Hindsight, they say is 20/20. The Mrs says it to me frequently. It is her way of telling me what I know does not make me smart. Who does not know what has already happened? At times, she uses it as an admonishment of sorts. “You should have known it would happen! Hindsight is 20/20, why did you decide not to do that?!” 2020 has been a dramatic year. Before the Chinese Lunar New Year in February this year, The Mrs already told me 2020 would be a bad year. I ignored her, told her she is so superstitious. “The sharemarket will cop a battering, time to sell off all your shares, son.” I overheard her advice to First Son. She even predicted the major floods in many parts of China. “Horrors, the Three Gorges Dam will be threatened! It may even be under water.” she warned, daily, over breakfast for weeks. Now, that is prescient, to know what is going to happen before it happens. 20/20 vision means you can see clearly at 20 feet what should normally be seen at 20 feet. In her case, what she saw 50 weeks ago has pretty much panned out. A 50/50 vision! But, she won’t take any credit for her perfect foresight. Chinese astrology long ago predicted that calamity would befall this year of the Gengzi (庚子年). It is all written down, eons ago. The year of the Metal Rat is the 37th year of the 60-year cycle of the Chinese calendar, bringing with it natural disasters, wars (tariff wars and trade wars included) and disasters such as pandemics and bushfires. Their predictions have come true about health afflictions relating to the “lungs and breathing” with symptoms including severe coughs, blood disorders and diarrhoea. Sounds familiar? For the doubters, let us look at the previous Gengzi year, i.e. 1960. It was the year of the Great Famine that followed the Great Leap Forward, during which up to 55 million Chinese died of starvation. I remember Pa’s old Chinese magazines that reported on the herculean feats of the collectives that managed to almost double their agricultural output from 1957. We did not know it then, but they met their grain targets by simply lying about it, inflating actual figures by up to 10 times. At the same time Mao, without any knowledge of metallurgy, ordered the peasants to surpass the UK’s industrial output in 15 years. The peasants’ focus on the land was diverted to convert their backyards into backyard furnaces, producing steel from scrap metal, except that they used woks, pots and pans when they ran out of scrap. If 1960 was not calamitous enough as a Gengzi year, let us go further back to the one before that, i.e. 1900. 1900 was the year the Eight-Nation Alliance invaded China during the Boxer Rebellion. The following year, the defeated Qing government was forced to sign a peace treaty that required them to pay an indemnity in the billions in today’s value, over 39 years. The foreign legation guards would remain in China until WW2. By now, most of us should be convinced the Gengzi year really does bring death and misery, especially to the Chinese. 1840 was one of the worst Gengzi years – in April that year, the British parliament declared war against China. It was the beginning of the First Opium War, a war that followed Britain’s gunboat diplomacy to extract a huge advantage over China, who at the time was their largest trading partner. Europe’s demand for Chinese luxury goods e.g. silk, porcelain and tea created a huge trade imbalance whereby China only accepted Britain’s silver as payment for their trade deficit. The British resorted to ply opium to the Chinese to fix their trade imbalance, against the wishes of the Qing government. A Qing letter to Queen Victoria which appealed to her moral and legal responsibilities went unanswered. Drug trafficking sanctioned by a monarch. It is no wonder today we still call drug traffickers drug lords. The Opium War left an indelible scar on the Chinese – they lost Hong Kong and was forced to grant territorial, financial and trade concessions to the Western forces.
First Son did not need this much Gengzi history to act on his mother’s free advice. Very early in the pandemic, he offloaded his total investments in his favourite ETF. The exchange-traded fund he had his savings in had vastly outperformed the local index. First Son is an intelligent investor – after all, he has read Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor. That makes him far more intelligent than me – I had only read 3 years of UNSW’s Bachelor of Commerce degree and lost big-time in the last two major sharemarket routs. The Mrs loudly celebrated First Son’s good fortune when the Dow dropped like a brick into the harbour. “Aiyo, see? I told you so! So lucky you listen to me!” she pranced around her kitchen impersonating the great Maradona celebrating his “Hand of God” goal in the 1986 World Cup. Although the ETF is now trading higher than the pre-pandemic level, maybe we have yet to see the worst from the Gengzi. 2020 has not finished. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush, son.
