Shell, It Shall Be

The next member to be inducted into the Urghhling Marsh Brotherhood is a rather mysterious fellow. He is neither tall nor short, fair nor swarthy. He shared a photo of him with his dad, in front of his gleaming white car with massive 19 inch mag wheels. His stance reminded me of Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti Western, left hand poised to draw in a duel, the only items absent were a pistol and a hip holster. He is strong but not big, fit but not muscular. For over a month, he has been telling me his stories, yet he has not revealed all that I want to know. He has given me a sketch of himself but the sketch is merely an outline without a glimpse of any bone or innards. His life story is one that is truly blessed without the usual bitterness and awful struggles. He has thrown some meat and fat my way, but there is none of the tears and blood that will make a reader cry. He told me about his grandparents and parents but there is no hint of their suffering, struggles or toil. I learned nothing about their idiosyncrasies, philosophies and customs. I wanted to learn about their adventures and feel the excitement about their early pioneering days, the challenges they faced, their brushes with the Japanese occupiers during the war or how they started their family business. How did they acquire and amass their seemingly substantial wealth? Where did they come from? Were they imperial officials from a dynasty? How did they end up in Malaya? Answers that will make their characters come alive. I needed some scandals to spice up his story. But, what I encountered was a hard shell that would not open up. Alas, a shell, he shall be.

好事不出门,恶事传千里。News of good behavior never gets past the door, but a scandal is heard of a thousand li away.

Shi Naian, Shuihu zhuan, Chapter 24

The new inductee to our brotherhood is Lim Hock Cheng. In relating Hock Cheng to The Water Margin heroes, I could think of no one more suitable than chief jailer, Superintendent Dai Zong. It is not that Hock Cheng was a sheriff or worked as a cop or was in charge of a jail. I thought of Dai Zong because he was also known as the ‘Divine Traveller’. All Dai Zong had to do was wear some cloth puttees bearing the images of a divine horse on his legs and he could run two hundred and seventy 里 li or one hundred and thirty five kilometres in a day. Dai Zong first appeared in the Shuihu zhuan novel after Song Jiang, the eventual leader of Liangshan Marsh had narrowly escaped becoming meat for the buns being prepared in the inn where he was drugged. Upon arriving in Jiangzhou to serve a long sentence for killing Yan Poxi, Song Jiang arranged to meet his jailer, Dai Zong. The two of them got on so well that Song Jiang was allowed total freedom to leave the prison whenever he wished. Hock Cheng does not have special puttees to enable him to travel fast like the ‘Divine Traveller’, but he has an energy source that is superior. He is a proud owner of a Shell station. Yes, his story shall be about Shell.

Hock Cheng’s earliest memory of his childhood was the time he spent in a car with his paternal grandfather. “Many people will think it is impossible for a three-year-old to remember so vividly,” he said. “But, honestly, I still remember it as clear as day.” Grandpa put me on his lap as he drove his black car that day.” “I held the steering wheel of his Morris as he turned it left and right.” Not long after that day, his grandfather fell ill and passed away. It was a brief moment shared with the patriarch of the family but Hock Cheng still cherishes the memory today. He is the youngest of six children in his family. Being a son and the youngest, he was the father’s favourite.

Unlike many in school, Hock Cheng had it easy. His school uniform was always sparkling white, starched and ironed to perfection. He was never late for school. Well-groomed and well-behaved, he never got into trouble with the teachers. Detention classes were alien to him and the cane was only reserved for other students, never him. “He paid for his canteen meals without any hesitation, always choosing which ever food he fancied,” Blue Eyes said. When he was nine years old, a sister drowned. She suffered from epilepsy. It was on a Sunday. She was cleaning the fish pond in their garden when she had one of her ‘attacks’ and fell head first into the water. No one saw her unconscious in the pond till it was too late. For many months, the family mourned her loss and the inconsolable father was too distraught to go to work.

Hock Cheng attended St. Xavier’s Branch School in Pulau Tikus. “Life was normal,” he said. But, his normal was, of course, very good for many others who had less normal lives. He was a member of the fencing club. Fencing gear was well beyond the budget of the normal school kids. The Made-in-England sabre and sabre gloves, long trousers, jacket, underarm protector were all compulsory items and therefore the sport was exclusive to the rich. He had a motorcycle when we were still proudly showing off our bicycles. He did bodybuilding with proper equipment whereas Wu Yong also pumped iron, and he literally meant iron, i.e. the discarded rusty charcoal irons used in his father’s dhoby shop. Then, Bruce Lee became a fad. Whilst most of us drooled at his martial arts and pretended to be the ‘Big Boss’, Hock Cheng actually enrolled in a Shaolin (kung-fu) school. Today, he still keeps fit with a rigorous regime in a local gym. He still applies the remedial massage techniques acquired from his Shaolin master today, helping to treat friends and family who have injuries.

After Form 5, he joined the Youth Park Leadership course. That was where he met his future wife. When his grandfather passed away in 1962, his father took over as the second generation Shell dealer. Hock Cheng began to take an interest in the family business. He worked as a pump attendant whilst he was still attending school in SXI. He started from the bottom and worked his way up the ranks, from the washing boy, to greaser to foreman before becoming the clerk at the station. His father retired in 2001, enabling Hock Cheng to become the third generation Shell dealer. A few years later, his wife joined him in running the business. One of Hock Cheng’s biggest achievements was to win the Shell V-Power Challenge in the country and was a Gold Retailer twice. These awards also meant free holidays to England, Italy and Switzerland. When the family achieved their 100 Years with Shell, they were rewarded with a much bigger operation in Bukit Mertajam. It was really a big occasion, even the then Penang Chief Minister, Lim Guan Eng, attended the event.

Lim Eng Hooi Shell Station 1913 at the corner of Penang Road and Northam Road.

The original petrol station was situated adjacent to the cemetery where Francis Light was buried. He was the founder of the British settlement in Penang, and not the founder of Penang like how we were taught in school. The Old Protestant Cemetery sits on a small patch of ground on Northam Road. It was just a stone’s throw from the shop house where Wu Yong lived. It was the go-to place for the young boy whenever he needed to find a replacement champion for his fighting spiders. He kept one or two at a time in separate lolly tins. Like gladiators, his champions invariably suffered injuries and damaged egos or irretrievable confidence. It never dawned on the young boy that, imprisoned in tins, despite a healthy diet of freshly caught flies, any prized fighter would eventually weaken. Nestled in the cool shade provided by a grand canopy of frangipani trees, shiny metallic blue-green and black warrior spiders, Thiania bhamoensis, made their homes amongst the thick long green leaves of agapanthus plants. “It’s very easy to find them,” Wu Yong said. “I just looked for leaves that are stuck together by tell-tale signs of white silky web,” he added. Apart from their fighting qualities, Wu Yong selected his spiders based on looks, the more iridescent the green or blue, the more he desired them. Wu Yong was surprised that Hock Cheng’s family owned the station. He used to gaze at the Shell sign from his upstairs bedroom and wondered at why the afternoon heat caused the shimmering effect on the road as he observed the attendants attending to customers at the bowser.

Back in those days, Farquhar Street finished at Leith Street. The existing stretch of Farquhar Street between Leith Street and Northam Road was an unused field for the neighbourhood kids to play their games of marbles, tops, kites, masak-masak cooking or hopscotch depending on the season. During wet weather, the field would disappear leaving a thin haphazard trail of lallang grass, sand and stones amidst a body of muddy water and waving tips of lallang grass that resembled a padi field. The stench of mud filled the air and any open wound, no matter how minor, turned pestiferous. It was uncommon for the kids not to have pus on their limbs. The seventh month, the month of the hungry ghosts, was especially bad. Wu Yong called it his ‘pus season’, bringing a paroxysm of cuts and bruises without fail. To reach his school, Wu Yong the boy had to walk southwards on that tricky path, always minding the treacherous ground that might swallow up his white school shoes.

Hock Cheng remains thankful for what his grandfather had provided them with. It is forgotten how he secured the deal with Shell in 1913 or how he survived the Japanese occupation of Penang during the war in the early to mid 40s. “All he told me was they moved to Irving Road for refuge and ate tapioca,” Hock Cheng said. His petrol station closed for a few years to avoid supplying fuel to the invaders. After the Occupation was over, Grandpa Lim almost lost his station. He was deemed to have forfeited his right to continue as a Shell operator. It took his agility as a fluent speaker to wrest his business back from his competitor. From the will that he wrote, Hock Cheng said his grandpa had beautiful writing, another indication that he was a learned man. Very few men at the turn of the 20th century had any education in Malaya, so this was a strong hint that he hailed from a well-to-do background. “My mother liked him,” Hock Cheng said. He could tell from the way she talked highly of her father-in-law. He was strict but fair to all his children. Grandpa Lim had a good command of English and was a professional auctioneer besides running his petrol station business. Hock Cheng honours his grandpa’s memory by driving his 15-month-old grandson around the block. His greatest joy will be for his grandson to remember him the way he remembers his grandfather, he holding the steering wheel with his tiny hands whilst on the old man’s lap. His grandma also came from a wealthy family. They owned five rows of houses and a mansion in Argyll Road. She inherited one of the houses when her father passed away. “There is a photo of her in the Penang Peranakan Mansion.” Her name is Tan Chooi Chit.

Grandpa Lim in 1916.
Grandma Tan

Hock Cheng’s mother was Siamese. She was adopted by the second wife of her adoptive father. The second wife was also Siamese. His mother’s biological parents were poor. She, being the eldest, was given up for adoption. Although illiterate, she was a smart person. She knew how to cook a dish simply by tasting it. Her taste buds were able to discern accurately all the ingredients and from the texture of the food, she could figure out how it was cooked. “Her chicken pie was to die for, the puffy pastry was simply divine” said Hock Cheng. She worked long hours at home, taking care of the family. One day, the couple had a big fight. The husband discovered that his wife had been secretly pawning away her gold jewellery. The pawnshop owner had asked him if he wanted to redeem all the gold she had pawned. Hock Cheng said his mother did it to support his eldest brother was was studying in America. To supplement their income, she provided food and lodgings for some Thai students and sold jelly and cakes during festivities. Her secret condiments made her curry powder famous in as far away places as Genting Highlands and Pahang, where the late Sultan was especially fond of them.

Hock Cheng’s father was born in 1927. He was the second of three brothers and a sister. His mother died at age 28 whilst giving birth to his younger brother. He didn’t get the chance to know his mother. “Dad’s stepmother was a terror,” Hock Cheng said. “Dad loved photography,” he added, showing off a thick collection of photo albums passed down by him. When Grandpa Lim passed away, the three brothers had to take over the running of the petrol station. “Dad was the most artistic and loved doing the displays and merchandising,” Hock Cheng said. He enjoyed cutting words out of paper and sticking them to sheets of timber. A big banner that said SERVICE IS OUR BUSINESS hung proudly from a display window. They won many display competitions amongst the Shell operators. Over the years, the brothers had different temperaments and conflicting business ideas, one less entrepreneurial, the other less modern. Eventually, Hock Cheng’s father bought out the other two. “Dad had a Chinaman mentality, ‘enough is good enough’,” he said. Hock Cheng still thinks fondly of his young days when his father would drive the whole family to Swatow Lane for ice-kachang every Sunday. His father is 96 today and lives in Bangkok with a daughter.

Hock Cheng’s parents celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. They married young and did not have a formal wedding.

Hock Cheng and his wife of 40 years have two children, both born in Malaysia. The daughter has a double degree in Computing Science and Accounting and is head of Accounting at a big firm in KL. The younger one worked in Dell for a few years before joining the Shell programme. There is an old Chinese saying that a business will not pass to the third generation, but Hock Cheng is proud that his son is today running the family business in its fourth generation.

Wu Yong welcomed Hock Cheng to their Marsh Brotherhood. Recruiting had been slow-going. His original plan was to have a hundred and eight ‘heroes’ before the year is out. He is hard-pressed to reach twenty!

好人相逢,恶人远离。When good folk meet, evil men keep their distance.

Shi Naian, Shuihu zhuan, Chapter 37

Phew, So Few.

The old man’s eyes looked sad. Oftentimes, he wore an expressionless face with shifty and slanty eyes that made him unattractive. It could be said his voice was monotonous and stodgy. The content of his conversation was usually out of topic or delivered late, after others had switched to other matters of interest. It hinted of a rather slow thinker, perhaps. I have observed him for a long time and my conclusion, made recently, was that he was a gangly awkward fellow who was prone to trip himself with his own foot. At the optometrist a few days ago, he found his hooded eyes hugely embarrassing when the young and gorgeous-looking woman had to lift and spread apart the excess skin from above and below his eyes in order to examine them. The angry tips of his eyebrows were turning white and faint, as if they were being slowly erased by time. His hair, once thick and wiry, had turned hoary and dry. They hung well past his shoulders, somewhat accentuated with faint wavy curls. The receding hairline used to worry him but with each passing year, there was growing acceptance that his ageing process could no longer be slowed, despite cutting-edge science that promises ageing can be reversed. Looking at the creases on his forehead triggered in my mind a word association with an iron. There had to be a way of smoothing them, surely.


One look at a man’s face tells you whether he’s prospering or suffering

Shi Naian, Shuihu Zhuan, Chapter 24

He told me about an incident he experienced many weeks ago. The winter had been long and severe and the sunbeams had failed to break through the clouds for days. But, that day the sun decided to work a bit harder and chased away the freezing winds from the south. The azure sky was still and constant, as the rain clouds floated away like butterflies in the sky. He was walking his dog in a field adjacent to a reserve when he came across a family of noisy parakeets. On that beautiful moment, he closed his eyes and listened to the wind blow. It was just a gentle whisper which did not have the energy to free any hair from the loosely tied bun on his head. Many minutes passed before his dog returned to nudge at his legs after a game of chasey with some bigger dogs. He saw a strange halation of light at the edge of the field furthest from him when he opened his eyes. In his left eye, a short burst of floaters that behaved like bubbles released from a straw clouded his vision briefly. He quickly dismissed it from his mind after the sharp reminder seared his head warning him that such an occurrence warranted an urgent call to his eye specialist. The Greek doctor whose rather long name was impossible to remember let alone spell had warned the old man that sudden floaters in his left eye could indicate that the retinal tear had worsened. He hugged his dog for instant comfort and decided to inspect what had caused the halation he saw earlier.

At the edge of the reserve, the old man came across a patch of ground that was in dire need of attention by the park ranger. Unkempt and thick, the long grass there seemed to summon him to draw closer. He did not let his guard down even though he knew there would be no brown snakes loitering in the middle of winter. He pretended to scare his dog with his sibilant whispers.

 “Murray, it’sssss not s-s-s-ssssafe here. Watch out for s-s-s-ssssnakessss….S-s-s-sshhhh, can you hear the hisssss? Ssh-shh-ss-s-shall you check that grass-s-s-s-sy patch there?” he said softly. 

The good thing about his dog was he’s not afraid of pretend-snakes. The other good thing about his dog was he would never treat the old man like used tissue paper. “The more you know humans, the more you love dogs,” he said to me, as if he had just invented the phrase.

Rain or shine, night or day, hungry or full, his dog loved him. A love that was as unconditional as the story of the Corinthians in the good book. 

The  dog barked enthusiastically like he had found treasure. The centre of his attention was a round dark hole in the ground. Just like his dog, the old man was on all fours as he edged his body nearer the hole. It was as big as a manhole except it was missing its round cover. Its verge had been baked hard over the years, a mixture of mud, cement and stones. A millipede sprung shut and pretended to be dead in one of the cracks as four paws rushed past it. The old man pushed his glasses firmly onto the bridge of his nose as he peered into the dark cavity.

“Hello-o-o-o, hello-o-o, hello-o-o” he said loudly, enjoying the reply of a distant echo. 

He blinked a few times to adjust his eyes to the darkness down there but he could not find the bottom. The smell of faint putrescence reminded the old man of his aquarium when it was overdue of a water change. Maybe there’s rotten vegetation down there; he hoped it wasn’t the smell of an unfortunate animal that had fallen in and made it its own burial ground. He covered his nose with a handkerchief that was scented with cheap perfume and quickly distanced himself from the odoriferous place.

