Traits & Portraits

Nothing has worked for me. I thought the idea to write about my Lasallian schoolmates in the style of the Water Margin stories was a fantastic one. In Shi Naian’s epic, each character, be it of simple and modest background or great and heroic stature comes alive as I followed their journeys from normal everyday living to their eventual tales of heroism and triumph over the corrupt and greedy. I thought I could copy this recipe and write about the traits of my buddies and their ancestors, and follow their journeys from impoverished lands, typically China or India, to the green pastures of South East Asia and beyond. I dangled the carrot of posterity for them and their parents if I could spin their stories and make them come alive in a book. Who would not want their brief time on this world extended ‘forever’ in the State Library, I suggested. As if that was not enough, I enticed them with an oil painting each for those who were willing to share their stories. Who would not want to own a portrait of themselves painted by a famous artist, right? Anne Koh is a Malaysian artist. She enjoys attending concerts by leading orchestras and conductors all over the world and is an avid supporter of chamber music. She hopes to capture and share some of the beautiful and poignant moments of the music world through her paintings. Although it is visual art, in her mind it is ‘auditory art’. The movements and emotions of the music she hears are reflected through her colours and strokes. Her works are a mix of abstract, expressionism and Impressionism.

Anne Koh, the artist who has painted the portraits of those willing to let me write their stories.

Last night, my neighbours held a party at their house. They were great hosts. The wine flowed all night and the food was simply divine. The Bloke boldly claimed without any exaggeration, “This food is better than any restaurant’s!” I have so much to learn from him. One must always remember to heap praise on one’s spouse. Although he mistakenly thought all the dishes were cooked by his wife, The Lady, I did not have the heart to tell him the yummiest dishes were The Mrs’ creations. The Mrs and The Lady are sisters. They both have deep-set twinkling eyes that laugh, smiles that melt any heart of stone, and hearts made of kindness and love. In their late teens and especially in their early twenties, both sisters were beautiful sirens, therefore head-turners and heart-breakers. Luckily, I did not meet either of them then. They speak with the same accents, Miri and Hakka and have similar traits too. Both love to talk about art and the art of painting. Both can be talkative when the subjects suit their traits. The Mrs is more prone to talk about politics and wars – despite knowing never to talk about race, religion and politics at a party. She is more adept at story-telling and making people laugh at her jokes, crude ones or otherwise. Being her husband, I have learned not to debate her about geopolitics and macro-economics. These subjects are her forte at present and she will win every debate, sometimes by raising her voice. The louder she is, the more convincing she becomes. The Lady is often soft-spoken and low-key. You will need to talk about art and artists to make her come alive or she would quite readily disappear into the background amongst people she isn’t familiar with. Both of them are great cooks. I say that because I want to continue to enjoy their cooking but also because it is true. The Mrs was a fantastic magician when our kids were growing up. Those boys never stopped eating, and who could blame them? The meals she produced, seemingly effortlessly and always quickly, were better than any restaurant’s. Hey presto! And suddenly there would be a big spread of food on our dining table. Ours was a family of seven, including her parents. How did she work those long hours as a shopkeeper, on her feet all day, and come home to produce her amazing meals, day in and day out? Amazing. And yet, she did more. As a daughter-in-law, she would cook for my parents, at least once a week. Dinners in those days were feasts. Did I help in the chores? Barely. My focus was to bond with my father. I left home at 19, got married at 22 and became a father at 24. I had the need to catch up with lost time and get to know my mum and dad. So, when they came to visit weekly, I gave them my full attention, Pa especially. He was like the chairman of my business, wanting to know the ins and outs of my financial plans and business goals. But, what captivated his attention the most was my sons’ progress and success. He enjoyed every little detail about his grandsons. Undoubtedly, they made him a proud grandfather.

The conversations and laughter flowed non-stop last night. My hosts, upon my suggestion, invited the Scalzi’s too. They had not met John and Anne. Anne or Anna meaning gracious, i.e. God favours her. Indeed, God favours all the Annes in this world. Anne Scalzi is also a beautiful woman. The Mrs and I met her through our first son who found their son to be his pillar of strength and confidence in kindy. As beautiful as Sophia Loren, and as sophisticated as Julie Andrews, I assumed Anne was Italian. An Australian, born and raised in Egypt, but her parents were Maltese. When asked where she was from, by a colleague in the hospital where she worked, that was how she replied. He meant from which department after she had told him in full description her origins. The Bloke, being house-proud, enthusiastically showed them his beautiful house and garden. The Lady, who had a big hand in the design of the “resort-style” house, was busy in the kitchen. Otherwise, being the more house-proud of the two, she would have taken over the duties of a tour-guide around their garden. I think she under-cooked the steam fish which was lightly fried first, so I later sent it back to the kitchen. When the Scalzi’s arrived, I was busy with the vermicelli vongole. All I had to do was warm it up so that The Mrs could pour garlic oil and spring onions onto it. John Scalzi later told me vermi meant ‘little worms’, especially parasitic ones. Trust the Italians to name their noodles little worms. Instead of little worms, the Mrs used dong fen, noodles made from mung beans. As I was tasked with heating up the clay pot of clams and noodles, I could not join in the ‘tour’ of the house. I had wanted to know what the Scalzi’s thought of the house design, because I had a hand in it too. The problem with modern-day kitchen appliances is that an induction cooktop is totally useless for a clay pot. So, I was consigned to the outside BBQ gas ring instead. From there, I observed that strangely, the Scalzi’s were attracted not by the beautiful resort-quality pond and garden fresco but by a portrait in the Lady’s art studio.

