Huat Ah! Heng Ah! Ong Ah! These are words I haven’t uttered since I was growing up in Penang in the 70’s. These are Chinese New Year wishes in hokkien. Most cultures wish for happiness for the coming new year. So, it is common to wish one another Happy New Year. But, we Chinese first and foremost will wish one another prosperity. Gong Xi Fa Cai in mandarin, Keong Hee Huat Chye in hokkien, Gung Hei Fatt Choy in cantonese, Gung Xi Fa Jei in shanghainese. They all mean the same, congratulations on your prosperity. Huat Ah! Heng Ah! Ong Ah! is about wishing one another prosperity and red-hot success. ‘Gain more wealth’ is not about happiness, so please wish me Xin Nian Kuai Le (新年快乐) instead. When a sage or a monk talks about the search for happiness, they inevitably steer (pardon the pun) us in the direction of inner peace and contentment. Personally, I have done well and got through 2020 unscathed. The pandemic still rages on all over the world but here in Adelaide, life feels very much like pre-pandemic days – normal. We have been very lucky – no mask-wearing or social-distancing necessary. The year of the Ox starts from 12th February or 12022021, a palindrome. Not surprisingly, some of my Chinese friends trumpet that as an auspicious sign of a prosperous year ahead. Fair enough, may the gods grant us prosperity. We will ask for happiness later. Although I find it difficult to connect happiness with the ox. After all, what is an ox but an adult steer? A male calf becomes a steer after being castrated. Why are animals castrated unless you want them to be easily controlled? I wouldn’t be happy if I were castrated. I wouldn’t like to be easily controlled. If you had a choice, wouldn’t you prefer to be called a bull rather than an ox? Why do Westerners name this year the ox and not the bull? The punter celebrates when it is a bull sharemarket. We would not call any market an ox market unless we are selling oxen, perhaps. We describe our euphoric sentiments as bullish and ascribe masculine words such as stallion, stud or bull to our virile strong men. We do not connect happiness to a word that implies castration. Never an ox. You want a happy year, call it the Year of the Bull. Don’t call it the Year of the Ox. Or, follow the Chinese. Avoid gender-specific words. 牛 Gu in hokkien, Niu in mandarin.
Happiness has come to me early in the Year of the Bull. On the very first day, in fact. No, it isn’t inner peace I found. Neither is it from contentment. Don’t mind me, I am just being facetious. The sage is right, of course. We can’t be truly happy without inner peace and contentment. Those are the foundation slabs without which our temple of happiness cannot be built. I picked up my first violin at age 9. Br. Michael picked it for me. Br. Michael, always in his Lasallian white long robes, was my school music teacher and school orchestra conductor. The orange-red violin was a cheap mass-produced one from China. I suspected it was from a sweat-shop – it was still sweating from a badly coated varnish. But, he knew that was all I deserved. I suppose he could tell from my school shoes. You know the ones. They are white all-rubber shoes that weren’t as white as the white canvas shoes that the other boys wore. The ones that turned slightly yellowish over time. Or, maybe he noticed my school uniform. You know the ones. Two sizes bigger so they would last an extra few years. My socks were hand-me-downs from Pa, overly long and thick. They had to be folded multiple times and tightened with rubber bands around my ankles. Or, maybe he noticed the absent school tie – the one I couldn’t afford. I was never selected to be a class monitor or a school prefect. I didn’t know why then, but this is the excuse I have just told myself. No school tie, no worries, we won’t make you a somebody. You do not get picked to be a monitor, you get picked on by a monitor. My second violin arrived quickly, just a year later after I had proven to my parents I was serious about playing the violin. Wise parents – they knew not to fork out any more money until they were convinced it wasn’t just a fad that would vanish like the morning dew. Wiser parents – they let Big Sis buy it for me. Big Sis happened to have a friend’s mother who would be visiting from London. So she asked the friend, a violinist, to pick a “good one” from a violin shop in London. An opportunity not to be missed – a free delivery from London! Big Sis was thrilled by it. I was thrilled with it. It possessed the most important thing – volume. The one thing I thought would impress everybody, a BIG sound. I didn’t know about the importance of tonal qualities such as richness, depth, warmth, brightness, softness, brilliance, lyrical colours, etc, etc. I just wanted it to be powerful. A loud tone does not mean it has a carrying sound, but I didn’t plan to be a soloist who must be heard in the last rows of the concert hall. I was happy, I could not “out-play” my friends but I could drown them out with my power. I was very proud to own that violin. When First Son outgrew his 3/4 size violin, he inherited my pride and joy, a Matthias Rudemann. Please do not Google it. It will say there aren’t many great matches for your search – which is a lie. There is not a single result. It was a German-made, but the truth be told, the Germans are not known for their violin-making.
