longan for good health and fortune.

But some of her simplest dishes, xianfan (savoury rice, recipe below) reminded me most of family life as my mum would recreate it in her kitche. The other being pork in dark soy sauce – cooked by my porpor on one Mid-autumn festival – which was also the last that my dad joined his in-laws at the dinner table, before his later divorce from my mum. I am always in awe how these memories stayed with me, and perhaps the way I see food later on too.

My porpor was very independent till the very end, insisting to hand-wash her own laundry and cooking, as she considered modern gadgets such as the washing machine and microwave untrustworthy. The only ailment she probably had until she passed was being diabetic that is common in old age. Her daily blood glucose levels were closely monitored by one of her sons, who is not a medic, but his exercise of immense control had created quiet dissonance in the family. My porpor would get admonished and lectured if levels were elevated, to a point I felt she became rather anxious with the way she ate in her last few years. I think this is why she enjoyed some of the street foods we bought on our visits to her, from the layered steamed cake to McDonald’s pancakes, always jokingly remarking how her blood levels will exceed the next day, but we know it meant she would get told off. Later when she became unwell and the only biomarker doctors were able to find was an elevated potassium level, her diet was further scrutinised even as she began losing weight, and later hospitalised. On our last video call, she was helped to eat a small piece of cracker, the only thing she was able to stomach in the end.

One of the most important post-funeral rituals consisted of tabling a spread of my porpor‘s favourite foods and drinks when her spirit returned two weeks after she passed – I am glad that the chrysanthemum tea I bought her made it to the table. Food for my porpor had always been a mirror of what her life and the influence over her children. Nine decades on, times have changed massively, the idea of discipline seemed very old-fashioned, but instead of control when it comes to food, what she has shown me was the structure needed to keep a household going, and perhaps stopping to remember the importance of the foods which are of significance, and those which bring pleasure, along the way.

The spread left for the ‘return of the spirit’

In loving memory of Mrs Cheung Chin Lan-hong (鍾秦蘭鳳)

Porpor‘s Xianfan (savoury rice/ 咸飯)

One of the best comfort dishes all-in-one, this is based on a recipe from my porpor, tried and tested and fully adaptable. A Hokkienese household favourite:

Ingredients:

1tbsp groundnut oil
1 shallot, peeled and sliced
2 spring onions (white section), finely diced
30g dried shrimps, reconstituted 2 hours prior to cooking
4-5 Chinese/shiitake mushrooms, reconstituted 2 hours prior to cooking, finely
sliced (optional)
250g pork, sliced
300g white rice, rinsed and drained
300g bak choi (or other Chinese leaf or gourd), finely chopped
500ml hot water

Methods:

  1. Heat the oil in a wok, and add the shallot and spring onion roots, to cook
    for 2 minutes,
  2. Add the shrimps, mushrooms (if using), keep stirring, until their aromas
    are released.
  3. Stir-in the pork strips, then reduce to medium heat.
  4. Add the rice and greens, keep stirring, pour in the water gradually whilst
    the rice absorbs the moisture. Keep adding the water as necessary until
    the rice is cooked.
  5. Serve hot, with chopped parsley as desired.

2 thoughts on “Food as discipline

  1. A very unusual way to introduce traditional Chinese food through the experience of the very close relationship between a granddaughter and her grandmother. I share her experience, very touching and true story for typical Chinese family in the last century, very impressed on all details she recalls from a second generation and love all the food she mentioned. This article deserves an award, highly recommend for Chinese or non Chinese readers.

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