Handmade in a Mechanised World: Love Letters — From Charcoal to Grill


Hunched over the unfa­mil­iar elec­tric grill, Grand­ma Tan opens the iron mold gin­ger­ly to check if the love let­ters are cooked. It’s a long and tir­ing process; she has spent the past two hours try­ing to per­fect the love let­ters and it’s tak­ing a toll on her legs. It has been five years since she last made love let­ters for Chi­nese New Year. Then, she did it the tra­di­tion­al way — the same iron mold but over char­coal stoves, giv­ing it a smoky flavour.

Despite the time spent away from the love let­ter toil, Grand­ma Tan’s hands seem to be nim­ble — she cer­tain­ly has not missed a step. Unde­terred by the heat of the grill and mold, she peels the cooked bat­ter off with a but­ter knife and works fast to shape the crepes into rolls. Her love let­ters are thick­er than the fac­to­ry-made ones and, because coconut milk was gen­er­ous­ly added to the bat­ter, the air was thick with a tan­ta­lis­ing aro­ma.  

But it’s dif­fi­cult get­ting used to the grill, and the bat­ter, put togeth­er from mem­o­ry and gut feel­ing, was not coop­er­at­ing. After two hours and count­less attempts, the con­tain­er is packed with only a few rolls.

In our inter­view, Grand­ma Tan rem­i­nisces about how much eas­i­er it was work­ing with char­coal stoves. How­ev­er, fill­ing the tins with love let­ters was a tedious process and required sev­er­al days of hard work. While her chil­dren and grand­chil­dren lent a hand, mak­ing love let­ters by hand remains a fad­ing art.

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