Kueh lapis and a girl of the South Seas 南海姑娘

大年初一 First day of the Chinese New Year

Chinese new year used to be, and I guess still remains, my favourite time of the year. The sights, colours, sounds, songs, food, drink, dress, people, games and conversation always seem to be brighter and louder than normal and even a little surrealistic and larger than life; like watching a familiar and comforting old movie where you know all the good scenes and lines already by heart, but you go along with it anyway and at the right time, laugh and whoop again at all the old punchlines.

But while many things remain comfortingly constant, the things that have changed are the ones that really matter: the new faces added and welcomed into the family; and the old familiar faces now gone and passed into memories, remembered only in thoughts and when second aunt picked up a slice of kueh lapis from the serving plate and without thinking remarked that it was Mum’s favourite new year goodie, stopped abruptly in mid-sentence and started to dab at her moistening eyes with her hanky.



Mum loved kueh lapis. This rich intense confection is definitely not a traditional chinese pastry in the purist sense, but among all the other colourful and exciting, sweet and savoury new year goodies and treats, the kueh lapis always took center stage at home. This multi-layered cake takes much skill and hours of painstaking work to prepare; Mum was not good enough a cook or baker for this cake, so she just went and bought it. The origins of this Indonesian pastry is rather murky by now, but some of the best kueh lapis are made by Indonesian-Chinese, especially from the city of Medan in North Sumatra, Indonesia, which has a large ethnic Chinese population. Mum used to get her friends in Medan to bring over boxes of kueh lapis (I’m talking dozens of boxes of the 40x40cm cakes!) on their trips to Singapore, and she became the ‘distributor’ of Medanese kueh lapis for the extended family, especially during CNY.

Apart from the island of Bali, Medan was probably Mum’s favourite place in Indonesia. While Bali remained the artistic ‘mecca’ for Mum and her fellow generation of NAFA students (naturally from the influence of and following their instructors, the Nanyang masters on their painting trips to Bali), Medan and the surrounding north Sumatran landscapes also held a special attraction for Mum, and she visited the area many times.

I remember one time Mum visited Medan with her older sister (my second aunt, also a NAFA graduate and artist/art teacher), and took me and my cousin along. In Medan city, Mum and Second Aunt met their artist friends and visited art galleries and workshops and bought paintings and artwork and sculptures, especially the woodwork the Medanese craftsmen were famous for (Mum bought many horse sculptures!). There were the requisite trips out to the surrounding countryside and plains with the villages and padi fields, and further afield to the hills, gorges and Minangkabau villages and of course, to the picturesque but touristy Lake Toba and the old bloodthirsty Batak villages; which I really enjoyed. I remember the ferry rides zipping about across the great lake to visit the other little islands, with me and my cousin wearing raincoats clutching onto the rails on the rain-slicked top deck; and enjoying the chilly highland air while riding the cute short-legged highland ponies.

[Mum was really pleased when I went to architecture school, and especially when I started assisting a couple of my professors for their research project on indigenous architecture of Indonesia, including the distinctive bull-horns roofed traditional rumah-house of the Minangkabau and the longboat-shaped stilt-longhouse of the Bataks. Mum joked that just as the Bali landscapes and Balinese culture had been the artistic mecca and muse for her, North Sumatra and the Minangkabau and the Bataks may do the same for me. I’m not sure how true that turned out to be, but till this day, I have an abiding fascination with the history and architecture of the ancient archipelago empires of the Indonesian islands.

{Digression: While some may be aware of the historical, cultural, linguistic and architectural linkages between the original Indonesian settlers and other indigenous aboriginal populations across the far-flung maritime archipelagic islands of East Asia and South-east Asia (like the Philippines and Taiwan) due to their common Austronesian ancestors, who were the finest and earliest mariners in human history; how many know that these linkages extend all the way to the modern Japanese? As unlikely as it may seem today, the Japanese islanders, through their earliest proto-Japanese ancestors the Jomon, have a lot in common with the native populations on the other islands across Asia and the Pacific: Jomon architecture had been identified to posses features distinctive to that of the other Austronesian descendants found across the Asian archipelagos. Even today, many features of traditional Japanese houses (rural farmhouses, not the imperial aristocratic buildings of later periods with their borrowed continental Chinese and Korean elements) have similarities with the traditional architecture of coastal Thai-Viet, Filipino and Indonesian/Balinese houses.

Back in Medan city, the boxes of kueh lapis Mum had already ordered were ready. But what I really remembered from that trip was another pastry, the heavenly and honeycombed yellow cake Medan was even more famous for, Bika Ambon:



I loved Bika Ambon and couldn’t get enough of it! I liked its spongy chewy texture, especially contrasted with the slightly scorched and caramelized exterior. I was fascinated with the insides with their honeycomb-like structure; and as with many other things then, I swallowed it line and sinker when Mum told me solemnly yet with a twinkle in her eye, that it was made with real and raw beeswax, that’s why it looks like a honeycomb. Forever the jester and trickster, Mum was.
Mum was an enthusiastic supporter of 本土文化 – ‘earthy’ local culture, be it her own traditional chinese culture, the curious predilection she had for the 原住民文化-indigenous aboriginal culture of Taiwan’s highland aborigine natives, and certainly for the South-east Asian cultures of the region she was born in and grew up within. Way before the term Modern Asia became a buzzword in luxe interior design, she was already collecting and displaying ethnic Asian art and craft, furniture and furnishings. After all, this was simply what she and other local artists of the 50s 60s and 70s were doing during that period and wave of artistic awareness, appreciation and cultivation of local and ethnic arts, be it in Spore or Taiwan, Medan or Bangkok.

Mum fancied herself to be a 南海姑娘 or a lady of the South Seas, a phrase used by the Chinese (that is, Chinese from North/East Asia – mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan) to refer to ladies from 南洋-Nanyang or South-east Asia; usually implying the ladies from the local population, tropical and exotic and darker-skinned. She had several outfits of sarong kebayas which she would wear proudly while accompanying Father for his official dinners and functions, the look completed with a gold-plated RISIS orchid brooch (heh, guess she was a patriot too and advocate of Buy Local-Singapore!).



And this Teresa Teng song, 南海姑娘 was one Mum played and sang in the house often, with a soothing and actually rather tropical feel to it (guess she liked it too cause of the pun and wordplay the song title inadvertently has on Mum’s family ancestry and province in China which they were from):
南海姑娘 Lady of the South Seas



哎呀 南海姑娘

And to complete this chain and circle of thoughts, which began with that piece of new year Kueh Lapis cake, to Mum and Medan and to 南海姑娘 Lady of the South Seas…I suppose I also straight away made the connection to someone who has been in my thoughts recently.

After all, my high school Lin Yan-mei 蔺燕梅 whom I met again recently after such a long time, is also a Girl of the South Seas 南海姑娘, an Indonesian-Chinese girl from the city of Medan.


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