Sunday, 9 September 2018

The Real Yellow House

In my novel A Yellow House that came out this summer [minor spoiler alert!] the yellow house of the title is a dream. A goal. It is what Aunty M wants to build for her daughter Nurul in Indonesia with the money she made working in Singapore as a domestic worker. But did you know this actual yellow house already exists in Java?

For years I taught a ‘Dreams Class’ at HOME shelter for ill-treated domestic workers. The shelter houses women that have run away from their employers. Women stay at HOME shelter for a plethora of different reasons. Some haven’t been paid their salary, are overworked. Some were abused – physically or mentally. Others were simply homesick but their employer didn’t want to let them go. Women stayed there for days, months and sometimes even years.

In the Dreams Class we take them away from their troubles for a few hours. A favourite in this class is the Million Dollar question. 

We are lucky, we have won the lottery, 1.000.000 $$$! 
In the brainstorming game that follows, the first thing almost every single woman does, is built a house for their family. A house is solid, will last and can be shared with loved ones. It is the ultimate dream for many migrant workers. Talking about these imagined houses made twinkles burn in their eyes while we talked about how best to make our dreams come true – even without winning the lottery.

Years ago we visited Indonesia with Indah, or own helper (I always struggle to use the more PC word domestic worker when it comes to her, not only as it is so long and stiff, it just seems too impersonal. The word friend comes to mind when I talk about her but that doesn’t do her justice either – she is so much more). Driving through her village in Central Java Indah pointed out all the beautiful houses of her friends. ‘That one works in Hong Kong. That one, Singapore. There, she went to the Middle East.’ Then we passed a small hut with slatted bamboo walls and an attap palm roof. ‘They stayed here.’

It is obvious how working abroad can bring prosperity to a country but we should not forget what it costs the families involved. In A Yellow House, Aunty M’s daughter runs away – she can’t forgive her mother for abandoning her for years, even if this is the only way to pay for her education.

Back in Java, past rolling rice paddies and past mosques with gleaming spires, a sugar cane factory and many houses of all colours, we finally reached our destination: the original yellow house. A tad jealous I admire Indah’s house which is painted in my favourite colour: a warm, rich, ochre. 

Inside we meet her family and eat the best meal we ever had. Getting to know her family, friends, her village and her beautiful house deepened our relationship and understanding of her life. 

Women like Indah and those joining my classes at HOME shelter inspired me to write A Yellow House and share their stories with the world. I shared a photograph of Indah's house with the designer who made this gorgeous illustration for the cover:

So did Aunty M ever get to build her yellow house? Well, I gave away enough, if you want to find out, you’ll have to read the book! 

A Yellow House is published by Monsoon Books in the UK and available in bookstores in Singapore and the UK as well as online retailers (for instance here or here) or on Kindle or Kobo.

In the Netherlands it will be available in bookstores from October 2018 as well as here or, already now as ebook.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Lots of cats and a snake

A few months ago I wrote about the wilder, more dangerous aspects of black and white living and owned up to my fear of snakes. It turned out my fear of snakes was completely warranted. This summer our cat Mitzi disappeared and guess who our number one suspect is?

Traffic is slow in our area which means there are few road kills. And since she has been micro-chipped but not found anywhere we can only fear the worst. Pythons are known cat killers and who did we see slithering on our drive not long before she disappeared?

We did not plan on getting a new cat. Sure, the increased amount of rats scuttling across the terrace had me tempted. But we still miss Mitzi. And I felt a bit guilty about not heeding the advice of the charity where we picked up Mitzi to keep her inside – which would have been sheer impossible anyhow since we basically live outside. And I feel that keeping a cat inside is akin to animal abuse - better enjoy life to the fullest and die happy than wile away being safe. Still, no charity in their right mind would give us a cat now.

Of course fate intervened. One day my ears pricked up when zonked on the sofa in front of Netflix. Did I hear Mitzi? I rushed outside and found Indah with a bowl of cat food and a little black feline. We’d seen the cat around – there are many strays in our area – but usually Mitzi chased her off. The next morning Blackie came back and played with the kids all morning. They got very excited and begged to keep her. After checking with all the neighbours she was in fact a stray I gave in. But we never saw her again after that week.

