Risky Being Risqué

Last week, I confided to Keith what had been bothering me. Keith, a good friend who shares many of my flawed traits, shocked me. He told me to be risqué. Nothing major, these flaws of ours but at the same time, they can be rather annoying. We are almost like peas of the same pod, so similar are we with our jaundiced views of the world. But, Keith can cook really well whereas he jokes that I, being one of very many accountants in our chat group, can only cook the books. Most of us were from the Science stream of our school – how so many of us ended up being fastidious and “very exact” accountants is a mystery. “Purely accidental”, Chip, a rather fastidious chap, said. Someone as punctilious as he surely would not have resigned himself to an accidental event to determine his career, I thought. People like him do not take such risks. Chip wanted to be a hotelier but he too ended up as an accountant. The penny suddenly dropped – Chip could have been talking about me. Yup, that is one of my flaws – leaving it to fate (or accidents) to decide which path to walk. A gung-ho trait, come what may – just deal with it. Keith was also like that. In my case, I was destined to go into Dentistry, except that my dad withheld the letter of offer from the School of Dentistry and the rest is history, as the popular saying goes. Keith became a loss assessor instead. He was so lost at the time, he said. It was the only job available to him as his MCE results were so poor he did not qualify to do the A levels. Aloysius, another fastidious chap in the conversation said he responded to a job ad in the Straits Echo for audit assistants. At the time he was clueless what audit was. All he knew was that his folks could not afford to put him through uni. Aloysius did not realise education was free in Australia during those short but wonderful years. My 4th Sis told me, and I assumed everyone knew. No need to share news that the public already knows.

What I confided to Keith was the drop in my WordPress readership statistics.The numbers looked bleak. I thought he, with similar flaws like mine, would be sympathetic. After all, he understands what narcissists love – they seek adulation or at the very least, appreciation of everything good about them. They need to satiate their sense of their own importance or popularity. For bloggers, vital numbers such as visitor numbers and numbers of views per visitor reveal a lot. The bloggers who are concerned about the popularity of their writings may very well feel deflated when those numbers drop like bricks. My stats are awful. They are like bricks. I started blogging in 2019. Then, the views per visitor was a low 2.52. Rather than being dismayed by the low number, I told myself it would only get better with time. The following year was a bad year – the pandemic struck. But, the number of visitors dropped 40% when one would have expected it to improve, given that people, forced to stay at home, went online in droves searching for content to keep themselves occupied. Not only did the number of visitors drop, the number of views per visitor also sank, to 1.93. Demoralising, surely, to a narcissist. 2021 has been even more devastating, the new low is now 1.60 views per visitor. Yup, numbers do not lie and my falling popularity is sticking out like dog’s balls.

Keith and I have too many flaws to mention here. One thing we have in common is our lack of concern about how others feel about us. We are not afraid to be seen to be annoying so long as we are true to ourselves. You may say that is the opposite of a narcissist. Yet, sometimes, I think it is precisely because the chap is so confident in his own skin that he simply doesn’t care what others think of him. So, he calls a spade a spade. He is always prepared to speak the unvarnished truth. It is similar to cooking a dish, he does not add extra spices to disguise a rotting piece of meat, just as he would not add icing to a stale cake to make it presentable.

I was therefore taken aback when Keith suggested I should take more risks when I write. “Don’t be staid”, he advised. “You’re not an accounting firm”. “No one wants to read about numbers and stats”, he echoed The Mrs’ remarks made to me a few weeks ago. Remarks that cut me like a sharp razor. Yet, when Keith said it, I felt non-plussed at first. After pondering on it for a few seconds, I replied in bold. “Stats matter!” I argued with total seriousness as only an accountant would. “Be risqué”, Keith continued. He suggested that I write about my sexual exploits during my youth. “Share with us nitty-gritty tales about your girlfriends in school, for instance”. We all know sex sells, but I was a virgin in school. Nothing to capture anyone’s attention here. “Maybe some explosive scandalous gossip”, Keith persisted. If only I had lost my trousers in a hotel room, I could surely share all the saucy details here.

I could write about the Girl Guide I met in a Jamboree. But, that’s risky, I decided. The facts weren’t risqué but my thoughts were. I remembered her as Janet. Her pigtails were unforgettable. In fact, she remains the only girl I have met with the cutest pigtails. Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. She flicked them side to side like how Cheng Pei-Pei flicked her daggers with her pigtails in The Flying Dagger. I had the hots for that Kungfu actress even before adolescence gave me pimples and a croaky voice. Janet had the sweetest smile reserved purely for me. Her alluring pout captivated me instantly and those full glossy lips of hers made me crazy. I discovered what priapic meant after that moment. Her glittering and deep-set eyes laughed whenever I spoke to her friends. She didn’t say a word but I felt she was screaming for my attention. When our eyes finally met, the whole world stopped and everyone stood still with eyes shut as if to allow us the privacy to say hello for the first time.

I mis-remembered her as Janet. Sorry about that, Susan.
Cheng Pei-Pei, my puppy love.

Maybe it is easier if I write about myself, but who am I to think I can hold a reader’s attention? I don’t have personal stories about underage sex or drugs or rape. Even if I did, who would bother to be interested? I could paint myself as a villain perhaps and describe all my flaws that make me an ugly person. Expose the possibility that I could have been gaslighting my colleagues? It is easy to destroy a person’s reputation but it is manifestly much easier to destroy a person’s sense of self worth. Just drum into them they have an inferior complex and they will begin to believe they are inferior. Or maybe if I confessed to my readers why I am an idiot and a fool? Show them the scars in my mind and the psychological baggage I have been carrying ever since that night when I was almost sexually assaulted by my school chaplain?

I could fake a crisis in my life and create a dilemma that requires my urgent decision to either end the boredom of a rather mundane daily routine that bedevils my mind and disrupt this life that has been kind to me, or continue with the secure and peaceful existence that has provided me with a long-lasting marriage and three wonderful sons? Create some uncertainty in the reader’s mind about my well-being? Pretend all is not well with my marriage, for instance? Keep the readers hooked. Get them to wonder if The Mrs will divorce me? But that’s too risky also. Let’s not give any more ideas to her. She won’t need too many reasons to encourage her!

I considered writing about my health. Recently, I went for a medical checkup. I had been neglecting my own healthcare. My previous visit to a doctor was almost three years ago. At a time when I should have had a digital examination to check for any prostate problems, I avoided it like how a chook would avoid being wet. It was scandalous a few years ago when a politician said he chose a young female Chinese GP for a prostate examination because young Chinese females have small hands. But, really, can you blame him? I would not want a doctor with massive hands to examine me either!

