As I was thinking about the setting for the beginning of this story, I could not help but think of Wu Song the Tiger Slayer, in The Water Margin. He was returning to his village, Qinghe County, to visit his elder brother and had presented four farewell salutations to Song Jiang and Chai Jin a few days earlier. At the time, none of them had any inkling they would become outlaws of the Liangshan Marsh. He decided to rest overnight at a small inn before heading for Jingyang Ridge. The innkeeper warned him about a large man-eating tiger with a white forehead and protruding evil eyes which had killed about thirty locals and wounded many more. The remoteness of the forest, the tension in the air, the treacherous narrow paths, unpopular treks covered by thick vegetation, the scenic meadow and beyond it a green hill on the horizon, the pleasant whispers of cool mountain air, the warning signs about a menacing tiger on the prowl, the imminent threat to his life. These were similar images in the scene that I visualised in my mind as I pondered on how to start this story about the next outlaw in the Urghhling Marsh. I shall call this outlaw the Lucky Outlaw.
It was along a rarely used track in a mosquito-infested, energy-sapping humid jungle that the small group of travellers were dragging their tired feet on. One of them was a handsome man in what was once impeccable clothing and he moved and spoke with a respectable demeanour. He was bringing his six-year-old son with him from Johore Baru after a four-year stint as a teacher, to Rawang where his mother and siblings lived. The little skinny boy was Lucky Outlaw’s father, Law Nai Choong; the tall handsome man with piercing eyes and a large forehead, his fraternal grandfather, Law Chin Tang. Little is known of Chin Tang’s birth family or history. The impressive Chin Tang, born in 1910, was adopted from a family in Ipoh, by Law Chun Hoi and Lau Ah Say. They were a childless couple who adopted four children. Chun Hoi had a government job as an approved opium seller as he could speak both English and Chinese. Such a lucrative job was difficult to obtain in those days unless one had literacy skills and useful connections. They lived at 13 Welman Street, Rawang. Chin Tang was the third of the four kids adopted. When he turned nineteen, he was forced by his parents to marry their last adopted child, his sister by the name of Loong Chui Fung. The story goes that they were locked in a room by their mother for three days and the rest is history, as the saying goes.
Chin Tang was indubitably a very intelligent man. He was dux of Victoria Institution Selangor in 1929 and was awarded the Loke Yew scholarship to attend the Arts faculty of Hong Kong University from 1932 to 1934. His poems are held in Hong Kong University to this day. He was one of very few with an education in those days; one with a university degree was virtually unheard of. Chin Tang’s father died in 1935 and although he was the third oldest in his family, he became the head of his family. Chin Tang and Chui Fung divorced in 1940 due to their irreconcilable differences as he was a learned gentleman whereas she barely finished high school. Chui Fung remarried but her new husband did not want to care for another man’s children so Lucky Outlaw’s great-grandmother had to look after Chin Tang’s four children.
On the journey to Rawang, Chin Tang and his fellow travellers camped where they could. They were not the healthiest or fittest people to be travelling with. One rotund woman was especially slow and to describe her as a whinier would be quite kind. Chin Tang knew the group had to stay united. He tried to ‘make fire and water compatible’ for everyone. One night, whilst preparing to sleep in a long unattended animal shed – maybe abandoned, Chin Tang asked a friendly Indian man whom he had just met to look after his son should he meet with some bad tidings. The next morning, Chin Tang volunteered to reconnoitre the immediate vicinity before the group’s departure. Sadly, he never returned. No one saw him or heard from him again. Luckily, the Indian man was good to his word and brought Nai Choong, Lucky Outlaw’s father, back home to Rawang. Lucky Outlaw’s great-grandmother was left to look after her grandchildren alone with no money and no one left at home to earn money for the family.