So we went on with our happy cat and stress-free existence until Indah’s friend kept WhatsApping us photos of two little ones in need of a home. Their mother was a local stray that had given birth in her garden to a litter of six. They spayed the mother and released her back into the wild. One of the babies died, one ran way, two got rehomed. There were two left. They had been vaccinated, taken care of lovingly but the employer did not want to keep them. What else could I do but take our cat carrier and drive over?

So now we have to seven-month-old kittens. Two sisters that immediately got diarrhoea – either from stress, new food or poisonous plants – and were locked in a very smelly side room for the last week. Since they seem to have finally remembered what potty training is all about I just let them out and as I write they are frolicking around and creating havoc in the house (they won’t go out for at least a few weeks, until they are not only settled but spayed – two cats is more than enough, thank you very much). They dig up houseplants, jump on every available surface, practice their piano skills, run full speed and fight endlessly. Since they are also the most sociable, cuddly and affectionate cats I have ever seen and unlike Mitzi are up to being manhandled by the steady stream of playdates coming to admire them, we forgive them. They have been here for only a week but already we can not imagine our life without them. So I am proud to introduce what Roel so elegantly calls our new python food: Pepper and Snowy. 

All that is left now is to keep our fingers crossed and hope they will outrun the enemy.


Sunday, 12 August 2018

Beef Rendang

My sister was visiting and having seen most of Singapore’s sights, decided she wanted to do something special: a cooking course. Beef rendang was top of the list of favourites. I felt it was not worth spending hundreds of dollars on a class though. Indah’s rendang is the best I have ever eaten. I had wanted to get her recipe off her for some time, and thankfully she agreed to teach us of the finer points of rendang making in our own kitchen. 

When Indah first started working for us, I asked her if she knew how to cook rendang. I don’t eat much meat, but make an exception or this fragrant delicacy. As an Indonesian, of course Indah knew the dish, but no, she had never cooked it. She had worked eight years for a Chinese employer, perfecting her Chinese cooking skills, but neither them nor the western employers she worked for after had ever asked her to cook any Indonesian food. Indonesian happens to be one of my favourite cuisines – for the Dutch it is as familiar as Indian is for the British, we consider nasi goreng with satay one of our national foods.

‘And when you were little,’ I asked, ‘would your mother not cook curry’s like that?’ Indah looked at me with shy eyes. ‘No ma’am. We could never afford beef.’

In the years that followed Indah, who has a natural talent for spices, perfected her rendang recipe until she finally has one she is happy to share, with us as well as her family back home. So I proudly present: Indah’s beef rendang recipe.

Beef Rendang (Indonesian sweet beef curry) 

1 kg stewing beef, in cubes
600 ml coconut milk
~ 4 tbs oil
3 stalks lemongrass (sereh)
10 kaffir lime leaves (jeruk perut)
2 turmeric leaves (kunjit)
1 tbs tamarind pulp
1 cinnamon stick
4 tbs fried ground coconut (kerisek) (or dried grated coconut)
2 asian bay leaves (salam)

2 cm fresh galangal, in slices 
4 cardamon pods
7 cloves
2 star anise
1 tsp sugar
½ tsp salt

For the spice mix (bumbu)
5-20 large red chili’s
20 small shallots
8 cloves of garlic
2 cm fresh ginger
2 cm fresh galangal
2 cm fresh turmeric
1 ½ tsp ground dried coriander (ketumbar)
1 tsp ground dried cumin (djinten)
½ tsp ground dried nutmeg
½ stalk lemongrass
8 candlenuts (kemiri)

Outside of Asia, some of the ingredients might be hard to get. Don’t worry, your rendang will still be tasty. Fresh ginger is fairly ubiquitous these days, it’s nephews galangal and turmeric less so, so you can use the dried, ground variety instead. Candlenuts give a nutty, creamy texture to your spice paste, they can be substituted with other nuts like almonds or macadamia. Turmeric leaves can be left out. Don’t replace the salam leaves with Western bay leaves, they are very different in flavour. Better to leave them out altogether if you can’t get them.

First, make the bumbu:

For curry, always start by making the spice paste. Traditionally this is done in a mortal and pestle, but these days we use a modern blender. You can use as many or as little chili as you like, depending on taste. Add all the bumbu ingredients, coarsely chopped, to the blender. Blitz until it is a fine paste, adding a few tablespoons of oil if needed to make it smooth. Don’t add water!

