Fans of Jan’s

I was supposed to meet Jan in a hayshed by the fireplace for drinks three nights ago. We would be spending a ‘night at the farm’ but I wasn’t sure if Jan would be there. It sounded romantic, this short getaway in the Adelaide Hills. It conjured up in my mind a rather wonderful escape from the daily humdrum of my life, worsened tenfold by the pandemic. Although a mere twenty minutes from home, to reach Woodside, a quaint town in the hills, I would need to summon enough courage to traverse the winding country road called Greenhill Road. Why courage, one may ask. Well, although the scenic road is not very steep, it does offer many opportunities for an acrophobic sufferer to look down the cliffs and scare himself. The driver of the second vehicle in our party was quite upset with me later. “What took you so long?! We were going well below the speed limit!” he bellowed. Unbeknownst to me, I was so slow I held up traffic quite badly all the way along the single-track country road. I was similarly slow back in 1977 in my first year in Adelaide. Then, a new wide-eyed arrival from exotic Penang Island, everything and everyone were different. Driving on the freeway from Mt Barker to Adelaide on a pitchblack night, negotiating a rather devilish bend known as The Devil’s Elbow, I was scared witless when a cop car waved at me to stop. I did not know about racial profiling, but I assumed I was being hollered up because of my Asian looks. It couldn’t have been my driving – I was being so careful and slow. As it turned out, I was slow. Too slow. The traffic police told me to drive faster or he would fine me for obstructing the road! “You’re driving abnormally slowly without a good reason,” he explained in a strong ocker accent. In those days, anyone without a Malaysian accent was speaking Strine to me. Talk about unnecessary added pressure. Had I known that acrophobia was a good enough reason to drive at half the maximum speed, I would have argued my case. Instead, I behaved like a subservient student. “Yes Sir, I will be faster. No Sir, I shan’t hog the road.” My parents were sitting at the back of the car. Pa, who was visibly annoyed by the cop, could not understand why I would be told off for driving carefully on a steep winding road that the authorities did not see fit to install some road lights along it. At the time, I thought my parents were old. Pa was 60 and ma was 54. Teenagers can be so unkind.

It was a gorgeous Spring day to be out in the hills. A mere half an hour from the CBD, Woodside in South Australia is as rural and romantic as the vineyards and sunflower fields of Tuscany. This well-kept secret is right at my doorstep – why have I instead harboured the dream of one day enjoying the warm glow of the Tuscan sun? To get there requires an arduous 24 hours of air travel and killing time in airport lounges. The dominant colour was green apart from the white and brown barks of gum trees. It will be another three months before the whole place turns reddish brown and parched dry. A rather kind light breeze carried the scent of the Eucalyptus trees all over the hills to the verdant valley below us. The vast expanse of a myriad shades of green was captivating as was the autumnal red and gold a few months earlier. The sweet minty fragrance was as calming as the now familiar smells of camphor and menthol of Tiger Balm, the ointment The Mrs uses nightly. I used to recoil from the aroma of the balm, it gave me a bloated sensation. Ever since I sustained the painful symptoms of adhesive capsulitis from my first AstraZeneca jab eleven weeks ago, I too have been using Tiger Balm to soothe my frozen shoulder. Now I love the scents of the recuperative balm, although the reprieve from the pain is only temporary.

The Mrs and I arrived at our destination pleasantly relaxed in a ready-to-party mood, satiated with the fresh countryside air and aromatic scents of the Eucalypt forest. The driver of the second vehicle, Chris, my younger brother-in-law, had also calmed down and was no longer punctuating his sentences with wild hand gesticulations. He flashed me a smile and immediately, I knew the holiday would be one to enjoy. The occupants of his car all wore sweet smiles, especially ma, our family’s matriarchal figure. I knew, for sure, the holiday would be memorable as she heaved herself out of the car without a complaint, with eyes made beady by droopy eyelids shining excitedly like those of a pregnant woman’s. It reminded me of the time when I dropped The Mrs off at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital at Paddington. Her laughing eyes too were sparkling with the excitement of a mother who was about to see her first child for the first time. Chris and I each won a $200 Great State Experiences voucher. These vouchers were provided by SA Tourism to help the local tourism industry get back on their feet after the pandemic-induced lockdowns had crippled many businesses in the sector. This was the second time I had won free money from the State government’s ballot. The first one I let expire without helping any struggling tour operator. My conscience had bothered me and I promised myself I would not repeat the offensive oversight. Chris wanted a riverboat holiday but I was more persuasive, so we booked six of us for this ‘Night at the Farm’ at the Barristers Block Winery.

Adelaide Hills Rainbow Lorikeets were the first to greet us (Photo by Yeoh Chip Beng)

As part of the package, the first attraction was a 5-course ‘Spring plates’ lunch with wine pairings. We were immediately shown our table on a lawn area overlooking the vineyards that seemed to stretch at a gentle incline all the way up to the sky. I was already impressed by the warmth of their welcome and the lack of distrust by the staff. There was no insistence that we had to leave our credit cards with them for ‘safe-keeping’ or the need to prove our identities first before they poured us their arrival drink, a 2021 Poetic Justice Sparkling Blush. With names like Barristers Block and Poetic Justice, it was easy for us to decide that the place was probably owned by a Silk or two. Lunch was great. Yes, I have just that one word to describe it. It is high culinary art, designed to steep our senses with the finest tastes and smells and impress our eyes with the most pleasing visual presentations. A degustation, no less, by a high calibre chef with each dish nicely matched with a wine that complements the flavours and textures. So, in many respects, I succumbed to the sin of gluttony that afternoon. I was a very willing participant who unreservedly satisfied his desires for the most wicked of tastes and sensations from the morsels of rich meats and tantalising wines served in front of him. Charlotte, the bubbly and attractive waitress assigned to us was superb with her friendliness and prompt attention to our needs. She rattled off her wealth of knowledge of her wines like an oenologist who is also an expert linguist. I regret I did not record down the beautiful words she used to describe the wines.

  • Northern Territory Barramundi Brandade with 2020 Barristers Block Adelaide Hills Riesling 
  • Western Australian pan fried scallops with 2020 Barristers Block Adelaide Hills Chardonnay
  • Duck breast salad with 2019 Barristers Block Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir
  • 12-hour braised beef short rib pie with 2016 Barristers Block Wrattonbully Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Artisan petite four chocolate selection with 2019 Barristers Block Wrattonbully Sparkling Shiraz

Sous vide whole duck breast served on a salad of fennel, red onion, baby beetroot, spring leaves and red radish with a light vinaigrette
Beef short rib slow cooked in a rich stock of caramelised onion, spinach, mushroom and ‘Bully’ shiraz jus.
Little Sis and ma sharing a happy time

Lunch lasted three hours, not because ma chewed her food ever so slowly but also because we wanted the pleasures of the experience of fine food and wines to last longer. Seeing we were one of the last guests remaining, we decided not to delay the staff from their other chores. We checked into our villa about half an hour late. Ma was feeling drowsy and mildly inebriated. I reminded myself not to divulge to my other siblings that I had not stopped her from enjoying her drinks during lunch. They will be sure to use the recent news that even the Queen’s doctors had told her to give up her nightly martini. It had been my main argument against their will to deprive ma of one of her very few pleasures left in life. Ma’s not a big drinker, not even a nightly one. What can be so wrong about a little bit of alcohol once in a while? She is her most chirpiest self when she is clinking glasses with us during dinner on a weekend. Ma was in top form that day. Most of us needed time off to recharge our batteries (no, I do not mean for our phones) but ma was raring to go once she recovered from her brief stupor. Whilst some younger members of the holiday group rested, a sister and I took ma to what we believed was a horse-riding session. We didn’t think our 99-year-old mother would be able to get up a horse. We were right but she was braver than the little girl in the queue to pat it. Unlike the girl, Ma did not flinch or hesitate to get near the horse.

No ghost stories here.

In the villa, a strange thing happened. I had keyed in the password for the wifi network for my laptop and I thought to do it for the others who were resting. When they got up, I told them I had the password with me to fix it for their devices. The Mrs said “No need, I already got mine working.” Big Sis said hers also automatically connected. Strange, isn’t it? How does a wifi network that requires a password work without the password being entered in the settings? Strange things often happen to me wherever I go. Especially in strange places. I have written many chapters on ghost stories. I told myself there won’t be one to tell here. Readers have become cynical about my ghost stories; they think I made them up. There have been recent episodes but I shan’t be sharing them. No point. When no one believes them, they think I imagined them. The villa is clean, I announced. The Mrs agreed after swiping her forefinger along the window ledge and examining it intently. “Isn’t it nice to have a maid? she lamented, obviously thinking of her sister in Kuala Lumpur who was about to engage a new maid from Indonesia. I didn’t bother to explain that my meaning of ‘clean’ had nothing to do with dust. Alright, maybe it did! “From ashes to ashes, dust to dust” does refer to the dead.

A lovely tin shed

Chris returned from the big barn about a hundred meters away and informed us afternoon tea was a mere half an hour’s time. The barn reminded me of the tin sheds I used to see in rural villages (kampongs) in Malaysia. Rustic only because it is rusty. Virtually the whole building was riddled with rust. Whatever areas without rust were the absent tin walls now replaced by clear plastic sheets. The only difference here is there are no coconut trees swaying in the breeze and the air is pleasantly dry, without the energy-sapping humidity that envenomed my mood and made me into a capricious young man in the 1970s. Chris interrupted my thoughts and brought me back to the present. He said loudly, “I told them we do not need the maker to stay back and talk to us.” His wife said, “Oh how rude! Of course, we want the maker to join us for drinks!” I happened to agree with Chris and kept quiet and stayed out of trouble. The programme said we were to enjoy a pre-dinner drink at 5.30 pm with the maker in the hayshed by the fireplace followed by a pizza dinner. Who cares how their pizzas are made, I thought to myself. Who hasn’t been to a pizzeria and watched how great pizzas are made anyway? That was when my sister told me we would be meeting Jan in the hayshed for drinks.

Pre-dinner drinks with Jan

Jan isn’t their pizza maker. Jan is the boss. Strong and strong-minded, with a big and strong personality. Jan is the winemaker. She is the maker. The maker is some powerful being who makes things and also makes things happen. She started the business and made the business into what it is today. I checked out her website. It was as she told us. She went into business with a group of men who mistook her to be an easy prey. A single woman in the 1980s. She provided the land and they, instead of providing the capital to fund the joint-venture, deliberately with-held the money to choke the business of vital cash flow. They wrongly thought she would be forced to hand over her land to them as a distressed seller. Instead, she kicked them out after a lengthy legal battle that cost her well over $400,000. A princely sum in those days during a time when interest rates were some 22% p.a. and as Treasurer Paul Keating said at the time, “This is a recession we had to have.” Jan paused silently as Chris took over the conversation and described how he struggled to meet the bank interest payments as a fresh uni graduate trying to save his first investment and not drown in a sea of debts.

“The genesis of Barristers Block? A true ‘colourful’ Australian story, grounded in the harsh realities of farming during the nineties and the six-year legal battle to save our vineyard. Thus, we affectionately named our winery Barristers Block. We’re certainly not lawyers.”

Jan Allen

Jan commanded our attention at the table. Not many people can. After all, the group I was in included some rather powerful women. Ma, for instance. But, our matriarch was not interested in the conversation. It was not conducted in Chinese. So, much of what Jan said didn’t mean much to ma. She was more interested in the cheese basket and the dried fruits and nuts. Big Sis on the other hand, listened intently but was strangely quiet. The Mrs, normally the most vocal in our group and the loudest (by decibels, I mean) was also surprisingly kept in check. Maybe the topics were not her preferred subjects. The Mrs does not care much about why Pinot Noir are reds and Shiraz and Cab Sav’s may look identical yet taste so markedly different. It was very apparent quite soon though that Jan was like a long-lost friend. She had much to share with us. No holds-barred, she was as honest as the day is long or like an old Chinese saying, she made us comfortable like a soft light quilt on a wintry night. She was great company, like a bright lamp on a dark night, refreshingly interesting and entertaining with her many life stories. She may be a successful business owner now but she can’t shake off her natural self – a warm, kind and generous person. The natural thing for most people during tough times is to do whatever is necessary for self-preservation and keep the business going until it can’t go anymore. But, Jan let slip whilst she was describing the toughest moments of her life that her priorities were about keeping her staff employed. “I am paying for their mortgages,” she said.

Woodside is a beautiful rural town in the Adelaide Hills wine-growing region. It is just a stone’s throw away from Lenswood, a countryside famous for its apples, cherries and pears. When you are there, you’d feel the urge to live there. The place oozes spades of romantic charm in a little corner of the world where troubles seem so far away and conflicts are as foreign as a raindrop in a desert. But, Jan tells us that is not so. In December 2019, a bushfire swept across the region and burned over 23,000 ha over many days. It would become known as the Cudlee Creek bushfire. It took just minutes for Jan’s vineyard to find 100% of its vines burnt as incredibly hot flames licked the tops of 40-foot high gum trees and fire raced at well over 100 kph down the valley from the top of the hill, devouring 84 homes, over 400 outbuildings and 292 vehicles. Just over a month later, on 2nd February 2020, the coronavirus arrived in Adelaide. Jan’s winery, Barristers Block, was under prolonged lockdowns for many months during the pandemic. Prior to Covid further traumatising Jan, her tales of woe from the fire caught the attention of our prime Minister, Scott Morrison. He promptly turned up at her door to offer her a hug and support. “Give us your top ten reds,” Scomo said to Jan during the welcome dinner for the prime ministerial travelling party at her premises. When it was time to call it a night, Scomo flashed a credit card to settle the bill, which was just over $350. Surprisingly, his card got declined. Scomo unashamedly called his wife and asked her to transfer some funds into his card. “See how down-to-earth our PM is?” Jan asked me enthusiastically without expecting a reply. “And he is so honest! He paid for the wines with his own money!” she spoke with a higher intensity in her voice. It dawned on me that this was why Scomo is so popular in Australia. His country loves him. Country folks love him. We see him as one of us, a regular, normal everyday man and honest (he pays with his own credit card) and therefore when he speaks, he speaks honestly. No matter that he picked a fight with the nation’s biggest trading partner. No matter that business lost is America’s gain. No matter he is risking our young soldiers’ lives by beating the drums of war. Hyping up conflicts. Hyping up the distant threats of war. No matter. He is one of us.

Scomo was followed weeks later by Albanese, the opposition leader and Penny Wong, the Senate leader of the Labor Party. They also visited the region destroyed by fire and sought to gain some political traction with the people. Jan had become the face of the tragedy. For her, it also meant many weeks of media frenzy. Suddenly, the world’s media was interested in what she had to say. She fretted and hated being interviewed by some of the world’s biggest news networks. “It’s free publicity!” I said. “Yes, I know! My son, Lachlan said pretty much the same thing and told me to enjoy it!” Jan said whilst screwing up her nose. I could tell she would have been a very beautiful and attractive woman in her younger days. She had it all, the blonde hair, the curls, the big smiling eyes, the sweet endearing smiles from her pink lips. The quick brain, full of words, messages, stories and ideas. She had big hands, farmers’ hands actually but they weren’t callused or scarred. Just strong. Yes, a strong woman with a strong personality and lots of colourful stories to tell. A proud honest woman with nothing to hide. She even told me her age, without me asking. Not that I needed to ask. She revealed her age by telling me “crypto is not real money.” “Not money?” I asked with a false high-pitch voice, feigning surprise. “Why do they call it currency then?” I pressed. She looked at me and did not reply. Checkmate, Jan. Older folks do not know anything about blockchain and cryptocurrency. Yet, they tend to be the loudest and surest in denouncing it. “Bitcoin is worthless!” “It does not produce any income!” I gave up many months ago trying to convince anyone about crypto. I wasn’t about to try again. Certainly not with Jan. She is smart, I think, not withstanding that she lost a lot of money in legal fees fighting a group of conmen. She is smart but if I can’t even argue the merits of crypto and DeFi to people close to me, what chances do I have to change her mind? Besides, I don’t have to be right. It came to me quite suddenly one day last year whilst reading an article shared by Mak, a dear friend from primary school days, about kamma. I no longer have to challenge anyone who says I am wrong. If they think they are right, let it be. They very well could be right. Jan could be right. Crypto may prove to be not real currency one day. No more having to be right, no more having to prove myself. No more measuring ourselves against others, no more measuring others. No more “I’m not wrong, I’m Yeong” cutting retorts. It is easier to say “I’m Yeong and I can be wrong.” In fact, it’s even easier to say nothing, and that was what I did with Jan. I was completely silent even when she said “My staff told me the maximum daily withdrawal limit was $2,000 from his crypto account.” As if that is a universal fact. As if that consigns crypto as worthless. It isn’t important what others think of us. So what if they think less of us, it does not make us lesser beings. That is freedom. That is peace. That is ultimately happiness.