My blood test results were perfect. The doctor said perfect, not just good. Perfect! And not merely perfect for my age. Perfect for any age, I think. Well, it was perfect until the LDL cholesterol reading was read out. “5.8”, a really bad number that any doctor would unhesitatingly prescribe a permanent dosage of statins. I refused my doctor’s advice like how a naughty boy would refuse to go to school. “I would just flush them pills down the toilet”, I said. As a compromise, I agreed to sacrifice full cream milk, cheese and butter. The other bad stuffs to avoid aren’t big in my diet anyway. I hardly eat bread, so avoiding butter is easy. I am not a big meat eater, so saying no to red meat, fatty meat and cured meats is easy to do. The only thing is I have to settle for skim milk instead. Skim milk is as boring as having sex without a wild imagination. Keith, is that risqué enough? If not, I am out of good ideas.

Lastly, the only other thing to grab my reader’s attention or eke out an emotional response has to be about death. Write about the drama of death. All good stories often involve the hero’s death. Jason Lee, a jolly good friend who was one of my best pals in Form 5 rang me earlier this week. We went to the State Library every day in the last 8 weeks before our MCE. There were distractions in the library but for once, pretty girls ranked lower in importance than the quest to pass our exams. By then, my pimples were popping violently like shaken champagne and I learned that libido was fun, unlike judo. Jason said we are all born to die. Death is not only inevitable but it is also the last thing all of us must face. Death is universal, it doesn’t discriminate. Alright, let me try to be risqué here. Death is universal but it can discriminate. A childhood hero, Bruce Lee, died happily whilst enjoying sex with his girlfriend. A nice way to write about death, isn’t it? Better that than write about Meghan Markle’s narcissistic personality about why she won’t be attending Prince Philip’s funeral. She said she didn’t want to snatch the world’s attention from the dead man. She is such an ugly Urghhling, don’t you agree?

Why do I write? It isn’t for a want of a big following. It isn’t even about the number of views per visitor on my WordPress account. Once upon a time, maybe briefly, I harboured that dream. Like how a Youtuber friend would eye the number of views and likes on a video he recently posted. The new hope to be an overnight sensation didn’t last long. There will be no Booker prize in my name or any literary award to aim for. I think I write to disturb. To disturb my own mind. In that respect, it is risky work, facing up to and then exposing my own psyche, my flaws, my prejudices. I write for selfish reasons. To improve my command of the English language. To organise my thought processes, to reach a considered conclusion about a subject matter. To build self-confidence. I don’t write to foment unrest in my mind but rather to put down in words my jumbled-up thoughts that sizzle inside my burning head at frenetic speed sometimes. The hope is of course to write something new, something interesting that a reader will turn the page and stay with me till the last word. That is all I hope to achieve – to disturb my reader, to touch someone emotionally or intellectually. If I can evoke an emotion or thought through my stories, I would feel very thankful.

Worship The Warship

What do we really see when we look at the sea? For me, I see stories – lots of them, as I gaze out to the vast expanse of water. Where do the waves go? Where do they come from? How far have they travelled before arriving at the shore? How deep is the sea that I am looking at? Has anyone drowned recently? Unlikely, since that stretch of sun-drenched sand is patrolled by bronzed chaps and chicks donning red caps and wearing bright yellow vests. The surf lifesaver has become a new Aussie icon. Tanned, fearless, selfless and strong on our beaches, they are as identifiably Australian as Bondi Beach and the Sydney Opera House. The sea was turquoise and choppy earlier on but now it is almost pitch black and calm. Suddenly, it is quiet, very quiet without the busy seagulls and the narcissistic blondes in the briefest bikinis. Look at the sea carefully, as carefully as you would cross a busy street. Is there a dangerous rip current ready to pull you in and will it snarl at your futile attempts to swim back to shore? Will you get thrown up high by a huge playful wave before it dumps you hard into the water? Will you be fooled by the gracefulness of the jellyfish? Do you even know how to treat its sting? Is it harbouring any Great Whites out there, just a short ride in a lightweight tinny? What is a tinny, you ask? It’s an aluminium boat no bigger than a sampan but its lightness makes any ride a choppy one, even on a perfectly calm day. The last one I was in made me puke up my breakfast, to my colleague’s horror. Would it surprise you if I told you that was the only time he invited me to go fishing with him?

A view from Henley Beach, South Australia. Photo by Yeoh Chip Beng.

Once upon a time, I wrote to a girl that my love for her was like the sea. I was so absolutely sure I would return to her as surely as the sea always returns to the seashore. On a starry night, upon seeing the push of the current towards the shore, she would realise it was as strong as her pull on me towards her heart. See the tracks on the golden sand? I reminded her then. Our footprints will be intact and undisturbed by time, we both echoed. “The moment will surely come when we are together again retracing our footsteps”, absurdly I wrote on the aerogramme. Strangely, I have never enjoyed sand on my feet since. I was born on a tropical island that nestled in a sheltered paradise in the Straits of Malacca. Penang, long long ago, was known as the Pearl of the Orient. The story of the pearl is also a love story. If you cast your mind to an oyster with its hard shell protecting the naturally-formed pearl inside it, you will feel the perfect harmony and caring love between the living shellfish and its precious jewel in the sea. The more pristine their natural environment is, the more exquisite will be the pearl’s perfection.

In school as a child, I was taught that the island I was born in was founded by Francis Light, and then colonised by the British Empire. It was much later that I discovered that the earliest remains of its natives were well over 5,000 years old. That is significantly much older than the island of Great Britain itself, which was formed in 1707. It is also much older than England by some 4,000 years. Artefacts found in Prai indicated that the earliest inhabitants of Penang were nomadic Melanesians who were hunter-gatherers. Francis Light arrived in his “country ship” named Eliza. I reckon he should have called it a warship as it was laden with cannons and manned by artillery personnel alongside two escort naval ships, Prince Henry and Speedwell.

Human history is littered with the romanticised ideas of swashbuckling buccaneers and all-conquering Vikings who raided large parts of Europe by stealth from their narrow-bottomed long warships. Who hasn’t read Treasure Island and pretended to be young Jim Hawkins? Many of us would have sung “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!” for the first time during our childhood without even knowing what rum was. War movies glorify the honour and blood shed during famous battles between warships such as the 2nd Battle of Guadalcanal and Battle of Surigao Strait. They were Hollywood movies of course, since the battles were won by the Americans over the Imperial Japanese navy. The Titanic may not have been a warship but we can’t deny how so many romanticised its ill-fated maiden voyage, made unforgettable by James Cameron. What about the other much-acclaimed naval movie, Master and Commander, about a British naval captain during the Napoleonic Wars? Or Midway about the Battle of Midway, a turning point in WW2. Why do we romanticise tragedy? The idea that we can glorify battles between warships and build awe-inspiring stories around so much destruction and death is typical of urghhlings.