‘My pond’ that I look after every day, rain or shine, but it is located on my next door neighbour’s property.

John later told me his nostrils picked up the scent of durian and it was its alluring scent that led him into the room. The often-described smell of the King of tropical fruits, the durian, is pungent and rotten, like decaying onion, or an Asian open drain or rotting cheese. He was joking of course, but it was a painting in the studio that caught his full attention. The portrait that sat proudly there was that of an elderly woman enjoying a durian. Framed in Italian antique-style gold-colour metal, the painting captivated John who immediately recognised it was Ma. He had met Ma on a few occasions and even made the pergola of her house in the ’90s. I observed John studying the painting for a long time. Even when The Bloke was wanting to proceed to another room, another feature of his house, John did not budge. Like I was earlier in the evening, he was similarly entranced by the life-like painting.

The Lady’s portrait of my mother fully captures the spirit of obedience, respect, care and love of our elder. Ma is visibly content and happy with the thorny fruit in her hand. Her effort to hide her smile and contain her appreciation, whilst showing off the durian which she obviously is enjoying, emanates from typical Chinese culture of behaving with appropriate decorum given her hierarchical status as matriarch of her family. The formality of receiving food from her children who are not present in the painting is a strong symbol of filial piety, parental care on the one hand and of the ‘debt’ towards their elders on the other. Of all virtues, filial piety is the first 百善孝為先.

The concept of filial piety for the Chinese stems from the great sage, Confucius. The key word is 養/养, pinyin: yǎng, which means ‘feed’, or ‘raise’. It is therefore not surprising that food is a symbol often used to depict our love and respect for our elders, through feeding and looking after their needs when they need our support and care most.

Ma is at her radiant best, with pink healthy cheeks, wearing a smile that she could not hide – a smile that is highly infectious and showing a level of contentment that only Buddha could have achieved. Her head is draped in white curly hair, thick and lush way beyond her 98 years, and decorated with faded eyebrows. The frowns on her forehead were either very kindly erased by the artist or diminished by decades of treating every little trace of egg white from the shells of used eggs like Hazeline Snow on her face. Ma’s left eye is bigger than the right one, a double-lidded enhancement a side benefit from her cataract operation a few years ago. Typically, she is wearing five layers of clothing, the innermost layer well hidden. The only non moth-damaged layer is the outer garment, a burgundy-coloured cardigan. Her once-slender and smooth fingers are carefully holding a durian, minimising contact with the soft golden fruit so as not to damage its texture and shape.

Many people cannot appreciate the fragrance of the durian nor the exquisite taste. Curious about Egyptian food, I asked Anne what her favourite is. Without hesitating, she said she loves Molokhia. “What’s that?” I asked. “Mulukhiyah, Jew’s mallow,” she said. “What? How do you spell it?” I asked. John jumped in and spelt it slowly, “Y U C K” whilst attracting a stare from Anne which would have severely wounded him. From the way he described it, I gathered it must be as polarising and divisive as natto. The topic of conversation soon changed from repulsive food to repulsive restaurants. The Bloke who had been quietly enjoying a large chunk of the pork belly suddenly sat up as if a switch had been pressed on. “Eastern Gardens!” he said, quite loudly. Over a yumcha lunch in that restaurant – his first and only time there, he found a staple in his dimsum. Being an avid food photographer that he is, he proceeded to take a photo of the said staple that was almost heading towards his mouth. The boss man was immediately standing behind him. “What do you think you are doing?” “WHY, WHY, WHY you take evidence?” he asked in a heavy Hongkonger accent. “Do you want to sue me?” the bossman asked rudely.

The Mrs continued the story for The Bloke. “Yeah, only cowards pretend to sound tough by being rude,” she said. She had a sales assistant called ‘Fonz’ who styled himself in the mould of ‘Fonzie’ in Happy Days. Undeniably popular with all the girls who frequented our shop, Fonz thought of himself as an Italian stallion and therefore acted like one. But he was no Rambo when there was a hint of physical violence. When The Mrs was confronted by an angry and unreasonable customer who demanded a refund for a car CD player that he had damaged, Fonz was nowhere to be found despite the loud threats of the raucous and aggressive customer. As soon as the customer left, Fonz appeared from behind the display of Penrite engine oils and gave an Italian salute to the customer who had already disappeared down the mall. “Fungulu!”, he yelled. “Don’t let me see him again, I will KEAL him!” he added in a strong Calabrese accent. John raised his eyebrows as he looked at me. “Oh, that is a very rude word!” he whispered.

“Rude?” The Mrs asked even though John didn’t mean to be overheard. “Did you know what our Bali driver said to us all day?” she asked. Decades ago, we negotiated with a cab driver and booked him for two full days at an agreed price. It was then that we learned that the Balinese pronounce F instead of P. I left The Mrs to tell the story since she has a knack for using the F word. “Let me fark here, under the tree,” she imitated the driver. “I’ll drop you there. I know a good place around here to fark,” she continued. “I’ll come back in an hour’s time whilst I fark in that corner,” she said whilst visibly enjoying herself. “Not to worry, I know all the good spots to fark. Fark here and fark there, I do that all day” she added.

Dessert was pandan cake and coffee. A welcome change from our conversation.

3 thoughts on “Traits & Portraits

  1. Great food and even greater company in a stunning home setting is hard to beat. The portrait of Ma is impressive…the proportion and colour of this outstanding artwork is exquisite. There were lots of laughs and we even managed to solve some of the world’s problems. Our heartfelt thanks to the four beautiful people who welcomed us to their home and indulged us with such amazing food. A truly memorable evening.

    Liked by 1 person

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