The Very Best of Lak

The one hundred and eight outlaws in The Water Margin are a disparate group from every level of society, ranging from the downright trodden, poor peasants, innkeepers, and fishermen to highly ranked military officers and influential officials of the court. The brotherhood of school friends and people close to me are no different. We come from hugely diverse backgrounds, yet we are able to intermingle and bond as a close unit despite our many different views regarding politics, religion and any matter under the sun. The one thread that keeps us together, I think, is our common decency and high regard for virtue and kindness. Some of us are like spring water, others are like the harshest desert, yet together, we become an oasis. The outlaws of the Liangshan Marsh are no different – virtuous and benevolent yet rebellious against the State, robbing from the rich and the corrupt and redistributing to the needy or unfairly treated. Their belief was that they would be shielded from punishment by the government since their actions were always out of loyalty to the Song emperor.

The next hero I salute will be enthusiastically welcomed to the Urghhling Marsh. I am quite certain. He is highly deserving and I hope the next two thousand words will prove it. His parents arrived in Malaya from Canton, China as a young couple. They were from quite well-to-do families. But during the communist era in China, most of their properties and assets were seized and redistributed to the people, so there was no inheritance to pass on to their descendants. The hero’s name is Lak, pronounced as luck, but despite such an auspicious name, luck did not visit him during his childhood.

When Lak was three years-old, his father was killed in an accident due to a faulty car door that would not shut properly. He was thrown out of the taxi he was in when the speeding driver veered off-course round a bend on a coastal road in the island of Penang. There were no seat belts to buckle up in those days. He was in his forties when he left his seven children fatherless. Lak was the youngest of five boys and two girls. The three oldest kids, although still very young, had to stop schooling. A casual observer would have wrongly deduced that their mother remarried many times. They had different surnames. Amongst them, there was a Chee, Choo, Chu, and a rather unique Chhoo. Very few today would understand that babies’ names were often mis-spelt at the registrar in mid-20th century Malaya. Their mother could only speak her own Teochew dialect and was likely not even aware her children’s surnames were different, such unimportance was given to their anglicised names. Although she was not quite forty, she managed to keep the whole family together, “through thick and thin,” Lak emphasised. “To her, nothing was impossible,” he added. “You just have to put in the effort, and everything can be solved,” she often repeated to her kids. Despite the sudden loss of her husband and her limited resources, she continued to send gifts and money back to China for her folks there. Her parents were not informed of her husband’s passing – she did not want them to worry in vain. She worked long days and nights until her body felt like a dead branch on a tree, ready to fall to the ground. She wasn’t just independent, she had many dependants and friends to support. “She still helped others when she should be the one to receive help?” I asked. Lak remembers a villager from Nibong Tebal who frequently travelled to the island to sell medicated oil. A friend of Lak’s mother, she would ‘camp’ at their house for weeks each time. In return, she would give her generous host some of her unsold stock. “Mom believed that we should help if it is within our ability,” Lak said.

Work hard and make an honest living. Do not steal or harm others in your pursuit of wealth.

