Dr Catherine Chua remembers with fond nostalgia the good old days. She joined the University Health Service at the University of Singapore in 1974 as an Assistant Health Physician, when the “kampung” spirit prevailed at the Bukit Timah Campus.
She and her colleagues relished the meals cooked by two nurses living a stone’s throw from the clinic at College Green. In the process, they bonded and honed their culinary skills.
For instance, Dr Chua commands a following for her famously delicious mee siam. Another favourite is the nian gao, or Chinese New Year rice cake. Usually sandwiched between slices of yam and sweet potato, then fried, she revealed the secret to the crispy delight — standing the rice flour batter overnight before frying. (See recipe for the nian gao sandwich at the end of this article.)
Dr Chua (in peach kebaya) hosting her colleagues to her famous mee siam and other delights on Nurses' Day
Fresh produce during those early days was sometimes contributed by operations staff staying on the campus ground. They planted vegetables, which they gladly shared with their colleagues at the health centre.
When the University of Singapore and Nanyang University merged to become the National University of Singapore, Dr Chua relocated to the Nanyang campus to oversee the health clinic there. The rural environment was surrounded by vegetable and poultry farms, a source of extra income for some of the staff’s family.
The patients would ask for their weight in katis and tahils, as they were more used to such traditional measurements, Dr Chua recalled with amusement. Some, who were not well off, would “pay” their medical fees with eggs, chickens and vegetables. They would also share their excess harvest with the clinic workers.
The University Health Centre today is a far cry from those simple halcyon days. Dr Chua has helped transform the Centre into a wellness haven with programmes and workshops to promote healthy living.
She is particularly proud of the specialist clinic started in 2003. She quipped that her cooking skills came in handy — she invited doctors to her feasts and persuaded them to “pay it forward” by volunteering at her clinic. The “pro bono” physicians, who are still helping out at the health centre, also enjoy interacting with students as the collegiate setting provides them a welcome reprieve from their usual work.
However, Dr Chua’s greatest satisfaction stems from her personal relationships with the students and staff. She wistfully observes that this kind of camaraderie has increasingly vanished over the past decade, with the advent of technology and the ubiquitous mobile phone. She advised, “Human beings are social beings. You really need to have human contact. Don’t replace it with technology.”
Dr Chua, who retires end of this year, shared her secret for her long service at NUS, “I found the right job that I could enjoy, while still fulfilling my other passions.”