When I look at the sea, I am often reminded of a black and white war movie, set in the Americas. The scene of that Spanish beach landing still haunts my mind. The Spanish soldiers, terrified and weary, were pinged down on the shallow water near their small landing crafts unable to advance towards the beach. Their warship anchored in the background, was too far for them to return to it. So near yet so far, as one by one they got shot down from where they stood. They started praying, softly at the beginning, but their voices soon grew bolder as more men joined in like a hesitant choir. They quivered as they prayed. I imagined some were repenting, others admonishing themselves for hurting their loved ones during foolish moments of rage.That remains for me, one of the most poignant scenes I have witnessed on TV. When all able-bodied and super-fit fighting men could do was to stand and pray and wait for death to come. What stories did they flashback in their minds? Who did they love? They sure as hell weren’t worshipping their warship then.

Today, there seems to be a lot of talk about the potential for a hot war between America and China. The arena of war commonly anticipated is the Taiwan Strait, also known as the Formosa Strait. US destroyer the USS John McCain passed through there earlier this week as a “routine” freedom of navigation move. A “powder keg”, military experts have been comparing the might of the US navy against the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in that region. One headline this week screamed out that the PLA’s new warship puts US to shame at sea. Not so long ago, we used to compare the number of aircraft carriers amongst nations and the results determined that the US were far superior with their overwhelming fleet of nuclear-powered warships. But, their long-range strikes have been quickly negated by the current crop of fast and stealthy missiles. Today, it is about the superiority of missile destroyers and their vast numbers of Vertical Launch Systems (VLS) cells. The VLS is designed to overwhelm the enemy through speed, stealth and sheer numbers. They are the “big guns” of modern warships. The PLA will soon have a fleet of 14 such destroyers each with 112 VLS cells whilst the US navy is (inexplicably) retiring theirs.


The other hot zone for potential conflict is in the South China Sea where disputes have arisen between China and the neighbouring nations such as Brunei, Indonesia,Taiwan, Japan, Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. In 1951, Imperial Japan was forced to relinquish islands such as the Paracel and Spratly Islands which they invaded during WW2, but the authors of the treaty did not (or could not) resolve the matter of true ownership. The Kuomintang government had established the eleven-dashed-line four years before that but those islands which fell within the zone were not returned to China. I was curious to know why the “Paracel Islands” sounds French when they are so far away from France. It is simply because they were claimed by the French when they colonised vast lands in Southeast Asia and ruled French Indochina for 67 years. When the occupiers lost to Viet Minh forces, they handed the Paracel Islands, also known as Xisha Islands, to the North Vietnamese. But, does this recent history of ownership justify Vietnamese claim to the islands?

Just days ago, the US sent the USS Makin Island, an amphibious assault ship, and the USS San Diego to bolster their presence in the South China Sea. It seems their worship of warships will be unceasing as they continue to wander far from their backyard, menacing any country they arbitrarily decide is a threat to their status as the world’s biggest economy and the most powerful country. How would they react if the PLA were to move their warships to patrol the Gulf of Mexico as a routine freedom of navigation deployment?

More and more people in my circle of friends are rooting for war. They see China in the ascendency and show their impatience for China to right the grievances and suffering from the Opium Wars. To those who cannot curb their priapic urge for war, go take a cold shower. People die in wars. Do not worship the warship.

From The Crypt To Crypto

It is another Good Friday today. It is fast approaching the two thousandth anniversary of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, yet I can’t see any signs of mass atonement in the world. Is that because we urghhlings already know our sins are long forgiven and the promise of eternal life granted to us no matter what we do or not do? We are saved from our sins and we should celebrate. I would have been deservedly reprimanded by my own father had I taught my sons any crimes and misdemeanours they were to commit would have all already been forgiven, and an eternal reward awaited them no matter how they behaved. I could have told them the killing of Jesus ensured that. Recently, I practised this teaching of forgiveness and generosity in my business by offering my staff positive reinforcements of encouragement and re-training of the business procedures. I told them their mistakes will be forgiven and that there will be no punitive repercussions as long as they worked hard and followed the rules. Sadly, the incidence of costly mistakes has increased markedly since. Just yesterday, I reverted to the previous policy of “Thou shall pay for your mistakes (ones that are so basic they ought to be avoidable)”. We should be responsible for our own actions and take ownership of our bad behaviour. “You make a silly mistake, you shall pay for it”. It is no different to the sign in the shop that says “You break it, you buy it”.

In 2016, archaeologists opened a crypt they believed to be Jesus’ tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The marble shrine, the Edicule, which protects the tomb is apparently made from materials from the 4th century A.D. So, why would anyone build a tomb some 400 years after his death? For what purpose would they seal it, I ask? The Jews never cremated their dead. They believed in the resurrection of the body which was just as well for Jesus, otherwise he would have resurrected without his body. He rose from the dead on the third day, meaning his tomb has been empty ever since. Why use a big piece of marble to protect an empty tomb? Were tomb raiders so foolish to raid an empty tomb, I wondered?

In my internet-based business, we are looking at the development of blockchain technology and questioning how we can use its applications. We were slow to embrace technology and didn’t trade online until 2006. We decided we should not be derelict in our duty to keep up with technological progress. I can’t help but think how much the world has changed since Jesus was sacrificed by his father. One of his last words were “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That still reverberates with me even today. That the Son of God felt forgotten, abandoned and left to suffer and die an agonising death just moments before his last breaths. How deeply disturbing and terribly sad. How cruel when it was so easily avoidable with his almighty father by his side. What has his death achieved? Was his suffering and despair necessary? The deep despair and nauseating feeling of abandonment when he was dying undoubtedly would traumatise many as it did me when I was a boy learning about his death on the cross. Why the sacrifice of a human being was permitted when the sacrifice of animals was riled at by him? When I went to catechism classes, I was taught that he died for our sins. And having been taught that, why did it not stop any of us from sinning? Yes, because we knew we have been saved already! I was 6 years old, but even then I had the nerve to ask why on earth would some strange-looking man die for my sins so long ago when I wasn’t even born then? He would have been as vague of my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather’s distant descendants as I am ignorant of my not-so-distant ancestors. The Chinese may have had written records for many millennia but just a few generations ago, my ancestors were too poor and illiterate to have any records written down about their own family.