Just as in the great ocean 

there is but one taste 

— the taste of salt — 

so in this Doctrine 

and Discipline 

there is but one taste — 

the taste of freedom”

The Buddha

I was the first one to wake up the next morning. It was before the grandfather clock struck seven times. Ma was a close second. The nonagenarian never ceases to amaze me. Where does she pack her energy in? We had to drag her to bed the night before and that was because we were all tired out from the full day’s activities. It was already past 10.30 pm anyway. She should be in bed! You can call me inane, maybe even insane. That night, I woke up only once to pee, to minimise any accidental sightings of the unknown. At my age, I have a habit of waking up three or four times during the night to pee. I can still remember the sounds a pee made. It may now be a distant memory but somehow I was proud then that I could create the loud sound of a jet powered body of water plunging into the toilet bowl, the echo from which gave the impression the source was a big long pipe. Nowadays, the plinking tiny sounds I make do not wake up The Mrs anymore. But that night I did wake her up. “Is the faucet dripping?”she asked innocently, not realising she transformed me into a dolorous wreck. In the morning, I disguised my grief and asked her in a business-like voice, “Did you open the toy cupboard in the middle of the night?” The door was definitely shut when we went to bed because I didn’t even know it was a cupboard full of toys and children’s books. I had kicked a woolly ball that must have rolled out from the cupboard on my way back from the toilet. So, I turned back and closed the cupboard door. That was the first thing I checked the next morning. Luckily, it remained shut. “Phew, no ghosts after all.” I said to myself but it did not prevent the hair on the back of my neck to stand up.

Breakfast was superb. It had not escaped my notice that Jan sent her chef Alex and vivacious Kylie to serve just the six of us. We were treated like VIPs right throughout our stay. Ma was the happiest she had been for a long time. Not a single complaint. Everything was just right for her, and therefore for everyone. It did feel like Goldilocks had finally found her perfect world. Not too hot and not too cold. Even the food they served was perfect in every way. We did not flinch, not even once. There was not a single rebuke from ma, not even at the slightly pink duck. Not even at the slightly salty bacon. Not even at the bill! After a tour of the vineyard, we decided to buy some of their wines at the cellar-door. Even though all three wine fridges are chocker with fine wines. These are good people, they deserve our support and we love their wines. Jan was great, she gave me an extra big discount. A goodbye gift perhaps. But, we will be back, Jan! We are your fans. When I got home, I rummaged through the contents of my wallet. I was sure Jan gave me her business card and I was sure I saw her jot down her personal phone number on it. I felt sure she said to give her a call and arrange a dinner at our favourite restaurant, The Empress at Toorak Gardens. It was a date. But I could not find her card. It must have been a dream. A lovely dream.

Everything in this photo was razed to the ground in Dec 2019. The vines are trying to grow back from their blackened stumps.

The Empress Will Impress

Wu Yong celebrated his 63rd birthday earlier this week. It took him all of sixty-three years to work out that his mother is thirty five years older than him. A few weeks ago during a Saturday lunch with his mother, their conversation somehow included the topic about great soups they have enjoyed. When asked by Wu Yong’s wife, his mother said she had never tried the soup named Buddha Jumps Over The Wall. “Neither did your Pa,” Wu Yong’s mother said to him. His Mrs later said privately to him that they should arrange to enjoy the dish together with his mother soon. Encouraged by her thoughtfulness, Wu Yong proceeded to enquire about the dish for his birthday party. He wanted it to be a special occasion this year as time waits for no one; his mother is 98 (or 99 in lunar years), with a century beckoning and the promise of a letter from the Queen. Apparently, legend has it that a Tang Dynasty scholar was cooking a pot of soup one day and the fragrance was so intoxicating to a meditating monk on the other side of the wall that it disrupted his focus on his breathing. Instead, he was taking deep breaths, enjoying the sweetness of the air that was beginning to give him hunger pangs. That he jumped over the wall to find out what the temptation was showed that he was eager to succumb to it. When Daniel Wong of Empress Restaurant quoted the cost of the dish for a table of twelve, he half-expected Wu Yong to recoil in horror at the price. But Wu Yong, who is a little hard of hearing sometimes, misheard and believed the price was quite reasonable. He left Daniel agape with incredulity when he said, “Yes, we will have it! Even the Buddha would jump over the wall to have it, why not me?” The Empress’ seduction had again triumphed over the ill-disciplined Wu Yong who has yet to understand that his brother-in-law’s favourite saying “A fool and his money are easily parted” was actually meant for him. But, Wu Yong just like the monk, had already succumbed to the temptation. He wanted the soup, and was adamant the price would be no barrier for his mother to enjoy something even a Buddha would fall for.

A friend of Wu Yong’s who had the privilege to enjoy such a dish some forty years ago said, “Ah, it is overrated and overpriced, no big deal. I was not even full from it.” Wu Yong was tempted to tell her that if she wanted to be full, just eat plain rice. Instead, all he said was, “It’s a delicacy fit for an emperor, not a staple food!” 

Verdict: Wu Yong had three bowls of Buddha Jumps Over The Wall! It was so good he did not have words to describe the ecstasy he felt. It was an explosion of sorts. That sensation lasted right throughout the three-hour meal. “And when we bade farewell, I was almost drunk not from the five bottles of fine red wine we drank but from the pleasures of the sensational soup,” Wu Yong said. No wonder Buddha jumped over the wall.

So, what is this dish that could tempt a Buddha? Here is the recipe, from the taste Wu Yong described to me.

The soup tastes better if simmered on slow heat for 8-12 hours. 

Ingredients

Soup ingredients A:

  • Black chicken
  • Chicken feet
  • Pig’s stomach
  • Pork tendons
  • Pork bones

Soup ingredients B:

  • Jinhua ham
  • 24 large dried scallops
  • bamboo shoots
  • Shitake mushrooms
  • Jujube

Other Ingredients:

  • Dried Fish maw (soaked in water)
  • 12 whole Dried Abalone (soaked in water)
  • Dried Sea cucumbers (soaked in water)
  • Sharks fin – ethically sourced  (soaked in water)
  • 24 Quail eggs

Seasoning:

  • Ginger
  • Salt
  • Shaoxing rice wine (added last – could smell the fragrance)
  • Soy sauce
  • Rock sugar
Buddha Jumps Over The Wall

Wu Yong smacked his lips after slowly relishing his third bowl of soup. He was the last one at the table to finish his final portion. “That’s it, folks! I can happily call it a night now!” he announced with gleeful satisfaction. A guest, Mr L, took him seriously and excused himself from the table. He went over to the restaurant manager, Dan, on the pretext to ask for another bottle of wine but deviously, he ordered his favourite dish, the devilishly delicious Cantonese roast duck – “the best ducks are right here” Mr L proclaimed. The Empress is famed also for their tea-smoked duck. Little did Mr L know that a world of flavours was about to descend on their table! The next dish to arrive was a deep-fried Australian rock lobster with yee-mein in Cantonese style. The lobster 龙 Lóng dragon, meaning the Emperor and long unbroken noodles are a symbol for royalty and longevity in Chinese culture.

Longevity noodles fit for the Emperor

The Cantonese roast duck was presented next – it was so succulent and enticing that Mr L could not wait for photos to be taken of it first. The meaty duck came along with the other dishes specially planned by Daniel Wong for this occasion. The Seafood birdsnest was another superb dish. Despite the name, there is no bird or fowl in it. The nest was simply delicious, made from deep-fried taro and filled with an assortment of fresh seafood. Importantly for Wu Yong, it included his favourites, Gulf Spencer King Prawns and seared deep sea scallops. The braised pork hock was melt-in-the-mouth super tender. The feast was finely balanced with a couple of vegetarian dishes – mixed mushrooms with broccolini, and snow peas with fresh lotus roots. Daniel knew the grilled wild-caught snapper with chilli sauce was never going to be rejected by Wu Yong, who made known long ago to The Empress staff that he was a seafood fanatic. Daniel was up early to secure the fish from the markets that morning. The fresh snapper, although deep-fried, was moist yet firm; its sweet juicy flesh crowned by crispy skin readily tore off the bone in big chunks.

Seafood birdsnest, later demolished by Wu Yong, a seafood lover
A super tender whole pork hock braised to perfection
Mixed vegetables including snow peas and fresh lotus roots
Mixed mushrooms and Broccolini
Fresh wild-caught snapper from South East waters off South Australia
A tropical Surprise! Photos by Yeoh Chip Beng

For dessert, The Empress’ young chef, Xiao Bai, surprised the party with a refreshing serve of tropical fruits. For the record, there was no complaint about the presence of the ‘King of Fruits’ – some may regard the durian as the smelliest fruit in the world, but the part-goers could not get enough of this most revered fruit. It certainly was a treasure to enjoy.

It may have been Wu Yong’s birthday but it was not lost on him that it was also his mother’s ‘Labour Day’ 63 years ago. So, it was quite appropriate that he handed her a dozen red roses freshly cut from the garden. The wine flowed freely throughout the night and the laughter was only interrupted by the “Wow’s and Oooh’s” and spontaneous claps as each dish was introduced by Dan. But, like all good things in life, the happy gathering of friends and family had to come to an end when Wu Yong realised they were the last ones left in the restaurant. The diners asked for Xiao Bai to come out from his kitchen and heartily applauded him for a wonderful achievement. Wu Yong poured him a glass of red wine and thanked him profusely for a fantastic meal. It must be mentioned also that Dan looked after the party-goers like they were his best friends. He is a great asset to the restaurant, settling well in his role as the restaurant manager. It is no easy feat to fill Michelle Wong’s very big shoes. Congratulations to the Wong family. To Michelle, Daniel, Eric and Ronald, Wu Yong toasted a heartfelt thankyou for the wonderful feasts that the Wong family consistently produces from their restaurant. Indeed, The Empress will continue to impress, hopefully for many more years to come!

A dozen red Mr Lincolns please
Familiar decor of Empress Restaurant, 351 Greenhill Road, Toorak Gardens SA 5065, https://www.empressrestaurant.com.au/

Park Moon’s Park On The Moon

This year’s Mooncake Festival was celebrated on 21 September, or the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunar calendar. It is also known as the Mid-Autumn Festival although it is definitely Spring here in Australia. Celebrated by most Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese communities world-wide, I was surprised to receive a tin of mooncakes this year from my bank manager. He did not understand the story behind mooncakes, so he asked me. Luckily, I had Googled the night before our meeting and impressed him with my knowledge. There is the legend about beautiful Chang’e flying to the moon after stealing the elixir of immortality from her husband, the archer Hou Yi. He was the hero who saved the world from global warming by shooting down nine suns. The other legend about mooncakes originated during the end of the Yuan Dynasty when Ming guerrillas communicated with one another through hidden messages in their mooncakes. The messages would then be eaten with the mooncakes to destroy any incriminating evidence. I was hoping to link this custom to the Water Margin, but unfortunately the Ming uprising occurred a hundred years after the civil wars of the Water Margin.

Could the greenish areas be parks on the moon? Photo by SY Rees

It was Wu Yong’s wife who first told him the story about Wu Gang, on account they both share the same name. “Why are you so “bo uak tang?” (not lively in Hokkien) she asked Wu Yong many years ago. “Why aren’t you like Wu Gang?” she added, unaware he was seething silently. Wu Yong’s other name is Wu Gang, it is common for a Chinese to have two names and a surname. The Wu Gang who lives on the moon is famous for his tireless attempts to chop down an osmanthus tree. We know that if such a tree can exist in nature, it won’t be just a single tree. It would be a park full of trees that produce white and orange blooms with the alluring scent of ripe peaches. Little did Wu Gang know that the osmanthus tree he is tasked with cutting down is a self-healing tree. Wu Gang was sent to the moon during the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century – apparently to achieve immortality. It is somewhat annoying to learn that the story about Wu Gang isn’t real. For that, we ought to blame Neil Armstrong and his Apollo 11 crew. That’s one small step for man, one giant blow to Wu Gang. A futile toil in a park on the moon. That was how I thought of Park Moon, the next hero in my Urghhling Marsh brotherhood.

Park Moon is fairly tall with a somewhat fair complexion. A handsome man with meticulously groomed hair, his face is broad but it is not a moon face. It isn’t round and it isn’t pock-marked with crater-like depressions like those on the moon. For a top-tier executive who had served his employer globally for over three decades, he does not have a coldness of a bank manager or a sneering scowl of an art critic. He is a kind man who cherishes his parents’ love and upbringing and acknowledges the big part his teachers helped shape his destiny. A loyal friend, he remains true to his schoolmates and work colleagues, some of whom he continues to mentor. Park Moon’s surname is Moey. On one of his business class trips to Europe, the air stewardess referred to him as Mr. Money. Park Moon placed his forefinger to his thin lips and told her the “n” is missing in his surname which was why he had to go earn some money. It was this quest to pursue his lofty ambitions to be a successful man with loads of money that reminded me of the futility of Wu Gang’s mission on the moon. All the money in the world may get us all the consumer goods we want but as John Lennon said, all we need is love. Park Moon paid a big price for pursuing his dreams. His marriage to a Singaporean lady ended in divorce and he lost touch with their son, a smart young man who graduated from NUS as a Chemical Engineer.

Today, Park Moon has mellowed and is more content with life. Happily remarried to a Convent Datuk Keramat girl who was once his ex-neighbour, he has two lovely daughters with her – one is a doctor and the other is in the biotech field. “I am exchanging money and perks for happiness as well as to prolong my life with less stressful work. Stepping down from a high position to a lower post can be painful and discomforting initially, especially in terms of pride,” he said. He is right. No good being Wu Gang for the osmanthus tree cannot be chopped down; all the rewards and status cannot buy us happiness and health. “This is one of the best decisions that I have made in my life,” he said, in a serious voice.

Happiness is my new rich, inner peace my new success. Health is my new wealth and kindness is my new cool.

Moey Park Moon

Park Moon’s grandfather spent a year or two in the US working on the railroad. He was smuggled into the country as the Chinese Exclusion Act was enforced in 1882. To avoid detection and capture, he had to wear socks only, to keep the noise level down. Movements and hikes were done strictly in the dark. With the money saved, he went back to China and built his house. His second attempt to re-enter the US a few years later was foiled and he was forced to return to China. That was when he and his four older brothers had their sights on Malaya. They arrived in Malaya in the early 1900s, and settled in the Kulim-Machang Bubok-Bukit Mertajam area. They were from Toishan, a county in the Pearl Delta area of Guangdong. Park Moon’s grandpa was in the woodworking / carpentry trade.

Park Moon’s father, Moey Hua Cheng, was born in 1921 in Kulim, Kedah. He was the second son, but from the father’s second wife. “One of my sisters told me that after he had passed away,” Park Moon said, divulging a once tightly-held family secret. His father’s mother was chased out of the house by the matriarch, the first wife. Hua Cheng was brought up by his stepmother. He studied till Standard 3, which was a big deal in those days in Malaya. When he was in his late teens, he was employed to work in a goldsmith and pawn shop, then partly owned by a distant cousin. “He married mum in 1940,” Park Moon continued. They moved to Penang after the war where he worked as a shop assistant for Cheong San Goldsmith at 43 Campbell Street. “Dad worked there till he retired at 72,” Park Moon said, an acknowledgment that it was the norm in those days for a person to work only for one boss in a lifetime. Despite his short time in school, he could speak, read and write Mandarin very well. He was talented at Chinese calligraphy and was the go-to person if anyone required proper Chinese writing for a big occasion. He was also fluent in Malay and could write Jawi well, and as he was also trustworthy, he helped retain a sizeable repeat business from the Malay community. They were mostly farmers who happily spent all their earnings after their harvest, and then a few months later would return to the shop to pawn their jewellery for needed cash; a cycle they repeated every year.

Moey Hua Cheng: ‘Be nice to people on your way up as you do not know who you will meet on the way down’.

Park Moon’s mother, Kong Kui Yon was a foster child raised by a Hakka family. A year younger than her husband, her marriage to him was match made. She was eighteen, of child-bearing age and therefore much sought-after. By the time she was forty in 1962, she had borne eight children. She used to talk about her real mum but never mentioned her father and her other real siblings. In those days, they treated birth parents and siblings as real, adopted ones weren’t. Probably she never knew them. She was brought up in the Kulim-Lunas-Machang Bubok area but didn’t attend school. Her role then was to do the housework and tap rubber for the foster family. Despite her illiteracy, she learned to read some Mandarin. She was a mentally strong and capable woman, pulling the family together through her skills as a fantastic homemaker -juggling the meagre budget and making sure that there was always food on the dining table and clothes for her children to wear. “The clothes were hand-me-downs from good neighbours and friends that mum somehow was able to alter and make good again,” Park Moon said. Besides helping her husband make gold bracelets till late at night, she also supplemented the family income by washing clothes for others. Once or twice a week, she would join a group of women in washing the Penang ferries as well as cutting or removing the overhang threads from jeans produced by a knitwear factory near their neighbourhood. Park Moon fondly remembers his mother’s excellent yong tau foo (Hakka stuffed tofu) and other Hakka delicacies as well as fantastic Cantonese dishes and soups.

Park Moon’s mum with his 4th Sis in 2014.

It is fine to wear old clothes that need mending. The important thing is that we did not steal them.

Kong Kui Yon

As a shop assistant, Hua Cheng earned about $150 per month. This was never enough to feed his family of eight children. The eldest is a boy, born in 1941, followed by four girls and then three boys. Park Moon is the sixth in the family. Before 1964, they all lived in a rented room in a house occupied by three other families who were also tenants at Lorong Susu (off Macalister Road). The room was so small the older kids had to sleep in the common corridor, which still left many young ones sharing the bed with their parents. How Hua Cheng and Kui Yon continued to satisfy their sexual needs without waking up the children deserved annual accolades. In 1964, Hua Cheng and his younger brother managed to pay a deposit for the purchase of a single-storey terrace house in Green Lane area, with the $2000-$3000 given to them by their stepmother as “a token of goodwill” upon her death.

Education is the only way out of poverty. Have a good life, be respectful and kind.

