Significant Satay Fan

Open upstairs windows at grandfather's old house
at No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng
With soaring temperatures and sweltering heat, can you imagine living comfortably without an electric fan or air-conditioner?  Many of us now live in air-conditioned homes, travel in air-conditioned cars, work and shop in centrally air-conditioned offices and malls, and exist in an artificially cooled environment.  If there is no power supply or the cooling equipment broke down, there will be pandemonium because we are so pampered that we cannot imagine surviving in this tropical heat.

We immediately reach for something to fan our faces – a loose piece of cardboard or a paper plate – virtually anything that will shift the still, warm air around us.  If there was a blackout, there will be no end to complaining and grumbling about the heat until the power was restored.  But the well-travelled who have experienced summer in Australia or India, know that our warmest weather is nothing compared to the scorching heat there!

Innovative way of using satay fans
at the Long Bar, Raffles Hotel Singapore
Recently I was a guest at the Long Bar in Singapore’s classic Raffles Hotel.  After ordering a Singapore Sling, the bar’s signature drink, I sat back on a comfortable rattan chair to soak in the charm and nostalgia in this destination, popular both with locals and tourists.  My eyes were first riveted to the clusters of crushed peanut shells on the floor – and I thought this is probably the only place in Singapore where people are licensed to litter – and as I looked up, I saw rows of satay fans secured to a ceiling contraption that moves back and forth to circulate the air!

I thought it was an innovative way to capture the nostalgia of a bygone era even though the fans were just too high up to really cool the guests below.  As I observed the rows of fans moving gently in unison, I was amused that the humble satay fan was given a place of honour in a historical building such as the Raffles Hotel, Singapore. 

That’s because to me, the satay fan featured significantly in my childhood when my siblings and I lived with our grandparents at Johor Baru’s Jalan Ngee Heng.

A 1969 shot by Aunt Polly in No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng,
of grandma seated on a rattan chair,
cooling herself with a satay fan!
In those days, houses were built without ceiling fans while air-conditioning was a luxury that only the most modern of business enterprises could afford.  Grandfather’s house was constructed in bricks and concrete for the ground floor while the upper floor was built with wooden planks.  Designed with high ceilings and strategically positioned windows, it not only welcomed in natural light but gusts of cooling cross winds. 

On week nights, we the school-going children, used to sit around a square wooden table in the upstairs hall to do our homework and study.  Two double-door windows on opposite walls, built without any metal grilles – because it was so safe in those days – were thrown wide open for ventilation.  I can still remember how grandma’s flowery curtains would furiously flap in the wind as we tried to weigh down the pages of our books with pencil boxes and other heavy objects.

Grandma with my mum [Right] and cousin
Malcolm [Left] in Larkin Gardens, 2007 - Note
that grandma is, as always, holding a hand fan!
The satay fan may have earned this name from its traditional association with the satay man who uses it to fan the flames of his charcoal grill but it is a common and essential item in our home.  In fact, grandma had several satay fans lying around the house so that she could reach for one at her convenience.  Although some were already split and frayed at the edges, they were light and familiar to hold and even now, grandma is seldom without a familiar swaying fan in her hand, regardless of being awake or asleep!

Since her younger days, grandma claimed that the satay fan carried the best wind and was most effective in cooling her after cooking over a kerosene or charcoal stove.  Very often, she would sit down in her favourite rattan chair in the porch and yell for someone to bring her a hand-fan.  And the nearest person who heard her – or the one who wanted to find favour with her – would not hesitate to bring grandma the cooling comfort of that handy satay fan!

I remember how we used to go to bed with all our windows shut and Uncle Victor was the only person upstairs who slept with windows opened in his room. 

A traditional satay fan decorated with red ribbons, was
presented to each guest as part of the door gift at
grandma's 100th birthday party last year
It was still cool and comfortable enough to fall asleep but on some humid nights, the trusted satay fan came to our rescue.  In fact, everyone had our own hand-fan tucked under our pillow so we could conveniently fan ourselves whenever we had to cool down before dozing off!

Last year, while planning the celebration of grandma’s 100th birthday, it was easy to decide that a traditional satay fan should be presented to guests as part of the door gift.  Decorated with red ribbons, the satay fan was packaged with Sam Fong brand Hoi Tong pressed powder and a collection of grandma’s specialty recipes and given as a special memento.  To this day, the humble satay fan remains significant to us as it is synonymous with our dear 100-year old grandma. 

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 30 January 2013


  1. Can you please let me know where you got the satay fans? Need to get them as doorgift for my best friends wedding. Tq!

  2. Hello Kathryna, Thanks for your query about the satay fans. Most of the Giant Hypermarkets should stock them. If you are in Johor Baru, a Chinese wholesaler at Jalan Abdullah Tahir - Ng Hock Heng Trading - was where I got ours! I hope this info is helpful to you.