When I read about Song Jiang in The Water Margin, I could not help but admire his filial piety and his big heart of gold. He is the hero who I must write about, I told myself. Song Jiang, as described in the book, was a most charitable man. He never refused to help anyone who asked him for money. He assisted those in distress and raised anyone who had been crushed by their circumstances. He was also known as Welcome Rain or Timely Rain, for his positive influence on people was akin to falling rain on parched lands. He was instrumental in saving Chao Gai, the eventual leader of the brotherhood, and three other leaders including Wu Yong, from certain arrest by Imperial soldiers. Later, he also saved Wu Song the barehanded tiger killer in Jinyang Ridge, from a gang who caught him when he fell into a stream so drunk that he couldn’t get out of it. Song Jiang had great leadership skills and it was no wonder that they appointed him Second Leader to replace Wu Yong after he refused the top post in deference to Chao Gai. One day, Song Jiang got into trouble when he reached out to help a medicine seller. A tenacious brigand who thought only with his fists and axe was offended by Song Jiang’s audacity to help the medicine vendor despite his warnings not to. After fleeing from his attacker, Song Jiang was rescued by a pirate, the elder brother of Zhang Shun. Zhang Shun was a muscular fellow who could swim as well as a fish and stay in the water for seven days at a time. Zhang Shun was fearless and unbeatable in the marsh. It was both Song Jiang and Zhang Shun who caught my imagination to write about my friend Four Eyes, a living angel, in this chapter.
Four Eyes is as dark-skinned and athletic as Song Jiang. He has all the virtuous qualities of the hero too – compassionate, charitable, accommodating and generous. A powerful swimmer just like Zhang Shun, the girls were attracted to him like octopus to coral. Why octopus, you may ask. With an inspiring physique like his, I imagine the girls would have used their arms and legs like tentacles to feel his powerful and perfectly-chiselled muscular body. On the weekend as I was watching My Octopus Teacher, it amazed me to see the female octopus clamouring all over the bloke’s body with her sensitive suckers. I could see that the snazzy hunk’s well-defined body would have had a similar effect on the English girls when he went over to the UK in 1979 for his ‘A’ Levels and then for a Polytechnic degree. “Ah, English girls,” he sighed. He did not have to remind me of the story of a housemate who, upon seeing other housemates had gone out shopping and left them alone in the house, asked him if he wanted to go to bed. Four Eyes innocently told the beautiful blonde honey with the alluring pony-tail he was contented to read his book as it wasn’t quite bedtime yet. Four Eyes was our school Sportsman of the Year in 1975. He represented his country in the Schools’ International Swimming Meet in Jakarta that same year, and waterpolo in the 1977 SEA Games in KL. In the UK, he became known as the Amorous One when his name tag at a fancy dress party had the first two letters, G and L, blotted by some spilt red wine. “How on earth did you splash red wine on yourself?” I asked inquisitively. He said he would tell me on the condition that I do not disclose it to anyone. All I will reveal is it has something to do with an amorous female octopus. No word of a lie!