Moey Hua Cheng

Hua Cheng drummed into his children that education was the only way out of poverty for poor families like them. Unfortunately, to his big disappointment, the four eldest children were not so good in their studies. They attended Chinese-medium schools due to his patriotism for his father’s motherland. Mao Zedong could do no wrong in his eyes and he did not want his children to lose sight of their culture. But, being from the Chinese stream, they ended up working in local companies run by Chinese families and were therefore lowly paid. Hua Cheng began to believe that children in English-medium schools had better career opportunities, thus sending his next four children to be taught in English. He was very strict with them. Getting 80 marks in weekly tests was never good enough. A score of 90 would only earn the question “why not higher?” Like many kids in those days, Park Moon did not attend kindy and therefore could not read or write at all when he began his school life. Despite the poor start, he came ninth in class overall and that secured him in the top class from Standard 2 to Form 3. Throughout school he was an average student except he got a duck in his Form 1 English test. A student’s mark would begin at 40 out of 100, for one mistake. A second grammatical or spelling mistake earned a 20 point deduction. Park Moon’s command of the English language improved in leaps and bounds after that trauma. He did not tell me but I suspect his dad caned him. The good thing about being an average guy was that he could get along with both the more academically inclined classmates as well as the mischievous and street-wise types who were known as the “kwai lan kia”. Park Moon’s class nickname was “panjang” (long in Malay) because his scrawniness made him seem taller than most even though he was not the tallest. 

Park Moon was a reasonably well-behaved boy who kept a low profile, yet he was caned three times by the headmaster, Brother John. One of the canings was rather frivolous – he was called out for walking on the grass even though there was no “Do not walk on grass” sign. The other two occasions were for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Things got a bit rough among the boys playing marbles during recess and he was punished for their transgressions. But the one incident that Park Moon will never forget was his detention by his Standard 2 Form teacher for not understanding her instructions to complete a workbook exercise despite her numerous explanations. So she lost it, grabbed his hair and banged his head hard against the desk. The poor boy was too shocked to cry and too afraid to tell his father whose unshakeable belief was “Teachers are always right”. In school, Park Moon was known as the History King, being the top student in the subject. He got into SXI’s Form 4 Science 1 after better than expected results in the LCE. Science 1 boys were daunting to mix with. He perceived them to be smarter. He did not require his sense of inferiority to be the excuse to leave SXI for the Technical Institute (TI). His father saw technical education as his path to a better future. So, he pleased his father and enrolled in TI instead. Like most of his friends, he failed Bahasa Malaysia in the MCE and had to repeat it. Upper 5 was his St. Paul’s moment. He started attending church and eventually became a Christian. He passed his MCE this time with flying colours. After a year in Lower 6 Form, he arrived in Sydney, Australia with $3,000 in his pocket. It was all the money his father had. “So, make it last till you find a vacation job,” Hua Cheng said to his son. But to young Park Moon, it sounded like “swim or drown”.

Park Moon appreciated the gravity of his situation and was very careful with his finances during his matriculation and first year in Uni. For lunch, he survived on a 250ml carton of milk and a meat pie. Every day. I did not tell him but Wu Yong, another brother of the Urghhling Marsh lived on a 250ml carton of milk and a strawberry jam sandwich. Every day. Park Moon’s room was spartan. Book shelves, a study chair and a single bed with faulty springs were bought from The Smith Family which sold donated or used goods to raise money for children’s charity. During a hot and dry summer in his matriculation year, he had a difficult four weeks – knocking on factory doors from Rosebery to Parramatta looking for a job, feeling more and more desperate by the day. Then out of the blue, an Indonesian senior whom he barely knew introduced him to Fritzel & Schnitzel, a restaurant in Hunter Street for a kitchen hand job. The restaurant had just been taken over by a Lebanese family who fled the civil war. Within two weeks, he became the second chef because the owner and his Lebanese chef got into a very serious argument and the chef stormed out in a huff. In his second summer, he got a job in Rosebery – assembling one-armed bandits. The factory workers were migrants and refugees (Vietnamese, Chileans, Croatians, Serbs, Greeks, Italians, Turks, etc). The Croats didn’t like the Serbs, the Greeks hated the Turks and everyone called the Italians wogs. Working in hot and crammed conditions with them was torture. They were mostly bigger, taller and smellier than Park Moon, whose nostrils were just at the right armpit height of his garlic-loving colleagues who seemed to skip their daily baths. A Vietnamese shared his horrifying experience fleeing the country by boats deemed unseaworthy and the many obstacles and traumatic experiences exacted by pirates before they were able to reach Australia. 

In his third summer, he got a job at an ice factory at the Pyrmont fish market. It was a one-man show, but would have been a physically demanding job even for two. In the morning, he had to make three to four runs per hour to the fish auction market, delivering five pallet loads of ice each time, using a manual lifter. The pallets loaded with ice were stacked up to his chin level. When the auction hours were over, typically by 12 noon, he then had to bag party ice and store them in the freezers, and when they were full, he stored them in a 40-ft container parked outside the factory. A typical day started at six in the morning – catch the no. 273 bus from Randwick to Pitt Street, then a ten-minute brisk walk to Pyrmont. His day finished at 10 at night. Sunday was the only rest day. He got paid well, for a uni student, but he also got stomach ulcers for missing his meals. It did not make sense why the boss would employ a weak-looking Asian boy for such a physical job. “Why me and not one of the stronger white guys who were in the queue?” he asked his boss. “Because you were the hungriest,” he said simply. In his fourth summer, he was required to do his industrial training at one of the shires in NSW which was quite close to the Queensland border. It was a good experience staying with an Aussie family. The family would drive him to ‘nearby’ Inverell on Saturday which was a good two hours drive away, and in return, Park Moon would cook a Chinese lunch for them the next day. He also tutored the family’s daughter who was in Year 6 or 7. The father would reciprocate and teach him golf and lawn bowling while the son who was about 17 years old, taught him archery.

With best mates from uni days. Albert Tan (L), Torng Maw (mid)

In December 1983, Park Moon completed his double-degree course in Science and Engineering at the University of Sydney. He was promptly recruited by Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit Corporation to work on their new MRT system. After six years there, he felt he had learned enough field work in civil and tunnel construction stuff and electrification works. He then moved on to the insurance industry, and was trained as a Risk Engineer with FM Global. He loved the opportunities to travel worldwide. “With full perks, executive suites in 5 or 6-star hotels and always Business Class!” he said candidly. One day, he could be at a Newmont mining site in remote Indonesia and the next day, in a super dust-free room like in a TSMC semiconductor wafer fab in Taiwan. Essentially the job exposed him to all kinds of industries – power plants, semicon fabs, pulp and paper mills, etc. More importantly through all this, he got a global network of friends. As his father used to say, “Why make enemies when you can make friends?” His first trip to China was in the winter of 1991. The feeling was unreal the moment the plane touched down in Beijing – somehow it felt like a home-coming for him even though that was the first time he stepped on the land where his grandfather was born. “I was joyous, I could feel the tears in my heart,” he said. There were no streetlights in Beijing- only the light bulbs in the shops gave some dim light. The main shopping area was however full of people. The drive from Beijing to Tianjin was uneventful. The roads were very wide, but empty of cars. Instead, there were miles and miles of people in drab grey clothes on their bicycles being passed by a few tractor driven carts. The country was poor, the countryside dismal. Beggars trudged the streets pitifully, those without limbs sat on the roadsides, busily swatting at flies. He could see people carving blocks of ice from the frozen rivers and ponds. When he arrived at Tangshan which was hit by a huge earthquake in 1976 with the highest number of casualties on record, the factory had put up banners at the main gate to welcome him. Once the main gate was opened, as if prompted by a conductor, the factory employees started clapping and singing “Huan ying, huan ying” like a 1000-strong choir of sixteen voices. Park Moon found out later that the plant was hardly producing anything.

On his second trip to China, Park Moon got into trouble with the local authorities. It was in January 1993, during one of the harshest winters there. He was smuggled up the train from Changchun to Harbin without a train ticket. The plant manager had either forgotten or could not buy the ticket. Having boarded the train at the depot one stop from the train station, Park Moon thought he was provided with a spacious First Class cabin. But, when the train stopped at the train station, he soon realised he was in a six-person cabin and he was the seventh without a ticket. The temperature outside was minus 20C. The icy cold conditions motivated Park Moon to rustily argue in poor Mandarin with the train conductor whose strong Manchurian accent provided his errant passenger with a good excuse to plead ignorance and feign being insulted. The other six passengers relented after a rowdy few minutes and made room for the non-paying guest. The compromise was good enough for the conductor to extricate himself from the cabin without injuring anyone’s pride. With a little whimper, Park Moon bowed respectfully and said “Xie, xie, thank you.”

Park Moon, one of the nicest heroes in the Urghhling Marsh Brotherhood.

Park Moon is one of the nicest guys I know from my school. In 1996, as he was waiting for a table at the Red Lobsters Restaurant in Toronto, an elderly man came up to him and asked if he could share his table. Park Moon turned around and saw a man with a noble face and a bad posture. He looked decent enough and smelt clean, although his jacket looked slightly threadbare and his pants were clearly in need of a hot iron. “Sure, fine,” Park Moon replied and signalled to the waitress to set the table for two instead. When asked for his order after being given enough time with the glossy menu, the old man told the waitress he was with Park Moon, and to let Park Moon order for him. A free rider! Park Moon thought to himself. “Would you like a glass of red wine?” he asked his self-invited guest. “I’m ordering a T-bone steak for you,” he said in a soft warm voice. “I will have a lobster,” Park Moon said to the waitress and smiled sweetly as he closed the menu. When their meals arrived, the elderly man did not hesitate to pounce on his steak. He ate the medium-rare meat like a man who had just disavowed his vegetarianism. Meat, glorious meat,” he seemed to be humming to himself as he emptied his plate in a blink of an eye. He placed his steak knife and fork side by side at the 4 o’clock position, signifying he had finished his meal. But, Park Moon had barely started pulling at his succulent 0.8 kg Maine lobster. Suddenly, the elderly man leaned forwards and yanked a claw from the lobster with his deformed fingers that were riddled with arthritis. The meaty claw flew off the table to Park Moon’s dismay and utter shock. Park Moon stepped off his side of the table to pick up the claw. As he bent down, he noticed the restaurant’s carpet, once freshly laid and springy to the feet, were discoloured and heavily-trodden with many small but visible bare patches. Park Moon returned to his seat with the claw pincered by his right thumb and forefinger. The elderly man asked if he could still have the claw. He broke into a radiant smile when his host offered him the whole lobster instead. Park Moon had lost his appetite.

He left his position as Engineering Manager after ten years with the company when Marsh (a major global insurance broker listed in NYSE) came calling. Park Moon became the Managing Director of the risk consulting business unit covering Asia. The company was flying high, so to speak, and he was doing exceptionally well personally, until Spitzer (a US attorney in NY) came along and started to haul-up brokers for non-compliance on financial and accounting misdeeds. As they say, all good things must come to an end and the company came under a lot of pressure from shareholders and market analysts. He called it quits after ten years with Marsh and joined their competitor, AON, also as the Managing Director of risk consulting. He stayed just three years with them and re-joined Marsh in his old role for another five years. By then, he had grown stale in the business after almost three decades in the same field. Today, Park Moon works on a retainer with international German insurer, HDI Global.

This group of teachers and friends helped shape Park Moon’s life. From left, Sally Lam, Lesley Samson, Johnny Phun, Wilson Gan, Yoke Pheng and Oh Teik Soon.

Zero Hero, Write About Nero

Typhoon, a hero in the Urghhling Marsh brotherhood suggested I write about Nero, since there is no new hero to write about. It has been a disappointing few weeks. My project to write a book based on fellow schoolmates from our childhood is stalling. We call one another ‘brothers’. It started so well. The excitement this project created was palpable. The brotherhood from school of course, pales into insignificance when compared with the heroism of the 108 heroes of Liangshan Marsh in the Water Margin story. We were after all merely kids who grew up in a very safe town environment – we did not have to survive the carnage of wars or overcome insidious plots by corrupt officials of the court or fight tigers in the forests. I stand accused of being grossly ridiculous to even try to compare the sharp vicissitudes of fortune many of these heroes of the Song dynasty suffered to the ordinary struggles we experienced in the 20th century, yet I felt sure our forefathers may have had their own heroic stories to tell, uprooting themselves early in their mostly wretched lives to seek greener pastures in faraway lands. Their quest, although without any of the virtuous deeds of the Liangshan bandits such as rebelling against corrupt officials, or staging civil unrest against the emperor’s rule, was still admirable for the sheer bravery and pioneering spirit to seek fortune in unknown lands.

In the Water Margin, I could almost feel the likes of Song Jiang’s and Lin Chong’s searing pain as they had their faces branded in Chinese characters that condemned them as criminals. Or, smell the foul breaths of Wu Song and Li Kui who were both often so drunk the former killed a tiger with his bare hands once and the latter’s wrath and maniacal violence made him a fearsome character. Often, it was taking justice into their own hands that turned these heroes into outlaws. Due to corrupt magistrates, justice was seldom properly served. “Taking justice into their own hands” meant only one thing. A bloody killing. There is the story about Inspector Lei Heng aka The Winged Tiger who cracked Bai Xiuying’s skull, spilling her brains on a street, for abusing and assaulting his feeble mother. Bai was a songstress who won favours and protection from a lustful magistrate using her beauty and sexual prowess. Also as gory was the story about Yang Xiong who upon discovering his wife had been adulterous with a monk in their own bedroom, plunged his sword into her breasts and pulled out her heart, spleen, liver, kidneys and lungs, and hung them up on a tree. Wu Song similarly ripped open Pan Jinlian’s blouse and sank his dagger into her breasts. With both hands, he removed his sister-in-law’s heart, spleen, liver, kidneys and lungs, and displayed them at his murdered brother’s altar table. Later, he fought and killed Ximen Qing, her lover, at a nearby inn. He chopped off both their heads and placed them at his brother’s memorial tablet as a gesture of respect and justice served. I swear, these gruesome murders were so palpable I could smell their blood and feel their pain. But then again, it could be just the chronic pain I am suffering that I feel.

For two weeks now, there has been no positive reply from any schoolmate for me to write their story. In a few cases, there was simply no reply. Silence. If only silence is consent. I could write about this friend whom I held in high esteem as a young boy. For me back then, he was as heroic as Superman. Nothing could defeat him or his mind, at least. He travelled fast, in his sister’s Honda N360. At the time, most of us were still negotiating the back alleys on our bicycles. My childhood best friend, I knew his idiosyncrasies well. Born with leadership qualities, he outshone me in just about anything or with anyone. The girls flocked to him like bees to honey. He could do the cha-cha as well as John Travolta. Slick. Smooth. Suave. Stylish, with 4-inch high clogs and 16-inch bell-bottoms sweeping the dance floor. I can still see him with his unbuttoned pink shirt and sharp winged collars. High fashion then, nostalgia now. He was the performer, the star, the soloist on stage. I was the stagehand, in the background, in the dark. No spotlight on me with him around. I knew his parents well. Both jolly and round. The kindest folks around me in my teens. I enjoyed many meals in their cosy home. His mum would not take no for an answer. Maybe I never said no. Her food was wonderful but not plentiful. Yet, there was always some for me. I have no doubt they treated me like a son. His mum was so concerned about the girl I was dating she went to my mother to warn me. Apparently, the girl had a “reputation”. I did not know this story till just last week. My mother would not elaborate apart from saying I was stupid. Did I use the past tense? Sorry, my mother still thinks I am “ben-ben” i.e. somewhat stupid. I still do not know whether to agree or disagree. I suppose that makes her right.

With zero hero in the midst, I am asked to write about Nero instead. Why Nero, I asked. “Oh, he fiddled whilst Rome burned, of course,” Typhoon said. Apparently, this was just a myth. Ancient Rome was a slum full of poor quality housing. Wooden houses burned easily. Some 70% of the city was destroyed in a great fire during Nero’s reign in the first century. But, we know the violin was not invented until the early 16th century, according to recorded history anyway. The oldest violin is made by Amati of Cremona, around 1565. Ok, maybe Nero fiddled on a viol instead. The viol has two C-shaped sound holes instead of the F-holes of the violin. It has six or seven strings instead of the four strings. But, Nero could not have played on a viol, because it was invented some 1500 years later! It later dawned on me that perhaps Typhoon was being sarcastic. To say that Nero played music whilst his city burned has a second meaning. It describes decadence, detachment from reality or worse, decay and disregard for his people’s suffering. Rome was in moral decline. Nero was reviled for his excessive indulgence in pleasure, debauchery and luxury. Conspiracy theorists believed he ordered the fire started, to grab land for his Golden Palace and pleasure gardens. Maybe he wanted an excuse to persecute the Christians and kill off the then obscure religious sect.

According to Typhoon, Nero was like a hero to the Roman commoners though in fact he was a cruel leader. He was a stepson of Claudius and became Emperor at age 17, attaining heroic status at a very young age. He was devoted to poetry, art and music, he fiddled the lyre, obviously he didn’t “lyred” the fiddle whilst Rome burned. He even participated in the Olympics and won every contest he participated in. In the chariot race, he was thrown from his chariot and yet was crowned winner on the basis that he would have won had he completed the race. What a hero!
At age 31, he fled Rome and committed suicide after he learned that the Roman elites had tried him in absentia and condemned him to death for being public enemy number one. Strange that, he almost got away with uxoricide and matricide for which he was never charged. From hero to zero, that was Nero.