The old man had many fears – of heights and of the sea. Why the sea? Simply because, being a poor swimmer, his biggest phobia was to die like Jack, in The Titanic. For years and years, he refused to entertain the idea of going on a cruise until the year when he won a free holiday to Alaska. He never liked it but his excuse was that he missed out on watching the FIFA Wold Cup that year. The Americans did not care to screen any live matches on the boat.

It caused him great anxiety even to drive up Greenhill Road to the charming hill towns nestled in places like Summertown, Piccadilly and Hahndorf. Strangely, he loved to use the enduring nature of the sea and the hills and their predictability when he was a young teenage boy writing love letters to his girlfriend(s).

My darling, I miss you so much.

The autumn leaves may be dying outside but in my heart, my love for you is an eternal spring. The hills are alive with the sound of your sweet voice. I shall hold you close, and never ever let you go. You do know, don’t you, that you will forever melt my heart, my darling and I will be forever yours. My love for you is like the sea, always returning to the shore. It is impossible, my darling, to stop thinking of you. You’re the pearl of my life and I am your oyster, my darling, I will keep you safe in my arms, like the oyster’s shell does for its pearl. Darling, you’re the whole world to me.

Wu Yonggang

What he did not realise was it was already sung many years earlier by Perry Como.

Can the ocean keep from rushin’ to the shore?

It’s just impossible

If I had you, could I ever want for more?

It’s just impossible

And tomorrow

Should ya ask me for the world

Somehow I’d get it

I would sell my very soul and not regret it

For to live without your love

It’s just impossible

Perry Como

The old man had not had his eyes checked during the two and a half years of the pandemic. He could tell he needed new glasses once the black notes on his music sheets started moving like active tadpoles. Not long ago, he bought a beautiful violin, one that was made specially for him in Florence. As if he deserved better, he also bought a fine well-balanced violin bow that weighed 60 grams from Pierre Guillaume, a famous modern maker. To complete him as a serious player, his youngest son gave him a highly desirable case, which he nicknamed ‘Storm Trooper’, the reason would be quite obvious once you see it. I did not have the heart to tell the old man that to be a serious player, it needed much more than those things he showed me. He seemed to have drifted somewhere far away in his mind, so I dragged him back with a loud voice.

“Come, play me something nice,” I said.

He walked closer to where I was sitting. I could smell him; he had not changed his clothes for two weeks, I could tell. They were the same tan-coloured trousers, the same black turtle-necked long-sleeved skivvy, the same black thick jacket from Target that was rain-soaked days earlier. He picked up his violin, showing pure love for it with his careful tender touch, and took an eternity to tune it.

“Practice. Practice makes perfect,” I said, scratching my left ear with my forefinger, after I heard his Ave Maria, Meditation by Bach. He was tuning his violin again, not because any of the pegs had slipped, but the sounds were a good filler for the awkward silence.

After he had re-tuned his violin back to its previous pitch, he confessed he had been practising the piece for many months. I refrained from uttering a single word to hide my disappointment in his slow progress.

After a long pause, I said, “Perfect practice makes perfect.”

He winced, betraying his expressionless face.

Paolo Vettori, maker of the old man’s violin.
Take a bow, Pierre Guillaume!
The old man’s violin case, an Accord.

The young and gorgeous-looking optometrist in Norwood had a huge dazzling diamond ring on her wedding ring finger. Not many professions these days allow such close proximity between two consenting adults in a small and dark room, the old man thought to himself. She had a very attractive face and a rather alluring voice. Her long black hair had an extra shine and it smelled good, of Argan oil, the old man decided. But, she kept the old man busy, and diverted his eyes to the machine instead. Unkindly, she kept asking him to read letters and numbers so distant they seemed to be on another planet. “Which is clearer, this or this?” she kept asking him different combinations. The more she showed him, the more confused he became and the more muddled his answers were. After scanning his eyes for cataracts and glaucoma, she gave out a nervous sigh.

“Oooh, hmmmm.”

“Is there a problem?” the old man asked.

“How long ago did you say you had the retinal tear?”

“Oh, maybe eight to ten years ago.”

“I will make an appointment for you to see the eye specialist in North Adelaide. You must call him on Monday,” she said.

Monday arrived but the old man promptly forgot to call his eye doctor. No matter, he got a call from the eye clinic instead.

“Please remember to arrive early; your appointment is at 11.30 today,” a woman said over the phone.

“What, why? Mondays are very busy days for me,” the old man said, as he tried to wriggle out of the appointment.

“The doctor has very kindly squeezed you in today despite the seventy consults he already has,” the voice on the phone sounded firm and final.

“Ok, ok. How long will it take? Can I drive back within the hour?”

“No sir. You will need someone to drive you home. He has allowed time to carry out the operation today.”

“Operation?! What operation?” “I am not going to agree to an operation! I can see!” the old man protested anxiously.

His Mrs rushed in from some corner, hitherto unnoticed. “You scaredy-cat! I will be very very angry at you if you cancel the operation!”

“Angry at me? These are my eyes!” the old man said with disdain.

North Adelaide was just a twenty minute car ride away on a late Monday morning. The eye specialist was dressed quite sloppily. “Successful people need not dress up for anyone, it seems these days,” the old man said to his wife later on their way home. The eye doctor only made his appearance towards the last minutes of the consultation of which he would have claimed full professional fees for all the work carried out by his nurses. In his notes, much of it griffonage, he wrote that the old man had a ‘very impressive” ERM in his left eye and despite that, was maintaining excellent vision with no symptoms. In layman terms, ‘impressive’ meant significant. ERM was shorthand for epiretinal membrane. The wrinkling of his retina was so severe it would normally have meant a seriously blurred and distorted vision.

“His HST is fully operculated,” the doctor’s notes read, meaning the horseshoe tear is advanced to the state where the separated flap of the retinal surface is suspended but the body appeared to have healed itself such that it seemed unlikely that it would allow fluid to seep behind the retina. The doctor was amazed by the incredible image on his screen. He wore a bemused look and with an air of incredibility in his voice said, “I have never seen such an astonishing recovery! You should be blind!” Very very few cases escape without any issues given such significant distortions and unevenness of the ERM.

“Phew, so few?” the old man said whilst thanking the gods for his good luck.

“I could have told him it was due to the NAD+ I have been taking for the past three years,” the old man said.

Add A Word About Edward

“May I have a word with you about Edward?” Blue Eyes pulled Wu Yong away from his work the other day. Blue Eyes, ever the cautious one, declined to meet with Wu Yong even from a safe distance of a telephone call. He tested positive for Covid that morning and had already informed everyone he wasn’t attending the weekend’s big party. “Why don’t you write to me then,” Wu Yong texted after Blue Eyes did not pick up his phone all morning. 

Blue Eyes, who wore a rather dejected look, was upset to miss RU9 that day, their ninth school reunion of Lasaints58 brothers. The LaSaints58 is a group of La Salle School and St Xavier’s Institution students born in 1958. While it is true that some were able to keep in touch with one another since leaving school and occasionally meet up in small groups, by and large, the majority were dispersed far and wide to all corners of the world after their Form 5 or Form 6. It took many decades before many were able to seek out long-lost childhood buddies. Their first reunion, RU1, was held in 2008, i.e. some 33 years after they left school. The more recent pre-pandemic ‘RU’s attracted about 200 ex-students including girls from sixth form. 

This year’s reunion was held after an absence of two years due to the disruptions from fighting the Covid virus. RU9 was held on 23 July 2022 in their hometown of Penang. The organisers were pleased with a turnout of some 130 members including fourteen ex-teachers, despite the worries about Omicron variants and hassles in arranging flights and visas. A major event for RU9 was an exhibition by Malaysian artist, Anne Koh. 

Anne Koh with a few Urghhling Marsh brothers at the RU9 presentation.

The KL-based artist whose paintings of orchestras and musicians are highly sought after by collectors presented her series of portraits of some LaSaints58 members whose stories will appear in a book titled ‘Urghhlings Vol 3 – Brothers of The Urghhlings Marsh’. The author’s name is Wu Yong. The theme of the stories is borrowed from Shii Naian’s classic novel Shuihuzhuan, The Water Margin – Outlaws of the Marsh. Blue Eyes and Wu Yong were the first two LaSaints58 guys to join the brotherhood of the Urghhlings Marsh. To call it a brotherhood is rather apt since they have all been calling one another ‘brothers’ since their first year of school. The Christian Brothers taught them to be brotherly to one another and instilled in them a sense of platonic love and brotherly care in school.

Blue Eyes wanted to introduce a close friend of his to the gang of brothers. “All men are brothers, is that not so?” Blue Eyes asked. Wu Yong recognised that although the proposed inductee was not a member of Lasaints58, he could not dispute the simple statement. 

All men are brothers.

Shi Naian

Blue Eyes wanted to share a story about the journey of a mate who tore himself away from the grievances of a troubled early life in a broken family and in his journey to find a clear path for himself, encountered many battles with the Devil himself. Will he be triumphant ultimately or will he perish in unconsolable anguish?

Blue Eyes’ mate was from ACS (Anglo Chinese School). Edward Goh was his name. Edward was a smart chap from a well-to-do family. His dad passed away while he was in Secondary School. His mother met another man and remarried soon after. Edward couldn’t fit in with his stepdad. To further his tertiary education, he would have had to continue living with his family which included a brother and a sister and a half brother. Life was unbearable with his stepdad, so he opted to get the National Service over and done with. That way, he figured he had two years to reassess his situation whilst in camp. A year in, he enrolled into the Air Engineering Training Institute.

May 1977.

A bunch of the engineering trainees decided to stay back for a weekend to gamble and that was when Blue Eyes first met Edward, over a poker game. He was a year their junior but somehow the two chaps clicked from that moment on.

Months went by and life was good for the larrikins. A year later Edward changed his last name to Tay by deed poll.

“Why?” Blue Eyes asked.

“I do not want my family to find me,” Edward replied simply.

He was a true friend. He would always have your back no matter right or wrong. A very generous bloke, he gave whatever he had if asked. No questions asked.

“His only fault, one and only, was his love for gambling,” Blue Eyes said. 

“Pharque that …. he was passionate about it!” Blue Eyes corrected himself.

“You name it, he’ll play it!……from horses at the tracks to two ants running across the dining table to see which one reaches the edge first,” Blue Eyes sighed as the distant memories played in his mind. Wu Yong let him wander off.

Edward stayed with Blue Eyes in Singapore for a couple years after he graduated as it was tough to come up with the monthly rental payments on his measly wages. Blue Eyes managed to convince his mum and stepdad to take him in. 

“He’d give my mum a token sum,” Blue Eyes said. 

“She would make sure his clothes were washed, bed made, food on the table at any time (emphasising that her kitchen never shut) .…uhm that applied to me too,” he added.

Although the two young men lived under the same roof, they seldom met up due to different assigned squadrons and shift hours. Edward landed a good job with an oil company as a bunker specialist after his Airforce stint of seven years.

“There’s a third friend who is integral to this story – Steven Leong, whom I’ve known since Secondary School right up to being in the Air Force together and we remained close friends since,” Blue Eyes continued his story after a multitude of puffs from a cigarette on his balcony.

From left to right. Blue Eyes, Edward Tay and Steven Leong in 1997.

Through the years all three of them would meet up occasionally but there were also times when it was either Edward with Steven or Edward and Blue Eyes who met up. “The only trouble is gee whiz, those ‘duo meetups’ happened only when Edward was in dire need of funds,” Blue Eyes said of the times that felt like yesterday. 

“We regretted helping him out but there was no way around it for us at that time. If we didn’t, he would have probably ended up borrowing from a loan shark,” Blue Eyes explained.

Years went by and we got the occasional greeting from Edward. Then one day Blue Eyes got a call from Edward’s tenant. 

“We were in KL at that time,” Blue Eyes said. His tenant mentioned that Edward was in the General Hospital and the only contact number they had was Blue Eyes’ number.

“What happened?” Wu Yong asked eagerly.

“ Now this is where it gets f’kenly unbelievable!” Blue Eyes baited him, and made him wait longer whilst he sucked in more tar from his cigarette.

Edward had an accident at his worksite. He lost his right thumb while helping a junior inspector. They had to cut off his right toe to replace the missing thumb. On medical leave for six months, he received workers compensation that took care of his bills. With the money he wanted to better himself so he decided to look into furthering his educational level. Based on his calculations, he was still miles off from being able to afford a four-year stint in the USA.

“So what did he do?” Wu Yong asked impatiently.

“He studied the horse He’s Dawan for weeks,” Blue Eyes said. Baffled, Wu Yong pressed Blue Eyes for an  explanation.

“He ain’t gonna get any other help so this was the only way he could confirm his ticket out,’” Blue Eyes said. 

“He followed her outings, morning exercises, races, his form, the track conditions …..etc, etc. and if he caught this filly right, she would be a guaranteed winner at the race. He was convinced.”

That day came.

Edward dumped all he had on He’s Dawan. He even over-bet with the bookies. “He was one hundred and one percent sure!” Blue Eyes exaggerated.

Blue Eyes pretended to call the race.

“And they are off ……… He’s Dawan is ready to roll, he’s in the pack looking good,” Blue Eyes said in a voice wrapped with heightened emotions. 

“Final turn …….He’s Dawan leads by a few horse lengths. They are coming down to the finish and it’s He’s Dawan leading the pack. He’s Dawan is extending his lead! And it’s He’s Dawan well in front by six lengths…she’s a sure winner. She’s gonna win the race!!” Blue Eyes said excitedly.

“Then the gods decided to throw some nitroglycerin into the mix ….. just to get their kicks,” Blue Eyes continued. 

He’s Dawan threw off the jockey and literally dropped dead metres before the finish line.

“I don’t think I can even start to understand or imagine what went through his mind. Whatever plans he had were smoked by C3H5N3O9,” Blue Eyes said, using the explosives’ chemical formula for good measure.

Edward was devastated. 

“That’s just putting it mildly. Next thing on his mind .. leave this world and try and get an audience with the gods that played this bad joke on him,” Blue Eyes said. 

Yes, suicide was the next thing on Edward’s mind.

“How long ago was this?” Wu Yong asked

“I don’t know the date,” Blue Eyes said.

“He turned on the aircon in his bedroom, swallowed over 200 sleeping pills and went to sleep. Woke up a couple hours later and vomited most if not all those pills. Fark! .. First attempt failed!”

“He went down to the nearby electrical store and bought two electrical timers and some wires. Strip the ends of two wires. Connected the other ends in the timers that were plugged into the wall. Masking taped both of the open wires in each hand each ….and waited for the jolt of freedom. It came and with it the agonising heat and pain that seared through his body. The 220V burned through both of his palms. He suddenly fell out of bed and the wires pulled the timers out of the power points. Fark! … Second attempt failed!” Blue Eyes continued, as he flicked the cigarette butt into a red spittoon a few feet away.

Smell of burnt flesh permeated through the air-conditioned bedroom. Edward probably didn’t even realise or he didn’t even care. He found a box-cutter in one of the bedside drawers and slit his wrists. He laid himself down gently on his  bed and drifted off to sleep. 

“He later told me he saw himself knockin’ on heaven’s door,” Blue Eyes said. 

Edward’s tenant came home and was bowled over by the stench. 

“Bedroom door was locked – so he called the police and next thing you know, I got a call from him from the hospital,” Blue Eyes said.

Blue Eyes flew down to Singapore on the next available flight. He signed all the necessary paperwork for the hospital and assumed total responsibility for all the hospital bills. Three days later, Blue eyes took his mate back to KL, all the time keeping his eyes peeled for loan sharks’ watchers and feeling like a gazelle evading a pack of hyenas.

Edward recuperated well. Four months later, the two of them went back to Singapore. Blue Eyes wanted to make sure his mate would be ok.

“He seemed a changed man. No form of gambling was allowed during the months in KL and he appeared resolute about keeping it that way. He talked terms with the bookies who could have rearranged his face and misaligned his limbs had they wished to. To the friends’ combined relief, a compromise was reached with the bookies without the usual burden of daily compound interest.

Blue Eyes felt good; Edward had finally given up his addiction and was well on the path to a full recovery. Blue Eyes happily returned to KL and before the year was out, he was on his way to Canada to start a new life there.