Then, start cooking:
Then we need to fry the bumbu, for this heat a little oil in a big pot and stir well after added the paste. Fry until fragrant, 5-10 minutes should do it. Then we start adding the other ingredients. First, the herbs. 

The lemongrass, chopped into pieces of a few cm, and slightly crushed to release flavour. The kaffir lime and salam leaf slightly torn. The turmeric leaves, if you can get them, are very large, so roll them and tie into a knot. Add the cinnamon stick, sliced galangal, aniseed, cloves, cardamon and fry all for a few more minutes before adding the beef. After the beef is slightly browning, add the dry coconut and coconut milk. Let the tamarind paste soak in a few tablespoons water and add the juice but leave out the seeds and hard bits. 

Stir well, and let the curry simmer for at least 1 ½ hours. The longer you let it simmer, the darker your rendang will become in colour. It will be even tastier the next day! Taste the sauce, and finally add salt and sugar to taste. Adding a bit of sugar will help combat spiciness. 

Serve with rice and vegetables. Green vegetables like beans, sugarsnaps, kangkong, or spinach work well. 

Don't eat meat? You can make this rendang with tempeh instead!

Interested to see more of Indah’s recipes? Check out my personal favourites: her fried tempeh and sambal eggs.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Nine weeks

Time can fly past in a blink, or take forever.

The first week everyone was tired after a year of school, and we lounged in the garden, the pool, played Carcassonne, read books and comics, had playdates, sleepovers and made a quick visit to the Zoo before our yearly membership ran out.

Then we went on holiday. A week in France, a week in Friesland. After that daddy went off to London for work while I spent a week in Holland with family and then another week in Friesland where the kids learned to sail and I could write. It was lovely in sunny Europe, in the hottest summer since the one I was born in, we saw old friends, family, and all too soon we had to board a plane to fly home.

When we got home we had four more weeks to go.

The first week we were tired. Visiting ‘home’ countries are not holidays for expats, they are an endless stream of social events where you try to squeeze everyone in, and at the end you have gained at least five kilograms and tell yourself: next year we’ll just go climb Mount Everest, that will be much more relaxing.

We rested. We hung about in pyjamas, uncombed, unbrushed. We read a lot of comics again, lounged in our pool, slept off the jetlag. The week after, which is now, they became bored and restless. They miss school, their friends that are mostly still traveling, and are in dire need for some routine. I am itching to get back to work, but the stolen moments in between tearing apart fighting kids are not really long enough to do some proper writing, more than a quick blog, so instead I take the kids out most days. Wear them out, so they won’t have enough energy left to hurt each other all the time.

Why do my kids fight so much? Linde has perfected her karate kick and Jasmijn is still nursing the scrapes from Tijm’s friendly tackles – on tarmac. If only they fought in silence I would leave them at it, but all of this is accompanied by ear-piercing shrieks from the girls and bone crunching growls from Tijm. (And their father still asks me why I don’t wear my hearing aid around the house…)

To tire them out I dragged them to the summit of Bukit Timah, Singapore highest hill, but since that is only 163 meters high, that did not take up more than a few hours. We went to the museum to cool off, cycled in East Coast Park. That one day I had to be out for work Indah took them to the Botanic Gardens on scooters.

Whenever I hope for a quiet few minutes I give in, in to iPads, Donald Duck comics and hagelslag sandwiches, things that I vowed to be strict about this summer. Because sometimes I just need a little peace. A little break. Sometimes I need to actually get something done, an email sent, a deadline made. Working from home is a very different scenario with three noise making machines present all day, still I have a novel and a charity book to promote, articles to write, events to organise. With barely enough brainspace to write a simple blog, let alone anything literary. 

It has been eerily quiet the last half hour that I was writing this. Should I enjoy my peace or go check whether they finally did kill each other this time?

Two more weeks to go.

Friday, 20 July 2018


It is what everyone is saying to me at the moment: ‘Congratulations! You must be so excited!’ 

