Wu Song, one of the one hundred and eight heroes in The Water Margin, was my inspiration to write this story. I watched the episode maybe a hundred times with Pa, and briefly even harboured a wish to be like him. He was incredibly strong, totally fearless, righteous, tall and handsome. Wu Song enthralled both Pa and me by killing a man-eating tiger with his bare hands. With his bare hands! He cut open the breasts of his adulterous sister-in-law, Pan Jinlian, and pulled out her heart, lungs and entrails after finding out she poisoned her husband (his older brother) who to her was ‘three parts dwarf and seven parts imp’. But, to be as brave as he, I would need to get drunk. Very very drunk. I have been tipsy but never drunk in my life. So, it won’t be possible for me to be like him. Just as well, since I discovered later in the book, he indiscriminately slaughtered some nineteen maids and servants in Colonel Zhang’s house. That is the trouble with this 14th century Chinese classic, despite the common thread of Confucian morals fighting the debauched, nefarious and corrupt. The heroism, righteousness and benevolence of these heroes cannot right the wrongs of their callous brutality and violent disregard for the law, corrupt or otherwise.Their path to rebellion and correcting injustices through the people’s support was a concept brilliantly adopted by Mao Zedong in his uprising against the government of the day some 500 years later. The acceptance of The Water Margin turned full circle when the Maoist teachings were discarded following the collapse of the Cultural Revolution; the ageing leaders knew too well that a rebellion against them would undo all they had achieved.
All week, I tried to encourage some of my childhood friends to permit me to write short stories about them. We hail from a Lasallian / Xaverian brotherhood formed from years growing up in the same school. We have been calling one another “brothers” ever since. The idea that I could mimic the style of The Water Margin and write about my friends from school pricked my interest. ‘Within the four seas, all men are brothers.’ invigorated me. I was excited by the prospect of writing tales that encompass tragedies or traumatic experiences of our elders during the Japanese Occupation in Malaya, and about their successes or failures following the great promise and hope for a new nation that post-Colonialism offered; and subsequently, the decades-old Malaysia’s ‘Malays First’ malaise, right through to the tumultuous changes at breakneck speed the internet has brought us. I hoped to uncover stories of black swan events and heroic fights against many injustices and discriminations that a brotherhood like mine has lived through. I wanted to share their stories and at the same time, reveal each person’s unyielding belief or ethos and life’s heroic crusades. Disappointingly, no one has come forward. I was hoping my chapter about Blue Eyes would be good enough to placate any privacy concerns they may have. Unwilling to give up on this idea, I thought if I enticed them with a substantial gift each, I would gain acquiescence from a few brothers at least, but this has also been met with silence. Incredibly at our age, everyone still prize their privacy above all else and prefer to remain anonymous. A friend said I should be generous, and tell my own story first. “Be eponymous,” he suggested.
I decided to write about Wu Yong instead since there is no one I know who can be as interesting as Wu Song. Wu Yong is nothing like Wu Yong ‘The Inquisitive Scholar’ in The Water Margin, of course. No, he isn’t so clever like the strategist who was second-in-command of the outlaws of the marsh. The Wu Yong I know is known locally as Wu Yong the Cur. Cur means a mean, cowardly person. It also means a mongrel dog. Wu Yong is a scrawny chap with a sallow complexion – especially during the winter months – and puny limbs that attract ridicule from his sister. “Keep fasting and you will shrivel up fast!” she said. He looked up at her with his narrow cloudy eyes, and swallowed back the words that were at the tip of his tongue. Wu Yong loves his dog. He once told me, “Dogs have many friends because they wag their tails, not their tongues.” Dogs keep secrets very well, of course. I have asked my son’s pup, Murray, many times to confirm if my son has a girlfriend but Murray merely wags his tail and licks my hand with his wet tongue. Murray does not gossip. Wu Yong cannot understand the olden day contempt for dogs in China. Every dog is a mongrel, a cur. They won’t say “you fart” but they will include the poor dog and announce, “you blow dog farts.” If something is smelly or bad, the word “dog” must be included. The Chinese character 臭, “zhou” meaning smelly, repulsive or bad, is formed from two words: self and dog. Since ancient times, dogs have a pejorative connotation in Chinese culture. A slur will often consist of the word ‘dog’ in it. Zou gou 走狗, “go dog,” or a traitor. Hanjian or traitors who aided the Japanese during their occupation of China were also called zou gou. 狗男女, add a dog to men and women and we get awful men and women. Another example of the unworthiness of curs is the saying 狗眼看人低, “dogs’ eyes look people down,” or useless people looking down on others. Curse the curs.
Why do the Chinese have such a low opinion of the dog?
“Out of a dog’s mouth will never come ivory tusks.” – one who can’t be successful.
“If the dog leads the man, the man is blind.”
“From the lowly perspective of a dog’s eyes, everyone looks short.” – You’re nothing!
“Dog head dog brain” – you’re a drifter.
“Hang a goat head, sell dog meat” – cheat with false advertising.
“Before you beat a dog, find out who its master is.” – you’re not important but your relative is.
“Dog without a master” – you’re miserable and unfortunate.
“When money is stolen you can only beat the dog.” – you’re to be blamed for everything.
“Wolf heart dog lungs” – you’re ungrateful.
“He painted a tiger, but it turned out a dog.” – a disappointment.
Display a “Beware of the dog” sign – Conceal our weakness through pretence.