“A few years later, I got a call from Edward. He got my number from Steven. He had gotten his shit together – all his debts had been paid. His slate was clean. The company he worked for had transferred him to their Bangkok office. He met a Thai girl there and fell in love. He was gonna get married soon,” Blue eyes said. 

“Congratulations and tears of joy from us. Later that same year, we decided to return back to Penang to visit my in-laws in Penang and my folks in Singapore. Stopped in Bangkok on our return leg and together with Steven, we spent a few days with Edward and our nieces – relatives who married Thai,” he continued.

Thailand worked well for Edward because as a foreigner he could not get into any gambling venues or facilities. He was happy as a lark when he and his wife, Emmy, brought Thanyaporn into the world. About two years later, Cherie was born. Blue Eyes was very happy for them – finally, all the planets were lining up for Edward and he did not even have to gamble on that. Not long after Cherie’s birth, Blue Eyes got a phone call from him. He was in arrears in rent for many months besides other debts. Blue Eyes froze, his hair stood on end. Edward explained that he wasn’t gambling. Expenses had increased but his salary had not. He had hired a maid to help his wife and they were renting in an exclusive neighbourhood. He felt he could not short change his family by giving them less. Blue Eyes sighed but his heavy heart could not deny his friend, so he sent him the money he needed. It smelled like the same rabbit hole but being thousands of miles away, who was he to judge?


Blue Eyes returned to Penang for his mother-in-law’s funeral. He visited Edward and his family in Bangkok after the funeral. They seemed happy, and so was Blue Eyes. They spent quality time together but in a blink of an eye, it was time to say their goodbyes.


Edward transferred back to Singapore. He had his young family in tow. He filed all the necessary paperwork for his family to get permanent residency (PR) status. It meant he was serious about resettling in Singapore for good. It also meant he was back in the country where he was once again allowed to gamble. That demons in him reappeared very quickly. Steven Leong had reconnected with Edward and so was able to keep Blue Eyes updated with news.


Marina Bay Sands opens! This spelled great guns for Singapore’s tourism sector but unfortunately not for Edward. The next few years would see Edward slide down a razor’s edge with only his balls as brakes to stop himself from falling into the abyss. Bookies’ collectors would often appear at his doorstep. The wife and kids were continually scared out of their wits by the rough tactics and vulgar threats from the gangsters. The intensity of the harassment got beyond control. They were forever looking behind their shoulders, every shadow was a menace, every sudden noise a bang from a gun. His kids were afraid to go to school but Edward could not stop his addiction. He loved his family but he knew he was at the end of his tether. Their PR application progress was still that – in progress.


Edward told Emmy that he had bought insurance a while ago for a time just like what they were facing. On that fateful day, he instructed his wife to sleep in the master bedroom with the kids. He told her he would not be sleeping there that night. “Don’t come out even if you hear any loud noise or things breaking,” he told her sternly. The kids sensed something was wrong when they kissed their dad goodnight. He gave each of them a long hug and then gestured with an eyebrow and a nod for Emmy to shepherd them into the bedroom. They hugged their mother tightly in bed but did not ask the questions that were racing in their minds. What is wrong? Is daddy in trouble? Why doesn’t he ask for help? Why don’t we go back to Bangkok? That night, Emmy soaked her pillow with her tears. She could hear noises in the other bedroom but she dared not disobey her husband. When the banging and muffled sounds stopped, she mustered the strength to leave her room to check on the next room. She suddenly realised her hand was cold and clammy as she held the handle of the door, fighting the fear to open the door. 

Slowly pushing the door open, with one eye wanting to look and the other reluctant to, she remained at the edge of the doorway, as still as Edward’s stiff body on the floor. Emmy rested her hand on the stile for support but her legs gave way and she convulsed in a heap but all the while, her eyes were glued at Edward. She sobbed until there was not a tear left from her eyes. Her body shaking, and whimpers trembling, she was unaware of the snot and mucus drenching her face as she crawled towards her husband. He laid there dead with a thick plastic bag zip tied around his neck over a damp towel. His legs were also tied together at the ankles. A pair of thick socks prevented any bruises to his ankles. His hands were zip tied together. There wasn’t much of a struggle. Only an old badly scuffed vinyl chair was on its side, a sign that he may have tried to muscle his way out of imminent death. There is no bloody scene to describe, no blunt instruments to look for, no spent shells, no smoking gun. Next to his cold body was a sheet of instructions for Emmy to act upon.

Emmy did as instructed by Edward. She kept the details to herself. Somehow, Edward pulled it off. Emmy was able to collect the insurance money. It was a tidy sum, a million dollars actually. But, within the next twelve months,  more than half of the money had gone to ‘friends’ who sought help from Emmy for a variety of reasons. Stupid excuses can be made to sound like good reasons when one is desperate enough. 

When she woke up to the scams, Emmy took the kids back to Bangkok to the chagrin of her kids. She continued to make some bad choices for companions who ripped her off further. The elder girl was very upset with her mum. So with what little balance she had left, Emmy bought a small parcel of land 450 kms northeast of Bangkok where her folks hailed from. 

Steven had lost touch with Edward sometime in 2012. Steven had told him to quit gambling and that he was no longer able or willing to support Edward’s gambling habits. So, neither Steven nor Blue Eyes got wind of what happened in 2014. Edward’s death was reported only in the Chinese newspapers and in a very nondescript column. Someone who knew someone who knew someone else told Steven about a guy who killed himself in a HDB flat. Steven recognised it was Edward’s Chinese name and rushed to the residential block to ask around. Steven was devastated when the neighbours told him the rest of the occupants had left after a suicide in the flat. It was more than a year after his suicide that Blue Eyes and Steven found out about Edward’s death.

 “It was as if he was a nobody. Buried somewhere and nobody knew where. As if he had no friends or family. As if he never existed. It was f’kin sad. I asked Steven to look for Emmy and the kids. They were gone with the wind. Evaporated like a morning dew. No one knew anything. I was angry. Our buddy was gone forever and we didn’t know. I cried and cried but shed no tears. So, I drank instead and drank myself into a stupor,” Blue Eyes said.


Blue Eyes was chatting with his cousin in Bangkok whilst in Panama. 

“I had asked her before to check out Emmy and the kids and she had tried but to no avail,” Blue Eyes said. Blue Eyes didn’t know Emmy’s Thai name but he knew the kids were Thanyaporn and Cherie.

“So, I was telling my cousin that if I walked around Bangkok and they bumped into me there’s a high probability that I would not recognise them or for that matter, nor would they remember me,” he said.

A month after their conversation, she found a ‘Thanyaporn’ on Facebook. She contacted Thanyaporn and told her that Blue Eyes was looking for one Edward and Thanyaporn who lived in Singapore many years ago.  Three weeks later Thanyaporn replied that she was indeed the Thanyaporn in question. Blue Eyes’ cousin gave her his phone number and hoped she would contact him.

She did!

It was so very uplifting for both Blue Eyes and his wife, Li. Both were raining tears of joy as they spoke for hours on video chat. Blue Eyes answered every single question the two girls wanted to know about their dad. They had lived with the stigma that their dad was a useless and uncaring  gambler who never loved them. “If he did, he would have been around in their lives, bla bla bla, that sorta thing,” he said. “We spent a couple of hours assuring them it was not true,” he continued. 

Today, Thanyaporn is in her final year in the university in Khon Kaen, and Cherie, the younger one, just entered uni. Emmy works in Bangkok. She visits them once in a while whenever she can. The pandemic put a damper on Emmy’s income but there’s nothing on the job front in Khon Kaen so she has to remain in Bangkok. Blue Eyes and Li are planning to make a trip north sometime before they head back to Panama. They just want the two girls to know they have their dad’s friends around.

“May I add a word about Edward?” Wu Yong asked.

Rest in peace, brother. You may be gone but you won’t be forgotten in the Urghhlings Marsh Brotherhood.

Richard Lim aka Blue Eyes

The Truth And Nothing But The Tooth

The Mrs was feeling anxious all week recently.  A birthday was a great reason for a celebration for much of our lives although when we were little, our birthdays were a non-event. If we were lucky, we would get a plate of long noodles for longevity. It was a wish to extend life, not a party with friends per se. A nothing burger as the Americans will say, no cake to cut and no candles to blow. But, we had games. Everyday we had games, we did not have to wait for a birthday party to play games. Those were the good old days, referred to as such for a very good reason. The days were good, games were plentiful, and we could roam about anywhere we liked with our friends. No questions asked. No guarantees sought by the adults. We were never ever told it was unsafe to play outside. We did not need our mummy to tell us to get back by dinner time, we had our tummy to tell us that.

When we raced past the 60-year milestone, we seemed pleased with our achievements.  But, as we approach the midway point of our 60s, we seem to be hurtling towards the abyss of a new decade. The 70s. The Mrs was in no mood to celebrate. Another birthday, another day to ponder about the meaning of life and how we got to where we are so quickly. As she pondered, so did I. Regrets I have had a few, I bet she does too. Did we choose the right partner? Did we pick the right country to settle down? After all, we had choices. Easy choices. We could have easily returned to Malaysia after our graduation in Sydney. After all, it was home. Our motherland. We could have gone to Singapore. After all, we both had job offers there. When the kids were born, we could have moved to Hong Kong. Shenzhen beckoned like the Wild Wild West to a new arrival – the opportunities in a new frontier felt limitless. Instead, we chose Adelaide. “Boring old Adelaide,” a friend would tell me when he visited a few years later. That remark reassured me in fact, that we had made the right decision. What better place to bring up young kids than a boring old place devoid of distractions?

Our kids are all grownups now. They are grownups without kids, to The Mrs’ constant discontent. Why bring up kids in this bad bad world, I could almost hear them ask. And then, there’s the issue of money. Bringing up kids has always been an expensive task. It could be crippling to anyone’s finances if they have grandiose ideas about giving their child every single opportunity they want. If we were ‘kia-su’ and refused to lose to anybody, then our kids would have grown up without experiencing a childhood. Private tuition would have been a ‘must’ for a bright future. Tennis, soccer, and golf, in case they were well-coordinated in sports. Big money in sports! No? Then, how about piano lessons, violin and cello? Big money as a concert artist. Look at Yo-Yo Ma and Isaac Stern! No? Then, how about science or medicine? Be a dermatologist or orthodontist? Rake in the money, elevate your social status. There’s also the matter of keeping up with the Joneses. Bigger lawn, bigger mansion, bigger wine cellar? Luckily for our kids, we did not care about all that, not that we were careless parents. 

Let kids be kids was always our mantra. Let them have their fun outdoors. We had ours! We played masak-masak and pretended to help the housewives and maids prepare our meals. We harvested lalang grass and weeds and watched them cook dinner in empty condensed milk tins. We lit the fire, of course! We made our own kites, laced the strings with gum and cut glass so that we could cut the strings of the other kites in the sky. Finders keepers losers weepers – there would be the sprints across town, never mind the cars and motorbikes, as long as we retrieved the kites first. We played tops with sharpened nails so that we could aim and destroy the other kids’ toys. We caught the biggest and meanest male spiders with menacing green and black bodies and white round eyes to attack and finish off our friends’ champions. It was a thrill to see the enemy’s prized pets scamper off in defeat.

A generation or two ago, unwanted children were sold or simply given away for free. Free! Just take ‘em. I can understand folks take exception to being sold as slaves but it is just as traumatic if not more, to be sold by your own parents simply because you are surplus to requirement. That psychological baggage is hard to shake. The Mrs has, to some extent. Her baggage has gotten lighter with the passing of her parents a long time ago. Conversations about her family were confusing when I first met her. It felt like reading a Dostoyevsky novel with forgettable names and complicated threads across biological families and adopted ones and with different fathers. She was sold on the ninth day of her life. When children are made to feel unwanted, there would be scars in their psyche. The Mrs hid hers but took decades to finally heal from them.

All you need is love

All you need is love

All you need is love, love

Love is all you need

John Lennon / Paul McCartney

I was lucky. I was never unloved even though my mother tried to ‘finish me off’ when I was still inside her womb. She didn’t want another daughter. Shhhh, please don’t tell my sisters. Luckily, she aborted the abortion attempts. The brownish liquid from a herbalist that went glug-glug-glug down her stomach was too bitter to take.

The first decade of my life was fun, I think, but much of which I do not remember. It wasn’t forgettable or boring, that I must say. My early memory was wiped out by a bad fall from my bicycle. It made my skull swell and soft like tofu. There were snippets during this period that will forever be etched in my memory. One episode was when I was about five or six. I got my dad into trouble when I yelled out, “Pa, Pa!” as I saw his car pass by the front of our shophouse. Ma rushed out of the shop, only to miss seeing the car. So, it was my word against my dad’s. Pa had categorically said no. He was not in the car, and the car was not his. He totally denied it when he returned home a few hours later. Ma had already interrogated me earlier, and I was positively and absolutely sure it was his car. Silly me. How could I have been sure? It was about 7 pm, the road was dimly lit and I had no idea what car my dad had. Was it an Opel? Was it lilac or blue? They had a big row downstairs. A chair was broken. There was yelling, cursing, and screaming. Kids cry when adults yell and scream. The neighbours’ curiosity along the twelve link-houses would have been perked to the max, their ears strained like stethoscopes to catch every word from the couple’s fight. The memory seared into my skull was that of my dad, gently shaking his finger at me as I peeped from under my pillow in bed. Our eyes met. His eyes looked sadder than mine, that I was sure. I am so sorry, Pa. A son should never get his dad in trouble.

时中分校, a Chinese medium school not far from the shophouse where I grew up in. Photo by Francis Koh.

The second decade of my life was fun too. The first half of it was filled with books. I discovered the school library and I was ravenous for Enid Blyton books and books about the American Wild West. Unfortunately, I grew up thinking the ‘Injuns were the baddies. The latter half of my second decade was not about books but boobs. I discovered the opposite sex. My mum’s half-brother taught me to “feed the cockroaches”. He said I should learn to play with my ‘little birdie’ now that it had grown ‘feathers’. He saw my ‘feathers’ because he was a six-footer. Standing on tiptoes, he was tall enough to look over the bathroom door which was at least half a foot lower. Maybe that was how children were taught the fundamentals of sex education in the 60s and 70s. My dad’s workers had a penchant for the night club. They were short men in tall clog shoes and bell-bottomed pants. I was a bad student but I learned how to do the twist and danced the Agogo. I was all agog when their topic was about boobs. So, I learned why girls were so different from boys.

The third decade of my life was fun too. That was when I met The Mrs and married her just after we graduated from uni. She was worried she would be like her adoptive mother – barren. But, I was quick to prove her wrong. With her, I fathered three sons within three and a bit years of marrying her. The first half of the decade was all about nappies and formula milk. The second half was when my career became my focus. I wanted to be somebody who could yield tremendous power in the admin and accounting arm of a sizeable business.

The fourth decade of my life was about conquests and competitions. I had already read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and I was ready to fight the fight. I had set lofty personal goals and corporate life felt exciting and rewarding. I considered myself a jet-setter even though the frequent flights were merely domestic. It did not matter that some friends were venturing overseas and had become international corporate raiders. I was a big fish in my small pond. I felt I was relevant and important. I was a key contributor to my boss. Wait a minute, I said to myself. Why work for a boss when I can become one? By 34, I had become one. The second half of that decade was all about expanding my business. Building blocks were laid to satisfy the ‘first goal’. One shop was not going to be enough for me to trade away my career as an executive for it. So, the ‘first goal’ was to have three shops within five years. It was about building shops and building a brand. Looking back, it was a missed decade. I missed spending precious time with my sons when they were the cutest; at a time when in their eyes, I was their rock, their mentor, their hero. The eldest was ten going on twenty in no time. His brothers were in a hurry to taste the world too. At 15, they had flown the coop after being awarded a full scholarship by The Queensland Con at The Griffith University.

