The docile Chinese female: a western fantasy.

I’m always amused whenever a middle-aged white guy writes to me asking me if I’m single, which, in the last couple of years, has been happening fairly regularly. For reasons I have yet to determine, it appears I give out “Asian mail order bride” vibes. At times, I don’t know whether to remove all my pictures from the web or simply say, “Hey mate. I’m not the right type of Asian girl for you.”

Not just because I’m married.

I think it is a white male fantasy fuelled by Hollywood depictions of us, Asian chicks, (Cue: Suzy Wong, the Last Samurai, Memoirs of a Geisha) that we are all docile and subservient. That may be true of Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Filipino women – and even among them I’m sure there are many exceptions – but Chinese women in general are renown for  being tigers, not just as mothers but as spouses.

Ask any modern Chinese mother-in-law and she’ll tell you that her son listens to his wife just a bit too much for her liking. Aside from bringing home the bacon, many of our men cook, care for children and contrary to all the studies done on male participation at home, help around the house. If at all they do none of these things, it’s likely that we, as tiger spouses, have failed to train them. Either that or we must have been stupid to have picked someone who resists training. It does seem harsh but yes, you read correctly: stupid.

Comparing notes, we say to each other, “That stupid so and so, working like a dog for her good for nothing beep beep beep.”

Nodding, the most probable rejoinder to this would be, “Yes and she should just kick him to the curb.”

While our other Asian sisters take immense pride in how few hours of sleep they get catering to the various tastes and needs of family members, we get a thrill every time someone turns to us and says, “Wow. Your husband can not only make money, but he cooks and cleans too?

One of my friend’s husbands not only makes enough for his wife to stay home reading magazines all day, he calls when he is about to leave the office to ask what she’d like him to buy home for their dinner. Another cooks and cares for his children on his off-work days so his wife can have some time to herself. Defying gender stereotypes, many are so hands on with their children, you’d think they don’t have day jobs.

I’m not a white guy but I’m betting the Chinese tiger is not the type of girl one hopes to land when one goes searching for an Asian woman online. At any rate, should I return as a male in my next lifetime, I will probably go for a Vietnamese, Thai or Filipino girl. Why? Because in my next lifetime, I’ll still need someone who brings home the bacon and cooks it too! Don’t you notice how hardworking Vietnamese, Thai and Filipino women are?

The typical Vietnamese woman is expected to help support the family, cook for all her husband’s relatives while her man goes out drinking with his buddies. In Australia, she typically owns a bread shop, a nail salon or perhaps one of those $10 a hair cut places. Filipino women will help their men by running a highly successful take-away shop. Thai women I’ve observed have jobs as masseurs, hotel cleaners or restaurant operators. If I marry any one of them in my next lifetime, I’ll be at the back of the shop, sitting next to the till, counting money. No fierce, controlling, ball-breaking, Chinese woman for me.

Even HRH likes to joke about wanting me to be a good “Japanese wife” just to rile me up. He’s says I’m cute when I’m angry.

“What is that?” I bark.

“Someone who makes a nice warm meal for breakfast, bento boxes for lunch, washes my feet when I come home…”

“And?” I eye him with one raised eyebrow.

“And nothing,” he smiles. “I love you just the way you are.”

Now there’s a smart guy who knows it’s best not to piss off someone you have to sleep next to for the next forty years.

What is a Peranakan face? How is it different from a regular Chinese face?

I get asked these 2 questions a lot from my “regular” Chinese friends, who don’t dispute I look different to them – in fact, many insist I do – but often wonder why. So in the interest of advancing everyone’s common knowledge, I thought I’d share with you what I’ve found, based upon hours and hours of scrutinising people’s faces, both over the internet and in real life. Yes, and while you weren’t paying attention, I was scrutinising you too.

Before I go any further, I should point out 2 things: 1) Peranakan’s do identify as Chinese, but also identify as Peranakan. It really depends on who you talk to and how aware they are of their cultural and ethnic heritage. 2) Many look like “regular” Chinese, but equally, in those who still have a lot of Peranakan in them (I’ve notice you need at least 50% of the genes), there is a marked difference.

Now what exactly is this difference? Before I go into the dry bits of this analysis, here are some pictures of well-known Peranakans for you to feast your eyes on.

A picture of Godfrey Gao, the first Asian Male Supermodel.

A picture of Godfrey Gao, the first Asian Male Supermodel. 

Godfrey’s Gao’s mother is a Peranakan from Penang and his father is a Taiwanese. He stands 195 cm tall and has the distinction of being the first Asian male to serve as the face of Louis Vuitton – which did not impress HRH much, since when I asked him how he’d feel if our son looked like this in future (given that 1 of my cousins DOES look strikingly similar) he went, “Bleh. He’s just riding on his looks.”

Below is another one for the ladies.

A picture of Godfrey Gao.

A picture of Godfrey Gao.

Then of course there’s Pierre Png, a Singaporean actor and comedian of Peranakan descent, who’s made many a heart flutter when he was younger.

A picture of Pierre Png from Singapore.

A picture of Pierre Png from Singapore.

HRH wasn’t too impressed by him either. “Show me some girls,” he said.

And here’s a shot of Pierre Png taken by a fan. He looks like another cousin of mine.

A picture of Pierre Png taken by a fan.

A picture of Pierre Png taken by a fan.

Then there’s Agnes Monica, a famous Indonesian singer who also identifies as Peranakan.

A picture of Agnes Monica of Indonesia.

A picture of Agnes Monica of Indonesia.

And so the gentlemen reading this post can’t say I’m unfair, here’s another picture of Agnes Monica.