I feel like a blockhead whenever a conversation switches to blockchain technology. I understand that it is not very green as it consumes a lot of computer power running all the algorithms and we know computers are hungry for energy. So, what isn’t good for our environment will not last, right? If so, then why even worry about it? Wrong! We can bet it is just a matter of time before some clever people invent something else to fix a problem. And they already have. Just two days ago, I read that Ethereum co-founder Joe Lubin has created a 99% energy efficient blockchain! Blockchain 1.0 was about using the distributed ledger technology for cryptocurrency. Blockchain 2.0 saw a few high tech firms use it to add value to their businesses. China has already embarked on Blockchain 3.0, setting industry standards and building the underlying infrastructure for blockchain applications worldwide. Domestically, this will transform business models within the digital ecosystem across all major industries and drive innovation and improve collaboration with the government in China.

Recently, I was gobsmacked to hear that a piece of digital art went for $69.3 million. Bought by a syndicate from Singapore, it wasn’t a Picasso, or a van Gogh. Art that you can’t even hang on the wall and admire the brush strokes or knife strokes of the artist. You can’t smell the paint or feel the texture of the canvas. It isn’t 3D like a sculpture and you certainly cannot carry it in your arms. It is digital! Which means you can simply copy it and share it online. (for free!) My son explained to me it’s a NFT. “A what?” I asked with an incredulous gasp. I thought he had been watching too many episodes of The Wire or The Sopranos. Both miniseries contained a lot of the F word. “No, it means non-fungible token”, he replied impatiently. “Oh, you mean a token that fungi can’t grow on?” I feigned interest as I have never shown any interest in fungi or mushrooms. No, non-fungible means it is unique and can’t be replaced with something else. A bitcoin is fungible, one can trade it for another bitcoin, whereas digital art protected by blockchain, is non-fungible (apparently). This is where he lost me. Can’t a digital file be copied as many times as we want, including art that is embedded with an NFT? I suppose the same goes with traditional art. I have a print of one of Monet’s most iconic works in my office. Anyone can own a Monet print, but only one person or museum can own the original. The other major advantage of a NFT is it is not as easily stolen as say, an artwork in a museum. Having said that, it is not unknown for cryptos to be stolen or lost due to misplaced or forgotten passwords.

Monet’s famous piece, which I bought for $20 at the Metropolitan Art Museum.
Beeple’s The First 5000 Days, the first NFT I heard about

Visa announced three days ago they now accept cryptocurrency to settle transactions in their payment network. They will allow USD Coin, a crypto that is tied to the US dollar, giving it stability and avoiding the volatility that some cryptos are susceptible to. Stablecoins are cyptocurrencies that are pegged to fiat money, exchange-traded commodities such as industrial metals, i.e. some “stable” asset or basket of assets. At the same time, Paypal also came on board with crypto this week by announcing they will accept Bitcoin, Ethereum and Litecoin as a form of payment. I am guessing it is a matter of time before China’s Alipay and WeChat Pay reverse their decision to ban crypto-related transactions. There is a new coin called Dogecoin, a derivative of Luckycoin which got a lot of exposure from Elon Musk. For a coin to see a big spike in its value because of a person’s tweet sounds dodgy to me. Please excuse me if I mispronounce it as Dodgycoin.

It seems clear that the era of central banks’ issuance of digital currency is upon us. China is by far the most advanced, having been developing the digital yuan for over five years. Beijing recently distributed $1.5 million free digital money as part of a trial run during the Lunar New Year to see if the digital format could cope with the extra high turnover. The digital yuan is not a cryptocurrency according to the experts but they don’t seem to know how to classify it; safe to say it is highly secure and very low in volatility. Who will win the war of the currencies? The central bank or the big tech companies? Somehow, I can’t see governments relinquishing their grip on monetary sovereignty. I’ll bet on the central banks to win this war.

Who Gives A Fig About A Fig?

I didn’t give a fig about probiotics. More money-making schemes, I said to myself sarcastically, for years. I was foolish to disregard The Mrs’ advice, since I was a witness to how my own father struggled with bowel problems. We did everything we could – extra fibre, laxatives, extra fluids, more vegetables and less meat. Hardly any meat in the end. What he couldn’t avoid was to stop taking his medication. It was much later that I learned that many medications e.g. narcotic analgesics such as codeine and Tylenol are known to cause chronic constipation. The Mrs’ dad, Gung-gung, had it much worse – chronic constipation weakened him so much it eventually affected his health. His episodes were so bad we had to take him to the Royal Adelaide (RAH) a few times. What the doctor dug out from him one bad night was a load of shit as big and round as a soccer ball. Poor doctor. Poor emergency ward at the RAH, actually. No matter how many squirts of air freshener and odour eliminator they sprayed, the stench lingered all through the long night. The ward and its immediate corridors were enveloped by that foul invisible “presence” that overpowered all and sundry who were unfortunate to be in its path. Gung-gung didn’t give a fig about the ruckus he caused that night – he went home a visibly happier man and more importantly, a much lighter man.

Poor Baby Son and The Mrs who accompanied gung-gung there were clearly unhinged from the visit. Baby Son decided medicine was not a career path for him to pursue after that episode – he didn’t give a fig anymore about his ambition to be the first doctor in my family. His image of the medical profession was forever ruined after the doctor almost succumbed to one of the foulest odours he ever encountered. Baby Son was also horrified to see the doctor put his hand right into gung-gung‘s backside and shove the shit out like how Murray would dig out his doggy bone from under the dirt with his paw. The Mrs suffered from breathlessness soon after that trip to RAH. She didn’t give a fig anymore about having her windows closed all the time to keep the rooms dust-free. She decided fresh air was more important than stale air.

Recently, I also had problems with my bowels. It was “all in and no out” for quite a few days. The over-riding sensation was that I desperately needed a “traffic cop” inside my body; my waste system was in turmoil – it reminded me of a chaotic situation recently in the CBD with some of the major traffic lights failing. It desperately needed the cops to arrive quickly to tame the road rage that was imminently threatening. Similarly, I could do with a kind and friendly “cop” that could direct the flow inside me smoothly but without the ridiculous antics. Remember the dancing cop who directed traffic in Bhubaneswar, India (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9NAQW9hBnI), or the robotic North Korean traffic ladies who wowed every tourist in Pyongyang (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLQ3lFhckLg)? In and out, in and out, without a traffic jam – that was all that mattered. I found my “traffic cop”, thanks to The Mrs. I know you won’t give a fig what it was, but I will tell you anyway.