The fifth and sixth decades of my life were about the lost years. The younger two left home so early. I was not ready for that. After sending them to the airport, I lingered in their bedroom and burst into tears. Perhaps something in me died that day. Not so long ago, all three of them were toddlers. They were cutest when they lost their teeth, speaking with a deliberate lisp and whistling the way only the toothless can. They were a bundle of joy and with them around, my life was complete. The apogee of my happiness was hearing their laughter and listening to their music. They filled the house with love and happiness. Home was warm even in the depths of winter. Success in business on the other hand, was hard yakka. Dealing with the public on the cold face of retail was harsh. Ugly, even. By the middle of this decade, the eldest boy also left home. He was 21. Suddenly, the emptiness hit me. I was too young to be an empty-nester. I started to question the meaning of life. Was all that energy and effort to be successful necessary? The drive to do well in High School. The drive to shine in uni. The drive to be a corporate leader with unquestioned integrity. The drive to be a rich businessman. An empty-nester sees things differently. What was important had become unimportant. What was vital was merely vanity. I should have been critical of what I thought was critical. When the kids left home, I thought they were still kids. I suppose at 15 or 21, they felt differently. They had their own goals to fulfil, their own worlds to conquer. I was 45 when all three sons left home. Sure, a bit of me died. I lost their growing-up years when they were home. I lost their “Why is it, Ba?” questions. I lost the family time watching TV shows and I lost their loud guffaws during favourite comedies such as Seinfeld and The Prince of Bel-Air. I lost the excitement of queueing up to watch blockbuster movies. I remained on my own hamster wheel with a diminished sense of purpose. Was I too young to get off it? Maybe. Was I too afraid to get off it? Probably. Was I too late to get off it? Most certainly.

The biggest loss in my fifth decade was the loss of my dad. I was 49. He was 91 when he died. During the four years in the nursing home, he lost the big things that mattered. First of all, he lost his freedom. It was a ‘High-Care’ facility meaning he could not do and go as he pleased. The door locks are coded to keep them in. Once I could not remember the code, and that kept me out. Very soon after, Pa lost his dignity when he could no longer wipe his own bum and clean himself. A very sad moment was when he lost his leg. He asked if there was any point for him at his age to undergo the operation. The traditional belief of people in his generation was to pass this world with a body that was intact. He did not want to be reborn with a missing limb. The gangrenous limb had to be amputated after a few months of his foot being wrapped up in fresh white crepe bandage. At the time, my worries were soothed by the daily attention given to his foot. After he lost his leg, I was convinced the nursing home staff used the bandages as a cover to hide the truth of his wounds from us. Pa was a brave and generous man; always considerate and reasonable till the end. He was a nice man to many people because he was genuinely interested in what they had to say. During my daily visits at his nursing home, he always showed interest in my life. About my business and about his grandsons. Generally an uncomplaining man, the only times I witnessed him complaining was at the restaurants that were slow in bringing out the food we ordered. There is some truth to the old adage, ‘A hungry man is an angry man’. Pa never hesitated to slam his hands loudly at the table. The courtly man of course gave ample warning to the waiter by drumming his fingers loudly on the table. The poor bloke failed to heed Pa’s warnings but at least he never forgot my father after that.

The sixth decade of my life was also a lost decade. The global financial crisis hit in 2008. I had just turned 50. Losing the franchise business I had built up the decade before was difficult to stomach. One after another, the shops under my domain started closing. The sharemarket crashed. My investments lost their value at an alarming rate. It turned out the shares in so-called blue chip companies were not investments, such is the Ponzi nature of the sharemarket. The fruits from the years of hard grind and slog were meant to be enjoyed during my retirement. I had many years earlier proudly announced to my parents I aimed to retire by 40. My dad smiled and did not say a word. My mum smiled but has not stopped reminding me of my ridiculous delusion. As the shops were closing, the contagion did not stop. Everything was cascading and before the middle of the decade was reached, all sixteen shops had closed. I was an empty-nester with a greatly diminished nest egg.

The seventh decade is about losing. Yes, that means I will continue to lose many things and loved ones from here on. There are many things in the house that are just dust collectors. Surpluses to requirement, they only exist because of past utility. The Mrs is less sentimental; I shall depend on her to lose them. Suddenly, as if by clockwork, I started losing the vigour and energy I used to possess. My eyes tire quickly and the level of focus and attention to detail is not as sharp as before.The Mrs complains that my hair stinks. “Why can’t you wash your hair daily like everyone else does?” she asked. If I was argumentative, I would have said she did not know that as a fact, unless she was a six-footer looking over a 5-foot door of a bathroom. I am beginning to lose hair, lots of it, after every shampoo. So, why do the idiotic thing that only results in more hair loss, right? I am not stupid! I am losing muscle mass too. The curves and bulges of my biceps and triceps have long disappeared. “Use it or lose it,” The Mrs said, echoing some mantra she heard from her yoga teacher years ago. Hmmmm. I had a mind to say that to her about some longish organ of mine which she had shown no interest in using for a long time. Lately, I have been losing sleep too. The Mrs assumed my sleeping pattern was still the same as before. She listens to audiobooks and Youtube channels during the night, with her noise-cancelling headphones. So, she can’t hear me snore or not snore. Oh, I am forgetting. I am also losing my memory. Those were my headphones for when I was travelling but since Covid, I no longer use the convenience of aeroplanes and therefore have no need for noise-cancelling gadgets. I have since fixed the problem of nocturia by regularly adding two hard-boiled eggs to my dinner. There is no scientific explanation that I know of as to why eggs stop the bladder from being overactive. I am just thankful that they do! However, deep sleep doesn’t come till well after the Kookaburras have stopped laughing.

Losing our health and fitness is more worrisome. I swear I can hear my old bones creak with every step I take. In my mind, I was as nimble as a mountain goat not so long ago. The moss rocks are a feature in my garden, used as retaining walls and steps in a tiered garden. These days, I don’t prance up or skip down the rocks anymore. I adopt a more sedate and uncertain action of an elderly person more and more. Of course, I blame that on my failing eyesight. Cataract, glaucoma, and epiretinal membrane tears are common ailments for people of my age. I do not have the first two defects but the third has worried me in recent years. Could that be the reason I am losing my eyesight?

Losing time is probably the most regrettable for me. Still desk-bound for much of the working day, I am beginning to value my time more and more. After all, what is our real worth if not measured by our time? Many of my friends in Penang have retired. They don’t dress well, they aren’t concerned about their grooming. They don’t portray a rich background but hell, they are by far the richest in the time they give to the needy. Their amazing efforts are truly heroic. It is easy to donate money but it is far harder to donate your time. Why do we chase money? Toil for it? Why do we save it when the central banks simply print it? Whereas time cannot be printed or produced. It is limitless to humanity yet limited to the individual. I remind myself not to read unimportant social media or watch silly TikTok video clips or listen to toxic arguments. Our time is precious, don’t flaunt it.

Olive bar, formerly Hot Lips, formerly Popular Dry-Cleaning. The house where I grew up in. Photo by Francis Koh.

Losing relevance is not as scary for me as I imagined. I have been watching my mother lose her relevance over the years. She was the matriarch of my family and she enjoyed wielding that influence over us. No arguments, no discussions. Whatever she said, we did. I reasoned with her many years ago that we didn’t need to sell our shophouse in Penang. Penang is a small island, truly the pearl of the Orient. The shop was situated on Penang Road in the touristy end of town. In fact, just a hundred footsteps from E&O Hotel, a grand monument of the classy and sophisticated era of British colonialism. But, Ma had already persuaded herself that selling it was the only option. Selling it was wrong, selling it cheap was a bigger mistake. But, relevance was important to her, I reasoned, so it’s ok to show her reverence, I told myself. Now, the time has arrived for me to lose my relevance. My family business hardly requires my attention now. My jokes have become corny old dad jokes. My advice is rarely sought, and my attendance in business meetings are no longer required. When I see myself chasing the puppy round and round the coffee table, I see a frail Don Corleone running after his grandson around his tomato plants moments before he collapsed from a fatal heart attack.

What gives me the most anguish in this decade is the thought of losing relatives and friends. Losing loved ones is the most tortuous of all. My Balapai ahyi (Second Aunt) passed away during the height of Covid from cancer. I could not even visit her for a final time even though it was clear she was in palliative care. This year, two school buddies suddenly carked it, one after another. It felt like I ran into a brick wall. As much as we prepare ourselves for the inevitability of it all, I was still shocked by the whimsical nature of life. When we least expect it, death can visit us with a fury. Seldom a week passes these days without news of friends and distant relatives who had a stroke, or a bypass, or another stent replacement, or chronic end-stage diabetes or who passed away.

Life is like a candle in the wind.

Elton John’s tribute to Marilyn Monroe

Earlier this year, The Mrs lost a tooth and that truth was the cause of her recent anxiety. To be precise, a lower central incisor is now missing. She gives a cute appearance nevertheless but of course, if I were to say that to her, she would give me a verbal hiding. Are you trying to be funny again? I can imagine her saying it. I can understand her anxiety. When we lose a tooth, we will start wondering what else we will lose next. Whatever it is, it better not be our legacy. It takes a lifetime for us to build our legacy. By legacy, I do not mean the superficial matter of material wealth or money but rather what we have accomplished in the richness of life and substance of our being over a lifetime. We need to cherish it and defend it with all we got. Let us not destroy our own legacy knowingly or consciously. If the unfortunate event were to happen and dementia or Alzheimers robbed us of our wisdom and common sense, and from that we lose our legacy, then that’s just bad luck.

Losing a milk tooth is cute but it isn’t permanent like losing a permanent tooth.

You know you’re old when TV ads aren’t selling to you.

Wu Yonggang

Soon, To Be Revealed Soon

There were many scenes of boats and boatmen in Shuihuzuan, The Water margin. In the book, there were characters such as Zhang Heng and his brother Zhang Shun who patrolled the Xunyang River, preying on travellers duped into thinking they were just ordinary fishermen making a living. Our story’s hero in this chapter is Soon, and I must emphasise that although the scenery depicted in his story rekindles the images I formed when reading the Chinese classic, our hero’s grandfather who owned a junk boat certainly was not a crook who scammed travellers along his river routes. Zhang Heng and his brother had their act down pat whenever they sighted would-be victims who looked ripe for plucking. Their trick worked without fail. The younger brother would pretend to escape a mugging by diving into the river to save his belongings. A great swimmer, Zhang Shun would not resurface until he reached the banks of the river. The travellers, thinking he had drowned, would quickly surrender their valuables to the waiting Zhang Heng who did not hesitate to knife those who still resisted.

Song Jiang, whilst being escorted by two policemen to Jiangzhou to face a lengthy jail sentence, was similarly threatened by those two pirates. When Zhang Heng saw Song Jiang and the two men approaching, he sang this song:

Alone I live on the river’s bank

Not a friend but money do I adore

Last night the moon helped me find

I saw some gold and captured it.

Old Huzhou song

Zhang Heng then gave Song Jiang two choices. “Eat deck knife noodles or dumplings in soup.” Since Song Jiang did not understand what he meant, Zhang the boatman explained. He said he would mince his body and throw them into the river if he wanted deck knife noodles. He also said if he wanted dumplings instead, then strip off his clothes and leave them for him. Song Jiang did not lash out and vent his spleen with vulgar invectives but instead begged for their lives.

“Did your grandpa experience any threats from pirates?” I asked Soon.

This was how he began his story.

In Malaysia, the Chinese community called their borrowings ‘tontin’. Borrowers must bid for their loan. A desperate borrower would offer a higher monthly repayment to the lender. It was a time when borrowers and lenders set their own interest rates. For example, the borrower would offer to make twenty monthly payments of $100, for a loan of $1,700. The tontin organiser would also earn a fee for ‘collecting back the loan’ when the final repayment was made. That was a common way for the average coolie to send money back home to their families in China. Most remittances to China were through Eu Yan Sang. Eu Yan Sang was a Chinese herbal wholesale merchant. The shop was at the corner of Chulia and Pitt Street. For the blessed ones, their bigger sums were remitted through the Bank of China at Beach Street. The bank closed after the communists won the civil war in China. Another method of sending money home was through a relative or friend who was going back to China. Filial piety was best measured by the amount of money people sent home. It was also true that the more they sent, the more successful they portrayed themselves to be in the new world.

Soon’s mum was born in Penang. Her adoptive parents were poor. But her birth parents were rich. A bit unusual, since it was the norm for the rich to have as many kids as possible and for the poor to give away their children due to their inability to make ends meet. Her biological father owned a junk boat. Most parents in that generation didn’t value daughters. Sold, given away for free or just marry them off. But, it could have been worse. Daughters can be simply  ‘made to disappear’. It is still true today in China which explains the skewed ratio between males and females. Out of the population of 1.4 billion in China, there are 34 million more males – the equivalent of the total population of Malaysia. There is a song with the lyrics “Nobody wants me, I am nobody’s child.” It could have been easily written by Soon’s mum.

I’m nobody’s child

I’m nobody’s child

Just like the flowers

I’m growing wild

No mummy’s kisses

And no daddy’s smile

Nobody wants me

I’m nobody’s child

Karen Young

Soon’s mum didn’t say how old she was when she was sold off. The common guess was she was maybe around eight or nine. Later on, Soon’s maternal grandma (the birth grandmother) regretted her decision to sell her child and asked Soon’s uncle to help his sister whenever he could. 

“My grandma had small little feet,” Soon said. 

“Was she your maternal or paternal grandma?” I asked. It is often confusing when someone who was adopted talks about their family. The Chinese do make it less complicated even if it is less politically correct. “Wai por” 外婆 is the maternal grandma, “Wai” means outside, the literal meaning is that the female side isn’t part of the family. “Ju mu” 祖母 is the paternal grandma, the word “Ju” means ancestral. 

“Was that your mum’s birth mother or adoptive mother?” I pressed Soon. 

“When we were small, we kept looking at her pestiferous feet – the putrid smell was overpowering most of the time,” Soon replied without answering my questions. Later, he told me he was referring to his mother’s biological mother. The woman not only gave birth to his mum but also gave her her genes.

Soon’s mum spoke of an incident where a midwife with a long history of opium addiction delivered a child. The baby couldn’t let out her vagitus and looked blue in her face after birth. The midwife quickly puffed some opium onto the newborn’s face. The child miraculously cried out and started to breathe normally. The newborn was an addict even in the mother’s womb. Opium addiction was rife in those days. That was how the Brits forced China to her knees when they could not pay for the tea and porcelain they were addicted to. So, they introduced opium to the Chinese and later won both Opium Wars to fix the trade imbalance. Not only were all debts forgiven or paid with the spoils of war, the British Empire carved out big territories in China for their own benefit, as did other Western powers and Japan. Addicts were so common in Penang there was even a Taoist deity who was the God of Opium. He was in charge of Hell, quite appropriately. In a Taoist temple that a young Soon often visited, he would not fail to pray to a deity who was always on the floor with a fan on his right hand and a tongue sticking out of his mouth in a cheeky manner. Chinese mothers often queued up to pray to the deity to grant them their wishes or to thank him for answering their prayers. If their wish came true, they had to buy some opium and place it on the deity’s mouth. The temple caretaker would place the opium on an ice cream stick. After the thanksgiving chants, the caretaker would immediately scoop back the opium for resale, lest the drug addicts partook in the opium. The prominent opium deity was located at the corner of Jelutong and Bridge Street. The temple was also a favourite haunt for those who prayed for empat ekor numbers (4-digit numbers) to come up in the next round of lotteries.

A junk boat similar to the one owned by Soon’s grandfather.

Soon’s grandfather’s jacket had many pockets. Before I asked him which grandpa, he told me he was the rich grandpa – the one who owned the junk boat that plied the Straits of Malacca freighting precious cargo alongside the peninsula. The pockets were obviously to keep his money safe in different locations. The Chinese were obsessed with money. It was common for the first generation Chinese to habitually sleep at the Paya Terubong Heavenly Temple just to dream of a 4-digit number. Some people called the temple twelve hundred steps. In olden days, Captain Francis Light’s bronze statue stood opposite Convent Light Street and inside the Penang High Court compound. Soon wondered whether the dead Englishman who, according to Western narratives, founded Penang would have turned in his grave if he knew joss sticks and candles were forever placed at his statue’s feet for good luck. The young Soon did not see the irony of those Chinese gamblers praying to a dead Englishman for some winning numbers. Colonial masters did what they knew best –  extract the wealth from their colony and repatriate it back to their imperial homeland. Many years later, someone in the local government decided to move the statue inside the museum. That decision saved the municipality from paying a cleaner to clean the feet of Francis Light’s statue.