A picture of Agnes Monica from Indonesia

A picture of Agnes Monica from Indonesia.

What you’ll notice about Peranakan faces is that most are long with very distinct jawlines. By contrast, most “regular” Chinese have round to oval faces with soft to non-existent jawlines. With Peranakan faces, the brow bones, bridge of the nose, cheekbones and chins all protrude. In “regular” Chinese, even those with rectangular faces, only the cheekbones are usually pronounced.

Apart from that, almost all Peranakan faces have what East Asians refer to as “double-eyelids.” Simply put, Peranakan eyelids have folds in them. Compared to “regular” Chinese with God-given double eyelids (I have to stress the God-given part since double-eyelid surgery is extremely popular in East Asia), the crease on Peranakan eyes is a lot deeper so that when the eyes open, they appear to be more deep-set.

I’ve also found Peranakans to have much finer hair. One of my “regular” Chinese friends who’s married a “regular” Chinese-looking Peranakan has a kid with light brown hair. The face looks like that of a “regular” Chinese but the hair colour prompts questions of parentage. Her other kid has thick, black, wiry, Chinese locks.

Perhaps it’s the weight gain later in life, but the older a Peranakan gets, the more “regular” Chinese looking he or she becomes. Faces remain long and the protrusions are all still there, but it’s as if the extra fat softens out the very contours that make the Peranakan face so visibly different from “regular” Chinese faces in mid-life to old age.

There is a lot of variation in skin-tone even within the same family. Very few Peranakan are whiter than white; most are a mid-tone, coffee with lots of milk colour and some too are very dark-skinned. My own skin-tone can easily go up or down 5 shades within a year. During winter, “regular” Chinese remark I look fair. If you ask me, I look borderline anaemic.

“Regular” Chinese like HRH, have a more constant skin-tone. Even with extreme changes in weather and temperature, the most his skin changes is 1 shade either way. Many of my “regular” Chinese friends report burning as a result of being in strong sun. If at all they tan, it takes a very long time for their skin to lighten. By comparison, I tan easily. However, after being out of the sun for a couple of weeks, the colour simply goes away.




The common gripe of oldies: “They have their own life”

Sometimes, after my early morning trip to the loo,  I cannot go back to bed. When that happens, my mind usually gets into all sorts of high jinks, pondering the imponderable. Lately, I’ve been wondering what the oldies mean when they say their children “have their own life.” Do they mean it literally, as in the young un’s are very busy raising their own families and progressing their careers? Or do they mean it euphemistically, in that they, the oldies, have been excluded from this “new life”?

Back before I went to college, my mother once told me, “The market traders don’t want to send their children to college because then, these children will return, thinking they are too good for their roots anymore.”

At the time, I thought my mother was over-identifying with people 20 years older than herself and these market traders, selfish. After all, the very reason to send your kids off to college is for them to rise above their backgrounds, or is it not? I thought it was contrarian to the Chinese ideal of having one generation improve on the one before.

Then, as you are well aware, I grew up, migrated West, married and had Amanda, who’s eight and a half. During these early morning involuntary sessions of mental gymnastics, it occurs to me that one day, less than 10 years from now, Amanda will be (hopefully) in university having “her own life.” What this means causes me no end of anxiety, especially since I’ve discovered, from observing Aussie parents with university-aged children, this means she’ll flee the nest, possibly never to return, except to scrounge off me and HRH! Oh, horror of horrors!

It doesn’t help that like my mother, I’ve been accumulating friends a good deal older than me. In fact, most of the people I talk to regularly are older than I am. 3 are my mother’s age – which they and I, occasionally find hard to believe. I suppose the difference in my relationship with them and them with their children is that I am not their child. Who I am and what I am, filial or prodigal, is no reflection of their success or failure as parents. We’re just friends who talk a lot, quite often I’ve found, about their now-grown children.

Now and then they introduce me to their other friends, folks their age, who also say to me, “My children have their own life”, with what I would interpret to be a resigned look of melancholy in the eyes.

Then they’ll go on to tell me how they have to make appointments to drop by, how their children blame them for some shortcoming in their parenting, how their children want to borrow money off them, or blame them for not having money, or, most heart-breakingly of all, not want to have anything to do with them. Except for when they need a free babysitter or things fixed.

This is happening right around Australia,” a friend of one of my 3 much-older friends told me. “Our children have lives of their own and these lives don’t include us.”

One of my 3 much-older friends said, “I never thought I’d experience homelessness since 3 of my children each live in 4 bedroom houses.” But when she suddenly fell ill and was unable to work for a spell, that’s precisely what happened. “I ended up camping in my car by the lake in Shenton Park. If you go to the lake when it’s dark, you’ll see many cars parked around it. Everyone’s homeless.”

But what did she do to deserve this cold treatment from her children?

“My eldest blames me for being broke.” She has 2 postgraduate degrees, which I verified by googling her name so you can’t call me a sucker for a sob story. “My second says that he’s got his own life. He doesn’t have money to lend me.”

“Couldn’t he have sent you a ticket to go bunk with him for a while?” I asked.

“His partner wouldn’t have liked me living with them. She doesn’t have family staying over either.”

“What about your youngest?”

She put her youngest through private school by working 2 jobs.

“My youngest couldn’t accommodate me because her in-laws were visiting.”

Fortunately a kind friend of hers stepped in to provide temporary shelter. She’s since moved to one of the Eastern States, from which she hopes to complete her book on textiles for publication. She said she might send me an extra-special present at Christmas.

Then there is “long-backside” who corners me every time I leave the house. HRH and I nicknamed her thus because if ever she corners you, you’ll lose 2 hours of your time listening to her yap, quite often about nothing.

