Chip, The Blue-Chip

When I think of excellence, absolute reliability, top shelf quality or highly prized assets, the word that comes to my mind is blue-chip. Throughout my life, I have come across very few examples of that. In real estate, I was lucky to purchase one such awesome property on the final morning of a rushed three days in Brisbane, where The Mrs and I left our mid-teenage sons to pursue their tertiary education. The waterfront villa along the Brisbane River in Kangaroo Point went for a song in a very depressed market, such was my astute negotiation skills against a rather desperate Singapore-based seller. In the sharemarket many moons ago, I was also lucky to acquire some BHP and Oxiana shares, both true-blue Aussie blue-chip mining companies, with all that mineral wealth in the ground for them to dig in perpetuity. Before the reader gets too excited, I have long divested all of my blue-chip investments, such were the topsy-turvy economic cycles we lived in. There is, of course, one other who belongs in the blue-chip category. The perspicacious fellow is my good friend Chip. His general knowledge is astounding and often mesmerising. He has the strange ability to discern what most others don’t and to understand what escapes most. I am proud to say that he is perhaps even more blue-chip than we first met in 1965.

When I was reading The Water Margin, a hero by the name of Hua Rong pricked my interest. He was ranked fifth leader in the brotherhood and put in charge of supplies such as food, ammunition and other important provisions without which, the whole gang would have disintegrated. He was their quartermaster, in other words. Chip’s reputation in school was that he was the quartermaster of our troop of Boy Scouts. The success of a Coronation Camp was measured by the quality of the activities, the attendance of beautiful Girl Guides and the quality and adequacy of the food and drinks. The latter criterion was under Chip’s domain. I still hold fond memories of Chip and a few other close friends chopping down 30-foot high bamboo trees alongside the turgid and fast-flowing river behind my parents’ old house at Scotland Close. This was in preparation for building tents for the camp. We transferred them to the campsite about an hour’s ride away, one at a time, tied to two bikes one behind the other about 15 feet apart. Hua Rong was known as “The general with the uncanny arm,” such was his remarkable accuracy with the bow and arrow. He convinced the leader of the outlaws his archery skills were no fluke when he brought down the third bird from a column of flying geese with an arrow through its head as he announced he would. Chip may not have an uncanny arm – I know that because he did not destroy me in the tennis court last Boxing Day – but he does have an uncanny ability to read the ‘mood’ of the brothers and to smooth any ruffled feathers before they became rumbustious. You will never witness Chip annoying anyone or becoming a target for ridicule or scorn. He is much too aware of his surroundings and perceptive of potential discord. Chip does not have Hua Rong’s thin waist and overly broad shoulders but he is handsome-looking with healthy red lips and somewhat stained teeth from his love for the daily ‘short black’. There is an old saying that a person who is guarded about his privacy ‘holds his teeth very closely to his lips’. So, I was a little surprised that Chip agreed for me to write his story. It is a compelling one to share and I hope young readers will find it inspirational.

Chip grew up in a tough neighbourhood where gangsters and triads roamed the streets after dark. His house was in Third Street, a stone’s throw from the infamous street ‘Chit Teow Lor’ or Seventh Street. “Were you ever beaten up?” I asked. “No, we felt safe as they left us alone.They saw us as their neighbours,” he said. “Did they try to recruit you?” I asked. Chip did not answer my question but he said, “I knew where they hid their guns and parangs (Malay word for machetes) – under drain covers, in stacks of firewood piled in the back lanes. I would peer through my bedroom window’s wooden plantation blinds and witness gang fights”. It stuck in my mind that despite his growing up in rough and violent surroundings, being saturated with daily vulgar words from neighbourhood kids, Chip has maintained a gentlemanly charm throughout. I have not once witnessed any vituperation from him. Chip’s childhood days were happy and carefree – running in the back lanes, playing open-air badminton with neighbours and catching guppies in monsoon drains. His inquisitive mind was not bound by school rules and it meant school homework was not a priority for the young Chip. It was not surprising that he was never in the same classes that the elite boys and semi-elites attended. Although we were in the same school from Standard One right through to Fifth Form, I knew Chip only because we were cubs and scouts. I did not have to see his report cards to know his academic results were poor. “Did your dad spank you when asked to sign them?” I annoyingly asked. “Papa’s favourite remark was ‘you can do better’,” Chip replied.

