It is fair to say I have remained unconvinced and therefore little impressed with those who claim to possess some special powers that transcend logic or contravene natural laws. I hasten to add that I have hardly met a clairvoyant or a soothsayer of any note. Disbelieving in the powers of a psychic has meant the absence of psychics around me. It is logical. I suppose that if we do not believe in something, that thing tends not to exist in our world. The opposite is also true. If we allow our mind to believe in something, that something will surely be everywhere. It is thus not surprising that I see ghosts everywhere; because I believe they exist. Sorry, I don’t see them. I feel their presence. You know, that sudden chill from a sudden movement or sound, or the darting of a “dark cloud” in the room usually from the periphery of my vision although once it appeared right in front of me, or the weird sensation of feeling “someone” was looking over my shoulder reading my work on the screen last night. Talking about ghosts…..we all know that the pump in a pond eventually gets clogged up with debris and mud and the flow of water through the filter box will dramatically slow down over time if one does not clean it. Earlier this week, the filter box on my neighbour’s property overflowed and nearly drowned the lemon tree next to it. I had done nothing to the pond’s filtration system or changed its ecosystem. It is the same old Made-in-China pump bought a few years ago for under $300 when the overly expensive German-made one konked out in under twelve months. The shop reneged on a replacement claiming I voided the warranty. I digress. The cheap pump inexplicably became more powerful this week. It is weird! The undercurrent, previously unnoticeable, is now visible. The fish no longer leisurely chomp the pellets at the big end of the pond from where I dispense their food. They are now chasing the floating pellets that are being carried along the pond to the other end. The massive increase in the volume of water being circulated is causing the filter to overflow. Believing in ghosts, I had every reason to believe this was the work of one. I accept that there can be a more rational explanation. If I didn’t believe in ghosts, what scientific reason would convince me? None!
Suddenly the penny dropped. This could be why my friends were disappointed that I couldn’t find God, despite their most persuasive arguments and despite opening my heart and mind to invite God into my life, He never appeared. I have never felt that warm glow or that sudden flood of love that announces His arrival. There was no apparition, no spiritual awakening. So, I stopped thinking about God. Many turn to religion in their darkest moments, when hope is a distant memory, when all they can do is drop to their knees and surrender. Surrender to God. Everyone will face such a test, how dire it is depends on their appetite for risk and ability to handle stress or fear. I have had my share of challenges although none that was an existential threat. At my darkest hour, I calculated that the worst outcome for me would be to lose everything I owned except my house. So, although a horrifying thought, it was palatable given the circumstances. So, I didn’t turn to God for help. That would disgust me. Turning to God only when I need Him is akin to using someone and calling him a friend only when he is needed. So, all my life, I have failed to see or feel any signs of God. To see God and to know God, I will need to first of all discover Him by chance or luck, in other words. Those who know God are the lucky ones. Maybe it is the same phenomenon as suddenly seeing women pushing prams on the streets when The Mrs was pushing our first born in one or noticing people with twins when we had our twins. Similarly, I did not notice there were so many people walking their dogs until my son got Murray, his dog. This frequency illusion is known as Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. When a new concept or thing is new to me, suddenly I see it pop up everywhere. God is supposedly everywhere, maybe one day He will pop up everywhere too.