Soon’s dad told him he planted a longan tree before he left his hometown in China and emigrated to Penang. “I believe most immigrants did that,” Soon said. “Our relatives told us it was a big tree in their compound by the time his dad made his return journey to visit his folks,” he said. His dad also told him the story of a friend who nailed a python’s head onto a plank. The friend made a small slit on the snake’s abdomen to harvest its gallbladder. He left the gallbladder on the garden bench and went inside the house to get a bowl. When he returned, the snake was gone. This happened during the Japanese occupation of Penang. Some twenty years later, Soon’s dad and his friend went snake gallbladder hunting again and to their surprise, the snake they caught that day was missing its bladder! 

Soon’s grandma knew a lot about traditional Chinese medicine. Snake gall bladders and pangolin scales were exceptionally good to cleanse blood. A dried penis from a black dog was best to ward off evil – especially in the high seas. Soon’s grandpa carried one with him whenever he went out on his junk boat. 

“How long was that black dog’s penis?” I asked, my eyes enlarged with wonderment. It was amazing that there was a more important purpose for a penis. Warding off evil with a dog’s appendage was a revelation for me. I always thought it was a man’s appendage that got him into all sorts of trouble normally.

Soon’s grandma was the fourth girl in her family. Even though her family was quite well off, the general consensus in her day was that two daughters were enough. Four was definitely one too many. So, she was sold. Soon’s maternal grandparents came to Malaya in 1900. In that era, junk boats plied around Southern Thailand and Malaya. Most of the sailors were opium addicts. Not surprisingly, since opium was legal under British occupation. The former headquarters of The Star News opposite the Goddess of Mercy temple on Pitt Street was a thriving opium outlet. It was preferred that rich sons of Chinese towkays turned to opium addiction rather than gambled away the family wealth or mixed with bad company. Opium soothed the sick and prolonged their lives. Early immigrants had no medicine and opium was what they turned to for everything to do with pain and suffering. Were the British the worst people on earth? Possibly, in their eyes but after their lives had been wrecked. Soon had one relative whose two generations before him were hooked on opium. Luckily, his grandparents were free of opium as they were poor. Opium was somewhat of an equaliser to society in their era. Rich people became poor and poor people remained poor.

“Have you heard the old Chinese saying that wealth never crosses three generations?” Soon asked me.

“Maybe it is because of the three generations of addicts,” he said without waiting for my answer. He said the wealth of a junk boat owner mostly lasted two to three generations. The cargo boats were operational until the late 60s. It was a dying business for Soon’s grandpa by the time he was born. He said most Hokkien people in Penang originated from around Xiamen areas. Soon reckoned Penang food has a similar taste to Xiamen food. The floor granite for the 5-foot way in Penang also came from Xiamen. Immigrants imported them from their homes in the 1930s.

Soon’s mum and brother were the only two kids their adoptive parents had. She was already old enough to know who her biological parents were when she was sold. She knew where they lived and so was able to visit the natural parents and siblings quite often. Even today, Soon still has contact with those cousins. Soon’s mum did not harbour any recriminations towards her biological family. “We still have contact with grandma’s real family siblings. My uncle, her real 2nd brother, married at 14 years old,” Soon said. “My uncle passed away a long time ago,” he added. It was common for the Chinese to describe their biological family as real. Is the adoptive side less real, I wondered silently.

“As we moved from house to house many times, we lost all our family photos,” Soon lamented when I asked him to show me what his parents looked like. Soon could not find a single photo of his parents when they were young. His mum was born in Penang and his dad arrived in Penang by steamship. “He didn’t mention the number of passengers – it could have been at least fifty or more,” Soon said. His parents lived in the same neighbourhood, and often met on the streets. They fell in love and therefore did not require a matchmaker to arrange their marriage.

In the old days, people married within their own dialect. It was rare to marry outside perhaps because people seldom venture out of their villages. Soon’s dad was considered tall in his generation. At five foot six, he was at least a head above most others. He combed his hair all towards the back, no parting line just like Mao Zedong’s but without the receding hairline. He was a handsome man with sharp facial features. His mum was at least five foot four, a rather good height for a woman in those days. “Was she slim?” I asked. “Nobody was plump in those days,” Soon said curtly.

Soon’s dad had one elder sister and a younger brother. “On mum’s side – not the adopted ones – she had two brothers and three sisters,” Soon said, emphasising he was talking about the biological side. “My dad borrowed money to start a small hotel business and paid ‘tea money’ for their house after the 2nd world War,” he said. ‘Tea money’ was rent paid by sub-lessees to the chief tenant of the house. 

My father went back to his hometown after 52 years away. It was his final visit. His main task was to repair his parents’ tomb, out of filial piety and perhaps also to wish for prosperity and success.

I am sure he prayed for health too. I said in my mind.

“We all believe the grandparents will bless all the grandchildren with success and wealth,” Soon said. So, it made sense to let the dearly departed know that they are not forgotten. Soon went to his father’s village three years ago, just before the pandemic.

“Nobody wanted to show me which house my father lived in,” he said. “I guess they were afraid their Malaysian family may be tempted to lodge a claim,” he said.

A reasonable assumption, I thought.

“My cousins there are quite well-to-do,” Soon said. In China, it is customary to have leftovers on the dining table. Every dish must have some uneaten portion. No clean plates!

“Clean means not enough to eat,” Soon said, revealing his logical mind.

In the next chapter, I would like you to share your story about your wife,” I said to Soon, hoping there will be more stories to be revealed.

“My wife’s original family came from Samba, Indonesian Borneo. Somebody brought a baby and placed her at the Methodist Church doorstep in Kuching,” Soon started. The baby was his wife’s grandma. I later learned that Soon’s wife is a third generation Methodist Christian, which is to be expected considering the nuns took care of her. All Soon knows about his wife is that she was a Hakka who lost all her roots. But, soon, there will be more to be revealed about Soon.

It’s Silly To NFT It

Exactly six months after I wrote ‘It’s Nifty To NFT It’, my sentiments have totally changed. The Bitcoin price then was USD41,911, today I feel jubilant if it rises above the 20K mark. Not so long ago, a Bored Ape NFT would fetch in excess of a million bucks, today, you’d be lucky to sell yours for USD100K. As prices plummeted, Bill Gates came out to say that the NFT market relies totally on the “Greater fool theory’. If the chap is right, I’d be a fool to have any faith in NFTs. So, it’s kinda silly to keep talking about it, right?

“What is it anyway, this NFT?” a friend asked in a deadpan voice. He suggested the ‘F’ in NFT should mean the swear word, considering many people would have lost over 70% of their investments. “We have No eFfing Time for such nonsense,” he said, quite cleverly. So, it looks increasingly futile to NFT the many paintings I have collected in my photo gallery from visits to the Hermitage museum. It seemed like a great idea to convert them into digital assets that will be collectable and therefore valuable in the future. Most things can be tokenised and be of value. Whilst money and currencies are fungible, there are assets that aren’t fungible, such as digital art and music. They are one-offs and cannot be easily replaced.

“That’s just bonkers to think anyone would part with their money for a thing they can’t feel or touch,” said my friend. He can’t understand that an experience can be felt, even if it is not physical.

“Besides, you can sell or rent it out to a virtual museum in the metaverse,” I said.

Renoir’s ‘Young Woman with a Fan’ will be disappointed she won’t be in the metaverse.

I had also planned to convert a painting of my mother into an NFT. I had even prepared the notes for it. In my heart, her portrait will not only exist in the physical form, but will also exist in the digital realm. What better way to honour her then to ‘teleport’ her to the metaverse? How would the 99-year-old feel about the idea that she will exist forever in both physical and digital forms?

Niang loves durian. Artist: Anne Koh

Of all virtues, filial piety is the first 百善孝為先

The concept of filial piety for the Chinese stems from the great sage, Confucius. The key

word is 養/养, pinyin: yǎng, which means ‘feed’, or ‘raise’. It is therefore not surprising that food is a symbol often used to depict our love and respect for our elders, through feeding and looking after their needs when they need our support and care most.

Anne Koh’s painting of ‘Niang’ or mother fully captures the spirit of obedience, respect, care and love for her elder. Niang is visibly content and happy with the durian (a thorny fruit from SE Asia) in her hand. Her effort to hide her smile and contain her appreciation, whilst showing off the durian which she obviously is enjoying, emanates from typical Chinese culture of behaving with appropriate decorum given her hierarchical status as Matriarch of her family. The formality of receiving food from her children who are not present in the painting is a strong symbol of filial piety, parental care on the one hand and of the ‘debt’ towards their elders on the other.

Wu Yonggang

It also looks increasingly likely that I will have to abandon my plans to NFT The Mrs’ painting of Third Son. If it is silly to NFT his music, it must be also silly to NFT the painting of him deep in thought and expressive outpouring with his cello.

Third Son during Covid years. Artist: The Mrs

The lost years of the pandemic is aptly depicted by The Mrs’ painting of Third Son’s journey as a musician. Some of his early childhood music still echoes in the house. ‘Song of the Wind’ and ‘May Song’ linger in the hearts and minds of the remaining residents of the house where the tyranny of time and harshness of distance can do no damage to the fond memories that forever reside there. On the bottom right corner of the painting, a snippet of Third Son’s notes in his diary reveals his love for the cello and his yearning for his absent father who was away in Sydney for long periods due to demands from his work. The young boy’s wish was to sit on his father’s shoulders and play his cello. On the left of that are the busts of the cellist’s favourite composers, whose music today form the cello’s greatest repertoire. Beethoven, Elgar, Shostakovich, Dvorak and Brahms, just to name a few. Even John Williams is there, but mostly for his Star Wars music which has been an enduring legacy of his fervent love for music. Picasso’s Old Guitarist, terribly hunched and haggard, bears no connection to Third Son but is there to depict the harsh desperation that Covid lockdowns had unleashed on the music world where musicians and other artists were bled of work opportunities. The Mrs aptly described the starkness between a vibrant life and suffering by using the image of a healthy tree-top to depict a fake normalcy of a healthy society but below it, the sad desperate truth is outed by a scene of devastation and direness unleashed by the bleached-white spikes of a Sars-CoV-2 virus on miserable orchestral players, some masked, others sombre and gloomy.

It’s not just that NFTs add value to art. It’s that art is a way to add value to any NFT.

Balaji Srinivasan

Who is Balaji Srinivasan? A hero, a genius, to me. Still quite a young chap, the Stanford University engineering alumni has won some notable awards such as the MIT Technology Review’s ‘Innovators Under 35’ Award and a Wall Street Journal Innovation Award. He sees a future where those who belong to a new country or state will require an NFT to ‘sign-on’ or a passport to enter a world where only they can enjoy an extra layer of the world where those without cannot see or experience. That NFT allows you to belong to an integrated community that is physically distributed but digitally connected in one place, in other words, a network state.

A network state is a social network with a moral innovation, a sense of national consciousness, a recognised founder, a capacity for collective action, an in-person level of civility, an integrated cryptocurrency, a consensual government limited by a social smart contract, an archipelago of crowdfunded physical territories, a virtual capital, and an on-chain census that proves a large enough population, income, and real-estate footprint to attain a measure of diplomatic recognition.

Balaji Srinivasan

So, I stand with arms akimbo and wonder which direction I should take. Is it nifty to NFT it? Or is it really silly to? I am so rugged up with layers and layers of thick winter clothes in the house, that I appear to have no neck to speak of. “Why don’t you turn on the heater?” Third Son asked me on a video chat.

Perhaps The Mrs said it best, “Dear, just remember that money has a way of burning a hole in your pocket.” I shrugged my shoulders and this time, even I felt neckless and feckless as she ended our conversation with words that still reverberate chaotically in my ear drums.

Long Walks And Small Talks

My Hongkonger friend shredded me into pieces in front of ninety of our childhood schoolmates last Sunday evening. All over a joke. So, not a single bloke laughed at it. That is how easy it is to kill a joke. By shooting the guy who said it. Publicly. Be scathing, treat the joker like he is a joke. Or, better still, reprimand him like he is a child, show him utmost disrespect. Ignore the fact that he is as old, if not as experienced as any of the sexagenerians witnessing the discourse.

The joke was about a British woman who lost her case after she tried to sue the NHS for botching her husband’s eye operation. “Me and me ‘usband Fred ‘ave ‘ad bangin’ sex till ‘e went ta ‘ospital and ‘ad ‘is operation, now ‘e’s not interested ‘n me and it’s all down to them twats,” she complained to the magistrate. The surgeon who performed the operation gave evidence and said “All we did was removed Fred’s cataracts.” Had I been laughing at her fat and ugly body, then fair enough, it would have been only right that someone told me off for laughing at someone’s misfortune. But, the joke was about our perception of life. How with clear sight, we will look at something or someone totally differently. Notwithstanding the fact that the joke was accompanied by a photo of a rather obese woman wearing a sleeveless body-hugging fishnet dress that left nothing to our imagination about the grossly large body deformed by heavy amorphous blubber overhanging perilously from her pale-coloured sagging breasts. Her bright red stockings which were rolled up to just above her knees failed abjectly to distract our eyes from the star-shaped black patch sewn onto the fishnet which fortunately hid what I suspected were rather swollen nipples.

“What is your point of forwarding the article?” he asked. I was cognisant that he did not use the word ‘joke’. Words are so easily abused to distort facts. A joke is a joke is a joke. But, call it an article, and it is no longer a joke.

“It’s such a bad joke! You knew Edgar just had his cataracts done,” he said, raising his voice.

Edgar Poe, according to a self-confession a few days later, was quite anxious about his cataract surgery. I have many siblings who had theirs done, without fuss. My parents and father-in-law also had theirs done, without any calamity. I was unaware that Edgar was feeling at a knife’s edge over his operation. But, he had already shared another joke about an eye operation earlier the same day, so I knew he had gotten over his anxiety and was well on his way to a full recovery. His joke was funnier, the cartoon had the eye patient’s hands fully bandaged up rather than his eyes. A caption explained that this was to prevent him from using his phone to text his friends.

“It is a bad joke,” chimed another close friend, “and it is badly timed,” he added.

“It is about caring among brothers in this group,” the Hongkonger continued, more boldly, sensing support from other friends.

“A badly timed joke is a very bad joke,” he surmised.

“You guys are so uptight. Chill. You’re incredibly serious and hot under the collar. I’m so sorry that you find it hard to laugh,” I replied.

“I wonder if you’re even smiling at all. Breathe! So sorry that you’ve lost your sense of humour,” I said dryly, and tried to put him on the defensive.

“Not at the expense of others,” he said with an air of superiority.

We all know whoever sounds the more chivalrous and the more considerate will be judged the better character. Yes, he may have sounded more caring, but was he really? He didn’t care to hurt my feelings!

“Anyway it’s Sunday night. I’m going to enjoy a nice movie. I am sorry that you have such a dramatic issue with a joke. Anyway, please take a long walk, breathe in some fresh air, and find something to make yourself laugh. Good night, bro,” I said, as I walked away into the night. If I had a tail, it would be down between my legs.

Seneca was right all those years ago. Nourish our minds, refresh ourselves with fresh air and deep breathing. Take long walks and solve our problems along the way. But, is this one a problem? Should I be bothered by my childhood friend’s rather unsubtle remarks? Chiding me for posting a bad joke, criticising me for not caring for a fellow friend’s sensitivities, posting an ‘article’ at the expense of another – these are all severe judgements against my character. Take a walk, breathe, think, stay calm, and don’t react. I reminded myself of an old saying I learned recently, if we want a good day, get it from ourselves. Don’t make things worse, Marcus Aurelius’ words also came into my head.

If you want some good, get it from yourself.

Epictetus, Discourses, 1.29.4

I was in the bathroom doing all the routine tasks just before bed when I received a barrage of text messages from another childhood friend. I do understand why I am often the target for criticisms or maybe even scorn. Maybe through my writings, they see me as a parvenu. A somewhat less deserving, less qualified person who has suddenly walked into their social circle. They accuse me of being indecorous but I am just being myself, different and perhaps indifferent to some extent. Sometimes, I think all they want from me is to be as lifeless as a coffin, and as predictable as a tomb. I gnashed a smile at the mirror.

