She loved her family the only way she knew best – through her cooking.
It was 1935 when Ngu Ai Nyik arrived at the riverbank of a rural town in Kapit, Sarawak, with little more than the clothes on her back.
She was from Fuzhou, China, only 16 and pledged to be wed to a man, Chieng Tiew Ling. A man 15 years her senior, a man she had never met before. It was not a love story. It was only a practical arrangement between elders. There was a man who needed a wife to help him, and a couple who had a daughter of marriageable age. The only prerequisite was that she must be Foochow.
Foochow women were known to be hardworking and robust. Those were the only attributes needed for her new life in Kapit.
Yet, she built more than just a new life with her husband and her six children. Unschooled herself, Ngu toiled to ensure her children were sufficiently educated and provided for. Her proudest moments were not only when they attained success, but also when her grandchildren’s graduation pictures lined her shelves.
My grandmother went on to build lasting memories for her 29 grandchildren and 12 great- grandchildren through her loving, idiosyncratic manner and her cooking.
After so many decades, my grandmother had established herself as a matriarch of sorts not just within the Chieng clan, but also within Kapit itself. She was Ah Ma to everyone who knew her. Fiercely independent, strong and occasionally temperamental, her favourite thing to do was to open the window of her room, stick her head out and holler her grandchildren’s names: “Ah Biiiiiiiiiiiiiii!!! Ah Hiaaaaaaaannnn!!!” which sometimes sent the grandchildren running helter-skelter and into hiding.
You see, Ah Ma lived above a shophouse where there was a busy coffeeshop below, a Sugar Bun outlet opposite, and more food outlets on the left and on the right. So there was always a crowd. Three blocks of shophouses faced each other, separated only by a narrow road.
So when Ah Ma yelled for her grandchildren, her shrill voice travelled far and wide between these shophouses. It wasn’t long before the coffeeshop operators knew her grandchildren’s names well. “Oi, Ah Hian! Ah Ma is calling you,” they would say.
To her grandchildren and great- grandchildren, Ah Ma was the epitome of generosity. When we visited, she ensured that each of us had pocket money for a kampua breakfast (oily, Foochow noodles) in her friend’s coffeeshop. When we got tired of kampua, she would then treat us to our ultimate favourite – deep fried roti canai at the nearby market. Even when we were away, Ah Ma would go to great lengths to ensure that her grandchildren always had the best. She would have fish couriered to us. Not just any fish, but the “best fish” which, at that time, could only be caught in the pristine rivers of Kapit – the infamous Empurau.
Needless to say, we grew up savouring the succulent flesh of Empurau on a regular basis. It was only much later that I found out that seafood connoisseurs would shell out a hefty RM600 to RM800 a kg for that fish.
Chinese New Year was the best time of the year to visit Ah Ma. Big ang pows aside, what we looked forward to most were her specialities. Foochow mee sua (longevity noodle) swimming in rich, aromatic chicken soup was one of them, which Ah Ma would stay up late to prepare for the whole family.
Her other signature dish was a family favourite, long mien (egg noodle) in chicken broth with a host of other goodies like meatballs, abalone, clam, celery and leek. All of which Ah Ma would dotingly prepare herself right until her joints became stiff in her later years. The task was then taken over by her children, under her supervision, of course. As far as Ah Ma was concerned, the only way she knew how to demonstrate her love was to ensure her family ate well.
Those memories and more were what Ah Ma left in the hearts and minds of her loved ones. Memories which are stirred each time we eat fish; every time we detect the aroma of chicken soup; or when one of the grandchildren mimicked her call for us.
These memories live on even though she passed away in 2013 on the eve of Chinese New Year. She was 94 then. But in our minds, she will forever be the feisty, loving grandmother who could cook a mean mee sua and holler our names at the top of her lungs.