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How these Singaporeans are keeping their heritage alive

From preserving heirloom recipes to documenting the history of Pulau Ubin.

Kevin Lee

Heirloom Recipes

  • Kevin Lee Poon Chillis Sauce

    Kevin Lee and Poon’s Chilli Sauce.

By day, Kevin Lee runs Invisible Photography Asia, a platform for photography and visual arts which organises events, exhibitions and workshops to shine a spotlight on emerging photographers in the region.

But on the weekends, you are more likely to find Mr Lee, 46, slaving over a stove, frying up Poon’s Chilli Sauce – a fiery concoction of chilli, spices, peanuts and Sichuan peppercorns – named after his late father. Since he started in June, he’s sold about 200 bottles, the proceeds of which will go towards a cookbook tribute to his Dad.

The elder Mr Poon – due to poor record keeping, father and son have different last names – was a successful restaurateur in Fiji before he retired and moved to Singapore. He died of heart failure in 2018. Mr Lee, a naturalised Singaporean says, “I feel indebted to him so I decided to cook 100 meals and recipes as a project in his memory.”

Father and son were close, if not affectionate. “He was an old-school father. I remember him going to the markets every morning in Fiji to buy fresh produce for the restaurant, and staying with him late into the night until the last customer left so we could close shop and drive home,” recalls Mr Lee.

He hopes to finish the cookbook, titled Hundred Daughters, Hundred Patience, A Hundred Meals, by the end of 2019. It will be self-published with a print run of 500 to 1000 copies.

The title comes from his father’s name. Mr Lee’s grandparents had named their son Pak Nui, or ‘hundred daughters’ in Cantonese, to fool the demons a soothsayer told them were out to get their only son. His father later changed it to Pak Noi, or ‘hundred patience’.

The recipes are inspired by the family’s history – from the rice farms of Kaiping, China, where Mr Lee’s father was originally from, to the sugar cane fields of Fiji, to Singapore’s HDB heartlands. He includes family recipes as well as those from his father’s restaurant, and even those he picked up while living in Singapore. Examples include Kokoda, a tangy chilli Fijian fish ceviche, and Scrap Pot Curry, a spicy curry made from chicken bones, prawn heads and discarded parts that became a staff meal in his father’s restaurant.

For the book, Mr Lee would cook and photograph a dish a day at home in Tiong Bahru, ending up with 150 dishes in all. Some failed, some took time to perfect and finally, he whittled the list down to the final 100. “My mother, wife, sister and helper were my food critics,” he laughs.

Mr Lee hopes that those who buy the book will be inspired to try the recipes and learn “not only my family’s history, but a universal story of migration and identity which are relevant topics today”. It would be even better, he adds, “if they took the recipes and adapted it to reflect their own taste and history.

Order Poon’s Chilli Sauce from kevinwylee.com/100recipes.

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Kevin Martens Wong

Kristang Revival

  • Kevin Martes Wong

    Kevin Martens Wong started the Kodrah Kristang movement.

The next time you meet a Portugese-Eurasian pal, say “Oi, teng bong?” Chances are he may be able to understand that you are saying “Hello, how are you” in Kristang.

Kristang is a creole of Portuguese and Malay that evolved after the Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511. With intermarriage, a new pidgin evolved that combined the two languages, with influences from Hokkien, Dutch, Konkani, Malayalam, Hakka, Cantonese and Indian varieties of
Creole Portuguese. Kristang was commonly spoken among the Eurasians as recently as a century ago, but by the 1930s, started to decline as English emerged as the lingua franca.

Kevin Martens Wong, 27, a teacher at Eunoia Junior college, is the founder of Kodrah Kristang (Awaken, Kristang), a revitalisation initiative to keep Kristang alive.

The Eurasian-Chinese linguistics graduate who speaks several other languages, picked up Kristang from older Eurasians, and could speak it fluently in two months. For the past three years, together with a small group of Kristang speakers, they started to run classes at Cairnhill Community Club, and have taught about 500 students since.

Along the way, Mr Wong has also held a Kristang Language Festival, produced a Kristang online dictionary and a board game.

Two-thirds of their Kristang language students are Eurasians of all ages, including entire families.

“I studied linguistics in junior college and university, and for me, learning and teaching Kristang is my way of preserving Singapore’s linguistic diversity,” says Mr Wong, who converses in Kristang with this grandparents.

“I’m greatly encouraged that Kodrah Kristang has helped create stronger interpersonal relationship among Eurasians and get even non-Eurasians to be interested in the culture,” he says.

For example, Mr Wong’s distant cousin Andre D’Rozario, felt disconnected from the Eurasian community before he learnt Kristang. “I heard about Kristang but didn’t know where to learn it before. But now I speak it to my grandpa and aunts,” says Mr D’Rozario, who has been teaching Kristang for the past year.

Mr Wong’s plans for Kodrah Kristang are to keep classes going, do more research on the language, and to expand resources for Kristang.