And every time someone says that I cringe a little inside and am briefly lost for the appropriate answer. Yes, of course I am very excited about my debut novel ‘A Yellow House’ coming out this summer. But at the same time I am terribly nervous. How will it be received? Will people like my writing? Will the narrative keep them gripped till the end? What if people will hate it, or worse, nobody will buy or read it. 

And how will Singapore react to an Ang Moh writing about the controversial subject of migrant domestic workers? I might have spent the better part of the last five years researching the subject thoroughly; still, the trolls are probably out there sharpening their thumbs to pummel me down. 

And it is not just about me. Little Maya, my protagonist, has become like another daughter to me, and just like I had difficulty letting go of my flesh and blood children last week when I sent them off to camp, I am apprehensive at releasing Maya into the big bad world. Will everybody love her like I love her? 

Thankfully relief came in the form of my very first review last week and it was a good one - and not even written by a friend. Thank you Tripfiction for that boost of morale. After having spent the first part of the year promoting the ‘Our Homes, Our Stories’ book, it is a great relief to have a professional publisher for my novel and, even better, a publicist this time around. The local publicity will kick-off when the book hits bookstores here in early August, so Singapore, you will need to be a little more patient. 

In the meanwhile, the book can be ordered online as an ebook or paper copy. In the UK, Netherlands, and other countries, you can just walk into any bookstore and they should be able to order it for you if they don’t stock it. And please, do remember to review the book on Goodreads and/ or Amazon.  (Do review whether you like it or not, but please let me down gently if you don’t..)

So, now for some  spamming: please all ‘like’ my new author Facebook page:

Follow it closely as there will be a book-giveaway coming up there soon!

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Empty Nest

Usually I am a cold-blooded mother. When my kids went to school for the first time I did not shed a tear, I breathed a sigh of relief; finally some time for myself. I have never had any qualms about waving my kids off to school camp in Malaysia or Indonesia, or leaving them with grandparents for a second honeymoon in the Maldives. 

I had been eying this sailing school in Friesland near my parents’ holiday home for years. Their live-in full week camps were from seven years onwards, and I counted down. Roel had to work in London so I visualised me, in the holiday home, with my laptop, writing - other people not only entertaining my children, but also teaching them to sail. A useful skill to have when your grandfather has a fleet of boats, yet no one in the family has the patience or didactic skills to teach you. Sailing camps on the Friesian lakes are a not-to-miss part of any Dutch childhood. 

I have many good memories of spending weeks in ‘Valk’ boats, rain or shine (often rain in fact). I did mention to my kids, not too emphatically, the ‘sleep at home’ option the sail school offered. Of course two of them wanted to sleep there, so the third reluctantly agreed with my suggestion of ‘giving it a try, you can always call me if you really don’t like it.’ After all, she is only seven, and I am not that mean.

In the lead-up to the camp the kids were too busy being on holiday to even think about it, and I, mindful of the rainy camps of my childhood, spent my time ordering warm fleeces, wind and waterproof suits online. A week before the big day I started to get nervous. Weren’t they much too young to stay on their own for a full week? Our kids are the type that regularly get dragged to remote countries and homestays or whatnot without them batting an eyelid, so they just shrugged when I asked them if they were looking forward to the camp. 

We arrived in Goingarijp on a hot sunny afternoon. The staff was friendly, welcoming and also smart enough to throw the kids into a boat and onto the lake straight away so the parents had little choice but to wave and leave. Thankfully I had been stupid (or cunning) enough to forget to pack sailing shoes for them. They were sitting nicely on their shelf in Singapore. So the next day I strategically had to dropped new ones off in the late afternoon.

That night I had not slept well. Not being used to being all-alone in a house (too quiet, yet with eerie noises – who makes these?) I couldn’t sleep, so plenty of thought had ran through my mind. What if they hated it? What if they got homesick? What if the temperature dropped and they wouldn’t think of putting on the jackets? What if they did not have enough clean underwear for the week, shouldn’t I stop by halfway to pick up some laundry? In short, I was being a terrible … mother. 

I think you can imagine what happened when the kids saw me that afternoon. Nothing. They barely looked at me. They thanked me for dropping off the shoes and went about their business respectively playing games, reading comics, and having a shower. I needn’t have worried about the laundry – they hadn’t changed their underwear yet. After some begging from my side I got a quick hug and a kiss. A brief chat with the still friendly staff later I was back on my way.