When I was a young boy, my mum showed me Datok Kong’s abode whilst returning from the wet market. The wooden house, no bigger than a dog’s kennel, was painted red to match a red Chinese roof with a typical hip-and-gable construction. It was decorated with golden-yellow Chinese words, a banner of sorts to tell the world it was the house of Tua Pek Kong. There was also that compulsory accessory – a dusty joss urn overfilled with ash. Next to it was a small bunch of bananas which to me, must have been his favourite fruit. I did not need it spelled out to me that Tua Pek Kong aka Datok Kong loved only bananas for I did not see any other offering of fruit. Ma told me never to simply walk past it without acknowledging his presence. That would be considered rude and disrespectful. “When you see an elderly person, you must greet that person by his or her title, and ask whether they have had a full meal,” Ma grounded into me. “Gao ja, Ahchek. Lu jiak pa liao boey?” (Good morning, Uncle. Have you eaten a full meal?) So, I had to show the same respect for that unseen Datok. “You must pray to Datok Kong whenever you walk past his shrine,” Ma said, every time we were approaching it. “Stand straight, do not slouch, place both your palms together, all fingers point to the sky, and bow,” Ma continued. I was also told never to pee near it. “Something dreadful will happen to you,” she warned me. I thought maybe I would lose my prized possession, my penis. So, I grew up making sure that Datok Kong never got to see my wee. Once I was introduced to it, I never failed to see it everywhere. There! Another Datok Kong’s shrine and another, and another, and another…. They were everywhere, in every prominent corner of the nearby suburbs. Some had lots of gold trimmings, some were quite spartan but all with a dusty urn coated with joss ash. So many little huts for so many Datok Kongs? Or for the one and only? I have yet to discover the answer to this question. It is likely true that this spirit, although widely revered or at least respected by minions in many parts of Asia, cannot be contented with a such a humble abode when his is dwarfed by magnificent cathedrals, golden cupolas, pagodas and temples of great deities in magnitude and grandness. Maybe that is why we have to tread carefully when we pass one. He is not impressed. I still harbour the idea that Datok Kong continues to be upset to this day with the tiny huts he gets and he still takes his wrath out on young boys who pee near him.
But, there are others who negotiate with Datok Kong to appease him. “They would do that through a psychic – a shaman or spirit medium,” The Cook said.
“Folks would usually scout around for a decrepit Datok Kong shrine, the more neglected, the better. The trick was to negotiate with him to rebuild the shrine in exchange for prize-winning numbers contained in folded paper,” The Cook started his lecture using his professional voice.
“Sometimes, it may not be actual numbers, but a saying or riddle that points to the hidden numbers,” Typhoon added. “One must know how to summon Datok Kong and also how to send him off politely after the dialogue. All promises must be fulfilled, otherwise those present will face trouble,” Typhoon continued sinisterly. If the shaman misinterpreted the message or riddle and arrived at the wrong numbers, the agreed deal must still be honoured. No if’s no but’s.
“Datuk Kongs are not benevolent spirits, on the contrary, they are the outlaws of the spirit world, not beholden to the laws and hierarchy other Chinese deities are subject to. What it means is that they can be tricksters but it also means that they can dispense wealth which is not theirs to give.”
“And in return for the numbers, their demands can be onerous to fulfil.
Hence the negotiation.
For example, it can be as simple as a sacrificial white rooster but what is left unsaid is that it has to be completely white, 100% white feathers which is a physical impossibility. So, the shaman will start to negotiate on your behalf, a win-win deal. They are hardly ever straight, so if someone were to ask for numbers, I’d strongly advise against. There’s no free ticket,” The Cook continued to impress with his knowledge of dealings with the spiritual world.
“What would happen if one reneges on the contract?” someone asked.
“Folks have been known to die. It is a serious business,” The Cook concluded his lecture.
The first bloke I met who claimed to be a soothsayer was a monk in Hong Kong. I was there with The Mrs to consider a job proposal by a wealthy but distant relative whose connection to me was stretched as far as a sweet potato vine. The fortune-teller operated from a stall in the compound of a temple. We wanted his advice about the job and the merits of our proposed relocation to Shenzhen which was a small fishing village in the early ’80s. I mistook the monk’s frown at the time to be a foreboding warning but it was only recently that I learned that Shenzhen was a despicable place to the Hong Kongers back in the ’70s, as the main originating point from where economic refugees escaped the mainland to Hong Kong. The psychic rattled off in fast Cantonese about my fate and fortune but our grasp of the dialect was poor. I knew there would be only one winner in that transaction and quickly signalled to The Mrs to cut our losses and move on. Correction. The Mrs’ command of Cantonese is a lot superior to mine, but her memory is equally poor. All she can recall from the psychic’s ramblings was that I needed to grow a moustache. So, despite my mother’s protestations that a moustache made me look uglier and much older, I have kept it since although for many years it was just a pathetic thin band of facial hair that simply did not show my manliness. The Mrs translated to me that the psychic warned me to keep it at all times to cover up my philtrum. Apparently, a long groove between the nose and the upper lip will serve as a channel from which any wealth generated will quickly drain away. “You must have it covered up,” The Mrs chuckled when she said it. Can we trust our translators? I often watch in awe at interpreters who can translate without pausing whilst the speakers are speaking. Can you imagine translators at work during an an adversarial exchange between leaders of the world’s top nuclear-powered countries? Can we trust our translators? Maybe The Mrs just wanted me to look much older.
