Once upon a time, in the small town of Miri, east Malaysia, there were three grand aunties: Gu Po, the dragon boss; Sum Suk Po, mien sifu; and Ni Suk Po, lao shu fun heiress.
All belonging to the Lo family, these three ladies have been making noodles for the past 60 years. They were trained in this artisanal skill by my great grandma, who came from China to Malaysia and established a noodle business in the 1940s. Rumour has it she introduced Lao Shu Fun to Sarawak!? I don’t know the hard facts, but this is a myth I choose to perpetuate.
To this day, the Lo family are renowned for their noodles.
In 2010 my three grand aunties “retired”, to the dismay of many customers who had patronised their hawker stall for decades. However, mid-last year, the third generation of the Lo family stepped up to the plate, opening Ah Lo, named after what customers would holler at the original store. Of course, these ladies have been working their entire lives – to stop working means to stop living – so retirement means Gu Po making hum ban (Hakka dumplings) for a friend’s cafe, Sum Suk Po taking private orders for mien. Ni Suk Po is still working the line… six days a week at Ah Lo!
Times have changed since the days of being enslaved to family businesses by marriage or blood ties. I wish I could say that the current beacon carriers of the family legacy have been training their entire lives for this glorious moment; in reality it was only after a string of unfortunate job losses that the third generation of Los decided to fall back on what we know best. 🍜
I realise it sounds a bit tragic when I put things that bluntly, but it was perceived as blessed fate by my relatives. It’s an opportunity for them to preserve and uphold our history.
I was raised White in Australia. (Yes, I hear the irony in my name. Pun not intended.) But from my mum I inherited this exciting noodle ancestry. The three OG aunties are still around, well into their 70s and 80s, and being a pessimistic realist, I was eager to visit Miri before some chicken foot cartilage interrupted the life span of the oldies. Late last year I visited Sarawak, Borneo to meet my maternal family and to get schooled in history and secret recipes. – I am bound by blood and a gun to your head if I spill the goods, old Chinese recipes are a bit hard to measure anyway, and it’s forever evolving. #sorrynotsorry
The learning experience was certainly unforgettable. I was meeting a lot of these family members for the first time, many of whom have limited capabilities in English (I speak three languages: English, eyebrows and sarcasm… working on the Mandarin). Conveniently for me, food happens to lie at the core of human existence. So when you’re working with something as primal and integral to life as cooking, language barriers aren’t really a thing.
Growing up so disconnected from this part of my family, food allowed me to bond with both my relatives and culture. I have an overwhelming sense of purpose when I think about the craft of my family. Part of what drives me is an over-compensation for the decade-long journey it took me to embrace my “Asian-ness”. But mostly it’s the enjoyment I get out of sharing edible cultural artefacts with people from all walks of life.
As a cook and degree-certified Artisté 👌🏽, food is the medium I choose. I love that it communicates through all five of our senses, and I believe it is unique in its ability to transcend or bridge social, political and racial boundaries.
I have a vision of being the fourth-generation Lo ambassador who keeps the family business fresh. 💅🏽 💥