Don’t Be Harsh, It’s A Marsh

The biggest challenge I have in writing the Urghhlings Marsh Brotherhood is finding enough participants to compile their stories into a book. The idea that stories of my school friends born in mid-century Malaysia, a country that gained its independence in 1957, would be interesting to a reader in the distant future took hold and it excited me that the inclusion of their ancestors’ journey from other lands told in the theme of The Water Margin could allow a peep into the past for such a reader. Also known as Outlaws of the Marsh, the classic Chinese novel follows the adventures and fortunes or misfortunes of the outlaws of Liangshan Marsh. The outlaws preferred to think of themselves as ‘righteous bandits’ robbing the poor to help the rich, a concept that Robin Hood also practised in Sherwood Forest. Previously called Daye Marsh, the sprawling marshland actually exists today as Dongping Lake in Jining, but its size greatly diminished when the Yellow River changed its course in 1289 and subsequent land reclamation continued to reduce its size.

Having decided to write the stories of those willing to share their past, the other big challenge I had was to find a nexus to the marsh theme. The Water Margin had Mount Liang and its network of 72 rivers, the vast marshes and wasteland spanned some eight hundred li. They formed an impenetrable fort against the imperial government’s forces who were sent to quell the uprising. The outlaws had honour and virtue on their side and ultimately triumphed against the evil and corrupt officials. The first English translation of The Water Margin was by the American author, Pearl Buck, who titled her work “All Men Are Brothers”. My friends and I aren’t outlaws – rebels might be a more appropriate word for us – and we have always called ourselves brothers, having grown up in a culture inculcated by the Christian brotherhood that emphasised not only morality, chastity and honesty but also the idea that we are all brothers. Are we rebels though? I think it is fair to say that most of us have that streak in us, to resist stupid man-made rules that do not make sense or conform to our sense of fairness and righteousness. It was therefore easy enough to call ourselves Urghhling Brothers since I am the one who coined the word ‘urghhlings’ from urghhh, ugly earthlings. But, our school and its surrounds do not have a marsh; so it is harder for me to to call it Urghhling Marsh! Some of my friends started to call our group The Marsh Brotherhood, so by hook or by crook, I had to justify that name. Finally today, I am happy to run with it. We, the rebels of the marsh, are known as members of The Urghhlings Marsh Brotherhood.

So, what right have I got to call it a marsh?

This is Wu Yong’s story.

“I grew up at the quiet end of Penang Road,” he said. By that, he meant the E & O end. Wu Yong’s parents owned a laundry shop in 3-J, called Popular Dry-Cleaning. The end shop was 3-K and after that was a field that the kids met every afternoon to play. All twelve link shophouses along that stretch of road were owned by Yeap Chor Ee. Yeap was a penniless immigrant from Fujian, arriving in Penang in 1884. He worked as a travelling barber but made his money from the news he gathered as he moved around the island talking to his clients and friends. Today, we know that information is the new currency and knowledge makes us money. Yeap was well ahead of his time, making great investment decisions from the gossip and secrets he learned.

Wu Yong was born in 1958, just a year into Malaya’s independence from the Brits although in truth, they were not really dependent on their colonial masters who fled in a panic just before the Japanese slowly rode into the island on their creaky bicycles on 17 December 1941. It was the nature of their retreat – swift, ignominious and disorderly – that spelled the collapse of the British Empire. “The loss of prestige and sense of the invincibility of ‘white man’ woke up the locals and natives,” he said. So true. Why let the weak and unjust control us and rob us of our resources? We might as well do that to ourselves – apart from a handful of noble and righteous leaders, Malaysian politicians have been doing that ever since.

“The bunkers were still around when I was growing up, but at the time, I thought they were just strange looking homes for the homeless,” Wu Yong said. Dome-shaped with rectangular narrow windows, they were made of stone and concrete to accommodate maybe two to three soldiers, and protect them against bombs and enemy attacks, except that they were not bunkers. Those pillboxes were not common, adding further proof that the Brits were ill-prepared. Wu Yong saw just one near his home and a second one abandoned in Bayan Lepas in the middle of a paddy field not far from where his Balapai Ahyi lived. The one near his home was just a stone’s throw away, in the adjacent field a few yards closer to the Shell petrol station that was owned by Lim Hock Cheng’s dad (see the chapter Shell, It Shall Be). At the time, both schoolmates did not know each other. Wu Yong had stepped into the pillbox despite the many warnings from his mother not to do so. She did not frighten him with stories about live WW2 munitions and unexploded bombs that might sever a limb but instead she told him such places would be haunted with restless ghosts and he would not want to be disturbing their peace.

