This interview was done in October 2017
This Chinese New Year, we celebrate a life well-lived and deeply cherished. Meet Popo, the genial, selfless grandmother to our founder Darren, who was also greatly loved by all who had the honour of savouring her fabulous cooking and experiencing her boundless hospitality. Above all, everyone who met her could see the incredible amount of heart she had, firstly for her family, and also for all who crossed her path. Popo might have lived a simple life, but her love, as we found, was truly extraordinary.
Shentonista (S): Why did Popo come to Singapore, and how?
Eepo (EP, whom Popo used to work for): She came to stay with us when she was 17 years old; her salary was only $3. We’ve been together for over 80 years. She was the only one in her whole family who went overseas to work to support her family back home. Her father was a farmer. At one stage, she bought 13 boxes of food for her parents—biscuits, vermicelli, and other things. She was a very filial daughter, up till her mother passed away. In the past, there were people to bring you into Singapore called sui hei. They were like merchants, who brought things to Singapore, and they also brought people who wanted to come.
Aunty Jean (J, Darren’s mother; Popo was her guardian): She’s the second child of three girls. They call her da yi. She travelled here by ship and there was once she went back by ship as well. There were so many of these samsui women like her. She would sew this special cloth with pockets, fill it with money for her family, and tie it around her waist when she went home.
S: Popo, what did you bring when you first came to Singapore?
P: I had nothing. Just what money I had and two sets of clothing.
EP: (Popo sits up) She’s very strong still. Up till now, even with her sickness, she’s still very cheerful. I take my hat off to her.
S: How did you feel when you first came to Singapore?
P: I missed home, and my mother and father.
EP: She still remembers them up till now. She’s a superwoman. She loved her family but left them to come and make money here.
P: Since I’ve come here, I’ve bought four houses in China. The biggest, most expensive one has four stories with balconies, and the hall is bigger than our flat here in Singapore. Everyone back home in China has been asking Darren to come visit before my grandniece gets married. It’s a waste Darren didn’t join us the last time we went back with Mom and Cheryl, he had work. I’m sick now but I want Darren to go.
Darren (D): Okay, let’s go now. I’ll carry you.
P: You sure you can carry me? And my wheelchair? What about Eepo?
D: Can. I’ll carry you and everything on my back if I have to.
P: I miss my sister a lot. She’s the best because she’s family. She really sayang (loves) me and her husband loves me even more. It’s a shame he’s passed. She wouldn’t eat or feed herself till she’s fed everyone else. And she’ll do anything for them.
J: Like you, lah.
E: They love each other a lot. She even remembers her great-grandmother and grandfather’s love.
P: It’s important to remember people’s love. To never forget it. You all must remember that.
S: Can you tell us about when you first met Popo?
EP: It was very long ago—I was 12 years old. Many donkey years already. Someone introduced her to our family. I would help her with housework and in the kitchen. Over the years we became very close—we were always together, so we’d have heart-to-heart talks. She’d talk about China and we’d tell each other secrets. We treat her as a grandsister; even more, like a companion, a member of our family. Darren’s mother came to us when I was 29, and when Popo was 37. My mother just took care of her—she liked to climb here and there. Darren was very cute. He was the favourite grandchild.
S: Any special memory you can share about the both of you together?
EP: We used to go out very often. When my mother passed away, we would go out to Johor. We were strong then. We’d even go to Malacca on a Saturday and come back on Sunday, just for fun. We used to travel to Thailand, to Pattaya and Bangkok, to see the ‘ah kwa’s—half-men, half-girls.
P: Yes, I remember that trip. We went to visit the country, walked around quite a bit, and saw many interesting things.
EP: We also went to Cameron Highlands, Penang, and Ipoh. Oh, she loved to travel.
S: What was your favourite holiday?
P: To Guangdong in China. That was my hometown, my village. I miss my family. I never spent much time with them. I also travelled to Beijing twice. We even went to the Great Wall. On my first visit, I could climb up all the way to the top.
EP: She’s been there 12 times. At the age of 96, she still took a flight to China. That was her last trip. She would spend her money on things for her family in China—like watches, bicycles, and sewing machines—but not anything else. On her last trip, she brought back two big roast geese. She went with her daughter and stayed with her sister, and visited the village for a few days, but there wasn’t much time. Each time she went, she’d do thanksgiving, invite people to eat, and pray to their ancestors.
S: What are the things you really cherish?
P: I like my bolster, it’s been with me for a long time. I’ve had this since Cheryl was born. I like to hug and sleep with it.
J: She treasures all her old clothes that she made for herself, so much so that she only wants to wear them during special occasions, not as daily wear. It’s only if you bring them out that she’ll wear them, otherwise she’ll pick from the many clothes she has. This one that she’s looking at is made of expensive fabric. It was burned by the iron once so she had to patch it up. She loves everything she has, and doesn’t need more. I think what she wants are not material things—she just wants her family to be happy, to bear no grudges.
