S’pore family brings CNY reunion dinner to 90-year-old matriarch in hospital palliative care
She even had the chance to participate in the cooking.
This is Madam Chang Sin Ngoh.
Born in Shanghai in 1930, she came to Singapore when she was three.
Chang attended Methodist Girls’ School and lived through World War II. With her late husband, she ran and managed a successful tailoring business and raised seven children.
Over the years, Chang’s family expanded to include ten grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
She may be 90 years old, but despite having seen it all, she still has a glimmer in her eyes.
“Toughness. She’s very tough. She took care of 11 people you know? Seven children, her husband and herself and our paternal grandparents,” her son, 55-year-old Tang Chiang Sin, told Mothership.
Chang has been battling multiple organ decline with kidney and heart conditions for a few years now, shuttling in and out of Alexandra Hospital for treatment.
However, her condition recently took a turn for the worse. Today, Chang struggles to stand, and when she speaks, it’s in a whispered grunt. A nasal cannula constantly delivers oxygen into her nostrils.
Her family, as a last resort, admitted her to Alexandra Hospital as an inpatient under end-of-life care on Jan. 6.
“We take shifts to come visit her,” said her 70-year-old daughter Jackie Tang.
“So the days are split among siblings?” I asked.
“No, the hours,” responded Jackie, adding that the children try to make Chang’s days at the hospital as memorable as possible by bringing her favourite food and spending more time with her.
Bringing reunion dinner to hospital
Though admitting their mother to the hospital was not the family’s first choice, they made sure to choose one that was most comfortable for her.
“She likes this place. The staff here are friendly and it’s more like a chalet. Like this is a cafe!” said Jackie, gesturing at the lounge of Chang’s ward which, as you can see, has been designed to look like a famous coffee shop in Singapore.
Still, Chang’s hospitalisation posed a problem: she would not be able to attend the family’s annual Chinese New Year reunion dinner, something she looked forward to every year.
“She says, ‘A lot of people come.’ That’s what she likes about Chinese New Year, all the kids will come home lah,” said 65-year-old Laslie, one of Chang’s daughters.
For almost all of their past reunion dinners, Chang was the head chef, whipping up restaurant-worthy dishes like Eight Treasure Duck, Shanghai-style braised pork and tang yuan.
“Our tang yuan is special one. We always had red bean tang yuan or pork tang yuan,” boasted Laslie.
“Those days she even ground her own glutinous flour to make tang yuan, you know?” Jackie added.
“She will cook at the HDB corridor, with a charcoal stove. Then got the taste you know? All her food is (our) favourite,” said her second daughter, Doreen Tang, with a smile.
So in order for her not to miss out on this year’s festivities, five of Chang’s children decided to cook and eat reunion dinner together with their mother at Alexandra Hospital on Friday, Jan. 17.
After all, the children shared a quiet acknowledgement that this year’s reunion dinner could very well be Chang’s last.
Cooking in the garden
When Chang’s occupational therapist, Joyce Seah, heard that her children were coming down to the hospital to have their reunion dinner with her, she mooted the idea of having Chang harvest ingredients from the hospital’s communal garden and take part in preparing dinner for her family.
The communal garden is a form of therapy for patients who want a breather from the sterile hospital environment. Patients can grow and harvest edible plants like cherry tomatoes, red spinach and calamansi.
Chang’s children thought it was a brilliant idea to let her have a hand in cooking dinner — so she can be a grandmother again, and perhaps just for a while, forget she is a patient.
On the menu the siblings planned many of Chang’s favourite dishes, including stir-fried spinach, cherry tomato scrambled eggs, stir-fried brinjal, honey lime drink and tang yuan for dessert.
Getting down to business
When Chang was wheeled down to the garden, her face lit up almost immediately.
Seah handed Chang a pair of scissors as they worked together to harvest the vegetables.
As Chang gingerly gathered the plants into her palms, she struggled to close the scissors around the stems.
Despite her feeble strength, it was clear that she wanted to complete the task for her children. With Seah’s help, she was able to harvest enough vegetables for the meal.
As Laslie took the cut vegetables for washing, Chang was wheeled over to the outdoor stove to cook the rest of the meal.
Using the little strength she had, Chang beat eggs, squeezed limes, and even persevered in rolling glutinous rice flour dough into balls for her tang yuan before passing them to Seah, who dropped them into a boiling pot.
“The water’s too high,” remarked Chang, the seasoned chef she is.
As the beloved matriarch sat down to dinner with her family, Shanghainese dialect and the occasional laugh filled the table.
Commenting on the food and updating each other about their lives, the family also reminisced the years they shared.
“She’s selfless. She does everything for her children. Her family always comes first,” said Jackie.
“You know, 妈妈只有一个 (we only have this one mother). She did her best for us, so we also do our best for her,” said Doreen.
Even though the food was quite different from what she usually prepared for family reunion dinners, Chang said it was okay, because what mattered most was that her family came down and she could cook for them once again.
“I want them to remember that I cooked all their favourite things,” she said.
Top photo courtesy of Alexandra Hospital