Lord Guan, Go On

Reading an epic novel is a big challenge for me now. What is required is time (lots of it), attention to detail, good healthy eyes and most of all, an unfailing memory. Early in my life, I think I was too eager to acquaint with the few ‘epics’ that my brother left lying around. I was too young and naive to understand the concepts and politics, yet I soldiered on thinking I had the high brow to absorb everything I read. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Gogol’s Dead Souls and Diary of a Madman were read by the time I was 17 or 18. Tolstoy’s War and Peace, crammed full of human suffering, l lost, unfinished, I think. There were hundreds of characters in those stories, that a brain such as mine simply could not store all their names and idiosyncrasies. The most vivid picture I got from them was the bitter cold Russian winters but even that, I am no longer sure. Maybe I got that in my head from watching Dr Zhivago. But, one thing is for sure; the rouble is the name of one currency I do not have trouble remembering.

Recently, I finished reading The Water Margin. It is a story of 108 heroes of Liangshan Marsh, and many more who did not join the brotherhood. Which means a lot of names and characters. During the past week, I have been weakened by the winter flu and so, it was easy to tell myself to neglect the garden. Neglect the rowing exercises. Neglect the early morning Qigong routine. Maybe I have been telling my body to delay its recovery, so that I have every excuse to shorten my working hours, and retire to my bedroom early. There, I have been squirrelling away my energy and waking hours to race through the novel. On the weekend, I started on Three Kingdoms, a not-to-be-missed classic wonderfully translated by Moss Roberts. Again, hundreds of heroes and villains, usurpers and wannabes. Russian names may be long, but Chinese names sound too similar! And each character will have a minimum of three names! A real name, style name, and sobriquet. My hero in the book is no other than Zhuge Liang. I have mentioned him a few times in the past. Having lived in Australia for over 40 years, I forgot the name that appears first is not the first name. Zhuge (pronounced Chu-ger) a double surname, Liang his given name, and his style name Kongming. As if these were not enough to tell us who he was, he gave himself the nickname, Master Sleeping Dragon or Crouching Dragon, from a stretch of hills near where he lived, Sleeping Dragon Ridge in Xiangyang. A hero with four names! Whilst reading these two books, I urged myself to write about a childhood friend, whose life has been as turbulent as red sprites during thunderstorms. Yet, it is equally true to say his is a life that is fully lived, colourful and filled with a full spectrum of human experiences. Please allow me to laud Lord Guan. Go on, I hope he will invigorate you as much as he has inspired me.

Red Sprite, lightning above turbulent thunderstorm clouds

When I read about Lu Da in The Water Margin, I thought amongst my friends, Lord Guan is the perfect hero that most resembles him. He was also known as The Fat Monk. A popular character, he first appeared in Chapter 2 of the novel. Killing the butcher who forced a pretty girl to be his concubine and then tricking her of all her money, Lu Da went on to be a great hero of the marsh. Lord Guan bears many of Lu Da’s physical attributes. Both big with big strides and monstrous jumps. Lord Guan also possesses a towering frame, massive thighs, and a big face with a generous nose, bushy eyebrows and fat ears. A gentle giant, he has big smiles whereas Lu Da wore a fearsome military look. Lord Guan has the presence of a happy and contented monk, often helpful and caring but never mendicant. I chose the name Lord Guan for this friend because his namesake was also a hero in the Three Kingdoms, a historical novel attributed to Luo Guanzhong. There, he was also a giant of a man, with crimson-coloured phoenix eyes, and brows like nestling silkworms. With a rather imposing stature and breath-taking presence, he with Zhang Fei declared their absolute faith in Liu Bei and all three prostrated on the ground in a peach garden and became blood brothers. They annihilated the Yellow Scarves, a dominant rebel group which although defeated hastened the collapse of the Han dynasty some thirty odd years later. But having been reminded of my friend’s life story, I am convinced he is a man of much more depth and substance than Lu Da and therefore more suited as the leader of the band of brothers I am writing about. My Lord Guan has tasted the full gambit of what life has to offer, from the bitter fruits that he spits out instinctively to the sweetest and juiciest rewards that he enjoys in the privacy of his abode. Lord Guan should be compared more with Chao Gai, the leader of the brotherhood! Lord Guan, go on!

Guan Yu aka Guan Gong, is today revered as The God of War by Taoists and Buddhists.
Lord Guan aka Guan Yu, courtesy name Yunchang

Chao Gai was the obvious leader of the marsh, the votes for his leadership were unanimous without any abstention. What makes a good leader? I suppose, first and foremost, one ought to be born with leadership qualities. A leader is born but of course can be made too. Chao Gai was the village chief, generous and hospitable to everyone, including visitors to the village. He was particularly fond of making friends with heroes, people with like-minded virtue and ethics. He had great influence over his people. He was very fit and strong, disciplined and never neglected practising with his halberd. Lord Guan possesses such qualities too and he is also a long-time Qigong practitioner. His honesty is beyond reproach; his generosity always present, and his virtue unshakable. He believes in reincarnation and it would be the least startling if indeed Lord Guan turns out to be a reincarnated Chao Gai. “But there is no evidence of reincarnation,” I said. “Of course there is!” He swiftly replied. “Why does a newborn know how to suckle a breast?” “And why are some born blind or deformed? Karma! It’s their punishment for having lived a bad life in the previous one!” He answered his own question before I could even raise my hand to respond. Very rarely do I find a truer friend, and a more just man than him. He doesn’t resile from an agreement; neither does he renege on a promise. He will be the first to step up and apologise for any wrongdoing. Lord Guan, go on, show us your mettle.

Born from a Penang mother and an Ipoh father, Lord Guan possesses a towering personality. In school, he symbolises the horse – magnificent, handsome and fast. His sobriquet, however, is The Bear, some see him as the huggable and adorable one, but for me, I sense The Bear is also powerful and indefatigable. Decisive, intelligent and fair, his reasoning is never that of a pedant. Lord Guan, go on, show us you’re irresistible and irrepressible.

Lord Guan finds durians irresistible!

Lord Guan’s parents were match-made during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya. The maternal side, worried about the Japanese taking their daughter away for nefarious reasons, quickly pushed her to the arms of Lord Guan’s father. Lord Guan’s grandfather was from China who left his wife and family in Guangzhou to seek his fortune in Ipoh. He married a local woman and had seven sons and one daughter with her. During the Second World War, Grandpa Guan’s sundry shop business suffered from the frequent extortions and unpaid rations by the Kempeitei. The business collapsed and he died soon after the war was over. Lord Guan’s father was suddenly entrusted to maintain the whole family household, despite being ranked No. 4 son. He started out as a daily rated census taker and subsequently joined the civil service a few years later because he could speak and write in English – a rare ability amongst his peers during those early years in Malaya. A family household does not mean one family – in today’s terminology, it is a household of many families. With his salary he sustained not only his own growing family but also had to support his younger siblings and their immediate close relatives. Lord Guan’s grandmother insisted that her fourth son should help all of them as they were her own sisters’ and brothers’ children. Lord Guan’s mother was the one responsible to make ends meet even when it seemed impossible. She had to keep a tight rein on the younger ones besides her own growing number of children. Money was tight but Lord Guan’s mother kept a tighter fist on household expenses. Those were difficult days in Ipoh, when even a grain of rice mattered. “Stop looking at the salted fish, your meal will be too salty,” I imagined she said. There was never enough on the dining table. Lord Guan’s grandma was a part time mahjong player and helped chipped in the household expenses when there were winnings. But, odds of her losing were always higher.

When Lord Guan’s grandma passed on and her siblings and extended family left after completing school, Lord Guan’s father transferred in 1961 to Penang for career prospects – the other reason, never mentioned, was the couple ached to leave the sad affair of their eldest daughter’s passing a few years earlier. Making a livelihood in a new place was like making a new life. Lord Guan enrolled in the same school as me. Basketball, football, camping, Cubs and then Scouting were his main focus when in school. We got on famously right through the first eleven years in school as I too enjoyed the same activities. He did not join me in Form six but stayed back to repeat his fifth Form. “Upper five” meant a year of watching his peers move ahead of him. He could only look forlornly from afar as some of his mates started courting the pretty girls in Lower six using puerile tactics. Envious of some of them leaving for overseas studies, he had the option of being a trainee SIA pilot or repeat the same subjects. “Mom decided for me against my father’s wishes,” he said. The following year, he left for the U.K. The rolling hippy scene there was such an amazing attraction for the teenager but the gloss was quickly dispelled by the cold reality that “the majority of the Brits was a poor lot.” He completed his degree from Polytechnic Manchester in 1982 and joined a Singapore semi-government company to work. There, he lasted two years before “better prospects” lured him to Kuantan.

In 1986, a near-death encounter at Karak Highway taught him some important things about life. His car was a total write-off in the rotational collision. “I was going round the bend when my car decided to spin around a few times. “I could clearly see what was happening and whilst trying to counter the centrifugal forces, I was screaming profanity in slow motion.” His car was spinning in the wrong direction and he could see his car catapulting towards the guard rails that hugged the cliff edge. When he regained consciousness, he thanked all his gods and lucky stars that he had crashed into the cliff face instead. Surprisingly, he had only sprained his wrists. That and a big bump on his head were bragging rights to prove his death-defying escapade. “Everything goes very painfully slow if you aren’t due to die,” he concluded. “So, what was the message you took away from that?” I asked. He smirked and said, ” As in Wall Street the movie, it told me one must enjoy life to the hilt, live life full of possibilities – you never know when it will be all over.”

A second death was predicted by fortune tellers in 1995. It was another crash, but this time it came in the form of the 1997 Asian financial crash took the wind out of his sails and wiped out his whole world. He sank into a financial abyss, so deep there was only darkness. “Bankrupt, you mean,” he corrected me. His honesty stunned me. If I were a bird, I would stop knowing how to fly, and if I were a fish, I would stop knowing how to swim. “Thankfully there were kind people like Ah Chuan and others who helped me in so many little ways,” Lord Guan said with a deep sense of gratitude. “The road to recovery is always tough and from all the spiritual teachings I encountered, I learned that the natural self shall be our beacon,” he said. Lord Guan had his glittering career swept away from under his feet. Through no fault of his, he lost everything when the financial crisis gripped much of Asia. Economic bubbles and crony capitalism from lax American money supply meant the whole thing was set for a major calamity. Countries with currencies pegged to the increasing US dollar saw their GDP plummet as their exports became uncompetitive. The crisis brought down the 30-year-rule of President Suharto. Asian sharemarkets crashed and unfortunately, Lord Guan was then a high-flying remisier with big-time clients. Some jumped from tall towers and others reneged on their contracts. Saying it in a way that would displease their ears, “they avoided him like he was a carrier of a deadly virus.” Lord Guan was left with massive unpaid contracts. During the few years before the crisis, his broking firm was setting profit records. Taxes on the previous years’ profit were outstanding and becoming payable by the time the financial tsunami swept away everything he owned. Lord Guan was so virtuous and honest he did not siphon out monies or squirrel away hard-earned savings for his young family prior to the crash. “My common trenching business in Penang was being owed monies which could never be recovered. Margin calls and rotating deals ensured I was buried totally in losses in the tens of millions,” he continued. There is an old saying, “No point killing a battered horse when the horse can still be useful,” – his stockbroking firm continued to use him to trade with his corporate clients until the Tax Office sued him for outstanding taxes. The tax officers did not care that he had massive losses to claim deductions against the prior years’ profits.

Lord Guan considered running away. Penniless and unemployable, he was useless to his family anyway. The couple could not support their family anymore. This is the worst nightmare scenario for any parent of little kids. His super loving wife who never considered abandoning him, decided to try her hands on direct marketing, and he on selling credit cards and later, insurance. Lord Guan’s name was black-listed everywhere, all he could really do was be her driver and gofer. His name was not only unusable, it was a barrier to a job. “To go out and seek job opportunities, I had to live on RM10 a day, an allowance from my mother – bless her soul – she still saw something in me,” he said. A great friend saw his predicament and offered him a sales job selling pottery. His sales was shitty and he couldn’t keep the job. Then one day, an ex-client offered him a sales job for commercial electronic door access and CCTV systems. From sales, he became a technical support staff and eventually he came out and worked for his wife in her own CCTV business.

During his “second death”, his friends brought him to see not one but a few monks, and Indian and Chinese fortune tellers who all separately concluded that he was supposed to be dead. “It was total darkness, there were no stars in my life chart and the total absent of light, according to their calculations and readings meant death. Strangely, they all had the same conclusion. They were dumbstruck to be reading the fortune of a dead man. Somebody up there must have done some horse-trading using whatever little merits Lord Guan had to help him live on during the total darkness.

The fallen suffers a life which is worse than death.

Beh Chooi Guan

With a feeling of absolute worthlessness, hope also abandoned him. Nothing to his name and nothing positive to look forward to. Almost daily, there was mud and shit hitting the fan for him to face and the innuendos and whispers continued for years. Ostracised by some of the so-called friends. Blacklisted by financial institutions and labeled a bankrupt with no bank account to his name and no credit card to depend on. Being bankrupt means you cannot own anything and you still have to make however small contributions to help settle some of the debts. For government debts, there can be no deals done. What is owed has to be fully paid. They won’t look at the following year’s losses to cancel what was owed – “they will extract blood even from stone,” he said matter-of-factly .