Did Typhoon imply that I was out of touch with reality? Fiddling with my violin whilst friends were wrecked with economic hardship? At a time of huge suffering during a pandemic, how dare I bother them about writing their stories? There are more urgent matters to tackle, warring against a virus and putting food on the table as The Cook needs to do daily. Too many matters to think of than worry about giving me stories to retell. Blue Eyes has been back to Edmonton and then back again to the blue waters of Panama. Four Eyes, suddenly with factional wars to quell in his workplace. The Mayor, running for re-election, recruiting pretty young girls to wave his banners. Prez running around like a chook without its head, garnering support for the hawkers and the needy in his township. Lord Guan, that towering hero of the brotherhood, still wishing to escape to Hong Kong where a white pleasure yacht full of flowing champagne and a bevy of young beauties is parked on a once fragrant harbour awaiting his arrival. Besides, there is climate change to worry about. Look at the billions of syringes, vaccine vials, face masks, plastic food packaging being dumped daily.

When I run out of heroes to write about, I can always turn to Wu Yong. He is the least popular of the heroes in my Urghhling Marsh stories. To me, it is his many annoying characteristics that make him the least popular and therefore one of the most interesting to relate to. Wu Yong learned the violin in school, from Brother Michael. He attended just a lesson or two before switching to a private teacher, Mr Woon. Br Michael was an authoritarian. He ruled the school with a long cane which he hid inside the long sleeves of his dazzling white long dress. He prowled the school grounds like a tiger prowling his territory. Any straggler in school to him was like an intruder to a tiger. To be challenged and defeated. Any boy who dared defy his instructions and rules would be swiftly caned. Wu Yong did not feel comfortable learning from “Lau Hor”, nicknamed ‘the white tiger’ on account of his race, his white robes and his fierce demeanour. Wu Yong failed to turn up for the school orchestra’s rehearsals after one session. Such was his disdain (or was it fear?) for the Lasallian educator. A school is only as good as its teachers, that is true. But why did they have to be violent? Why did they exact punishment on little kids with such voracious fierceness and unrestrained fury? Did they not know violence begets violence? Wu Yong wondered how many students went on to become violent adults themselves. Wu Yong played the violin rather badly for eight years, although he was convinced he was good enough to apply for a music degree in Vienna. “I knew I would not be good enough to be a performer, but I could become a music teacher,” he reckoned. But, he was honest with himself. He knew he spent more time on the football field than in his music ‘room’ – the 6 ft x 3 ft tiled landing just in front of the toilet and bathroom. He wasn’t cut out to be a footballer, and even less as a teacher. He wanted to be a dentist instead but he failed in that too.

Wu Yong vowed to join his local district’s symphony orchestra this year. At an age where many of his peers have already retired, he knew he should pick up his German-made violin again before his eyes start failing and his fingers become too stiff to dance along the strings. He gave himself one season to hone his skills before applying to join the orchestra. “Well, it is already a new season,” I said. “Have you enrolled?” I persisted. Wu Yong got visibly upset with me. His eyebrows knitted up, his forehead wrinkles scrunched even more. His scowl menacing, his beady eyes cold like steel. I immediately knew I had struck a chord with him, pardon the pun. A raw nerve, actually. “I am suffering from a frozen shoulder,” Wu Yong said icily. “I have not been able to pick up my violin since my last practice in late July; I showed so much improvement too,” he added. Wu Yong blames his incapacity on the recent vaccine jabs he had. He had a winter flu jab on the 1st Aug and his first COVID-19 jab nine days later. He suspects the two jabs so close together had caused him untold joint pain, general muscle pain and a severe frozen shoulder. Only now does he fully understand why they call it a frozen shoulder. At rest for a short while, his shoulder would feel like a slab of meat in a freezer so cold and dead it is; and when he moves it, the pain is so severe and agonising he sometimes wishes he is dead instead. He has not had a good night sleep since the COVID-19 jab eight weeks ago. That is 56 sleeps ago! The intense and prolonged pain is making him into a gloomy and moody person which in turn is affecting his general health. Wu Yong reported to his doctor that his may be a case of “Subacromial-subdeltoid bursitis” following COVID-19 vaccination. But, his doctor casually pointed out that his frozen shoulder was on the opposite side, not immediately above the injection site. “Ok, that may mean it is not a case of SIRVA! So?” Wu Yong protested. “Just because it is not a shoulder injury related to vaccine administration does not mean my agony is not due to the vaccine, right?” Wu Yong countered, “I had no history of such prolonged joint pain, and no chronic shoulder injury.” “Is it a mere coincidence that I am in such constant agony?” he asked, still convinced the symptoms of adhesive capsulitis occurred a day or two after his vaccination. Although without any medical knowledge, he firmly believes his is a case of arthritis from a COVID-19 vaccination. As expected, his doctor dismissed Wu Yong’s amateurish diagnosis. Anyone would. Everyone did. Maybe he thinks he has stumbled onto an “eponymous disease” such as Alzheimers, Chrohn’s, Parkinson’s, Hodgkin’s, Guillain-Barré, Tourette’s syndrome. Will he call it Wu Yong’s? What is a Tourette syndrome, you ask? It involves a sufferer making uncontrolled repetitive movements such as shrugging one’s shoulders, blinking or making unwanted sounds repeatedly. An example in the brotherhood would be Blue Eyes whose uncontrolled outbursts of the various versions of “pharque” and “pharquer” make it colourful reading in our chats. If he is not careful, I fear Wu Yong will be expelled from the Urghhling Marsh brotherhood. He just isn’t cut out to be a hero. With his frozen shoulder, he can’t even repeatedly shrug his shoulders.

Wisteria in full bloom but it is doom and gloom for Wu Yong. How will he sweep up the fallen petals with his frozen shoulder?

Barramundi, Calamari and Verdi

What pandemic? What lockdown? I was in the Adelaide Town Hall last night, attending a special preview performance of Verdi’s Requiem, and the whole place was buzzing with people. “Are you a VIP?” a pretty usher asked me. Well, I no longer felt important after that. “This section is reserved for VIPs only,” she continued to hurt my ego. I smiled, said “yes” and walked right past her. I knew she would not have the audacity to check the veracity of my answer. So, why even bother to ask, right? Don’t they know VIPs do not like to be asked if they are important? We damn well know we are! A special preview event for invitees only but due to the actual concert being sold out tonight, they decided to open up the rest of the hall for sixty paying guests. We are very lucky to live in this part of Australia. What pandemic? Life has been pretty normal apart from two very brief lockdowns. We have lived with zero cases and zero deaths from Covid-19 for much of this year. Live with the virus? Why, we here live normally without it. Alright, it has not been so “normal”. I get it. It is mandatory here to wear masks too and I am so used to social distancing that big crowds do worry me. That said, last night was the first time this year that I had no uneasiness about shaking hands and hugging people.

I will be 63 next month, yet there were still so many tasks that required my attention before I could leave home for the concert last night. “When will it slow down for me?” I asked myself. There were the three chooks to feed and their poo to sweep; the nine fish to feed and their poo to scoop from the pond. There was the adorable puppy to bond with. Yes, not play with or look after but a close bonding with my best pal. He is virtually glued to me. If he could talk, he will say I am his shadow. Before the chores were done, I went inside the house to check if The Mrs was getting ready. Surreptitiously, for it is dangerous to be perceived to be hurrying her. Retirees somehow lose their punctuality. She was so efficient and time-poor she was always on time. Not anymore! Secretly, I am envious of her freedom to do as she pleases, say what she likes and lose any sense of time. “No need to rush,” she will say. Rushing to get ready for the concert, I borrowed a rather “expensive-looking” jacket from my youngest son’s wardrobe. Knowing this son, it won’t just look expensive. The jacket has been hanging in there for many years. That, I am well aware of. “Such a waste,” I convinced myself it ought not be wasted. Fashion changes – it was a present from his aunt, The Mrs’ sister from eight years ago (at least). I have seen him wore it once. Never mind. He won’t know if I borrowed it, I decided. The Mrs said I should not tie up my hair. She said long hair suits the jacket. Wow. For years, she had grumbled how ridiculous I look with long hair.

I had not ventured out at night for a long while except occasionally to my favourite local restaurant, The Empress. Honestly, they do make feel like the emperor, so important do they make me feel. Besides, they never ask if I’m a VIP! What pandemic? The roads last night were full of cars, all jammed up snarling and blowing fumes. Electric cars can’t come quick enough. Yet, the governments here insist on levying a road user tax for EV’s. Go figure. I used to think Aussies are smart. After circling the Town Hall three times, I dropped off The Mrs right at the front of the hall, as she commanded unnecessarily. I know her so well words are no longer required. You’d think by now she would know I already know what she wants. There would be no free parking, I decided. Normally, my luck would deliver me a vacant car space when I needed one. After another futile round of hunting for a free parking bay (the thriftiness learned by all Penang people), I drove into a carpark nearest the venue, unaware of the stress it would cause me later.

I paused to admire my jacket in the reflection on the Town Hall glass door before I sauntered in, feeling like a young Bruce Lee. It is a phenomenon I should examine one day – how good clothes make us feel good, and how special clothes make us feel special. “Are you one of the musicians?” a very pleasant young lady asked. Maybe I have a violinist’s long strong fingers but it was a strange question nonetheless. “No,” I said and beamed her a smile without showing my teeth, which my dentist had reminded two days earlier “are quite badly stained.” She just wanted extra business, I told myself and ignored the obvious response she was looking for. No, you will not whiten my teeth! Who goes around asking people if they are musicians or professional photographers? Somehow, I get asked that a lot. Even at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York once. There was an exhibition by a Japanese photographer, and one of the lady ushers excitedly asked me if I was the celebrity photographer. I think she was poised to hand me a programme for my autograph.

The Mrs immediately had to go to the loo, declining a glass of wine in the process. I pounced on a red. Wine, I mean – the waitress was a blonde. We arrived early, yet the room was already full. The night’s programme informed me there would be 70 minutes of catering and beverages. Free booze and barramundi. Party time! A waitress approached me as if I was fresh air and offered me some deep fried stuff. I am normally disinclined to partake in such unhealthy stuff, but why decline free food, right? I used my two fingers like pincers and zeroed in on the golden round ball. Lightly crumbed calamari, I assumed. “I’ll grab one more, for my wife,” I said to the vivacious girl holding the round tray of food. “Yes, I am sure she is here tonight,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. Ah, humans are all the same. She must be so used to guests wanting a quick second serve, pretending to reserve a second morsel for their absent wives. With a glass of red on my left hand and a calamari on my right hand, I stood there observing the crowd. People are nice when they believe we are all A-list guests. Suddenly, there is no class, creed or race to divide us. We are all the same. We belong to the VIPs. I think that is how the urghhlings can become better earthlings. Just treat everyone as important. Listen, we are all A-listers and the world will be a better place. A couple just in front of me were making small talk between themselves. They angled their bodies differently and created a slightly bigger distance between them. Ah, an open invitation for me to step in and make them less conspicuous. I used to dislike such functions in my early years as an accountant. Having to make small talk, smile sweetly and be watchful not to make myself sound like a fool. A bean counter must project himself as dour, grey and boring – isn’t that what an old saying suggests? Never mind, I have been comfortable in my own skin for a very long time. I have no qualms about being alone in a big room full of well-dressed patrons. I am well-dressed too. It is amazing how my son’s jacket transformed me! Anyway, the couple turned to smile at me, as if pleading for me to enlarge their circle. Some couples can’t make small talk between themselves! I was quite contented to keep to myself, observing people from a distance is a kind of voyeurism. Maybe. Anyway, I stepped forward and said hello to them. He was a good-looking Italian gentleman, a State champion once upon a time in ballroom dancing. That was how he met her, a woman from Suzhou with typical Chinese looks but her skin was deliciously smooth like silken tofu. Flat face, flat nose, small eyes on a round wide face that showed a lack of discipline with her diet. She wore a scarf that was multi-coloured with patterns that mainland Chinese love. I did not have to ask where she came from to know. Her accent later confirmed it. “Hello, I am Jing,” she introduced herself. The Mrs had just joined us and asked, “Are you Korean?” Sigh. Koreans do not wear scarves that look designed for mainland Chinese. As soon as The Mrs found out Jing was from Jiangsu Province, her inhibitions vanished and instantly, the two women were behaving like long-lost friends, chatting away in mandarin with ever increasing tempo and volume. Somehow, the mutual friendliness gave The Mrs licence to talk freely about me. I pulled the Italian man slightly away from them so that they did not appear rude. His name was Carmen -not Spanish as I believed. “Carmine-red was a very common colour for soldiers’ uniform,” he said. Red coats apparently were popular to hide the blood of wounded soldiers so that their comrades would not be demoralised.

The sweet smiles of the waitress approached me again. This time, I was not going to let her go. “Ah, barramundi for me please,” I said. “And my wife is right here,” I gestured to The Mrs who seemed in another world by then. After offering the food to The Mrs and her new best pal, the waitress said, “here, another piece for your girlfriend,” she chuckled as she waltzed away. There is a reason why I am born with two ears. One to listen to the boring man in front of me and the other to catch some of the chatter from the ladies. “He’s good looking?” “No, the father is so much more handsome! Like Gregory Peck!” The Mrs disagreed loudly with her companion. “I told my husband, in our next life, don’t flirt with me. Don’t say a single word to me. Don’t catch the same bus. Pretend you don’t know me,” she continued. “I’d rather be a pebble than marry him again,” she said. At that point, I jumped into their conversation, and offered this logic to Jing. “We have been married for over 40 years, Jing,” I started. “Ask my wife why she is still with me if I am such a lousy husband!” Luckily, I was saved by the clinking of glasses. Speech time. Phew. And then it was concert time. On the way to our seats, another usher asked me, “Are you VIP? The first four rows are for VIPS only.” I replied, “Yes, I know that.” As I was sitting down, I saw a violinist from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. “How are you?!” I asked excitedly. He looked at me, somewhat puzzled. “Oh, maybe you don’t remember me,” I said. “Of course, I remember you,” he said. “You’re so-and-so’s (son’s name) father,” he exclaimed. Somehow, in that split second, I lost my own identity. Maybe he recognised my son’s jacket.

Verdi’s Requiem was awesome. That is one word I seldom use. ‘Awesome’ is normally reserved for the universe. That kind of greatness. The youthful exuberance from the orchestra was especially a joy to witness. I could tell they were playing on cheap instruments, but their playing was superb and amazing for their age. The Adelaide Youth Orchestra, or ADYO gave an insight into the health of the musical world in Adelaide. I am happy to report the doom and gloom expressed a few years ago by some observers is incorrect. We have a lot to look forward to, if last night was any hint. Powered by a full orchestra and a 100-strong choir, last night’s Requiem was thrilling to witness. It was a wonderful event. The concert was awesome, the orchestra impressive and the choir magical. The soloists, simply divine. Bravo! At the interval, I went and congratulated the conductor, Keith Crellin. He looked at me blankly but shook my hand anyway. I had to mention my son’s name, as he did not recognise his jacket. “Ah, you’re his father!” Keith exclaimed. I definitely lost my own identity last night.

ADYO’s Verdi Requiem

After the concert, the sadness of the music followed me all the way back to the carpark. A requiem or mass for the dead. Why would anyone write for the dead? It is as defeatist as an artist painting about death or a landscape of rubbish in a landfill. “Who on earth would want to display it on their wall?” I asked The Mrs after she showed me her painting of rubbish last year. Her painting wasn’t rubbish of course – it was just about rubbish.

Rubbish. This painting is not rubbish, it is about rubbish.

Anyway, we had a big scare when we got to the carpark. Our ticket would not scan properly to open the entrance door to the building that was locked up at 7pm on the dot. After a long wait on the phone, the AI that was manning the phone failed to show any intelligence. In the cold, we were getting desperate and I was on the verge of calling a cab when a car turned into the driveway and the boom gate opened noisily to let it into the carpark. “Hurry up!” I hurried The Mrs to keep up with me as we quickly followed the car inside. Although the machine failed to read my ticket earlier, it did not fail to charge me $29 for the parking. With the new ticket that it spat out, we proceeded to Level 4 to our car. The Mrs was cursing under her breath as by then she was getting tired and cold. My fear was soon realised – my car was not where I thought it would be. After a short frantic search, I realised the white car in the corner was mine after all. I had been looking for her blue car instead. When we got to the boom gate, the new ticket would not open the roller door. The message read “Unreadable ticket.” “Are we in a third world country?” I asked. “Nothing seems to work tonight,” I said. It felt as if the dead had been awoken by Verdi. Luckily, I persisted and tried another boom gate instead of assuming the same ticket would be unreadable by all scanners. The boom gate opened and I stepped hard on the pedal to the metal and my car screeched out before the boom gate came back down.

Le Cares About le Carré

It is said that the young should not read the Water Margin. With the heady tales of heroism, sacrifice and gallantry, it can be to the chagrin of a government to have to suppress the rebellious youths who can become highly vocal and violent in their criticism of corrupt officials and do-nothing high-salaried bureaucrats. Laced with youthful enthusiasm and armed with Confucian ideals such as virtue, loyalty and brotherhood, this sense of inspiration and glory is viewed in certain quarters as a cocktail to upend peace and stability in a society if such rebellious sentiments are left unchecked. The right to rebellion, after all, is the most dangerous of all Confucian values.