S: Is there any special meaning behind the rings?
P: I bought the rings myself because I liked them. I bought them maybe 40, 50 years ago. The gold one was cheap, maybe $20, $30. I bought the jade one for myself from Chinatown. The other one was a gift from my granddaughter, Cheryl.
S: What are your other favourite things about Popo?
EP: Her love. Her love is very strong—it’s in her nature. She loves her family and would do everything for them. She wants her grandchildren to be loving. She can also cook very well—she learnt to cook from my mother, and has cooked for her family for years and years. Everything’s in the mind, there’re no recipes.
S: What’s your favourite dish from Popo?
EP: Popiah. She can also cook mee siam, and her specialty is laksa.
S: Popo, what’s your favourite dish to cook?
P: Popiah, buah keluak (a Southeast Asian nut, usually cooked in a stew), babi assam (braised pork cheeks in tamarind sauce), and bakwan tahu (fried tofu fritters).
S: What’s the biggest number of people that Popo has cooked for?
EP: Maybe about 20 family members, for Chinese New Year.
S: Besides cooking, what else do you like to do?
P: Sewing, traveling.
EP: She can’t read because she didn’t go to school. She watches Jia He on Saturdays and Sundays at 430PM.
D: She likes grocery shopping and visiting supermarkets, especially the Sheng Shiong across the road from here. She’s good friends with the staff there; she loves talking to them and they love helping her get the good stuff. When she came over to my new place in Sengkang, the first place she wanted to visit was the nearest supermarket to see if I could get what I needed.
P: I still go to Sheng Shiong. Now I can’t really walk but I’ll still go on my wheelchair. I bought a kilo of prawns for Cheryl and Edwin (Cheryl’s husband) at a good price two days ago.
S: What do you think about Darren
P: Very good. Surely good.
EP: Darren, do you remember, in Penang you were running and your leg went into a drain? You cried and cried. Another time we were going out but you didn’t want the maid to come with us.
D: I was the worst grandson. Ask Popo to tell us why.
EP: She only says good.
J: Darren would cry for 100 days. We had to sunbathe him for half an hour every day. He would cry like anything, probably because he was scared.
P: I’ve seen him grow from small to big. Now he’s moved away and I can’t see him every day. I miss him, I think about what he’s doing and whether he’s eating properly. Is Sophie (the corgi) okay? I miss them everyday.
D: I didn’t stay here very much. I stayed with my other granny.
S: Does she spoil Darren & Cheryl?
J: Yeah, she pampers her two grandchildren a lot. She only spends her money on other people. She always says, “How many clothes can a person have?” Which is true, lah, she says there’s no need because she claims that her clothes are still fairly new, rarely worn, and in good condition. She’s content with what she has. I want to buy her new shoes and she’d say no need, one pair is enough. She rarely goes out, so what’s the point?
S: Was there any time Popo was naughty when she was younger?
EP: Oh no, no. She was good all the time. We used to argue but then we’d just stop and forget about everything. We didn’t stay angry at each other.
S: If you had one wish for Popo, what would it be?
EP: I wish her good health. And another few years to spare. That’s my wish.
S: Popo, is there something you want to tell the younger people?
P: Nowadays, people are drifting apart. You must live in harmony. If you shout at me, it means nothing. If people want an inch, you give them 12 inches.
S: Aunty, can you remember your childhood with Popo?
J: Nothing much, she’d send me to school and she would bring me home. She’s more like my second mother. My mother would be busy cooking and all. Popo would be the only one that could spend time with me. She’s a very simple and contented person. She enjoys cooking for us and doesn’t ask for much. She’s always concerned about family, always puts others above herself, and always asks if other people have eaten, or if they need her to cook for them. She shows her love for us through her cooking. She’s not bothered about herself.
S: Can you remember one time when you were really touched by what she did?
EP: She took care of us, she loved us, and she taught me to be good. I wasn’t naughty but I was bodoh (silly). Those were the days, when children were not so smart!
J: If you’re not well and need to go to the doctor she’ll ask what the doctor said. When you come back, she always says, “Make sure you eat, otherwise you’ll get gastric.” She’s very caring. Too caring, lah—to the extent where she’s not bothered about her own health. Her whole life is like that; she always cares for other people. Sometimes she gets worried if you don’t come back at the time you say you’ll be back. She’d call you to say, “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming back late?”
S: Popo, if you could have one wish, what would you want?
P: That my families here and in China are well. The sky is your father, and the earth is your mother. I remember my parents. The best love and the most important people are your parents. I never had the chance to spend time with my parents because I was in Singapore. They passed away and I never had the chance to do anything for them. I could only send money back to pray for them. You only have one set of parents. Whatever happens, they can never be replaced by anyone in the world. Lastly, brother and sister must be loving, not quarrel, take care of each other and live in harmony. Blood is thicker than water.
This post is in loving memory of Popo, grandmother and mother to a few, but generous host, caring friend, and loving family to many—more than she ever knew.