Wu Yong Wu Cuo. 吴永误错!Wu Is Yong, Not Wrong.

In The Water Margin, Wu Yong is also known as ‘The Inquisitive Scholar’, the brigand’s chief strategist. A resourceful man, he is described in the book as fair in complexion, possessing the two typical physical attributes of a scholarly and sophisticated Chinese from the beginning of the Ming Dynasty in 1368 – a handsome face and long beard. Wu Yong first made his appearance when he helped his long-time good friend Chao Gai assemble a team of seven men to commit a daring heist of gold, pearls and other valuables worth one hundred thousand strings of cash coins. A convoy travelling from the Northern Capital to Dongjing, the Eastern Capital protected the birthday presents from Grand Secretary Liang to his father-in-law Prime Minister Cai Jing. In these few chapters, Wu Yong, whom I believed  was ‘without mistakes’ (wu cuo) made two serious ones. It took me a second reading to realise that. The first mistake was to accept that what they planned to do was not morally wrong, since “the presents were ‘ill-gotten’ loot obtained by immoral means anyway”. “Even if Heaven knows of the matter, our act will not be regarded as a crime,” was how they cleansed their own conscience of any guilt. Wu Yong’s second mistake was more serious; it could have caused the death of Song Jiang, the eventual leader of the Liangshan Marsh outlaws.

Song Jiang was sent to prison after he confessed to the murder of his mistress, Yan Poxi who blackmailed him following her discovery of his purse hanging on their bed rail. In it was a letter from Chao Gai who explained that he was fleeing to Liangshan Marsh after being incriminated in the heist. Anyone who associates with an outlaw risks losing his head. Yan Poxi wrongly assumed Song Jiang would grant her the gift of one hundred gold bars mentioned in Chao Gai’s letter, disbelieving Song Jiang that he accepted only one of the gold bars. In a moment of desperation, he killed her in their bedroom as she screamed for attention. In prison, Song Jiang having bribed the head jailer, enjoyed the freedom to frequent a local inn. One day, he got himself so drunk he wrote a seditious poem on an upstairs wall of the inn. If proven as a rebellious plot, this would be a death sentence. Wu Yong devised a plan to fake a letter from Prime Minister Cai Jing which included a forged stamp of his prime ministerial seal. The letter required Prefect Cai, the son of Cai Jing, who was holding Song Jiang in Jiangzhou’s prison to cart the prisoner to the Eastern Capital for the Emperor to personally interrogate the suspected rebel. Wu Yong’s plan was for the outlaws to rescue the prisoner during his transfer to the Capital. Wu Yong Wu Cuo, Yong who is not wrong, realised the grave mistake he made. The Prime Minister does not ever use his official seal in his letters to his family. Prefect Cai ordered Song Jiang’s dispatch to the town square for immediate execution following the discovery of the fake letter. Until the universe is unmade, contumacy will always trump obedience to lawful authority in a band of outlaws. The outlaws stormed the procession, killed all the guards and rescued the prisoner.

The other Wu Yong, the cur from Urghhlings Marsh, is not scholarly and not a master-planner, unlike Wu Yong of Liangshan Marsh fame. He has been known to say he’s Yong, not wrong. Wu Yong calls himself ‘The Cur’. I called him today and asked him why. It seems odd that anyone would call himself a mongrel or an inferior dog. Another meaning of ‘cur’ comes from an old Norse word meaning to grumble or growl. In that context, a cur is a surly bloke. Suspecting that Wu Yong meant he was the latter, a grouch who complains incessantly, I was taken aback that he said he was born in the year of the dog, and there was nothing wrong with a dog.

A dog has magnificent qualities that many humans lack!!

After all, a dog is a man’s best friend. “So, what is wrong to call oneself a cur?” he asked.

The more I got to know people, the more I love my dog.

