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Gems by Mary Li Sia

by Calvin C.J. Sia


Winter Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(4) page(s): 11 and 12

My mom was a blend of east and west, a homemaker with an avocation in Chinese cooking, and a lot more than that!

A woman from Lancaster, PA, recently sent an enthusiastic five-star review to Amazon.com, the world’s biggest online retail outlet, about a Chinese cookbook she described as “easy to read and follow with delicious results.” That book, Mary Sia’s Chinese Cookbook, not mom’s first, debuted in 1956. It has been out of print since 1984, well after my mom and its author, Mary Li Sia, died; that year was 1971.

“Mrs. Sia was my Chinese cooking teacher at the Honolulu Y(WCA) in 1958,” the reviewer wrote on July 6, 2003. “She was a wonderful teacher and we all adored and respected her. Interestingly, Mrs. James Michener was studying with us. Our teacher would take us on field trips to noodle factories, grocery stores and a big restaurant, Wo Fat’s. I have used this book almost exclusively and want to purchase copies for my daughters and daughters-in-law.”

Who is this cookbook writer who inspired such devotion? A wonderful woman born in 1899 in Honolulu, Hawaii of immigrant parents from Canton, China and nurtured in a busy medical family environment. She was the oldest daughter of nine children of Dr. Khai Fai Li, her father, a family physician, and Dr. Tai Heong Kong, her mother, who practiced obstetrics. Both parents practiced medicine in Honolulu for more than fifty years.

Mary graduated from the University of Hawaii in Home Economics and went to Yale University for a postgraduate study in Music. She also spent a summer at Cornell University devoting her studies to Home Economics. It was at a conference of Chinese students at Brown University where she met Richard H.P.Sia, a medical researcher who was from what was then called Peking, China. He persuaded her to accompany him on the piano for a song that he was to sing at the gathering. They not only performed in perfect harmony, they fell in love, became engaged within a week, and married a year later in 1924, while Richard completed his research at Rockefeller Institute in New York City. Upon completion of his research fellowship, the newlyweds honeymooned in Hawaii and settled in the capital city of China, now called Beijing.

Mary and Richard lived in there for the next fifteen years, Richard as a Professor of Medicine, researcher in infectious diseases, teacher, and clinician. Mary, who had been active throughout her childhood and college years, enjoyed cooking and baking from an early age. Raising a family of three children, Sylvia, Calvin and Julia, beginning with births in 1926, 1927, and 1929, and adjusting to her new culture in North China, did not deter her energies. With her strong interest and background in Home Economics, she became very interested in Chinese cooking, especially the distinct differences of the Cantonese food that she was familiar with as contrasted to the Northern Mandarin food that was prevalent in that city. She familiarized herself with all provincial cooking and began to introduce international faculty members and their wives to the various Chinese restaurants and delicacies in the city.

She also enjoyed testing out the new recipes she tasted on family and friends. This led her to writing her earliest cookbooks dated 1935 and 1936 and titled Chinese Cooking. They were published in the city then called Peking. Besides her cooking interest, Mary Sia also participated actively playing the piano and organ at the Medical School chorus, which her husband Richard formed and directed, winning mixed doubles championship at their annual summer resort Peitaho, and becoming a 'Worthy Matron of the Order of the Eastern Star' in Peking.

With the invasion by the Japanese in 1937, living conditions in the city began to become tenuous with the foreign military occupancy. So in 1939, Richard accepted a Visiting Professorship at the University of Hawaii, and the family moved and settled in Honolulu.

Mary welcomed this opportunity to strengthen her strong interest in Chinese cooking, initiating Chinese cooking classes at the Honolulu YWCA and developing a strong following not only from the military and visiting University faculty but also local people interested in teaching their daughters to cook Chinese meals. She demonstrated Chinese cooking at community festivals and initiated Chinatown tours to seek out Chinese sauces and ingredients. She presented Chinese cultural background and history in all of her talks.

She continued her strong interest in music, as the organist and Deaconess of her church and was honored as 'American of the Week' by the American Way Committee of the Chamber of Commerce of Honolulu, 'Women of Achievement' by the Honolulu Chapter Theta Sigma Phi, and as 'Mother of the Year' by the Honolulu United Chinese Societies.

Mrs. Sia’s field trips through Honolulu’s old Chinatown district were a common sight. It was during these years that she emerged as the most sought-after Chinese cooking teacher in Honolulu, years before any of the present well-known Chinese TV cooking stars appeared. In those days, she was seen on local TV programs. In 1956, she and then the University of Hawaii Press published Mary Sia’s Chinese Cookbook. Demand grew over the years, and they released three other editions in hardcover and then the first of several paperback editions in 1972, a year after she passed away.

“Good food is the essence of good living,” she told readers in her preface in both the Chinese and Hawaiian editions. “Being Chinese, I have sought the ultimate in cooking in the Chinese way. Enthusiast that I am, I have spent a lifetime in opening new culinary worlds to thousands of people, both in the East and the West.”

As recently as 1998, with the Chinese New Year holiday approaching, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin evening newspaper, in response to reader requests, reprinted Mary Sia’s recipes for abalone and vegetables and her traditional New Year’s vegetarian dish called jai.

Mary once wrote that she derived “great satisfaction from transmitting to thousands of women--and men, too,--the background for practicing the delicate art of palate-pleasing in the Chinese way.” No doubt, her passion for Chinese cooking has been passed on to thousands of people, including that woman from Lancaster, PA, who remembers her fondly with every Chinese meal she prepares.
Calvin C.J. Sia retired from active primary care pediatric practice in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1996. He remains active as a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Hawaii School of Medicine, is involved as a child advocate, and promotes the medical home concept and positive child development in early childhood, especially for children with special needs.

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