A Drinkable History of My Family
We are Teochew, people of the coast.
Fish sauce, more than hot food, opera, more than even yam paste desserts - is what defines us as a people. It is what we live for, what fuels us; there is no life without it. We live for the very hot, and the very salty.
My grandfather was a sturdy, if a little tiny, Teochew man who was much shorter than his wife. Like many patriarchs of his generation, if he even had a name, you would have never known. You simply thought of him as ah gong. On his birthdays when we sang birthday songs to him we did so in Mandarin, Teochew, and then in English. Every time we got to his name we were usually stumped. He did not like us saying his name anyway - it sounded too much like “turtle”, he said - so we clapped, said “happy birthday ah gong tee hee hee”, laughed at the incongruence, and stuffed our faces with cake.
Ah gong introduced me to fish sauce. He must have. We were close for a Chinese grandparent-grandchild duo of the eighties - we played Chinese chess, and snakes and ladders, in near silence most afternoons - but he was at his most animated when we ate porridge with preserved vegetables and steamed fish. Which was every afternoon.
If you hold your chopsticks that way you are going to move very far from home.
Kopi-C Siew Dai
Utter silence punctuated by occasional outbursts of snark. That hum of snarky silence dominated our lives, or at least mine. On hot Singapore afternoons in our tiny three-room flat, I never noticed the silence. Those damned SBC afternoon dramas masked the silence. The plod of Grandma’s food processor distracted me from the silence. The jingle of the Raymond Weil sponsored news programmes were so loud I could not hear the silence. But the snark always jumped straight through the roof.
Next to fish sauce, we liked coffee most. It was any kind of caffeine really, but coffee was king. More than that, it was the promise of a decently made local coffee, the sock kopi, with two fingers’ worth with condensed milk and a very loud kopitiam server shouting in Hokkien, that we liked best. Those damned Hokkien people can’t talk softly.
We went to the kopitiam together in the mornings, on the mornings when I could wake up anyway. Ah gong liked routine, so much so that I have never seen him in anything other than a singlet and a pair of blue bermudas and brown, serious grandpa sandals. He had a wardrobe full of the same thing for different ages. He could dress you up exactly like him if you asked him to. This routine man’s routine began before daybreak at the seaside.
He would walk by the seaside, smirking at the taichi parade, not understanding why anybody would submit themselves to the torture of wearing red shirts with white pants. He would walk by the streamers of the Chinese dance contingent fielded by the neighbourhood’s grannies, not understanding why anybody would wave little pieces of cloth around to awful music at 7 in the morning.
He would understand, or at least try to, why the kopitiam could never get his order right (“because Ah Zoh got fired from his job and Ah Orh, who was hired to replace him, is a little slow in the brain”). He could fathom everything he needed to know in a second, but he could never understand why his coffee was never-quite-right everywhere he went.
Lou Swa Ga Hai
When the people of the coast speak of our motherland, we do not say China. We do not say we are zhong guo ren - when we speak of the zhong guo ren we are speaking of those people who look like us but who are really from someplace else. We say we are the people of the Tang Dynasty, we say we are the people from the coast. In our language there is no way of saying we are anything else. Even today we say our “home”, this home most of us have never been to, is in the mountain, by the sea.
The zhong guo ren eat rice and vegetables. We eat real porridge, unlike the Cantonese who break their rice grains and pretend to make soup. If a single rice grain breaks we throw all our porridge away, and start again.
There is more water in our porridge than there is grain, but not too much. The grains should clump together, but not too much. The porridge should, like us, be of the mountain and of the sea. A bowl of porridge must physically resemble a mountain in a sea, swa ga hai. Mountain and sea.
If the Cantonese, who believe themselves to be the masters of Chinese cuisine, have perfected the roast, we are the kings of the braise.
A bowl of our porridge might taste of nothing unless you are one of us. If you were one of us, our gaginang, you would know how to eat it - with the amount of fish sauce, with a dozen side dishes. With a salted egg and with a big bowl of braised pork and eggs.
Eating the rest of the meal is simple, anyone can get that.
Every time ah gong ate his Teochew porridge, which was everyday at lunch, he would pour a large amount of braise sauce into his porridge, making it become the colour of dark earth.
Lou, ga swa ka hai. Braise, and seas and mountains, he would say.
Without a comma, and with one small shift in intonation, eating this meal with him everyday was about raising, not braising, seas and mountains each time he spoke at length with me.
Ah gong may have been a man of few words but we drank the sea and ate the mountains together everyday.
At the hospital he was in some pain. Not a lot, but you could tell no matter how naturally stoic he tried to remain, he was not going to make it. I had to go to see him from Europe, made it just barely in time, and I like to think he waited for me. Or for something.
In the year since I moved out of the country I had been back only for Chinese New Year, and I had missed his last moments where he had been confined in a wheelchair. He could no longer go on daily walks, nor could he go to the toilet unassisted, but he kept his mind steely by asking everyone endless questions about their lives. He kept his wits about by observing our neighbours and their daily lives from his vantage point, his wheelchair.
The telephone was not made for people like my ah gong. Skype was an invention he could tolerate a little better, and only for the joy of watching someone on the other side of the world appear on the screen. The moment your image was formed he was no longer interested in speaking in sentences to you. That whole year all we ever spoke about was about burqahs and bak chor mee. I was in the Middle East that whole year and he was convinced I led a bak chor mee – less existence inside a burqah. Which was only half true (the pork, not the fashion sense).
For someone like ah gong who led a relatively difficult life and who was not really a part of the modern world with all its trappings and assumptions, he did not get to - nor did he want to - experience anymore than what he already had, which was adoption, migration, war, poverty and distance.
He had few cravings other than for Teochew porridge and preserved olive leaves, steamed fish and fish sauce.
When we were by his side, teary, he could not speak much by that point. He had no teary goodbyes or pent-up messages for anyone. He had no epiphanies but silence.
But he asked for his daughter.
When she, crying as only she could, sidled up to him he gathered his breath and whispered, “Bring me bubble tea. Apparently it’s delicious.”
We searched everywhere for bubble tea, we really did, but did not search fast enough. He could not wait.
And then Michael Jackson died the next day and the whole world forgot about the man who had never had bubble tea.
Sometimes I wish could have been there when he finally gave up on life and on bubble tea. He would have ranted, in Teochew, that tea isn’t meant to be this milky, and what the hell are these bloody balls?