The Water Margin is a 12th century epic based on righteous men who turned outlaws in the Song Dynasty. Despite its claim that “within the four seas, all men are brothers”, the setting of the stories is wholly located in China and Liangshan Marsh the epicentre of the outlaws’ domain. In the Urghhling Marsh stories however, there is no such geographical boundary. The brotherhood is indeed global. In this chapter, we have a hero whose origin is Hanoi in Vietnam. The Chinese called it, amongst many names, Thang Long or “Soaring Dragon” as far back as 1 A.D. when it was part of Han China. The Chinese didn’t turn Vietnam into a tributary state until the 10th century, some two hundred years before the Water Margin heroes’ final battle against the Fang La rebels. That the Liangshan outlaws, upon receiving their amnesty from the emperor would quell a peasant revolution for the emperor, worried Mao Zedong enough to criticise Song Jiang and the leaders of the brigands. He did not want the Cultural Revolution to be opposed during his rule by what he called “capitulationism”. Whether Song Jiang did capitulate is not clear but our Vietnamese hero evidently waved a white flag to his promises to his parents and banished himself from returning to his homeland.

Le Nguyen was born in a village in Hanoi, in 1917. His family was not destitute for they rented a piece of land big enough to rear pigs and subsist on vegetables from their own farm. Le was the second eldest in a family of seven but the only one to complete primary school education, a remarkable achievement then. His parents were proud of him and hoped he would focus on the land. But Le had his own dreams and ambitions. He wasn’t interested in toiling the land.

Vietnam was a colony of France from the 1800’s till 1954 when they suffered a shattering defeat by  the Viet Minh. The French were impressed with the abundant natural resources in the French Indochina territories, enjoying the economic boom at the expense of the local people. Le  was not hopeful of ever leaving the brutal rule of the French. “It would be nice to see the world,” he thought as he applied for the post in Paris that required a Vietnamese translator. As a Buddhist, he firmly believed in destiny and karma, and was not dismayed when he failed to get the overseas posting. In his late teens, he became an apprentice to learn the art of engraving in a reputable French-owned jewellery company in Hanoi. He worked hard and within two years, he earned a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel overseas when the company’s engraver in Penang passed away. His dreams of venturing abroad finally came true. He burst into tears as he accepted his boss’s offer, grabbing it like a lifeline. Le’s parents, on the other hand, were apprehensive and did not share his enthusiasm. But Le was in a state of euphoria. Nothing anybody said or did could change his mind. His parents had good reasons to be worried, they were reliant on his income to help with the family’s budget. But, they eventually acquiesced to him leaving after he steadfastly promised to send money home regularly and assured them he will return home as soon as he made his fortune.

On 15 September 1937, Le, a skinny 20-year-old lad, boarded the steamship in Hai Phong with the same exuberance as a wide-eyed kid in a toy shop. He was oblivious to his father’s discomfort and his mother’s red puffy eyes as he bade them farewell to them. “Will I ever see you again, my son?” his mother asked silently in between sobs.

Upon his arrival in Penang, Le was surprised to feel right at home. A big Teochew community welcomed him with open arms. The Teochew clans originated from the Chaoshan region in Guangdong and the familiarity of their food and customs further comforted him. But over time, the struggles of living alone made him homesick and he began to miss his family and friends in Hanoi much more than he imagined. He kept to his promise and sent money home regularly at first but once he succumbed to drowning his sorrows with alcohol, there wasn’t much cash left for anyone else. He became a regular patron of a bar near his home in Georgetown at the time.He enjoyed the company of a few fellow revellers who were particularly attracted by the skimpily dressed dancers who prowled the scene nightly. Le contemplated going back home to Hanoi, but  he decided not to let his parents see him as a failed adventurer.

Le’s life changed dramatically when he fell in love with a local woman named Emma whom he married very soon after. Emma was a petite woman, quite fair and very pretty. She liked to dress in the traditional kebaya, and sometimes in the cheongsam; those outfits showed off her ample hourglass figure. Her father died when she was young leaving her mother to live off his paltry pension.The lack of a bread-winner at home meant she never finished Primary School. She brought her only sister to live with them after her mother died a couple of years after their marriage. Le and Emma had two beautiful girls before the Japanese occupation.

In 1940, Le’s company closed down its operations in Penang due to the looming war. The firm was already bleeding financially as stiff competition from the local Chinese and Indian jewellers affected sales. All of a sudden, Le felt lost, confused and afraid. Losing his job meant losing his self-esteem and the ability to support his own family and a sister-in-law. Le’s employer had no pension plans or retrenchment benefits for its employees. The company hired and fired at will. Workers in those days there were not unionised; sycophancy and obedience did not guarantee an iron rice bowl. Le’s exquisite handicraft also didn’t deliver him guaranteed job security.

Le could not afford to return to his homeland with his young family because he did not have enough savings. He was neither thrifty nor spendthrift, and he was not a habitual saver. A fortune teller had already warned him years before. “Press them tightly! Together!” she almost shouted. Yet, his fingers won’t close tightly together. “I am sorry to say,” she concluded. “ but with these fingers, you will never keep money in your pockets.” In despair, he turned to the bottle even more but drinking only exacerbated his problems. The broken man often got home late at night, utterly drunk. It was not abnormal for Emma to find Le sleeping outside on the pavement. He would be so zoned out he could not find his way home, and even if he did, he would not be able to find the key to the house. Le never laid a finger on his wife or daughters when he was sober, but it was a different story when he was drunk. Emma’s ugly long scar on her thigh a permanent reminder of one especially violent night. A 9-day-old daughter given away to save her from certain harm was another direct result of his fury when totally inebriated. Emma never forgave Le for that. This period was incredibly turbulent and tumultuous for Emma and their daughters. She realised she had to find other means to supplement the family’s income or their family would break up. She teamed up with her sister and started making nasi lemak to sell to passers-by.

Eventually, Le sobered up and rented a small shop not far from the Indian quarter of Georgetown. The market may be small for a skilled engraver, but he had no other skill and therefore no other choice. The morning he opened his own shop was the moment he realised he was not going back to his homeland. Instead of celebrating his entrepreneurial ability to be his own boss at the young age of 23, he squatted on the floor of his shop and screeched like an animal being skinned alive. He knew he had broken both promises to his parents.

War came swiftly and took many by surprise despite the many whispers in the media. In December 1941, Japanese troops invaded Malaya. They conquered with a speed that shocked their staunchest critics, much like what the Taliban did recently in Afghanistan. Georgetown came under heavy aerial bombardment, albeit for just a short few days. Le’s whole family crammed together in the bathroom surrounded by buckets of water to douse flames if necessary. Everyone was scared out of their wits. The two girls sobbed and shrieked but the exploding bombshells drowned out their screams.Their mother prayed to every God she knew and even to those she did not. After a sustained silence, they rushed out of their hiding place when they heard people laughing and celebrating down on the streets. All prayers were answered, there was no unbearable pain and no deaths in the family. It was a blessing that the fighting ended quickly. A prolonged bombing would have been a terrible outcome; no one wanted the unnecessary loss of more wealth, property, and innocent lives.

Le’s business surprisingly was brisk during the Occupation. The majority of his customers were Japanese soldiers who wanted momentos of their swords, belt buckles, emblems, and other artefacts engraved. “How many heads were severed by the sword I am holding in my hands?” he asked himself. Haunted by the ghosts in his mind, he became fervently religious and frequently visited the temple. Le transformed into a serious person who prided in his workmanship and vowed never to go back to the bottle after finding a neighbour so drunk he drowned face down in a small puddle of rainwater. The dead man was a Hakka man. An intelligent herbalist who wrote the most exquisite calligraphy so beautiful that he was paid to write the shop banners for his local community. He was a drinking buddy who took to the bottle to drown his sorrows also.

The Japanese replaced the Straits Settlements currency with what the locals sarcastically called “banana notes” on account of the Banana tree on the ten dollar note. The new money prompted Le to improve his savings, believing in the permanent sovereignty of legal tender. But as the months rolled by, the Japanese administrators were secretly printing more and more notes as the Allied Forces disrupted the economy in Japan. Counterfeiting was rampant also. Most of the notes did not have serial numbers. Hyperinflation inevitably caused the massive devaluation of the currency, yet his Japanese customers objected to any price increases for his services. A Japanese corporal vented his wrath on him for attempting to increase his price. “You are disrespecting our currency, you traitor!” the soldier yelled. “I should cut off your head this instant. Baka-yarou!” Le was quite traumatised by the event.

In August 1945, Japan surrendered, but the Japanese did not leave until the arrival of Commonwealth troops. One day, a Japanese soldier who spoke good English brought a bottle of sake to Le’s shop and invited him to drink. The recently traumatised Le was too afraid to turn down the request. The soldier was in a down-trodden mood and shared his sad feelings with Le. “Oh, how I miss my family! I don’t even know if my parents are still alive,” he moaned. Gulping down more sake, he continued, “Will I ever see them again? I didn’t even write them a single letter!” he cried out. Le did not utter one word in the entire monologue but felt sorry for the soldier. The soldier was a victim of fate or from his own choices in life, much like Le and the Hakka buddy were. Le felt if the man weren’t an enemy soldier, they would have been close friends.

Le started to regret leaving his parents all those years ago. The “banana notes” Le accumulated were worthless although they were once part of the $120 million that was in circulation as legal tender. Le contemplated his bad luck. What had he done that was so wrong in his past reincarnations to deserve such karma? He was broke a few years earlier when he did not know how to save. Now that he had learned to save, he was still broke. He was firmly stuck in a rut no matter which choices he made. Le also faced a new crisis in his business. Most of his customers had left or were leaving Penang. The soldiers were being marched to E&O Hotel and shipped out of the island. He became a devotee of his religion, blaming his luckless soul on his previous lack of commitment to religious duties. Emma however believed it was God’s will. “God is constantly testing us,” she taught their daughters. “God loves us and all we need to do is believe in Him,” she added. She wasn’t pious but believed that God would somehow watch over those who do not steal, cheat, harm others, or make false accusations.

Between 1945 and 1957, Le fathered four children with Emma. His business did not grow, but the income was sufficient to feed his growing family. He worked seven days a week and had little time for anything else. Often he spent the night in his workshop and resumed work early the following day. Family picnics, outings or birthday parties for his children were alien to him. His wife maintained discipline in the family and managed the family budget. Le valued education and knowledge and despite his earlier waywardness with money, he saved enough to buy a set of Encyclopedia Britannica for his kids. His eldest daughter wanted to skip school to work, but Le insisted she complete her secondary education. The family lived a simple life; the only electrical appliances they owned was a rediffusion set and a ceiling fan. The ceiling lights consisted of 10W incandescent globes and therefore were not considered as appliances. Emma bought fish and vegetables from the wet market daily, circumventing the need for a refrigerator. Meat dishes were a luxury and were only served during religious festivals or on special occasions. On the rare Sunday that he did not have to work, his wife prepared his favourite dish – Vietnamese Pho noodles. “It’s good pho me,” he used to joke.

Le ceased talking about Hanoi, his parents, his family, or even his old friends there. He had stopped corresponding with his parents since he lost his job seventeen years earlier. It was as though the man wanted to erase that part of his life. Maybe he thought of himself as a failure, for he had broken the two promises he made to his parents. In his thirties, Le wondered how life would have been if he hadn’t gone to Penang. The company he worked for was still in business in Hanoi. If he had stayed home, he would have been in a senior position with an income sufficient enough to lift his entire family out of poverty. Yet, he went to Penang to make his fortune and failed. “But that’s water under the bridge,” he consoled himself. His immediate concern was providing his children with a good education and preparing them for the challenges of a rapidly changing world.

One day in December 1957, John was busily trying to finish a customer’s order when an ex-colleague appeared at his workshop. “Hey bro, I met a Vietnamese guy at a bar a couple of weeks back. He is the current tenant of the house you lived in,” he said. “He asked me if I know of a Le Nguyen, and when I said yes, he handed me this letter,” the ex-colleague continued. The letter was addressed to that house and bore a postage stamp from Vietnam. Le’s hand shook uncontrollably and turned icy cold as he took hold of the envelope. It was from his younger brother. Le’s heart sank into an abyss when he read the contents. His whole family was worried about him, the letter said. “We have never stopped praying for you and for years, baba and mama wondered why you stopped writing,” his brother’s words cried out. The news that hurt him most was learning both his parents had passed away. Le’s wife then was pregnant with their seventh and last child. The letter was dated 15 September 1957, exactly twenty years to the day he boarded the steamship at Hai Phong. Overwhelmed with emotions, Le did not know what to do. He felt deep remorse for being absent from his parents’ lives and tremendous guilt for failing to be the filial son that he promised to be. It suddenly dawned on him that his weakness and his quick surrender to his own plight had made his parents feel forsaken on their deathbeds. It may be incomparable in terms of importance and grandeur but his quick resignation from his oaths to his parents were similar to Song Jiang’s capitulation of his ideals by not continuing his brotherhood’s struggle for virtue and honour in a period of grinding poverty, societal disarray and moral collapse. Eventually, Le found the strength to reply, offered lame excuses for his long silence, and then begged for forgiveness.

The correspondences between the two brothers became regular. Le’s older children found jobs and considerably eased his financial burden. His eldest daughter had married a RAAF officer and moved to Sydney. With the regular remittances from Australia, the family’s quality of life improved. They finally enjoyed a television, a radio and a refrigerator for the first time. Le moved his business to a new shop in Bishop Street, just off Pitt Street. He had some savings but refused to buy a house despite the numerous opportunities to buy one at a bargain. No one could understand his aversion to owning his own house. Maybe, Le was afraid his children would fight over it one day. After his brother’s death, the link with Hanoi was broken forever. The war in Vietnam offered him the excuse for his continued self-exile from his homeland. His various personal problems and relentless commitment to work eventually took a toll on him. He greyed at an earlier age. Le of average height, and of average build carried a beer belly since his forties due to habitual drinking and lack of exercise. His skin was yellowing and part of his face especially around his eyes had dark patches. The numbness in his feet and trembling hands revealed the damage to his body from the years of heavy drinking. Despite the telltale signs of yellow teeth and receding gums, he continued to smoke curut, a locally made cigar. Le wore the smell of curut like a perfume. People would know he was approaching before they could even see him. Le was a kind person known to everyone, a hero in his community. He had an easy-going personality and his readiness to help when called upon was legendary. Le loved John Le Carré’s novels. He absorbed himself in the espionage stories and would never be caught sitting in a coffee shop with his back to the entrance. “This is not what a spy would do,” he taught me. Similarly, he would never open a door by touching the door handle or leave his finger prints on a wine glass. In 1988, he and Emma gave away their business to a Teochew friend. Le, as he did as a 20-year-old, packed his belongings and left his home once more, this time for Sydney to join his daughter and her growing family. It would be the last time he set his eyes on Penang. Le passed away in 2007. Some ten years later, I watched the Night Manager, Le Carré’s post-Cold War novel which was made in to a miniseries. I could not help but hoped Le was watching it with me.

Le’s youngest son, Tranh visited me recently. He loved my rose garden and assumed I had anything to do with it. “No, it is all Mother Nature’s work. All I do is add poo to it,” I said. Le’s investment in education paid off handsomely as all his children born after the war received tertiary education, either in the UK, New Zealand or Australia. It is through Le’s tribulations that Tranh developed a strong and wise character for himself. As far as Tranh knows, his good life and success can be all attributed to his father’s immense sacrifice and his mother’s complete dedication to the family. Tranh Nguyen, representing his father Le, is a worthy addition to the Urghhlings Marsh brotherhood.

A rose for Le. Let’s not forget.

The Cook’s Got The Looks

Li Kui The Black Whirlwind walked into Song Jiang’s room uninvited and was upset to find a doctor attending to the removal of Song Jiang’s face tattoo. In a rage, he accused his leader of being more preoccupied with his looks than the healthcare for his men. “Why do you waste the good doctor’s time when he could be tending to our men’s wounds and illnesses?” the loyal henchman asked. He wasn’t aware that Song Jiang, under the pretext of visiting the capital to enjoy the annual Lantern Festival celebrations in a few days’ time, was actually planning to arrange a meeting with the Emperor to gain an amnesty for all Liangshan outlaws. In the Song Dynasty, every convicted felon bore a red tattoo on their face with the nature of their crime marked permanently in words. It would not do for a criminal to be flashing his crime on his face as he roamed the streets of the capital let alone meeting the Emperor with one. So, An Daoquan the Divine Physician was asked to conduct what was a very early form of ‘laser tattoo removal’. An Daoquan, you may recall, first appeared in the chapter about The Sickly General. Li Kui has a killer’s looks – fierce, brutish and is most of the time, ungroomed, unwashed and uncontrollable. The Cook in Urghhling Marsh on the other hand, has got killer’s looks. Beautiful damsels, distressed or otherwise, are known to ask for his name and other vital details. Li Kui cares less about impressing anyone by presenting himself well or speaking intelligently. He prefers to let his twin cleavers do the talking, pointing to an old violent tribal past as the way to sort any conflict. The Cook, suave and impeccably attired, will suffocate those he won’t suffer with his quick-witted diatribe instead. We will look at The Cook’s looks in detail a bit later.

In the Water Margin, there are not many female characters that we admire. Pan Jinlian, although truly a beauty, is tainted as a goddess of fornication and prostitution. Unfairly, I might add. After all, it is surely forgivable for a siren whom Pan Jinlian is most definitely one, to fall for a strong and handsome hero such as Wu Song, the ‘Pilgrim’ who boasts of killing a man-eating tiger with his bare hands. Even my father was impressed with him, so much so that he watched that particular episode on VHS tape every day for the rest of his life in the nursing home. Pan Jinlian’s story is a very sad one. Born in a wealthy family, she was sold to a wealthy landlord as a maid when her family became bankrupt. The landlord could not resist her beauty and tried to rape her. When she reported the sexual assault to the perpetrator’s wife, instead of being looked after or compensated, she was given to a dwarf as punishment for refusing his sexual advances. The dwarf is no other than Wu Dalang, Wu Song’s ugly and much older-looking brother.