One day, Long-backside came up to me as I was enjoying the sun in front of my next door neighbour’s house. Right away I knew I was going to be stuck wherever I was for the next 2 hours. Long-backside first talked about a neighbour’s new baby – someone I’ve only said hello to once – then about her new teeth, then about the time when her own kids were young – how she bathed them, played with them, read to them – when I suddenly asked, “How old are they now?”

I didn’t want to stop this old lady from reminiscing but it seemed to me she was talking as though they were dead.

They’re all in their forties with lives of their own.”

And right there was the reason why she wanted to talk about them for a good hour.

“How often do you see them?” I asked.

“We meet up at Christmas,” she said. “The boys have always been close to each other but the eldest blames me for the divorce and the youngest wants nothing to do with me.”

I felt sad for her and thought about the many friends I have, my age, who are reading, bathing and playing with their babies, toddlers and young children. I thought too about my many educated Asian friends who extol the benefits of Westernised parenting: they say their children will have better social skills, be more independent, creative, open-minded. But how does one go from having this close relationship between parent and child to not having any relationship at all? If you give your child everything, will they appreciate you or turn around, as adults, to criticise your efforts using the the eloquence and lateral thought you nurtured?

People who’ve known me a long while say I’ve become a lot more conservative in my outlook of life. I think the word they’re groping for is “cynical.”

At the start of my parenting journey, I was determined to discard the shackles of my own conservative, very Asian upbringing. I was going to give my offspring the most Westernised of Western parenting: they were going to have complete freedom of thought, speech and action. They were going to be independent of me and my archaic views. When I grow old, they were going to be independent of me, period.

Then, while having coffee, or just minding my own business, I made friends with all these old, white, Aussies. The men seem to accept the empty nest situation well enough, but most women want to reminisce of the times when their children were young. I’m no psychologist but I sit there thinking that they want to relive the days when their children loved them unconditionally.

What does the future hold for our children?

A month ago, Lucy and I had morning coffee after dropping our children off at school. Since she was about to go back to work and we wouldn’t be meeting for a while, our coffee went on longer than usual; we talked about all the job cuts in the mining industry – at the time, 3 mining giants had already laid off workers – the effects this might have on the economy in the months to come and whether a recession was likely. Being mums, our conversation inevitably meandered to our children and the sort of a future that is in store for them.

The future is not looking too good,” said Lucy and I couldn’t disagree with her.

Based on what I’ve seen, we’re indeed going downhill. 20 years ago, you could get a decent house in an outer suburb of Melbourne for $80k. Today, that same house in a now-established suburb is hovering around the $1m mark. If it’s a new house, it’s easily $1.5m. In moneyed suburbs closer to the city, $1.5m might get you a new 3 bedroom apartment or a dilapidated  house.

It’s the same story where I live in Perth: $1.5 gets you an unrenovated  brick-dwelling built in the late 60s or early 70s. If you want a semi-renovated 4 bedder, you’re looking to pay more than $2.5m. You could get something new for that price, but the acreage would be much smaller. You could live many suburbs away in a different direction, where you can get a decent 3 bedder for under $400k, but that area is not likely to have good schools or as long a list of amenities. If it does, it’s not going to remain that price for long.

With the average Aussie full-time wage hovering just above $70k per annum, any old fool can see that home ownership is beyond the means of many. While we don’t have China’s “ant-tribe” – a demographic of highly educated low-paid people – to contend with, what I’m seeing is the emergence of a generation that can’t give it’s children the very comforts and privileges they currently enjoy.

Let’s go back to housing. With house prices climbing steadily in the capital cities, very few of our children will be able to buy in the area they’ve grown up in. Even fewer will be able to buy homes like the ones they’re presently occupying. They might be able to rent, but for some, that too might be out of their reach.

The thing is there’ll just be fewer opportunities,” added Lucy, and again, I couldn’t disagree with her. Mechanisation and moving production to lower cost centres might be vital for business enterprises to survive, but it doesn’t bode well for future entrants to the labour force.

“But our children aren’t going to be working in factories!” you protest. “What does mechanisation and cost cutting have to do with them?”

You know what? I bet those in the IT industry pre-Y2K said exactly the same thing. Now their jobs have gone to people in India; folks with PHDs willing to work for the wages commanded by bachelor degree holders over here. The thing is, and I’ve said this to F, who disbelieves me, people working in factories in third world countries do not want their children to also be working in factories when they grow up. They have dreams, and their tenacity to achieve those dreams would astound many over here; you don’t have to look far, just the sports pages from during the last Olympics will tell you how determined and fiercely competitive they are. And in the future, what they’ll vie for is not just our jobs but a standard of living comparable with ours. The big question is, “What will our children’s standard of living be like then?” I foresee that in the future, the ant tribe won’t just be limited to China.


Best places to eat in Brisbane.

My cousin Peggy, visiting Brisbane from Malaysia, asked me late last week if I have any good eating places to recommend. Off the top of my head, all I could think of was Thai Wi Rat in the Valley, where I used to go often for grilled cat fish (Pla Dook Yang) and while they still had it on the menu, cat fish floss salad (Pla Dook Fu).

Then I remembered Pho Hoang Gia on the corner of Wickham St and Kemp Place, where I went for savoury pancakes filled with seafood and served with raw vegetables (Banh Xeo) and had some of the best beef stew (Bo Kho) and I realised that I have to, just have to, compile a list so as to do  justice to all the fabulous eating places I’ve frequented.

Okay, this list is going to come across as biased since most of these eating places (apart from those in the Valley) are either in the 4101 (where I lived for 3 years) or in Sunnybank (where I shopped most weekends), but I wouldn’t be true to my palate if I excluded them.