The Mrs put me onto Kimchi but the strong garlic repulsed me as I imagined people being repulsed by my breath. She then suggested I add 3 scoops of Greek-style yoghurt to my rolled oats for breakfast. I disliked yoghurt forever after the first scoop back in the early 1990’s. Anything fermented tasted off to me, such as chou tofu. People call it stinky tofu – you won’t need to wonder why. I could smell it a mile away, it was as if the streets of Shaoxing along the night market stank of blocked drains that night. I shunned yoghurt even when they were free in hotels and cruise ships. But, the situation was dire. I was desperately bloated and the farts were becoming decidedly toxic. So, I listened to The Mrs and started adding yoghurt to my breakfast. Half a tablespoon of Gumeracha honey was enough to take away that “off” flavour, so it wasn’t so bad at all. Miraculously ever since then, I feel the ever-present “cop” waving its hand ever so smoothly directing the flow of food and wastes inside my body. No more jams! A good friend, Keith, warned me against too much yoghurt. According to Ayurveda teachings, yoghurt is very cooling and “too much” will adversely affect one’s sex life. I told him celibacy affect one’s sex life a lot more. I didn’t give a fig about his mumbo-jumbo superstitions.

Yesterday, I took the afternoon off to spend a short holiday in Old Reynella. I wasn’t quite five minutes away from home when I realised I had forgotten my mobile phone. I remembered an old friend, Aloysius, also forgot his phone when he left Penang for a short-stay in Singapore. For him, he felt so lost and helpless as if he had lost a limb, so attached was he to his phone. But, I didn’t give a fig about it, and didn’t turn back to get my phone. No one would miss me (that much) and as it turned out, it was bloody fantastic to be really away from everything. No football, no social media, no fake news. The Mrs and I stayed at St Francis Winery in Reynella. It is only a winery in name only, they converted it into a resort a long time ago. As soon as I walked into the premises, I felt we had been there before. And, as soon as I saw the dining room which overlooked a retirement estate across the quiet street, I knew we had lunch there a few years ago. The Mrs was adamant she, the one with the superior memory, had never been there. “No, no, no!” she argued. “Unless you’re telling me you had a rendezvous here with someone else!” she seethed under her breath. I quickly changed tact. “You’re absolutely right, darling. I got a memory like a sieve. It’s just a feeling of déjà vu, and not a rendezvous!” I corrected myself without further ado. Who gives a fig about my defective memory anyway! Third Son later told his mother he remembered we were all there for lunch on Boxing Day just 3 years ago. Phew!

It is important when visiting any place to walk around the streets and parks if you want to learn about its history. I discovered that the township of Reynella was formed in 1854 when John Reynell sold 40 acres of land which cost him £40 15 years earlier, for nearly £3,000. He was also the same bloke who planted the first commercial vineyard in South Australia. The famed winemaker, Thomas Hardy, worked for him and together, they became the largest wine producers in the McLaren Vale, a well-known wine region here. But, will anyone else give a fig about John Reynell? I don’t think so. This morning, we came across a fascinating high-end boutique store called Woolcock. The name itself fascinates me. I mean, how and where does a name like that originate from? The store proudly sells classy and high-street designer clothes from Italy, Germany and France. If one wears a piece of garment from them, one will never be worried to see someone wearing the same clothes. That is the meaning of “exclusive”. I told Mr Woolcock I had full admiration of his shop but “I have to lodge a complaint”, I said. “You do not sell men’s clothes”. He didn’t give a fig about my complaint, he said. “You’re not the first to complain and you won’t be the last”, he said softly with a smile as he waved me away. I was thoroughly impressed with the glass dome ceiling he made himself though. Years ago, I designed something for a fee-free client that was as wonderful but a lot less gaudy. It would have cost the owner $26,000, a steal, I thought at the time. But, she said she didn’t give a fig about that idea. “One could roast a chicken in the room with such a glass ceiling in the middle of summer”, she reckoned.

The glass-dome ceiling in Woolcock Ladies Clothes, Reynella

My mother was with us in Reynella. “Why don’t you tell him he needs a haircut”, Ma nudged at The Mrs during a short coffee break. It was the best cappuccino I had in years. I meekly conveyed to the barista that Big Sis enjoys her coffee hot, not lukewarm that most places serve. Hot is the only way, the barista agreed. Isn’t it good not to give a fig about what others say is right or wrong? They say the right temperature should be 60 C to 70 C. Bullocks, I say. both Big Sis and I like our coffee hot, say 85 C, ok? The Mrs feigned a fainting spell when Ma prodded her again about my shoulder-length hair. “The old man is as stubborn as a mule”, The Mrs protested. “Will someone force him to cut his hair and shave his beard?” Ma persisted. Why does she give a fig about the length of my hair? I should be glad that Ma no longer criticises me about fasting. So, her list of complaints about me is getting shorter, thankfully.

Who gives a fig about a fig? A sister-in-law in Kuala Lumpur told me earlier this week she woke up at 3.30 in the morning in a panic. She rushed downstairs from her third storey luxury penthouse and was lucky not to have tripped herself when she missed a step due to her eagerness to get downstairs quickly. “Eagerness in the middle of the night?”, I asked wryly. Whatever could have turned her on in the wee hours, I wondered. She explained in tedious detail that she was awakened by the thought that a squirrel would help itself to her ripened fig whilst she slept. It was the fear of missing out (FOMO), a common emotion – the hokkien word is kiasu but honestly, fear of losing out to a squirrel is a bit too much to understand. “First come first serve! Not my fault!” she yelled in the dark at the squirrel. Poor squirrel – life must be so stressful for the pitiful animal. It did not think the lady of the house would give a fig about a fig. If only it knows the fig sign, it seems appropriate here.

A ripe fig in a Kuala Lumpur garden stolen from a squirrel.

Hubby, It’s Our Ruby

A couple of weeks ago, The Mrs surprised me when she out of the blue invited a Malaysian couple to our ruby anniversary. It was immediately after we had reacquainted with them during lunch at Wolf Blass Winery in the Barossa Valley. I met Wolf Blass a few times in the late 1980s. He was a very important customer of the cardboard box factory I worked for. A wine mogul whose wines were as big and bold as his personality, he was never seen in public without one of his signature bow ties. They made him so cool and dapper I was tempted to copy him. But, why spend money when I had all those old ties I brought from Penang in 1977? You know, those left in my parents’ dry-cleaning shop that their customers forgot to pick up?