Unhappy with our psychic, The Mrs and I returned to pick up our kids whom we parked in Penang with my parents. Sensing I was still undecided about my future, Ma took me to Kuan Yin Temple in Pitt Street for a second opinion. The Mrs tagged along since the stakes were high. Pa did not interfere in any of the proceedings. Maybe he was still feeling guilty about withholding the letter of offer from Adelaide University. Dentistry was my first choice but I assumed I did not qualify because the letter never came and I went to study Commerce in UNSW instead. At the temple, we watched Ma ask the Goddess of Mercy about my prospects. I assumed that was who she was conferring with. I did not ask, but I guessed Ma would have made that same assumption. It was a lengthy process. From that, I gathered the Goddess couldn’t make up her mind. Was it a moment of indecision on Her part or was it just a normal process to get a definitive answer? It is no denigration on my part – I do not say that just because the Goddess takes a female form but it is true that Ma took ages to get a reply from Her. The process to get the answers to our questions involved shaking back and forth a tall wooden canister that was jam-packed with over a hundred long and thin bamboo sticks. The sticks were coded with numbers which informed the smiling nun at the counter which box to retrieve from a bank of boxes in the dark dank corner of the temple. The boxes were wooden and not much smaller than the size of shoe boxes. Those boxes contained all the answers anyone would seek in the universe. Depending on luck or was it one’s deftness in shaking the canister, it could take quite a long while for a stick to pop out of the canister. It felt like the Goddess was teasing us that day. Many times a stick was just about to fly out but only to slide back into the container on the next shake. Ma’s chanting got louder the more attempts she made. I do not think she prayed louder to catch Kuan Yin’s attention; more likely it was to drown out my groans that were growing louder with each failure. Ma was visibly perspiring at the foot of the altar in the smoke-filled room. Devotees in those days were allowed to bring in big bundles of burning joss sticks. Everyone was ignorant of the cancer-causing toxins that linger in smoke-filled temples. Although I had always been attracted to the scent of joss, too much of it was as suffocating as a heavy dose of someone’s cheap deodorant. My eyes stung and tears rolled down my cheeks. A punishment for my earlier groans – Kuan Yin did not miss the petulance of an impatient fella. There was a restrained yelp of joy when a stick unexpectedly flew out of the container. But, that wasn’t the end of the process. Next, Ma had to drop two kidney-shaped wooden pieces from above her head whilst on her knees to the Goddess. “If the pieces landed with both curved sides or both flat sides facing upwards or downwards, then the Goddess had played a joke on you,” a long-time friend said. He goes by the name The Cook, but I was not sure if he was simply cooking up a story here. Anyway, both pieces landed the same way, so, the stick that flew out of the container was rejected. Ma had to start all over again but with each new attempt, her energy waned at shaking the canister. The third stick that flew out was met with the nun’s approval when the kidney-shaped pieces landed on their opposite sides, one on the curved side and the other on its flat side. After such a rigorous test of energy and patience and belief, the answer had to be right! Ma told me I should go start my own small business. That was the answer the smiling nun gave us.
Of course, I was cynical about the psychic properties of two kidney-shaped wood. So, not long after we returned to Sydney, I applied for a job in Adelaide, South Australia. The General Manager, an old dapper Englishman, assured me I had got the job. “You’re set like jelly,” he said every time I enquired about when I could start my job there. That I’m set like jelly was not an answer to my question of when I could commence my employment. For an Englishman, his English was poor, I thought to myself. A strange phrase, now that I think of it. Why not say my job was as solid as a building’s foundation? Jelly can easily melt in room temperature that is mildly warm. Set like jelly? Temporarily, it would appear!
