PETALING JAYA: The modern version of yee sang was probably created in Kuala Lumpur in the 1920s or 30s by a talented Cantonese kitchen apprentice, who eventually became one of the region's most sought-after chef.
Chef Tham Mui Kai's niece Lee Wai Yoke, 77, said her uncle had come up with the recipe when he was an apprentice at the Yok Woo Hin Restaurant in Kuala Lumpur's Petaling Street.
“I remember eating it there when I was a child,” said Lee, whose mother Teng Han was Tham's elder sister.
She said her uncle's yee sang was different from those that came from China, Seremban or Ipoh.
“My uncle had a special sauce for his yee sang,” Lee said.
A debate has erupted after Singaporean academic Prof Tan Wee Cheng stated in his Facebook page that the island republic should have yee sang entered into Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
Malaysians, however, contend that yee sang belongs to the Cantonese community here.
Lee said Tham came from Guangzhou, China, at the age of 14 during the late 19th century before leaving to work in Singapore in his 20s.
He then came back to Malaysia in his 30s to marry a local woman before returning to the island with his family in the 70s.
The restaurant he opened, Lai Wah, is currently managed by Tham's family.
Selangor Kwang Tung Association honorary secretary Pang Chong Leong said Malaysia should have the dish, together with the Mak Yong performance, entered into Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
Prof Tan, meanwhile, clarified that his posting in 2010 was only meant to stimulate public discussion and not a serious proposal.
“My comments have clearly been taken out of context,” he said, adding that it did not really matter if the dish originated from Malaysia or Singapore.
“What is more important is that Chinese communities from both sides of the border have a common dish that generates goodwill, happiness and wealth during the festive season,” he said.