Li Kui The Black Whirlwind walked into Song Jiang’s room uninvited and was upset to find a doctor attending to the removal of Song Jiang’s face tattoo. In a rage, he accused his leader of being more preoccupied with his looks than the healthcare for his men. “Why do you waste the good doctor’s time when he could be tending to our men’s wounds and illnesses?” the loyal henchman asked. He wasn’t aware that Song Jiang, under the pretext of visiting the capital to enjoy the annual Lantern Festival celebrations in a few days’ time, was actually planning to arrange a meeting with the Emperor to gain an amnesty for all Liangshan outlaws. In the Song Dynasty, every convicted felon bore a red tattoo on their face with the nature of their crime marked permanently in words. It would not do for a criminal to be flashing his crime on his face as he roamed the streets of the capital let alone meeting the Emperor with one. So, An Daoquan the Divine Physician was asked to conduct what was a very early form of ‘laser tattoo removal’. An Daoquan, you may recall, first appeared in the chapter about The Sickly General. Li Kui has a killer’s looks – fierce, brutish and is most of the time, ungroomed, unwashed and uncontrollable. The Cook in Urghhling Marsh on the other hand, has got killer’s looks. Beautiful damsels, distressed or otherwise, are known to ask for his name and other vital details. Li Kui cares less about impressing anyone by presenting himself well or speaking intelligently. He prefers to let his twin cleavers do the talking, pointing to an old violent tribal past as the way to sort any conflict. The Cook, suave and impeccably attired, will suffocate those he won’t suffer with his quick-witted diatribe instead. We will look at The Cook’s looks in detail a bit later.
In the Water Margin, there are not many female characters that we admire. Pan Jinlian, although truly a beauty, is tainted as a goddess of fornication and prostitution. Unfairly, I might add. After all, it is surely forgivable for a siren whom Pan Jinlian is most definitely one, to fall for a strong and handsome hero such as Wu Song, the ‘Pilgrim’ who boasts of killing a man-eating tiger with his bare hands. Even my father was impressed with him, so much so that he watched that particular episode on VHS tape every day for the rest of his life in the nursing home. Pan Jinlian’s story is a very sad one. Born in a wealthy family, she was sold to a wealthy landlord as a maid when her family became bankrupt. The landlord could not resist her beauty and tried to rape her. When she reported the sexual assault to the perpetrator’s wife, instead of being looked after or compensated, she was given to a dwarf as punishment for refusing his sexual advances. The dwarf is no other than Wu Dalang, Wu Song’s ugly and much older-looking brother.
Pan Jinlian and Dalang’s is not a romantic story like Beauty and the Beast, although it is true she is the beauty and he, although not a beast, toils daily like a beast of burden bearing the heavy weight of a long wooden bar from which hang two baskets laden with home-made buns for sale on the streets. He is heard in his usual corner, offering his white steamed buns, be it pelting down with cold rain or shining with the warmth of a mild sun under a blue sky. 賣包 啊！ 賣包！ “Mai bao ah! Mai bao!” The screams from his dwarf-sized lungs are no match for the boy selling pears next to him. Pan Jinlian is the object of ridicule in her town, described as a flower planted in cow dung, a thing so beautiful and fragrant that is wasted on something that is odoriferous and odious, 一朵鮮花插在牛糞上. So, is it fair that we judge her harshly and condemn her for being awakened sexually by her brother-in-law’s masculinity and charm? Can we not allow a most unfortunate lady the respite of a brief encounter that tantalises her senses and fuels her sexual imagination? A respite that temporarily frees her from a forced loveless marriage which offers only a mundane life of ridicule and boredom. To lose her head from losing her self-control is too high a price.