Talking without thinking is like shooting without aiming.Marcel Gan Mah Seang
“It is too late to say sorry to someone you have hurt unintentionally with your words,” Four Eyes’ dad drummed into him. “Words,” as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said in Le Petit Prince, “are the source of misunderstandings.” Four Eyes learned that long before I read it in that charming little book. His dad, Four Eyes Papa, bought two sets of Encyclopaedia for him and his five sisters and a brother to use. He would make sure they looked up the words for themselves rather than be spoon-fed. “If you take the trouble yourself, you won’t ever forget,” he taught them. Four Eyes Papa was a Thai national, born in 1921; his father was the District Officer of Kantang in Southern Thailand. Well-to-do, their meals were served on gold-rimmed porcelain plates and they drank from pure silver cups. Their mansion was a shining example of opulence and their private verdant garden was quite exotic, with Chinese weeping willow and Japanese maple adorning the path to a rotunda that was furnished with intricately-carved teak outdoor furniture. Four Eyes Papa was smuggled out to Penang at his mother’s insistence to avoid him being conscripted to the Thai National Service. His mother, originally from Penang, still had a sister there. It was arranged that the sister would adopt Four Eyes Senior as her own. That was how his name changed from a Thai name, Pratip, (surname unknown) to a Chinese name. Four Eyes Papa was a smart man, blessed with an abundance of wisdom and common sense. He was a qualified accountant at age 15, a time when many of his peers were equipped with low literacy skills. “He must have read Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet,” a friend gathered from the way he serenaded the girl living on Kedah Road and climbed up the rainwater pipe to whisper love-words in her ears. “His jaunts were as romantic as Romeo’s,” the friend exclaimed. The girl next door, who was adopted by her parents, was irresistibly beautiful and equally intelligent. It became quite obvious soon after that she would become Four Eyes Papa’s wife. A few months after they were married, they heard of the plight of a young girl who was about to be sold as a future Ahmah Jie (maid servant). The married couple was quick to adopt her as their first child, such was their compassion and kindness for the girl. Their union, made in heaven, brought them much happiness and love. “This bountiful God has thought of everything,” thought Four Eyes’ Mama, as she looked lovingly at her litter of seven children. Four Eyes Papa, an altruist who would give you the shirt off his back, was respected in his community as a selfless man. He had no qualms about wearing ink-stained shirts to work, skin-deep matters mattered not. Whenever frowned upon by busybodies, all he said was “old shirts are more comfortable.” Theirs was a big family to support, but the struggling couple still generously donated to battlers and beggars who frequently knocked at their door for alms and food. That is compassion from the angle of angels.
Four Eyes’ Mama worked as a seamstress at home to help make ends meet. In a family of seven children, life was not meant to be easy. Every weeknight, after checking their school bags for homework, she would then scan their exercise books and report cards for any red marks. Four Eyes, despite my best efforts, would not reveal if he was ever caned by his mum. After their school work had passed her scrutiny, she would then start on her own work. Work meant burning the midnight oil till two to three in the morning. The kids helped by sewing buttons and hemming dresses. It is no wonder Four Eyes still has that lift in his little finger and deft wrist movement whenever he shakes hands with friends. When they got too tired, the two brothers would sleep in the lounge near their mother’s sewing machine. The rhythmic chugging and whirring of the machine was like a lullaby for the boys. Some nights, Four Eyes’ Mama slept at her old Singer machine to avoid disturbing her husband’s sleep. She would be up at 5.30 a.m. to prepare breakfast for everyone. Four Eyes Papa bought weekly social welfare lottery tickets but never checked them for the winning ticket – his way of contributing to the welfare of the needy. That is thoughtfulness from the angle of an angel.
When Four Eyes was four years old, Second Sis had a bad bike accident that required their mum’s full attention. Distraught and struggling to cope, Four Eyes’ Mama moved him to a care-giver’s home so he could be properly attended to. A month passed and he came home a very sick boy due to terrible neglect at the care-giver’s. Second Sis felt immense guilt about this and she vowed to forever look after her siblings. She worked as a nurse at the Charing Cross Hospital and channeled her earnings to help support them. Their school fees and petty expenses were covered by her, right through to their tertiary education. She took up a loan and bought a house in Kenton, Middlesex for Four Eyes and his brother to stay during their time in the UK. Every Christmas the two brothers were given two suits each. “You are what you wear,” Second Sis said to them as she insisted they picked better quality garments. She and her husband have not stopped caring and looking after everyone in both their families. It is quite natural for a devoted daughter to look after her family, but it is equally important for her to also care for his family – they are a beacon of love and understanding. The monthly remittances home were always prompt and generous. That is undying love from the angle of an angel.