“I’m so sorry you went through all that darkness and stress,” I said. Life can be so unfair and unyielding. “You’re amazing to climb out of such a dark deep hole,” I revealed a new-found admiration. Lord Guan’s heart-wrenching story is the real story of great success at the echelon of corporate life being struck down by events too big to predict. A truly black swan day that would have brought anyone to their knees. That he climbed out of it after decades scraping in the bottom searching for scraps, without bitterness and recriminations, deserves utmost respect. That is the mark of a truly virtuous man. After the darkness which lasted what felt like an eternity, he began to look after his body like a temple and cultivate his mind and heart like a productive garden. “Live life to the fullest. Don’t assume you’ll get a second chance,” he advised. “Everything will run its course, and remind yourself of the old adage when you’re at your lowest, things will only get better,” he spoke with profundity. “Life should be kind to you by now,” I suggested. “When you see me fly to distant places, you will know I am free like a soaring eagle again. But for now, I am the old horse running free on the grasslands.” I liked the picture he painted for me. Either way, he is contented and uncomplaining. “What is the real story here?” I asked. With the briefest pause, he said, “There is always someone else who is worse off than you if you decide to turn your head behind to help.” Lord Guan, go on, we salute you. I think Lord Guan is a worthy man to join Blue Eyes, Wu Yong, Four Eyes and The Cook in their brotherhood. Lord Guan, go on, you are their natural leader.

The Cook In My Book

Li Kui featured a lot in The Water Margin; not surprisingly, as this colourful character is full of vigour and straightforward honesty. If the band of heroes wanted anything done, the go-to fellow was Li Kui. He got things done. “Things” usually meant killings. When I came to the part where Li Kui split open Taoist Luo the Immortal with his axe, and upon seeing his blood was white, he exclaimed that the celibate must be filled with sperm. I knew I had to write about my friend who is equally sharp-witted and hilariously funny. I shall, for obvious reasons, call this friend The Cook. He is as brutal as Li Kui, but not with killings but with his honesty. Li Kui, also known as The Black Whirlwind, was dark-skinned, rash and obstinate. He wielded his axe effortlessly, “chop, chop, chop,” and “crack, crack, crack,” as he hacked his victims into many pieces. Wherever he went, people were scared of him – he had that nasty killer’s demeanour about him and it would not surprise me one bit that if looks could kill, it would be his. The Cook, on the other hand, is a fine specimen for any lady. He has the killer looks and it still irks me that the pretty girls in school fell for him as they over-looked me – and I am the taller and darker one. Maybe they found me mawkish when I should have been hawkish. He has a fair complexion, with faint freckles and big attractive eyes with double eyelids (something I only get if I rub my eyes hard). He wears his hair well-combed, never tousled. He frequents a local Malay barber whose services many cannot afford or justify. Like Four Eyes, he is a strong swimmer, gliding playfully in the water like a dolphin. Needless to say, a strong swimmer possesses a finely tuned body that is toned to perfection with a long torso, a flat abdomen, a thin waist and powerful legs. Unlike Four Eyes, The Cook did not win at any swimming meet, but as a swimming instructor, he too attracts a bevy of star-struck teenage girls. Why didn’t I learn to swim, guys?

Li Kui was brash, uncouth, strange-looking and his antics amused many. The Cook protested that he is nothing like Li Kui, “He’s the hatchet man – everyone avoided him!” He sneered before adding “I’m the exact opposite,” he emphasised that his good looks often got him out of trouble whereas everyone feared Li Kui and his fierce looks and wild temper often got him into serious fights. But, The Cook did admit his reputation as a “pain in the ass” was difficult to object to. Today, he is under lockdown due to the pandemic and so, his focus is on cooking up sumptuous meals for him and his pretty wife. Just like Li Kui, he often goes “chop, chop, chop,” and “crack, crack, crack,” but instead of chopping up people, he is busy hacking salted fish bone, pork ribs and ox tails with his cleaver. His “kiam hoo koot” curry and beef curries are legendary. Be sure to note he accompanies each food tasting with his poppysmic trademark as he deconstructs the dish he is cooking.

The Cook’s family name was wrongly spelt, it should have been Weng.
His forebears liked to think that they were good merchants but they were really just obedient and savvy – they knew how to bow to the right people, and bend over for the ones with power and influence. For all their efforts the highest title they were bestowed was that of a Salt Official, an honour awarded by the Imperial Palace that rewarded them a monopoly on salt. The Cook’s grandfather had a wooden plaque with “Salt Official” incised in gold characters. Grandpa lived in a courtyard house with its own lily pond in Longyan China, near Jiangxi and Guangdong. That they managed to pluck themselves up and leave the Chinese equivalent of the Appalachians was, of course, a stroke of luck. But, they also managed to string together a network of collecting stations in Indonesia trading in native products such as tobacco, gambier, nuts, coffee, and rattan, with export depots in Singapore and Penang – “that was a bigger stroke of luck”, The Cook surmised. I think The Cook was quite unfair to attribute a genius’ foresight and pioneering spirit to mere luck. His father was supposedly the love child of Grandpa’s and his Eurasian lover who was of Indonesian/Dutch blood. So it has been whispered, but there is no one left to confirm this rumour.The Cook contended that it fits with his hazel eyes, high bridged nose, light-coloured curly hair and handsome looks.

The Cook’s parents married when they were barely out of their teens – an arranged marriage that the young kids did not know how to object to. “The Dialect Association made the introduction,” he said after a long pause. “Mom and Dad were from the same Hokkien sub-dialect group, their accent was very unlike Penang Hokkien,” he said.
The Cook reckoned his dad was a big catch for a sundry shopkeeper’s daughter from Kerian, Perak. In those days, a daughter of a sundry shop owner would have been a lucky strike for any self-respecting bachelor, so my unlocking of The Cook’s hidden meaning that his dad must have been a really really wealthy merchant would be spot on. “Chinese family fortunes are supposed to last for three generations; arse luck I’m the 4th,” he complained. His dad had a shop in the Chinese section of Beach Street in Penang when The Cook was still a little boy. It is of course quite forgivable for a little kid to think his family was poor. A cocktail of peer group pressure and parental ruse meant most kids in school grew up not knowing they were richer than the others. Most of the bosses and their wives (towkays and towkay-sohs) knew to act poor, so their children would study hard in school to climb up the ladder of success. Crying poor also allowed them to negotiate better deals and secure looser payment terms from their suppliers.

“Later on, dad began to import wheat flour and safety matches,” The Cook said. “Safety matches?” I asked. The Cook looked at me with disdain and said, “Yes, they are matches that don’t ignite by accident.” His mum was busy with seven kids and did not involve herself in the family business. Her full lips were never weighed down by gravity, the sweet smiles they produced melted anyone’s bad mood and they often turned harsh words into kind ones. She was no termagant. Her children were all very attractive and smartly attired. The beautiful daughters wore pretty dresses; the boys incredibly captivating with their handsome looks and strong muscular bodies. Everyone looked intelligent and happy. A casual glance would tell a passer-by theirs was a well-loved, well-fed and wealthy family. No one wore unmatched socks that needed rubber bands to keep them tight around the ankles and no one were embarrassed in school with uniforms that were three sizes bigger – their possessions were mostly made to fit or made in England.

When The Cook was little, he did not know the shop in Beach Street belonged to them. He assumed his uncle owned it and that his dad was the worker, because whenever he visited, his cousins were always there playing in the shop. They told him they often stayed behind till late, whereas he was often told to leave before it got dark. When the war came, all business contacts were severed with the Indonesian suppliers. Konfrontasi in the mid-1960s was a violent conflict that erupted when the Indonesians opposed the formation of Malaysia. The Cook’s dad lost his shop and ended up as a commission agent at a first floor office along Penang Street. It was rumoured that some old company money was parked in Singapore but no one bothered to find out. The Cook didn’t pursue it either – “if the horse has bolted, there is no point to close the gate,” seemed like an appropriate reminder. “It could be worth a fortune,” I prodded. He looked at me and screwed up his face with a pout before adding, “The rice is already fried, and you want it uncooked?” He seemed annoyed at my inane questioning, so I did not delve into it further.

Unlike Blue Eyes, Wu Yong and Four Eyes, The Cook did not pack his bags and leave town when opportunities seemed thin after their school years were over. “The other side is not necessarily greener,” he contends. So, he made his side greener. For that, I salute him! That is exactly the one special trait of Li Kui’s that I admire. He is doggedly loyal and unequivocally forthright. If you want to pick someone to stand by you through thick and thin, pick The Cook. He found opportunities where others didn’t. A small octopus may camouflage itself and hide in crevices or under rocks but bet on The Cook to catch it. He has a knack to find success when most others fail to even hear the opportunity knocking. A successful loss adjuster in his heyday, he was as feared as Li Kui but by scammers and fraudsters who panicked at the sight of him.

The Cook calls himself the AA Cook. “AA?” I did not dare ask him if that meant he was an anonymous alcoholic. His encyclopaedic knowledge of cooking stupefies me somewhat. It is not just the names of pork cuts and beef cuts or the myriad of fish and shellfish he knows or the exact proportions of spices and herbs for a dish, it is his ability to serve up a Peranakan, Mediterranean, Indian, Malay or the many Chinese provincial styles of the most delectable food at a moment’s whim. I bet his Mrs is very satisfied with him. His mom was a superb cook; “She taught me the basics,” he replied when I asked how he knew the tiniest intricacies of cooking. By that he meant he watched and learned as she busied herself in the kitchen, and magically produced superb dishes that only stoked the children’s appetite. It was said that he was the only one in his family who could read recipe books. He has this gift of visualising everything he reads that it becomes real. He can taste the food from reading its recipe, and he can tell you the recipe from tasting the food. The immense fecundity of his imagination left me speechless.

The Cook’s guiding principle was possibly adopted from Alfred E. Neuman, “What, me worry?” The man simply does not own a single wrinkle on his face. “Worrying never got me anything,” he said as he pointed to his thick mop of hair that is devoid of a single strand of grey. His mantra has always been “Be brave! Where are your balls?! Try new things. Don’t stop learning.” He left one big motto unsaid, but I knew from his body language that it was about telling himself he is better looking than the next guy and that gives him his exaggerated swagger. He names his proudest achievement by singing “Staying Alive, Staying Alive.” I think The Cook is a worthy man to join Blue Eyes in his brotherhood.

Stayin’ alive, live long and prosper!

From The Angle Of An Angel

When I read about Song Jiang in The Water Margin, I could not help but admire his filial piety and his big heart of gold. He is the hero who I must write about, I told myself. Song Jiang, as described in the book, was a most charitable man. He never refused to help anyone who asked him for money. He assisted those in distress and raised anyone who had been crushed by their circumstances. He was also known as Welcome Rain or Timely Rain, for his positive influence on people was akin to falling rain on parched lands. He was instrumental in saving Chao Gai, the eventual leader of the brotherhood, and three other leaders including Wu Yong, from certain arrest by Imperial soldiers. Later, he also saved Wu Song the barehanded tiger killer in Jinyang Ridge, from a gang who caught him when he fell into a stream so drunk that he couldn’t get out of it. Song Jiang had great leadership skills and it was no wonder that they appointed him Second Leader to replace Wu Yong after he refused the top post in deference to Chao Gai. One day, Song Jiang got into trouble when he reached out to help a medicine seller. A tenacious brigand who thought only with his fists and axe was offended by Song Jiang’s audacity to help the medicine vendor despite his warnings not to. After fleeing from his attacker, Song Jiang was rescued by a pirate, the elder brother of Zhang Shun. Zhang Shun was a muscular fellow who could swim as well as a fish and stay in the water for seven days at a time. Zhang Shun was fearless and unbeatable in the marsh. It was both Song Jiang and Zhang Shun who caught my imagination to write about my friend Four Eyes, a living angel, in this chapter.

Four Eyes is as dark-skinned and athletic as Song Jiang. He has all the virtuous qualities of the hero too – compassionate, charitable, accommodating and generous. A powerful swimmer just like Zhang Shun, the girls were attracted to him like octopus to coral. Why octopus, you may ask. With an inspiring physique like his, I imagine the girls would have used their arms and legs like tentacles to feel his powerful and perfectly-chiselled muscular body. On the weekend as I was watching My Octopus Teacher, it amazed me to see the female octopus clamouring all over the bloke’s body with her sensitive suckers. I could see that the snazzy hunk’s well-defined body would have had a similar effect on the English girls when he went over to the UK in 1979 for his ‘A’ Levels and then for a Polytechnic degree. “Ah, English girls,” he sighed. He did not have to remind me of the story of a housemate who, upon seeing other housemates had gone out shopping and left them alone in the house, asked him if he wanted to go to bed. Four Eyes innocently told the beautiful blonde honey with the alluring pony-tail he was contented to read his book as it wasn’t quite bedtime yet. Four Eyes was our school Sportsman of the Year in 1975. He represented his country in the Schools’ International Swimming Meet in Jakarta that same year, and waterpolo in the 1977 SEA Games in KL. In the UK, he became known as the Amorous One when his name tag at a fancy dress party had the first two letters, G and L, blotted by some spilt red wine. “How on earth did you splash red wine on yourself?” I asked inquisitively. He said he would tell me on the condition that I do not disclose it to anyone. All I will reveal is it has something to do with an amorous female octopus. No word of a lie!