Childhood days were mostly difficult days. “But papa unfailingly ensured that there was food on the table…….though he was seldom at the table with us when we had our meals,” Chip informed me his dad was always busy at work. “Papa brought home bundles and bundles of vegetables every day….. alas, most were rotten and after the usual big effort, mama would manage to salvage enough to barely fill a plate”. Even though his father was a vegetable seller in the market, Chip’s family never enjoyed the best and the freshest vegetables at home. Chip’s dad arrived in Malaya from Houxi, in Jimei District, Xiamen municipality, at age three. The year was 1927. “Papa was brought over by his grandfather,” that was how Chip started his story. Papa’s grandfather was helped by clansmen upon his arrival in the new country and found work in Sia Boey Market. When he was ten years old, papa’s school life at Sum Min School ended. He had to work in Prangin Market to help his grandfather make ends meet. Three years later, he would be all alone in the world – his grandfather perished as a statistic of the Japanese bombing whilst working in the market. At the age of 16, the boy became his own boss when he opened his own stall at the market. After two years of steady income, the young business owner married a gorgeous girl he had eyed for awhile. It was during the Japanese occupation, an era when single ladies were married off no matter how young to avoid the hungry eyes of the Japanese soldiers.

“My father also had a skirmish with the Japanese soldiers,” Chip continued. 

“He was 18 or 19 then……he had just married my mother”.

“He was on his way home from the market when the Japanese soldiers rounded him up and herded him up a truck”.

“A Taiwanese lady who knew my father witnessed his arrest and without a thought for her own safety, boldly walked over to the soldiers pleading for his release”.

“This lady spoke Japanese and calmly lied to them that my father was her son”.

“If not for her, I wouldn’t exist,” Chip said with hands placed together in prayer.

Papa was forever grateful to the Taiwanese woman, and called her ‘mother’ from then on. His own parents finally reunited with him in Penang in 1937. It was an awfully long ten years for the boy, growing up without his parents. But, a short four years later, his father returned to China leaving his mother with him. It makes sense now that Chip says he had two paternal grandmothers. “My (real) grandma was very likely from a wealthy family – she was a ‘bind feet lady’….. can you imagine how a lady with bind feet lived in Penang during the war?” Chip asked. “My ma had to serve her day and night, such were the demands from an incapacitated mother-in-law”. I detected a newfound pride in his voice for his mother. Chip’s family tried to track down their grandfather in China a few years ago. But they drew a blank. An old-timer said to them, “He left, came back and disappeared again soon after”.

Family photo, 1969

13 May 1969. “We had a curfew in place, if you remember. I witnessed the clashes between the police and the triads. I experienced the acrid smell of tear gas which was used as a crowd control measure. Post 13 May, there was an obvious change in the neighbourhood landscape …… a sudden disappearance of certain neighbours….”.

“I was told that they were triad members and had been arrested and ‘buang’ (Malay word for expelled) to another town”.

“So, was life quieter? More peaceful?” I asked naively.

“No, a new wave of crime descended …… drugs! I witnessed sachets of heroin exchanging hands in broad daylight. As we walked along the five-foot-way to the local provision shop (chai tiam mah), we could see sachets hidden in cracks of walls, under pot plants, etc”. It was beginning to be obvious to me that kids who grow up in rough neighbourhoods do not become feckless later in life. If you were weak, you were dead. Schools and colleges are places that hopefully make us smart. But it is the streets that teach us to be street smart. Chip has been the one who knows to read his surroundings quickly. He is a true master at reading people too. He enjoys the benefit of knowing he can trust his personal judgements of characters and situations.

“We could smell the alluring scent of opium they were smoking, as we walked through the zinc sheds at Chulia Street towards Penang Road on the way to school,” a friend chimed in.

“No wonder you found excuses to walk the back lanes of Presgrave and Tye Sin streets, the sweet smells from the opium dens along there were no secret,” I added.

Visits to the chai tiam mah were happy moments for Chip. “Mama would say “go get rice or sugar or salt” and I would run up the five-foot-way without detours to the shop and buy the provisions obediently”.

“Why happy moments?” I asked, expecting him to share secrets of a crush on the lanky shop-owner’s daughter whose beautiful deep-set eyes were perfectly matched with a long pig-tail and mysteriously soft fair-toned mounds on her chest.

“The uncle will reward me with a lolly!” shouted Chip, who was innocently unaware of how boring his answer was to me.

 Friends are important – they make you or break you.

Yeoh Chip Beng

To this day, Chip does not remember how he was sent to Sydney to further his education. Like many others, he had to stay back a year after his dismal results in the M.C.E. I was not aware many of my friends had to suffer the ignominy of attending Upper Fifth Form. In truth, it was not really an embarrassment to repeat Form 5, many failed because of the Malay language test. Chip finally grew up, in his first year in Sydney. He surrounded himself with the right people whose focus was to leave home, get to Australia, have that free education, gain some life experiences and go home as a successful graduate, and live happily ever after. For most students from Malaysia, money was tight. Chip was no different. “We do not have to be poor forever,” we reminded each other.