Not before long, another tragedy struck when their home was bombed in 1942. This left only the middle and back of the shophouse in a somewhat liveable condition. The next two years were a desperate time for them; most days they had only one meal of rice congee to survive on. Nai Choong, at a tender age of seven then, sold cut-pineapple at the Rawang railway station to help support his family. “Dad almost never discussed this time in his life with us as it was a very sad and difficult time for him,” Lucky Outlaw explained without being asked. The following year, Lucky Outlaw’s great-grandmother died leaving the children as orphans and a $500 debt for her casket. A boy, the youngest of four, was sold for $90 and the second sister at fourteen, was married off to an admirer. Nai Choong and his eldest sister were taken in as servants by a very good friend and distant relative of their father’s, Mah Kam Tong, who had studied at the same university in Hong Kong with Chin Tang. Mah was quite a rich man in his day and lived at Bukit Bintang Road in Kuala Lumpur. Although Mah had ten children of his own, he allowed the two young orphans to attend school with them. Nai Choong and his sister did not have a room for themselves; he slept in the hallway next to the adult servants’ room. A piece of string was tied to his toe so that he could be woken up at 5.00 am without disturbing the master’s family. Nai Choong’s chores began immediately – he would be off to the baker to get fresh bread, then helped prepare breakfast and cleaned the kitchen before going to school. After school, he would be required to do general house-chores and kitchen work, helped with the laundry and ironing, and later when he was older, he became their cook as well. It would be quite late in the evening, after clearing the dining table and washing all the pots and pans and dinnerware, before he had some time to study. Whilst everyone had already retired to their rooms, he would urge his elder sister at the kitchen table to keep up with their school work with the aid of a 10-watt lamp. She found those tasks too demanding. It was no surprise that she was often caught asleep during classes at Bukit Nanas Convent. The nuns took pity on her and took her in as a boarder after her first year with the Mah’s. She remained there until she finished school and went to the local teachers’ training college in Kuala Lumpur.
Nai Choong lived with the Mah’s from 1944 to 1954 as their servant. A child servant from age eight. The harsh reality for this poor boy pierced my heart and I simply could not continue writing. I must have stared at my computer screen for a long while whilst my synapses flashed about in absolute disarray. No sensible words could pour out. How did he cope with so much sadness? Orphaned at such a tender age, what force did he discover to carry on? His days were long and tortuous, his duties and chores never ending. The obscurity of his entire person, more or less a child slave, putting up with ragged days and ragged nights with no end in sight should have smothered his self-confidence. Any self-loathing would have been justified, the insecurity, vulnerability, self-doubt too heart-breaking to imagine. The deep well of despair, humiliation, and his stunted world of aloneness would have driven any mortal to give up, let alone a kid. It would be totally understandable if there were any feelings of self-revulsion and stinging anger. He was not unloved like a stray cat, or kicked around like an empty can though; remarkably, he felt grateful – to have been fed, clothed and had a roof over his head. More importantly, he was not deprived of an education. He was sent to school at St John’s Institution Kuala Lumpur with the Mah boys. Nai Choong despite all the setbacks and challenges, managed to obtain Grade One in the University of Cambridge Local Examination Syndicate Overseas School Certificate Exams. He obtained a scholarship to go to Kirby in England for a teacher training course. There he met his future wife, Teoh Saw Choo of Bukit Mertajam who had also obtained a similar scholarship. Lucky Outlaw’s parents were at Kirby together from 1954 till 1956. Upon their return to Malaya, they quickly married and were stationed in Bukit Mertajam (BM). She taught at BM Convent as an English teacher and he at BM High School as a Science & Mathematics teacher.
Lucky Outlaw their first-born, was named after a nun, Sister St John who was very kind and inspirational to his mother. His parents had three other children after him, a sister born two years later, in 1960 and two younger brothers. He attended Stowell Primary School in BM from Standard One till Standard Four after which the whole family moved to Penang. The parents felt that there were better schools on Penang Island. Lucky Outlaw attended Standard Five to Form Two in St Xavier’s Institution (SXI).
He left SXI in early September 1972, at age thirteen. He remembers not getting the English Prize in Standard One because he could not spell ‘vegetable’. I did not have the heart to inform him I won the English prize that year in my class. He was the dux in our class in Form Two. He informed me that he, and fellow outlaws Wu Yong, and Typhoon were amongst only six students who got promoted from Form 1A2 to Form 2Comm1 after sitting for the ‘progress test’. “I was blur-blur; those sort of things were not on my radar, but I was pleased Lord Guan and The Cook were the other Urghhling Marsh heroes there,” Wu Yong said. He admitted he did not have that competitive streak that Lucky Outlaw had from young.
On 11 September 1972, Lucky Outlaw’s family sailed from Singapore to Fremantle arriving nine days later. “My parents decided that it was economical to sail than fly and we could bring more furniture and other belongings for our home in Sydney,” he explained. The trip on the Indian Pacific train was not a bonus like how it was promised to be. “It was quite boring actually, we were cooped up for three days in a train with only red desert sand to look at …. We realised how big Australia was when we arrived into Sydney; it was like arriving in an oasis,” Lucky Outlaw said, forgetting a similar outback scenic offer from The Ghan to Alice Springs can cost over $5,000 per one-way ticket. “Did you have any regrets, leaving our Motherland?” I asked. “I lack a true childhood friend although now with our Xaverian brotherhood, I have reconnected with some childhood friends. This also amplifies the strength and importance of the unity and love of the family unit,” he said.