Talking without thinking is like shooting without aiming.

Marcel Gan Mah Seang

“It is too late to say sorry to someone you have hurt unintentionally with your words,” Four Eyes’ dad drummed into him. “Words,” as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said in Le Petit Prince, “are the source of misunderstandings.” Four Eyes learned that long before I read it in that charming little book. His dad, Four Eyes Papa, bought two sets of Encyclopaedia for him and his five sisters and a brother to use. He would make sure they looked up the words for themselves rather than be spoon-fed. “If you take the trouble yourself, you won’t ever forget,” he taught them. Four Eyes Papa was a Thai national, born in 1921; his father was the District Officer of Kantang in Southern Thailand. Well-to-do, their meals were served on gold-rimmed porcelain plates and they drank from pure silver cups. Their mansion was a shining example of opulence and their private verdant garden was quite exotic, with Chinese weeping willow and Japanese maple adorning the path to a rotunda that was furnished with intricately-carved teak outdoor furniture. Four Eyes Papa was smuggled out to Penang at his mother’s insistence to avoid him being conscripted to the Thai National Service. His mother, originally from Penang, still had a sister there. It was arranged that the sister would adopt Four Eyes Senior as her own. That was how his name changed from a Thai name, Pratip, (surname unknown) to a Chinese name. Four Eyes Papa was a smart man, blessed with an abundance of wisdom and common sense. He was a qualified accountant at age 15, a time when many of his peers were equipped with low literacy skills. “He must have read Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet,” a friend gathered from the way he serenaded the girl living on Kedah Road and climbed up the rainwater pipe to whisper love-words in her ears. “His jaunts were as romantic as Romeo’s,” the friend exclaimed. The girl next door, who was adopted by her parents, was irresistibly beautiful and equally intelligent. It became quite obvious soon after that she would become Four Eyes Papa’s wife. A few months after they were married, they heard of the plight of a young girl who was about to be sold as a future Ahmah Jie (maid servant). The married couple was quick to adopt her as their first child, such was their compassion and kindness for the girl. Their union, made in heaven, brought them much happiness and love. “This bountiful God has thought of everything,” thought Four Eyes’ Mama, as she looked lovingly at her litter of seven children. Four Eyes Papa, an altruist who would give you the shirt off his back, was respected in his community as a selfless man. He had no qualms about wearing ink-stained shirts to work, skin-deep matters mattered not. Whenever frowned upon by busybodies, all he said was “old shirts are more comfortable.” Theirs was a big family to support, but the struggling couple still generously donated to battlers and beggars who frequently knocked at their door for alms and food. That is compassion from the angle of angels.

Four Eyes’ Mama worked as a seamstress at home to help make ends meet. In a family of seven children, life was not meant to be easy. Every weeknight, after checking their school bags for homework, she would then scan their exercise books and report cards for any red marks. Four Eyes, despite my best efforts, would not reveal if he was ever caned by his mum. After their school work had passed her scrutiny, she would then start on her own work. Work meant burning the midnight oil till two to three in the morning. The kids helped by sewing buttons and hemming dresses. It is no wonder Four Eyes still has that lift in his little finger and deft wrist movement whenever he shakes hands with friends. When they got too tired, the two brothers would sleep in the lounge near their mother’s sewing machine. The rhythmic chugging and whirring of the machine was like a lullaby for the boys. Some nights, Four Eyes’ Mama slept at her old Singer machine to avoid disturbing her husband’s sleep. She would be up at 5.30 a.m. to prepare breakfast for everyone. Four Eyes Papa bought weekly social welfare lottery tickets but never checked them for the winning ticket – his way of contributing to the welfare of the needy. That is thoughtfulness from the angle of an angel.

Four Eyes, on the far left

When Four Eyes was four years old, Second Sis had a bad bike accident that required their mum’s full attention. Distraught and struggling to cope, Four Eyes’ Mama moved him to a care-giver’s home so he could be properly attended to. A month passed and he came home a very sick boy due to terrible neglect at the care-giver’s. Second Sis felt immense guilt about this and she vowed to forever look after her siblings. She worked as a nurse at the Charing Cross Hospital and channeled her earnings to help support them. Their school fees and petty expenses were covered by her, right through to their tertiary education. She took up a loan and bought a house in Kenton, Middlesex for Four Eyes and his brother to stay during their time in the UK. Every Christmas the two brothers were given two suits each. “You are what you wear,” Second Sis said to them as she insisted they picked better quality garments. She and her husband have not stopped caring and looking after everyone in both their families. It is quite natural for a devoted daughter to look after her family, but it is equally important for her to also care for his family – they are a beacon of love and understanding. The monthly remittances home were always prompt and generous. That is undying love from the angle of an angel.

Ian Henderson was Four Eyes’ best friend at the Polytechnic. He brought Four Eyes to visit his parents and they tried to convert the home-sick boy to Christianity. “They proselytise; it is the right thing to do if you truly believe it is right,” Four Eyes said. But, he politely declined, “I am a free thinker, and here away from home, I am finally free to do whatever I like.” In February 1984, their last year at the Polytechnic, Ian Henderson suddenly passed away. At the funeral when all the mourners had left, Four Eyes whose thick glasses failed to hide his red swollen eyes, strode up to the open coffin and asked his best friend, “Why have you left me, brother?” At that moment, a white figure rose up from the coffin and said to him, “Now I appear before you, do you believe in me?” His legs gave way and he crumbled clumsily onto the nearest pew. A voice called out from the direction of the coffin, “Grief not, for he is with me now.” A few weeks later, the grieving mother invited Four Eyes to pray at her son’s burial spot. The newly engraved words on the marble tombstone said “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Four Eyes gasped softly. Those words struck a strange chord with him. Four Eyes worked as a duty manager in charge of Housekeeping after his graduation. His claim to fame was introducing a room checklist for staff to work with. A few years passed and Four Eyes had run out of options to renew his UK visa. His boss at The Cumberland Hotel in Harrow was an old Jewish woman in her 70s. She adored him and fussed on him incessantly. She suggested to him a local girl whom he could “marry” for convenience so that he could stay permanently in the country. But, Four Eyes could not bring himself to complicate the simple life that he lived, a problem-free and stress-free life that he valued. The old Jewish woman cried at his farewell party, her discomfort was clear for all to see. “Why didn’t you marry her instead?” I asked. “You would have inherited all her wealth!” Four Eyes was like a ray of sun to her, bringing her lunch or dinner to her penthouse every day. Her kids only went to her for money whereas he was her friend who stayed to chat and livened up her life with humour and zest. That was genuine companionship from the angle of an angel.

As his visa had expired, Four Eyes returned to Penang, his hometown. Life was quite lonely for him during those days. One day, whilst working at Lone Pine Hotel, he met Pastor Koe, a fellow schoolmate from his year whom he briefly failed to recognise. He related to the pastor his experience at Ian Henderson’s funeral. Pastor Koe asked Four Eyes to open his heart to God and ask for His guidance. “What am I to do?” he pleaded during his prayers. According to Four Eyes, God sent him to the local swimming club one afternoon. Whilst he was treading water in the middle of the pool, he saw a beautiful girl swimming towards him. The girl bumped into him and her arms splayed around his taut and suntanned body. He told me that was how their love story began on the spot where their hands and bodies entangled. He vowed to sweep her off her feet, make her swoon, ‘sing with rapture and dance like a dervish’. “I promised her we will be deliriously happy and live a full life together,” he confided. A Catholic girl, she invited Four Eyes to her church that very weekend, and it would be safe to assume Four Eyes has never missed a sermon since. He was “slain” in front of the congregation on that very first visit. His eyes were closed yet he saw a bright blue light flood in through his skull and soothed his mind. Soon after, he realised he was crying, his eyes were filled with tears of joy. He saw the light again when he witnessed an apparition at the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows on Macalister Road. The same bright blue light was shining on top of the statue of Our Lady. Four Eyes became calmer, more caring and considerate. His parents saw the transformation in their son, and they too converted to the new faith without wavering ever after. That is unshakeable faith from the angle of an angle.

We are all guilty of the good we did not do.


The above quote is least applicable to Four Eyes. He continues to help many charities and orphanages. But, he is acutely aware there are many more that fall through the cracks and are missed by the institutions. He makes it his mission to also help the needy who do not have a safety net to rely on. “They are equally deserving to be succoured in time of hardship and distress,” he said. Once upon a time, Four Eyes was in a coffee shop with a few mates. A stationery pedlar came to their table and asked to sell them a box of pens. Four Eyes, without hesitation paid $20 instead of the asking price of $10. The pedlar tried to give the $10 change to Four Eyes, but Four Eyes told the pedlar to keep it, the extra money was his bonus. The pedlar’s face lit up with a broad smile and his eyes sparkled. After he left their table, Four Eyes’ mates said he was crazy to give so much. “No one pays double the price for pens!” One of them became quite querulous and added, “You will spoil the market!” Four Eyes didn’t care to reply. In his heart, he understood $10 was not quite enough to buy a packet of cigarettes, but it was plenty to feed the bloke for a whole day. That is generosity from the angle of an angel.

I think Four Eyes is worthy to join Blue Eyes in his brotherhood.

Curse The Curs

Wu Song, one of the one hundred and eight heroes in The Water Margin, was my inspiration to write this story. I watched the episode maybe a hundred times with Pa, and briefly even harboured a wish to be like him. He was incredibly strong, totally fearless, righteous, tall and handsome. Wu Song enthralled both Pa and me by killing a man-eating tiger with his bare hands. With his bare hands! He cut open the breasts of his adulterous sister-in-law, Pan Jinlian, and pulled out her heart, lungs and entrails after finding out she poisoned her husband (his older brother) who to her was ‘three parts dwarf and seven parts imp’. But, to be as brave as he, I would need to get drunk. Very very drunk. I have been tipsy but never drunk in my life. So, it won’t be possible for me to be like him. Just as well, since I discovered later in the book, he indiscriminately slaughtered some nineteen maids and servants in Colonel Zhang’s house. That is the trouble with this 14th century Chinese classic, despite the common thread of Confucian morals fighting the debauched, nefarious and corrupt. The heroism, righteousness and benevolence of these heroes cannot right the wrongs of their callous brutality and violent disregard for the law, corrupt or otherwise.Their path to rebellion and correcting injustices through the people’s support was a concept brilliantly adopted by Mao Zedong in his uprising against the government of the day some 500 years later. The acceptance of The Water Margin turned full circle when the Maoist teachings were discarded following the collapse of the Cultural Revolution; the ageing leaders knew too well that a rebellion against them would undo all they had achieved.

All week, I tried to encourage some of my childhood friends to permit me to write short stories about them. We hail from a Lasallian / Xaverian brotherhood formed from years growing up in the same school. We have been calling one another “brothers” ever since. The idea that I could mimic the style of The Water Margin and write about my friends from school pricked my interest. ‘Within the four seas, all men are brothers.’ invigorated me. I was excited by the prospect of writing tales that encompass tragedies or traumatic experiences of our elders during the Japanese Occupation in Malaya, and about their successes or failures following the great promise and hope for a new nation that post-Colonialism offered; and subsequently, the decades-old Malaysia’s ‘Malays First’ malaise, right through to the tumultuous changes at breakneck speed the internet has brought us. I hoped to uncover stories of black swan events and heroic fights against many injustices and discriminations that a brotherhood like mine has lived through. I wanted to share their stories and at the same time, reveal each person’s unyielding belief or ethos and life’s heroic crusades. Disappointingly, no one has come forward. I was hoping my chapter about Blue Eyes would be good enough to placate any privacy concerns they may have. Unwilling to give up on this idea, I thought if I enticed them with a substantial gift each, I would gain acquiescence from a few brothers at least, but this has also been met with silence. Incredibly at our age, everyone still prize their privacy above all else and prefer to remain anonymous. A friend said I should be generous, and tell my own story first. “Be eponymous,” he suggested.

Membership to the Brotherhood gets us this t-shirt

I decided to write about Wu Yong instead since there is no one I know who can be as interesting as Wu Song. Wu Yong is nothing like Wu Yong ‘The Inquisitive Scholar’ in The Water Margin, of course. No, he isn’t so clever like the strategist who was second-in-command of the outlaws of the marsh. The Wu Yong I know is known locally as Wu Yong the Cur. Cur means a mean, cowardly person. It also means a mongrel dog. Wu Yong is a scrawny chap with a sallow complexion – especially during the winter months – and puny limbs that attract ridicule from his sister. “Keep fasting and you will shrivel up fast!” she said. He looked up at her with his narrow cloudy eyes, and swallowed back the words that were at the tip of his tongue. Wu Yong loves his dog. He once told me, “Dogs have many friends because they wag their tails, not their tongues.” Dogs keep secrets very well, of course. I have asked my son’s pup, Murray, many times to confirm if my son has a girlfriend but Murray merely wags his tail and licks my hand with his wet tongue. Murray does not gossip. Wu Yong cannot understand the olden day contempt for dogs in China. Every dog is a mongrel, a cur. They won’t say “you fart” but they will include the poor dog and announce, “you blow dog farts.” If something is smelly or bad, the word “dog” must be included. The Chinese character 臭, “zhou” meaning smelly, repulsive or bad, is formed from two words: self and dog. Since ancient times, dogs have a pejorative connotation in Chinese culture. A slur will often consist of the word ‘dog’ in it. Zou gou 走狗, “go dog,” or a traitor. Hanjian or traitors who aided the Japanese during their occupation of China were also called zou gou. 狗男女, add a dog to men and women and we get awful men and women. Another example of the unworthiness of curs is the saying 狗眼看人低, “dogs’ eyes look people down,” or useless people looking down on others. Curse the curs.