I pulled The Mrs to one side and with my hand on her arm, I whispered, “Why invite them? We hardly know them!” Since the pandemic, the couple have been stuck here, unable to return to Penang, whilst their very close friends who like them are also new Australian permanent residents, are stuck in Penang. So, I imagined we were like extras in a movie set, invited to spend the afternoon with them to make up the numbers. The Mrs screwed up her nose and snarled. “What do you want me to do now? Pretend they didn’t hear me?” She still wore that quizzical look on her face as she walked back to chat with her newfound friends. Her chortles were the loudest, almost booming. She possesses a rather low laughter threshold – my definition of a lucky person. Before we got married, we watched an episode of Mork and Mindy together in her rented house on Royal Street in Maroubra. After that experience, I decided it was too dangerous for me to ever sit through another comedy with her. My left arm and back were bruised black and blue from her wallops that she felt necessary to impart when she laughed heartily at every punchline. It made me jealous to observe how easily she cracked up at jokes that I didn’t find funny at all. How blessed, I thought, to be able to see the funny side of anything and everything. Laughter is the best medicine, as they say, and no matter what bitterness life throws at us, it is laughter and positivity that will get us through the darkest days. Whenever she was about to tell me a joke, she would tell me she had a really funny joke to share. She was clueless that it was this “mental preparation” that made me nervous. “Will I find it funny? Do I laugh now? If not, when?” I asked myself. My soft and restrained “ha-ha’s” were often unconvincing – without sufficient conviction – but, if I didn’t laugh at all, she would be sure to say I was made of cold stone. Pebbles do not laugh even in the most unspoilt turquoise-blue creek.

On Sunday, we will be married 40 years. Despite the heavy air of familiarity and the dullness of mundane routine that occupies most of our days, I recalled that warm fuzzy feeling of knowing why she was the one for me all those years ago. It was her infectious warmth, her genuine friendly nature that dazzled. That was what made her special. I mean, she was not the type who would go out of her way to make another person feel important. That would be unnatural and actions such as those could be seen to be deliberately conceived. Her impulse to reach out and make someone feel included was innate, I think. There was nothing fake about her when she offered her friendship. There was neither an ulterior motive nor an advantage that she sought. “Curb your enthusiasm!” I warned her. “Don’t be gullible! There are wicked ones out there who will disappoint you and hurt you.” “Best not to trust strangers”, I added. She had a natural tendency to treat everyone right. It did not matter to her if that person was someone she had just met or a mere acquaintance.

It is not just her inclusiveness and her natural inclination to welcome a stranger that still makes her an attractive woman today. It is also her kindness and beneficence that radiate that familiar and comforting warm glow when she is not weighed down by my antics or by my saturnine predisposition. Just earlier this week, I witnessed exactly this beautiful character of hers whilst feeding the hens. Is it not quite typical that we need animals to remind us of what is beautiful and kind? Dottie the old chook was enjoying her breakfast alone when two crested pigeons swooped down from the tree above and after a fleeting survey of the surroundings, jauntily enjoyed her breakfast without asking or waiting for her permission. You know, Dottie did not even flinch or look up at them. She treated them as her own and not as outsiders. She shared her food with them as she would with her family. Her agreeableness was there for me to witness, much like what The Mrs has shown me, right through our long marriage. Yet, I have not really embraced this way of life. The caring, honest readiness to accept and welcome others. It is also her preparedness to believe there is good in everyone that makes her charming – more than that, actually. It is her natural flair to assume the best about others that is so disarming. She would be the one in our travelling party to venture away from the group and make new friends. That has always been her quality – her natural curiosity and interest in other peoples and cultures explains her readiness to converse with anyone. Her openness is, by any measure, a healthy and positive trait. Upon reflection, I was the one to dampen her enthusiasm for life. In the early years, I poured doubt into her open and trusting mind, and warned her about the risks of opening herself up to new ideas, new people, and new experiences. The boundaries I imposed on her were too restricting to someone whose spirit reminds me of the eagle’s. A bold spirit that soars freely and effortlessly should not be contained by someone as dour and grey like me. I can see now why her immediate surroundings were emotionally suffocating. The disparaging attitudes from my ugly cynicisms and wayward opinions have largely damaged the esteem The Mrs once had for me. We were as incompatible as an ice-skating rink in a desert.

Dottie was unperturbed that the pigeons enjoyed her breakfast without the need to ask for her permission

When we were courting during our uni days in Sydney, I sought to impress The Mrs with my nous in stretching our weekly budget. After I left home in January 1977, I promised myself I would not burden my parents again for my living expenses. The fact that education was free in Australia helped lessen my worries too and I knew a few hours’ work on the weekends would be enough to pay for every day-to-day expenses. Airfares were unaffordable and so, I did not get to visit my parents in the last two years of my uni life. It is only right to have no such sense of entitlement. So, I showed The Mrs how it was done. “You go to Coles and Woolies? No, try no-frills Franklins! They are the place for all basic necessities.” “Fruits and veggies? Get them from Duffy Brothers.” A cabbage there cost 10 cents and a box of stone fruits near closing time will set you back only 80 cents. Seafood meant Silver Biddies, at 20 cents a kg. Chicken maryland? No – chicken wings and giblets will do. $6 for a side of lamb? No, that was food for the entitled and never appeared in my shopping list. Steak was never T-bone but chuck. No other cuts would be suitable for rendang, right? But then, I screwed up and revealed the true traits of a Ningbonese. The ones from Penang were renowned for being tight-arsed, extremely thrifty! Sometimes, I think we were worse than thrifty. It is probably more accurate to describe us as frugal back then. Thrifty people waste as little as possible – so they do not leave the tap running or leave the light on when they are the last to leave the room. They don’t ever turn on the air-conditioning whilst the windows are ajar. But, a frugal person is one who veers close to being stingy. You know, the one who never opens his wallet, and on the rare occasion that he did, a moth would fly out from it. Adrian Kibble was chuckling when he said that about me. The grossly obese man thought it was funny, but I took exception to him for saying that about a Penangite. I wasn’t the one who avoided spending on anything. Neither was I the one who avoided turning on the air-cond even during a long angry summer and justified to his family it was as therapeutic as a stint in a sauna. I screwed up much earlier, before we were even married. I taught The Mrs how to select the best fruits and the biggest cabbages. Every fruit had to be the biggest, freshest (with the stalks still green) and perfectly unblemished. Back then I did not understand those are the opposite features of organically grown produce. It was just recently that The Mrs told me her mum taught her differently. “We leave some good ones for the next person.” “If we picked all the best ones, what do we leave for those who arrive after us” You see what I mean? It never dawned on me to leave some good ones for people we don’t even know. Whereas, The Mrs does not ever forget the next person – they deserve a share of the pie, no matter who they are.