Price range is indicated by $ for cheap, $$ moderate and $$$ for please bring more cash. In the order of cuisine, here they are:


1) Malaya Corner – good Hainanese Chicken Rice, fried radish cake (Char Kueh Kak), herbal  pork soup (Bah Kut Teh) and complimentary soup (which you can buy for $2 a bowl, if like me, you like soup). $

2) Dapur Dahlia – best satay in whole of Brisbane and possibly Australia. They run a stall at the West End Riverside market on Saturdays but if you need your fix of authentic Malay food on other days, you can check out their take away shop in Upper Mount Gravatt. $$

3) Singapore Corner – despite the name, they have very good Malaysian food. $

A picture of me in Malaya Corner having Chicken Rice and $2 soup.

A picture of me in Malaya Corner having Chicken Rice and $2 soup.


1) Parkland – for yum cha and dinner. You can find gigantic tanks filled with sea critters right out the front. $$

2) Landmark – also for yum cha and dinner. The “sister shop” of Parkland, this is the old favourite of yum cha devotees. $$

3) The shop next to KFC in Sunnybank for Szechuan food. $

4) Little Hong Kong for roast meats, congee and noodles. I also like their complimentary Chinese tea which washes away the oil very well and eases that heavy feeling at the end of a meal. $

5) Bamboo Basket for dumplings, buns and Shanghainese favourites made-to-order. $$


1) Bombay Dhaba – excellent South Indian thali every Sunday, good North Indian food at all other times. $$

2) Riverside Malaysian Restaurant – fantastic goat curry and South Indian fare. $$

 A picture of me and Amanda at Riverside Malaysian restaurant in Highgate Hill.

A picture of me and Amanda at Riverside Malaysian restaurant in Highgate Hill.

A picture of Masala Chaat at Bombay Dhaba in Brisbane.

A picture of Masala Chaat at Bombay Dhaba in Brisbane.


1) Madtongsan 1 & 2 – good one-bowl specials and dumplings. Madtongsan 2 has a loyalty card that gives you free dumplings whenever you visit, or so it appeared to me. $

2) Hong Depot – beautifully marbled cuts of wagyu for the BBQ, lunch specials from $10. $$

3) The shop on the first floor of Diana Plaza in the Gabba – specials like Korean steak tartare (Beef Yukke) for 50% less if dining between 5 and 6 pm, Monday to Friday. $$

4) O-Bal-tan – if you like your meats cut into finger-sized chunks, as opposed to sliced. $$


1) Sono – everything is delicious and service is exemplary, however be prepared to pay up to $100 per head for dinner, especially if having sake with food. $$$

2) Sakura – Amanda loves the steak tartare (known in Japanese as Beef Yukhoe), HRH and I like the sashimi and the raw squid with fermented soy beans (Ika Nato). $$$

3) Hakataya Ramen – with 2 outlets in Sunnybank and 1 on the Gold Coast, their ramen is number 1 in all of Brisbane. Be sure to go early to avoid long queues. $

 A picture of Ika Natto at Sakura Restaurant in Brisbane.

A picture of Ika Natto at Sakura Restaurant in Brisbane.


1) Kuan Yin in the Valley – it’s a no-frills diner but the Taiwanese-style vegetarian food is great. $

2) Tea Master in the Valley – also a no-frills, offering Malaysian-style vegetarian food. $

3) The Forest Cafe and Bar – wholesome vegan cuisine, the highlight of which for me is their cheesecake. Biting into it, you won’t know it’s stuffed full of tofu. $

4) SOL Breads – they make yummy soups in winter and have quiches and salads the whole year round. $

 Is it real or is it fake? A picture of vegetarian chicken rice at Tea Master in Fortitude Valley.

Is it real or is it fake? A picture of vegetarian chicken rice at Tea Master in Fortitude Valley.


1) Viet Hoa – I used to go there so often they even made me porridge when I was sick. They even had a pet name for me, since they couldn’t pronounce or remember Estella – “Malai Mui”. All I can say is their wanton soup is the best in Brisbane, as is the pho, and best of all, they don’t use MSG in their cooking. $

2) Pho Hoang Gia – for Viet pancakes (Banh Xeo) and beef stew (Bo Kho). $

3) Trang Restaurant – pho comes in baby size, regular, large and X-large. X large is enough for 2 adults to share. $

4) Kim Thanh Hot Bread – not theoretically a restaurant, this bakery sells mouth-watering pork and salad rolls. If you are vego, you can ask them to leave out the pork and the pate. $

A picture of Banh Xeo from Pho Hoang Gia in Fortitude Valley.

A picture of Banh Xeo from Pho Hoang Gia in Fortitude Valley.


1) Makanan Indonesia – the beef rendang cooked by the owner’s sister melts in the mouth, and the rice sets are good value, offering you a sample of some of their dishes. I am particularly fond of their sambal gila; made with chilli padi, it is so hot it’ll burn the roof off your mouth. $$

2) This one is in Upper Mount Gravatt, whose name I’ve now forgotten, but served real good fried cat fish with sambal (Pecel Lele). I was recommended there by a Malay friend. $$


A picture of the vegetarian set at Makanan Indonesia in Brisbane.

A picture of the vegetarian set at Makanan Indonesia in Brisbane.