Follow facebook.com/kodrahkristang for class schedules.

Syazwan Majid

Pulau Ubin’s custodian

  • Syazwan Majid

    Syazwan Majid, a Pulau Ubin community liaison officer

As a child, Syazwan Majid wasn’t entertained with fairy tales or nursery rhymes. Instead, his mother would tell him stories about kampung life in Pulau Ubin, where she grew up.

The stories used to irk the now 22-year-old who failed to see the relevance “given how I was growing up in modern Singapore in the 2000s.” But as he grew older, he began to appreciate his mum’s nostalgic pining for kampung life.

His mum, Noorriah Sulong, lived on Pulau Ubin for over 30 years before moving to the mainland in 1989. During the school holidays, the family made day trips to Pulau Ubin, when she would rent a tandem bicycle, and they would have a picnic by Chek Jawa before visiting former neighbours.

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“It was mum’s vision of a kampung being her true home that sparked in me a desire to find this joy that she missed,” says Mr Syazwan, who made more frequent visits to the island in the last few years to learn more about his late grandparents and the family’s former home.

In 2018, he started an online journal to document his visits and interaction with Ubin residents.

He also set out to find 818K, the family’s old home. He succeeded after a few months with the help of old archival maps and speaking with residents. The wooden house had been abandoned for three decades, and only the foundation stones remained.

“Even then, I was so relieved and excited. I felt like I was reconnected to a heritage I had long been apart from,” he says. “I felt the same as my mum did at my age, and I felt a closeness to my grandparents just to be at the exact spot where they raised my mum and her siblings.” His mum was on the verge of tears when she saw that the house her father built from scratch was no more.

Mr Syazwan is now a Pulau Ubin community liaison officer, “engaging with the residents to find ways to improve their quality of life while advocating for the preservation of the rustic charm of kampung life,” he says.

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He has also started a monthly cleanup exercise on the island with a group of volunteers, helping elderly residents to trim their yards and clear bulky refuse. “It’s the least I can do for them to help maintain the beauty of their kampung homes,” says Mr Syazwan.

“I hope that my journey of retracing my family heritage will inspire others to do the same,” he says. “Everyone has their own stories and it is in each of these stories that we’re able to build our own identity.”

See details of WUJ Kampong Clean-up at wansubinjournal.blogspot.com.

Raymond Khoo

Growing the Peranakan culture

  • Raymond Khoo of The Peranakan

    Raymond Khoo, executive chef and founder of The Peranakan.

Having dabbled in French, Indian, and Spanish cuisine during his 30 years in F&B, and after some years working in Macau, Raymond Khoo hankered for a cuisine closer to his heart, namely Peranakan.

Five years ago, Mr Khoo, 56, started The Peranakan restaurant on Orchard Road, cooking up decades-old recipes that were handed down by the Nonyas and Babas in his family.

The restaurant serves classics such as ayam buah keluak and babi pong teh. On weekends, it is popular with families, while corporate clients make up the majority of customers on weekdays. The restaurant gets a mixed bag of guests from all over.

While the older generation are familiar with such dishes, he finds that younger diners are often lost as to what to order. “It is not good enough to just have older diners. We want younger ones because food is a way to keep traditional heritage alive,” he says. So he started a high tea menu that includes toast with buah keluakand nasi ulam to introduce diners to Peranakan cuisine.

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To make his menu more inclusive, he has also introduced a vegetarian version, using mock meat in dishes such as ayam pongteh and fish assam pedas. He is happy to cater to vegetarians, “so that more people can enjoy Peranakan food,” he says.

Mr Khoo’s push for Peranakan culture doesn’t stop at just food. This year marks the third Peranakan Festival, which he organises, for people to discover more about the Peranakan culture. There are special menus created, including wine and sake pairings to show the versatility of Peranakan cuisine.

He also has invited experts to give talks on porcelain, textiles and how to invest in Peranakan jewellery.

He has also taken it upon himself to open a gallery dedicated to all things Peranakan. Located next to the restaurant, The Peranakan Gallery features an elaborate 20-seater Tok Panjang table set with exquisitely-crafted Nonya ceramics, Chinese porcelain and Waterford crystalware; and
other artefacts such as tiffin carriers and enamel chamber pots. Mr Khoo has also set up a small retail area outside the restaurant selling kebayas, brooches and beaded slippers.

He hopes to start language and beading classes later in the year at the Gallery, and maybe even offer cooking lessons.

Mr Khoo is waving the Peranakan flag high on his own, because he feels the promotion of Peranakan culture done by associations is limited to their members. “The associations do good work, but I want to reach out more to the public,” he says.

He adds that it has been challenging promoting Peranakan culture on his own, but “the biggest satisfaction has been the ability to create this curiosity with a wider audience.”

The Peranakan is at 442 Orchard Road, Level 2, Claymore Connect. Details of The Peranakan Festival at theperanakanfestival.com.

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.