Enjoy the company of loved ones

SINGAPORE - Having to move around with a walking stick does not stop Madam Chua from doing what she does best - making Chinese desserts.

She can often be found seated at a table in the kitchen, making from scratch tang yuan (glutinous rice balls with peanut filling) or snow skin mooncakes with white lotus paste.

Another favourite of her huge extended family is her agar agar, fashioned into pastel-coloured roses and goldfish using moulds and homemade food dyes, and delicately flavoured with coconut milk and sweetened condensed milk.

Madam Chua has seven children, aged 50something to 75, 13 grandchildren and 13 great- grandchildren. Her desserts are served when they gather at her home, a semi-detached house in Bukit Timah, on weekends or festive occasions.

She lives with her youngest daughter Geraldine, who works in the financial sector, son-in-law William, an IT professional, and their two daughters, Susanna and Joanna, who are both in their early 20s and recent graduates, one doing post-graduate studies. Madam Chua's husband, Mr Toh Kim Whee, died of age-related ailments in 1963 at age 68.

"I love to cook. I used to memorise recipes that I heard on Rediffusion," she says in Teochew. A former housewife, she is illiterate and never went to school.

Her other specialities include bakwan kepiting (crab meat ball soup), mee siam, ngoh hiang and duck soup with salted vegetables. She no longer prepares such elaborate and labour-intensive dishes, having passed her recipes on to her four daughters and Filipino domestic helper.

Born in 1920 in Swatow in southern China, she was the third of four children from a poor farming family. Her parents came here to eke out a living. At the age of 16 in Singapore, she entered into an arranged marriage. Her husband, also Teochew, was an educated shipping clerk.

For many years, their home was a three-bedroom attap house in a kampung in Hougang, which they shared with Madam Chua's brother's family of seven. She grew crops such as sugarcane and sweet potato on their plot of land and also reared chickens and ducks which she slaughtered for meals.

To save money, the soft-spoken, enterprising housewife made clothes for all her children as well as curtains and other furnishings. To earn extra income, she was a babysitter for other families' children. She also made kueh bangkit, love letters and other delicacies to sell during Chinese New Year.

Her fondest memory of those days is of her husband, an amateur musician, playing traditional Chinese instruments such as the yangqin and erhu at home. "In his free time, he would play for me. I enjoyed listening to pieces such as the Butterfly Lovers Concerto and Teochew folk songs," she recalls with a smile.

Today, she closes her eyes whenever her granddaughter Susanna plays these tunes for her on the piano every few days, as it reminds her of her late husband. He eventually became a manager in the shipping company and the family moved to an HDB flat in Dover Road.

Madam Chua, a Catholic, says her greatest happiness is "to be surrounded by all my family". Since she turned 90, the entire clan has celebrated her birthday every year with a big bash at a restaurant.

She suffered from stomach cancer several years ago and had half her stomach removed. These days, she eats six small meals daily prepared by the maid, including two egg whites, one egg yolk and sweet potatoes.

"I seldom cook now compared to before and I miss that. But it is God's grace to be blessed with longevity and the love of family," she says.


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