Fish & Chips

1) Swampdog – fish is locally caught and the chips are cooked only in canola oil, which makes them the best in Brisbane, however be prepared to pay around $90 for 4. $$$

2) George’s Seafood – now this is the place to go to if you are on a budget. A serve of fish and chips with some calamari will set you back at the most $10. $

Breakfast Fry Ups

1) Roundabout Cafe – opens from very early until midday, serves are huge. $$

2) Five Sisters Cafe – tucked away at the back of a brick house converted into an office on Melbourne St, apart from fry-ups, they make great coffee and shortbread biscuits too. $$


1) Pasta-al-dente – they’ve been making pasta for over 30 years and it shows in the food they put out. Amanda’s favourite are the spirals with cheeseballs and mine is the Vegetarian lasagne. They also make and sell fresh pasta and sauces on-site. $

 A picture of Vegetarian Lasagne at Pasta Al Dente in South Brisbane.

A picture of Meat Lasagne at Pasta Al Dente in South Brisbane.


1) C’est Bon – this award-winning place requires an advance reservation, so if you are keen to try it out, remember to call first. Amanda loves the garlic snails. $$$

South American

1) Granada Cafe Tapas Bar – offers delightful little South American morsels to try but go on Tuesday nights, when they have paella, and you’ll thank me. $$$

2) The Sardine Tin – fabulous ambience at night and also great tapas. The standout dish for me has to be their grilled sardines. $$

3) Red and White Peruvian Restaurant – their marinated raw-fish (Cebiche Pescado) is a must-try. Service is good, size of mains is on the small side. $$

 A picture of seafood paella at Granada Tapas Bar in South Brisbane.

A picture of seafood paella at Granada Tapas Bar in South Brisbane.

High End

1) Aria – I went here after HRH got his FRACS results. Celebrity chef Matt Moran’s baby, Aria offers quality fine dining coupled with five-star service. $$$

2) Alchemy – my vegetarian friends weren’t particularly impressed by their mains, or the level of service (they forgot about our request for more water), but I thought the food was well-presented enough for an establishment of their standing. $$$


A picture of me and my fellow surgeons’ wives at Aria in Brisbane last May.

Now you probably know why I have to be on a diet half the time. I’ve eaten at many, many, many more places, but these are the ones that stick out in my mind. Bon Apetit!

My personal philosophy: Love Food, Love Life. A picture of signboard I saw in a hawker centre in Penang, Malaysia.

My personal philosophy: Love Food, Love Life. A picture of signboard I saw in a hawker centre in Penang, Malaysia.

The mysterious Chinese shopping basket.

Due to the lunchtime downpour, HRH, who usually has Tuesday mornings off, insisted he was staying put in bed.

“But what are we going to have for lunch?” I asked. “You said you had too many carbs for breakfast.”

I had cooked him, Amanda, who’s on still holidays, and myself, HRH’s favourite Cintan  instant noodles for breakfast. HRH was so excited to see it in the Asian grocery store in Canning Vale. Personally, I prefer Maggi.

“But you only ate 1 packet and I ate 2! We’ve got loads of cans so why don’t you cook one of those?”

At this point you are probably wondering what I have in my fridge. For the purpose of this post, I have done a brief stocktake; I have 2 tubs of half eaten Lurpak (Danish butter) from when I was going through a bread and butter craze, half a jar of tomato paste and half a jar of black olives, courtesy of F who visited us in mid-May, an assortment of condiments – ketchup, mustard, oyster sauce etc – Amanda’s prized box of lollies from last Easter, which somehow had not melted in summer heat on our drive over from Brisbane, half a papaya (Aussies call it paw paw) and 1 whole honey dew melon.

So, as you can see, I don’t really have any REAL food in the house. The reason for this being that I eat out most lunches and at least 4 dinners a week. At the moment I can’t stand my own cooking. Before this, I could not stand the smell of meat, which HRH demands as the resident Monarch, he be fed. Well, actually, I just don’t like cooking. Even if I can cook, ironically according to some, rather well.

But since we weren’t going anywhere in the rain, I had to conjure up something for the family’s lunch from the scraps in my fridge. Then I remembered last night’s half eaten pork -bone porridge, which Dorothy, my opera singer friend in Brisbane, had raved about when I made it for her. Hooray! I knew there was only enough for 2, but with a little magic (read: boiling water, soy sauce, white pepper, a dash of sesame oil), 10 minutes more stove-time, I could feed 3. The best thing about porridge is that like curry, it usually tastes better the next day! And in the cold and wet, adorned with a flourish of fresh chopped spring onions and fried shallots (from a packet of course!), the porridge tasted more than “better”; it tasted heavenly! Especially since my magic skills didn’t extend that far as to make us each a second helping.

That’s what, I suppose, Chinese cooking is all about: making something out of very little.  Sure, Chinese cuisine boasts many dishes fit for an Emperor – twice-ccoked meats, exotic ingredients like abalone and sharksfin, steamed freshly-gutted fish or poultry – but it’s in the preparation of mundane food that Chinese ingenuity is most apparent.

Take for example the humble rice porridge. Originally conceived as a means to make rice stretch during times of famine or when there are too many mouths to feed, one pot, which you might like to remember is mostly water, can sustain infants, the ill, breakfast-eaters and those looking for an extra bite after dinner. We can flavour it with any available meats, or have it plain with side dishes of salted egg, dace-covered fish, century eggs…

At the supermarket most Aussies go for prime cuts of meat, while Chinese go for things like pig trotters, offal and bones Aussies buy home to boil up for the dog. We go after tiny, bony fish, large fish heads, flaps of flesh next to the heads euphemistically known as “fish wings.” Chinese migrants who arrived in the last 10 to 15 years might not know this, but once upon a time, butchers used to give away all these odds and ends because there was no demand for them. Now, a large fish head (I’m not sure what species as I’m not a fish expert) is $7.99 per kilo from the fish shop. It still beats the Cod, which the fish shop owner was trying to sell me for $45.99 per kilo, which she said in Cantonese, “Is suitable for Chinese consumption.”