The next time I called upon a psychic was about a year into my new job as the assistant GM of that factory. Why do people want their fortunes told? Why the thirst to know the future when the present alone can be too much to handle? Is the unknown too mysterious and therefore the rush to discover it? A colleague assumed I was unhappy with work or maybe she felt I had marital problems? I did not ask her why she popped into my office one day and enthusiastically told me about a lady soothsayer who “was spot on” about everything she said about my colleague’s life. “You should go!” she said excitedly, as she waddled out of my office. Esther was an exotic-looking woman with a beautiful face that was decorated with baby-pink lipstick and almond-shaped eyes set deep by long curly eyelashes. A coffee-drinker, her friendly smiles would soon be damaged by her yellowing teeth. She was the latest recruit in the sales team, and unfortunately was the first to leave when sales stubbornly did not improve. A clement person, it was sad to see her get the sack. In life, there is often little mercy for the merciful. The clairvoyant she implored me to visit did not disappoint. I went there prepared. Knowing psychics also rely on factual evidence presented in front of their eyes, I was careful to hide any marks or hints of my background. I parked my company car a few streets away so there was no chance of her seeing I drove an executive car. I never wore a wedding ring, so there was no ring rash or pale ring mark around my brown finger. She would very well assume I was single, no kids. I was still young, bookish and student-looking. I knew to say very little so she could not even assess the level of my education. I dressed down that day, and wore my cheapest shirt from K-Mart and daggy pants from Big W. I had my old pair of shoes on, scuffed and out of fashion. Yet, she knew lots about me. She knew I was married, and she knew I adored my father. The fact that my eyes were drawn to her swimming pool told her I should start spending more time with my parents. I did not interrupt her to ask why that would even be a reasonable assumption to make. The startling thing was she knew I had three sons and there would be a fourth! She could even describe the key traits of my boys. She knew my eldest son had a scientific mind, perhaps in the medical field. Her cheat sheet would show Chinese kids tend to get into medicine. She was half right, he got into Computer Science. She said the second child would be successful in his chosen field, and would become someone with a high conviction of his beliefs and opinions. The third would be a total charmer, very successful and born with a golden spoon. She was right too, for he frequently enjoys the finest foods and wines. She even predicted a sibling would experience a marriage breakup, with children involved in the split. The one other big thing she got right was that I had, despite my disbelieving the two kidney-shaped wooden pieces at the Kuan Yin Temple, just started my own small business. The Mrs was running it in the beginning. She even described what problems I would encounter in my business and which of the two Italian employees I should trust in the years ahead. She said I would stay married (but she did not say to whom) and would cheat death twice. She got a few things wrong of course. I do not have a bad back and I surely do not have knee problems or bunions on my toes. The last thing that she has not got right (yet, perhaps?) is that I will have a fourth child. “A male, highly intelligent, a true gift, very special, and very well known,” were the words she used to describe him.
It turns out she got it half wrong. My psychic said I would have a fourth child. Upon a deep reflection of her words, I realised she meant Murray, my son’s dog who is, as she described so accurately, a male, highly intelligent, and truly truly a great gift to me. He is indeed very special to me and of course, he is very well known to all my family and friends. Even the office workers who work near my office in the city know him well, especially the young women workers who find him the most adorable. Murray is my best mate and he sticks to me all day, through thick and thin. I tell my staff he is my sidekick but privately, I tell him I am his sidekick.
Murray agrees of course. He is psychic. He never refuses a walk in the park, unless it was raining or about to rain. I suspect he knew the rain would come today as I stupidly watered the garden last night. Murray is surely psychic. I left him indoors yesterday, as I had to fix something in the neighbour’s garage. When The Mrs let him out of the house, he flew directly to the garage to find me. How would he know I was there, if he isn’t psychic? The other day, he changed his mind and walked back home. We were not even halfway to the park, yet he told me to go back home. Just as we reached our front garden, the rain pelted down. He is psychic! He sits on my lap during the day at my desk whilst I work. Even before I am about to take my reading glasses off, he’s jumping off my lap and doing his yoga stretches. He knows I am clocking off even before I do. He is psychic! After dinner if he is sleeping over, we would lie on the sofa, cheek to cheek, in front of the TV. If I dozed off, he would place his paw on my face ever so gently to let me know he is next to me. I would get off the sofa a few times a night, for a drink or let him out for a pee or take a pee myself or check my laptop in the office. Before I step off the sofa, he would of course be already wagging his tail, waiting for me. The funny thing is he never gets up from the sofa when I leave to go upstairs to sleep. Somehow, he knows. He is psychic, alright!