The family that plays together stays togetherJohn Law Choong Chet
On arrival in Sydney, he attended Form Two in the third term at Patrician Brothers High School in Liverpool. “I suppose it was a challenge to catch up, being two terms behind the class?” I suggested. “No, I managed to win the Maths and Science prizes,” he said proudly. Lucky Outlaw was dux and school captain in 1974. In 1975 he moved to Patrician Brothers College in Fairfield for his Form Five and Form Six years. He was made school vice-captain and scored the highest points for HSC for his school. He was equal first in Biology for the whole of New South Wales in 1976.
Try your best with every exam; even if you do fail, at least you have tried your bestJohn Law Choong Chet
Those academic accolades are mentioned to demonstrate that studying came easily to him and that he had been given every opportunity to succeed by his thoughtful parents. “You’re an aberration, Lucky Outlaw, you succeeded without failure,” I said. Cao Cao, Prince of Wei in The Three Kingdoms once said, “a military commander is like a physician”. When a physician treats more and more, his medical knowledge and skills improve, but after more and more have died. Lucky Outlaw, however, has been lucky throughout his life. Those along the way has also been blessed by him – countless lives have been soothed or saved by him.
Without failure there is no successCao Cao
Their parents’ sacrifices were not lost on the children. Even before sitting for his HSC exams, Lucky Outlaw had already been given a place at ANU to study Commerce Law. He remembers praying to God, placing his life and his future career in His hands. “God gave me the marks to do medicine at Sydney Uni,” he said. He started in 1977 and graduated in 1982 and so he feels very lucky. “I have enjoyed this vocation of medicine where the poor should have access to medicine like the rich,” he added. In his career as a GP, he has never charged for a consultation for children under 18 years of age and he won’t ever send a reminder bill to delinquent patients. “If they can’t pay my low charges then they need the money more than I do,” he said. His charges for working adult patients are half of what other doctors charge and those unemployed pay half of that again.
“I am so proud of both my parents – of the sacrifices they endured for their children, especially my father. He was literally a penniless orphan who fended for himself yet was able to win a scholarship to England. When he died in 2013, my mum retired comfortably due to their life-long hard work, frugality and astuteness with their investments. Not only that, my other siblings have also done well. Both my sister and brother are doctors too and my youngest brother is a qualified accountant”. “How were they frugal?” I asked. “Oh! When we attended church, the priest in his sermon told the congregation he was impressed with an Asian family working together in the garden of the house he had walked past….. he was unaware they were us. My parents made their own curtain, bed sheets and pillowcases to save money….. we helped sand and polish the timber floors, paint the whole house and landscape the garden….mum knew how to sew, she even made us some shirts, not the most fashionable but a shirt was a shirt!” he spoke proudly. I got the feeling his loving recollection of his parents were for him as soothing as moonlight streaming down on a koi pond.
Man is not a mere stalk of grass, how can he be without emotions?Lu Su, adviser to Sun Quan, Wu emperor of The Three Kingdoms
“Were you sad when you left home?” I prodded. “It was exciting times for me! I was already 27, one of the oldest bachelors still living in his parents’ home. I met an Air New Zealand hostess and quickly followed her to Christchurch!” Lucky Outlaw promised to dig up some old photos of the beautiful girl to show me. But, I don’t think I will be so lucky.
For the Law family, Australia has certainly been a Lucky Country. To cap it all off, Lucky Law is married to a Kiwi, his sister to a Spanish Jew, his brother to a German, and the youngest to a Japanese. It did not escape his father who lost his own father on that remote stretch of jungle track near Rawang and endured untold sadness after, that his children in multicultural Australia have married the very peoples who were at war – the ANZACS, the Japanese, the Germans, the Jews and the Chinese. Lucky Outlaw inspires many with his righteousness and benevolence. Au fait with just about any topic, the successful and kind doctor enjoys a myriad of interests in life, be it music, food, travel and performing in his choir. I have no hesitation to add Lucky Outlaw to the Urghhlings Brotherhood alongside Blue Eyes, Wu Yong The Cur, Four Eyes, The Cook, Lord Guan, Typhoon, Blue-Chip, Prez and The Mayor.