Pan Jinlian and Dalang’s is not a romantic story like Beauty and the Beast, although it is true she is the beauty and he, although not a beast, toils daily like a beast of burden bearing the heavy weight of a long wooden bar from which hang two baskets laden with home-made buns for sale on the streets. He is heard in his usual corner, offering his white steamed buns, be it pelting down with cold rain or shining with the warmth of a mild sun under a blue sky. 賣包 啊! 賣包! “Mai bao ah! Mai bao!” The screams from his dwarf-sized lungs are no match for the boy selling pears next to him. Pan Jinlian is the object of ridicule in her town, described as a flower planted in cow dung, a thing so beautiful and fragrant that is wasted on something that is odoriferous and odious, 一朵鮮花插在牛糞上. So, is it fair that we judge her harshly and condemn her for being awakened sexually by her brother-in-law’s masculinity and charm? Can we not allow a most unfortunate lady the respite of a brief encounter that tantalises her senses and fuels her sexual imagination? A respite that temporarily frees her from a forced loveless marriage which offers only a mundane life of ridicule and boredom. To lose her head from losing her self-control is too high a price.

The other villainous female in the Water Margin is Yan Poxi. Also a beautiful young woman in her prime, she had a sad life prior to being killed by Song Jiang. Her father died from a plague leaving Madam Yan and her 18-year-old daughter to fend for themselves. Madam Yan, a pimp, could only sell Poxi to the one man she knows is single and rich enough to afford a mistress, Chief Clerk Song Jiang. Was it so wrong of Yan Poxi to want more than the status of mistress, a much lesser status than concubine? She discovers incriminating evidence of Song Jiang’s close connection to the outlaw Chao Gai in his purse which he had left hanging on the bed rail after a tiff had made him hurriedly leave their house. It is understandable for her to want to cement her status as tenable and respectable as the wife of a well-respected man in their community. When he returns to retrieve his purse, she threatens to use the evidence against him unless he marries her. In his eagerness to avoid the attention of the law, Song Jiang agrees to take her as his wife before she comes up with a second demand – that her husband-to-be hands her the one hundred gold bars she mistakenly believes Chao Gai had given him. He kills her to silence her when his pleas fall on deaf ears. How can a woman who asks for money from her future husband be justifiably killed? If we look at the big picture, we ought to be thankful for Yan Poxi. Without her, we would be without Song Jiang, the leader of the Liangshan outlaws. Would we even have the Water Margin to read and discuss? In this regard, I suggest Yan Poxi’s character is much more important than Hu Sanniang even though Yan is not a member of the marsh brigands.

Nicknamed ‘Ten Feet of Blue’, Third Sister Hu or Hu Sanniang is not only beautiful but her martial arts skills are so good she even defeated her eventual husband Wang Ying, a notoriously lustful man. Song Jiang, who although virtuous and noble, is contemptible and beyond understanding to match-make the pair. Hu Sanniang would have been better off with the hero who defeated and captured her – Lin Chong, a most honourable warrior. In those days, young women are married off early since their status in the family is lower than a stool, mere chattels that they were. Hu Sanniang is treated no differently, a heroine she may be, and a daughter of well-to-do Squire Hu. During the battle at the Zhu Family Village, all Hu Sanniang’s family members were slaughtered by Li Kui who only received a verbal reprimand by Song Jiang for the gruesome and unnecessary killings. The irrepressible Li Kui also hacked off the head of Sanniang’s betrothed husband, the ambulant man was being carted to Liangshan headquarters. Yet at Liangshan, not only does Sanniang not harbour any malice or shun revenge, she dotes on her captor who is Song Jiang’s old father and dutifully becomes his god-daughter. Bless her soul, she has such a remarkable forgiving heart!

The topic of beautiful girls came up during a chat amongst fellow marsh brothers The Cook, Blue Chip, Wu Yong, Typhoon, and Four Eyes. They were gathered in the realms of their virtual universe earlier this week. Wu Yong was very quiet that day and his mind seemed another universe away. The Lucky Outlaw who normally attends their afternoon siestas was absent as well.

“Our days in Upper Five were mostly fun but some days we were filled with self pity, so despondent were we about being left behind,” The Cook said.

“You see, most of our friends had moved on to Form Six or overseas for further education. Our own school, SXI, didn’t welcome us back and instead, we were sent to a godforsaken Chinese-medium school,” The Cook carried on whining.

“Why don’t we change the subject?” Blue-Chip suggested something more upbeat.

“Talk about BTC?” Wu Yong asked, suddenly awoken from his slumber. Recently, he has been excited about recent price hikes in some of the crypto coins that have caught his imagination. Wu Yong who does not ‘play’ in the sharemarket that has seen a jaw-dropping longest ever bull run (twelve years and counting) likes to play with words instead. “Siapa ada Ada ?” he asks in the Malay language. “Who has either ether or ada (coin) or neither?” he continued playfully.

“O’Susanna, who has Solana (Sol token)?” But, none of them took any notice of Wu Yong who is accustomed to blab to himself.

“We went on group dates. I remember we went to see a show and we sat upstairs in the movie theatre…I was next to her and….” The Cook said, changing the subject yet again, but his voice trailed away amidst the loud roars of a passing truck.

“Four Eyes will remember we went camping overnight with a bunch of girls at this abandoned building during Upper Five. But, the building was actually a fair distance from Penang Hill proper. So we had to take the train and then hike up the steep slope,” The Cook said.

“Abandoned building…. was that the best backdrop for a night of ghost stories to bring the girls to sit closer to you lot?” Wu Yong asked. “The girls didn’t sit closer, they were hugging us!” The Cook gleefully replied.

“One classmate, a cute girl missing two front teeth, was very interested in Four Eyes, after she learned he represented State and Country in swimming meets,” The Cook continued, but it was clear no one was paying much attention to his stories.

The Cook suddenly thought of his daughter Chloe. “Chloe would surely be a great female character in the Urghhling Marsh story,” The Cook unabashedly voiced his bias.

“Surely not a Yan Poxi or a Pan Jinlian?” Typhoon suddenly showed interest.

“No! Those two are sluts!” Blue Chip exclaimed, unknowingly showing his knowledge of the Chinese classic.

“Chloe Ung Shu Yun, if I’ve done nothing right in my life, I hope I’ve done right by my daughter,” The Cook suddenly spoke in a serious tone.
“I chose her name Chloe for the character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I wanted her to be good, to be faithful,” he said.
A quick search on Google also reveals her to be a Greek goddess of the harvest, an epithet of Demeter.
“When I chose it, Chloe was nowhere near being a popular girl’s name. In occasional use it is not now; I think it has moved up from obscurity then to being in the top 10 girl names today.” The Cook said.

“I suppose this is why you keep telling us you’re clairvoyant,” Typhoon suggested. We could sense The Cook suddenly preening himself, totally in agreement.
“Her Chinese name was chosen by a sister’s Mandarin teacher, who being an educator, chose Shu (meaning book) as her middle name,” the proud father continued. “I wanted her to be well read too, so I agreed it was appropriate to use the book Shu,” The Cook said without stopping.
“It was not meant to be. ‘Book’ was changed to ‘poetry’ by another well-meaning sister who thought ‘book’ sounded too much like ‘lose’ in Hokkien.”
“And so it turns out that a name does indeed influence a person’s character for she is more into the arts than she is into books,” The Cook continued, turning the group chat into a soliloquy.
“She sings and dances very well, something I can’t do to save my life.”
“She started ballet when she was very little, about four years old, and trained under the umbrella of the Royal Academy of Dance. She is a beautiful dancer, her movements and graceful Pirouettes more than reflect her Grade 8 and Advanced Intermediate level.”

“I bet she impressed like a swan in a lake,” Blue Chip hinted at his knowledge of Tchaikovsky’s magical ballet.

Blue Chip’s version of Odette. Photo by Yeoh Chip Beng

“Chloe is a good swimmer too. She’s not fast but she’s stylish and technically proficient. She makes it look so easy.”
“When she was younger I’d arrange for her to be at the pool as folks arrived at the agreed time to consider the swimming courses I was selling.”
“She would dip into the pool and swim up and down without breaking the water and without a wake behind her.”
“‘My daughter’, I would casually say,” The Cook said most were sold the swimming courses on offer.

“Chloe likes to remind me that it was either Chloe or Eloise ( I wrote it down somewhere and she found it). She’s glad that it’s Chloe,” The Cook said. Wu Yong didn’t interrupt but he told me later he thought it was strange a father would leave the list of names for the child lying around for her to find it later in life.

“Chloe wasn’t studious but she peaked at the right time, during her college days at the most competitive Chinese University college, TAR College.
Her MCE results were a little better than mine. As a reward, we sent her to UK to top up her degree and she didn’t disappoint, returning with her honours degree!”

“Your beautiful Chloe is as beautiful as Hu Sanniang,” Wu Yong finally interrupted the soliloquy.

“From the way you adore her in your conversations, Chloe is no doubt as dutiful and loving. We have a lot to thank Confucius for his teachings on filial piety,” Wu Yong added.

The Cook’s Odette, truly his Princess.

“You’re wrong, Wu Yong,” quipped Typhoon. Four Eyes agreed, “Chloe is so much prettier and more attractive!”

“I told you she’s beautiful!” The Cook exclaimed with excitement in his voice. Isn’t she a beautiful white swan who turns into a gorgeous Princess?” the proud father asked.

It is a leading question, of course. A reminder for me to write about The Cook’s good looks. The aura he emits comes from within. The years of observing a healthy diet and his strict adherence to Intermittent Fasting is paying huge dividends. There is a shine or glow on his skin that broadcasts his discipline for healthy living, and a glint in his eyes that cannot hide his secrets to good health. The Cook’s Eurasian looks would have been passed down from his grandfather’s trysts with the Eurasian lover of Dutch and Indonesian blood. Here is a man still in his prime, fit as a raging bull despite his 63 years. With his hazel green eyes, high bridged nose, light-coloured curly hair and iron-man physique, the handsome man has often made a few in the brotherhood feel somewhat reticent and diffident with his selfies. Inadequate, even. In the Ughhling Marsh, The Cook ranks highest in looks and is the undisputed master of the marsh kitchen.

The Cook is unaware he makes some of us self-conscious with his selfies.

Wu Yong Wu Cuo. 吴永误错!Wu Is Yong, Not Wrong.

In The Water Margin, Wu Yong is also known as ‘The Inquisitive Scholar’, the brigand’s chief strategist. A resourceful man, he is described in the book as fair in complexion, possessing the two typical physical attributes of a scholarly and sophisticated Chinese from the beginning of the Ming Dynasty in 1368 – a handsome face and long beard. Wu Yong first made his appearance when he helped his long-time good friend Chao Gai assemble a team of seven men to commit a daring heist of gold, pearls and other valuables worth one hundred thousand strings of cash coins. A convoy travelling from the Northern Capital to Dongjing, the Eastern Capital protected the birthday presents from Grand Secretary Liang to his father-in-law Prime Minister Cai Jing. In these few chapters, Wu Yong, whom I believed  was ‘without mistakes’ (wu cuo) made two serious ones. It took me a second reading to realise that. The first mistake was to accept that what they planned to do was not morally wrong, since “the presents were ‘ill-gotten’ loot obtained by immoral means anyway”. “Even if Heaven knows of the matter, our act will not be regarded as a crime,” was how they cleansed their own conscience of any guilt. Wu Yong’s second mistake was more serious; it could have caused the death of Song Jiang, the eventual leader of the Liangshan Marsh outlaws.

Song Jiang was sent to prison after he confessed to the murder of his mistress, Yan Poxi who blackmailed him following her discovery of his purse hanging on their bed rail. In it was a letter from Chao Gai who explained that he was fleeing to Liangshan Marsh after being incriminated in the heist. Anyone who associates with an outlaw risks losing his head. Yan Poxi wrongly assumed Song Jiang would grant her the gift of one hundred gold bars mentioned in Chao Gai’s letter, disbelieving Song Jiang that he accepted only one of the gold bars. In a moment of desperation, he killed her in their bedroom as she screamed for attention. In prison, Song Jiang having bribed the head jailer, enjoyed the freedom to frequent a local inn. One day, he got himself so drunk he wrote a seditious poem on an upstairs wall of the inn. If proven as a rebellious plot, this would be a death sentence. Wu Yong devised a plan to fake a letter from Prime Minister Cai Jing which included a forged stamp of his prime ministerial seal. The letter required Prefect Cai, the son of Cai Jing, who was holding Song Jiang in Jiangzhou’s prison to cart the prisoner to the Eastern Capital for the Emperor to personally interrogate the suspected rebel. Wu Yong’s plan was for the outlaws to rescue the prisoner during his transfer to the Capital. Wu Yong Wu Cuo, Yong who is not wrong, realised the grave mistake he made. The Prime Minister does not ever use his official seal in his letters to his family. Prefect Cai ordered Song Jiang’s dispatch to the town square for immediate execution following the discovery of the fake letter. Until the universe is unmade, contumacy will always trump obedience to lawful authority in a band of outlaws. The outlaws stormed the procession, killed all the guards and rescued the prisoner.

The other Wu Yong, the cur from Urghhlings Marsh, is not scholarly and not a master-planner, unlike Wu Yong of Liangshan Marsh fame. He has been known to say he’s Yong, not wrong. Wu Yong calls himself ‘The Cur’. I called him today and asked him why. It seems odd that anyone would call himself a mongrel or an inferior dog. Another meaning of ‘cur’ comes from an old Norse word meaning to grumble or growl. In that context, a cur is a surly bloke. Suspecting that Wu Yong meant he was the latter, a grouch who complains incessantly, I was taken aback that he said he was born in the year of the dog, and there was nothing wrong with a dog.

A dog has magnificent qualities that many humans lack!!

After all, a dog is a man’s best friend. “So, what is wrong to call oneself a cur?” he asked.

The more I got to know people, the more I love my dog.

Mark Twain

In Curse The Curs, we know Wu Yong to be unpopular, misunderstood and therefore often picked on. His mother said she has always known him to be foolish and rash. It did not surprise her to hear that people think he “blows dog farts” whenever he speaks. I was astonished to see how fast he has aged. It was only last year that I had the opportunity to steal a long look at him and studied his movements. His long mane has turned dry, wiry and hoary, gone are the shiny black strands. The gait is more that of a clumsy old man’s – missing are his sure steps that, once upon a time, reminded me of a mountain goat. The evanescent wrinkles on his forehead are now deep and long, and permanently etched. His wife finds his unrestrained farts indecorous and annoying in bed. So, I gather he fails miserably in that department, even though as a young man he read the 1972 edition of ‘Joy of Sex’. She disagrees that his coquetry with the waitress in their favourite restaurant is simply harmless behaviour. But, she isn’t the least concerned. He is a scrawny chap with a wan complexion and puny arms. It seems more than a coincidence that he is suffering from a frozen shoulder since his winter flu jab from five weeks ago. His doctor laughed at his suggestion that somehow the vaccine had caused inflammation to flare up in his left arm. His partial physical impairment is becoming obvious as I look at his ever-shrinking biceps and the stiffness in his arm movement. His arms look pencil straight, gone are the toned mounds of muscles. “Just as well I don’t wear a bra,” he confided to me today. His miserable forlorn voice added to the dolorous story of his misery and pain in the bathroom where he struggles daily to undress himself. “I am not wrong,” he said adamantly. He pointed to the Google results of ‘adhesive capsulitis’ from his search for “side effects of winter flu vaccine”. Wu Yong, I think is not wrong!

I became interested in why Wu Yong The Cur needed to assure everyone he is not wrong or ‘without mistakes’. Is he not aware that such self-justifications can become weak excuses that are not only unnecessary and tedious (especially to someone who doesn’t actually care) but worse, they reflect poorly on his own insecurities? Trying to appear right all the time will only show his own fragile ego. Does he not know respect is earned and not demanded? Pretending to be right when he is wrong will only hasten the damage to his diminished status. A “know-it-all” in any gathering will suck the fun out of the party. We lose the friendly banter and the innocence of our silliness whenever we have two guys in a room who must be right. “Why do you have to be so defensive?” I asked him in an interview for this story. “So what if they mock you or belittle your comments?” I prodded him for his answer. Most people do not invest their time and emotions in a silly debate anyway. It takes a wise one to be the spectator or simply walk away. “There is no need to prove we are right when there is no point to prove,” I teased at his wounded pride like how a surgeon would carefully pull out a cancerous growth from a patient’s organ.

It began as early as when Wu Yong was no more than nine years old. He was dabbing his lips with the soft damp towel his mum had given him to wipe his face. His mum shouted at him from across the main work area of their shophouse on Penang Road. The workers in the room, hunch-backed from years of ironing clothes from a bench too low for the height, looked up from their charcoal irons and cast their dull eyes on the boy who was being yelled at by ‘Towkay-soh’ (boss’ wife). Their eyes lit up in unison, awoken by the surprise entertainment. The young Wu Yong, embarrassed by the unwanted attention, protested loudly. “My mother was accusing me of cleaning my teeth with the towel,” Wu Yong said. The louder he squealed, the angrier his mother got. “FHI PHI NGOR! (DO NOT LIE TO ME in Ningbonese)!” she threatened as she chased him around the office desk with a bamboo cane. The boy was too fast and agile for his mother, which made her even more furious. “I was telling her the truth,” he said. Wu Yong reckoned from that day on, he had the need to say he is not wrong when he is right. “I am Yong, not wrong” would ring loudly like a temple bell in his mind whenever he felt wronged.