The Mrs didn’t want to be my girlfriend. I thought she harboured an inferiority complex when she told me people would laugh at her. “Don’t worry about what people may say!” I was quick to dismiss her worries about being older than me. Her anxiety did not merit a review by me at the time. More and more, I am now convinced it was not as I assumed. It had nothing to do with her feeling inferior, but her knowing that I was inferior. She feared people would laugh at her because of me. I was the idiot. She could sense the sacrifices she had to make, I think. Sacrifices most women make when they marry but to sacrifice so much more when already alerted to my many faults? Many years after we married, she told me she won’t want to meet me again in the afterlife. She would rather be a pebble. I told her what I thought of pebbles. Pebbles do not laugh even in the most unspoilt turquoise-blue creek. It hurt me, of course to hear that she had had enough of me. Pebbles do not laugh – happiness is not what they seek. But, I could feel the peace and serenity that pebbles enjoy. So, I told The Mrs I will want to be a pebble also in my next life. She will find me right next to her, in the same pond. Happiness is elusive, even to the greatest sages in human history. Let us just settle for peace and harmony, I vowed. As pebbles, we will have peace together.

I suppose being married 40 years is a life sentence that is longer than most criminals have to endure. Mafia bosses and drug lords suffer little by comparison. Al Capone served less than 8 years for all his crimes. Pablo Escobar didn’t want to entertain the idea of just a 5-year jail sentence and escaped from his own purpose-built prison. John A. Gotti, the famous mobster from New York, spent a brief 6 years behind bars for all his crimes. Known as Teflon Junior, he was able to make a mockery of all 4 mistrials for racketeering and murder charges. But, for The Mrs, she has suffered 40 years of me (not with me). Wilson, a good friend, posted a short reminder of what a woman’s sacrifice entails when she marries her husband. I told Wilson not to be naive. Not so long ago, I was as callow, mistaking them as sacrifices made for me. The Mrs was blunt, but there was no other way to show her honesty. She advised me not to be so self-absorbed; not everything she did, she did for me.

It is true she changed her surname and she changed her address and left her family to live with me. It is also true she changed the shape of her body drastically during her pregnancies and suffered unimaginable pain during childbirth. She also sacrificed her lofty career ambitions. It cannot be said she did it for me even though I voiced my preference to her that it should be our responsibility to take care of our own children and not leave it to childcare. It is also true our children bear my surname and not hers. It is also true she did all the shopping, cooking and laundry for us and she took lovely care of both my parents during their stay with us. There is also no denying that she spent a lot more time looking after the needs of our children than I did. Her total dedication was always to others. Why did I fail to acknowledge it was palpable that she neglected her own needs – she sacrificed her time and energy for everyone else. Wilson’s post added that a woman is a great gift to men from God. He meant well, I am sure. A reminder that I ought to cherish my wife and not take her for granted. But, The Mrs is a strong, modern woman who will not suffer misogyny silently. She will resent being told she is a present to me.

40 years is a long time. Ours is not a romantic story anymore. We carry many scars, not only in our memories but also on my body. The Mrs has been known to lose her temper and therefore, her patience and control as well. I should hasten to qualify that. Everyone loses their patience with me. I do not know of anyone who has not found me annoying. I can be as irritating as an Aussie sheep blowfly at a picnic. No amount of swatting will deter me, but my foolishness in not knowing when to shut up usually ends with me shoving shit up someone’s nose. I have been guilty of causing my wife unbearable sorrow. It is a guilt that won’t wash away. That day, The Mrs squealed like a wounded animal in our car. It was all because I didn’t allow her to be right. Earlier, I confessed she was prone to walloping me. Her wallops may have been unintentional during sitcoms and romantic comedies, but her wallops during fights were definitely intentional. So what? One could say I thoroughly deserved my scars – people who think they are never wrong are pricks. Belatedly, I am awakened to accept that I do not have to be right, let alone prove to anyone that I can be right. The bane for men is that we cannot ever understand women. Whoever said women are from Venus was spot on. They speak a language so alien that their messages often confuse men. The Mrs often chastises me for not speaking up whenever a sibling treats us unfairly. She confuses my aversion to family feuds as pusillanimity. So, when I stood up for myself when hurt by her verbal missiles, it did not please her to observe that I had discarded my pusillanimous shell. You see, I failed to understand that there are certain times when I should be timid, just not all the time.

40 years may be a long time, but sometimes it feels like it was just yesterday. There are moments we shared that will not fade with the passage of time, such as the moment when we first met and her eyes smiled at me like there were no troubles in the world. Or, the moment when we walked down the bus and our hands accidentally touched three times. Or the moment when she said I could stay and she would cook me dinner. Especially vivid is the moment when we taught each other the joy of sex. Or, the moment when she said she would follow me to Singapore as my wife. We did leave for Singapore later that year but we quickly returned to Sydney and married in March 1981. Yeah, 40 years ago. The Mrs and I may have faced the many downs in our life together, or suffered the hard bumps that almost knocked us out but we also have our ups. Someone famously said life wasn’t meant to be easy. But, who wants the easy street when a rich life together is far more memorable? A rich life together has nothing to do with money but it has all to do with enriching our lives meaningfully and lovingly together and as a family. It is the trials and tribulations we faced and the mountains of compromise we made when creating and building a life together that endears us now. And, we created life out of our love. Three sons, in fact. Our sweat and tears (and some of my blood) bond the foundation blocks of our marriage, and the many memories of laughter and joy bear the fruits of our love. Ours is not the perfect union, but you know my views about perfection. It is predictable and therefore boring.

21st of March is a truly special day for me. It is significant that my wedding anniversary is on the day where the night is equal to the day on every place on Earth. How appropriate for my Libra traits – balance, equality, justice, peace. The United Nations celebrate it as the International Day of all forests – a day when we pause to reflect on how trees sustain and protect life. This day is also Harmony Day in Australia, a day to celebrate respect, cohesion, harmony, inclusiveness and belonging. To The Mrs, my beloved, may we continue to love, respect and cherish each other equally and harmoniously, and renew our vow to travel in this life together through all its grand peaks and dark valleys.