For those who believe in the Tarot, the card corresponding to 20:20 is Judgement. It symbolises a renewal, a new era of independence, a freedom of the body or the mind. In 2020, there is indeed a renewal. We see massive change in the way we live, from the massive fatalities around the world. The pandemic has brought a lot of grief, especially to the Americas, Iran, Indonesia and large chunks of Europe. We no longer shake hands when we greet, we do the elbow bump or the Asian bow, hands together near the chest, clasped or in a prayer-like position and accompanied by a respectful bow. We see people on the streets wearing masks all over the world now. In my early travels, I marvelled at the uniquely Asian social etiquette of caring for their fellow citizens by not spreading one’s germs in public. I think it is this caring for the greater good rather than caring for one’s “human rights” that clearly shines through in which is the better social norm to adopt. In 2020, I have watched football being played in empty stadiums, where the echoes of coaches’ commands can be clearly heard. There is a total absence of cheering, chanting, stomping, singing, booing or flag-waving. Hardly an audible applause when a goal is scored. Last night, I attended my first online live Christmas concert by one of the great symphony orchestras in the world. Prior to 2020, who would have thought we would pay to attend an online concert? The music was beautifully performed by the orchestra that was less than 1/3 of its usual size. Limited in size due to the social-distancing rule, the programme lacked the usual big work we are accustomed to at an end-of-year Christmas concert – Handel’s Messiah. A Christmas concert is meant to be uplifting – the carols hark the angels and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. The orchestra players certainly did their best to lift us from the doldrums of 2020 yet what I felt was a great sense of sadness. The night was devoid of a usually packed audience. Only a smattering of light clapping and hitting of bows against the music stands was all the applause that rewarded the soloist. There was no cheering, chanting, whooping, whistling. No raucous applause. No shouts of bravo.
I will admit that I have been to a Tarot reading. It was in 1986, the year I returned to Adelaide after having spent 8 years in Sydney. In those 8 years, I got my B.Comm degree, met The Mrs in the university, married her immediately after our graduation, and we became parents of 3 boys. Yeah, those were busy years! My first job as a trainee accountant of the Commercial Bank was based in Sydney’s Chinatown. Yup, hindsight is 20/20. I should have patiently stuck to the bank – The Mrs has not stopped reminding me of my brashness. “You could have been someone very high up in that circle.” Did she mean in banking or in Chinatown? But, I hated it in that circle. It was grey, cold and impersonal – everyone there reminded me of Mr. Dawes in Mary Poppins’ Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. Every tuppence mattered. We had to balance the books to the last cent or we could not go home that day. I hated it more when it became personal. There was one blonde bitch who took a strong dislike for me. Maybe I had bad breath, maybe I stank – it was summer. Maybe I took her friend’s job. Maybe I balanced the books with ease and she didn’t. Maybe she encountered too many Chinese customers who gave her trouble. She did not tell me why she couldn’t stand me, but maybe it was simply that I looked different or smelled different. Maybe. So, I quit and got the job as a factory accountant in Matraville instead. The HR manager, (Personnel Manager, in those days) with her beautifully posh British accent, said I was Godsent. Wow, that was the one and only time someone said that about me. I felt like rain. The world needs rain, right? It was a better feeling than working with cold and grey white racists. I was happy until my brashness got the better of me (again) and I decided to move to Adelaide. The Mrs did not hesitate. I think she knew at the bottom of her heart we had to leave our very good Sydney friends. We loved them so much we spent all our weekends with them – they were as addicted as us to Mahjong. When The Mrs returned to Sarawak to visit her ageing parents, she took First Son with her, meaning I was left to look after the two younger ones. That did not stop me from visiting our friends. I discovered it was possible to play Mahjong, carrying one baby in my left arm, and bouncing the other baby on a bassinet with my foot. So, it was an easy decision to leave Sydney in the end. The Adelaide job was too good to refuse. The boss told me I was “set like jelly.” At the time, I felt strange to be described like jelly – wobbly, fruity and soft or spineless like jelly fish? He meant I was set of course, the job was mine for sure and it