Why do the Chinese have such a low opinion of the dog?

“Out of a dog’s mouth will never come ivory tusks.” – one who can’t be successful.

“If the dog leads the man, the man is blind.”

“From the lowly perspective of a dog’s eyes, everyone looks short.” – You’re nothing!

“Dog head dog brain” – you’re a drifter.

“Hang a goat head, sell dog meat” – cheat with false advertising.

“Before you beat a dog, find out who its master is.” – you’re not important but your relative is.

“Dog without a master” – you’re miserable and unfortunate.

“When money is stolen you can only beat the dog.” – you’re to be blamed for everything.

“Wolf heart dog lungs” – you’re ungrateful.

“He painted a tiger, but it turned out a dog.” – a disappointment.

Display a “Beware of the dog” sign – Conceal our weakness through pretence.

Wu Yong and his dog

Wu Yong leads a comfortable middle-income lifestyle in the suburbs but throughout much of his life, he finds the respect that is extended to many others around him is often withheld from him. His mother often calls him reckless or rash. 冒失. He is not refined and not smart, like a bull in an antique shop. His choice of words are often provocative and he does not give her confidence when important decision-making is required. His tendency to speak his mind – to set things straight – often annoys his friends. They misunderstand and say he is captious. His siblings have learned to simply ignore him, “Oh, he is just blowing dog farts.” Yesterday, Wu Yong got his name struck off the small dinner club that he was invited to join only a few weeks earlier. An intellectual discussion about blockchain and cryptocurrency attracted personal attacks about him as a blockhead for daring to debate such “techie” matters with his dinner hosts. He was criticised for attempting to correct their statements that there is no income from holding cryptocurrency or that whoever holds it is merely for tax evasion reasons. He told them about staking, Defi lending, yield farming and interest-bearing accounts but they didn’t listen. They said he was “blowing dog farts.” In such serious disagreements, typically people resort to attacking his foolishness instead of solely focusing on the subject matter. By exaggerating his hand gestures and mimicking the way he speaks at three octaves higher in pitch, they successfully depict him as a fool. As his mother often reminds us, he is 冒失, rash. They know it, and so, by reminding him of his poor investment record and being grossly underweight in his retirement nest egg, they made sure he doesn’t forget he is a pariah, financially. He is also “ , bèn, bèn” foolish, his old mother confided to me. “His brother is much cleverer,” she whispered into my ear. I know one of his sons had recently said that about him – his foolishness, so I am beginning to think it is true of Wu Yong. Poor bloke – he honestly tries hard to please his mother, wanting desperately for her to be proud of him. He once said of his mother, “No, I don’t find her termagant at all, but she has been a firm matriarchal figure all her life, even to her own sisters.” His love and adoration for her knows no bounds. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, Wu Yong told me he feels like an outcast – unpopular, misunderstood and therefore usually picked on. A friend said to him, “You’re a fool to gamble with your retirement funds.” “Bitcoin isn’t real like gold! You can’t treat it like it has value – it is not a precious metal.” Wu Yong explained to me he understands why gamers are prepared to pay thousands of dollars for a game skin. Yes, the need to feel successful and respected is as important to people who spend the bulk of their time in the virtual world and owning a rare accessory in a game gives them a status that they may not have in the physical world. So, who is to say they are wrong to perceive value in things we do not quite understand? Seldom understood and incapable of presenting himself as an intellectual, Wu Yong is often the subject of criticisms and ridicule – an easy target in any group that is looking for some light entertainment.

He is sometimes overheard singing the lyrics of his favourite song, My Way,

I will state my case of which I’m certain….

I did what I had to do
I saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway…..

But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall and did it my way!

I told him that may be the reason why he is unpopular; he has the habit of just spitting out things that aren’t agreeable like they are early morning phlegm. “Why don’t you swallow your pride and bite your tongue instead when the situation isn’t to your advantage?” I asked. He simply shrugged his shoulders, put his hands in his trouser pockets, and trudged away slightly hunched, without saying a word. I pity him. Many, including his Mrs, find his odd mannerisms and harmless coquetry annoying. His neighbours say he is indecorous, they may have heard him pee in the garden and not forgiven him.

Wu Yong’s many years of long days and ultimately, business flops mirrored that of Blue Eyes’. But that’s where their similarities end. Blue Eyes found the freedom to be himself and travelled the world with his Mrs after they found the key to unchain themselves from the prison that their small business had become. Wu Yong’s mental anguish resembled more like the artist LS Lowry’s, not that he can be compared to the great artist. Punishing long hours and limiting in leisure time, Wu Yong’s life-long sacrifice is only now belatedly beginning to bear fruit. He informed me he is more than halfway to building the requisite nest egg for his retirement. He seems unaware at 62, many of his peers have already retired. LS Lowry had to deal with a very self-absorbed and demanding mother who took every opportunity to denigrate his work. She made him feel diminished as a rent collector during the day and a wannabe painter at night. (Others labeled him a “Sunday painter”, so he agreed and said ‘I’m a Sunday painter who paints every day of the week!’) After her husband died, she resented their industrial surroundings in Pendlebury whilst reminiscing about her wonderful young life as a promising concert pianist in an affluent suburb in Manchester. LS Lowry is famous for his stickmen paintings of lonely people going about with their lives in bleak industrial landscapes. Echoing his own sad and miserable life, he once said of his crowds of stick figures: “All my people are lonely, and crowds are the most lonely thing of all.” His paintings reminded his mother of everything she hated about her life, to the point of her encouraging him to burn them all. Luckily for the world, he didn’t. Despite her hurtful opinions of him which she dished out liberally, he lovingly cared for his suffocating and mean mother without a complaint. It was sorrowful for him that he could never please her. Many years after she died, he was awarded a knighthood for his contribution to art. He turned it down. Apparently he said, “What’s the point? It’s too late for Mother.” Painting helped him forget he was alone; he couldn’t have lived otherwise. Wu Yong said he can relate to that. His voice, soft, rueful. He too feels alone, unappreciated and often misunderstood. But, like Lowry, he too has a steely resolve to get on with it and find comfort in doing the things he enjoys. Wu Yong does not rely on hope to get by. He said hope is just a trick for us to stick around a little longer, waiting for something to change or someone to reach out to us. I think Wu Yong is worthy to join Blue Eyes in his brotherhood.

Inspired by LS Lowry

Irreverent To The Irrelevant

For relevance, I shall write about Blue Eyes. As our hair become grey and sparse, and our backs can no longer be held upright and straight, my many childhood friends increasingly remind one another we are being treated with irreverence more and more as we become irrelevant in our own space. “Don’t work so hard – we will end up bitter and forgotten anyway.” “We are old, there’s no need to teach anyone anything, even if you are sure you are right.” said another. “Don’t try and protect your loved ones from any misfortune in this world. You can’t. Just love them.” “Forget about hair-care treatments and anti-ageing creams, they are useless.” said one who is balding and wrinkled. Blue Eyes has been the only one to teach me how to remain relevant, but only to myself, as we accelerate to the final phases of life – the planned obsolescence of our own self which we call retirement and the inevitable ending that no longer scares me.

My eyes were glued to Blue Eyes when I first spotted him in Primary School. The mixed-bloods usually have stunning looks and Blue Eyes only reinforced that idea in my head, despite his denials that he’s Eurasian. Tall and swarthy are traits that beautiful or handsome people possess. Although he was just average in height and fair-skinned, that lovely boy still caught my attention. It wasn’t anything sexual of course, since we were only about seven years old. One could say a baboon or silverback can also be the star attraction in a zoo. Being attractive isn’t just about looking handsome; it’s also about charisma and having a special presence. There is an old saying that being tall does not mean you can see tomorrow. Yet, I suspect Blue Eyes saw what his future would be and planned to live it that way from very early on. His pinkish white skin was well complemented by the shiny mop of bouncy and soft curls. I was disappointed for him on days when he came to class well-groomed with Brylcreem. I am sure he loved his soft curls as much as I did. Faint freckles and a cherubic button nose vied for cuteness against a pair of deep dimples whenever he smiled. What attracted me of course, were his doll-like flirty eyes. They were decorated with the most luscious curly eyelashes that Shirley Temple would have been proud of. For some strange reason, his eyes appeared blue to me. His moniker has stuck with me ever since.

This black and white photo can’t show his blue eyes.

Blue Eyes has a tendency to misspell the four-letter-word that means fornicate. “Pharque,” “Pharquer,” “Pharqueing,” amongst a plethora of variations on the theme. This is mystifying especially in this day and age when the norm is to go for abbreviations and band-aid fixes. Why lengthen a four-letter-word? We were often in the same class at school, although I was too shy to mix with him on account of his superior background – being Eurasian, I mistakenly believed. In early post-Colonial days, the ‘Ang-moh’ (red-haired) still held sway over the plebs. One day in 1971, he simply vanished. That was the day after we stood side by side shooting a jet of pee into the urinal to see who lasted longer. He didn’t show up in school and after a week had passed, no one I asked knew why. In those days, students didn’t say goodbye when we left school. No hugs, no announcements, no handshakes, no goodbyes.That was the last time I saw Blue Eyes.

It would be 48 years later before we met again, in a WhatsApp chat group for our year’s alumni. “Blue Eyes!” I called out to him enthusiastically, possibly as excited as the Eureka moment was for Archimedes. But of course, no one knew who Blue Eyes was, least of all Blue Eyes himself. “None of us had blue eyes,” they chortled in harmony but I was adamant they did not look carefully. I had learned about the Third Eye from the fake Lobsang Rampa just before Blue Eyes vanished from school. It told me he was a free spirit, carefree and with boundless energy and absolute freedom. He did four years aircraft engineering in the Singapore Airforce. Maybe it was the Skyhawks he serviced that gave him his wings to quit the mundane routine of a “grease monkey tinkering with turbine blades” as he put it. He paid a hefty price to break the 12-year bond with the Air Force, so he could get as far away as possible from everyone and everything.

Free. Where the buffalo roam

I was reading the book Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance a few weeks ago. It conjured up the image of Blue Eyes and his Mrs travelling the vast outback of Canada from the Prairies of Alberta in the Northern Rockies southwards to Montana, being wowed by the vastness of the plains and the rolling hills. He on his Suzuki Hayabusa, for decades the fastest production motorcycle on the road, and she on her BMW 650. She understood that riding two up was not as fun as riding solo. So, she decided on riding lessons and hopping on her own ride. That was when the philosophical questions came up in my mind about the life choices they made. At an early age, they chose to be childless rather than bring up another human being to contribute to the damage to Earth with consumables and what-not. Maybe he also meant that at the time they could ill-afford to feed another mouth, after paying off the bond indenture to the Singapore government. Robert Persig in Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance sought to explain the metaphysical concept of Quality whilst criss-crossing the back roads of country America heading northwest from Minneapolis to the Dakotas with his son on their motorcycle. Persig’s alter ego Phaedrus, a brilliant and tenacious scholar of Philosophy, as the story unfolded, illuminated the difference between rhetoric (the art of persuasion) and dialectic (logic) and his ultimate conclusion that we ought to care about quality. Phaedrus was another reason why the story, for me, connected to Blue Eyes and his childhood obsession with Morbius, an antihero, a living vampire in the Marvel world. Tattoos on his body are positioned in order of his favourites, Morbius, Namor and Dr. Strange. “Why Morbius? I asked. “Oh, that’s an easy one. I love his beautiful ugly mug, and he tries to kill the baddies for food….” Ah, kill the Urghhlings. I can relate to that.

Morbius, an anti-hero, his hero.

I finally found out why Blue Eyes looked so sweet and adorable in school. He is more mixed-blood than a biracial! His mum, a half-Japanese, half-Peranakan was rather free spirited also. His dad, a streetwise Peranakan, “altered course” after surviving the Japanese firing squad during their reign of terror in Penang. They split up when Blue Eyes was nine, consigning him to a young life growing up without “family-ness”. When the angst and arguments simmered, he was allowed to visit his mum who had moved to Singapore. He loved the old Penang Airport, still holding fond memories of his jaunts to Singapore to visit his mum during school holidays. At an age when I was still playing marbles and flying kites, Blue Eyes was already eyeing “the gorgeous ground hostesses in their figure-hugging outfits with firm butts and curves and the smoothest hands….” He apologised for digressing. What truly caught his eyes were all the beautiful tall posters of holiday destinations, such as those of the Eiffel Tower, London’s Tower Bridge, Taj Mahal, and of beautiful women in conical straw hats and long dresses posing in lush-green Vietnamese paddy fields. He wanted to see all those places, like right then and there! Years later, his Mrs was also another influencer in his life who encouraged him to soar like an eagle and free his spirit. She too desired to see the world, be it organised or off the seat-of-the-pants, spartan or otherwise, aimlessly without a destination or with a luxury cruise. She loved it and lived it as much as he did.