The other villainous female in the Water Margin is Yan Poxi. Also a beautiful young woman in her prime, she had a sad life prior to being killed by Song Jiang. Her father died from a plague leaving Madam Yan and her 18-year-old daughter to fend for themselves. Madam Yan, a pimp, could only sell Poxi to the one man she knows is single and rich enough to afford a mistress, Chief Clerk Song Jiang. Was it so wrong of Yan Poxi to want more than the status of mistress, a much lesser status than concubine? She discovers incriminating evidence of Song Jiang’s close connection to the outlaw Chao Gai in his purse which he had left hanging on the bed rail after a tiff had made him hurriedly leave their house. It is understandable for her to want to cement her status as tenable and respectable as the wife of a well-respected man in their community. When he returns to retrieve his purse, she threatens to use the evidence against him unless he marries her. In his eagerness to avoid the attention of the law, Song Jiang agrees to take her as his wife before she comes up with a second demand – that her husband-to-be hands her the one hundred gold bars she mistakenly believes Chao Gai had given him. He kills her to silence her when his pleas fall on deaf ears. How can a woman who asks for money from her future husband be justifiably killed? If we look at the big picture, we ought to be thankful for Yan Poxi. Without her, we would be without Song Jiang, the leader of the Liangshan outlaws. Would we even have the Water Margin to read and discuss? In this regard, I suggest Yan Poxi’s character is much more important than Hu Sanniang even though Yan is not a member of the marsh brigands.
Nicknamed ‘Ten Feet of Blue’, Third Sister Hu or Hu Sanniang is not only beautiful but her martial arts skills are so good she even defeated her eventual husband Wang Ying, a notoriously lustful man. Song Jiang, who although virtuous and noble, is contemptible and beyond understanding to match-make the pair. Hu Sanniang would have been better off with the hero who defeated and captured her – Lin Chong, a most honourable warrior. In those days, young women are married off early since their status in the family is lower than a stool, mere chattels that they were. Hu Sanniang is treated no differently, a heroine she may be, and a daughter of well-to-do Squire Hu. During the battle at the Zhu Family Village, all Hu Sanniang’s family members were slaughtered by Li Kui who only received a verbal reprimand by Song Jiang for the gruesome and unnecessary killings. The irrepressible Li Kui also hacked off the head of Sanniang’s betrothed husband, the ambulant man was being carted to Liangshan headquarters. Yet at Liangshan, not only does Sanniang not harbour any malice or shun revenge, she dotes on her captor who is Song Jiang’s old father and dutifully becomes his god-daughter. Bless her soul, she has such a remarkable forgiving heart!
The topic of beautiful girls came up during a chat amongst fellow marsh brothers The Cook, Blue Chip, Wu Yong, Typhoon, and Four Eyes. They were gathered in the realms of their virtual universe earlier this week. Wu Yong was very quiet that day and his mind seemed another universe away. The Lucky Outlaw who normally attends their afternoon siestas was absent as well.
“Our days in Upper Five were mostly fun but some days we were filled with self pity, so despondent were we about being left behind,” The Cook said.
“You see, most of our friends had moved on to Form Six or overseas for further education. Our own school, SXI, didn’t welcome us back and instead, we were sent to a godforsaken Chinese-medium school,” The Cook carried on whining.
“Why don’t we change the subject?” Blue-Chip suggested something more upbeat.
“Talk about BTC?” Wu Yong asked, suddenly awoken from his slumber. Recently, he has been excited about recent price hikes in some of the crypto coins that have caught his imagination. Wu Yong who does not ‘play’ in the sharemarket that has seen a jaw-dropping longest ever bull run (twelve years and counting) likes to play with words instead. “Siapa ada Ada ?” he asks in the Malay language. “Who has either ether or ada (coin) or neither?” he continued playfully.
“O’Susanna, who has Solana (Sol token)?” But, none of them took any notice of Wu Yong who is accustomed to blab to himself.
“We went on group dates. I remember we went to see a show and we sat upstairs in the movie theatre…I was next to her and….” The Cook said, changing the subject yet again, but his voice trailed away amidst the loud roars of a passing truck.
“Four Eyes will remember we went camping overnight with a bunch of girls at this abandoned building during Upper Five. But, the building was actually a fair distance from Penang Hill proper. So we had to take the train and then hike up the steep slope,” The Cook said.
“Abandoned building…. was that the best backdrop for a night of ghost stories to bring the girls to sit closer to you lot?” Wu Yong asked. “The girls didn’t sit closer, they were hugging us!” The Cook gleefully replied.
“One classmate, a cute girl missing two front teeth, was very interested in Four Eyes, after she learned he represented State and Country in swimming meets,” The Cook continued, but it was clear no one was paying much attention to his stories.
The Cook suddenly thought of his daughter Chloe. “Chloe would surely be a great female character in the Urghhling Marsh story,” The Cook unabashedly voiced his bias.