Mdm Low Hooi Kean

They learned to make do with what they had. A single kembong fish would be a main dish and had to be equally shared over a meal. On the odd occasion, they would treat themselves to a bowl of Assam Laksa. They would consume the noodles and keep the soup for later. They would add plain Hup Hoe marie pia (biscuits sold loose from big rusty-looking tins) to the leftover soup and enjoy it as a second meal. They were too busy with life’s constant challenges; their focus was to subsist and persist – no one had time to self-pity and no one had time for those who were inclined to self-pity. Being the youngest in the family had its advantages. Lak was very fortunate as all his siblings had started working by the time he was enrolled in Primary School. As a pre-school kid, he did not feel he was deprived or underprivileged. In his neighbourhood, everyone was just the same as everyone else; they were all as poor as one another. The kids along that stretch in Weld Quay enjoyed the same seasonal activities, marbles, spinning tops, kite-flying, or fishing in the drain. But, once he attended school, he knew the other boys were different. Unlike a private college where all the students are from above average income families or rich, our school was a mixing pot without any exclusions. Lak discovered he belonged to the poor category, insignificant like a blade of grass in a football field. In class, he was given a card which entitled him to a daily slice of bread with a tiny dollop of jam on top and a glass of icy syrup water. Realising that very few kids were handed that card made Lak sad. As the years went by in school, he dreaded donation days for the Sisters of the Poor, and Teachers’ Day when other kids brought nice gifts for their teachers. “Except me,” he said. After the school holidays, everyone had stories to tell about what they did during the holidays. “Except me,” he said. During recess or before school assembly, there would be a long serried rank of eager beavers in white school uniform queuing up at the Indian hawker’s cart parked outside the school gate to buy lollies, plastic toys and other knick-knacks, “except me,” Lak said. “Did you grow up with an inferior complex?” I asked. “Maybe a little. But we had our pride and self-respect; we weren’t allowed to walk like losers,” Lak confided.

Lak’s mother

From the age of six, Lak followed his mother and a sister to work in a factory that repackaged junk food into small packets. Lak worked the morning shifts before attending school classes in the afternoon. He continued with this rigorous routine right through Primary School. The factory imported items such as sweet cured preserved plums and preserved olives in bulk from China and Thailand. They were paid on a piecemeal basis. The family worked as a team, and on a good day, they could earn about three dollars. After awhile, Lak’s mother showed her entrepreneurial mettle. Every two or so years, she made a trip to Canton couriering goods for people who wanted to send items to their families back ‘home’. With the fees she earned, she would purchase items that she knew would sell in China. Bicycles and sewing machines were among items that were in high demand. She was also a pioneer in the banking business, collecting monies from her clients before remitting them in person to their families in Canton for a fee. Success from these early ventures was replicated in Thailand every few months. It would not be an exaggeration to say she pioneered the import/export business between Thailand and Malaya. She brought from Penang what the Thais wanted and imported pots and pans, etc from Thailand. She did all that without any formal education and without any language and literacy skills. 

We will struggle but not bow down in defeat

Mdm Low Hooi Kean

In Form One when it was compulsory to join a uniform unit, the choice was simple for Lak. “Join the army cadet corp. No need to purchase uniform!” Lak chuckled. Life slowly improved. The family bought a black and white TV in the early seventies. Lak missed all the TV shows in the 1960’s as his mother forbade her children to watch from outside their neighbours’ front windows. “Toys? Comic books? Unheard of,” he said. The siblings shared a lantern for the moon cake festival. It was the one and only lantern throughout the many festivals they enjoyed as kids. The lantern was only used for a couple of nights before being neatly packed away for the following year.

Sometimes we are right, but don’t ever be dead right

Chhoo Lak Thiang

Early in his career, Lak learned that it is not always important that we are seen to be right. “Why not?!” asked Wu Yong, another outlaw in the Urghhlings Marsh, who believes we are wrong not to correct our wrongs. Lak then proceeded to ask Wu Yong a question that was only met with silence. “If you are driving on the right side of the road and a truck is roaring towards you on the wrong side of the road, is it important that you are right?” asked Lak.