The great luthiers were Italians. The word “luthier” is originally French, from the word lute. Today, luthiers make stringed instruments that are bowed or plucked, e.g. violins, cellos, guitars. A great French luthier was Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. An outstanding 19th century luthier, he made over 3,000 instruments. Folks, if you have some spare cash to invest, this is the one I would recommend – a J.B. Vuillaume violin or cello. He is the real deal, yet somewhat still not priced out of the stratosphere. In October 2019, his 1845 cello, a copy of Duport Strad, sold for GBP 350,000. That price is just for a very good copy of a Strad. A real Strad is beyond my reach. Strad is of course short for Stradivari. His most famous violin, “The Messiah” was made in 1716. It is famous also for being hardly played. Its claim to fame is probably its price, a lofty USD 20 million a few years ago. Every layman would have heard of the name Strad – it would not be wrong to say Stradivari was the most famous of all. He came from Cremona, Italy. The other big names from the Cremona School during 17th-18th century are Amati, Guarneri and Bergonzi. The earlier great makers came from the Brescian School – names such as da Salo, Ruggieri and Maggini. The 18th century also produced two other important schools. One is known as the Milanese School which included famous makers such as Grancino, Testore and Landolfi, and the other is the Venetian School with big-name makers such as Montagnana, Guadagnini and Tononi.
This brings me to talk about my dream. I have long dreamt of owning a Strad. The closest I got was my 3-year subscription to The Strad, a monthly publication that covered anything and everyone concerning stringed instruments. I have measured my investment returns in real estate and share portfolios but they come well short against a hypothetical investment in a Stradivarius. The monetary return can be calculated but what is often missed is the pleasure of owning a piece of fine art. The joy of admiring beauty. The aesthetic beauty created by an artist or a master craftsman is to be marvelled at. The exquisite sounds that can emanate from it. It is a treasure that will continually give pleasure for generations to come. That is the true value. I have always had my heart set on a Stradivarius yet when the opportunity was presented to me last week, I chose another. What does that say about me? Fickle? Confused? Idiotic, perhaps. Someone who does not really know what (or who) he wants? Sorry, Stradivari. I suppose you have been so unattainable I want it to remain so. A son introduced me to the magnificent craftsmanship of another fine Italian maker. A modern-day master. His name is Paolo Vettori of Florence. This maker is as good as they come in terms of his woodworking and varnishing finesse, but he has one added advantage. He can still source the best “ancient” wood, even if it means acquiring them from used timber beams from old mansions. These days, no one can make a wild claim and get away with it. Dendrochronology is so advanced the experts can tell if instruments are made from the same log of wood. Tree rings with the dark and light areas tell us the age of the wood and also reveal the environmental conditions in which the tree lived – key factors that can determine the quality of the sound from the wood. When I saw Paolo Vettori’s copy of a Guarneri Del Gesù violin, I decided that is the one for me. I am finally realising a dream from a long time ago. A dream I saw in my mind whilst playing at the back row of an amateur orchestra in Penang next to Mr Yeoh, a bald-headed remisier during the day but a solo violinist in his dreams. Fondly known as “Kana-thau” or “Olive head”, Mr Yeoh owned a beautiful Italian violin that was so very precious to him that he slept with it wrapped under the satin sheets. But the sounds they made together were not so beautiful. His teacher should have corrected his wobbly vibrato. But hey, his passion for music and his obvious love for his instrument taught me a violin can be loved as tenderly as a woman, and great music is for all ages. Mr Yeoh, rest in peace and may your violin still be lovingly caressed in your arms in heaven.
No bull, but I am so very happy to know Paolo Vettori will be making me a copy of 1744 Guarneri Del Gesù ‘Ole Bull’. I hope she will turn out totally the way I have imagined her to be. I can’t wait to test her G-string or caress her slender neck with my left hand whilst running my fingers along it. The one thing I won’t do is tightly grip her throat. Her tone from her rounded F-holes will no doubt be alluring. The turns of her scroll flare outward when looking at her front or back, quite typical of a late Del Gesù. Her two-piece back will be revealing to all who want to take a peep and her arching, hopefully full and curvaceous, will flatten in the centre. She isn’t a cello, so although I can’t squeeze her between my legs, I can surely hold her comfortably between my chin and neck. Her body is surprisingly compact, measuring an ample 35.2cm but it is her sexy curves that will capture my attention. Those curves are accentuated by a slimmer upper bouts and more rounded lower bouts. Her C-bout ribs are said to be attractive, but I have never formed a penchant for ribs. I will need to practise my “finger exercises” to improve my fingering technique on her. Her purfling should be inlaid in a neatly formed channel, the white section is probably maple – wouldn’t that just make her purr? I have not considered getting a new bow yet. I’m still pleased with the stick I have. This is indeed a happy Year of the Bull! Heng Ah! Ong Ah!