The Orphan, Often The One

The next hero of The Urghhling Marsh surely has to be The Orphan. The brotherhood of schoolmates and old friends does not lack tales of heroic battles and unforgettable scars, but in his quest to find a life of comfort and meaning, The Orphan adds extra intensity, dimension and depth. He is neither fat nor thin, tall nor short; the fellow is not sallow and not swarthy, not an extrovert yet he is not an introvert either. His head is not hoary and not black. He is often the one who sits back and observes everyone at a gathering, and speaks only when spoken to. When he does, he gets their attention as what he often says is illuminating. He is remarkable and big-hearted and his humility will embarrass any egregious loudmouth and purveyor of falsehoods. For these reasons alone, I do not hesitate to include him in our marsh brotherhood.

The Orphan is unlike many of the heroes of Liangshan Marsh. Unlike Lin Chong of Shuihuzhuan fame, The Orphan is not skilled in martial arts and has no military training. He is unlike Li Kui who had the privilege of carrying his mother on his back to the summit of a mountain in Yiling, only to find her devoured by tigers as he went looking for water to quench her thirst. Li Kui, also known as the ‘Iron Ox’ is a fearsome rebel, often drunk and when drunk is often vulgar and dangerous. He is hot-tempered and his many brushes with the law and the lawless is due to his brashness and uncontrollable anger at the smallest slight at him or his friends. The Orphan, on the other hand, is a stranger to anger and violence. He is also nothing like Gao Qiu who became Marshal of the Imperial Guard through his football skills impressing Prince Duan. The Orphan did not have the free time to play football like many of us did in school. It was Gao Qiu’s vengeful intent to court-martial drill master Wang Jin who failed to congratulate him on his promotion to high office that began the story of The Water Margin. The Orphan, on the other hand, is often the one to extend an apology even when he is not at fault.

The Orphan is unlike many of the heroes of Urghhling Marsh too. Unlike Lucky Outlaw, The Orphan did not have parents at all, let alone such highly credentialed parents as Lucky Outlaw’s to coax him to do his school work or coach him to be a better person. The Orphan had none of the opportunities that some of the other heroes enjoyed – no tertiary education meant no chance to be a doctor like Lucky Outlaw. He is unlike The Mayor also. A much less mischievous type in school, The Orphan was not involved with the truant Mayor in climbing school walls behind the bicycle park, smoking or picking up Convent Light Street girls at the bus stop. He is unlike Wu Yong who claims to have amazing powers of making winners become losers simply by supporting them. Wu Yong after the euphoria from the Aussie swimmers at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, rediscovered his zest for the Games and decided to watch the other Aussie girls in action this week. The Opals, The Hockeyroos and The Matildas all lost despite being hot favourites. Disbelieving his own awesome powers, Wu Yong gave himself another chance to prove he does not possess such a gift. Last night, he watched The Stingers lose their match. “Sigh, I still have the power to jinx those I support,” Wu Yong said forlornly. Someone should suggest to him to write to the various coaches and inform them not to over-analyse their defeats – it was not their strategies they got wrong or that the players didn’t execute the plans well. It was simply the case of the unusual powers of their fan, Wu Yong, who consigned them to defeat.

Unlike the others, The Orphan is often the one who is different from the crowd, disinterested in sports and other hobbies we share. Unlike Four Eyes, he is not a strong swimmer and unlike Blue Chip, he is not into gardening. Unlike Prez, he does not enjoy drinking beer and unlike Blue Eyes, he is not into tattoos and bike-riding. He is unlike Typhoon, without an alluring sobriquet such as The Amorous One and neither is he debonair like Pierce Brosnan. Unlike The Cook, he does not cook up a storm. But, what The Orphan has is a kind and forgiving heart which makes him forget about past injustices and maltreatments that would make even the RSPCA squirm. Unlike the great author Ernest Hemingway, he is big-hearted to care for people no matter what. The Orphan is often the one to lend a helping hand to those less fortunate. “His actions speak louder than words,” Prez said of him. This week, he was seen out on the streets of Penang with fellow heroes, Prez and The Cook, handing out one hundred packages of the most sumptuous Japanese food donated by Nagomi Restaurant to the needy and desperate, many of whom are suicidal due to the constricting pressure from one of the world’s longest Covid lockdowns.The band of heroes risks personal health and safety, and hefty fines for breaking the curfew.