 A picture of "pak chong" or Silver Pomfret.

A picture of “pak chong” or Silver Pomfret.

It seems that nowadays, anything “fit for Chinese consumption” carries a hefty price tag. In the end, I bought a piece of Barra from her (also suitable for Chinese consumption she said) at $35.99 a kilo because I only wanted to have it added to porridge instead of steamed and good-eating fish like Cod would have been a waste. Barra is also tasty but in the hierarchy of delectable fish, it’s lower than the Cod, Snapper and the Malaysian Chinese all time favourite of “Pak Chong”, the Silver Pomfret. On a whim – and this might say more about my eating habits than my money sense – I also bought sliced abalone ($27 per 110 grams) to jazz up the porridge; compared to a whole abalone (starting from $130 for green lip) that was a frugal buy.

Pardon me for digressing but what makes a Chinese shopping basket cheap, if eccentric by Western tastes, is the fact that we don’t buy most of the things Westerners do. An example of this is the absence of dairy. While most of my Aussie mates with kids to feed spend at least $25 a week on milk, I spend nothing for the simple reason that like many Chinese, I’m lactose intolerant, as is HRH. I can have some milk in my Milo, and that won’t kill me, but if I over-indulge in the cream cheese frosting on the carrot cake, I might have the runs and that won’t be pleasant.

From time to time, I might buy some yogurt, but suffice to say, I don’t rely on dairy for my calcium. Many of the deep-green leafy vegetables Chinese consume regularly, if not daily, are rich in plant-based calcium. It’s only a question of whether we consume enough to get the calcium we need. Between $0.80 and $1.20 a bunch, enough to feed a family of 4, they’re also a lot cheaper than cruciferous and starchy vegetables most Westerners buy.

Apart from rice and greens, pig trotters and fish heads, the typical Chinese shopping basket has a myriad of dehydrated ingredients, rehydrated for use in stir-fries or added straight to soups or stews to impart a certain flavour. Coincidentally, items like fungus, mushrooms and dried mustard leaves also bulk the dish, so reduce the cost of the pot.

How I’ve explained Chinese eating habits to my Blue Vein, Brie and Camembert-scoffing, Aussie-fied daughter, who’s horrified by all the legs and entrails appearing on her plate is like this,”This is the way our ancestors have been eating for thousands of years. The reason our race has survived wars, famine and destitution is because we’re not particularly fussy. We eat anything that can be eaten which when you think about it, is the ultimate form of recycling. After all an animal is not gonna be less dead just because you eat the chops and not the head. Since you eat meat, you might as well do justice to the animal and wallop the whole thing.”

Not just that; anyone can take a good cut of meat and make it taste divine, but it takes real skill to take something barely edible, occasionally downright unpalatable, and make it into a feast fit for a King. Chew on that.

A difficult mother-in-law.

You’re gonna be one difficult mother-in-law,” said YW, who I’ve known since we were both 14, when we met up many moons ago. Pretending to tut her disapproval, she turned to Amanda and said, “You better not marry someone like your Uncle J, or else you won’t have to go home.”

Prior to that, I’d been having a good ol’ bitch fest with YW about Uncle J’s many misdemeanours, which include, but are not limited to: 1) not wishing me, his host, good morning upon rising 2) not thanking me for any of the meals provided 3) not thanking me for the repeat use of one of my computers 4) turning on the air-conditioner when it is 16 degrees outside and having the windows open at the same time 5) stuffing up HRH’s bike and returning it with the patently false excuse that one of the tyres are flat…

Aside from the fact he’s fat and makes a third what his wife does, I didn’t like his unspoken presumption that just because we’re related, I have to put up with him and his attitude. Indeed I told Amanda, “If you are gonna marry someone like him, I’d rather you not marry. You’d just break your father’s heart and mine.

You might think I’m getting ahead of myself since Amanda is only 8, but most children grow up to base their decisions on who to marry on those around them. If they see their father treating their mother well, boys will grow up to treat their wives well and girls, to expect good treatment from their husbands. The same applies to everything else: if a girl sees another female family member marrying down, she will think it is not only acceptable but desirable to marry down, setting herself up for numerous lifelong frustrations.

And let’s not kid ourselves that she’ll be saving anyone. It is this “martyr complex” that sees men and women marry people wholly unsuited to themselves in the mistaken belief they are somehow “heroes” for doing so. After which, they’ll crawl home to family for physical, emotional and most often, financial, help.

Because I’m a difficult mother-in-law-in-waiting (picture a fire-breathing dragon torching villages) I’ve already attempted to pre-empt the situation by giving Amanda what the Malays call “ceramah” or lectures. More specifically, lectures on who to marry. I’ve also been keeping an eye on the boys she mixes with because potential suitors don’t just come out of thin air. Perchance, one of these little rascals might end up my son-in-law.

Me on my morning walk.

Me on my morning walk.

So I’ve said to Amanda, “The most important decision you can make in life, after choosing what to do for a living, is whom to spend your life with. Find yourself a worthless rat bag who gets you pregnant and bails and you’ll lead a miserable, duty-filled, penny-pinching existence. Find yourself a good man, and you’ll have a smooth life, a comfortable life. But most men, I hate to tell you, will not be worth your time.