Ian Henderson was Four Eyes’ best friend at the Polytechnic. He brought Four Eyes to visit his parents and they tried to convert the home-sick boy to Christianity. “They proselytise; it is the right thing to do if you truly believe it is right,” Four Eyes said. But, he politely declined, “I am a free thinker, and here away from home, I am finally free to do whatever I like.” In February 1984, their last year at the Polytechnic, Ian Henderson suddenly passed away. At the funeral when all the mourners had left, Four Eyes whose thick glasses failed to hide his red swollen eyes, strode up to the open coffin and asked his best friend, “Why have you left me, brother?” At that moment, a white figure rose up from the coffin and said to him, “Now I appear before you, do you believe in me?” His legs gave way and he crumbled clumsily onto the nearest pew. A voice called out from the direction of the coffin, “Grief not, for he is with me now.” A few weeks later, the grieving mother invited Four Eyes to pray at her son’s burial spot. The newly engraved words on the marble tombstone said “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Four Eyes gasped softly. Those words struck a strange chord with him. Four Eyes worked as a duty manager in charge of Housekeeping after his graduation. His claim to fame was introducing a room checklist for staff to work with. A few years passed and Four Eyes had run out of options to renew his UK visa. His boss at The Cumberland Hotel in Harrow was an old Jewish woman in her 70s. She adored him and fussed on him incessantly. She suggested to him a local girl whom he could “marry” for convenience so that he could stay permanently in the country. But, Four Eyes could not bring himself to complicate the simple life that he lived, a problem-free and stress-free life that he valued. The old Jewish woman cried at his farewell party, her discomfort was clear for all to see. “Why didn’t you marry her instead?” I asked. “You would have inherited all her wealth!” Four Eyes was like a ray of sun to her, bringing her lunch or dinner to her penthouse every day. Her kids only went to her for money whereas he was her friend who stayed to chat and livened up her life with humour and zest. That was genuine companionship from the angle of an angel.
As his visa had expired, Four Eyes returned to Penang, his hometown. Life was quite lonely for him during those days. One day, whilst working at Lone Pine Hotel, he met Pastor Koe, a fellow schoolmate from his year whom he briefly failed to recognise. He related to the pastor his experience at Ian Henderson’s funeral. Pastor Koe asked Four Eyes to open his heart to God and ask for His guidance. “What am I to do?” he pleaded during his prayers. According to Four Eyes, God sent him to the local swimming club one afternoon. Whilst he was treading water in the middle of the pool, he saw a beautiful girl swimming towards him. The girl bumped into him and her arms splayed around his taut and suntanned body. He told me that was how their love story began on the spot where their hands and bodies entangled. He vowed to sweep her off her feet, make her swoon, ‘sing with rapture and dance like a dervish’. “I promised her we will be deliriously happy and live a full life together,” he confided. A Catholic girl, she invited Four Eyes to her church that very weekend, and it would be safe to assume Four Eyes has never missed a sermon since. He was “slain” in front of the congregation on that very first visit. His eyes were closed yet he saw a bright blue light flood in through his skull and soothed his mind. Soon after, he realised he was crying, his eyes were filled with tears of joy. He saw the light again when he witnessed an apparition at the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows on Macalister Road. The same bright blue light was shining on top of the statue of Our Lady. Four Eyes became calmer, more caring and considerate. His parents saw the transformation in their son, and they too converted to the new faith without wavering ever after. That is unshakeable faith from the angle of an angle.
We are all guilty of the good we did not do.Voltaire
The above quote is least applicable to Four Eyes. He continues to help many charities and orphanages. But, he is acutely aware there are many more that fall through the cracks and are missed by the institutions. He makes it his mission to also help the needy who do not have a safety net to rely on. “They are equally deserving to be succoured in time of hardship and distress,” he said. Once upon a time, Four Eyes was in a coffee shop with a few mates. A stationery pedlar came to their table and asked to sell them a box of pens. Four Eyes, without hesitation paid $20 instead of the asking price of $10. The pedlar tried to give the $10 change to Four Eyes, but Four Eyes told the pedlar to keep it, the extra money was his bonus. The pedlar’s face lit up with a broad smile and his eyes sparkled. After he left their table, Four Eyes’ mates said he was crazy to give so much. “No one pays double the price for pens!” One of them became quite querulous and added, “You will spoil the market!” Four Eyes didn’t care to reply. In his heart, he understood $10 was not quite enough to buy a packet of cigarettes, but it was plenty to feed the bloke for a whole day. That is generosity from the angle of an angel.