I can only care about people, a few at a time

Ernest Hemingway
The Orphan (left), with Prez (centre) and The Cook (right)

Be honest. Don’t be a nuisance to society

Ooi Choon Eng

Today, a medical condition deprives The Orphan from reading for pleasure. He suffered a left eye retinal detachment in December 2007, but thanks to a skilful eye specialist, he retains about 75% of his sight. He is thankful he was able to see his children grow up into successful professionals. His daughter and elder son are IT engineers, both having settled in Australia. The youngest is also an IT specialist, an applications developer in KL. All three of them did very well in school and secured international scholarships for their university courses. The Orphan and his wife are empty-nesters blessed with two gorgeous grand-children who often video-chat with them from Perth. The couple lives in their Penang home, a landed property they bought just before their third child was born. At the time, they were criticised for taking undue risks that were well beyond their means. Prior to the pandemic, The Orphan worked as a tour guide in the touristy island of Penang. In the good times, he supplemented his income as a part-time real estate agent during the property market boom. When he saw unemployed graduates join in the fray, he ‘retired’ to give them the opportunities they needed. The island has seen many hotels and many businesses shut down this year. Since there is no demand for a tour guide, he has occupied himself by helping to distribute bare necessities to struggling Malaysians in the ‘white flag campaign’. “That’s my way of not being a nuisance to society,” he said. He behaved as if he had already learned from the great statesman and scholar, Zhuge Liang of The Three Kingdoms fame who echoed Laozi’s famous words. ‘Misfortune leans on blessing and blessing is where misfortune lurks’. Both exist together and we must be alert to avoid pitfalls. If we fall into a deep hole, remind ourselves bad luck does not last forever. Get up and don’t lose hope.

Huo Si Fu Suo Yi

Hu Si Huo Suo Fu


In 1971, The Orphan’s carers, a kindly old couple who had looked after him for almost two years, moved to KL to be with their adult children after they had all received job postings to the big city. They referred him to The Salvation Army (TSA) Boys Home (SABH) at 15 Hilir Sungei Pinang, but he was rejected due to his age – the thirteen-year-old was considered too old to be admitted. After endless persuasions by TSA, the old couple agreed to pay the minimum maintenance fee before the young teenager was finally admitted into the home. In his new secondary school at SXI, he was placed into the Industrial Arts class (Form One to Three) and Social Science (Form Four and Five). In school, he received stares and whispered remarks of ‘a naughty boy from an institution’ from students and teachers. TSA was not able to pay the $7.50 school fee and their appeals for exemption were ignored by the school office. As a non-fee paying student, The Orphan was not allowed into class to attend the first few morning lessons.The desperate boy would attempt to sneak into a class when there was a change in the teacher. Sometimes, he was hauled out by an unkind teacher, at huge distress and embarrassment to the boy. Recess time was similar to primary school days; he would be seen at the tap near the compound drinking to fill up his tummy as he eyed the other kids queueing at the outside gate to buy their snacks and toys. He was finally given exemption from paying the school fee after the school director came to know of his situation in Form Three. Having missed so many lessons, he was amazed to pass the Lower Certificate of Examination that year. If he had failed, he would have had to leave the SABH. Although life in the SABH was not a bed of roses, there was still a bed there for him to sleep at night. He knew enough of the hopelessness of being a homeless in the street. As in any institution for people who were forgotten or abandoned, discipline was strict in a daily regimented routine for the inmates. He declined to describe the Dickensian conditions of the home, except to say that the seniors would bully the juniors, especially the ‘newbies’, to take on more duties but less food. Saying grace was a prerequisite before a meal could be consumed. After grace, The Orphan would often find half of the rations on his plate ‘missing’. His tummy was forever growling amidst the gurgling water inside.

Donations to TSA declined in the mid to late 70’s. The orphans had to grow tapioca on an empty plot of land belonging to the JKR (Department of Roads) to supplement their food supply. They were expected to scavenge for cockles and shell meats on the Sungei Pinang mudflats near the home. They reared poultry but such feathered delicacies were luxurious items beyond their reach even though they looked after them daily. The chooks were products to be sold in the market to pay for more urgent needs for SABH. Upon ‘graduating’ to Form Four and Form Five, The Orphan had to work after school hours to help pay for the maintenance fees to TSA. There was never enough time and energy to think about school work. After-school activities and sports were never in his schedule. Still, he managed to attain a GCE certificate after Form Five but that meant he had to be discharged from TSA at seventeen years of age. From then on, he was on his own. “Where did you go?” I asked. The Orphan pursed his lips before saying he found ‘a place to sleep’, without elaborating further. “I scavenged for items to sell to the recyclers,” he said. He later toiled away in a shipyard in Singapore before making his way back to Penang after finding an apprenticeship at a components factory in Bayan Lepas. To meet the weekly rent payments, he survived on one meal a day with lots of water to fill his stomach. The Orphan was often the one to skip lunch whilst his colleagues tucked into their meals under the shady trees.

Being immune to unkind treatments, bleak surroundings and harsh realities, my focus was simply to see another new day

Ooi Choon Eng

From early childhood, he is immune to unkind treatments, bleak surroundings and harsh realities. Built into his inner being is the focus to “see another new day”. Once he left the orphanage, he realised he had to leave behind past traumas and psychological scars. It would have been impossible for him to face the challenges ahead had he carried with him that baggage. In 1978, a kind superintendent of TSA employed The Orphan to work in the orphanage. He was elated to be given the ‘hands on’ job as a social worker with no prior training. In many ways, he was the perfect choice for the role, having seen society’s harsh treatment of destitute and hardcore battlers – victims often through no fault of their own. He met his future wife at TSA – she was a volunteer at the various church activities and community work; their affinity and love for each other told them their marriage was clearly arranged in heaven. They led a nomadic life for the next five years, moving from place to place when cheaper lodgings were available. With their combined incomes, they managed to save enough deposit to buy a two-bedroom flat after a few more years. Finally, The Orphan at age 29, had a place he could call his own. On the first night in his flat, he hid inside the toilet and cried his heart out. “Why in the toilet, bro?” I asked him. He said he did not want his wife to witness his sobbing. It was the last time he let out all the raw emotions of misery, grief, loss, insecurity, loneliness, anguish and abuse collected since his early childhood.