My cost is one month of my life. My reward is the value my boss sees in me

Chhoo Lak Thiang

After obtaining Grade 4 results in the Form Five exams, the MCE, Lak decided to enrol in City & Guilds Electrical Courses. He discovered he was colour vision deficient, and quickly changed to a book-keeping course instead. “Working life wasn’t easy when all you had was just a GCE O level,” Lak said. “What’s the GCE?” Wu Yong asked. “You didn’t sit for Upper Form Five,” The Cook, another outlaw of the brotherhood replied. But Lak soon realised he excelled in accounting and was recruited by a licensed finance company as an Internal Audit clerk in 1977 earning a measly RM150 a month. In his wisdom, Lak saw it as an opportunity and a stepping stone. Without the paper qualifications, Lak knew that he had to prove his worth through his performance. He welcomed responsibilities above and beyond his position as a challenge to show he was ready for bigger and better things.”This was the most valuable lesson I learned from my mom,” he said. In 1991, due to the government’s policy on Bumiputra quotas, he was bypassed from a promised junior manager’s post. Fortunately, his boss recognised the injustice and rewarded him with the promised monetary promotion but without the position. Through the years, Lak gained his vast experience from working in various departments and subsequently he was elevated to head of a department. Eventually, he was promoted to the position of Branch Manager. I feel elated for Lak as I write this, even though this success happened decades ago. His achievement was not just a monthly fat pay cheque and a nice-sounding job title. It represents much much more. An accomplishment against huge odds. It brings relief and joy. A lightness of being, after a lifetime of struggle. Peace of mind. Certainty. Satisfaction. Opportunities. Dignity. Gratefulness. Success prompts us to be grateful, to appreciate what we have achieved and who we have around us – our loved ones who have supported us when we are at our lowest and encouraged us to carry on.

Lak met the love of his life in that branch; their romance soon turned into a wedding, but because the attendees were mostly bosses and colleagues, “it felt like a company annual dinner,” Lak joked. A fond memory Lak has was that after their nasi lemak breakfast, the groomsmen got ready to accompany the groom to fetch the bride from Malacca to KL, but none of them knew how to drive a Mercedes which Lak had managed to borrow from a colleague. The groom had to drive the beautifully decorated wedding car himself.

Through various mergers, Lak ended working in a bank. There by chance, he discovered Fraud Investigations and applied to be transferred there. Lak’s career found its second wind, as he found fraud investigations stimulating and challenging. There was a high-profile case of a highly respected Navy Admiral with some political muscle, an existing borrower with no known risks who applied for a bigger loan. Lak blacklisted him for attempted fraud despite a strong appeal from department heads and accusations by other bank managers of not knowing his job. In another case, a loan had been approved and was just pending disbursement. Fraudulent documents were detected and reported to the CEO who directed Lak to make his decision. Lak revoked the loan and directed the conveyance lawyer to recover all costs from the applicant. Such a bold step was unheard of in those days. The applicant attempted to litigate but his case fizzled out, proving Lak was correct to make that call. His judgement, integrity and tenacity was never again questioned by his peers. Equally, he trusted his staff, as if he had learned the wisdom from Liu Bei of The Three Kingdoms fame.

An astute lord does not employ those whom he suspects, nor suspects those he employs

Liu Bei, Prince of Shu

Lak, in recent years, has attracted my attention with his pearls of wisdom. It would not surprise me at all if he had gained his wisdom from the three blood brothers who made their oath in the peach garden to live and die together in The Three Kingdoms. Lak would know to seize his opportunities as they arise unlike Liu Bei who on numerous occasions missed to take control of new territories due to his pretences to uphold propriety and virtue. From Guan Yu, Lak would remind himself not to allow arrogance and over-confidence to lull him into complacency – as this was how Guan Yu lost Jingzhou, a fort vital for the Shu Kingdom’s grip on the Riverlands and central plains. From the third brother Zhang Fei, Lak would remember not to be hot-tempered and abuse his people as that was how two aggrieved generals decapitated Zhang Fei as he slept.

I have no hesitation to add Lak to the Urghhlings Brotherhood alongside Blue Eyes, Wu Yong The Cur, Four Eyes, The Cook, Lord Guan, Typhoon, Blue-Chip, Prez, The Mayor and Lucky Outlaw.

Portrait of Chhoo Lak Thiang by Anne Koh.

One thought on “The Very Best of Lak

  1. Tan Ban Leong: Kia Ora, brother Lak Thiang ! You’re getting better and better like wine. Looking forward to more of our Kia Ora to come !
    Always looking forward to our interesting Urghhlings blog.
    Kudos again brother, lovely read.


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