Mark Twain

In Curse The Curs, we know Wu Yong to be unpopular, misunderstood and therefore often picked on. His mother said she has always known him to be foolish and rash. It did not surprise her to hear that people think he “blows dog farts” whenever he speaks. I was astonished to see how fast he has aged. It was only last year that I had the opportunity to steal a long look at him and studied his movements. His long mane has turned dry, wiry and hoary, gone are the shiny black strands. The gait is more that of a clumsy old man’s – missing are his sure steps that, once upon a time, reminded me of a mountain goat. The evanescent wrinkles on his forehead are now deep and long, and permanently etched. His wife finds his unrestrained farts indecorous and annoying in bed. So, I gather he fails miserably in that department, even though as a young man he read the 1972 edition of ‘Joy of Sex’. She disagrees that his coquetry with the waitress in their favourite restaurant is simply harmless behaviour. But, she isn’t the least concerned. He is a scrawny chap with a wan complexion and puny arms. It seems more than a coincidence that he is suffering from a frozen shoulder since his winter flu jab from five weeks ago. His doctor laughed at his suggestion that somehow the vaccine had caused inflammation to flare up in his left arm. His partial physical impairment is becoming obvious as I look at his ever-shrinking biceps and the stiffness in his arm movement. His arms look pencil straight, gone are the toned mounds of muscles. “Just as well I don’t wear a bra,” he confided to me today. His miserable forlorn voice added to the dolorous story of his misery and pain in the bathroom where he struggles daily to undress himself. “I am not wrong,” he said adamantly. He pointed to the Google results of ‘adhesive capsulitis’ from his search for “side effects of winter flu vaccine”. Wu Yong, I think is not wrong!

I became interested in why Wu Yong The Cur needed to assure everyone he is not wrong or ‘without mistakes’. Is he not aware that such self-justifications can become weak excuses that are not only unnecessary and tedious (especially to someone who doesn’t actually care) but worse, they reflect poorly on his own insecurities? Trying to appear right all the time will only show his own fragile ego. Does he not know respect is earned and not demanded? Pretending to be right when he is wrong will only hasten the damage to his diminished status. A “know-it-all” in any gathering will suck the fun out of the party. We lose the friendly banter and the innocence of our silliness whenever we have two guys in a room who must be right. “Why do you have to be so defensive?” I asked him in an interview for this story. “So what if they mock you or belittle your comments?” I prodded him for his answer. Most people do not invest their time and emotions in a silly debate anyway. It takes a wise one to be the spectator or simply walk away. “There is no need to prove we are right when there is no point to prove,” I teased at his wounded pride like how a surgeon would carefully pull out a cancerous growth from a patient’s organ.

It began as early as when Wu Yong was no more than nine years old. He was dabbing his lips with the soft damp towel his mum had given him to wipe his face. His mum shouted at him from across the main work area of their shophouse on Penang Road. The workers in the room, hunch-backed from years of ironing clothes from a bench too low for the height, looked up from their charcoal irons and cast their dull eyes on the boy who was being yelled at by ‘Towkay-soh’ (boss’ wife). Their eyes lit up in unison, awoken by the surprise entertainment. The young Wu Yong, embarrassed by the unwanted attention, protested loudly. “My mother was accusing me of cleaning my teeth with the towel,” Wu Yong said. The louder he squealed, the angrier his mother got. “FHI PHI NGOR! (DO NOT LIE TO ME in Ningbonese)!” she threatened as she chased him around the office desk with a bamboo cane. The boy was too fast and agile for his mother, which made her even more furious. “I was telling her the truth,” he said. Wu Yong reckoned from that day on, he had the need to say he is not wrong when he is right. “I am Yong, not wrong” would ring loudly like a temple bell in his mind whenever he felt wronged.

Portrait of Wu Yong by Anne koh.