Wu Yong calls the other event that moulded his character to defend himself strenuously “The Missing Note”. I assumed he must have been ‘out-of-sync’ during an orchestral rehearsal after missing a note, or perhaps made his violin teacher, Mr Woon, scream at his carelessness for misreading the music. “No, it was the missing ten dollar note,” Wu Yong said. He was in Upper Secondary by then. Every afternoon after school and every Saturday after Boy Scouts meetings, he had to rush home to their shophouse to man the dhoby shop. His parents were beginning to enjoy some respite from the long hours of their laundry and dry-cleaning business. “That’s why a son is more useful than a daughter,” Wu Yong whispered in my ear. His job was to serve customers who dropped off their dirty clothes to clean or retrieve them from the bank of tall glass cupboards that housed the cleaned ones ready for collection. Wu Yong was adept at folding and packing the clothes into paper bags, beaming with self-satisfaction every time he received praise from the customers who were mostly Europeans. Unfortunately, the till was short $10 one day. “Ma accused me of stealing from the till,” he said. “Why would I? I had the freedom to buy lunch from the Mamak stall,” he continued. For a dollar or a dollar fifty, Wu Yong could fill himself up with a plate of rice and curry chicken. The fifty cents would have been for one hard-boiled egg dipped in curry and some veggies. “Whatever food I spent on, I recorded the expense in the journal, but somehow that day, I was short $10,” Wu Yong said. He did not ever check the till’s float before starting his shifts, such was the accuracy of his work. His mother flew into a rage when he dared suggest the float was short $10 before he started his shift. “Yeah, Yong, not wrong,” I quickly sympathised with him. Wu Yong related this story to his mother last night during her 99th birthday celebration. The grand old dame said she does not remember such an incident occurred. “Maybe she meant she wouldn’t have flown into a rage; such lack of control isn’t lady-like at all,” I suggested to Wu Yong.

Another childhood incident that flawed his character has to be the one about ‘killing of his pet hen’. The family kept some hens in the back lane immediately behind the row of thirteen shophouses. The private lane was protected from the outside by a 12-foot-high brick wall which had a crown of razor-sharp jagged glass. The square heavy duty metal grid cage, cleverly situated above a small open drain whereby their poo could be easily hosed straight into, was quite ‘palatial’ for the three or four chooks which were more accustomed to being crammed in small wicker baskets used by the chicken-seller in the wet market. There was a particularly beautiful bird which the young boy fancied. He made it known to his mother and the family maid, Yung Jie, that the bird was his pet and “not to be touched”(by the chopper). On the eve of Chinese New Year just after he had turned thirteen or fourteen years old, he discovered his hen had gone missing. Yung Jie’s hand was pulling out the entrails of a defeathered chook when he confronted the woman who was in high spirits. Chinese New Year meant a few ‘angpows’, red envelopes containing money for everyone and three days of feasting and two crates of F&N Orange and Sarsi drinks to enjoy. Yung Jie would not confirm that the chook she had just killed was Wu Yong’s pet. Her awkward chuckles and nervous denials raised the boy’s suspicions who went rummaging through the metal rubbish bin that was once a tall biscuit tin. Recognising the drab scalded feathers as belonging to his pet, he burst into tears and started accusing poor Yung Jie of animal cruelty. He poured so much guilt on the poor woman that she also burst into tears and started wailing about her miserable life. To this day, Wu Yong has not been forgiven by some of his siblings who accuse him of bullying their servant whom they all remember fondly. “I was not wrong!” he remain defiant that they should not have killed his pet. It does feel like the night talking to the day with Wu Yong, or more appropriately in this case, a chicken talking to a duck. Sometimes, I just have to agree to disagree with him.

Three days earlier, another episode triggered off Wu Yong into another flashback about being wronged when he wasn’t wrong. “Wu Yong, wu cuo!” he protested. He is Yong, not wrong. We get that now. Over the winter he had been pruning his neighbour’s roses, getting them ready for a big show in mid-Spring. It was a rather wet and cold winter, and with a crooked arm, he did not quite complete his task. As luck would have it, a retired horticulturist – a former lecturer in Horticulture and Landscape Design who was also once a curator of Lae Botanic Gardens for over twenty years, stopped by and walked up to the house. He had been admiring the garden for quite some time, he informed Wu Yong. But, he could not restrain himself that afternoon and decided to offer his services to prune the roses “properly”. Wu Yong’s neighbours having been stuck overseas during the whole of the pandemic, were quick to agree to the offer from the expert. Upon seeing the result of his work, the neighbour’s wife exclaimed, “Oh, you have been pruning them wrongly, Wu Yong!”

Wu Yong, wu cuo!

Wu Yonggang
Better late than never, late pruning in Spring
Can you hear the Galahs laughing at Wu Yong’s mistakes? Photo taken by Yeoh Chip Beng

Bang Bang And A Gang. How Wang Became Ang.

Wang Lun in the Water Margin, was the first chief of Liangshan Marsh. His band of outlaws was small then. When assembled, they formed only two lines. Wang Lun, “The White Clothes Scholar”, was not the academic type. Having failed the government examination at the Eastern capital, he went to stay at Squire Chai Jin’s estate for a few days. He was somewhat beholden to the Squire who also gave him some silver for travelling expenses when he left to continue his journey. Drill Master of the Imperial Guards, Lin Chong by chance also met Squire Chai Jin after he escaped from jail following his troubles with Master Gao Yanei. Gao, the foster son of lecherous Marshall Gao Qiu, implicated Lin Chong of crimes he did not commit so that upon his banishment, he could marry Lin Chong’s beautiful wife. She hanged herself after being pressured to marry the despicable ugly young man. Lin Chong’s admirers, reviled by the injustices, lured Gao Yanei to a hut and cut off his penis but kept his testicles intact. This left the obnoxious character with intense sexual desires that were permanently unsatisfied. But, I shall not deviate from the story about Wang Lun, a chief of the stronghold on the hill with no special abilities. The squire handed his letter of introduction to Lin Chong recommending him to join the gang. “Present my letter to the chief, and he will welcome you like a brother,” he said. Although he was obligated to satisfy Squire Chai Jin’s request, Wang Lun still insisted on seeing Lin Chong’s ‘membership application’. “Ok, do you have paper and ink for me to write one?” Lin Chong asked, unaware that a membership required a man’s freshly severed head to be presented to the chief before he could be welcomed into the brotherhood.

The next hero, Ang-not-Wang, in The Urghhling Marsh story is a fourth generation Malaysian. His great grandparents on his paternal side fled Tang Aun village in Fujian during the decade-old Xinhai Revolution which ended over two thousand years of imperial rule in China. By the time Sun Yat Sen became ‘Father of the Nation’, Great Grandfather Wang had already settled in Penang, Malaya as a poultry seller. Due to a clerical error at the Registry of Birth, Death and Marriages and a lackadaisical attitude to incorrect spelling, Wang became Ang. The sixth of fourteen children, Ang Iok Hun (1904-1998), was famous as the first station master of the Penang Hill Railway. Iok, pronounced as ‘Yok’ is the Chinese translation for the biblical name ‘John’. He started his career as a “checker” in 1922, overseeing the construction of the railway after passing his Senior Cambridge at the Anglo-Chinese school. A year later, he was promoted to station master, a position he held till his retirement in 1961. Despite historical records stating that the construction workers were ‘mostly convict labourers’, Iok Hun said they were paid workers of Federated Malay States Railway, their hourly rate being 90-95 cents. The mandor or kepala earned twice as much. Iok Hun’s monthly salary was $75, a princely sum for the then 20-year-old. A dollar could buy him a roast duck, or thirty three eggs or thirty three durians! The workers lived on the bottom of the hill in a kongsi or community longhouse. In those days, malaria outbreaks were frequent, so every man was expected to take a small teacup of quinine daily for a month.

There were five gangs of workers; each gang consisted of thirty to forty fit and strong young men. Their jobs were to fell trees and chop up timber to feed the flames of the boiler. The steam from the boiler powered the winches that pulled a convoy of trucks up the hill supplying the cement, granite and sand for another gang of workers to work on the construction of the railway. The workers were mostly Indians and Hakka men, all noisy and jolly, tough and rough. They loved singing and joking whilst working in the cool and fresh surroundings of the lush tropical jungle. Iok Hun, a member of his church choir, was often heard singing with his men. There were reports of many sightings of tigers and other wild animals in those days. However, there was not a single report of any man who killed a tiger with his bare hands – simply said, the mythical story of Wu Song in Shuihuzhuan was unmatched in Penang. Otherwise, the scenes described are reminiscent of the hills above Liangshan Marsh in the Water Margin story, where the junior recruits had to build jetties, camps, guest quarters and assembly hall from trees they felled in the forest. The mud to make bricks, huts and stoves was in unlimited supply from the river below.

The railway was officially opened on January 1, 1924, by Sir Lawrence Nunns Guillemard, Governor of the Straits Settlements. Prior to this role, he had no previous experience representing the Queen of the British Empire. His governorship left behind many notable buildings which still stand today – the Cenotaph, the Causeway, Singapore Yacht Club, and Singapore General Hospital, to name a few. In the old days, most of the visitors to Penang Hill were Europeans and wealthy towkays. The ordinary folks were either too poor or too preoccupied with survival to holiday there. Life on the hill was slow, the funicular train operated only on the hour. The colonial mansions were a popular retreat for the European expats who frequented the lush green hill to relieve themselves from the stifling and humid conditions below. Once news came that the Japanese would arrive soon, the Europeans fled from their English-style resorts with their beautiful stonework stairs and quaint floor patterns and Italian wall tiles. The size of the mansions complemented the massive well-maintained English gardens. The romantic balconies that looked out to the calm waters of the Indian Ocean were soon to be occupied by foul-breathed and foul-mouthed Japanese officers whose every third word was ‘bakayaro’. “They farted like dogs most of the time,” Iok Hun said. During the early days of the war, the Japanese dropped bombs on Penang. The hill was not spared, a bomb from the sky destroyed the bus that ferried railway passengers to and from their bungalows. A section on the lower end of the railway was badly damaged. The Butterworth power station was also bombed, rendering the railway out of action without electricity. It was not until 1942 that it was repaired when the Japanese required a look-out post on the hill.

At first, the Japanese soldiers were rough and rude, and ignored the signs limiting the maximum number of passengers in the chocolate-brown wooden railway coach. An active member of the Air Itam Methodist Church in his younger days, Iok Hun prayed hard before risking his neck the following day by complaining to the Japanese Governor about the unruly behaviour of the soldiers. The Governor ordered a senior officer to accompany Iok Hun back to the railway station. There was no misbehaviour by the soldiers after that visit. Iok Hun was later summonsed back to the Governor’s estate but the sweat beads on his forehead and his nervous eyes were ephemeral. He thought he would lose his head from a disgruntled officer’s complaint but he only lost his way home after having got tipsy at the Governor’s dinner party at the E&O Hotel for selected staff and guests.

John Ang Iok Hun’s family

Ang-not-Wang’s dad, Ang Sim Boo, born in 1933, was the sixth child and third son of fourteen siblings. His family photo taken after the war in 1945 shows only seven kids playing at the back of their house in Air Itam which was a jungle at that time. Two siblings died during the Japanese Occupation. A Police Volunteer Reservist in the mid-1950’s, he became the station master of Penang Hill after his father, Iok Hun, retired. Sim Boo and his eleven siblings grew up at the railway quarters provided for their father. A notable flautist and a table tennis champion, he was unlike many of the young men of his generation, lucky to be given a solid education. Sim Boo served as the station master for thirty three years. The Penang Governor awarded him the Pingat Bakti Setia medal for his loyalty and dedication to his work in 1987. He spent most of his life up in the hill of Penang. Before the cocks crowed and the evanescent dew clinging to the big palm leaves still whole and clear, the wispy captivating sounds of a sweet angelic flute was often heard wafting in the cool morning air. Occasionally, the melancholy notes of a harmonica would replace the classical contemplative tunes of the flute. Sim Boo was adept at both instruments. Under a stubborn and heavy cloud of mist that wouldn’t lift, Sim Boo called out to his men, “Be careful today, visibility is poor. Don’t use the signal flags when you move the trucks. Whistle once for stop, twice for forward, and three times for reverse”. His loyal men appreciated his care and concern for their welfare and safety.

Unlike Wang Lun of Liangshan Marsh, Sim Boo was an effective leader of the railway station on the hill. His men did not revolt against him. They did not strike. No one raised their hands against him. He was highly respected by everyone around him and his reputation as a tough but fair master attracted many to want to work for him. The mendacious Wang Lun, on the other hand, showed his ‘small heart’ and his ‘two hearts’ by presenting Chao Gai with a tray of silver and gems whilst refusing to accept him and his men into the brotherhood. Wang Lun understood that it was as good as sentencing them to their deaths by the pursuing imperial soldiers who numbered in the thousands. Lin Chong whom Wang Lun had just promoted as his second-in-charge to quell the unrest within his group, displayed his disdain for his chief with a strong body language. He despised such cowardice and lack of altruism and swiftly killed the hapless leader. Upon seeing their leader motionless in a pool of his own blood, the men all knelt or genuflected and made Chao Gai the new leader of the gang.

Ang-not-Wang’s maternal great grandparents were from Lam Aun Hakka State in Guangdong Province, China. His name was Ooi Thean Kua. Her name was Khoo Bon. In Malaya, he was known as ‘lawyer buruk’, i.e. a lawyer without proper qualifications. Be that as it may, a bloke in China born in the 19th century with knowledge of the many facets of law and the legal system is to be greatly admired. “My own great grandparents could not even write their own names. They were always addressed by their status in the family hierarchy and so, their names are forever lost,” Wu Yong, a less popular hero in the Urghhling Marsh said. Peasants in that era could not be expected to be literate; they were mostly impoverished, angry or dying from starvation. There were already large-scale uprisings against the Qing government. The corrupt Manchu officials were thin in numbers and could not govern properly. Foreign invasions added to the misery of the people who were already suffering from natural disasters, civil unrest and disease. The migration to South East Asia for safety and economic reasons continued and escalated after the heavy defeat in the Second Opium War and the capitulation to the perceived weaker Japanese army eventually led to the fall of the Qing.

Ooi Phaik Gee before she grew her pigtails

Ang-not-Wang’s mother, six years her husband’s junior, was the second child and the eldest daughter. Although her name was Ooi Phaik Gee, she was better known as “samseng po” or tom-boy in her childhood haunt in Rope Walk. Her father, Ooi Hock Seng (1916-1980), operated a hardware shop called Hock Hoe Trading near Standard Chartered Bank in Beach Street. He remarried after his wife, Loh Chin Neo died in 1953. In the war, a bullet wound permanently scarred her with a bad limp and left a mark of a crescent on her left leg. The family of four was at home in 78, Kimberley Street when a shop selling house coal across the street was hit by a bomb. The front wooden casement window of their house was in flames by the time the family fled outside. Hock Seng carried their son on his back and Chin Neo carried Phaik Gee in her arms as they joined the panic and fear of the crowds surging in the street. Bang, bang! Chin Neo suddenly felt her left thigh go numb before she tripped and fell. As she sat on the road in agony, she saw her wound gushing out blood. Only then did she realise she had been hit by a stray bullet from across the coal shop. A young man who was also running from the mayhem ahead of them turned back to help her. The quick-thinking hero saw an abandoned rickshaw from the corner of his eyes, and rushed to take ownership of it. “In that moment, I would have commandeered it if I had to.” Yap Seng told Chin Neo later, laying further claims of his heroism. He carried Chin Neo into the wooden carriage and pulled it hastily to the Dato Keramat Hospital. Hock Seng and Chin Neo were forever grateful to Yap Seng. They remained friends after the war. The couple had five children.”Her subsequent two stepmothers produced nine more children for Grandpa Ooi,” Ang-not-Wang said as he related his mother’s story to me. “All of them looked up to their sister as ‘Tai Ka Jie’ and their respect for her was unquestionable even though she was only fourteen when her biological mother died. She attended Convent Dato Keramat and was already a devout Catholic in school with Theresa as her Christian name”.

Sim Boo and Phaik Gee were engaged in 1954 “after six months of going to the movies together” and they married a year later. “There’s not much to say,” Ang Sim Boo said about their romance. He couldn’t explain why a Methodist boy would attend a Catholic congregation except to say that was where he first laid his eyes on her. Phaik Gee was a dazzling beauty, with a good sense of style and fashion. Her eyes were mesmerising, and her lips full with a sexy pout. She had a healthy mop of natural curls, and a nose with a prominent bridge that was not aquiline, made cute with a slight bulbous tip. On some occasions, she wore her hair with two pigtails which made her simply adorable in an age of innocence. In some of her photos, she showed a certain coyness and charm reminiscent of a young and innocent Princess Diana. Unlike Phaik Gee who had a knack of dressing well, Ang Sim Boo’s habiliment was predictably the same every day, that of a train station master’s uniform. A practising Methodist all his life, love, faith and hope are the three strengths that remain with him and the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13). The couple celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary on 18th November 2005. They produced four children and seven grandchildren.

Ang Sim Boo and Phaik Gee with their three daughters, Jenny, Florence and Anna. Ang-not-Wang on the far left.