Portrait of Ooi Choon Eng by Anne Koh.

The Orphan remembers his father was a Hokkien, named Ooi Cheng Yong aka Police Detective Sergeant 642. “When I was two or three, my father abandoned us,” The Orphan started his story. “Why did he?” I prodded. “Someone told me he had to, due to safety concerns for my mother and me,” The Orphan said. His earliest memory was seeing himself bawl his eyes out as he was being handed to a scarily old Malay woman in Tanjung Bungah, and a scene of him stark naked, running away from some village bullies and then bathing by a roadside water pump. Another ingrained memory was of him being sent to a distant relation somewhere on the mainland. A sawmill reminds him of the place. Standing by the roadside, he would sob loudly and scream for his mother to take him home. He longed for her, but she did not reappear for many months. Due to the little lad’s constant howling or perhaps due to his mum’s outstanding arrears, the relative packed up the boy’s belongings in a plastic bag and shooed both mother and son away when the mother finally came to visit. “Mum was always in arrears with the babysitters’ fees and so we were like nomads, being forced to move from place to place,” The Orphan said without a hint of self-pity. His illiterate mother struggled to find odd jobs and found it even harder to keep them. She rarely visited him to avoid the babysitters’ demands for payment. He never saw his father again – it was rumoured that he was gunned down by a communist sympathiser for being a fierce law enforcer.

“I will assume mum enrolled me at the Saint Xavier’s Branch School in Pulau Tikus,” The Orphan said he has no memory of how he got there. I suspect he wiped out major segments of his memory bank. School life for The Orphan was a nightmare with painful memories. “I was frightened of school, my results were always poor.” The Orphan was often the one to beg for help from a classmate to copy homework answers. After the 1969 race riots, he missed one whole year of schooling. Yet, it was special for him as it was the last time he lived with his mother; both were holed up somewhere in Love Lane throughout the dark period of Malaysian history.

A vivid memory during primary school days was the vicious treatment he received from the class teacher. It did not matter to the teacher that the innocent child was late for class because of the trishaw man. The many canings the poor lad received did not make the trishaw man arrive any earlier. The child, traumatised by such unfair and unreasonable behaviour of unsympathetic adult teachers, became more timid and insecure. On another occasion, he was made to stand in front of the class with outstretched hands lifting his heavy school bag for a prolonged spell. The teacher then poured cold water into his shirt uniform. The loud guffaws from some supercilious classmates were hurtful to him. Walking home in a soaking wet shirt made him a laughing stock. Recess time was awkward for The Orphan who had to put up with the loud sniggers and cruel taunts from bigger kids whilst envying from a distant the students with their delicious food and lollies. The Orphan would simply gravitate to the solace of the tap as he filled up his stomach with water.

Standard Six was another painful year for The Orphan. He was turned into a child labourer to catch up arrears. Every day immediately after school, he languished in silence and obscurity till late into the night with house chores and menial work that were more suited to adults. He ran away a couple of times after copping severe beatings for slow or unsatisfactory work. His mother had not showed her face for over a year by then. The Orphan did not hold any grudges against her, fully understanding her predicament in her own inability to even care for her own needs. The twelve-year-old already had the wisdom to forgive and not harbour toxic emotions. He is often the one to simply accept whatever life dishes out, without complaint and without fuss. “Do our best with what we got,” he said. ‘Focus on seeing another day’. “For me, that’s the best quote I got from The Orphan,” Wu Yong said. “It has been too long since the last time I woke up to appreciate the numinous beauty of an early dawn”. There is a sense of spiritual quality or maybe even a presence of a divinity in seeing the birth of a new day. Witnessing the awe of sunrise gives us hope and rekindles the primal instinct of self-preservation in this age of shallow distractions.

The wise man attends to reality

The fool scrambles after empty glory

Sima Yi, military strategist to Cao Pi in the Three Kingdoms

3 thoughts on “The Orphan, Often The One

  1. It has been said that time heals all wounds. Time on its own is not healer. It may take away some of the pain, sorrow or negative emotions, but the wounds remain.

    In time some of us will forget our past feelings. Some may forget but would not forgive. For it takes a big heart like The Orphan’s to be able to forgive and forget.


  2. Tan Ban Leong: …”there is someone, who is always poorer or less fortunate”.
    Classmate, I am so glad you ended with a loud bang!👍👏💪 finishing is more important.
    In golf, there is a saying… is not important how you drive, it’s more important how you arrived…kudos brother!
    To our blogger;
    It’s a pleasurable moment I spent reading this blog.Love it all the way 🥰….did I shed a tear!….


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