His aircraft engineering credentials could not get him a job when they arrived in Vancouver on tourist visas. The sum of money they had left from selling their car was fast running out. He thanked his good friend, an ex-Airforce buddy for putting up with them for the two months, and headed as far east as they could with the pittance they had left. When they got to Edmonton, they decided it was serene and far enough to be their new home. A short stint as a pizza delivery guy was followed by two years as a cook for a pool hall. Every day, he did the lunch shift from 11-3pm, and after a short break in the arvo for “errands and shit”, he would get back to the joint for the 7pm-2am shift. That lasted two years before his manager, “a good bloke,” got arrested for drugs. “The pharquer,” he said after a long contemplative pause. There is an ancient Chinese saying: “Don’t pull the tiger’s whiskers,” but Blue Eyes wasn’t aware of it then. The next manager wasn’t so kind and didn’t appreciate his easy-going style, so Blue Eyes ripped off his apron and left. His timing was perfect. His HDB flat in Singapore had finally sold leaving them with some chump change (North American slang for loose change). The clear option for them to stay on permanently in Canada was to start a small business and hire some locals. His mother-in-law stepped in with a loan and with his chump change, it was enough for him to become a bona fide owner of a video rental store. Those VHS days were big money churners but there is an old saying that “money does not grow on trees”. He worked 12-15 hour days, 7 days a week for about 6 years. His bank manager saw fit to offer them generous loans so they could buy themselves a new house, a couple of rental properties near the university and two other video rental outlets in outer suburbs. They also opened a printing store called Campus Copy next to the university to cater to the students’ stationery and printing needs. It felt like they were printing money during those good times.

Alas, I must also share another old Chinese saying: fu wu chong zhi, huo bu dan xingBlessings come along alone; troubles often come together.” Their video rental business got hit by disruption innovations in the late 1990’s, the DVD and a few years later, online streaming. Did any of us expect a thin round disc could destroy a major global industry? His stores were finally brought to their knees in 2008 when the Global Financial Crisis hit. Blue Eyes and his Mrs got out their motorcycles and wiped off the thick layer of dust that had caked onto the leather seats. He meticulously serviced those beasts of the road before bringing them to life again. Now, I could take the time to describe how he carefully serviced every moving part of his motorcycles and how he replaced the engine oil with the best quality golden colour oil, or describe the amazing sceneries of the Canadian outback or fill you with details about the bone-shattering cold that comes with a white winter or how silence enfolded them once the stars studded the black sky above the plains, but I am not writing a novel. So, I will skip the thrill of a rare sighting of bald-headed eagles in the Yukon or the suspected sighting of the Eastern Elk – extant or extinct, out Woop Woop somewhere, or the bodacious ride even when the wind sock warned them of 180kph headwinds that would knock their boots off. Indeed, the couple were both airborne, blown off the road by a vicious tempest and landed on the other side of the road where an oncoming 4WD narrowly missed making meat patties out of them. After many days of riding somewhat aimlessly without a schedule, they felt released from life’s unyielding treadmill. Blue Eyes woke up one morning and said to his Mrs, “We have cars and motorcycles, yet we still walk to our bed.” They hugged each other tightly, and then both broke out in laughter. That moment of enlightenment has become the bedrock of their lives. Freed by the knowledge of the futility of possessing and accumulating many things we think are necessary when our needs are actually simple and few.

A long weekend white knuckle ride to Lethbridge

I haven’t yet retired from my business in which I have been at the helm for over 30 years. “It is time to pass the baton to your son,” Wilson, a good friend, said this week. It’s time to smell the roses, watch the durians drop, catch a free bus, varnish the timber doors, rest or do nothing. Read a book. Write a book. Trim the roses. A myriad things to do that await me as the sun in my life starts to set. That got me thinking about leaving my own “hamster wheel”. How does a hamster feel without its wheel? Does it die prematurely? I am still in my business not because I am a necessary cog. I am here because I am like a hamster who is afraid to be without its wheel.There can be no doubt that anyone is replaceable. What will become of me when I am “not required” anymore? If I peer into the mirror long enough, I would admit that I have been “surplus to requirements” many years ago. Will those around me treat me with irreverence as my relevance becomes questionable? Will I be made to feel like a waste of a bowl of rice? “Of course not!” I hear The Mrs shout. “Ba, don’t be silly!” my adult sons will chide me. Last Sunday, I lit a joss for Pa. He has been gone for 14 years already. I cried almost daily, mourning his passing for the first 2 years. After that, I cried for him during times when I was emotionally fragile. But, I have not shed a tear for Pa after his 10th anniversary. When I was a little boy, he was the air that I breathed, the water that nourished me, the meaning of my life. When I grew up and became a father myself, Pa was the rock that my foundation was founded on, the sage who I would go to for advice. He was the one who laid the stepping stones to secure a safe nest for my family, He was always relevant and I remain reverent. The next generation won’t be the same, I can’t expect. They tell me to be stoic. Be practical. Don’t be emotional. Don’t be foolish. Soon I will be irrelevant. Will they be reverent?

“Does it matter?” Blue Eyes asked. We ought to live for ourselves, not vicariously through others. “Be brave to live the life of your dreams. Don’t worry, you over-think.” “What’s your advice, Blue Eyes?” I asked. He came up with a beauty. “Live! Be carefree! There is always room in your life to “pharque” more shit up!……always!!” I am much soothed by a great line I read from the Water Margin (Sui Huchuan), 四海一家 , “Within the four seas, all men are brothers.” I will find some relevance there.

Si, Si. Scalzi Is Never So-so.

We moved into this Federation-style house in 1995. It took over two years and a big advance from Pa to build it, without which the whole project would have remained a piped dream. The extended delay, due to a long wet spell that made the builders curse the soggy and challenging conditions, was actually a relief for me. It allowed me more time to arrange my finances and sweet-talk my bank manager to grant a generous loan. Everyone at the time said my bluestone house cost “too much”, well over its “market value”. The Mrs and I didn’t argue. After all, “value” is what each of us perceive. As with most things, the pair of us could see value in things many others cannot – like rearing chooks and growing potatoes. How much does one price a cul-de-sac? A dead-end street means a lot less traffic – which must mean highly prized safety for our young kids from goons in their fast cars and would-be deviant predators. How much is a bush-setting 18 minutes from the CBD? The luxury of enjoying an environment of mature eucalyptus trees which infuses us with that soothing peppermint scent each morning is difficult to price. What about the daily cacophony the galahs, parakeets, crested pigeons and kookaburras offer – our abode comes with free access to their musical performances that never fail to delight anyone who is ready to pause and listen. How much are we willing to pay for our privacy? This plot of land with its established trees cleverly sits on a level that hides us from all our neighbours – we cannot see them and more importantly, they cannot see us. (I have been known to pee in the garden; ah, the inconvenience of old age) I could have picked a modern design that had simplicity of form, yet functional and minimalist with vast open plan living, and floor to ceiling linear glass walls that invite the views of our garden into our home. Instead, I revealed my taste for the old-fashioned and chose Federation architecture that was the rage a hundred years earlier. The irresistible features which give my house that “old world” feel is of course the ornate architraves, timber windows and delightful leadlighting. Leadlight is why the spotlight is on John Scalzi in this story.

Making friends does not come to me naturally. Maybe I am overly ribald in the way I speak. Family members will undoubtedly say it is my indecorous manner and crass body language. My entrances to private conversations are seldom timely and often off-putting. Since my arrival in 1986, I can count the number of friends I have made in Adelaide with my fingers – thumbs are not yet required. It is also not easy for me to keep a friend. Maybe I take friendships seriously, which may be why I am contented to have just a few close friends. If we are allowed only one spouse in a marriage, why would anyone think we must have many friends? For me, a friend is someone reliable and trustworthy, one who I know will be non-judgemental and stand by me even if I had been disappointing by my own standards. A friend is someone who could be absent in my life for a quarter of a century, yet when we reconnect, everything still feels right and cosy as before. John Scalzi is, by this definition, definitely a friend.

I have known John since “kindy” days in 1986. Our first-borns met and became best buddies in kindergarten and being their parents, we became good friends too. Highbury was the suburb we lived in. I was impressed by Highbury, a blue-collar suburb it may have been. It was a suburb with lots of gum trees! Relocating to Adelaide meant we had to say goodbye to our Sydney home which nestled in between Long Bay jail in Malabar and La Perouse. The latter was known as a ghetto for aboriginals and the former was infamous for its human waste treatment plant. On days when the sea breeze blew inwards instead of out towards the open sea, it was abundantly clear to all and sundry why Sydney had a poo problem. Besides, a football fan like me knew all about Highbury being the home of Arsenal FC. The name had a nice ring to it, any name with “high” in it was high-sounding enough. To this day, I should regret choosing Highbury and not the other high-sounding suburb that was within my budget, Kensington Park. I could have made many times more capital gain from the suburb with that royal name. But, never mind. Highbury is where I discovered the Scalzi’s, and what precious gems they turned out to be! There are more important things in life than to strike gold or oil. Striking a meaningful friendship is one of them.

I received a message today in a group chat. It could easily have been sent by John Scalzi. A simple message, yet I had the temerity to discolour its golden advice, diminish its aura, and poke fun at its seriousness. “A wonderful reminder for our soul,” the sender said.

“Treat people the way you want to be treated. Talk to people the way you want to be talked to. Respect is earned, not demanded.”


My immediate response? “Do I have a soul?” was all I managed to contribute. Just last week I asked Matt, a sales recruit from 10 months ago, to talk to customers the way he would talk to his mother. “My mother swears like a trooper, and I do that back to her,” was Matt’s reply. I told him a religious friend of mine often prays for me and my family, mostly to keep us safe. It is, of course, unbecoming of me to tell Wilson not to bother God on account of me. God is just way too busy looking after everybody. “He needs a rest. He’s not coping well, look at the disasters around the world,” I added. Matt said “I have Satan on speed-dial and already got my First Class one way ticket to Hell and I’m bringing the weed to the party he’s hosting when I get there… so there’s no point praying for me….” John Scalzi can never be this vulgar. How would a Catholic like Scalzi respond? I can almost hear him say “Of course God can cope. Christians just need to learn that He answers every prayer…….what they don’t realise is often the answer is ‘No’!” For clever answers, look to Scalzi. He is never cantankerous and his replies are always laced with effervescent wisdom. He leaves a person smiling even whilst he is pummelling the idiot with common sense. Scalzi will say common sense is not so common. You’re either right or wrong, you don’t get to stand on both sides with him. Si, si. With Scalzi, it’s never so-so.

Esoteric discussions on matters beyond the grasp of the average person best suit my friend John. I asked him what is the best motto he lives by. He could have said Clever people solve problems. Wise people prevent them.That would be so him. Or, One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. He is that understanding which is why I have not witnessed him being judgemental. Another saying he likes is The main ingredient of success is the rest of the team – that would be an appropriate indication of why he was successful in his career. I will come to that later. Being the loving husband to Anne, the awesome father to his children, and the amazing son to his 91-year-old mum who lives with him, it would not surprise me had he picked A hug is the best medicine in the world. His wisdom may have made him consider this other wonderful saying, Take risks. if you win, you’ll be happy. If you lose, you’ll be wise. Either way, he wins. He has shared with me many other wise words such as Never argue with a fool, people will not notice the difference, Wise people think all they say, fools say all they think. and If only closed minds came with closed mouths.Without any hesitation, he told me his favourite is If it is to be, it is up to me. He didn’t ask me which saying I liked the most. I would have told him, Science is a bit like sex. It has practical consequences but that is not why we do it.

“If it is to be, it is up to me.”

William Johnsen

This sums up Scalzi really well. He doesn’t wait for fate. He won’t sit back and wait for others to step up. He does not procrastinate. Something may be beyond our control, but he will make his choices. He won’t leave it to chance. He will be the one to grab the bull by its horns and lead by example. He sets the goal and drives towards it. He is a leader who doesn’t blame someone else if a job doesn’t get done. When there is a will, there is a way – he will make sure it is done! “Success with integrity,” he added. Integrity is a big piece of the puzzle that completes the picture of John Scalzi. Si, si. Scalzi is never so-so.

