Be Regal, Find The Marsh Girl

Unlike the Water Margin novel, the Urghhling Marsh stories lack female participation. The brotherhood cannot present a heroine to add diversity and inclusivity to their tales. In Shi Naian’s epic novel, he had all sorts of women peppered in his chapters to add colour and dimension to his stories. There was Madame Yan who made full use of her daughter’s pretty looks and moulded her into a songstress and later arranged for her to be Song Jiang’s mistress. Yan Poxi, a badass girl with no moral compass to reciprocate with kindness to all the help and support provided by Song Jiang was in the end mercilessly killed because of her greed. A quote by Madame Yan was unforgettable and had a deep resonance with me about her duplicity and immoral teachings to her daughter.

“Murder may be pardoned but unreasonableness is hard to forgive,” she said.

It is no wonder that Yan Poxi was described as a ‘deceiving slut’ in Yuncheng County. Talking about sluts, we cannot leave out Pan Jinlian, aka ‘flower growing in cow dung’. Another pretty little thing, with the help of another vile woman, Grandma Wang, she poisoned her husband and then burned his body to hide any trace of arsenic in order to pursue her sexual affair with Ximen Qing, a wealthy womaniser. Her husband, Wu Dalang nicknamed ‘Three-inch mulberry bark’ was shorter than four foot six inches and horribly ugly whereas she was a seductive and sensuous 22-year-old. Incompatible like water and oil, he toiled hard selling buns in the streets from early morning till late whilst she was the vexed wife killing her boredom by flirting unsuccessfully with her dwarf husband’s handsome six-foot brother, Wu Song.

Another story worth retelling is that of another adulteress in the book – Yang Xiong’s wife, Pan Qiaoyun. She remarried within twelve months of her first husband’s death; they were married for two years. Qiaoyun’s marriage with Yang Xiong was still in its first year when she began an affair with a wayward monk, Master Hai. Hai took her into his private quarters on the pretext of showing her Buddha’s tooth but of course, she saw a lot more than a tooth in his bedroom after which they fulfilled their hearts’ desires; well, carnal desires to be precise. Shi Naian wasn’t merciful to his loose women – he made sure Yang Xiong ripped her guts out and hung her organs from a tree before cutting her into seven parts.

The author’s depiction of good women in his stories is commendable though, given that he wrote them in 14th century China when women, although not chattels of men as in biblical times, were subordinate to their fathers, then their husbands and if widowed, they were of lower status even to their sons. Women didn’t have any roles outside the home. So, the heroines in the Water Margin such as Hu Sanniang, Gu Dashao and Sun Er Niang did pretty well by comparison. Even so, these heroines had tarnished reputations too. Sun Er Niang, for instance, with the nickname, Night Witch, was none other than the infamous inn-keeper at The Cross Road whose story frightened the bejesus out of me as a child. Her thriving dumplings sales relied on fat men’s flesh whilst thin men were killed to help fill up the river. I was petrified to listen to that story, then a mere child of skin and bones still playing with sticks and stones.

Gu Dashao also ran a tavern but her claim to fame was her martial arts with the cudgel and spear. Nicknamed ‘Female Tiger’ she could defeat twenty to thirty men on her own. Hu Sanniang, skilled in the lasso, was initially fighting against the Liangshan brothers. She won many battles against Song Jiang but was finally captured by Lin Chong. In captivity under the watchful eye of Song Jiang’s father, she eventually joined the outlaws of the marsh after becoming his god daughter.

But, in the Urghhling Marsh stories, there is not one female character that has come forward. Having watched the movie ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ a few nights ago, I was inspired to write about the girls in the marsh. It was the title of the movie that caught the old man’s attention.

“What’s a crawdad?” he asked. He found the answer before I had turned on Google.

“It’s just our yabbies,” he said.

“Sure?” I asked. Yabbies don’t sing!

“That’s what Google says,” he replied.

And that’s why we watched the movie, just to find out where the crawdads sing and how!

