Early Mayhem For The Mayor

The mayor in our brotherhood needs no introduction. Everyone knows him by that nickname. “Why The Mayor?” I asked a few friends. No one seems to remember how his name stuck. He used to work as a barman in many famous drinking holes in Penang. Later, he joined The Holiday Inn at their Barons Table grill room and was put in charge of the bar. His career as a young man for many years after he left school was around food and beverages, as a barman, a restauranteur, and an inn-keeper. When I was reading about Du Xing in The Water Margin, I knew The Mayor was our Du Xing, the appointed inn-keeper near the Liangshan marsh who acted as the eyes and ears or early warning system for the gang of outlaws. Du Xing had a fierce face, with big eyes and ears. A quarrelsome character, he was often involved in fist fights and became an outlaw when he killed a business partner. The Mayor during school days was also frequently involved in back-alley fights with rascals and other gang members. He shares many similarities with Du Xing, except he is not ugly like ‘Demon face’. Mayor possesses a wide beaming smile that does not seem to leave his attractive fortune-giving thick lips. One old-wives’ tale taught me that men with thick lips, flat noses and long earlobes are blessed with unimaginable riches and longevity. Decades of pulling my earlobes and biting my lips have been unrewarding for me thus far. To make a woman swoon, a man usually uses charming words, struts like a peacock or croons with a sexy voice. The Mayor simply needs to smile. Oh, such wonderful lips!

The Mayor’s paternal grandparents were both born in Penang. His great grandparents were Malays. Malay as a race was first coined by JF Blumenbach, a German who lived in the 19th century. He clumped all Australo-Melanesians together and called them Malays. His paternal grandfather worked as a clerk in Chartered Bank. His grandmother was a Thai from Pattaya and thus, her descendants are Peranakan. “What can you remember about her?” I asked. “She was a cheroot-smoking matchmaker who loved to munch on sireh (betel leaf),” was all The Mayor said. As an afterthought, he added that he enjoyed going to the Rex cinema with her for Chinese movies.

Life during his childhood years was tough. The Mayor remembers they were often moving “house”. His family lived in a rented room during his school days and shared the rest of the common areas with the landlord. There was always a reason to relocate -a rent increase (never justifiable in his dad’s mind), or the rent became unaffordable, or the landlord simply changed his mind (they were too noisy?), or the room was too crammed for all of them. Perhaps, it was due to the constant pressures of life that he was whacked a lot by his mother. The Mayor’s dad worked at Universal Cars on Anson Road. He was a clerk in the lubrication / service centre for Ford cars. “There was never enough money to put food on the table, I think my dad’s salary was less than RM350 a month. How to support a wife and three children?” he asked with both palms facing heaven. “When I was small, I envied those schoolmates whose families had cars. The bus was my only mode of transport to school from Std 3,” he recalled. “Sometimes, we were so desperate my dad had to borrow money to pay for food,” The Mayor’s voice quivered. He often was sent to a relative’s house to borrow supplies like rice, soy sauce and eggs. He harboured bitter memories from childhood about the serious deprivation they suffered and opportunities lost if their father was not poor. One night, they all went to bed hungry and in tears. He decided right there and then that he will not be poor like his parents. He promised himself that he will not fail when it is his turn to provide a basic level of security and comfort for his family and to give his children a good education – essentials that he was deprived of during his teenage years. He has lived by that promise ever since. The great Sima Yi comes to mind when I write this. He was Cao Cao’s military general and regent during the Three Kingdoms period of China.

I am not one to beg for a bowl of soup at a banquet. I would rather be the one who delivers a cup of rice to a man in need.