The smell of putrid concentrated urine was what greeted Wu Yong as he approached the pillbox. The ground was uneven and unkempt with long lush lallang beckoning him to venture nearer. Littered with rubble around its perimeter, the boy had no idea they were evidence of the damage from the bombs that the Japanese fighter planes rained on the locals all those years ago. To the south just a hundred odd meters away, his school St Xavier’s Institution (SXI) and Old Xaverians’ Association (OXA) building were also bombed, signalling the beginning of the Japanese invasion. Wu Yong held his breath in vain. He didn’t breathe for what felt like an eternity yet the smell inside the pillbox overpowered his senses. He stumbled outside; his clothes and hair reeked of the vile putrescence. There was nothing of worth inside save some yellowed newspapers and a filthy mud-caked gunny sack. He had seen such a dirty gunny sack before but at that moment his mind was too clogged up with the filth and stench to think clearly. A gust of fresh air from the sea revived him and jolted his memory. Suddenly, he could picture in his mind the man with the gunny sack. He was a local beggar who roamed the streets muttering to himself and often was visibly annoyed with something or someone. The kids kept well away from him and would scamper inside their homes if they saw him approaching. Of Indian descent, it was clear he never bathed and never changed. Shirtless and with only a dirty once-white loincloth to cover his genitals, his malodorous hair was dishevelled and stiff, not from gel but from generous coatings of dirt and mud. One afternoon, the scraggly old man did the unthinkable and stepped inside the laundry shop. Wu Yong was reciting some Mandarin words from a text book for beginners to his mother when he smelled a terrible odour. The mad man’s stench preceded his voice and by the time Wu Yong heard his raspy iteration about something he could not fathom, the boy panicked and fell off his chair. The following day, a white van arrived and two men took the poor Indian man away. He didn’t protest; he didn’t struggle. It was the last time Wu Yong saw him.

“I do regret over-reacting the way I did when he came into the shop, but I was a kid.” Wu Yong confided to me.

Wu Yong on his Pa’s lap. His mum was 37 years old.

There was a big leadwood tree on the field next to the kopitiam adjacent to his parents’ shophouse. Its leaves were large, dark green, ovoid and leathery; they were quite shiny and broad. Easily over 30 foot tall with a wide span, the Indian almond tree provided people with ample reprieve from the fierce tropical sun. Under the canopy, it was cool and pleasant even when the sun was directly straight overhead. But it was often late in the afternoons when the place became awash with the neighbourhood kids. There was an unspoken understanding that they needed to have their afternoon siestas first before they come out to play marbles or tops (kandok) and when the season changed, there were always a myriad of games to choose from; No one knew who decided on the changes but once a game was picked, there was always universal acceptance and adoption; games such as smashing bees with rocks to cook them with grass and leaves in discarded condensed milk cans (masak-masak), hopscotch which was more popular with the girls and therefore often meant a short season whereas the kite season suited the boys more with the necessary tasks of grounding broken glass bottles into powder and then lacing kite strings using gum and glass powder – kites were won or lost often as a result of how sharp or blunt the strings were. Those kids had no premonition of death and did not entertain the idea that someone could have easily had his throat slit by such a string. The vigour and speed spent to chase down a kite was also frightening, yet no one broke a limb or a neck although Fatty Su aka Tua-pui Su had a slab of thigh flesh sliced from him as he jumped off a workbench and landed on the edge of a slab of glass in his father’s mirrors and glass shop at the other end of the twelve shops. Wu Yong’s dad, upon hearing the panicked cries of his son, rushed to the scene with a small iodine bottle but returned face ashen, saying that little bit of iodine was useless after seeing the slab of white fat opened up in his thigh.

Lian-Hwa-Ho was often mentioned in Wu Yong’s household. Their father’s laundry business had a branch on Leith Street, called Star Dry-Cleaning. It was right across the road from Shanghai Tailor, a shop owned by a man called Chee Ming who wore a perpetual smile that revealed a healthy set of the whitest teeth in an era when teeth whitener had not been invented. Both men came from the same province in China, so it was no surprise that they would reconnect many decades later in Adelaide. Wu Yong’s dad made a reciprocal visit to his friend in Melbourne sometime in the early 90s; it was their last meeting. Lian-Hwa-Ho means lotus river in Hokkien. Lian-hwa is lotus and Ho is river. The Shanghainese clan called it Li-Huo-Wu. A month ago, Wu Yong’s mother who will turn a hundred this year enquired about her cousin sisters who lived in the shophouse in Li-Huo-Wu. She wondered about the three sisters, Tze Lan, Yek Lan and Fong Lan; she hoped they were well forgetting that Tze Lan suffered a stroke whilst languishing in a nursing home and passed away last year. The youngest and most beautiful was Fong Lan. People were attracted to the shop and the business flourished, not only because the prices set by Wu Yong’s dad were lower for the locals but also it could be argued that it was her movie star beauty that did the promotion for the business.