In you think this is extreme, consider this: I resisted Marvelon when I was throwing up my innards while pregnant with her. I exchanged 2 admirably perky breasts for the ones I now have, breastfeeding her until she was 3; had my sleep interrupted 4 times a night until she turned 3. It seemed that when she turned 3, I exited the labour camp. Through sleep-deprived eyes, nursing sore breasts, I also read to her for hours at a time from when she was 8 months old. My dreams are filled with her; for now, they are all happy dreams. Do you think I’m going to allow some unworthy bastard to charge in and change all that?

YW is damn right I’m gonna be one difficult mother-in-law. I’ve already developed a system for interviewing the little chaps. The best part is they don’t even realise they are being evaluated. The categories for evaluation are character, intelligence, personal motivation, family background and potential for success.

Character is usually evident after a while. Whiners grow into excuse-makers prone to scape-goatism. I look for good manners, gentlemanly behaviour and a “can do” attitude in little men. Boasting and telling outright lies earn them negative points on my invisible scorecard.

Intelligence too is easy to gauge. “Let’s play a game,” I tell them. We’ll start right at the bottom with something even kindergarteners can play. We’ll play I-spy. So if I ask for something starting with “C” and he gives me something starting with “D” or any other alphabet (which has happened before) I’ll know right away the kid is none too bright and won’t waste our time further. We can skip the rest of the evaluation because any Chinese person will tell you the characteristic he or she admires most is intelligence. 

IQ isn’t everything but there is a high correlation between it and success. Perhaps, like most Chinese, I’m concerned about the genes being passed down to my descendants. Ditto the family background questionnaire. They should be so lucky if I don’t ask for a blood sample, just to be doubly sure.

Now, why would any little boy (in the future, man) subject himself to such an evaluation? None have to, unless they plan on dating my daughter. In which case, I’d suggest they get with the programme, otherwise they’ll find themselves an insurmountable stumbling block -ME!


Older and better: growing into my own skin.

I recently celebrated a milestone birthday. How many candles did I blow out, you ask. Okay, I’ll give you a number. I might as well since many who know me personally read this blog and they already know. It seems only fair. Well, madam here turned 35. Now, you may let your jaw drop to the floor. It’s all right. I won’t be upset, I promise. Really, it’s fine.

I marked this birthday Gandhi-esque style – not chomping on lentils, but simply, without much fanfare; like most weekdays, I sent HRH off to work at 7.30 in the morning, then because I have Amanda with me for the next 2 weeks, had a lie in with her until midday. Then I took a nice long hot shower, dug out something new to wear, had Amanda change for the day and the both of us traipsed across the road for wanton noodle soup.

Perhaps dismayed by my ho-hum mode of celebration, Amanda kept asking, “Won’t you be getting a birthday cake? Don’t you want balloons and candles?

To please her, I said we’d get the cake from the French Patisserie on our side of the road, but no balloons or candles. “I’m no longer a child, Amanda,” I explained. “So I have no need for such things.”

“How about a present. I like presents on my birthday.”

Ah, to be a child again. When I was her age, I happily collected pieces of rubber from the caps of Coca Cola bottles. Then I went on to happily collect boyfriends, handbags, shoes, jewellery… all manner of rubbish really. Nowadays I’m in the business of consolidating and curating my belongings. 1 Husband, check. 1 Child, check.

I got rid of 15 pairs of shoes – quality ones too – to move from Brisbane to Perth this January. I decided they had served their purpose and were no longer necessary. I also gave away 1/4 of the contents of my wardrobe and brought less than 1/2 of what remained with me. And now having only worn 1/2 of the remaining 1/2 (you do the math) these past few months, I realise how much excess baggage I’d been hauling from house to house.

I did the same with my many relationships as well. Like my shoes and clothes, I took a good look at them and sorted the lot into 3 baskets: keep forever, keep for now, discard. I wasn’t despondent about the culling, merely cognisant that in quite a few cases, I’d reached the end of the line. There’s nothing you or I can do when that happens, except accept the facts as they are and move on.

Then again, I’m of the thinking that for every window that closes, a door must open somewhere. It’s just a matter of finding where that damn door is. I’m realistic about people and life, but also optimistic about the inherent potential of both.

Age also makes you see things differently; what was once so important, in countless instances, no longer is. Take for example my body. When I was in my late teens, I was preoccupied with having slender thighs. When I pinched them, all I saw was excess fat, skin and cellulite. Not exactly a pretty picture. But now, at age 35, I see them as these 2 marvellously fleshy pillars that take me from A to B, carry me through all sorts of wild adventures – dancing, chasing after Amanda down the road, childbirth. That they are wider than the width of a chopstick bothers me not.

I also don’t care if the young un’s call me Aunty. In fact, I insist they call me Aunty. How dare these cheeky buggers call me “Jie Jie” (big sister). Such insolence! I know it isn’t the norm for children here to address those older than themselves with honorific titles, but I get riled up all the same when Amanda’s friends call me by my name.

“It’s Aunty Estella,” I often correct them, sounding like butter won’t melt in my mouth.

Amanda’s bestie’s sister in Brisbane even does a wonderful impersonation of me, coming across all crusty and stern. It’s so true-to-life it had her mother worried I’d somehow moved into their house – she of the school of gentle parenting.

Anyway, the evening of my birthday, a dear old friend messaged me. She said, “Hope you can have a simple celebration as I don’t think you (need) anything in life…

And of course she was right. I had a simple celebration for the precise reason that I lack nothing. Even though not particularly religious, I replied, “I thank God I have family and friends, reasonable health and wealth and the mental acuity to recognise this.”

Many people have a lot more but have to be twice my age before they see this. I think the greatest gift I’ve received this birthday is not something that came gift-wraped, but hard-won wisdom to appreciate what I already do have. For that I am amply grateful.


