Chua Jim Neo
Author of the definitive Mrs Lee’s Cookbook
Chua Jim Neo, better known as Mrs Lee Chin Koon, wrote her definitive Mrs Lee’s Cookbook in 1974 when she was 67 years old. At an age when many women of her generation were content to play with their grandchildren, Jim Neo decided to produce a cookbook so that future generations would have access to the intricacies of the Peranakan cuisine. The book, reprinted many times, is considered one of the most authoritative on Peranakan cuisine in Singapore.
Born in 1907, Jim Neo was the eldest child of Neo Ah Soon and wealthy Hokkien businessman Chua Kim Teng from Pontianak in Dutch Borneo. At age 15, she married Lee Chin Koon, a storekeeper, in an arranged marriage. She had five children, a daughter and four boys, the eldest of whom was Kuan Yew, who became prime minister of Singapore in 1959.
In his memoirs, Kuan Yew described his mother thus: “She devoted her life to raising her children to be well-educated and independent professionals, and she stood up to my father to safeguard their future. My brothers, my sister and I were very conscious of her sacrifices; we felt we could not let her down and did our best to be worthy of her and to live up to her expectations.”
Jim Neo was, her son wrote, a strong character with great energy and resourcefulness. She was the one who effectively ran the household and managed the finances. “Without her, the family would have failed,” he said.
“She had been married off too early. In her day, a woman was expected to be a good wife, bear many children and bring them up to be good husbands or wives in turn. Had she been born one generation later and continued her education beyond secondary school, she could easily have become an effective business executive.”
Every now and again his father would demand some of his mother's jewelry to pawn so that he could continue to try his luck at the gambling table. Jim Neo resisted his demands, determined to hang on to the jewelry, wedding gifts from her parents. Later, she used her savings and jewelry to help pay for Kuan Yew’s law studies in Britain.
Jim Neo enjoyed cooking and teaching cooking to others, including expatriate wives and her grandchildren. One of her daughters-in-law, Pamelia, described her as an adventurous and passionate cook who often managed to befriend other chefs to learn new cooking techniques and recipes.
In the introduction to her cookbook, which Pamelia helped to edit, Jim Neo wrote: “It has been one of my ambitions to write a book about Straits Chinese food so that the younger generation, including my grandchildren and later their grandchildren, will have access to these recipes which were usually kept within families as guarded secrets.”
Jim Neo, who died in 1980 aged 73, did not live long enough to see how the younger generation would carry on her legacy. Some three decades after Mrs Lee’s Cookbook was first published, the author’s granddaughter, Shermay, who gave up a career in banking to start a cooking school, revised and relaunched it in 2003 as The New Mrs Lee’s Cookbook.
"It has been one of my ambitions to write a book about Straits Chinese food so that the younger generation, including my grandchildren and later their grandchildren, will have access to these recipes which were usually kept within families as guarded secrets."