It’s that time of the year for a taste of dumplings. You know, those made of glutinous rice, with different fillings inside, like red bean paste or meat and salted eggs.
I love eating this. My mother would always make lots of it in the days leading up to the Dragon Boat Festival. Part of my annual ritual is to pick up some and deliver them to my grandmother and uncle.
My routine this year is different though. Both my grandmother and uncle had passed on. My mother cannot make dumplings this year. It’s a cultural norm not to celebrate any festivals within a year of your loved ones passing on.
Instead of just thinking about my mother’s dumplings, I decided to buy some from a well-known store near my house. This store may not be as famous as another (Kim Choo), but it has a loyal following. This store also operates for a fixed number of hours in the day. It opens at 7 am and closes by 2 pm.
Which means if I want these dumplings, I need to get them early in the morning, latest by lunchtime. Otherwise there won’t be stock.
I got up and headed out straightaway after washing up. It’s been a while since I got up this early. Working from home made me used to waking up after 7.30 am.
The morning air is good for the body. I saw a number of runners and walkers along the way. Good that people are exercising to keep fit.
I found myself at the market after 25 minutes of walking. The store was already open, with some customers standing around the makeshift table outside the store. The uncle at the table was busy packing orders.
There was a pile of dumplings on the table!
I chose two varieties and asked the uncle to pack some. I also picked some for my parents. While waiting, I asked the uncle if the stocks will last till the Dragon Boat Festival (which fell on 14 June this year).
Oh, we have limited stocks now. We don’t have enough manpower to make that many dumplings. We have manpower issues since last year, when the borders with Malaysia were closed. We don’t have enough workers from Malaysia to come over and wrap dumplings.
Because the shop doesn’t have its usual manpower supply, it cannot produce adequate stock for the market. Couple with the upcoming festival, there is only one conclusion for prices: they go northwards.
This is true not just for this shop. It also holds true for other shops selling dumplings. For the first time, I am seeing prices of $6 for one dumpling in some shops. One shop I used to patronize is selling one dumpling with a 40 per cent markup during this period of time. Manpower and raw material supply shortage probably account for the price increase.
Dumplings Made Me Think
What the uncle shared got me thinking. I had taken for granted that the little pleasures in life are available anytime. Apparently not so. The little pleasures in life may become short in supply.
What have I learnt from this?
1. We live in an inter-connected world.
We all know this. Many of us are mobile. We can see the world through social media and the internet. We can interact with people around the world. Economies are tied by multiple trade linkages. Labour flows are very much a part of international migration patterns and flows.
When COVID hit us in 2020, we saw its immediate impact in different ways. From delays to construction projects, to delays in fulfilling contractual obligations (think of fulfilling purchase orders and sending manpower for work), closure of businesses and immediate increase in demand for specific goods and services, COVID hit the man on the street differently.
But our connections go deeper than that. How many of us know that our favourite foodstuff from factories are made by workers from another country? When an item you need (e.g. laptop) is unavailable because of shortage of parts and labour in another country, what is that to you? What other aspects of life are we dependent on others? This brings me to the next point.
2. Do we know our cultural practices?
I learnt how to make dumplings from my mother. She would use a stove burning with charcoal to boil water, and immerse the dumplings after packing and tying into bundles. The process is easy. Preparing the ingredients take a bit more time.
Yet I have not wrapped a dumpling for some time. If you ask me to do it now, I probably will be able. The only question is whether the dumpling is in the right shape.
Why don’t I make dumplings today? Because it is not second nature to me. Why is a cultural practice I am used to since young not second nature to me anymore? Maybe it is because my time is spent doing other things. Maybe because I don’t relate to this that much. Will the art of dumpling wrapping be lost? Will my children even know what this cultural practice is about?
It is not globalisation that caused us to lose our sense of culture. Perhaps we have to blame ourselves as we don’t pass on our cultural practices to the younger generations, we don’t practise or we don’t conduct these practices. Or maybe it’s because we adopted other practices. Culture will shift because of what we do.
3. What is the future going to be like?
It’s not just dumplings. There are local food that may be disappear in the next 10 years. Some examples are abacus seeds (算盘子), ang ku kueh, dragon beard candy, putu mayam, malt candy, rojak and kachang puteh. The art of making these foods may be lost as younger generations are less exposed to them.
My grandparents and parents grew up with these foods. There were no bubble tea, bibimbap or other international foods prevalent in Singapore. Society was different then. With globalisation and increased mobility today, we are exposed to a wider range and variety of food. Our memories and experiences differ. It is logical that traditional foods will naturally disappear. Yet is that what the future should be?
The older generation used to advise the younger ones: study hard, get good grades, and you can secure a good job. This is well-meaning advice. But this may not hold true anymore. Your grades get you to the door, but it’s your attributes and skills that bring you past the door. Competition for jobs has intensified. Your competition could be residing in another country.
Exposure to global markets and other cultures seem to be a key advantage. Knowing how to be adaptable and flexible, figuring out how to manage and juggle, yet staying with your values and principles seem to be core. You have to value add to be able to progress.
If there is one key point to draw from this, it is this: we cannot predict the future, but we need to prepare for any futures.
What is the future like for you? What keeps you going in what you do today? How will you pass your cultural heritage to the younger generations?