came with a blue 4.1 litre Ford XF Fairmont Ghia. He made me the Administration Manager or loosely known as King of the Office. There, I met Esther. Esther was a beautiful damsel with gorgeous facial features but she waddled like a duck. Suntanned, her deep almond eyes and high cheek bones complemented her full lips. But, her thick waist and oversized butt made her clumsy. I worried her 6-inch stilettos were not meant to support such a heavy load. “Have you had your future read?” Esther asked me one night after work. It was almost compulsory in those days for “management” to stay back after work and mingle with the staff in the smoke-filled boardroom. I used to go home smelling like an ashtray. With a bottle of West End Draught in her hand, she traipsed towards me and almost tripped over the waste paper basket. “So? Do you know what the future holds for you?” She insisted on knowing. “Yeah, sure.” I said. I was in Hong Kong a few years earlier, assessing a job prospect when The Mrs suggested we consulted the Gods in a Chinese temple we happened to walk past. “But, they told me nothing I didn’t already know.” The Gods told me not to accept the job offer, that Hong Kong was not a place for me and my young family to call home. The small one-bedder offered to me was barricaded like a prison to keep thieves and robbers out. The view from a small window was of a concrete jungle. The many small square compounds were concrete too. No flowering bushes, no Angsana trees laden with a golden bloom. Not a single tree, if I remember correctly. Esther told me to do myself a favour and have my future read by a Tarot medium. Which young and ambitious person doesn’t want to know their future, right? Apparently, 98% attend a Tarot reading for relationship reasons. Who to marry, who to break up with? The rest go to know about their health and wealth prospects. Why did I go? Curiosity, I guess. Esther insisted. She felt there was something I needed to know. So, I went. But, I went prepared. I was not going to reveal anything to the Tarot reader, I said. No ring on my finger, no watch, no Pierre Cardin suit. I parked behind her street and walked to her house. I did not show off my blue XF Fairmont Ghia. I kept my body language to a minimum, and hardly said a word. No easy clues for her! Yet, she knew a lot about me. She knew about my weaker left eye. Was I squinting? She knew about my weak tummy – maybe I left a hint of overnight fart in my pants? She knew about my toe problems which only became apparent to me last year. She knew I lacked fibre in my diet, but I was sure I did not look constipated. She told me to spend more time with my father – I am forever thankful I took her advice. She knew Pa had a very strong bond with me, he was “a very wise man. Very spiritual, a wonderful person.” She knew I need to be near water. She told me to build a nice pond, with a waterfall. She said I thrive on stress but the water will be calming for me. She told me about my windfall gain, ten years before AMP demutualised and gave me $36,000. She told me I would enjoy lots of international travel – what hints did I give her? None! She told me I would stay married to the same woman. Yeah, I am loyal like a dog, she could see that? She told me one of my sisters will divorce, many decades before it happened. Of the five sisters who married, one did divorce. 20%? That’s about the right odds, except she did not know how many sisters I have! I did not hold the Judgement card, no 20:20 but she told me I had the best card, the Magician’s card. With it, you can achieve whatever, as long as you believe it. Just do it, don’t hold back. Maybe it was the subliminal message that encouraged me to go into business for myself. Well, for The Mrs actually. The most accurate predictions she made were about my kids. She wasn’t told how many children I had. Yet, she knew I have three sons! She said First Son “has a scientific mind, exceptionally bright and very successful.” A doctor? A chemist? Well, he did Computer Science in uni. That is surely scientific! She said the other two sons would be both famous, known even as far away as in the streets of New York. Second Son sees his father as his idol, she continued. He does not suffer from peer group pressure. Baby Son is a total charmer, born with a golden spoon in his hand. I do not know about that idol bit, but she is spot on about the rest. Baby Son indeed is a “shuai ger”, a good-looking dude and as Pa used to say, “he can be a movie star!” There is one prediction that isn’t true though. Or, at least, it has not come true (yet). “There will definitely be a 4th child”, she repeated. She tapped at the Card of Birth and held it up. See? You will have another son. A true gift. Highly intelligent, a very special person. He will be very very well known, more famous than a politician. “Hmmm, more famous than our PM?” I asked.