cover pic 2 siew li

The late Mdm Esther Lee Peh Ing, who was deaf, raised four children, including Cheung Siew Li (pictured) and imparted values of resilience and industry to them. Her Hakka Peranakan recipes have been collected into a book that is part of a fundraiser for St Luke's Hospital. All photos courtesy of Cheung Siew Li.

It was during a Sunday night dinner in 2019 that the topic of collecting their mother’s recipes came up. 

Cheung Siew Li’s family had a tradition of gathering at her home every Sunday for dinner, where their mother, Mdm Esther Lee Peh Ing would cook her signature Hakka Peranakan dishes.

“I felt it would be nice to remember my mother through the cookbook.”

“My brother asked one innocent question: ‘After Mum passes away, how?’” recalled Siew Li, the Group Chief Patient Officer at National University Health System.

Mdm Lee, who was deaf, was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2017 and moved in with Siew Li, who became her caregiver.

It was God’s timing that, even before her mother’s diagnosis, she had decided to retrofit her new apartment with elder-friendly features. 

The Cheung siblings contended for their mother’s cooking. Siew Li felt loved whenever her mum prepared her favourite pork ribs with taucheo and assam.

Siew Li said: “It occurred to us that after she passed on, we would not be able to taste her cooking anymore.

“We decided, ‘Don’t wait till she’s too sick to sign anymore. Better sit her down and get all the recipes!’” she told Salt&Light.

“When she was 70, she went to Mongolia and did horseback riding!”

The endeavour began as a simple exercise of Siew Li jotting down the ingredients of her mother’s various dishes. Those notes grew into a cookbook, titled Aunty Peh Ing’s Recipe Book. 

The cookbook became a legacy project that celebrates the life of Mdm Lee, who passed away on February 14, 2022, some months after a brain tumour grew and burst.

Being caregiver to her mother was not easy but Siew Li held on to Galatians 6:9, “Let us not be weary in well-doing” and many others that reminded her of God’s promise that He takes care of His children.

“I felt it would be nice to remember her through the book, and also to give it away as a gift to thank all the people who had given us prayer support,” Siew Li explained, adding that she started giving out copies of the book to friends and family members in February this year.

What began as a small project grew into a “book that keeps giving”. Aunty Peh Ing’s Recipe Book, authored by Siew Li and her brother Rick is now part of St Luke’s Hospital’s (SLH) fundraising campaign, which launched on May 1. 

Mum’s language of love

Food was central to Siew Li’s family. “It was what bonded us together,” she said.

When their mother cooked one child’s favourite dish, there would be teasing and joking about who was the favourite child.

“When we all wanted to feel loved, we would ask her for popiah.”

Siew Li’s love tank would be filled when her mother cooked pork rib with taucheo and assam, her favourite.

“When we all wanted to feel loved, we would ask her for popiah,” she remembered.

“She went to the market every day because her belief was food must be fresh, so we grew up eating only fresh food.”

Siew Li may have helped prepare ingredients when she was younger, but getting their mother to share her recipes was not an easy task. “She didn’t have measurements. It was ‘a bit of this, a bit of that’.”

To test the recipes and take photos for the cookbook, she and Rick–“the other two, Rachel and Kwong Wai, don’t cook”–would prepare Sunday dinners and photograph the dishes.

“I was glad the bulk of Mum’s instructions came before cancer ravaged her body,” she said, adding that following that, her mother “couldn’t sign but she could still eat.”

The charm of the book is that it contains home recipes. It may be an unfussy tome, but it is full of love, just like Mdm Lee.

A model of resilience

Both Siew Li’s parents had speech and hearing disabilities.

Mdm Lee, born in Bahau, Negri Sembilan, had congenital hearing impairment. Her father, Aaron Cheung Chun San contracted meningitis at the age of 7, which left him with hearing loss. 

The young Mdm Lee was sent to a tailoring school so that she could make a living. She would take orders for clothes-sewing to contribute to the household income.

Raised in China, Mr Cheung moved to Singapore in the 1960s and became a teacher at the Singapore School for the Deaf.

“She was very skilful: She could do sew clothes, do plumbing, electrical work, woodwork …”

Match-made by relatives, he went to Malaysia to meet Mdm Lee. They were engaged within a week, and married after one year.

As God would have it, after he retired, Mr Cheung’s students from the School for the Deaf that invited her parents to World Revival Prayer Fellowship.

The couple began attending the church’s service for the deaf. Siew Li’s father was baptised in 1999 and her mother in 2000.

Mdm Lee never allowed her disability to stop her. “She was a stay-home mother, and she provided nanny services to help families and to supplement the household income,” said Siew Li.

There was no school for deaf children in Malaysia, but young Mdm Lee was sent by her father to tailoring school so that she could make a living.

“That was one of our sources of family income,” she said. “She would sew clothes for neighbours, she was very skilful. She could do plumbing, electrical work, woodwork … She was really bright.”

Siew Li names industry and resilience as the values that her mother embodied. “She had to grapple with poverty and health problems, but she was never bitter.”

Her mother was also resourceful – “she was the queen of upcycling” – and took pride in turning old jeans and even umbrellas into bags and pouches. 

Mdm Lee was loved, not only by her own children but her siblings’ children. “She was one of their favourite aunts. They were eager to go with her on holidays.”

Siew Li names industry and resilience as two core values her mother instilled in her and her siblings. Mdm Lee never allowed herself to be embittered by poverty or disability.

Her passion was travelling. “She’d been to more countries than me,” said Siew Li, naming Egypt, Paris, the UK, Australia, Japan among the many places Mdm Lee had visited.

“When she was 70, she went to Mongolia and did horseback riding!”

“Her last trip was in 2017 when she was 83: She went to Xi’an to see the Terracotta Warriors.”

A book that keeps giving

Mdm Lee and Mr Cheung were both users of the services offered by SLH. 

From 2007 to his passing in 2009, he was warded in the chronic sick unit because his wife could not handle his round-the-clock care as she was 73 at the time. 

A decade later, Mdm Lee went in for wound care after surgery, and also for rehabilitation, using the hospital’s robotics to help recondition her body and relearn how to use her left limbs.

This, coupled with the fact that Siew Li received so much prayer support from her colleagues at SLH, where she worked for 16 and a half years, made this fundraising collaboration a natural choice.

Siew Li and her brother Rick painstakingly captured their late mother’s recipes into this book, a legacy project that is now part of SLH’s fundraiser for less privileged patients. It is a “book that keeps giving”.

The fundraising campaign is in aid of patients who come from lower income or less privileged families. 

Funds raised will enable SLH, a charity hospital to care for the whole person, provide financial assistance and improve access to community healthcare for their patients.

The public can support the campaign by donating through the online platform. 

The cookbook is not for sale, but for donations above $250, a complimentary copy of Aunty Peh Ing’s Recipe Book will be gifted as a token of appreciation. Limited quantities of the book are available.


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About the author

Theresa Tan

God gave Theresa one talent: the ability to write. Today, she uses that one gift to share His goodness as far and wide as she can. When she's not working with words, this mother of three is looking for TikTok baking trends to try, watching Korean drama and making fun of her cats.