Wu Yong calls the other event that moulded his character to defend himself strenuously “The Missing Note”. I assumed he must have been ‘out-of-sync’ during an orchestral rehearsal after missing a note, or perhaps made his violin teacher, Mr Woon, scream at his carelessness for misreading the music. “No, it was the missing ten dollar note,” Wu Yong said. He was in Upper Secondary by then. Every afternoon after school and every Saturday after Boy Scouts meetings, he had to rush home to their shophouse to man the dhoby shop. His parents were beginning to enjoy some respite from the long hours of their laundry and dry-cleaning business. “That’s why a son is more useful than a daughter,” Wu Yong whispered in my ear. His job was to serve customers who dropped off their dirty clothes to clean or retrieve them from the bank of tall glass cupboards that housed the cleaned ones ready for collection. Wu Yong was adept at folding and packing the clothes into paper bags, beaming with self-satisfaction every time he received praise from the customers who were mostly Europeans. Unfortunately, the till was short $10 one day. “Ma accused me of stealing from the till,” he said. “Why would I? I had the freedom to buy lunch from the Mamak stall,” he continued. For a dollar or a dollar fifty, Wu Yong could fill himself up with a plate of rice and curry chicken. The fifty cents would have been for one hard-boiled egg dipped in curry and some veggies. “Whatever food I spent on, I recorded the expense in the journal, but somehow that day, I was short $10,” Wu Yong said. He did not ever check the till’s float before starting his shifts, such was the accuracy of his work. His mother flew into a rage when he dared suggest the float was short $10 before he started his shift. “Yeah, Yong, not wrong,” I quickly sympathised with him. Wu Yong related this story to his mother last night during her 99th birthday celebration. The grand old dame said she does not remember such an incident occurred. “Maybe she meant she wouldn’t have flown into a rage; such lack of control isn’t lady-like at all,” I suggested to Wu Yong.

Another childhood incident that flawed his character has to be the one about ‘killing of his pet hen’. The family kept some hens in the back lane immediately behind the row of twelve shophouses. The private lane was protected from the outside by a 12-foot-high brick wall which had a crown of razor-sharp jagged glass. The square heavy duty metal grid cage, cleverly situated above a small open drain whereby their poo could be easily hosed straight into, was quite ‘palatial’ for the three or four chooks which were more accustomed to being crammed in small wicker baskets used by the chicken-seller in the wet market. There was a particularly beautiful bird which the young boy fancied. He made it known to his mother and the family maid, Yung Jie, that the bird was his pet and “not to be touched”(by the chopper). On the eve of Chinese New Year just after he had turned thirteen or fourteen years old, he discovered his hen had gone missing. Yung Jie’s hand was pulling out the entrails of a defeathered chook when he confronted the woman who was in high spirits. Chinese New Year meant a few ‘angpows’, red envelopes containing money for everyone and three days of feasting and two crates of F&N Orange and Sarsi drinks to enjoy. Yung Jie would not confirm that the chook she had just killed was Wu Yong’s pet. Her awkward chuckles and nervous denials raised the boy’s suspicions who went rummaging through the metal rubbish bin that was once a tall biscuit tin. Recognising the drab scalded feathers as belonging to his pet, he burst into tears and started accusing poor Yung Jie of animal cruelty. He poured so much guilt on the poor woman that she also burst into tears and started wailing about her miserable life. To this day, Wu Yong has not been forgiven by some of his siblings who accuse him of bullying their servant whom they all remember fondly. “I was not wrong!” he remain defiant that they should not have killed his pet. It does feel like the night talking to the day with Wu Yong, or more appropriately in this case, a chicken talking to a duck. Sometimes, I just have to agree to disagree with him.

Three days earlier, another episode triggered off Wu Yong into another flashback about being wronged when he wasn’t wrong. “Wu Yong, wu cuo!” he protested. He is Yong, not wrong. We get that now. Over the winter he had been pruning his neighbour’s roses, getting them ready for a big show in mid-Spring. It was a rather wet and cold winter, and with a crooked arm, he did not quite complete his task. As luck would have it, a retired horticulturist – a former lecturer in Horticulture and Landscape Design who was also once a curator of Lae Botanic Gardens for over twenty years, stopped by and walked up to the house. He had been admiring the garden for quite some time, he informed Wu Yong. But, he could not restrain himself that afternoon and decided to offer his services to prune the roses “properly”. Wu Yong’s neighbours having been stuck overseas during the whole of the pandemic, were quick to agree to the offer from the expert. Upon seeing the result of his work, the neighbour’s wife exclaimed, “Oh, you have been pruning them wrongly, Wu Yong!”

Wu Yong, wu cuo!

Wu Yonggang
Better late than never, late pruning in Spring
Can you hear the Galahs laughing at Wu Yong’s mistakes? Photo taken by Yeoh Chip Beng

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