John told me about leadlight not long after we met. I had wrongly assumed the terrarium he made was stained glass. I was impressed by his craftwork and when I praised him lavishly for something my awkward and clumsy hands can never do, he impressed me even more by making one for my house. Leadlights are decorative glass windows or doors made of small pieces of cut glass puttied in lead cames (channels). Stained glass is costly and therefore rarely found in residential houses, as the coloured glass has to be painted and then fired – work that requires fine craftsmanship and artistry. When I showed John the rain-soaked skeletal structure of my house on-site during a prolonged delay, he told me he was capable of making the leadlights for my front door. He had the quality and confidence of a master tradesman. How did he acquire such lofty skills? I mean, he only gained his knowledge from the store that sold him the lead cames and tools! His day job was as a purchasing officer in the SA Police Dept. Prior to that, he worked as a theatre orderly in the RAH. Yet, when he spoke, the medical knowledge that he revealed was incredible. Even my GP who sees me as an idiot was amazed. John thinks he won his promotions in TAFE Supply Branch and in the Country Fire Service. No, John. We win a lottery, lotto or a football match. Appointments to high positions are earned. They don’t fall on our laps. He showed me how far one can achieve in life without a university degree, although he did collect a splatter of diplomas and certificates along the way. He was the Chief Procurement Officer (Director Procurement & Contracting) in the Education Department, responsible for a final-year budget of $600m, for 20 years prior to his retirement. Si, si. Scalzi is never so-so.

The leadlight door John Scalzi made for me in 1995

My family cannot understand why the inside door to the dining room remained incomplete for almost 26 years. The door was installed before we moved in, but it lacked the glass panes to keep the room warm. “Do you know how much energy you have wasted, ba?!” I didn’t think First Son minded when he was becoming a lanky teenage boy. He often used the gap in the top panel to practise his slam dunks with a tennis ball. What can I say? “Ba is an idiot?” I have learned to be quiet when my adult sons are around. They believe they know more than me even though I have crossed more bridges than they have crossed roads, and consumed more salt than they have eaten rice. My boys forget the stressful times and long days I toiled whilst they were growing up in the comfortable confines of this place they called home. Maybe that is the wise thing to do, forget. Or, maybe they simply were unaware. That is the price of an uncomplaining father. I didn’t reveal the juggling acts of a tired man who had seven mouths to feed. Anyway, completing a door was not on my mind when there were never enough hours in a day and a bank account that was running on empty. For two decades, work meant seven days a week. Maybe, that was just my imagination. No one remembers now. The door John made for me was a gift. A house-warming gift that was not reciprocated with a house-warming party. Oh, how I value this great friendship. A lesser person would not have forgiven me. Si, si. Scalzi is never so-so.

I was digging into my lunch in BBQ City when I felt a tap on my shoulder about a year ago. I looked up with some loose strands of noodles hanging out of my full mouth which was crammed with pieces of succulent roast duck. “Hi! I thought it was you!” John’s friendly voice boomed out. Smiling was difficult with a mouth over filled with the best roast duck in Chinatown. It made my eyes more narrow and slant than they normally are. A photo taken after I had quickly pushed down the delicacy down my throat accentuated my ugliness much more. My crooked coffee-stained teeth and vanishing tuft that hastened a receding hairline placed next to John’s genuine smile and adorable kind eyes made me sneer when I ought to smile.

John with the original 1993 plans

Recently, I confessed to John that the inside door of my house was still unfinished. It was a confession that reaped immediate rewards. Today, I am proud to show you what a magnificent feature it is in my house. The Mrs and I certainly do not feel we overpaid for our house, especially with this latest leadlight. John, thank you for this lovely work. It is a work of art. Above all, thank you and Anne for your lovely and cherished friendship. Si, si. The Scalzi’s are never so-so.

Finally, this 1993 project is complete.

It’s Fine, It Is Fine

I have to tell you about this amazing machine that was given to me recently. Not only is it made in China, it is also invented by the Chinese. But, who knows, the Americans may claim it was also stolen from them. The world changed markedly when Trump became POTUS. People became less civil. It became fashionable to be crass and rude. Lying and cheating is the new norm. Anyone and everyone can say anything, accuse another for crimes against humanity without a shred of evidence. Use that as an excuse to sanction another country. It is now alright to use profanity against another country as the Phillipines’ Foreign Secretary did this week to China. It is hideous when politicians talk about war on Anzac Day, a day when we remember the war dead. They talked about free nations needing to be “armed, strong and ready for war” when we ought to pause and think of the sacrifices millions made in past wars. The drums of war are beating, Australia’s Home Affairs boss added. But, for whom and to whose rhythm? Military hawks are running around the corridors of power, clamouring for more shiny missile warheads, warships and submarines. Those who ply their trade in the military industrial complex are rubbing their hands with glee. Urghhlings. Herbert Hoover said it is older men who declare war but it is the youth who must fight and die. Poignant letters written by young men, many who had not even really lived, are kept in the Australian War Memorial. Despicable are those who talk incessantly about the evil deeds of China, hoping to garner support for war. There are also those who disguise their anti-China rhetoric by saying they are actually against the CCP and not against the Chinese. They have their hands on their hearts as they proclaim that their democratic way of life is the superior one. Down with socialism and communism, they shout. But, perhaps the truth about today’s conflicts with China was revealed by President Joe Biden when he blurted out why they want the world to thwart China’s ambition to continually surpass their own achievements but which the US see as the ambition to be the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. He doesn’t want that to happen not because the Chinese are evil communists who are squashing the freedoms of their people – no, it is simply a selfish ambition to maintain the status quo by using human rights as the catalyst for any aggression against their competitors. The Americans want to remain number one, and they will do anything to defend their position. It’s fine, it is fine if a country wants to improve their own living standards. It is a good government if they govern for the good of the people. They shall not perish from the earth, if Abraham Lincoln was right.

A typical day in Australia, the drum of war beating.

Sorry, I digress. I meant to talk about the machine that was a gift to The Mrs from her sister. I have owned many machines in my lifetime but this one, I say thanks aloud every day. Sure, I appreciate all the other gadgets I have, including my laptop and mobile phone, of course. But, these other machines don’t make me feel healthy every time I use it. The brand is Joyoung and for me, that is such a well-chosen name. It does make me feel joyful and young! Although, initially it made me feel stupid. The instruction manual is in Chinese. The buttons on the machine for different selections are also in Chinese. I did not know how to use it, as intuitive as I thought it ought to be.

It’s fine, it is fine even if it is all in Chinese. The Mrs knows how to read; besides, her sister is just a video call away. They chatter to each other almost daily. The Mrs shares more words with her sister than she does with me. Our planets aligned when we met but now, we realise we are from different planets. What’s that saying again? Men are from Mars, women are from Venus? It’s fine, it is fine that we see things differently. She has just left to get her AstraZeneca jab. People of our age group weren’t supposed to get our jabs until September or October but many in the older age groups have spurned theirs, so we can jump the queue. What queue, though? I am not an anti-vaxxer but I have decided to procrastinate, blaming it on my genes – Pa was also averse to big and thick needles. Sorry, Pa but it’s fine, they won’t fine me for not taking the Covid-19 vaccine. I am thankful I have the luxury of choice in this matter. I can still choose to wait and see, whilst there are no active cases in the community here. What are the longer term side effects of these new vaccines, especially the mRNA ones? No one can tell me except to say it is safer with the vaccine than without. But, how do we weigh up our options properly if we do not have the relevant information in front of us? It’s fine, it is fine, is all the medical experts tell us.

It is all in Chinese!

I used to make my own soy milk. I looovve soy milk, ever since I was a kid. But, it is a lot of work to convert soy beans to soy milk. First, you’ll need to soak them overnight. Then, you’ll need to stand in the kitchen and remove the outer skin – the easiest way is to rub the beans together like washing your linen to make the skin come off. Then, you’ll need to separate the skin from the beans. Next, grind the beans with water and squeeze out the milk using a muslin bag (I used one the bank gave me to carry the daily takings for banking). The last step is to boil the milk in a big pot, stirring it continuously with a wooden spatula so it does not stick to the bottom of the pot. Skim away the foam as much as you can. Be very alert to reduce the heat before the milk over-boils like a volcano. Cook it for about 10 minutes to destroy the toxic enzymes. The whole process takes an hour, easily. Don’t forget to clean the pot, wash the sink, and make sure the blender is spick n span too. And wipe off any white drips on her stove! The Mrs will swoop down like an eagle if her hawk eyes detect a messy kitchen. The end result is a beautiful glass of the smoothest and finest soy milk. But, we do end up with a lot of wastes – the skin, the solids (lees), and foam. I bragged to some friends who love to cook that the Joyoung machine wastes nothing. Everything is consumed. They were skeptical and asked me how fine is the milk I get. “This machine blends and boils but does not strain.” “You eat the residue?” another one asked incredulously. “That’s a very different tau-chooi (soy milk in Hokkien),” he added sarcastically. “Yeah, I don’t like the residue,” another chimed in. “It’s fine, it is fine enough,” but I failed to convince them. Of course, the Joyoung is not constrained to just soy milk. We can use it to make milk, thick soup, herbal soup, even porridge. The Mrs and I have been enjoying this daily routine ever since. Soon after our IF clock passes the 16-hour mark, The Mrs will holler “Come and get it!” It’s fine, it really is fine to enjoy our almond milk, mung bean, red bean milk, black bean milk or sesame milk too. It is such a healthy feeling to feed my empty stomach with such goodness. It is no wonder that I say “Thank you”, every time I enjoy a glass of goodness. The other good thing – it auto cleans so thoroughly that all that is left for me to do is pour the “dirty” water into the rice pot to cook our rice with or use it to water the plants. It’s fine, it really is.

Now, let’s pray that Einstein was wrong when he said, “I know not with what weapons WW3 will be fought, but WW4 will be fought with sticks and stones.” May the drumbeats of war die out well before our heartbeats stop.

Our Host A Ghost 2

A reader commented that he found ‘Our Host A Ghost?’ disappointing. It failed his horripilation test. It seems now I am also somehow responsible for his piloerection – his hair should stand up on the back of his neck. So, what makes a ghost story scary? Does every ghost have to be able to turn its neck 360 degrees? Spew vile words and green vomit and shake our beds violently? Or is our appetite for creepiness only satisfied with overt violence and gore? A bus driver lost in the country roads of Heidelberg inadvertently finding the same life-size crucifix on the same small roundabout three times seemed paranormal enough for those of us in the bus. A thick ancient book with eerie-looking texts so frightening your eyes dared not cast on it in case it sucks out your soul failed to increase his anxiety and stress levels too. The evanescent dust that rose from within the pages only made him yawn. “The guy simply lacks adrenaline,” I heard myself say. Anyone else would have felt their own knees clattering, heart rate and blood pressure skyrocketing, and wet cold palms squirming.

Well, I have many more ghost stories up my sleeves. This one will surely stop him from reading to the end, although I am not sure that is what I want. If Heidelberg doesn’t scare him, Prague will definitely make him cower in his dark corner. After all, what I experienced in April 2004 still haunts me. What I felt – what I encountered – have remained in my dreams since. Since then, my last two visits to Prague by comparison were sedate and uneventful; the Old Town no longer exuded any old charm. It was as if the centuries-old spiritual connections to their other world have been finally severed. Severed by throngs of tourists and ubiquitous modern bars and restaurants. I walked along Charles Bridge in 2017, desperately trying to reconnect with the spirit world – hoping to again feel the presence of King Charles IV and the Habsburg Kings, Maximilian and Rudolf II. All I witnessed were noisy tourists, busy vendors and street performers. I even went to the former Prague Ghetto in Malá Strana, now known as Josefov, named after the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. Again, I was disappointed to find rude and rowdy tourists, some were even treading haphazardly on the messy disarray of tomb stones that protrude from the ground like uneven and crooked teeth on decaying gums. They disrespect the dead, lacking sobriety in their eagerness to take snapshots and videos of the final resting place of ten thousand poor souls buried on top of one another.

The Old Jewish Cemetery where I slipped and fell, I think

My first trip to Prague was with The Mrs, Big Sis and mum. A sister joined us from London. We arrived at our host’s apartment building early, after a succinct and entertaining brief on the history of Prague by our taxi driver. In those days, there was no Airbnb. It was also without the convenience of hotels.com and trivago.com. Everything was arranged by London Sis – she being sharp as a tact and most organised when it comes to finding bargains and places of interest for first-time visitors. Our apartment was situated at Malá Strana, i.e. just a stone’s throw away from the old Jewish Cemetery. The taxi driver had told us Golem’s creator was buried there, a rabbi by the name of Judah Loew. Golem was molded from clay and mud in the dead of night to protect the Jewish from anti-Semitic attacks. The creature would lie dormant until the Shem (Hebrew magic word) was whispered and Golem would come alive. The very helpful taxi driver had also handed me some tourism leaflets. One that he said I should not miss was the Ghost Walking Tour through the Old Jewish Town. I promptly folded the leaflet and carefully put it in the right side pocket of my jacket.

Prague has seen countless wars since its early beginnings in 850 AD. Countless massacres. Countless beheadings. Countless ghosts, therefore. Many martyred in the name of religion. The story of Jan Hus still reverberates loudly; a visitor cannot miss the monument built in 1915 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his martyrdom. For a long time safe under the patronage of Wenceslas IV, he lost his head when he lost the support of his king after he righteously denounced the sacrilegious sale of indulgences by the Protestant king during the fraught period of dual papacy. The proceeds were intended to fund the war of the Pisan Pope against the Roman Pope. There were also many wars with their neighbours. During the Thirty Years War, the Swedes looted a lot of treasure from Prague Castle. There was also much looting done by the Nazis. Emperor Rudolf II purportedly collected the nails from Noah’s Ark and a phial of dust from which God created Adam. I wonder who has them today. Maybe the Russians, if the Nazis didn’t get their hands on them? Prague fell under Soviet rule when the communists took over. Prague’s history is littered with too many conflicts and wars, i.e. too many lives torn apart, sacrificed, and destroyed. Too many gruesome deaths. Some of us believe that those who die an untimely death, a reluctant death, an excruciating death or from a treachery become ghosts. Their souls refuse to let go or move on to an afterlife after they perished.

