Waxy corn

On our eating tour of Shanghai, we came upon a shop on Huaihai Lu that sold steamed corn on the cob. Perfect for nomming while walking back to our serviced apartment.

A couple of bites into one, I started asking Naomi’s mum how they managed to put sweet glutinous rice into every kernel of corn – because, you know, this is China, and they can damn well do anything they like these days.

So apparently it wasn’t a GM corn cob we were nomming on, but a naturally occurring variant of corn found in China, The Philippines, and Burma.

(No pictures. Hands were tied eating).

Franckly beats any French fare in Singapore

This is turning into an eating tour of Shanghai.

It’s been a couple of hours since Naomi and I returned to our serviced apartment from dinner at Franck.

It was no ordinary dinner. It was OMG THIS IS SO GOOD WE COULD LIVE HERE AND EAT HERE, IF NOT EVERY DAY, THEN AT LEAST ONCE A WEEK.

We entered the premises cautiously, having read some unflattering reviews about Franck’s brusque, French service.

Maybe things change very quickly in Shanghai, cos we were looked after very well by the attentive staff who even took the trouble of interpreting the completely French menu which was wheeled from table to table.

All this after we thought we couldn’t possibly eat any more, cos on Saturday, we booked ourselves a table at La Creperie and had the best crepes outside Breton, even though mine looked as if a seagull had puked all over a doormat.

And I can’t believe the hot chocolate we had at Whisk. It coats your spoon. It coats your tongue. It coats everything!

And even though they refuse to serve you water, their chocolate would make Max Brenner grow hair.

P.S. Blogging from an iPhone isn’t easy.

Best egg tart in the world

The last time we were in Shanghai, we had the good fortune of being stuck in a jam on the corner of Huaihai Zhong Lu and Maoming Lu.

Our friend Han Tong was in the taxi with us. And when we asked him why the heck people were queuing outside a hole in the wall, he told us it was because Lillian Cake Shop was one of the most famous confectioneries in Shanghai.

So yesterday afternoon, we happened to walk along the same street corner, and decided to see what it was about.

The girl behind the counter simply asked, “how many?”

And so we bought four of the best egg tarts on the planet. Still steaming hot, the soft custard had a crust worthy of it being called a Chinese creme brûlée, held together by the most buttery, flaky pastry.

OMG, we’re so gonna try to buy some to bring home lor.

Shanghai winter wonderland

This afternoon, Shanghai threw us a welcome blanket of the heaviest snowfall I’ve seen in years.

Much as we’d like to step back outside and play in the mush, Kai’s fast asleep on my chest, and Naomi’s ‘resting her eyes’ in the bedroom.

And probably for the first time since Naomi’s brother’s passing, this town feels like a happy place.

Now we’re really left behind

TianAnMenKiss1

There will be murmurs about how Singapore should repeal S377A of the Penal Code now that China has apparently ‘showcased‘ a gay marriage in one of their official news outlets.

But they’ll just be murmurs, cos you know how things are.

Doesn’t matter if India has repealed their s377A, and China has (sort of) embraced gay unions. We are still a conservative Asian nation, right next to an increasingly basket-case Malaysia.

One thing I know to be true though is that the two gay weddings we’ve had the pleasure of attending were two of the most beautiful things we’ve witnessed, and I think to a large extent, that the peace, the love and the happiness that settled around and among everyone was unfettered by disapproving family and relatives and the stress of having to make sure all the ‘official stuff’ were taken care of.

When policemen still wore shorts

Tiffany lamp being taken apart

“Wah, you must have bought this when policemen still wore shorts”, said the lady at the lighting shop as she asked for my permission to dismantle some more of the tiffany lamp I brought in for her to fix.

As took the base off, the debris from inside the lamp fell out and dirtied her table, and I felt bad, until she told me it would cost around $100 to fix up the lamp and bring it into the 21st century.

I’m not complaining too much, because it’s a really nice lamp my mother bought in San Francisco in 1979 or 1980, and it hasn’t worked properly since. (Probably because we didn’t know the difference between AC and DC, and we probably melted the fuse or something).

And this lady’s shop was only like the seventh or eighth I walked into on Balestier Road, and the only one whose occupants didn’t say, “No, we don’t do repair. Only sell. Try other shop. Sorry”.

Then again, it was quite likely she knew how to fix this lamp, because her shop had several similar lamps, although she said, “Those different. All from China, not brass one”.

The lamp and some other stuff in the house should be ready by end of next week. Yay!

What’s going on?

It’s like we’ve been in hiding with all this moving shit. We’ve hardly read the news, and although we know about the major calamities that have struck, it still feels a bit strange that when we’ve started venturing outside of our apartment (both old and new), the country seems to have changed a fair bit.

First, every second 7-Eleven and petrol station cashier / pump attendant seems to sport a PRC (Mainland or whatever you call them) accent, and every second waiter / supermarket cashier sports a Flipino accent.

Multiply that by the number of petrol stations, supermarkets and cafes in Singapore and you’ll have come up with a very rough but very large number of PRC (Mainland Chinese) and Filipinos working in Singapore.