Ang-not-Wang, the second born, is the only son. He is very much like his father. He is well-groomed and wears a perpetual smile, possesses a strong infectious personality, an unwavering Christian faith and is well-liked as a natural leader. Both were in the transport industry; he was a bus checker at one point in his life, and his father a train checker. Both are devout Methodists, great coaches for the younger generation and preach against idle gossip. Ang-not-Wang is not one to readily accept a ‘no’ for an answer when a ‘yes’ can help someone in need. A holder of a double diploma in Bible Study, he is a qualified counsellor in child transactional behaviour. He is a SXI alumni like all the other heroes in his brotherhood. I say that because there is absolutely no doubt that he has been accepted into the Marsh brotherhood even though I have not sought any confirmation. In school, he was like Wang Lun, in white school uniform and a lousy student who was neither good academically nor a sportsman. Whilst Four Eyes (one of the Marsh heroes) caught the school principal’s praise for his swimming prowess, Ang-not-Wang’s bad class report cards attracted the principal’s cane instead. He told me he found God when he turned fourteen. I reckon maybe it is truer to say God found him and converted him from that mischievous trouble-maker that he was in Sunday schools to save the teachers from a hellish time in class. After Form 5, God gave him a taste of his own medicine by making him become a kindergarten teacher. The young man did not enjoy a career as a teacher, so he tried other professions such as a bus checker, a printing operator before finding his element as a salesman in ladies’ and menswear, later switching to biscuits and detergents. He joined Nestle in the eighties, a fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) company that many salespeople aspired to join. Nestle recognised his managerial skills and eagerness to learn and invested in him, sending him to many international seminars and training camps. He moved up the corporate ladder over the next twenty five years and finished as the Senior Manager – Commercial Excellence Manager handling strategies, processes and projects.

Today, Ang-not-Wang occupies his time by looking after the needs of his congregation and sets himself up as a role model for the youths in his community. The pandemic has raged on in Malaysia with no end in sight. Sympathetic to the plight of the local people around him, he helped form the ‘Nuri Cares and Support Group’ in his residential community called Nuri Taman, whereby he organises the distribution of food and small necessities to those out of work and cannot support themselves. Ang-not-Wang is an unsung hero and a quiet achiever. He surely belongs to the Urghhling Marsh brotherhood.

Michael Ang and wife Dorius Ding

The past holds our fond memories, the present is a gift we enjoy and there is always hope for tomorrow.

Michael Ang Lay Beng

The Venerable Sickly General

The epic novel, Water Margin, is known by a few different names. In Chinese, we call it shuihuzhuan. In the West, it is commonly known as Outlaws of the Marsh. Its translation is ‘All men are brothers’, perhaps the ancient vernacula stems from Confucius’ 四海之內皆兄弟也 or ‘Within the four seas, all men are brothers’. The idea to write a book about a brotherhood of schoolmates and their families’ journeys from the East excited me greatly as the notion that we are all brothers has long been drummed into our psyche from early Lasallian teachings. It is fantastic when brothers reunite after a great distance in time and space. However, the recruitment methods in the novel are often atrocious. I can understand why the author of the book, Shi Naian, found it necessary to resort to ‘unsavoury’ tactics to recruit some of the outlaws. Many of my friends also show strong reluctance to participate and some are strangely aggressive in their refusal to have their stories written. It is not surprising that occasionally, a devious idea foments in my head to persuade less inclined brothers to participate. The hero in this chapter, however, needed no twisting of his arm – he has come forward voluntarily and for that, I thank him from the bottom of my heart.

The only doctor I remember in The Water Margin made a rather late appearance. By then, their leader Chao Gai had already died. It was his spirit that warned Song Jiang of a propitious star ‘Di Ling Xing’ shooting across the sky above him, indicating that a calamity would befall him. Song Jiang was in all likelihood already delirious with a high fever from an ulcer on his back. One of his chieftains, Zhang Shun knew of a doctor who treated his mother with a similar illness and thus knowing it could be fatal, it was imperative that he recruited the doctor urgently to save Song Jiang. The doctor was, of course, reluctant to sacrifice his city lifestyle and jeopardise his livelihood for a rebel. How An Daoquan was recruited to become the Liangshan physician was a strategy often used in the novel. Zhang Shun murdered a prostitute by the name of Clever Pet, and then smeared a ‘confession’ by An Daoquan with her blood on the wall of her boudoir. When the poor doctor woke up the next morning, he realised he had no choice but to flee to Liangshan Marsh. At Liangshan, An Daoquan cured Song Jiang of his life-threatening illness. His reputation as a miracle doctor working with the barest equipment and drugs earned him the title of Divine Physician. Following an amnesty granted to the brotherhood by Emperor Huizong, he later saved the emperor from an illness which enabled him to stay in the palace as the imperial physician. 

The Sickly General with wife (middle) and brother (RHS) at Everest Base Camp, 5,300 m above sea level.

The vivid scenes described in the novel transported my mind to the stories a friend shared with me. He too described an important time of his life spent in the deepest jungles and riverine systems. But, he wasn’t fighting other outlaws or army forces; his endeavours were to snuff out illegal fishing and poaching of endangered species of wildlife such as the Johor rhinos and Bigfoot. Duobing Jiāngjūn, or Peng Kuan (in Cantonese), aka The Sickly General, hailed from the same school in Penang, but we were never classmates. He was a lot smarter. For me, apart from saving lives as a doctor, his major contribution to his country has been as a member of the Malaysian Nature Society. They helped protect the riverine systems and documented many varieties of freshwater fish. They also discovered many birds and butterflies in the virgin jungles that are now part of the Endau-Rompin National Park. As Sima Yi in The Three Kingdoms said, “Misfortune generates blessings and blessings breeds misfortune”. The opportunity came after one of the heaviest monsoon seasons with floodwaters over 40 meters destroyed much habitat and also all the illegal fishing nets. The Sickly General and his cohorts suggested to the authorities to grab the opportunity to ban fishing in one tributary and that gave birth to Kelah Sanctuary, a crystal-clear river now thriving with Mahseers. His entry into The Urghhling Brotherhood is well deserved and requires no invitation.

The Sickly General’s paternal grandfather Ah Yeh left Chung San, Canton District, China for Selama, Perak in the 1920’s. He married a Hakka girl, a first generation Kedahan. She bore him many children. The Sickly General’s father was the third of four sons. When the war with the Japanese broke out, Ah Yeh burned down his own general store to prevent the invaders from getting hold of the provisions. Ah Yeh and his family went to Penang to live with his eldest daughter who was married to a dentist whose Wu Dental Clinic was in Chulia Street. Wu had a younger brother, a martial arts exponent who trained with sand bags tied to his legs. He purportedly was able to leap over walls just like Lin Chong did in The Water Margin, after he learned Marshall Gao Qui’s adopted son was harassing his beautiful wife in the Yue Temple. Younger Wu made sporadic guerrilla attacks on the Japanese but suddenly died of a heart attack when the enemy troops came to check the shophouse where he lived. Luckily for the whole household, the soldiers did not find his cache of spears and swords. All heads would have rolled and that would have been the end of The Sickly General’s story before he was even born.

The Sickly General’s maternal grandfather, Ah Kung was a first generation Penangite; Ah Kung’s mother was a second wife. In those days, bigamy was a privilege for men with wealth or status. “Ah Kung’s father passed away when he was still in conception,” The Sickly General told me. I did not want to pry and ask how he could be so precise – after all, conception occurs within hours to a matter of just a few days after sexual intercourse. After Ah Kung’s birth, mother and child were chased out from the family. He was taken care of by a well-to-do auntie and studied till Secondary School – it was quite a privilege in those days to be given an education. Ah Kung began work as a clerk in the American Automobile company as soon as he graduated from High School. When his wife died of asthma, he was devastated but didn’t remarry;  the eldest daughter and The Sickly General’s mum, the second oldest, had to stop school to take care of the household. His mum worked for a Baba family, and from the Nonya matriarch, she learned great recipes and followed the strict meticulous disciplines of Nonya cooking. A great cook to this day, his mum now 87-years-old, insists on generous portions of quality ingredients to make each dish superb. She supplemented her income twice a year by making Chinese New Year cookies and Nonya Bak Chang for the Dumpling Festival. “Mum was very generous to her seven siblings, and to my father’s fourteen siblings including two sisters who were given away,” The Sickly General said with a voice filled with love and pride. 

The Sickly General was born and raised in Chulia Street, next to Love Lane just behind our school, St Xavier’s Institution (SXI). His father’s eldest sister who married Dentist Wu was the chief tenant of one of the shop lots. Numerous rooms were sub-let to others. The Sickly General’s mother, a pretty single girl then, and her own family were amongst the other tenants. Naturally his parents fell in love in that house, and they married soon after. The Sickly General was the firstborn of four children. Chulia Street still brings him haunting memories of the stench of night soil as they were being collected from each household. “You don’t want to study hard? Then you’ll become a night-soil carrier,” his mum used to threaten him. He swears he can still smell them on his clothes sometimes. Another haunting memory of the Chulia Street house is its room upstairs next to the kids’ bedroom. It was locked most of the time, and whenever The Sickly General walked past it, he would get the chills and goosebumps, the eeriness accentuated by the dark wooden floor creaking and cracking in the dark. Stories of Japanese beheadings, ghost sightings, demonic possessions and exorcisms were related by the tenants in that room. When the boy was five years old, his family shifted to Glugor, after Ah Kung convinced his son-in-law to get the lot of land next to the half-wooden bungalow he managed to lease. The hauntings stopped as did the nightmares.

The Sickly General’s father wanted his son to continue as a next generation Saint. All alumni of SXI are called Saints. But because they had moved far away from the school, he was sent to La Salle into the last available class, Std 1E. His father was an English teacher in a Chinese Primary School. His mother, who dropped out of Std 2 after the sudden death of her mum, was a homemaker. The Sickly General’s maternal grandmother died of bronchial asthma at the young age of 32. The hereditary disease affected almost every male of the next generation. The Sickly General took the full brunt of the defective gene, earning him the title of Duobing Jiāngjūn. His episodes were as regular as the monthly curse that afflicts women. During the asthmatic attacks which frequently occurred at night, he would sound like a wheezing cat as he was being ferried on his father’s motorcycle to the local hospital. In those days, there were no puffers to depend on. Instead, he would be given an adrenaline jab which opened up his airways giving an instantaneous relief from gasping. “No outdoor games or ‘cooling’ foods,” his mother would theorise that if he could pass the age of 18 without any attacks, he would overcome this curse. For the next decade or so, The Sickly General would become a depository for every remedy and concoction that his mother could get her hands on. Some of the more unforgettable treatments include swallowing live day-old hairless mice, drinking mantis dung boiled in herbal soup, consuming raw egg yolk dipped in honey, followed by munching on home-bred beetles fed on herbs and a host of other concoctions and talismans. He grew up not knowing any games or extracurricular activities and enjoying cold drinks and ice-creams were as forbidden as teenage sex. While waiting for the bus, the primary school kids would patronise several hawker stalls. For five cents, many could aim at a dartboard for a prize, or get a bangkuang slice with rojak sauce or simply suck on a cold ice ball smeared with evaporated milk and rose syrup. To challenge his mother’s theory, he tried an ice ball which tasted like heaven but when the night came, hell arrived in the form of a blocked airway that felt like a strangulation.

His parents’ Silver Wedding Anniversary

The Sickly General had his father’s fair complexion but not his height, his mother’s genetic curse but not her Teresa Teng beauty. With a sallow face and a wan smile, a slim body and puny arms, he was laidback and not a ‘silverback’. “Somehow, I got all their bad genes,” he said with a tinge of self-pity. His friends called him ‘Pale Face’ which he rather liked, it being the era of John Wayne’s cowboys and ‘injuns’ on TV. His childhood playground was the surroundings of Bukit Glugor. In the valley, there was a large Hindu community where the cow is a sacred animal. The sanctity of the cow meant there was a glut of dried cow dung which the kids could freely collect for their family’s vegetable garden. Boiled fresh milk was sent daily to Ah Kung next door, but their mother made sure to leave them the milk skin which the kids enjoyed like a delicacy. The brothers collected labels in Milkmaid cans to complete the four booklets of Fish, Birds, Butterflies and Mammals. That led to their love for nature. They would collect, set and frame butterflies, rear caterpillars, hatch golden pupae until butterflies emerged. They salvaged glass and invested in a glass cutter to make their own frames and aquariums. They caught fish from rivers and streams near the hills, worms from drains and bred the fish to sell to the pet shops. The Sickly General would go to the book store each month and spend his earnings on Marvel comics. The Fantastic Four was his favourite “as they had the almost accurate and believable scientific theories” but his idol remains Peter Parker, the struggling hero.

The Sickly General finally got into SXI in Form 4. He was quick to sign up with the PKBM cadet corps. The free uniforms and the chance to hold and fire guns were too tempting. He loved everything about the cadet corps, the grind of marching in the sun or in the rain, shouting orders and being shouted at, and giving a mirror-shine to his boots and buckles. He remembers fondly the times when they were packed like sardines into army trucks to the rifle range at Sungei Dua. There they enjoyed the chance to use live bullets for target practice. Those two years quickly passed, and suddenly the MCE was over. It was a disaster unheard of in the school’s history when a good number of students, even those with a string of A’s failed, in the first year of compulsory passing of Bahasa Malaysia. You fail the Malay language, you fail everything. It was a tragedy to see so many smart students being undeservingly left behind.

True to his mother’s prophecy, the asthma attacks disappeared when he turned 18 and in Form 6, another new great thing happened in his life – girls in his school class! His new motto was “I can do all things”. It took many years later for him to add the word ‘almost’ to that. The transformation in him was astonishing. He shed his bilious yellow hue and the young man even put on a slight tan. The two years in the corps helped strengthen his core muscles. With reticence and hesitance finally expunged in his late adolescence, the pretty girls in his class were no longer admired secretly. His father’s starting salary was $125 which meant he was just outside the minimum income to be eligible for book loans. Instead of buying the required textbooks, he borrowed them from the library and after learning typing from a secondhand book, he typed out the books during school holidays. Ms Tan Poh Gaik was, according to The Sickly General, the best Form 6 Biology teacher on the island. Wu Yong The Cur was quick to disagree. He had an altercation with the same teacher in Sixth Form. “There is simply no need for us to dissect a frog each,” he protested. He reckoned one frog was sufficient sacrifice for a class of thirty odd students. Ms Tan disagreed and banished Wu Yong from her class for that day. Her notes were very sought after, and being a representative in the Inter-Sixth Form Science Society, The Sickly General’s knowledge of who were the good teachers in other subjects enabled him to exchange quality notes with other well-informed students. With three other friends, he came up with the idea of producing a whole series of past-years model answers in Bahasa Malaysia to sell to the bookstores. After a week of scrutiny by relevant Examiners, they were given the go-ahead to produce the reference books. The publisher offered them a choice between annual royalty or a lump sum cash payment. These Biology- Maths students, without any Accounting knowledge, already knew that numbers could be manipulated. A bird in hand is worth more than two in the bush, so is cash in hand. The Sickly General went home with a number of crisp $1000 notes and gave them all to his father. 

The HSC results were the best ever for SXI, with five students eligible to enrol in a local Medical degree course. The Sickly General was offered places in India, Singapore and University of Malaya (MU). Singapore was the most enticing with a full scholarship but it came with a 12-year bond. In Year 3, he went up the roof of a rented room to fix the water tank but on his way down, he couldn’t reach the ladder that he went up from. Believing that previous PKBM training of overcoming 12-foot walls was true, he jumped down from the roof but it landed him in the University Hospital with a fractured spine. It took a cute hospital houseman to make him realise how serious his injury was. Fortunately, the houseman possessed small hands and was a female. She inserted her finger up his anus to check that the nerve to his future line of descendants was intact. But after two days of entertaining concerned course mates about the awkwardness of his discomfort, he signed the ‘Discharge At Own Risk’ form to attend an important test for his third year exams. There was never any possibility that he would fail any subjects. A crooked back was not going to be a good enough reason to fail. It was obvious that the young man had a great destiny to fulfill.

If you have a great destiny, even if the sky is falling down on you, treat it as a down quilt.

Lady Wu in The Three Kingdoms

Armed with his MBBS, a recognition to work anywhere in the Commonwealth, The Sickly General spent his early professional career in Singapore. After following the advice of many fellow Malaysians, he decided to return to his homeland to work “where you can do anything and still own a house and car, without slogging too hard”. Perlis was his next stop, the smallest State yet so flat “you can practically see everything from a coconut tree”. A year later, he was promoted as the ENT (ear, nose and throat) Registrar in General Hospital KL. The status and money meant nothing to him and his wife after their Filipino maid absconded, leaving their rented house with gates wide open and their two precious kids crawling and bawling away. They decided to leave the Big Smoke and moved to Pontian, a little fishing town on the southernmost part of the peninsula. Pontian in Mandarin sounds like “really stupid”. To the good doctor, it wasn’t really stupid to set up a general practice there. The Sickly General invested in Ultrasonography and Radiology, the first and only practice in the district to offer that service. Townsfolk had to go to the village for treatment. Isn’t that just so heroic? The Water Margin has heroes rebelling against tyranny and corruption, upholding the values of Confucian virtue, filial piety and benevolence. Similarly in The Sickly General, we have a hero rebelling against societal norms where the rich are catered for at the expense of the poor. A modern-day Robin Hood, he does not rob the rich, but he surely helps the poor. His green credentials from so early in his life – fighting for the environment, protecting natural habitat and promoting a sustainable economy and ecology – shows that the man is way ahead of our time. The brotherhood in the Urghhlings Marsh is proud to call The Sickly General one of their own.

I can do (almost) all things.

Lum Wei Wah