The story about the marsh girl tugged at the old man’s tear glands. There was a moment when he was reaching for the tissue box, but he said that was to wipe dry his dog’s ears. The girl was abandoned by her mother, and not long after that, one by one, her elder siblings left home; a home wrecked by a violent father whose fist of fury knew no boundaries. Having raised herself in the marsh from a young age, she was to taste more abandonment and violence in adulthood. The locals called her the ‘marsh girl’. Mocked and shunned for being different and smelly, she could not last a single day in school. Society didn’t welcome her; she didn’t belong there. When a young man’s body was found in the marsh, she was their prime suspect. It had to be the marsh girl, they said. Only she had the means, the motive and the know-how to kill a man and not leave a trace. The old man said he enjoyed the movie but throughout it, my mind was distracted and then disturbed. I could not help but feel a sudden urgent need to have my own marsh girl. The Urghhlings Marsh needs a marsh girl. How do I find her?

St Xavier’s Institution (SXI) was a great centre of learning in Penang. Rich or poor, clever or stupid, fast or slow, it was a most inclusive school for anyone of us, of any race, any religion or creed, right from Standard 1 in primary school right up to Form 5 in secondary school. Most inclusive, unless you were a girl. Even the Chinese-medium schools weren’t ‘co-ed’ so it wasn’t that SXI was a Christian Brothers’ school that co-education was frowned upon. Society then was still shackled by the Victorian practice of segregating the sexes. Preschool age, the boys and girls in our neighbourhood could play together but once segregated in school, taught that boys and girls should not mix, we treated one another differently. In Wu Yong’s case, it was certainly the case. He stopped playing with the girls who lived in the row of twelve link shophouses on their street. There was a mansion adjacent to the shophouses, on the opposite end of where Wu Yong lived. Built in a British colonial style, the mansion was out-of-bounds for the kids even though it was built right up to the ‘Goh-kah-ki’ or 5-foot way. The residents of the mansion were rarely seen. Wu Yong loved to play soccer in his early teens. To get to the school field in Farquhar Street, he had to walk past their big mansion, and past the Esso petrol station across from the E&O Hotel. Wu Yong might have seen their mother once or twice with presumably her daughter, a young girl of his age. “The mother wore a white lacy kebaya,” he said. Perhaps a nyonya, but he could not be sure. Wu Yong did not see that young girl again until Form 6 of high school. That was when SXI became co-ed, but only for six-formers. It did not make sense why the school would finally allow boys and girls to mix. Having separated them for over a decade, they were put together in the same classrooms right at a time when their hormones were raging. “No wonder I failed Physics that year,” Wu Yong said, justifying again why he scored 41 out of 100 for that paper.

Wu Yong met Cheng Imm at the school’s sports field. She was sitting cross-legged on the grass with a girl with long black hair. Both girls wore the loveliest smiles but their looks could not be more different. Cheng Imm had short wavy hair and a radiant personality. Fair-complexioned, her face had a pinkish hue accentuated by a set of natural nude pink lips with a pout that suggested real sensuousness. “Hi,” she said to Wu Yong and gave him a generous smile. He had no idea at the time that she was the young girl who lived in the mansion. Her companion was much taller, dark-skinned matched by twinkling shiny almond eyes. Anne flashed him a perpetual smile revealing a set of super white teeth of top dental hygiene. It would be many months later that she invited him to sit and pray with her at the school chapel. It would be the only time he walked in there as a student. The chapel was not a calm and peaceful place for him; he could not understand why the girl could spend so much time sitting there feeling serene and safe when all he could feel was the suffering and agonising death the bloke nailed to the cross conveyed to him.

“The memory is carved into my bone,” he said.

“You mean the special moment with her?” I asked.

There was only silence from him.

“Hi,” Wu Yong said to the girls. “Nice breeze,” he said stupidly, noticing from the corner of his eyes the coconut leaves waving and dancing high above them. The sea was gentle that time of the afternoon, the lapping sound of the water against the rocks beneath them provided an idyllic musical setting. Nothing was going to irritate him that moment, not even the dandruff on his shirt. The sun was readying itself to set but it would be another hour or so before night overcame the day. The sunbeam made playful shadows with the coconut leaves. Cheng Imm fidgeted with her umbrella and pulled her skirt tightly to cover her thighs properly. Anne made herself more comfortable on the grass and swayed along in unison with the coconut leaves. Either of them could be my marsh girl in this story. Beautiful, well-mannered, highly educated, smart, morally secure and a loyal devotee of their religion. So regal, will you be my marsh girl?

Raging hormones on the school field which used to be swampy land.

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