Letters from China: Part 7

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.

How to treat baldness -- Letters from China: Part 7. Family secret recipe from China on how to treat baldness, from Janet's Notebook.

How to treat baldness

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?

Old Chinese name for Singapore -- 叻 lè. Letters from China on Janet's Notebook

Old Chinese name for Singapore — 叻 lè

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.

The Straits dollar was the currency used in the British colonies and protectorates in Malaya and Borneo, including the Straits Settlements. The Straits dollar was replaced by the Malayan dollar in 1939.

The Straits dollar was the currency used in the British colonies and protectorates in Malaya and Borneo, including the Straits Settlements. The Straits dollar was replaced by the Malayan dollar in 1939.

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 . This is a year-long challenge to help you flex your blogging muscles.

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27 thoughts on “Letters from China: Part 7

  1. Pingback: Letters from China: Part 6 | Janet's Notebook

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  15. shoeluva

    Such moving post. Very pleased with the happy ending! Looking forward to reading more posts/stories about migration of the Chinese people to South East Asia in those early days. Thank you.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you — I’m exhausted after writing the 7 posts. I would love to find out more in the future to add to this series. I’d phone my mother more often to chat to her. It’s not been easy due to our distance.

      I would love to hear from you about your own family experience too. Your grandmother has similar stories and I would love to hear her stories too, so that we could compare notes.

      Thank you for your comment.

  16. 经雅

    Dear Janet,

    I have enjoyed reading all your translated letters from China.

    I have learned how people in a remote village, South of China, used to live and their extreme hardship in the past. I also learned the traditional Chinese family’s value, their closed bond and true love to each other. Very touching.

    You are very diligent, Janet.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear 经雅,

      Writing these really involved diligence — translation and fact checking. I’ve learnt during the course of writing. Thank you for reading and I would love to hear about your stories from China too.

  17. Ajaytao2010

    Nice reading about you

    Thanks for visiting my blog. Be in touch. Browse through the category sections, I feel you may find something of your interest.

  18. Pingback: Letters from China: Part 8 | Janet's Notebook

  19. Pingback: Postcard from Singapore: Satay | Janet's Notebook

  20. Pingback: Letters from China: Part 9 | Janet's Notebook

  21. Pingback: Letters from China: Part 10 | Janet's Notebook

  22. Pingback: An emotional return to ancestral home in China | Janet's Notebook

  23. Pingback: The unbreakable family ties | Janet's Notebook

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