You should delete your joke. Please do not send jokes about cataracts,” my good friend continued to urge me.

“Cataract operation is such a common thing for people of our age. It’s nothing big deal and Edgar’s was done a few days ago now. Totally successful, so I’m shocked by this need for us to tiptoe about and be extra considerate,” I replied. Edgar posted a joke this morning too. If he can joke about his eye operation, it means he’s fine. “So please don’t tell me I’m being inconsiderate or unthinking!” I protested. Don’t make things worse, I reminded myself. But equally, they shouldn’t make things worse also. Again, they treat an old man of 63-years with three grown-up sons like a child. You should do this. You should not do that. He is a good friend, he means well, I told myself. Otherwise, he would have criticised me publicly too. Tear me into pieces and feed me to the vultures? That he did not do. So, he’s alright. Besides, our conscience is personal, it does not abide by public opinion. I know I meant no harm – a joke after all, if taken the proper way, can only be harmless. I should continue to ignore nebulous concepts like politically correct statements that are tailored to please the populists who divide rather than unite us. So, I abandoned my plans to go to bed and put back on my day clothes that Murray had infused his body smell with. I stepped into the cold dark night which was missing the moon. Breathe. Enjoy the calm of the night, I told myself. By the time I got back from a long walk, I was thankful for my friends. They are just being themselves, true with me. At least we do not engage in small talks. You know, the sweet nothings that are empty of meaning and thin on honesty.

Murray insists that is his ball; he found it on the road-side but I picked it up. Painting by The Mrs.

Amongst all the people I know, there is no one who has changed my life more than Murray. And Murray isn’t even a human being, although often I suspect he is one, or at least an alien. Murray came to us when he was just weeks old. A puppy from Murray Bridge. He never ceases to amaze me when so many around me cannot understand me (or refuse to). Murray has a knack of knowing what I’ll do next before the thought even crosses my mind. By alien, I mean his predictive power, as if he is wired with an algorithm that suggests an intelligence far greater than mine.

How has he changed my life? Well, he has made me physically fitter! Together, we have walked hundreds and hundreds of kms. When once upon a time, I would robotically drive my car to a letter box up the street or to the local deli round the corner, it is perfunctory for me today to simply put on my walking shoes and take a walk instead.

How else has he changed me? Well, he has taught me to breath more deeply and that has enabled me to deliberate on important matters with a refreshed mind. So, I think my decision-making has improved. Long walks are great for us to find an equilibrium – a balance in our mental faculties – and to declutter our minds so that we can think more strategically. Nourish our minds with clean fresh air and we will surely solve our problems along the way. From Murray, I also observed that obstacles on the path become the way. If there is dog shit on the path, we sidestep it. If there is a puddle of water, we step over it. If the gate is shut, we find another route. Similarly, if a friend is rude, I forgive him. If he is unfairly picking on me, I simply smile. If he is hurtful, I practise forgiveness. If he is kind, I remind myself to be as well. If I find a mistake, I learn from it.

The obstacle on the path becomes the way.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.20

“How old is your dog?” a Chinese lady asked me in Hazelwood Park. “I should unleash my dog so they play together,” she said. Dog owners are somehow friendly to one another. Hers was also a poodle mix. For a long while, I had kept telling people Murray was two and a half years old. The Mrs’ sister said it can’t be, time does not stand still. As it turned out, she was right and I was wrong. Well…not by much. Murray will in fact be four years old this September. The Chinese lady suddenly rattled off in Mandarin that was laced with a strong Beijing accent. “Ni de kou hen kuai, 你的狗跑的很快” she said, having noticed that her dog could not catch Murray. Yes, Murray is a fast runner, a lot quicker. Besides, he darts and weaves like a soccer player. No one can catch him. At times he would venture to the opposite end of the park, sniffing and peeing at strategic trees and bushes. When I see he is far enough, I would bolt as fast as I could away from him. Yet, he would be right at my heels in no time. Yes, he is that fast!

Dog owners are friendly and courteous to one another, this is true. Yet, it has not escaped my attention that it is only the women with their dogs that are friendly and talkative. The men would at best simply nod their heads as they walk past, but not so for the women. They must engage in small talk. The small talks I have had are seldom interesting but what a woman said to me the other day made me wonder a lot. She was about my age, perhaps a few years younger. Well-spoken and well-dressed, she sounded sophisticated and intelligent. Her accent suggested upper class British elite if not aristocracy. Her dog and Murray caught on like a house on fire. They became best friends very quickly. It was her dog’s tennis ball; surprisingly, Murray knew the etiquette of not retrieving the ball during the game of ‘Fetch’ even though he was the faster of the two. The English woman would throw the ball and sometimes, I would kick it to them. Murray never once fell for my fake moves, preserving his readiness to actually run after the ball whereas the other dog time and time again was tricked by my pretend kicks to the opposite direction. All the while, the lady made small talk.

She was quite a beautiful woman, if my memory serves me correctly. She wore a low bun too, although hers was more full-bodied than mine. Mine was a mess whereas hers was neatly bundled below a stylish woollen hat. Other than that, she was dressed as if ready for horse-riding. A white shirt beneath a tight elegant black jacket with matching tight khaki riding pants held up by a dark green belt and of course, a compulsory accessory, a pair of fancy knee-height leather boots.

“So, do you come here often?” she asked. Before I had the chance to open my mouth, she added, “This is my first time here. My husband normally takes our dog for his walks,” she said. “But, he is in Melbourne for a few days, and so here I am,” she said in a sweet voice and smiled at me, her eyes met mine and lingered. I returned a sugared smile and just then, a much younger chap walked towards us and started talking loudly about the weather. I took the opportunity to say goodbye and Murray proved his obedience as he sat down for me to clip the leash to his collar. As I took the long walk home, I could not stop to wonder why a woman would tell a strange man her husband was away for a few days. Small talks can be so dangerous.

“Grrrrr, I want my ball back,” says Murray.

A Tort To Extort

The old man looked sad. He wasn’t aware anyone was watching him. I had heard about his story from my neighbour, The Bloke. The old man is related to The Bloke through marriage. Like a potato vine, it would be hard to explain how they are connected in a few words, so I shan’t bother. As the old man sipped his cappuccino, he held the ear of the cup with his pinky finger sticking up in the air. In the old days, he would have been called a ‘sissy’; worse still, if he were in Victorian times, it would indicate to those around him that he had syphilis. Today, his extended pinky would convey that he was simply snobbish, if not a touch feminine. I could hear his stomach wamble even though he was at the next table. Maybe he was still on IF, intermittent fasting. A sun beam came through the glass window, shining on him like a spotlight. His hair was mainly hoary with the black ones fighting a losing battle. The glabella was typically that of a Chinese, clean of hair and well-defined. The light on his face had a pinky hue to it or maybe his face just had that healthy glow about it. His columella nasi was more on the red side, hinting that he had been blowing his nose, either too frequently or too harshly. I hoped he did not have Covid. He kept his hair long and had them swept behind his right ear; had it been his left ear, it would have exposed the deformity caused by a childhood accident. The sun must have been moving fast, as its beam suddenly hit my eyes and forced them to shut tightly. The phosphenes were still dancing in my mind as I tried to look away. His stubble was unusually neat but they still served their purpose and made him look rugged, if not masculine.

I gave him a fake smile as our eyes accidentally met. He misread my smile as genuine, and got up from his seat. No, no, don’t come over, I wished. I realised he was no mind reader as he walked over unsteadily, pulling up his loose blue jeans to his waist.

“Hey, how are you?” he asked. Without waiting for my answer, he mentioned how nice it was to see the sun out that morning. But, there was no chirpiness in his voice. He sounded like a dysania sufferer as he started complaining about how hard it was for him to get up off his bed most mornings. “I actually only got up early today because I was hoping to meet a friend here,” he said.

“Oh, ok, in that case, I should let you go back to your table,” I said, flashing another unwelcoming smile.

“No worries, he may not even turn up,” he replied, as he pulled out a chair on his side of my table. Gesturing him to sit, I asked if he would like a drink. To my surprise (ok, ok, to my shock, actually), he said, “Sure, why not. I’ll have another cappuccino.” A handsome waiter caught sight of my raised hand and briskly walked over.

“Can we have two cappuccinos please?” I asked, after I clicked my tongue. “And oh, can you swap this fork for me? It has some dried stuff on its tines,” I said, trying my best not to sound displeased with their tardiness.

The old man shook his head after the waiter had retreated out of view. “It’s like this everywhere; even the professionals are sub-standard these days,” he said. I nodded my head in agreement. It was a mistake. He took it as an encouragement to fire off a salvo of disparaging remarks about almost every profession under the sun. Oh, why must I endure this? My mind was working overtime as I looked for an excuse to disentangle myself from the toxic conversation. Damn. Why did I order another coffee? Otherwise, I could come up with an easy excuse to leave right now. I kept cursing myself until the handsome waiter returned with a tray containing our order.

“They are modern-day gangsters,” the old man said.

“Huh?” I asked, quite taken aback that my mind had wandered off and missed much of the man’s ranting. “Sorry, can you just say that again?” I said sheepishly.

“Gangsters. All of them,” he said, as he fidgeted in his seat; his bum failing to find a comfortable position on the chair. So, I tried to change the subject and told him a joke I had heard from a friend earlier in the week.

“Yeah, gangsters in the crypto markets too,” I said, hoping he did not catch me dozing off when he was speaking earlier. So, I continued with my joke. “Do you know what a Bitcoin investor said when I asked if he was worried about the prices falling?” The investor replied, he’s worried but he sleeps like a baby. “Wow,” I said, showing surprise. He explained, “Yeah, like a baby; I sleep for a couple of hours, then wake up, cry a lot and then sleep again for a short while but I cry a lot when I am awake again.”

The old man did not laugh. My joke fell flat on him somehow. And then, I found out why.

“It’s not funny, I am down 70%,” he said, looking decidedly a lot sadder.

Not knowing how to change the subject, I simply said, ” Talking about a baby’s cry, I learned a new word this week. Vagitus. Any idea what the origin of the word is?” I asked, wondering if it had somehow to do with a vagina.

“Anyway, I was talking about gangsters,” the old man said abruptly, looking slightly miffed. He started telling me his father’s story. By the time he finished, I was ready to leave. But, he caught the waiter’s attention and ordered two more coffees even after I said I was fine. His father was a small business owner in Penang who ventured out into coconut plantations and rubber plantations in the 50s and 60s. But, his small success caught the attention of the triads. One day, they knocked on his door and told him to follow them to a kopi-tiam (cafe) nearby. The gangsters ordered many rounds of drinks and food and left his dad there to pay for the bill. They made it clear to him that it was to be a weekly “get-together” to keep everyone happy.

Fully absorbed in his story, I said, “Bloody hell, that’s extortion!” But, that is what gangsters do. I had watched enough movies to know that. The Godfather. Scarface. Peaky Blinders. All with pretty much the same theme. From bootlegging to avoiding the Prohibition to prostitution and illegal gambling and selling drugs, but right through all that, there is always extortion.

” A gangster equals extortion,” I said in full agreement.

The old man then pulled out a sheet of A4 paper which was folded neatly into a small square. From the griffonage, he read out to me his notes from a recent meeting with his lawyer. After he finished his story, he placed his notes on the table. All I could discern from where I sat was the frequency of interrobangs used on the sheet, some large, some smaller, but all in thick and bold style. He paused and looked directly into my eyes. At that moment, I felt his sadness. The despair in his eyes seemed to reflect the eyes of a cow being herded into an abattoir. He took a deep breath and stared into space. Faintly shaking his head, he muttered something under his breath, briefly forgetting I was there. The busy twitching around his eyes and the involuntary jerky movements of his right shoulder hinted at his stress levels. Poor guy, I said silently to myself.

His story was one about a modern-day gangster. Dressed in the finest woollen suit, with matching shiny and pointy Italian fashion shoes, pure leather, of course. Well-groomed, impeccably presented, incredibly well-educated and well-spoken, and importantly, thoroughly verified and certified by one of the most prestigious institutions on the land, the Bar Association.

“Today’s gangster is a lawyer,” the old man told me.

The old man is a small business owner selling car accessories online. Almost two months ago, he received a letter from a big international law firm accusing him of intellectual infringement. The law firm claimed the old man’s business sold counterfeit floor mats by passing off them as original equipment products made by the carmaker that they represent. They claimed that the infringing conduct had caused loss and damage to the carmaker and given the flagrancy of the conduct, they were seeking a very significant award of additional damages over and above the loss of profit from the sale of said products. Amongst many other demands, the lawyer required all sorts of detailed information about the operations of the business, the customers’ information and demanded that the business send a customer recall letter to all customers requesting them to return the floor mats for a full refund and issue a public apology for those fraudulent activities. The lawyer also wanted the old man to pay for six months’ corrective advertising declaring his admission to selling counterfeit products and apologising for such conduct. Otherwise, and without further notice, the lawyer would institute proceedings in the Federal Court.

“Shit, that’s so scary! That would give me sleepless nights,” I said, displaying an insensitivity that was foreign to me. I was upset with my own thoughtlessness. Belatedly, I felt the jarring regret that I had further increased the old man’s anxiety by speaking words that had not dwelled long enough in my head. “But, you have nothing to worry about if you did not sell counterfeits,” I tried unsuccessfully to soothe his worries.

“I made a terrible mistake,” the old man said. “My own lawyer was also a gangster,” he spoke shakily.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I went to my lawyer’s office; being respectful, I dressed appropriately,” he said. “But, my lawyer was wearing an oversized cardigan and sloppy jeans. He apologised for his casual wear.” The old man had foolishly portrayed himself as a successful businessman in an expensive coat. His suede dress shoes caught the lawyer’s attention as the hard soles noisily enhanced his footsteps. “A day later, my lawyer increased his estimated fees by almost double,” the old man said.

The old man told them, very clearly and succinctly. Those floor mats were obviously advertised as after-market products, made to suit specific models of the carmaker. They were made by a family business in Sydney and branded as such, with the local company name, not the carmaker’s name. But, the law firm would not accept the facts laid out by the old man. So, he was left with no choice but to employ a local law firm to represent him. As a matter of principle, he would not be forced to make an admission of guilt that would destroy the reputation of his business, one that he had built up from the late 80s. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” the old man said. He told me he was forced to defend himself in the tort case when he had done absolutely nothing wrong. “Is that justice?” he asked. Even if he went to court and won, he would be out of pocket by many tens of thousands of dollars. “We never fully recover the legal costs, and that is only recoverable if we can get to the end of the hearing and win. Most of us will run out of money well before then,” the old man said and let out a long sigh. The carmaker’s lawyer wanted him to admit guilt and pay the settlement sum of $30,000. A simple demand to be met, an offer he can’t refuse. Or else. So simple. A carmaker client with deep pockets vs a small insignificant business. The small business owner knew he could ill afford to go to court, the court fees would cripple him. This was a simple case for the lawyer. Accept his offer, and pay him $30,000 or go to court and fight the case. Either way, he wins a big fee from a rich client. “A tort to extort,” said the old man.

How did you go broke? Two ways, gradually and then suddenly.

Ernest Hemingway
A long winter beckons for the old man. A crypto winter and a lawsuit.

“Let’s take a walk,” I said. As Lucius Seneca once said, we should take a walk outdoors so that our minds are refreshed by the open air and deep breathing. Whenever we need to do anything important, take a walk. Need to call your lawyer, take a walk. Need to borrow money, take a walk. Feel like arguing with The Mrs, take a walk. Your dog needs exercise, take a walk. Feeling lethargic, take a walk. Have to be creative, take a walk. Need a good solution to your problem, take a walk. Eager to buy Bitcoin, take a walk, and after that you are still sure to buy Bitcoin, take a walk again.

It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.

Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

A Henhouse For A Louse

I had always called it a coop, never a henhouse. The last coop I owned was infested with mites or lice – I didn’t bother to tell them apart, so I simply called them lice. They were blood red in colour when near but almost black from afar. Fast-moving black dots. My bad eyes did not tell me they were moving. The Mrs did. The thought of them made me itchy again. Sorry, I had to pause to satisfy that sudden urge to scratch my scalp vigorously. Somehow, the back of my neck started itching too, and then it was my face’s turn. Now, the itch has spread to my groin. I hope I don’t end up destroying another pair of undies. Ah, that felt much better.

Poor chooks. How they must have suffered. I didn’t know any better then. One day, so suddenly, the white one died. She was so beautiful I called her Snowy. At first, I assumed she had died of flu, some type of bird flu. Now, I think she may have been sucked to death by the busy lice. She was just happy to sit on the nest all day and was abnormally unbothered about being the first to get the food during feeding time. One morning I found her dead on the floor of the coop, having fallen off her nest during the night. The whiteness of her feathers had turned grey. Her previously red comb and pink face were slowly turning pale in the days before her death and when I saw her with both her legs stiff in the air, they were grey too. Death did not look pretty at all.

I had enough of scratching myself for days and days. I tried everything to kill the lice. The first obvious thing to do was to flush the coop clean with water. Then, I dusted my chooks with diatomaceous earth, the silica apparently kills the lice by drying them out. It is as cruel as dehydrating a living animal to a dry husk.

For many weeks, I sprayed poison on every crevice and watched the lice scurry out of their hiding places.

DIE! You and you and you! I found myself enjoying murdering them.

I think the lice brought up some sadistic emotions from deep within me. I was cheering enthusiastically as the lice stuttered and drowned in the poison.

More! More poison for you! Take this and this and this! I kept cheering in my head.

I realised the poison would be bad for me too. As careful as I was, I didn’t have any special protective clothing. Sure, I waited for days that were still and sunny, but the wind and the breeze had a mind of their own sometimes. Without a hazmat suit, some of the sprays were bound to reach my skin. So, I think I did the right thing by ‘my girls’ and did not shirk from protecting them the best I could.

The best I could? Did I say that?

Sorry, that was a lie. I failed to do the best I could. I did not check that the coop was secure. It was a stormy night with blustery conditions so bad it took down some big gum trees in the neighbourhood. Unfortunately, it also blew the roof of the coop’s nest off its hinges. Before I woke up the next morning, a fox had come to inspect the coop. How did it know that day would be the day the coop would not be fox-proof? My poor girls. They died a horrible death. All of them a bloody one, except for Reddy. She died of fright. There were no visible external wounds on her. Dottie fared the worst, she lost her head. Literally. She was a full grown hen, big and meaty and heavy with eggs. No, there was no temptation to prepare her for dinner. May they rest in peace.

Many months after their demise, I finally got the coop destroyed. It wasn’t that the roof wasn’t repairable, I just did not want to be reminded every day of the promise that I did not keep. I promised to look after them and to keep them safe. I promised them that one day they would earn a peaceful and safe retirement after years of giving me their eggs. A simple promise. Yet, I broke it. Unforgivable, really. So, I destroyed the coop. If I could not forgive myself, I should at least not remind myself.

That coop was a daily reminder of my failure!

As if to exculpate myself from the guilt, many months later, I embarked on a mission to build a solid coop for ‘next time’. But it must be 100% fox-proof! The Mrs seemed ready to extricate herself from the deep mourning too. It seemed fate made the decision for us. Just as she was entertaining the idea of keeping a new batch of hens, my phone rang. It was our sons’ retired music teacher from the conservatorium.

“I know of a ‘good chap’ who can build a coop for you,” Mr. L said.

“Sam is a bee-keeper; he is teaching me to be an apiarist! Do you want some honey?!” Mr. L continued joyfully.

Sam Tennikoff is a decent-looking chap, clean-shaven, remarkably courteous and amazingly fastidious about his work. He told me his name should have been spelt Tenikov, being male. The Tennikoffs took their paternal grandmother’s name to escape China during early communist rule. Being Christians, they feared persecution by the communists. Grandma Tennikoff had to flee Russia in the early 20th century, “around WW1 actually,” Sam said. Grandma fled Russia but her parents died somewhere in Russia on the journey to Ghulja in western Xinjiang. Her uncle, Ivan, was the leader of the clan. He survived. Many of the older kids also died during the journey. Grandma who was in her late teens met grandpa, Wu Vin San, a captain of the platoon that was patrolling the area.

“Wu?” I asked.

“The spelling is W U?” I asked quickly in the same breath. Sam nodded.

“Wow, is it written in Chinese with a mouth and sky?” I asked. I proceeded to write it in the air with very deliberate strokes.

Sam nodded again.

“Wow, we share the same surname!” I said to the young Russian man with blue eyes.

“Your grandpa didn’t leave China too?” I asked.

“No, he died too soon,” Sam said.

“In an avalanche,” he added.

Carrying out a normal routine patrol near the mountains in Yining (Ghulja), it was said people heard some explosions and the whole platoon was buried in the resultant avalanche. They suspected the Chinese authorities killed their own soldiers as many had inter-married the Russian settlers in the area and converted to Christianity. They suspected some of the soldiers were involved in some illicit trade but the main reason was, according to some who were there, the authorities frowned on those who followed a religion. The region was a tinderbox for the local natives, the Uyghurs. The Chinese were seeing a wave of nationalism after the success of the Xinhai revolution had toppled the Qing government and the rising influx of Russians was also becoming a source of anxiety. Just a few years later, Tsar Nicholas II was assassinated, thereby giving birth to the Russian Republic. Vin San was in his mid-20’s when he died. So, grandma Tennikoff fled again but this time with four kids of her own, the youngest being Alex Wu, Sam’s father. The eldest was a daughter and then two other boys. They were amongst hundreds of refugees. To escape capture by the communists, they forged their identities with fake travel documents and hid in cargo trains to avoid being seen. 

Alex Wu, by then known as Alex Tennikoff, arrived in Sydney when he was about eighteen months old. It was in 1959. Later, they moved to Adelaide. Alex’s elder siblings retained their Chinese culture as they were born in China and were old enough to remember the customs. Alex Wu lives in a pocket in Adelaide that many Russians reside in and therefore considers himself a Russian. Maternal grandma was also a Russian, to be precise a Polish-Russian. She married a Russian-Mongolian man who was an orphan raised by a Russian family.

In 1997, Ghulja was once again in the crosshair of Chinese authorities, but instead of quelling the growth of the Christian religion, the massacre in Ghulja was to put down the uprising of Muslims who were protesting for an independent Xinjiang. It led to the abolition of the East Turkestan Republic. Some of the Uyghurs fled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but were detained by the US military and sent to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Whilst incarcerated there, they were subject to a human rights violation called the Frequent Flyer Program, which deprived the inmates of sleep for prolonged periods.

Sam Tennikoff was born in 1992. He speaks a bit of Russian but not even a bit of Chinese. If Olivia Newton-John was Australia’s perennial girl-next-door because of her decent looks and good manners, Sam is definitely the perennial boy-next-door. Charming, innocent-looking and sweetly polite, Sam has the bright blue eyes, a gentle voice, cheerful disposition and lovely kind smiles to break any wooden heart. A dashing young man, he is a six-footer eligible bachelor who knows all there is to know about bee-keeping and making the tastiest 100% pure honey. One day, as Sam was bulging his biceps, carrying a load of timber on his shoulder, The Mrs tapped the window pane of her kitchen and waved excitedly to catch his attention. Her enthusiastic demeanour reminded me of the time when she was still a young single woman. The Mrs recovered her poise and said she was happy to see Sam turn up for work. She wanted our project to be completed expeditiously.

Sam, ever so meticulous and professional in his conduct and workmanship.

My initial budget for the coop was $2,700 but by the time it was built, Sam’s bill had doubled it. But, it was worth every cent of it. It was more a shed than a coop or a barn than a cage.

Fabrication and Assembly of:

  • Structure 3200 W x 2100 D x 2000 H mm
  • Combination of Steel and Timber Framing
  • Steel Roof Sheeting with Insulation Underlay
  • Galvanised Wire Mesh Ventilation Windows with Awnings
  • Galvanised Wire Mesh Fox-proof Fencing & Aprons
  • Internal Wall Framing & Roosting Bars
  • Guttering System
  • Water tank with automatic water supply
  • Solar-powered auto open/shut door
  • Automatic feeder
  • External Staircase
Collect the eggs from the three nesting boxes – sounds like a good plan.

Many weeks after the project was completed, the henhouse is still empty of hens.

“Can’t you find any girls?” one of my mates asked.

“Your henhouse isn’t so busy,” said another.

“Are you home much these days? Or do you spend more time at the henhouse?” asked a third chap.

“Oops, He has disappeared into his henhouse,” said another, who insisted that he be unnamed.

“Is he sitting quietly in his corner or is he in his henhouse?” Anonymous asked again.

“Into the henhouse he goes!” he cheered, after hearing the Nasdaq had dropped 4% overnight.

“He is crawling into his henhouse,” another said unkindly, inferring that I had lost an argument about the scam of plastic recycling.

Of course I know what they mean by a henhouse. In Chinese, a hen 鸡 (ji) sounds like 妓 (ji) prostitute, or 妓女 for a female prostitute. So a henhouse sounds like a whorehouse.

It is true that I have been reluctant to go and get some beautiful Wyandottes for now. My excuse is that it is winter anyway, and hens do not lay eggs when it is really cold. So, why waste money feeding chooks that won’t lay eggs, right? But, the inadmissible truth is that I am preparing for the day that I may be forced to move in there instead.

“Why?” a friend asked.

The share markets have crashed. We are seeing a long crypto winter. Very soon, even the real estate market here may crash. There is just nowhere to hide. What would The Mrs say if she knew how much I have squandered? What will she call me?

You’re a loser!

You’re lousy!

You’ve always been a louse!

These self-descriptive words ring loudly in my ears.

There is every likelihood that the henhouse I built is for the louse. Will The Mrs send me packing? Into the henhouse! I can hear her say so loudly. Suddenly, I felt like Gandalf the Grey who didn’t mean for many things to happen but they did anyway. I definitely didn’t mean for the lousy investments to crash or for the cashflow crisis my business is facing, but they did anyway. Sigh.

He didn’t mean for many things to happen but they did anyway.

Frodo Baggins
Sleeping quarters, below the roosting bars is a deep pile of wood shavings to “dry out” their poo. Did you notice the wire apron on the ground? It is to prevent foxes from digging under the fence.
My hens will learn to peck at the rubber nipples for water.
Adieu, adieu, to you and you and you, as they retire to sleep.

A water tank to collect rainwater from the gutter. Did you notice the solar-powered automatic door? It can be set to time or lumens.

Oh Gosh, It’s Josh!

My first impressions of Josh told me that he was not a pretentious man. He looked neither tall nor short, thin nor fat. Neither was he stylishly dressed nor posh in the way he spoke. He came across as genuine and confident. Respectful and respected. Time-tested, battle-hardened, eyes wide-opened. A man who would not offer lame excuses; in fact, a man who would not accept excuses. He was destined to fail, like the rest of his gang members. Yet, today he stands tall, flawed in his youth but in old age, spoken of in voices awed by his tenacity and drive. After knowing his story, I was reminded of Marcus Aurelius’ wise words.

If you find something very difficult to achieve yourself, don’t imagine it impossible.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.19

Joshua Paul is a worthy addition to the Urghhlings Marsh Brotherhood, a group of old schoolmates with eclectic ideas, opinions and varied mix of political and religious ideologies. A diverse group of people who grew up in the same town and were schooled under the one big umbrella of Lasallian brotherhood. His wonderful story is one of grit, determination and either luck or divine intervention, depending on your belief or lack of. In trying to reflect the struggles and adventures of the heroes in my stories to that of the outlaws’ of Liangshan Marsh in the Water Margin novel, I was hard-pressed to find the one character in that epic Chinese classic that best resonates with Josh’s. I mean, he was nothing like the military man, Major Lu Da who rendered the bully, Butcher Zheng, into a crumpled mess. The bully’s crime? Extortion from a singsong girl and her frail old father. He was nothing like Lin Chong either, another military man whose fighting skills were legendary. Lin Chong, a sworn brother of Lu Da’s got into trouble with the law after he rescued his pretty wife from being raped by the play-boy adopted son of Grand Marshal Gao Qiu. Josh was also nothing like Li Kui, although both were very dark-complexioned and endowed with a solidly-built body that hinted of bovine strength. Their natural look was serious with fiery-looking roguish eyes matched with lips that refused to smile. Possessing none of Li Kui’s bad temper and bad habits such as his fondness of gambling and killing people, Josh unfortunately got into as much trouble with the law though. It is who we mix with in life that can ultimately unravel us or save us.

Perhaps I could make a case for likening Josh’s early days to Shi Qian’s who was also known as ‘The Flea on a Drum’. Shi Qian, a small-time burglar, had a knack for stealing things. In the brigands’ stories, stealing is of course, not always a bad thing. In an earlier chapter, we learned that Shi Qian was the bloke who, while stealing valuables from graves, witnessed Yang Xiong killing his adulterous wife, Pan Qiaoyun. Shi Qian was also the one who duped Xu Ning, a highly admired imperial guard instructor, into joining the gang so that they could learn from him the skills of using the hooked spear or halberd. Shi Qian firstly had to steal Xu Ning’s precious impenetrable armour which was made of gold rings coated with swan feather.

Josh was born in Nazareth, but not the Nazareth that was made famous in the best-selling book of all time. His birthplace was not the Nazareth just 90 miles from Bethlehem, Jesus’ birthplace. Yet Jesus was to touch Josh’s life and transform him into the wonderful person that he is today. Josh’s Nazareth is at the southern end of India, approximately 630 km from Chennai, an arduous and stuffy eleven-hour bus ride. India’s Nazareth was a Christian-majority town, created by missionaries, primarily through the work of Canon Arthur Margoschis (1852-1908), reputedly the ‘Father of Nazareth’. Josh’s father left Nazareth for economic reasons and when Josh was six, his elder brother brought him to Penang. Life was great for the kid in Nazareth but once he left his hometown, he had to grow up very quickly.

His dad, John Paul Ponniah, could not hold a permanent job. His income came mainly from giving private tuition in English, math and Tamil to children of business traders and hawkers but occasionally, he was asked to teach rich adults in their homes. Tall, lean and muscular, his dad stood straight and walked with an easy stride. Always seen in a white shirt and white pants, he was a handsome man with a promising future. His monthly tuition fee of $5 seldom varied unless a student had extenuating circumstances. Josh was the only non-paying student in his father’s class of maybe ten to twelve students. The classroom was where his father cooked during lessons and also served as their bedroom at night. For a short time, they catered lunch from a woman who lived on Church Street. Her tiffin carrier had five tiers, but Josh did not have fond memories of the food that was provided. On rare occasions, his father gave him 30 cents to buy a delicious meal of mee goreng and ice kachang at the esplanade. Living with his dad was not pleasant for Josh. He couldn’t handle the constant pressure from his father’s grand expectations.

“My dad visited my class teacher at least three times a year. Needless to say what happened when he found out how bad my results were,” Josh said, twitching as he hinted at the scars from the early beltings.

“I don’t remember enjoying my childhood at all, my father was a very strict man and expected me to pass all the subjects,” Josh said.

School was boring for young Josh. The boy had his priorities all wrong, he was more preoccupied with the paltry sum of ten cents for his pocket money. Usually, he had to save up the money for a few days before he could afford to order from the canteen. The proud boy would not be seen in the queue for the free food either. During school recess, he would watch the others eat. One day, a foreign-looking boy with blue eyes and long curly eyelashes bought him a coconut candy. A candy bar all for himself! The joy the boy gave Josh was so foreign it made a lasting impression on him.

“Thank you, Richard Lim or Blue Eyes, as we call him,” Josh said with a fondness in his heart.

Josh and Blue Eyes, reunited in 2022 after 54 years.

“My escapades running from home started when I was 9 years old,” Josh said, his voice turning serious.

“One evening when I was in Std 4, I decided to leave my father for good,” he continued.

He took a ferry to Butterworth and then walked on the railway tracks towards Kuala Lumpur. Hitching a train ride without a ticket, he pretended to sleep or locked himself in the toilet whenever he saw the ticket inspector approach the carriage. He did this repeatedly till he reached Kampar railway station in Perak. At Kampar, he begged for money unsuccessfully from many people until one kind man stopped to help. Josh still remembers the man’s name as Subramaniam.