Sima Yi

“I remember when I was about ten years-old; we had just moved into a Rifle Range flat. I got a severe beating from my mother. I felt very depressed and decided to walk all the way through the Batu Gantong cemetery, then along Western Road to my paternal grandparents’ house in Kuching Lane, Pulau Tikus”. That journey took almost an hour for the little boy. Another childhood memory was at St Xavier’s Branch School when he tried to be a hero and dared to complain about the physical abuse by his teacher, Mr Norbert Martin. At that time, the 12-year-old leader gathered a few classmates to discuss what steps to take. A young classmate, The Cook, suggested that The Mayor ought to bring his parents to school to confront the teacher. The Mayor’s mother turned up the next day and slapped her son in front of the whole class instead. That was a scar upon a scar. His parents were too busy making ends meet and had no time to guide the children in their school work. Another scary moment during that period of his life was the sectarian violence of May 13, 1969. “We were living in Tanjong Tokong Lama. As a kid, I was scared witless to see the words ‘Bunoh Cina’ in red paint on the roads,” he said. Those two Malay words were chilling for a young boy. ‘Kill Chinese’ was the message that appeared everywhere overnight. His parents were strict on all of their kids – the adults’ behaviour made them even more fearful. They were not to leave the house for whatever reason. His dad was angry at the politicians. Overnight, the Malays had become the enemy in what was a racially harmonious society. But, once the troubles were over, his dad taught him never to hate.

Do not be angry.

Anger will only lower your intelligence.

Do not hate your enemy.

Hate will make you lose your good judgment.

Rather than hate your enemy, make use of them instead.

Cao Cao

The Mayor and I were classmates in Form One. I had forgotten it until someone thrusted our class photo under my nose. Somehow, we didn’t mingle then. He was one of the boys who stuck a little mirror on his shoe. I shan’t disclose the reason why he did it except to say our teacher Mrs N Ah had a habit of wearing only white undies, her short dress barely covered. The way she sat on the raised platform with her legs apart became the focal point for the class. Many still consider that was the best year of school. The Mayor started working night shifts after his Lower Certificate of Education (LCE) exams at Intel Bayan Lepas canteen. “My plan was like a bright star in a dark sky,” he said. “If I passed the LCE, the money I earned would be handy for my Upper Secondary school years but if I failed, I would have a promised job in Intel as a production operator,” he beamed. The Mayor passed and enrolled as a Social Science student. In school, he was active as a valued member of the tug-of-war team, the dragon boat team, and was also a prominent member of the 7th Georgetown North Scout Group.

“I spent my school holidays mostly in Kuching Lane with my maternal grandparents”. There was a kampong (village) next to the lane, where at the end of it was a stream. “We had so much fun there playing in the water, catching tadpoles, stealing rambutans and mangosteens from private orchards. I’d go there the very next day after school,” he said. “The depressing thing for me whenever I visited them was that they would always see cane marks on my legs,” he sighed. “How come?” I asked. The Mayor looked at me incredulously. He did not need words but his facial expression told me I was dumb to even ask. “Report card days are always on the last day of school,” he said with wasted breath.

In Upper Secondary, The Mayor started forming more bad habits. During recess time, he and a few regulars like Michael John Thong, Alphonsus Scully and occasionally Lye Kim Leong would climb over the school wall near the basketball courts and disappear for the rest of the day.

“What did you guys do when you wagged school?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing exciting,” The Mayor replied.

“You know, the usual stuff,” he said. “Sneaking into the cinemas, smoking in coffee shops, playing billiards in the community hall, group dating, shoplifting favourite snacks or drinks from the Indian stall-owner if we saw he was preoccupied or getting into fist fights with older school boys at the Boston Bar, it was not such a thrill,” he added casually. “It was more exciting to loiter at the open-air carpark between F & G blocks of Rifle Range flats and wolf-whistle at girls passing by, or hang out at the Convent Light Street bus-stop after school to tease the girls waiting there. Best times!” he added.

Immediately after his Form 5 exams (MCE), The Mayor disappeared from the school scene and worked for two years at Chuan Lee Hin, a wholesaler in Siah Boey as their van assistant peddling Camel cigarettes for RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. The next ten years, he was in and out of employment working as a barman for the likes of Cozy Corner at Oriental, Princess Coffee House and VIP restaurant at Townhouse Hotel.

“At that last job, I became ‘kwai lan’ (Hokkien for idiotic) and tried to form a workers’ union at the workplace”.

