True love must be reciprocal.
My mother sent money and ginseng to China for over two decades to her poor family in a remote village in south China. In return, she received some secret recipes.
When sorting out my mother’s old letters, I discovered some secret recipes for treating baldness and severe internal and external haemorrhoids using the traditional Chinese medicine. The recipes were neatly written by her nephew. The recipes reflected our Chinese relatives’ belief in folk medicine.
Here is my translation of one recipe for baldness. Many herbs are kept in pinyin (romanisation) of the Chinese characters.
How to treat baldness
You need Bu Gu Tai 30g, white mustard seed 30g. Sulfer 30g, iron rus 30g, and raw ginger 50g. Soak them in a jin (a Chinese unit of measurement) of white wine, cover for one week to make hair-growing shampoo. Apply the lotion to the affected area, three times a day, for 3-5 minutes each time, for two weeks.
If white hair starts to grow, use He Shou Wu 300g, Nan Zhu Pi 150g, Wan Nian Qing 900g, walnut kernel 100g, black sesame 900g, Zhu Sheng Zi 100g, Shu Di 300g, Shan Yao 600g, Sichuan pepper 30g, ginkgo seed 100g, mulberry 500g, and ginseng slice 100g. Grind to powder, add honey, turn the paste into pills. Each pill 15g. One pill is to be taken orally in the morning and in the evening. Take the pill with yellow rice wine. After a period of time, hair will turn black.
It is touching to see secret recipes. Some families share cooking recipes, philosophy or idioms, but in my family, we now have treasured tips from the ancient civilisation to help us preserve our dignity from the head to the bottom.
From these letters spanning over two decades, I have also learnt about history through the use of language.
How a single character defined Singapore
We know that the name Singapore is rendered as 新加坡 in Chinese, or Xinjiapo in pinyin, the official Chinese phonetic system for transcription. However, in these letters, the Chinese name of Singapore was replaced with one single character, 叻 (lè). For most people, it is an odd character. How did Singapore become a ‘lè’ in those family letters?
To understand the use of this unusual character, we need to look at the colonial history of Singapore. Selat is a Malay word for ‘Straits’. Singapore used to be known as Negeri Selat – a Malay term meaning a country of straits. Growing up in the south tip of Malaysia, to visit Singapore, I would cross the Johor-Singapore Causeway over the Straits of Johor.
There is a Singapore Strait between the Strait of Malacca in the west and the South China Sea in the east. Singapore was also part of The Straits Settlements (1826-1946) as a British crown colony.
Therefore, the use of 叻 (lè) is derived from the second syllable of the Malay word ‘selat’. Other similar transliterations of the name Singapore at the same period included: 石叻 shí lè, 实叻 shí lè, and 实叻坡 shí lè pō.
Between 1845 and 1939, Singapore used the Straits Dollar, the colony’s official currency for nearly a century. In 1939, the Straits Dollar was replaced by the Malayan Dollar.
From Straits Dollar to Singapore Dollar
In these letters, 叻币 (lè bì = lè currency) means the Singapore currency, though Singapore no longer uses the Straits Dollar since 1939. Singapore became an independent nation as Republic of Singapore in 1965 and Singapore Dollar was issued. Singapore’s first banknote series, the Orchid notes, were issued in 1967.
The use of an old-fashioned character signalled just how my mother’s close relatives in China were cut off from the world beyond the South China Sea. In their minds, Singapore remained a distant Selat, full of straits.
The Letters from China series was inspired by Blog Exercises: Before the Blog by Lorelle VanFossen. You can find more Blog Exercises on Lorelle on WordPress. This is a year-long challenge to help you flex your blogging muscles.
My Related Posts:
- Letters from China: Part 10
- Letters from China: Part 9
- Letters from China: Part 8
- Letters from China: Part 6
- Letters from China: Part 5
- Letters from China: Part 4
- Letters from China: Part 3
- Letters from China: Part 2
- Letters from China: Part 1
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- An age with relative freedom
- Visiting a Columbarium in Singapore
- A poignant visit to a Singapore columbarium
- Why are we all called Jade?
- Weekly Photo Challenge – Urban life in Singapore
- Postcard from Singapore: East vs West
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