Old Kampar Railway Station

Subramaniam brought him to his house and after providing a meal to the hungry boy, he surrendered the well-fed boy to the local police station. When questioned by the police officers, he told them his name was Joseph so that he couldn’t be traced back to his strict father. By that time, the angst-ridden father had placed an advertisement in the local newspaper about his son’s disappearance.

The police did not know what to do with Josh, so they transferred him to Selibin Boys’ Home. There, he made several attempts to run away but after repeated warnings, the wardens finally sent him to Asrama Sentosa, another boys’ home in Kuala Lumpur. During the May 13 riots, Josh spent some nervous days there. He impressed the warden who made him the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper’s duty was to open the gate for visitors and government officers. This arrangement was fine for some time till he got fed up. So, he packed his bags and escaped but was caught a few days later walking alone in the middle of the night on the railway track heading towards Penang.

After severe interrogations, the obstinate boy told the truth and confessed to the authorities that his real name was Joshua. He was brought to the juvenile court in Kuala Lumpur (KL) and handed over to his rather angry yet relieved father. After missing STD 4 and 5, Josh was surprisingly allowed back to his school, St Xavier’s Institution. The teacher was Louise Barbossa, an excellent teacher who made Josh feel accepted. Josh’s poor grades did not make his father happy so he was again routinely caned. His father’s resolve finally broke one day and he handed Josh to the welfare home. How does a father give up on a son? What goes through a man’s mind before reaching such a sad decision? Surrendering one’s child, denying him of love and security, admitting failure, giving up on a loved one? What does a son feel upon such abandonment by his own father? Guilt? Remorse? Anger? Cynicism? Hatred?

“Did his act break the bonds of trust and love forever?” I asked.

“Were you permanently damaged?” I asked again.

Josh remained glum. Sullen in his own thoughts. The welfare home sealed his fate that year when they sent him to the Paya Terubong Boys’ Home. This home was different from all the other homes that Josh had been to. The guys there were hardcore gangsters, thieves, and robbers but surprisingly they were mostly Josh’s age, about 14 or 15. Many of them were just ‘doing time’, waiting to be transferred to their final destination, Henry Gurney’s School in Malacca. Josh recognised immediately that his life had changed forever. His dad had forsaken him – found him too hard to handle and beyond saving. He knew he was on his own. He knew that to survive, he had to be brave, tough and decisive. Josh lived in that home whilst attending Form 2 at Scotland Secondary School.

Form 3, like all his other years in school, was boring for Josh. So, he asked his dad to arrange a one-way ticket for him to return to India. Josh packed all his belongings including his precious stamp collection and set off for Nazareth. He boarded the Rajula, a vessel that plied between Singapore and Nagapatinam in South India. The journey took six nights and seven days. The Rajula was not your luxurious cruise liner. Many passengers, including Josh, had to literally run to secure a place to sleep on the deck as soon as the gate was opened. During those days, the customs guys in India were very strict. Almost every item brought in by the passengers was taxed. Whatever they did not tax, they stole. So, Josh was dispossessed of all the gifts for his mother and other relatives that were entrusted to him by his dad.

Nazareth was a small dusty place of no more than a few thousand people. The town was hard to keep clean since it did not rain for most of the year. For a good five months, Josh enjoyed the simple life with his mother, especially her delicious food. Very soft-spoken, considerate and kind, Kirubai Paul was a housewife, a simple woman from a village not far from Nazareth. There was only one entry and exit point for all vehicles into and out of the town. An artist could paint Nazareth quite accurately with one police station, a very old post office and about a hundred small shops scattered all along the main dusty road. Make it very very dusty. The St John Cathedral tower would probably be the tourist attraction. For reasons unknown to Josh, the schools there were well known all over the south of India. Just before the expiry of his re-entry permit to Malaysia, Josh decided he wanted to return to Penang. His dad promptly sent him a second-class berth ticket which meant he did not have to sleep on the deck again.

Life in Penang was even more miserable for Josh; his mother’s delicious food had become just a memory, with only roti chanai and lousy tiffin carrier food to look forward to each day. By then sixteen years of age, he had become more argumentative, more stubborn, and less amiable. John Paul Ponniah, a domineering man who could not hold his temper well, was unpredictable and filled with anger at life. The two did not get on well at all. After a heated argument with his father, Josh was told to return to school or find a job. Josh decided he would not return to school. He started work as a salesman in a bookstore in Chowrasta Market. His wages was a meagre $80 a month plus ten cents for tea break which was always spent on a cigarette and a Hacks lolly to mask the tobacco smell. After work, his life was his life to live and his father had no say in the matter even though the old man was well aware of the bad company Josh was keeping with gangsters who menaced Lines Road and its neighbourhood.

“I was so naïve and ignorant of the danger by getting involved with the wrong company,” Josh said.

“Dad was right, I could have been easily killed during the gang fights, and there were plenty of fights!” Josh admitted, without any prodding from me.

“It was the mercies of God that saved me,” Josh said, finally revealing to me his faith in God.

Soon, it was time to leave Penang for good. His father’s income as a tuition teacher had dropped drastically due to the change in the school syllabus from English to Malay. Through a friend, John Paul had found a better job for Josh, in a book store in a quiet town called Kuala Lipis. Work meant starting at five every morning, selling newspapers on a train as the book store was in the railway station. Gopal, the store owner, never had a smile on his face. A mean boss, Gopal did not look after his employees or showed any consideration for them. So, most of them, in turn, did not look after Gopal’s interests. Josh copied the others and the teenager started to put his hand in the till for his breakfasts and other expenses. Oftentimes the shop would be left to the young employee to manage. Not a brilliant idea, boss! Within a few month, Josh was sacked.

“Not a brilliant idea indeed,” Josh confessed that stealing did not pay. Not knowing what to do next, he went to the only church he knew to pray, the Pentecostal Church in KL.

Within a month of staying in the church, he found employment in a carton factory in Petaling Jaya but his joy of finding employment at age eighteen came to a screeching halt as his work permit was not approved. In those days, if you were an Indian citizen with a red identity card, you had to have a work permit to work in Malaysia. Having exhausted all avenues to find employment, he sought help from a rich uncle in Malacca. Uncle Isaac was a good man who owned several rubber estates in the surrounding areas.

“But my aunt was a lunatic,” Josh said.

“She had this crazy idea that I had gone to take over my uncle’s estates, and accused me of all sorts of things,” Josh said.

Josh frequently cried himself to sleep because of her wild accusations. His uncle by then had no choice but to send him back to Penang. He drove Josh to the railway station, bought him a train ticket to Butterworth and shoved an ink-smudged letter into his trouser pocket. “Only for your father to read,” he said to the boy. But, Josh sneaked out of the train and went back to the church in KL. 

A parishioner found Josh a good job cleaning swimming pools three hours a day. His monthly pay was $100. During this time, Josh found some new Malay friends who were living in Kampong Pandan. One of them was a popular Malay cyclist, Mokhtar Yousuff. He influenced Josh to become a serious cyclist as a way of getting his Malaysian citizenship. Josh participated in several races but never won any medals. Within two years, he lost his job at the swimming pool. Money was scarce, so he went without food on some days. It was at this juncture that Josh’s life was to change dramatically again. He received a letter from his father who had migrated to Singapore to seek employment there. Josh sold his only property then, a Raleigh bicycle for $100 and headed to Singapore to join his father.

Josh found freedom in Singapore. He had plenty of money for movies, cigarettes and good food. But, he found the factory jobs there boring. Very boring. One of those casual jobs was working for a shipyard contractor for $25 per day. Maybe it was from boredom that Josh stole watches, binoculars, calculators, anything that could be stolen from the ships’ crew. One day, a friend stole a video cassette and not owning a VCR player, he gave it to Josh. To Josh’s shock and amazement, it was a blue film. When the friend asked him what movie it was, Josh said it was a Mickey Mouse cartoon. To his surprise, he discovered many Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis and Thai nationals were willing to pay $5 per “screening”. So, Josh finally showed some entrepreneurial flair and borrowed a HDB flat to use as his “movie theatre”. Pretty soon he was raking in thousands of dollars. After many such screenings, the police were soon aware of his illegal activities and had hatched a plan to nab him. Realising the danger he was in, he quickly sold the rented television and the VCR player to a gullible third party. That night, Josh left everything behind and caught a bus for KL. His next plan was bigger again. He was going to Italy. 

Josh and Eric, a Singaporean friend, bought two return tickets to Italy on Aeroflot. On the first night in Rome, Josh lost all his money to a conman. Without any money left, he sought help from Eric’s friend in Milan who very kindly gave him a hundred pounds. Eric left for Germany to look for work but within three weeks, he quit and returned to KL. Josh stayed on and found employment in a transport company. He was paid 50-60 lira per day. Within a few months, he had so much money he went holidaying on the island of Lipari. It was on the journey to Lipari that Josh found a cute girl named Loredana. They fell in love. It was also in Lipari that he befriended a psychologist by the name of Wolfgang Link. Till this day, they remain good friends. 

Milano became his home for the next twelve months. Influenced by his new boss, Josh began to smoke hashish, marijuana, heroin and cocaine. As he had overstayed his visa, he decided to burn his passport and reported it as lost, but kept a copy of his re-entry permit to Malaysia. Just a week before he was due to leave for Malaysia, his apartment was busted by the police for organising a drug and booze party. Josh was arrested by the Milan police, but he managed to get bail after spending a few hours in the lock-up.

Finally, the day arrived for Josh to leave Milan for good. The sobbing Loredana held him tightly at the airport, and would not let go.

“Why did you not stay instead?” I asked.

“Here was a great chance to make a new life with the beautiful Italian lass,” I pressed further.

Instead, Josh made a terrible mistake that day to go back to the same seven friends in Singapore and because of the heavy usage of marijuana, he had become completely delusional. Less than seven months later, his life was in shambles. A misunderstanding took place among the old friends. Hallucinating and imagining he was going to be set upon by the friends, Josh lashed out and a fight broke out. Majid, an Indian Muslim friend, took out a knife and stabbed Josh. The stab needed several stitches to his abdomen. When Josh woke up from his deep slumber, he felt great remorse and a huge disappointment in himself. He gave up on drugs that same day. He had finally woken up. He realised those people were not his friends but his enemies. He parted company with them and promised himself never to walk their path again. That year was 1983. The year he gave his heart back to Jesus and God gave him a new life. Josh felt he was finally delivered. Except for Majid, Vijaan and Rajan, none of those other friends survived. Raju was hanged in Singapore prison for trafficking heroin. Rama died of a heart attack. Raja died of an overdose, and Ah Lam died in a motorbike accident.

“How are those who remain?” I asked.

“Rajan still treats the Changi prison as his second home and Vijaan is suffering from diabetes,” Josh said.

I found myself in a hole, so I stopped digging.

Joshua Paul

Having left those fellows for good, Josh was determined to succeed, having found employment as a contract worker with a tower crane company. His daily salary was $30 but he made the wrong choice again, supplying illegal Indian workers to a palm oil factory in Pandan Gardens. He lost the contract and became jobless once more. In November 1985, he met Raj, a rich commercial art dealer. Raj had kindly stopped his Volvo at the causeway for Josh who was hitching a ride in the middle of the night after renewing his visa at the border. It was a chore he had to do fortnightly for the eight years living in Singapore. Raj introduced Josh to the world of fine art reproductions from China. In just two weeks, Josh sold all the remaining paintings that Raj had. It was a good deal for Josh, as he got to keep half the proceeds. Like most things in life, good things do not last long. Raj had already decided to close his business and migrate to America. Josh was left with no paintings to sell but he had pocketed several thousand dollars. Not knowing where to source those art reproductions, Josh gambled and picked Hong Kong as a likely source. Choosing to stay in Kowloon Mansion in Tsim Sha Tsui also proved a good guess. Josh found commercial paintings were being sold everywhere there. In his first two years, Josh made about fifty thousand dollars as his paintings sold like hot cakes. Looking at life through the lens of Christ suddenly felt rosy – he bought his first property in KL. It was at this time he was introduced to an art historian and lecturer from the National University of Singapore, the much respected TK Sabapathy.

TK Sabapathy talked Josh into holding a major art exhibition in Singapore, the first of its kind. Josh solely organised and funded the major Indian art exhibition. As the curator, he bore all responsibilities and all expenses including purchasing all the art works that TK Sabapathy selected from the nine Indian artists from Chennai, Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkatta and Manipal. His 1991 event at the Singapore Museum was called ‘Joy and Despair’. It was more despair than joy. ‘Joy and Despair’ was a failure. TK Sabapathy, a committee member of the Singapore Art Gallery, convinced them to buy three of the works for about $35,000 but it took them over a year to pay Josh. Dr Earl Loo, a very good man, bought one work for the La Salle School of Art.

“90 % of all the artworks bought for the event are still in my possession,” Josh said.

“Hopefully, I will sell them to some serious art collectors in India one day,” the ever hopeful Josh said softly. 

Josh couldn’t continue residing in Singapore with a two-week visa forever, so he applied for a business visa as an art gallery owner, but his application failed. In 1997, at the peak of the Asian Financial Crisis, Josh returned to KL with his savings all tied up in the remaining paintings. Joshua Art Gallery closed after three years due to poor sales. As the money noose tightened around his neck, Josh became more and more desperate. Whilst struggling with his financial disaster, he received news that his mother was in her last days of her life. He went back to India to see her one more time. His mother managed to whisper three words to him.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

Josh could not stay long to comfort his mother, and upon arriving home in KL, he heard the news that she had passed away.

It was on that last night with his mother that Josh decided to move on, from being an art dealer to a dealer in law books. He opened his law books bookshop in 2001, selling law books, custom made trolley bags, souvenirs & legal caricatures. It was a very difficult job to relocate from a 1,700 sq ft gallery to a 200 sq ft store at Wisma Denmark. There’s no turning back, I have to make this little book shop work! With no experience and no money, Josh said to himself. In 2004, his father died. Josh fell on hard times again. To help make ends meet, he contrived a plan to pass off copies of some legal prints from London as originals. His conscience as a born-again Christian bothered him so much that he quickly stopped the fraudulent activity. He called the printer in Brickfields to stop and had him shred all the prints in front of his eyes. 

I must move quickly when the clouds move.

Joshua Paul

The commercial courts were shifted to Sultan Abdul Samad Building. So, Josh moved his shop also. He found an empty lot at the Straits Trading Building and continued running his business there till 2007. That’s the year when the floods came and destroyed a lot of his stock including some original works of famous Malaysians and some very old documents dating to the 17th century. Well, the flood was a blessing in disguise, for when the income tax officers came knocking at his door, they saw that all the documents and computers were destroyed. There was no further investigation after that.

The new High Court was relocated to Jalan Duta in 2007. Realising that his business would not sustain without lawyers around, Josh got a lawyer friend, Sanjeev Kumar, to draft a letter to the law minister Dato Nazri. The letter worked. Dato Nazri made sure Josh got a shop at the new building. Joshua Legal Art Gallery has been in operation for twenty two years with a branch in Kota Kinabalu. Josh is glad he no longer suffers the roller coaster rides that was much of his early life. Happily married, he is close to his two sons and a daughter and no longer looks at the rearview mirror with guilt and remorse. His grit and determination to drag himself out of the dungeon of misery and crime should serve as a source of inspiration for those with ‘woe is me’ and defeatist attitudes. Josh’s story is a truly inspirational one of turning darkness to light, agony to charity, failure to success, and above all, crime and punishment to salvation. Joshua Paul is indeed a worthy addition to the Urghhlings Marsh Brotherhood.

Josh at his KK book store on June 10 2022

Comforted by these words from the hymn ‘He Abides’, Josh asked to share them.

Once my heart was full of sin,
Once I had no peace within,
Till I heard how Jesus died upon the tree;
Then I fell down at His feet,
And there came a peace so sweet,
Now the Comforter abides with me.

Josh being welcomed by Prez to the brotherhood. Prez’s wife Soo Lan and Blue Eyes’ wife Li in the back row.
Joshua Paul by Anne Koh.