He soon discovered the terrible truth about powerless workers without a union. He was immediately sacked. He tried his hand as a plumber in construction sites in Butterworth for about six months but found the job tough. The following eight years, he was back as a barman at D Bierkrug, a German pub at Sri Bahari Road, then at Villa Roma coffeehouse at Sunrise Gurney Drive. Then on a fateful afternoon, an ex-general manager of one of the venues approached him to join him in a new venture at a Johore Baru hotel. Before too long, he left the hotel job after marrying the woman who made his legs ‘feel like jelly’ the first time he saw her in a coffee shop. She ran an agency dealing in life and general insurance. He joined her in her business but found the purely commission-based job unrewarding. He hated the constant rejections and did not enjoy the cold-calling style of work. But, luckily he remembered the promise he made to himself all those years ago about not wanting to be poor ever again. His wife was instrumental in tapping into his obvious talents and vast network from decades working as a barman. He firstly approached his drinking buddies, and with their patronage and their recommendations, The Mayor was quick to achieve the Million Dollar Club in just his second year. Indeed, he has been a bright star in a dark sky ever since.

Breakfast at Canary Wharf

Dying to succeed. Die I must also succeed.

Choong Kok On

Here is a man right in front of me, who has tasted the depths of bitter despair to now shining brightly as only a newly-born star can. I was eager to know how he achieved such success, given his background.

“Will you tell us your secrets to success?” I asked.

“Perseverance. Desire to be successful. Be systematic and organised,” he said with a firm voice.

The Mayor was unaware the first two were also Sima Yi’s secret of success – persistence and enthusiasm. His wife told him he would never be rich working for someone else.

“Luckily, I listened to her!” he enthused.

One. I am afraid of pain.

Two. I am afraid of suffering.

Three. I am afraid of dying.

So, I have no choice but to obey Cao Cao and work for him.

Sima Yi

Very soon after joining the Million Dollar Club, The Mayor realised his dream of owning his own prestige cars. He did it for his dad.

“Dad worked for a car dealer, but he never owned a car in his life,” The Mayor said.

The Mayor has owned impressive cars like the Citroen Xantia, Mercedes E200, Citroen C8, and BMW X5. He is a worldly man, attending annual business conventions around the world prior to the pandemic. Not bad for someone who was a rascal as a young lad whose only guiding light was never to be poor again. He is happy all his siblings have also climbed out of the poverty trap.

“We don’t have to be poor again,” he said with a great sense of gratitude.

Yet, I sense a lot was left unsaid. The ineffable miseries of his childhood, I suppose, will remain loud in the silence.

Mayor at the Keukenhof.

“Please, can you share some more?” I asked The Mayor.

Clearly, he is a man who can inspire many to get out of their dark hole, to give themselves a fighting chance, to not give up, to perhaps even dream of greatness.

After some coaxing, The Mayor added, “One must be humble, caring, and always put the other party’s interests first. Be a willing listener, be a problem solver not a whinger, show a deep well of patience, offer realistic solutions and never force your products down someone’s throat. Learn to win friends, enjoy their company and be genuine.”

Like Du Xing who was conferred the title ‘Martial Gentleman of Grace’, The Mayor is also a gentleman full of grace and kindness. Du Xing was one of the few Liangshan heroes who survived all the campaigns. The Mayor inspires many also for being a survivor despite impossible odds. He enjoys a healthy reputation as a successful and honest insurance broker. I have no hesitation to add The Mayor to the Brotherhood of the Marsh alongside Blue Eyes, Wu Yong The Cur, Four Eyes, The Cook, Lord Guan, Typhoon, Chip the Blue Chip and Prez.

Portrait of Choong Kok On by Anne koh.

4 thoughts on “Early Mayhem For The Mayor

  1. Wow… the plot thickens with the emergence of the Mayor. The emergence of the protagonist has lend more dramatic impact onto the turn of event in this story line of The Water Margin. Interesting read. Strongly recommended.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Five possible operations for an army:
    If able to fight, fight
    If unable to fight, defend
    If unable to defend, flee
    If unable to flee, surrender
    Can’t surrender, die
    -Sima Yi

    But for the Mayor, die also must succeed. That’s one level better than Sima Yi. And I’m sure he made Lord Buddha happy because the Enlightened One taught –
    Endurance is One of the Most difficult disciplines, but it is to the One Who Endures that the Final Victory comes.

    There may not be a Liangshan down in Johore but there’s definitely a Xinshan 新山 where the Mayor rightfully belongs.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ung Tek Fuh: Kudos on what is another fantastic piece.
    I have known Mayor since Std 1 and yet you’ve shown me there’s more to learn about the man.
    Great one especially the part where The Cook made a cameo appearance


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