It was a no-brainer that he would join me and another childhood school friend as flatmates. We found a flat in a brown building sitting high on a hillock in Kensington, a mere half-hour’s walk to the university. Chip was our Hua Rong in the small brotherhood – imaginative, resourceful and a great cook! Reaching home at 3pm was a daily thrill for me. I would rush up the long flight of stone steps and head straight to the rear of the building past the rusty Hills hoist from which would hang uncollected for days, racy undies and lacy bras. I used to wonder what the owner looked like. Chip would be visible through the kitchen window. “Chip!” I would yell out happily as I got into the kitchen from the laundry room door. Chip would turn around, with his signature grin complete with perspiration on his forehead. “Fried rice?!” I asked enthusiastically one afternoon. It surely was. Chip’s fried rice was special before the Chinese restaurants called theirs Special Fried Rice. Three eggs, Birds Eye frozen peas and sweet corn, and a hint of tomato sauce. Our weekly allowance was meagre, the rent represented 80% of my earnings as a waiter. Our food bill was limited by whatever savings I had left. Chip was in the same boat. The other flatmate came from a rich family, so he was able to supplement his meals in the uni cafeteria and in his favourite American burger outlet. My lunch was standard and never varied. One peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich and a 125ml carton of wholesome milk. Some uni friends called me and the other flatmate ‘The Fat and The Thin’- there is no need to guess who ‘The Thin’ was.

We celebrated Chip’s 21st birthday in our Silver Street flat in Randwick. We moved there from Kensington after we had our 24-inch Panasonic TV and my pride and joy, a 10-speed bicycle, stolen. It was a small party without booze (unaffordable) and girls (also unaffordable). We did not dress up for the occasion and we cut one another’s hair in the vain hope that we would look presentable in the photos. No photos will be presented here, unfortunately. Chip understood we would turn up without presents – we were poor students on our own, without any financial backing from home. But, Chip cooked up a storm. It was one of the best meals I had in years. The finale was a big wok of birthday noodles impressively garnished with yellow egg strips and red egg strips. He did it all himself, is that not simply incredible? Every birthday ought to be celebrated with noodles with red egg strips, a Chinese tradition that has virtually died here.

Chip’s birthday noodles
Boyhood pals, from Penang to George Street, Sydney in 1979.

Chip surprised himself that he did amazingly well academically – the first year results were beyond his expectations. Distinctions and High Distinctions became the norm even in his second year. His excellent results got him invited to the Honours programme in UNSW. He was tempted and wanted to stay the extra year in Sydney. Money was tight at home but he could struggle through another year, he reasoned. But the decision was made for him. A prestigious Big 7 audit firm offered him a job in Singapore and that was that. No further discussions were entertained. It was fatuous to argue otherwise. This street kid from yonder was heading to Singapore and entering the world of international banking and high finance.

Chip with his lovely wife, a symbol of international success.

During a recent visit to Chip’s home which nestles in the lush green hillside above Penfolds vineyards, I looked at him admiringly from a distance whilst he was busily serving his signature Ribeye fillet. It was as usual, the epitome of a perfect steak only Chip amongst us, can master. It crossed my mind that he had every reason to be house-proud. A man’s home is his castle. Chip’s castle is beautifully designed and tastefully decorated. The sprawling garden is well maintained and showcases Adelaide’s skyline and the distant shoreline in the west. No matter how he dismisses the quality of his castle in the blue-ribbon suburb, a casual visitor cannot miss the banner that spells success. There he was, carving the steak in his kitchen, yet the vision I had of him was that of a grand old master of the corporate world, a retired Finance Director of a famous public company based in Sydney, and a retired acting chairman of another publicly listed company in Melbourne. How did he get to the top of the echelon of the predominantly white club? Today’s modern women push for more gender equality in the corporate world, demanding more leadership positions for women. Yet, it is the bamboo ceiling that is a lot harder to break for Asians in Australia. Where 9.6% of the community has an Asian background, a paltry 1.9% of executive managers has Asian origins. Chip from Third Street, Penang achieved what most say is only for the dreamer. He did it without fanfare and none of the pomposity that often is packaged with glittering success. He did it against all odds, arising from a background that was fragile, frugal, dismal and bleak. I have no hesitation in including Chip, a most worthy man, to the Brotherhood of the Marsh alongside Blue Eyes, Wu Yong, Four Eyes, The Cook, Lord Guan and Typhoon.

The best Ribeye that would tantalise any steak lover.

Portrait of Yeoh Chip Beng & Ai Poh by Anne Koh.

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