Our host was late by a good 15 minutes. The old man towered over us. He had a crooked nose and a crooked back. His fingers were deformed too, wrecked from a long period of rheumatoid arthritis, I observed. He hunched badly, due to a hearing loss. Perhaps from years of bending down to mouth level, straining to understand what people were saying to him. He wore all black, as if in mourning. He failed to apologise for being late and he did not offer any excuses either. There could be no excuses – back then, Prague was a quiet town, with very few tourists. London Sis was animatedly in deep discussion with him about house rules and what-not when I noticed something very odd. We were standing by the roadside at the bottom of the stone stairs of the apartment building. The late afternoon was turning chilly, and I was glad Big Sis was helping Ma put on her long coat.The sun was coming down onto the gargoyles of the Gothic apartment building casting oblique grotesque shadows on the quiet road when it struck me that the one above us was sneering at me. It was the most hideous creature I had ever since in real life. As I squint up against the setting sun to examine it, it appeared to break from the stone moorings and attempted to take flight. I quickly dismissed it from my mind. “It must be the shadows playing tricks,” I soothed my nerves and refrained myself from telling The Mrs. London Sis caught my attention and gestured that I should be the one to help with Ma’s and Big Sis’ luggages, as our host jangled the bronze keys from his pocket whilst heaving himself up the steps to the apartment.

Our rooms were magnificent. Full timber floors and high ceilings. Resplendently presented with red velvet curtains and ornate Gothic fireplaces in every room. A strong floral musk filled the air – someone had been too liberal with the spray, I felt. The crisp bedsheets and pillow cases all had sharp fold-marks, reassuring to those of us who notice such details about fresh linen. Everything was in order. We thanked our host and were about to let him go when he asked me quietly if the leaflet in my right pocket meant I was interested in the place. Talk about horripilation! I pretended not to hear him and waved him goodbye, without offering a handshake. I did not want him to feel how icy cold I suddenly felt.

The restaurants were dimly lit and poorly patronised. Ma wanted to try their Chinese cuisine. A disaster. The discoloured char-siew was fatty and burnt, sitting on a thick layer of oily and gooey syrup. The rice was uncooked and dry. Still famished after our first night’s meal, we went for a stroll and could not resist walking into a pub around the corner. We wanted to eat what the locals ate. A disaster. The pubs only sold cheap beer, stewed dumplings and salty goulash. “Cheatin’ Czechs,” I grumbled under my breath. They charged me more than the menu prices, I realised belatedly after I had parted with my money. “Overcharged by quite a lot!” London Sis hissed. When I complained to the smiling waiter, he said “No English! No English!”

It had been a long day. We all decided to go back to our apartment and rest. Besides, it was getting uncomfortably cold.

We had all said our goodnights hours ago. The Mrs was curled up like a furry puppy. I watched her cheeks rise and fall gently as she snored cutely. Normally, I would be in dreamland as soon as my head hits the pillow. But, I only sleep well in the familiarity of my own bed. My own smell, to be exact. Much to the disdain of The Mrs. She likes her sheets smelling fresh like gum leaves in a park. The floral musk still smelled strong in the room, but I have the nose of a dog (gross exaggeration).There was an underlying smell that I could detect, but I could not figure out what it was. No, it wasn’t the odour of putrescent meat. It was much fainter than that – a bit like a neighbour’s overnight durian or a stain of Gorgozola on a sleeve. I sat myself up against a pile of pillows as gently as I could. I made sure not to stir up The Mrs, just in case she mistook it as another of my failed attempt for sex. For a long time, I peered into the darkness of the room. The longer I looked, the more my eyes got accustomed to the dark. Even though the fireplace was not lit up, I could make out the “Fleur de Lys” motif on the stone mantle. The ornate carved castle dragons on the Corinthian columns seemed to beckon to me. I didn’t want the shadows to come alive, as they do the longer we look into the darkness. So, I sat there in my brand new blue striped pyjamas and closed my eyes tightly. Maybe I dozed off. Maybe I didn’t. To this day, I can’t be sure. But, this I remember.

There was a previously unseen whitish grey fabric that divided the room like a curtain. On the other side of it was the fireplace. As it was drawn open from both ends, I got up and walked towards the carved dragons. Strangely, I could not reach them even though they were just about one meter away from my bed. Instead, I found myself leaving the building and was met by my host at the bottom of the stone steps. “I knew you would come,” he said. “This way…” he gestured with his hand towards the direction of Prague Ghetto. As we walked past the Klaus Synagogue which is on the left of the street, he finally spoke again. “The building to the right of the Old Jewish Cemetery houses drawings by the children of Terezin concentration camp. I must insist you go there.” he voiced his intention firmly. “The Gestapo sent over 150,000 Jews to Terezin, including 15,000 children. Less than 150 children survived.” “You wanted to see ghosts in your walking tour?” he used a growling voice that was most confronting. “Now, you walk inside by yourself,” he said as he opened the wrought-iron gates of the cemetery. It wasn’t a nightmare I was having. I saw them. They looked so thin and pained with sorrow. So withdrawn from the world. No, they are not from this world. They do not belong here. But, they do not want to in the other world either. They weren’t ready to go, so they stayed. “We weren’t buried in coffins,” a voice said. “They wrapped us in muslin.” “….and simply threw us into the hole on top of one another,” another wailed. I panicked and rushed to leave. The spitting rain had turned heavier and I fell to the ground as I slipped on a muddy patch. Momentarily I lost my sense of direction before stumbling out of the cemetery. “Now, you will pay your respect to us, and go to Pinkas Synagogue. “Our names are inscribed on the walls there.” “Us,” he said. Us! My host was one of them. A Bohemian Jew.

Charles Bridge in 2004. Without a soul. Sorry, I meant without a living soul.

When morning broke, I found myself tucked snugly in bed. I kicked away the heavy blankets, and readied to sit up. The Mrs immediately frowned at me and shook her head. “WHAT?” I said. What have I done wrong again? “I just woke up!” I muttered to myself. “You should know by now not to get into my bed without changing into your pyjamas!” The Mrs said. To argue with her would be as futile as sand fighting to stay dry on the beach. I glanced at the fireplace and saw my blue striped pyjamas crumpled in a heap on the floor. The Mrs followed my eyes and walked to them. She picked them up and pointed to the mud stains, “Where have you been? They are wet!” All I said was we must visit Pinkas Synagogue that day.

Our Host A Ghost?

It was in 2006, on my first visit to Heidelberg. I confused myself with Gutenberg, bragging to The Mrs that it was the birthplace of the printing press as we unpacked our bags in the cold and damp motel room. Those two words easily confused me, berg and burg. Our tour guide taught us the former means a mountain or an iceberg, whereas a burg is an ancient fortress or walled city. It was later after my holiday that I discovered my mistake – the berg in Gutenberg does not denote it as a place on a hill. Gutenberg lived in Mainz when he invented the printing press and started the printing revolution. The only connection to printing Heidelberg has is that it has the oldest public library in Germany. Nestled less than two hours from the Black Forest, our motel in Heidelberg was not easy to find. The Contiki coach driver meandered totally lost along the back roads of villages and small suburbs for a good hour. His voice started to quiver and rise in pitch and volume as he spoke animatedly to someone on the phone. It was obvious to many of us at the front of the coach that he was seeking directions from a loud-speaking German woman whose patience was growing shorter by the minute. Hey, it is dangerous to drive a big bus and speak on the mobile phone at the same time. I beseeched to his good sense, albeit silently in my mind.

“Is it safe?” I mumbled to the tall and handsome Indian man sitting immediately in front of me, pretending to be Lawrence Olivier in The Marathon Man. The tall and handsome Indian man who I had earlier mistaken as Dennis Nimbalker, a good friend in High School, jumped up from his seat, clearly agitated. I hasten to add he didn’t understand I was mimicking the dentist in the movie, about to torture Dustin Hoffman by extracting information about how safe “it” was. He turned to me and with a raised right eyebrow asked me if I too felt it was unsafe. “Yeah, why don’t you tell the driver not to speak on the phone – you’re nearer to him and…” I said. Before I could even finish my sentence, the bus came to a screeching halt on the gravel path next to the narrow road. The small group of Malaysian students near me woke up from their slumber, disturbed by the commotion. “Uncle, what’s wrong?” the pale thin girl whom I gave my 3-minute noodles to for lunch the day before called up to me. She told me they had nothing to eat whilst we were strolling aimlessly along the dismally cold and empty street up in a quiet town near the Swiss Alps. She complained that the exchange rate was some ridiculous figure of about ten to one and she and her friends were running short of money very quickly. A single Swiss sausage without any condiments cost twelve euros. The Mrs and I had brought along a kettle and a hot water flask each – with biscuits, tea bags, instant noodles and hard boiled eggs prepared in our hotel room, we could visit anywhere and not go hungry. Ever since we sacrificed our lunch to them, those students considered us as their uncle and auntie. All day, it was uncle this and auntie that.

“It’s the driver,” I said with a disguised soothing voice. “Are we lost?” the pimple-riddled boy next to the pale thin girl asked. His face reminded me of mine when I was a virile teenager who had just discovered the opposite sex was far more interesting than kicking a terribly scuffed football on the school field. The grossly underweight boy had hands that could not hide the details of his phalanges. His fair skin hardly hid his white knuckles, so tightly was he grasping at the shoulders of the seat in front of him. I remember wondering how thin he really was, even his puffy winter jacket hinted at his under-nourished state. “No, we are not lost.” I said. But the driver is! I shouted inside my head. They were asleep and would not have realised the coach had stopped in front of a small roundabout three times already in the last half-hour. On the roundabout stood a massive crucifix that was out-of-proportion to the size of the island. Fear suddenly gripped me, as the grotesque image of an evidently suffering Jesus Christ cast my mind back to the school chapel during my first year in primary school. There, I was permanently scarred by a similarly over-sized crucifix with a tortured dying man whose outstretched limbs were nailed onto the cross and legs brutally smashed making it impossible for him to push himself up the beam to lessen the strain on his body. A crown of thorns, pushed into his head, mocked him in death as a false king. The Jesus Christ on the roundabout appeared very much emancipated and in his death throes with that pain-ravaged look on his face, I felt he was pleading for someone to finish him off and free him from his gruesome torture.

Again, the same roundabout! The same crucifix. The same contorted face of a man dying an agonising death. The sun had very quickly decided to set, waking the night as the driver turned off the engine. As he was studying the map on his lap, turning it upside down, someone on the right hand side of the coach gasped loudly. This was followed by louder gasps and then, the tall and handsome Indian man’s young bride was on her feet. “Look! Look!” she whimpered. Dennis Nimbalker’s doppelganger got up too, as did many others on the left side of the bus. We edged towards the right side of the coach, the windows fogging up like small mushrooms in the process. Behind the rusty iron gates of the property away from the side of the road stood a two-storey motel that looked neglected and uninhabited for decades. The old building was grey and foreboding against the fast darkening sky. A single bulb suddenly flickered and dimly lit up the lobby, as if the concierge had just realised their guests had arrived. The halation from the shimmering glow conjured up grotesque shadows against the wall. “No! No! Please don’t let this be our motel!” the young Indian bride whispered with a violent shudder. An old Italian couple behind us started praying loudly. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come….(indiscernible murmuring).” That all of us in the coach could, as one, feel the ominous signs of the crucifix and the motel spelt impending disaster for me. I was ready to jump off the coach, should The Mrs tug at my hand. As if he could read our minds, the driver obeyed our unspoken command and cranked up the engine. Many of us gave many loud sighs of relief as the coach slowly inched past the eerie motel. Once the motel was behind a bend and out of sight, the mood in the coach relaxed considerably. The relief on many faces was soon followed by loud whoops of delight and raucous celebration.

The driver apologised on the PA system but no one cared. We were all jubilant when told our motel was only minutes away. By that time, the soft grey shadows of the lingering sun had disappeared. Darkness had overpowered the sun, and the lazy moon was nowhere to be seen.

Our motel was cold and damp. The night manager had little time for us, I gathered from his facial expressions that our late arrival had spoilt his plans for the evening. He rushed us through a bleak dinner of pea soup and a plate of cheese, cold cuts and slices of green capsicum and tomatoes. I can’t remember if there was any pretzel. There was certainly no beer, something that I had looked forward to all day. As we were unpacking our bags in our room, I said to The Mrs “Isn’t it odd that the night manager behaved unprofessionally?” He may have been smartly attired in his black suit but I found it discomforting that he avoided eye contact with his guests. The Mrs suggested it may have been a long day for him, maybe he just wanted to go home. “Anyway, he did say our host, the owner of the motel, will come say hello to us in the morning.” Our room was cold. The extra blankets we asked for did not warm us up. The night manager apologised that the heating system had broken down earlier in the day, and they had not been able to fix it. Our first day in Heidelberg had been nightmarish, I hoped the night would improve. It didn’t.