Seeing myself through Amanda.

You have to agree that Amanda is physically a carbon copy of HRH. However, when it comes to behaviour, she’s very much her mother’s daughter. This may have something to do with my being her primary care-giver, but imagine my surprise when I turned up at her school obstalacathon (yes, I know it is a big word)  only to witness my only child, then aged 4, skip two-thirds of the course when she thought no one was watching!

In what is an open joke among my former secondary school-mates, I used to do something similar at our annual 1500 metre run; the distance equated to roughly 7 rounds around the school field but time after time, I only ever completed 6, most of it by walking. But of course, I never told my child that! How would I know my genes would “out me” barely 4 years into parenthood?

And then recently Mrs B and I had this discussion about Amanda.

You know, as the term progresses, Amanda does less and less work,” said Mrs B.

I’m so glad Amanda has such a wonderfully attentive teacher in Mrs B because I honestly hadn’t noticed the drop in her output. But then again, I’ve been so ill these past few months, there have been a number of occasions when I had even forgotten to pack her lunch for school, resulting in a couple of terse calls from the school’s receptionist alerting me to the fact.

The thing is, Amanda is capable of much better work, but she’s just not performing,” added Mrs B.

“What seems to be the problem?” I asked, feeling the guilt of Mother Theresa on my shoulders. Somehow, I knew this had something to with me.

Unexpectedly, Mrs B said, “I once had this very boisterous little boy in my class who’s now 15. He rushes over to hug me every time he sees me. It’s funny how children love me even after I’ve scolded them. Well, this little boy used to very active. He could never sit still.”

“Did he had ADHD?” I had no idea where we were going with this.

“One day I saw his father and asked him, ‘Were you like him at that age?’ His father said, ‘Yeah, I was like him all right. I was a little rat bag.'” She took a deep breath. “So my question to you is: were you a dreamer at school? I ask this because Amanda just drifts off with a dreamy look on her face when she’s supposed to be working.”

I couldn’t deny it. “Yes, I used to dream a lot at her age and I think her dad did too.” Actually, we both still do all the time; it’s just that we know better than to do so when we’re supposed to be working.

Ah, so 2 dreamers married each other. I was just wondering if this was something I might have to put up with until the end of the year.”

“We’re also both total scatterbrains. Her father is like the Nutty Professor. He’s pretty sharp otherwise but after 12 years of marriage, he still manages to lose his car keys, house keys and work tag around the house. Amanda fumbles for pencils and erasers every time I ask her to do homework because she somehow manages to misplace them.”

Amanda’s also managed to misplace our nail-clipper again, thereby forcing all 3 of us to sport vampiric talons while I decide whether to replace it (again) or make her look for it.

“So I might have to give you some post-it notes,” said Mrs B, amused.

“You know, the thing about all this is I thought her shortcomings would be easier to deal with because they’re largely mine…but it’s impossible to deal with something in another you have not dealt with in yourself.”

What I’ve told Amanda is that it’s perfectly all right to dream. Just do so on your own time.



Green-eyed-monsters: the fallacy of thinking yourself smart.

Being criticised and commented on is part and parcel of being a blogger. Some question the premise of your statements, others, your right to make them. As most of you know, I am a rather modest sort of gal; you won’t find my CV in the “about me” column or do I purport to be an expert on any of the topics I write about, even if what I write about is based on my experiences, which are as innumerable as they are varied.

But one criticism I refuse to let go unaddressed is that I am what an acquaintance of a friend refers to in Cantonese as a “tai siew lai.” In English, that would be a “lady of leisure.”

Indeed, it is true that I enjoy more leisure than most people I know – and that is my good fortune – but I find this comment is often accompanied, as in this case, by some presumption that I must be somehow “dumb” or “mercenary enough to marry well” and hence, my opinions undeserving of attention; the acquaintance chided the friend for sharing my playful post on Malaysia being nominated as one of the most dangerous places in the world as she thought I was criticising Malaysia, when any lay person could see  that was obviously not the case. Alas, envy of my God-given luck at having unlimited leisure blinded her to the fact.

Meanwhile, she assumes that I, and others like me (whom I have identified in an earlier post) are simpletons, dealt a brilliant hand by the universe because we are “not as smart as she.”

Well, well, I hate to break it to you, young miss, but while you are slaving away on minimum wage with a fire-breathing dragon at your back reminding you of deadlines, I’m enjoying a low-fat soy latte at a cafe perusing the daily papers. And while you are having that same dragon spray your lovely face with spit for a minor infraction, I am enjoying lunch with some of my gal pals.

I know some ladies whose lots are much better than mine and instead of wielding my supposed smarts like some sword to swipe others with the way you do, I stand in awe of their ability to negotiate such stellar, life-impacting, deals for themselves; I marvel at their ability to single out the grain from the chaff, green grass from weeds. They know what is truly important in life: family and friends and time to spend with both. Thus, when I look at them, I don’t see the losers you do. Instead, I see very smart women.

For if at all these women work, it’s because they want to, not because they have to. Their families don’t need them to pay half the mortgage or the car loan, to put food on the table or save for the children’s school fees. They can do whatever they like with their money and their time. Even then, none, I assure you, feel especially compelled to talk about how smart they are.

You, meanwhile, chew on the chaff like it is imported Post cereal, kill all the grass with your brand of self-promotion, leaving only weeds to flourish around you. Using your friends’ facebook posts as podiums, you shout about your smarts to anyone who will listen. The occasional sycophant with an agenda of his or her own to push will agree with you, but what you’ll notice mostly, if you quieten down long enough, is the chortles. People are laughing my dear – unfortunately – not with you.