Wafting through Caroline The's sprawling home is the divine smell of freshly baked goods. “I made you a little something,” she says excitedly, emerging from her kitchen with a plate of canelés, the little French pastry that can be notoriously difficult to make.
“It took me 20 tries to get it the way I wanted. I prefer my canelés to have a dark caramelised crust with a well-cooked centre. It was a matter of adjusting the ingredients and baking time,” she explains.
Testament to her dedication is her recipe book of 17 years. Raw at the edges with multiple dog ears, it is chockful of recipes — mostly handwritten. Some of the more recent pages feature printouts from the Internet, but just like the rest of the book, they are strewn with scribbles that document her baking observations.
Today, the 51-year-old's resolve to perfect her recipes has paid off. Sporting a golden brown hue, the canelé is the perfect density and its custard-like centre melts in the mouth. They are simply delicious.
For The, baking is therapeutic and it helps her to tune out the daily grind. She's so proficient at it that she barely blinked an eye when she was asked to prepare 350 cupcakes for a carnival fundraiser five years ago at her daughter's old school (CHIJ Toa Payoh), where she served on its parents committee.
“I like my [cupcakes] fresh, so they were all prepared the day before. Exhausting, yes, but also rewarding as they were all sold out,” The, who has also contributed her carrot cake recipe to another one of the school's projects, says.
Now that her two children are grown — Rachel, 20, is studying public relations in fashion at the London College of Fashion and Jonathan, 19, recently enlisted in national service — The has found even more time to pursue her interest in baking.
The freedom to chase her passions is something she relishes. Understandably so, as for years she had devoted herself to her career and later, raising her family.
Looking back at her younger days
Articulate even as a child, the Malaysian-born Singaporean attended college in Canada before transferring to Oklahoma State University, in the US, to pursue a Bachelor's degree in Business Management.
Upon completion, she returned to Singapore in 1986 during the peak of the economic recession. Although jobs were slim for the picking, she refused to idle, taking up relief teaching before flying for two years with the national carrier as a cabin crew member.
While most would regard her early career choices as sensible, they earned the ire of her parents who were expecting her to join the family's furniture business. “Being young, I wanted to be independent and do something on my own. My mum was unhappy but I was stubborn,” she says with a laugh.
It was only after her parents started a second firm selling pianos and required additional manpower that she relented and joined the family business. But that only lasted two years. “It was a good place to be but my heart wasn't in it. At one point, the team kept calling me lao ban niang (lady boss in mandarin). It made me uncomfortable and that was when I thought that I should pursue something else,” The recalls.
Next, the strong-willed middle child joined a medical group at the invitation of a doctor friend who was looking to expand his establishment. Working diligently, she helped him grow the firm from three to 14 clinics in a span of just five years. “The stint was a good one; it gave me insight into growing a business — how tough it can be and the perseverance needed. I left the group when I was pregnant with Rachel, as my priorities shifted,” she says.
The decision was supported wholly by her Indonesian husband of now 24 years, The Lip Oei, whom she first met while at school in Canada. “He's always been supportive of my choices,” she says. Rachel was born in 1995 and the couple had their second child, Jonathan in 1996.
Her children are her everything
With the arrival of her children, The's world revolved around them. “It was something I wanted to do for my kids,” she says.
A lot of time was spent with her son who was diagnosed with dyspraxia (a form of developmental coordination disorder) when he was two-and-a-half-years-old. Patient and doting, she'd accompany him to his treatments, and would devise physical therapy sessions to improve his coordination, from digging soya beans out of putty to trampoline jumping.
“Back in the day, there was no Google. I would learn from the therapists and read recommended books religiously. We were fortunate that he underwent therapy early and experienced notable improvements,” she says. “If you meet Jonathan today, he is just like any other regular guy.”
Now that the children are older, does she miss the days when they were still little? “I don't reminisce but instead focus on how exciting it is to see the world through my children's eyes, now that they are older.”
Illustrating her point, she brings up Rachel, who at the time of this interview, is interning for a public relations company. Not only does the 20-year-old text her mum to share highlights of her day, very often she also gives mum new marketing insights, including lessons in social media. “Just the other day, she was telling me how important bloggers are to an event. I was surprised. She explained how each of their posts are tagged to a dollar value. I felt like a dinosaur who is learning new things!” she says with a laugh.
The younger The shares: “We have a family group chat [on Whatsapp] and we usually send photos and videos to each other. It's good to do so as it keeps my parents updated and connected to us.”
Keeping family ties strong
But to maintain good relationships when dealing with a young adult, The advises: “Don't be so quick to respond when they are confiding in you. Even if the situation is something you do not approve of, hear your kids out.”
She cites a recent case of being called up by her daughter's university to inform her that Rachel and her friends had flouted a serious school rule. “Instead of confronting and scolding her, we listened to her explanation and realised that it was the case of being at the wrong place and the wrong time,” she shares. “It is always good to give them a chance to explain.”
This is something her daughter appreciates, especially because mother and daughter admit to being reserved in their showing of emotion. “Once she Facetimed to tell me that no matter what happens — be it getting caught in the wrong circle of friends or tangled up with the law — I shouldn't be afraid to talk to her. Hearing that for the first time with her being so clear and open did wash a wave of love and calmness over me,” says the younger The.
For family bonding time, the quartet go skiing yearly, a shared activity of theirs since the kids were kindergarteners. “The kids take to skiing like ducks to water, ever since they were little. When we started learning, the instructors split the grown-ups from the kids as we were slower in picking it up,” she recalls with a laugh. Over the years, they've visited ski resorts all across Switzerland, America and Japan, including Hokkaido and Niseko. Of late, they favour the slopes of Nagano and Naeba for its proximity to Tokyo, where they can also indulge in good food and shopping.
The and her husband, a private investor, also make it a point to visit exotic locales together. Just this April, the couple visited Bhutan with a group of friends, where they trekked to the famed Paro Taktsang temple. “The country is beautiful and the pace is much slower. People live simple lives and are happy. There is much we can learn from that,” she says.
When in town, she does yoga two to three times a week, an activity she has practiced for more than 10 years. She also loves long morning walks with the other darlings in her life — her three dogs Oscar, a labradoodle; Missy, a cocker spaniel; and Lulu, a Tibetan spaniel. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, she also has her parents and brother (who lives down the road from them) over for dinner.
“It might be age, but these days, I derive greater pleasure in the simpler things,” she says.