Wu Yong leads a comfortable middle-income lifestyle in the suburbs but throughout much of his life, he finds the respect that is extended to many others around him is often withheld from him. His mother often calls him reckless or rash. 冒失. He is not refined and not smart, like a bull in an antique shop. His choice of words are often provocative and he does not give her confidence when important decision-making is required. His tendency to speak his mind – to set things straight – often annoys his friends. They misunderstand and say he is captious. His siblings have learned to simply ignore him, “Oh, he is just blowing dog farts.” Yesterday, Wu Yong got his name struck off the small dinner club that he was invited to join only a few weeks earlier. An intellectual discussion about blockchain and cryptocurrency attracted personal attacks about him as a blockhead for daring to debate such “techie” matters with his dinner hosts. He was criticised for attempting to correct their statements that there is no income from holding cryptocurrency or that whoever holds it is merely for tax evasion reasons. He told them about staking, Defi lending, yield farming and interest-bearing accounts but they didn’t listen. They said he was “blowing dog farts.” In such serious disagreements, typically people resort to attacking his foolishness instead of solely focusing on the subject matter. By exaggerating his hand gestures and mimicking the way he speaks at three octaves higher in pitch, they successfully depict him as a fool. As his mother often reminds us, he is 冒失, rash. They know it, and so, by reminding him of his poor investment record and being grossly underweight in his retirement nest egg, they made sure he doesn’t forget he is a pariah, financially. He is also “笨 笨, bèn, bèn” foolish, his old mother confided to me. “His brother is much cleverer,” she whispered into my ear. I know one of his sons had recently said that about him – his foolishness, so I am beginning to think it is true of Wu Yong. Poor bloke – he honestly tries hard to please his mother, wanting desperately for her to be proud of him. He once said of his mother, “No, I don’t find her termagant at all, but she has been a firm matriarchal figure all her life, even to her own sisters.” His love and adoration for her knows no bounds. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, Wu Yong told me he feels like an outcast – unpopular, misunderstood and therefore usually picked on. A friend said to him, “You’re a fool to gamble with your retirement funds.” “Bitcoin isn’t real like gold! You can’t treat it like it has value – it is not a precious metal.” Wu Yong explained to me he understands why gamers are prepared to pay thousands of dollars for a game skin. Yes, the need to feel successful and respected is as important to people who spend the bulk of their time in the virtual world and owning a rare accessory in a game gives them a status that they may not have in the physical world. So, who is to say they are wrong to perceive value in things we do not quite understand? Seldom understood and incapable of presenting himself as an intellectual, Wu Yong is often the subject of criticisms and ridicule – an easy target in any group that is looking for some light entertainment.
He is sometimes overheard singing the lyrics of his favourite song, My Way,
I will state my case of which I’m certain….
I did what I had to do
I saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway…..
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall and did it my way!
I told him that may be the reason why he is unpopular; he has the habit of just spitting out things that aren’t agreeable like they are early morning phlegm. “Why don’t you swallow your pride and bite your tongue instead when the situation isn’t to your advantage?” I asked. He simply shrugged his shoulders, put his hands in his trouser pockets, and trudged away slightly hunched, without saying a word. I pity him. Many, including his Mrs, find his odd mannerisms and harmless coquetry annoying. His neighbours say he is indecorous, they may have heard him pee in the garden and not forgiven him.
Wu Yong’s many years of long days and ultimately, business flops mirrored that of Blue Eyes’. But that’s where their similarities end. Blue Eyes found the freedom to be himself and travelled the world with his Mrs after they found the key to unchain themselves from the prison that their small business had become. Wu Yong’s mental anguish resembled more like the artist LS Lowry’s, not that he can be compared to the great artist. Punishing long hours and limiting in leisure time, Wu Yong’s life-long sacrifice is only now belatedly beginning to bear fruit. He informed me he is more than halfway to building the requisite nest egg for his retirement. He seems unaware at 62, many of his peers have already retired. LS Lowry had to deal with a very self-absorbed and demanding mother who took every opportunity to denigrate his work. She made him feel diminished as a rent collector during the day and a wannabe painter at night. (Others labeled him a “Sunday painter”, so he agreed and said ‘I’m a Sunday painter who paints every day of the week!’) After her husband died, she resented their industrial surroundings in Pendlebury whilst reminiscing about her wonderful young life as a promising concert pianist in an affluent suburb in Manchester. LS Lowry is famous for his stickmen paintings of lonely people going about with their lives in bleak industrial landscapes. Echoing his own sad and miserable life, he once said of his crowds of stick figures: “All my people are lonely, and crowds are the most lonely thing of all.” His paintings reminded his mother of everything she hated about her life, to the point of her encouraging him to burn them all. Luckily for the world, he didn’t. Despite her hurtful opinions of him which she dished out liberally, he lovingly cared for his suffocating and mean mother without a complaint. It was sorrowful for him that he could never please her. Many years after she died, he was awarded a knighthood for his contribution to art. He turned it down. Apparently he said, “What’s the point? It’s too late for Mother.” Painting helped him forget he was alone; he couldn’t have lived otherwise. Wu Yong said he can relate to that. His voice, soft, rueful. He too feels alone, unappreciated and often misunderstood. But, like Lowry, he too has a steely resolve to get on with it and find comfort in doing the things he enjoys. Wu Yong does not rely on hope to get by. He said hope is just a trick for us to stick around a little longer, waiting for something to change or someone to reach out to us. I think Wu Yong is worthy to join Blue Eyes in his brotherhood.
All my people are lonely, and crowds are the most lonely thing of all.Laurence Stephen Lowry