“Why did we call that area Li-Huo-Wu, ma?” Wu Yong asked. He told his mother he was sure he never saw a river there and there were no lotus plants growing in that field they used to play in. That field was long gone; converted into a tarred road joining Farquhar Street which used to end in front of his school, St Xavier’s Institution, to Northam Road in the 70s. 3-K Penang Road, the kopitiam next door was demolished to widen the road, so 3-J became the corner shop. They chopped down the big tree too. The office building for Sin Ping Jit Poh, the local Chinese press, just behind 3-K also had to make way for progress. It was the end of an era for the kids in the neighbourhood who used to collect tin typeset letters strewn in their field to melt them down to make their own fishing weight sinkers.

Wu Yong’s mother said there was a lotus pond in front of Cheong Fatt Tze mansion, so she wasn’t at all surprised that the area was called Lotus River. Wu Yong told me it is believable that there was a stream back then. The field between his parents’ house and SXI was so often flooded they could catch tadpoles just about any time they wanted. For Feng Shui reasons, a river is far more auspicious than a stream, so Lotus River, it became! That massive house with a massive garden was out of bounds for young Wu Yong. It was just on the other side of the field in a south-westerly direction. From their rooftop balcony, the boy used to look across into the vast compound and wondered how it was possible for someone to be so wealthy. A huge chiku tree at the edge of the property provided some privacy for the residents from the prying eyes of the boy. The tree provided Wu Yong with free chiku fruit too. On lucky days, he would find some nice big ones on the ground, kindly blown down by the sea breeze. His mother taught him to store them in their rice urn to make them ripen quicker. The field was the best playground for the kids. Flat enough to run around playing chasey in the dry season and interesting enough to explore it after the rains leave. It did not need a good soaking before it turned swampy. A muddy field with fast disappearing paths was an insurmountable challenge for the kids wearing their compulsory white school shoes to school. Puddles and little streams were ideal homes for tadpoles and little fish. The sounds of crickets, frogs and cats on heat made a cacophony of sounds that caused sleepless nights for the boy.

Wu Yong at a temple enjoying a vegetarian lunch (above) and sitting atop the wall of their rooftop balcony, looking into the Blue Mansion compound across the field (below)

Not noted in school to be an achiever in any field, he harboured no ambition to be an exemplary student. Actually, he was not noticed at all. Wu Yong’s name is absent on the walls at the Hall of Gratitude in the school which recently celebrated its 170th anniversary. The names of some 35,000 students who attended SXI were displayed in the hall but not his. They didn’t notice he was there and therefore didn’t know he had left. There was no chance of him being a class monitor let alone a school prefect. Strangely, he was asked if he was interested in applying to be a school librarian. His interview went badly; he knew he had flopped even before the interview ended. After that, he thought he could be a school traffic warden.

“Easy job, right?” he asked. Late in his school life, he finally hoped to hold a responsible post as an office bearer.

“For P.E. lessons, we had to cross Farquhar Street to get to our school field,” Wu Yong said.

“I would have enjoyed skipping class and being out in the sun shepherding the younger kids to cross the road.”

It was said that SXI’s present football field was a lotus pond a long time ago. Tucked away in the upper corner of the island, before WW1, the beachfront land was still undeveloped and swampy in the rainy season. It offered the perfect landing site for pirates in their perahu from the mainland to launch their late night robberies, the dark a dimension away from the bonds of civilised light. The smell of danger, the smell of the nocturnal, the smell of sweat and adrenaline. Apart from a handful of wealthy magnates living in the area, it was the Europeans that was their honey pot. The westerners had settled on the Weld Quay side, naming streets after themselves or reminding them of home, such as Light, Bishop, Pitt, Leith, Church, King, Queen, and so on. Leith Street was originally Nyior Chabang (coconut branches in Malay) – not surprising, since it was lined with coconut trees back then.

There we have it. Swampy land, ponds filled with lotus, a muddy field of lallang grass and water reeds, rows of coconut trees, beach landings by pirates, hiding in marshy land, robbing the rich to help the poor, bomb shelters and pillboxes, war, retreats and then peace. Not at all dis-similar to Shi Naian’s epic stories of the marsh.

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