There were dogs howling in the dead of night. Wolves, I reasoned. Next door to us, someone was showering all night. Running water normally gives a calming ambience, it settles me when I am at my most anxious mood. But, the noise of the cascading water disturbed me. How could anyone shower for such a long time? Isn’t the heating system stuffed? I inched closer to The Mrs for extra body warmth. She mistook it to be another sexual advance from me. “Not tonight, dear.”

We were up early the next morning. I was curious to find out who was next door to us. I wanted to tell them cleanliness is a virtue but not paranoia! Did they sterilise themselves from the long shower? It was the old Italian couple who prayed in the coach. The old chap asked me how was it I was able to take such a long cold shower. “Buongiorno,” I greeted him. I chose not to spoil his day. Our host didn’t show up to greet us despite the night manager’s welcoming speech. No one cared, we weren’t there to meet him anyway.

Our day was spent in the Marklplatz, the old market place of Heidelberg in the Old Town. I have to say Heidelberg was an eerie place, even in broad daylight. It was mid-morning by the time we re-assembled outside the Church of the Holy Spirit. The sun threw sharp outlines of light and shape on the stone pavers. The tall black door of the ancient church was slightly ajar, luring me to go nearer the main entrance. A waft of eerie music reached my ears, beckoning me to walk inside. Heidelberg or “Holy Mountain” is the oldest city in Germany with relics of old forts from the 5th century BC to prove it. It saw many bloody wars between the Romans and Germanic tribes during its early history. The church itself had been fought over by invaders for centuries during the Middle Ages. Many wars, countless massacres. Too many died. So many ghosts. The one thing that made the most lasting impression on me about Heidelberg were its books. They were ancient! My aversion to churches and chapels from childhood stopped me from stepping into the church, despite the eerie music’s best attempts to lure me inside. I cast my eyes to the little stalls that lined the side of the building instead. They remind me of the temporary shack across my dad’s shop on old Penang Road, the one that sold comic books and other magazines pegged high on a string above our heads. I still remember the old Indian vendor with a shiny bald head. He was only ever seen wrapped in white cotton dhoti with a white t-shirt to match. I reckon I committed my first sin in his stall, falling for the temptation from his lollies and preserved fruits soaked in sugar syrup in big glass jars. Cheap plastic helicopters and toy soldiers in plastic bags were a constant threat to my innocence too, as much as the apple was to Eve, I comforted myself.

The one stall that abutted the church scared the living daylights out of me. In broad daylight! It was an unmanned book stall but wide open for anyone to enter. No one steals books, right? No one would dare steal those books! It still sends shivers up my spine, thinking about it. The stall was dark even though it was almost noon by the time I walked in. The books were scary not because of the stories inside. The books screamed at me; beseeched me not to touch them and not to turn the pages. They warned me not to take photos of them. I had the urge to look closer and bent forwards towards the leather-bound one closest to me. It was bigger than my 13-inch laptop but thick. At least a ruler’s length. I didn’t recognise the letters at all, but I knew it wasn’t Greek. It wasn’t the odour of something putrescent but there was a definite smell. Mouldy, with a hint of dankness. A hint of evil perhaps. It sat there, as still as a book would, but a shaft of daylight suddenly hit it. The stale air in the room was disturbed, and when I saw a plume of grey dust rising softly from the dark brown leather cover of the book, I grabbed hold of The Mrs’ hand and bolted out into the sunlight. Goodbye, Heidelberg. To this day, I am thankful we did not meet our host. Where there is light, shadows lurk. Perhaps it was the shadow of ghosts that I disturbed.

Palatine Library, the Bibliotheca Palatina, was kept here. Most of its collection of manuscripts and early printed books were looted and given to the Pope.

Risky Being Risqué

Last week, I confided to Keith what had been bothering me. Keith, a good friend who shares many of my flawed traits, shocked me. He told me to be risqué. Nothing major, these flaws of ours but at the same time, they can be rather annoying. We are almost like peas of the same pod, so similar are we with our jaundiced views of the world. But, Keith can cook really well whereas he jokes that I, being one of very many accountants in our chat group, can only cook the books. Most of us were from the Science stream of our school – how so many of us ended up being fastidious and “very exact” accountants is a mystery. “Purely accidental,” Chip, a rather fastidious chap, said. Someone as punctilious as he surely would not have resigned himself to an accidental event to determine his career, I thought. People like him do not take such risks. Chip wanted to be a hotelier but he too ended up as an accountant. The penny suddenly dropped – Chip could have been talking about me. Yup, that is one of my flaws – leaving it to fate (or accidents) to decide which path to walk. A gung-ho trait, come what may – just deal with it. Keith was also like that. In my case, I was destined to go into Dentistry, except that my dad withheld the letter of offer from the School of Dentistry and the rest is history, as the popular saying goes. Keith became a loss assessor instead. He was so lost at the time, he said. It was the only job available to him as his MCE results were so poor he did not qualify to do the A levels. Aloysius, another fastidious chap in the conversation said he responded to a job ad in the Straits Echo for audit assistants. At the time he was clueless what audit was. All he knew was that his folks could not afford to put him through uni. Aloysius did not realise education was free in Australia during those short but wonderful years. My 4th Sis told me, and I assumed everyone knew. No need to share news that the public already knows.

What I confided to Keith was the drop in my WordPress readership statistics.The numbers looked bleak. I thought he, with similar flaws like mine, would be sympathetic. After all, he understands what narcissists love – they seek adulation or at the very least, appreciation of everything good about them. They need to satiate their sense of their own importance or popularity. For bloggers, vital numbers such as visitor numbers and numbers of views per visitor reveal a lot. The bloggers who are concerned about the popularity of their writings may very well feel deflated when those numbers drop like bricks. My stats are awful. They are like bricks. I started blogging in 2019. Then, the views per visitor was a low 2.52. Rather than being dismayed by the low number, I told myself it would only get better with time. The following year was a bad year – the pandemic struck. But, the number of visitors dropped 40% when one would have expected it to improve, given that people, forced to stay at home, went online in droves searching for content to keep themselves occupied. Not only did the number of visitors drop, the number of views per visitor also sank, to 1.93. Demoralising, surely, to a narcissist. 2021 has been even more devastating, the new low is now 1.60 views per visitor. Yup, numbers do not lie and my falling popularity is sticking out like dog’s balls.

Keith and I have too many flaws to mention here. One thing we have in common is our lack of concern about how others feel about us. We are not afraid to be seen to be annoying so long as we are true to ourselves. You may say that is the opposite of a narcissist. Yet, sometimes, I think it is precisely because the chap is so confident in his own skin that he simply doesn’t care what others think of him. So, he calls a spade a spade. He is always prepared to speak the unvarnished truth. It is similar to cooking a dish, he does not add extra spices to disguise a rotting piece of meat, just as he would not add icing to a stale cake to make it presentable.

I was therefore taken aback when Keith suggested I should take more risks when I write. “Don’t be staid,” he advised. “You’re not an accounting firm. No one wants to read about numbers and stats.” he echoed The Mrs’ remarks made to me a few weeks ago. Remarks that cut me like a sharp razor. Yet, when Keith said it, I felt non-plussed at first. After pondering on it for a few seconds, I replied in bold. “Stats matter!” I argued with total seriousness as only an accountant would. “Be risqué,” Keith continued. He suggested that I write about my sexual exploits during my youth. “Share with us nitty-gritty tales about your girlfriends in school, for instance.” We all know sex sells, but I was a virgin in school. Nothing to capture anyone’s attention here. “Maybe some explosive scandalous gossip.” Keith persisted. If only I had lost my trousers in a hotel room, I could surely share all the saucy details here.

I could write about the Girl Guide I met in a Jamboree. But, that’s risky, I decided. The facts weren’t risqué but my thoughts were. I remembered her as Janet. Her pigtails were unforgettable. In fact, she remains the only girl I have met with the cutest pigtails. Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. She flicked them side to side like how Cheng Pei-Pei flicked her daggers with her pigtails in The Flying Dagger. I had the hots for that Kungfu actress even before adolescence gave me pimples and a croaky voice. Janet had the sweetest smile reserved purely for me. Her alluring pout captivated me instantly and those full glossy lips of hers made me crazy. I discovered what priapic meant after that moment. Her glittering and deep-set eyes laughed whenever I spoke to her friends. She didn’t say a word but I felt she was screaming for my attention. When our eyes finally met, the whole world stopped and everyone stood still with eyes shut as if to allow us the privacy to say hello for the first time.

I mis-remembered her as Janet. Sorry about that, Susan.
Cheng Pei-Pei, my puppy love.

Maybe it is easier if I write about myself, but who am I to think I can hold a reader’s attention? I don’t have personal stories about underage sex or drugs or rape. Even if I did, who would bother to be interested? I could paint myself as a villain perhaps and describe all my flaws that make me an ugly person. Expose the possibility that I could have been gaslighting my colleagues? It is easy to destroy a person’s reputation but it is manifestly much easier to destroy a person’s sense of self worth. Just drum into them they have an inferior complex and they will begin to believe they are inferior. Or maybe if I confessed to my readers why I am an idiot and a fool? Show them the scars in my mind and the psychological baggage I have been carrying ever since that night when I was almost sexually assaulted by my school chaplain?

I could fake a crisis in my life and create a dilemma that requires my urgent decision to either end the boredom of a rather mundane daily routine that bedevils my mind and disrupt this life that has been kind to me, or continue with the secure and peaceful existence that has provided me with a long-lasting marriage and three wonderful sons? Create some uncertainty in the reader’s mind about my well-being? Pretend all is not well with my marriage, for instance? Keep the readers hooked. Get them to wonder if The Mrs will divorce me? But that’s too risky also. Let’s not give any more ideas to her. She won’t need too many reasons to encourage her!

I considered writing about my health. Recently, I went for a medical checkup. I had been neglecting my own healthcare. My previous visit to a doctor was almost three years ago. At a time when I should have had a digital examination to check for any prostate problems, I avoided it like how a chook would avoid being wet. It was scandalous a few years ago when a politician said he chose a young female Chinese GP for a prostate examination because young Chinese females have small hands. But, really, can you blame him? I would not want a doctor with massive hands to examine me either!

My blood test results were perfect. The doctor said perfect, not just good. Perfect! And not merely perfect for my age. Perfect for any age, I think. Well, it was perfect until the LDL cholesterol reading was read out. “5.8”, a really bad number that any doctor would unhesitatingly prescribe a permanent dosage of statins. I refused my doctor’s advice like how a naughty boy would refuse to go to school. “I would just flush them pills down the toilet,” I said. As a compromise, I agreed to sacrifice full cream milk, cheese and butter. The other bad stuffs to avoid aren’t big in my diet anyway. I hardly eat bread, so avoiding butter is easy. I am not a big meat eater, so saying no to red meat, fatty meat and cured meats is easy to do. The only thing is I have to settle for skim milk instead. Skim milk is as boring as having sex without a wild imagination. Keith, is that risqué enough? If not, I am out of good ideas.

Lastly, the only other thing to grab my reader’s attention or eke out an emotional response has to be about death. Write about the drama of death. All good stories often involve the hero’s death. Jason Lee, a jolly good friend who was one of my best pals in Form 5 rang me earlier this week. We went to the State Library every day in the last 8 weeks before our MCE. There were distractions in the library but for once, pretty girls ranked lower in importance than the quest to pass our exams. By then, my pimples were popping violently like shaken champagne and I learned that libido was fun, unlike judo. Jason said we are all born to die. Death is not only inevitable but it is also the last thing all of us must face. Death is universal, it doesn’t discriminate. Alright, let me try to be risqué here. Death is universal but it can discriminate. A childhood hero, Bruce Lee, died happily whilst enjoying sex with his girlfriend. A nice way to write about death, isn’t it? Better that than write about Meghan Markle’s narcissistic personality about why she won’t be attending Prince Philip’s funeral. She said she didn’t want to snatch the world’s attention from the dead man. She is such an ugly Urghhling, don’t you agree?

Why do I write? It isn’t for a want of a big following. It isn’t even about the number of views per visitor on my WordPress account. Once upon a time, maybe briefly, I harboured that dream. Like how a Youtuber friend would eye the number of views and likes on a video he recently posted. The new hope to be an overnight sensation didn’t last long. There will be no Booker prize in my name or any literary award to aim for. I think I write to disturb. To disturb my own mind. In that respect, it is risky work, facing up to and then exposing my own psyche, my flaws, my prejudices. I write for selfish reasons. To improve my command of the English language. To organise my thought processes, to reach a considered conclusion about a subject matter. To build self-confidence. I don’t write to foment unrest in my mind but rather to put down in words my jumbled-up thoughts that sizzle inside my burning head at frenetic speed sometimes. The hope is of course to write something new, something interesting that a reader will turn the page and stay with me till the last word. That is all I hope to achieve – to disturb my reader, to touch someone emotionally or intellectually. If I can evoke an emotion or thought through my stories, I would feel very thankful.