My Ah Mah’s legacy
by Peter Tan. Posted on December 7, 2013, Saturday
MY Ah Mah, my paternal grandmother, lived in an old bungalow on stilts. A rambutan tree with branches spreading out in all directions occupied the front yard. It provided ample shade from the sun, and fruits when they were in season. Chicken, ducks and geese ran free in a spacious enclosure beside the tree. They were reared to be slaughtered during festive occasions and for their eggs. The surrounding compound was cultivated with lime trees, tapioca and sugarcane.
Extensions were added to the bungalow over the years to accommodate the growing families of my aunts and uncles who were living with her. Ah Mah had 13 children altogether with my grandfather, eight sons and five daughters. My father was the eldest. I never knew my grandfather. He passed away long before I was born.
Ah Mah was one of the last generation of Straits Chinese women to don clothes in the distinct Peranakan style. Her long hair was neatly pulled back into a bun that was held in place by a hairpin comb. She was always in a simple long sleeve calico blouse with dainty floral motifs and batik sarung, both starched to a perfect stiffness. A silver belt to keep the sarung from slipping completed her attire.
At the turn of the 20th century, Ah Mah was a bidan, a traditional midwife providing pre- and post-partum care. That skill was much sought after as hospitals and clinics were far and few between during that era. The husbands of women going into labour would come knocking desperately at the door, even at odd hours. Bicycles were the main mode of transportation then. She would ride pillion, holding on to whatever she could grab as the harried husbands pedalled with all their might to get her to their homes to deliver their babies.
My father once told me that the family was very poor when he was a teenager. Home was an attap house in the outskirts of a village in Province Wellesley. My grandparents made Nyonya kuih that my grandfather hawked from a box fixed to his bicycle from one village to another and in the nearby towns. The older children chipped in some effort by selling the kuih around the neighbourhood.
Being the enterprising woman that she was, Ah Mah formulated her own recipe of medicated oil culled from her experience as a bidan. It was a concoction of herbs that was massaged onto the body to dispel ‘wind’ in women who had just delivered and babies suffering from flatulence. The herbs were simmered together with coconut oil in a large kuali over several days. The thick dark liquid was then bottled and sold.
We fondly called it Ah Mah’s hong eu (grandma’s medicated oil) in the Hokkien dialect. It was so popular that it could be found in Chinese medical halls and grocery shops in town and beyond. Some parents believed in it so much that it was packed as an essential item for their children furthering their studies overseas. Among others, the oil was also used for minor cuts, bruises, sprains and muscular aches.
Ah Mah was shrewd with her finances. She saved up every sen from the various ventures and eventually had enough to buy a piece of land to build the bungalow. She was also very generous with her grandchildren. Each time my parents and I visited her, she would give me an RM1 coin, a princely sum in those days. I still have these keepsakes stashed away somewhere after all these years.
The matriarch of the family passed away in the early 1980s. The clan at that time was 150 strong, including many great grandchildren. After her passing, my sixth uncle took over the production of the oil and expanded the business. Up to today, the ingredients are still a closely guarded secret not many are privileged to. I am glad that one of his daughters, my cousin, has continued making it after his demise.
Of all the medicine in the first aid kit at home, the little bottle of Ah Mah’s hong eu is most treasured and indispensable. I grew up having this oil rubbed onto bruises and sprains sustained from childhood mischiefs. My mother spared no effort in massaging the oil onto the wounds. That intensified the pain many times over. It was supposed to expedite the healing process which it actually did. I also suspect that inflicting the extra pain was her way of deterring me from repeating the same mischiefs.
Despite my absolute trust in its efficacy, I use the oil very reluctantly. The smell and greasiness is not exactly pleasant, especially when one is not supposed to bathe for several hours after being massaged with it. Clothes and anything that came in contact with the oil would be stained and reek of the peculiar odour of the concoction. If I could avoid it, I would.
I have been suffering from pain in the left shoulder for several weeks now. What began as a minor discomfort turned nasty as I ignored the symptoms, hoping that it would go away after a couple of days. Moving my shoulder in a certain way would cause a sharp stabbing pain to shoot through my forearm. It became so incapacitating that I had great difficulty transferring into the car from the wheelchair.
After two futile weeks of switching between several brands of pain relieving plasters and ointments, I finally relented to using my Ah Mah’s hong eu. The shooting pain disappeared on the third day. My shoulder still aches a little but I have regained a full range of movement. Now that I am reacquainted with its effectiveness, I wonder what possessed me to put myself through the agony when relief was so close at hand. The stain and odour was a minor inconvenience compared to the three weeks of struggle with intense pain I had to endure.
The hong eu that my cousin makes now still carries our Ah Mah’s name on the label. This effective medicated oil has been around for at least 70 years. I hope that it will be around for another 70 more. This is the one legacy from my grandmother that I truly appreciate as a panacea for the bodily aches that are becoming progressively more pronounced as I ease into my golden years.
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