“Surely not a Yan Poxi or a Pan Jinlian?” Typhoon suddenly showed interest.
“No! Those two are sluts!” Blue Chip exclaimed, unknowingly showing his knowledge of the Chinese classic.
“Chloe Ung Shu Yun, if I’ve done nothing right in my life, I hope I’ve done right by my daughter,” The Cook suddenly spoke in a serious tone.
“I chose her name Chloe for the character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I wanted her to be good, to be faithful,” he said.
A quick search on Google also reveals her to be a Greek goddess of the harvest, an epithet of Demeter.
“When I chose it, Chloe was nowhere near being a popular girl’s name. In occasional use it is not now; I think it has moved up from obscurity then to being in the top 10 girl names today.” The Cook said.
“I suppose this is why you keep telling us you’re clairvoyant,” Typhoon suggested. We could sense The Cook suddenly preening himself, totally in agreement.
“Her Chinese name was chosen by a sister’s Mandarin teacher, who being an educator, chose Shu (meaning book) as her middle name,” the proud father continued. “I wanted her to be well read too, so I agreed it was appropriate to use the book Shu,” The Cook said without stopping.
“It was not meant to be. ‘Book’ was changed to ‘poetry’ by another well-meaning sister who thought ‘book’ sounded too much like ‘lose’ in Hokkien.”
“And so it turns out that a name does indeed influence a person’s character for she is more into the arts than she is into books,” The Cook continued, turning the group chat into a soliloquy.
“She sings and dances very well, something I can’t do to save my life.”
“She started ballet when she was very little, about four years old, and trained under the umbrella of the Royal Academy of Dance. She is a beautiful dancer, her movements and graceful Pirouettes more than reflect her Grade 8 and Advanced Intermediate level.”
“I bet she impressed like a swan in a lake,” Blue Chip hinted at his knowledge of Tchaikovsky’s magical ballet.
“Chloe is a good swimmer too. She’s not fast but she’s stylish and technically proficient. She makes it look so easy.”
“When she was younger I’d arrange for her to be at the pool as folks arrived at the agreed time to consider the swimming courses I was selling.”
“She would dip into the pool and swim up and down without breaking the water and without a wake behind her.”
“‘My daughter’, I would casually say,” The Cook said most were sold the swimming courses on offer.
“Chloe likes to remind me that it was either Chloe or Eloise ( I wrote it down somewhere and she found it). She’s glad that it’s Chloe,” The Cook said. Wu Yong didn’t interrupt but he told me later he thought it was strange a father would leave the list of names for the child lying around for her to find it later in life.
“Chloe wasn’t studious but she peaked at the right time, during her college days at the most competitive Chinese University college, TAR College.
Her MCE results were a little better than mine. As a reward, we sent her to UK to top up her degree and she didn’t disappoint, returning with her honours degree!”
“Your beautiful Chloe is as beautiful as Hu Sanniang,” Wu Yong finally interrupted the soliloquy.
“From the way you adore her in your conversations, Chloe is no doubt as dutiful and loving. We have a lot to thank Confucius for his teachings on filial piety,” Wu Yong added.
“You’re wrong, Wu Yong,” quipped Typhoon. Four Eyes agreed, “Chloe is so much prettier and more attractive!”
“I told you she’s beautiful!” The Cook exclaimed with excitement in his voice. Isn’t she a beautiful white swan who turns into a gorgeous Princess?” the proud father asked.
It is a leading question, of course. A reminder for me to write about The Cook’s good looks. The aura he emits comes from within. The years of observing a healthy diet and his strict adherence to Intermittent Fasting is paying huge dividends. There is a shine or glow on his skin that broadcasts his discipline for healthy living, and a glint in his eyes that cannot hide his secrets to good health. The Cook’s Eurasian looks would have been passed down from his grandfather’s trysts with the Eurasian lover of Dutch and Indonesian blood. Here is a man still in his prime, fit as a raging bull despite his 63 years. With his hazel green eyes, high bridged nose, light-coloured curly hair and iron-man physique, the handsome man has often made a few in the brotherhood feel somewhat reticent and diffident with his selfies. Inadequate, even. In the Ughhling Marsh, The Cook ranks highest in looks and is the undisputed master of the marsh kitchen.