I don’t know about you, but I feel it wasn’t like that, say, six months ago?

Maybe that’s why there was an apparent recent push to un-Pinyinise Chinese names in schools. We don’t want our kids to be mistaken for Mainland Chinese working at petrol stations and Chinese restaurants, do we?

My forefathers ate bowls of chicken droppings

Bowl of Chicken Poop
Photo by Lee Xian Jie

“My family is descended from Confucius”, said the chubby Year 12 Boy to me when I didn’t ask about his pedigree. I must have doubted him or given him some dismissive look prior to that statement that prompted him to reveal that fact.

This was some years ago in Sydney, when a friend asked me to give tuition to his son (the Year 12 boy) who had been struggling with some of his HSC subjects.

“So, his full name is Confucius Chan?”, I said, before asking him how he and his family found out this fact, and whether it had been orally handed down (son, I am your father) through generations, or whether some Chinese genealogist had told his family their glorious past and then said thank you after a cheque was written out.

Yes, it was after a consultation, Year 12 Boy said. That made him and his family about the fourth group of “Confucius Descendants” I had met in Sydney alone. That Chinese genealogist/fengshui/kungfu master must be living it up in Vaucluse or somewhere similarly awash with money, while several of his clients languish in their fair dinkum fortune cookie businesses.

I’m not sure if it’s the same guy’s work, but a distant Chinese-Australian cousin I met at uni told me her father told her that her grandfather participated in the Long March. A check with my dad later revealed that the only march that cousin’s family ever did was around the Katong area, together with the other wealthier Hainanese families who, I’m told, populated that district back in the day.

There was also another Hainanese enclave in the Upper Thomson area, which was known alternatively as the estate with 800 (terrace) houses or Hainan Hill.

I’m not sure whether that’s really true, as I know of only two Hainanese families who used to live there, and the same Hainanese relative who told me this also told me that the embattled Malaysian PM has Hainanese blood, as does the wife of Cambodian PM Hun Sen. Lubricate this relative a little with some traditional Hainanese drink, and he’ll tell you how Hainanese the Soong Sisters were, and how the Americans should vote for Hilary Clinton because she has Hainanese blood.

I understand why so many diasporic ethnic groups yearn for some connection to some glorious ancestry (excepting of course, the Anglo-Celtic Australians). This is especially so if you happen to be ethnic Chinese. You have some of the universe’s most common surnames, like mine, and there’s not much distinguishing you from the other 1.4 billion lookalikes.

Take Peranakan Chinese for instance, they’re immensely proud of their heritage, even if it means they’re only Baba through marriage via second cousins thrice removed. I’ve heard of some boasting of a genealogical line dating to Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He), notwithstanding the fact that he was a eunuch. At the temple to Cheng Ho in Malacca (known as San Bao Kung), hundreds of Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese pilgrims pay their respects each year to that great Muslim eunuch admiral for planting the um… seeds of their rich Straits heritage.

My ethnic relations, on the other hand, made a world famous cocktail drink, and I’m rather proud of that, and I wouldn’t have wanted a lineage of warriors and other martial heroes. Eating is always better than fighting, as a Hainanese saying would go, if there was such a saying.

And so we were eating together some time during the fifteen days of Chinese New Year, at a non-Hainanese restaurant, when the topic of Hainanese greatness was brought up. A scientifically inclined cousin who is a very high-ranking office bearer at a local university thought it sensible to burst our collective bubble, lest we conjured glorious but unrealistic images of past Hainanese Heroes.

“Hainanese is not a race, lah!”, he said.

“Yah I know, but”… I said.

“It’s just a dialect group from south of China, that’s why it’s called Hai Nam – South Sea”, he said.

“Yah I know, but why do people say Hainanese men have a flat patch at the back of their large heads and have high foreheads?”, I said.

“Rubbish”, frowned Scientific Cousin, rubbing the flat patch at the back of his large head.

“But as a dialect group, we’ve managed to create national foods for two countries – Singapore and Russia“, I said.

“And there’s one more. Chicken Droppings Dessert. That would have been a great national dish if they changed the name”, I said some more.

“Chicken Droppings Dessert?”, asked Scientific Cousin, at which point, the rest of the Cousins triumphantly explained that it was a traditional Hainanese dish made from some unknown herb, and that if you were to ask any old Hainanese timer what the herb was, he or she would simply tell you, “Chicken Droppings Plant lah! Don’t ask so much, just eat the shit cos it’s good for you.”

I’ve only ever tasted the dish, Guay Dai Bua, literally translated as “A Bowl Of Chicken Droppings”, once, on a trip to Hainan, and I was chuffed to discover another Singaporean-Hainanese make the pilgrimage and sample from the holy grail of sorts.

Lee Xian Jie has documented his trip with many photographs of the Old Country, and his blog is a good place to visit if you’re ever interested about Hainan and her peoples (with large heads and high foreheads).

It makes me all proud and queasy at the same time, which is what being Hainanese is all about.