So did I leave them alone after that? Of course not. I did sleep like a baby, but the next day when Opa and Oma arrived we did go out on the motorboat to have a trip around the lake. Me, spying on my kids? Never! I did however take a cute little video of them in their boats. For daddy in London. 

Monday, 4 June 2018

The wild side

Do you ever have those days, those days where you are busy shooting monkeys out of your papaya tree with a super soaker and when you try to get a better angle to hit the motherf*ckers, you almost step on a large monitor lizard with your bare feet? And that later that night, as you arrive home after a party, there is a four-meter python on your driveway and the taxi uncle mutters under his breath: ‘Why on earth do you live here?’

No, you don’t have those days? Well, this was just my Saturday. A lot of people ask me what it is like living in one of Singapore’s (in)famous ‘Black and White’ colonial houses. The only real answer to that: it is a unique experience!

If you are into old rickety houses with oodles of charm and nooks and crannies to lose your children in during the too long summer holidays that international schools offer in exchange for extortionate school fees, these houses are for you. And if you like a bit of history thrown into the mix - even better. Especially if you don’t mind that history bloody, with a genuine WWII battle in your garden, a POW camp in your very bedroom and the accompanying ghosts roaming your lofty verandas. Go for it.

But if you like your real estate polished, smooth, your roof leakage-free and your bathrooms clear of mould – think again. And of course, you need to have a certain tolerance for the wilder aspects of tropical living. Up in the sky on the twenty-seventh floor of a concrete condo you can be fooled into believing the opposite, but us ground-floor and garden dwellers know better: Singapore has a wild side.

And that is what I love most about our Adam Park house: the immense garden. That place where our kids can build huts, where we host marshmallow roasting campfires, where I scoop the leaves out of our very own pool three times a day. Where the kids play football, badminton, tag, hide and seek and swing on our jungle swings. Where we breed tadpoles and butterflies, keep chicken, plant flowers, herbs and vegetables. Where guests comment that they don’t need to leave the house, that staying with us is resort experience enough. That is, those guests that don’t mind sharing their bathroom with our resident toad. At Adam Park, we are never allowed to forget whom we share this lovely green space with.

The second thing people ask when we talk about our house is usually: ‘But what about the snakes?’

For some reason I have the reputation of that tough gal, that head horror that fearlessly leads the way in jungle hashes through the wildest terrains, the one that scoops up snakes from her daughter’s bed (who was at school, thankfully) with a broom and dustpan, and throws them over the fence without flinching. Admittedly, I do those things, but what people don’t see is that even tough that was a perfectly harmless bronzeback tree snake, my heartbeat went through the roof. So it is time to admit here, once and for all: I am terrified of snakes!

I am afraid of the black spitting cobra I saw slithering though the front yard from the window, the extremely poisonous malay coral snake that bit my cycling husband in the rear tire. Even the harmless wolf house snake, kukri snake and the beautiful colours of the tree snakes make me nervous. I have become proficient in identifying local snakes, thanks to the internet and the SG snakes app but still, I remain restless. A child bitten by a cobra can die in hours. 

(as I am typing this on our patio, a two-feet monitor lizard is sneaking up at me. It is still around five meters away, but bloody hell, that face with its forked tongue is just too much like a snake for its own good!)

Anyway, this Saturday night, I did not sleep so well. I kept imagining all four meters of that python coiled around our cat Mitzi. Or seeing its long, chequered body with several chicken-sized-bumps in the middle. When I woke up late, hung-over and restless, I was relieved to see all my children sitting on the sofa reading comics quietly, Mitzi snuggled up cosily between them. It took several minutes for me to work up the courage to go outside to let out the chicken from their supposedly snake-proof coop. Supposedly, as the hugest python can squeeze itself through the tiniest gap and that coop is as rickety as our house. Our chicken run is the most efficient python trap, as any python with a chicken inside his belly is too lazy and fat to get out again. We have ‘caught’ four already, and yes, I have ACRES on speed dial. Thankfully, all the chicken were safe. That is, for now.

Despite the snakes, the lizards, the monkeys, the omnipresent ants, the ear-numbing noise of cicadas and last but certainly not least the terrifying risk of falling trees, I would not want to live anywhere else. 

Every day here is an adventure!