Happy Hundredth

Birthday card from Gillian, bought in Sydney
[They make cards for 100-year olds too!]
Last November cousin Malcolm made a trip from Sydney to meet with cousins in Johor Baru to brainstorm for ideas on how we should celebrate grandma’s 100th birthday.  We agreed that celebrating such a milestone as a 100-year old birthday should be done tastefully to honour the life of such a grand old lady. This group of cousins including Dennis, Kenny, Ruby and I, met over lunch and came away with assigned tasks and a timeline to get things done for the planned event in May 2012. 

We already have some experience in organizing birthday celebrations for grandma: Her 88th and 90th birthdays were held on a grand scale, with all the bells and whistles, in a Johor Baru hotel.  If you have ever planned a grand birthday in the Chinese tradition, you will know that among the many items on the to-do list is to decide on a suitable souvenir to present to guests.  For the Chinese, it is an auspicious tradition for guests to receive a souvenir to take home as a memento of such a special celebration.

Grandma is seldom without a hand-fan, seen here relaxing
in the garden at No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng, 1969
Guests at grandma’s 90th birthday party took home a crockery set of a Chinese porcelain bowl with a matching Chinese spoon and a pair of mock ivory chopsticks.  This is quite a common idea for Chinese grand birthday celebrations as it augurs well for guests to be blessed by this auspicious wish to continually have a full stomach – the Chinese place a huge emphasis on the joys of eating – symbolized by the bowl, spoon and chopsticks.  So for grandma’s 100th birthday, we cracked our heads to come up with a creative idea on what souvenir to present to guests.

This souvenir was not a “priority item” on our to-do list because there were other more essential items to deal with first.  As the months passed, the cousins stayed connected electronically to follow-up on the assigned tasks and as flights were booked to return for this event and RSVPs were received, things started to gain momentum. 

Satay fans tied with red ribbons!
Ideas were exchanged, discussed and thrown out while some ideas were mulled over carefully because this souvenir should have a significance and relevance to our dear grandma.

Cousin Felicia gave the idea of a hand-fan while my sister Ruby and I decided that it should be the satay fan, a sturdy type of hand-fan made from a single palm leaf, that we saw grandma using during our childhood, living with them in No.154 Jalan Ngee Heng.  In those days there were no ceiling fans or air-conditioning, yet the house was well ventilated with open windows but I remember everyone had their own favourite hand-fan to fan ourselves to sleep on particularly humid nights.  Our grandma, however, has a habit of fanning herself with a hand-fan in whatever weather, especially when she sits down after her many chores in the house.

A box of granny's favourite face powder
Just as the hand-fan reminds us of our grandma, I thought of another item that is also synonymous with her – the Sam Fong brand cake of traditional Hoi Tong pressed powder that grandma used after her bath in her daily make-up routine.  This face powder was probably the only cosmetic that grandma used throughout her life and it kept her skin looking smooth and flawless.  And as cousin Shaun recalls, grandma was always well groomed with hair kept in place with a hair-net and I remember, for special occasions like attending weddings, she would wear this face powder and apply a bright shade of Red lipstick, very much like how the lady designed on the powder box did!

Reminiscing on their experiences with grandma, cousins Bernice and Ryan agreed that our souvenir should include some of grandma’s special recipes that they fondly enjoyed.  I agree that this is a very good idea because it is a legacy that is being handed down to family members and can be shared with our guests.  In fact, these recipes are something truly tangible from grandma that everyone can try out, savour and remember her by!

Souvenir paper bags pasted with vintage-look
portraits of grandma at different stages of her long life!
One of grandma’s specialties is Teochew style braised duck or Lor Ark, which she usually cooked for the family’s Chinese New Year reunion dinner.  As a Cantonese married into a Teochew family, she brought her special touch into creating a recipe that is unique and thoroughly enjoyed by everyone.  It is one of the staples at the reunion dinner and not just one bird but at least three or four were cooked to satisfy the large family including sons-in-law who joined the Ng family for this special traditional dinner.

Grandma is also fond of serving thong soi or Cantonese soothing desserts, and one of her seasonal specialties is made with water chestnuts – mah thai (Cantonese) thong sui.  To create this delicious dessert, fresh water chestnuts should be shredded against a traditional metal scraper and this required skill and your full attention lest you get your fingers shredded along with the chestnuts!  I know this from experience because a split-second of losing focus shocked me with the sight of a trail of red joining the pale shreds of chestnuts and I realized too late, that the red was from my bleeding finger tips!

Grandma's collection of Cantonese operas and music;
Best of Cantonese Opera by Hong Sin Noi is on top left
Another recipe that has been skillfully mastered by Auntie Sylvia and Uncle Victor – and more recently, cousin Ryan – is grandma’s steamed egg pudding, thunn taan, literally steamed egg (Cantonese).  It is not just the recipe but also the art of whisking the mixture and ability to time the steaming to create the smoothest and creamiest egg pudding ever!  When we were kids, I remember watching the adults add a dash of brandy into their steaming bowl of egg pudding before digging in, while we, the kids could only smell it and imagine its taste on the warm silky smooth pudding.

So these three recipes, rolled into a scroll, the square of Sam Fong Hoi Tong powder and the satay fan were put into a paper bag and presented to our guests as souvenirs.  To personalize the carrier bag for the occasion, I compiled a collage of four of grandma’s portraits at four different stages of her life: as a young wife, a mother, then a grandmother and finally, a grand old lady of 99, to be pasted on the bag. The design was shared online for discussion and decisions and cousin Eva did a marvelous job in modifying it into the desired vintage look!

Check out the titles of the operas by Hong Sin Noi!
Then I found a Cantonese opera music CD that belongs to grandma, by Hong Sin Noi (Cantonese pronunciation), one of her favourite opera singers and keeping to the vintage theme, played it as background music in the banquet room while guests arrived.  To welcome our grandma, the Queen of the Day, on her arrival, we picked the traditional Cantonese birthday song that has a happy refrain of, Kong Hei Nei! 

As mum and Aunty Sylvia wheeled grandma into the banquet room, they had to pause as everyone rushed forward with cameras, clicking endlessly.  It was so beautiful to see their ecstatic response at the arrival our 100-year old grandma that I found myself choking back tears of joy – which explains why my photo turned out so blur…

Everyone in the room were there to honour our grandma and it was both moving and emotional to share a casual but intimate afternoon together, reliving memories of grandma’s long and eventful life with friends and family who love and appreciate her.  Going by the positive comments from our guests, they were privileged to be part of our celebration and this sentiment is reciprocated with our token of appreciation in a gift of ang pau from the birthday “girl” along with our souvenir bag of mementoes.  Someone said that after celebrating grandma’s 100th birthday, every day from this day forward should be a celebration and I completely agree with him!



  1. Merry Yyin5/23/2012

    Dear Peggy, please convey my best of best wishes to your grandma ! I'm touched by the way the entire family got involved in both the preparation & the dinner party. A "well done" pat from me to grandma & everybody in the family for all the years the clan stayed so closely knitted. Give a big hug to grandma for me & I can imagine her smiling sweetly as she fans herself everyday !
    The souvenir bag too- a gift that brought everybody down memory lane, very fitting for the occasion. My family used to have the thunn tann ( steam egg dessert with rock sugar ), so I must go try to cook it for our gals next outing !
    And Peggy, I'm so happy for you ! Thanks for sharing !

  2. Hey! Same here too! I am also of mixed Teochew and Cantonese heritage :D Find me at "Tan Chip Hack" on FB