Tales About Tails

What mama said last year still gives me nightmares. Her tale was not meant for me. She was sharing the gory details with papa, but you know mama – she often speaks as if we are deaf. In any case, this was a good lesson for me never to eavesdrop or listen to adult stories again. I am a clever dog, as you may already have discovered. If Master thinks I need treats to learn something, then who am I to disagree? Yummy treats are the reason why I learn every lesson slowly. More repetition means more rewards. My siblings said I was sly – they confuse clever with cunning. I am clever to use my intelligence for a positive outcome, i.e. more treats. Cunning is using our intelligence to manipulate or harm others. I could never harm my master. But, just so you know, there are many lessons in life we can learn from experience or from observing what others do or not do. In my household, it is more often to not do what they do or do what they don’t do. For instance, adults should not tell grotesque and macabre tales in front of little children and pups. I was still a sweet and adorable puppy last year. Mama had no business telling horror stories about her dad cutting off every of their dogs’ tails when I was within hearing range. She told her tale on a cold and dark wintry night. I remember the timid moon refused to re-appear after a short but futile burst through the angry and violent clouds which quickly engulfed it with vengeful intent. The storm that arrived cast scary images of a maniacal witch whose long matted hair wildly blew and eventually latched on to a pitiful puppy that succumbed to a terrible death by asphyxiation. The old witch looked many centuries old with her time-decayed face and cold anguine eyes still haunting me on nights when the mad gully winds recklessly toss papa’s garden tools and plastic buckets in the air like misfiring missiles.

Recently, I upset mama when she was busy in her kitchen. She tripped on me as I rushed across the room to see what she was cooking. Her piping hot coffee splashed all over her jade green floor tiles reminiscent of a recent failed attempt at copying a Jackson Pollock painting. She yelled at me “Murray, do you want your tail cut off?!” This family has a fervour for cutting off dogs’ tails, it quickly dawned on me. Her dad cut off every single tail in their household. Of course, that was a long time ago. In Australia, tail docking was finally made illegal in 2004, exceptions are allowed for therapeutic reasons only. “Why did your dad cut off their tails?” I heard papa ask. I suspected it might have been to make herbal soup but mama said her mum thought they looked cute with stumpy wrigglers on their backsides and were also less prone to bring dirt and dead leaves into their house. It is true that I often have spiny leaves and spindly weeds cling on to my tail whenever I retrieve and re-bury my doggy bone in the yard. It is also true that these pesky spiny leaves and spindly weeds won’t let go off my paws too. Would they think to chop off my paws? I think tail docking is cruel.

Mama’s mum was a super-clean woman. Their dogs did not have the privilege of entering their all-timber house which sat on stilts three feet above the ground, so papa doubted they could have brought any dirt into their house. Mama’s parents were both Hakkas, i.e. when they talked about dog food, they did not mean food for the dog. Mama said that was quite forgivable as meat was scarce during the war. She told papa she was not allowed to witness the killings – that reinforces my message kids and puppies should not know about these bad things urghhlings do. In Miri, a small town in Sarawak, every farm had a pond to drain the excess rainwater from the land or their crops would risk flooding during the rainy season. “Did little kids swim in the pond?” papa asked without looking away from his newspaper. “No!” mama answered loudly. The ponds were muddy and filthy due to much frolicking by ducks and geese reared for their eggs and meat. The pond was also where her dad drowned his dogs. When a pet dog was sufficiently fattened, it would be shoved into a gunny sack and thrown into the pond. When the struggling stopped, the gunny sack would be pulled ashore by the loose end of the rope that tied up the dog’s escape route from the sack.

She did not tell me that some nationalities love dog meat. In many countries, it is still legal to eat dog meat. Papa taught me to avoid countries such as China, South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Switzerland during my geography lessons. Dog meat is considered haram by Muslims, maybe we dogs should migrate to Islamic countries such as Indonesia, Iran and Iraq. “Did you ever see your dad do it?” Papa asked mama if she ever saw a dog butchered. Mama deliberately misunderstood his question and assumed he was asking about tail docking. She said her parents worked as a team. Her mum would hold the “few days-old pup” and her dad would simply use a cleaver and chop off its tail. “Quick and painless”, her mum used to say. What do they know, these humans? Our nervous system is fully developed at birth. A puppy’s tail has bones, muscles, cartilage, highly sensitive nerves and tendons. Let me tell you, tail docking without anaesthesia or analgesia (pain relief) is awful and extremely painful. If you don’t believe me, try biting off your own finger – any one of them will do. Besides, we suffer from phantom pain too, long after the tail is gone.

My tail is also a good tool of communication – you won’t trust my smiles when my canines are visible and threatening. But, if you see my tail wagging, you know I am playful and friendly, right? Those who are pro-tail docking say it is good hygiene but I say it is cruel to mutilate dogs. I have heard humans circumcise their babies for hygienic, cultural or religious reasons. Show me any video of a child’s circumcision and I will show you every child crying in pain when their foreskin or clitoris is sliced off. Male circumcision remains legal in every country and that has to be attributable to the two major religions that promote this ancient ritual. There is evidence to show that the Egyptians practised this as early as 4,200 years ago. Papa told me he feels lucky that his remains “intact”, the Chinese do not have this requirement to slice away their tip. Adherents of Judaism and Islam are still encouraged to follow this old ritual. Why has Christianity done away with it though? They did not believe a physical scar on the tip of their penis is necessary evidence to prove their faith in the Almighty. In the Old Testament (Genesis 17:10–13), the ritual to remove the male foreskin on the 8th day of birth is a commandment from God. The miracle of Isaac’s birth is a constant reminder of how their entire existence began with a miraculous act of God (a barren woman becomes impregnated only by a circumcised penis). If only the Jews were aware of the existence of the Chinese during those early years before Christ, then maybe they would have reconsidered that their survival did not necessitate the sacrifice of their foreskin.

“Papa, did they not ask why God gave men a foreskin only to insist they snip it off so soon after birth?” I asked whilst eyeing his genitals as he was peeing in the toilet. Papa is an old man. A slow and weak stream is a good indicator of a man’s advancing years. Nowadays, papa takes almost an eternity to finish his pee. He allows me plenty of time to sniff his pants and check on his general health whilst he tries to shake off the persistent droplets. His output is minuscule and weak – the tiny drip, drip, drip reminds me of the leaking tap in the garden. I hope I won’t be like him when I grow older. It would sadden me to stand with my hind leg suspended in the air against the bushes like a stone statue. Papa had a befuddled look before he pretended to know the answer. “God gave men a foreskin so that they have something to sacrifice”, papa exclaimed professorially. “God made things but humans changed these things to make them better”, papa added. “For example, God made animals but humans turned them into food. God made the earth rich with minerals but humans made cars and aeroplanes from them.” I couldn’t resist and quizzed papa, “So, a penis without its foreskin is a better penis?” After papa had zipped up his trousers, he washed his hands with soap and water. This was a new habit of his after the pandemic. He used to think water was enough as a good cleaning agent, since soap costs money. Now, he is often checking his stock of soap to ensure he has an unbroken supply.

What papa could not explain to me is why God would want men to sacrifice their foreskin when He was against animal sacrifices. In the big scheme of things, I suppose the foreskin is a small thing to give to God if that was what he really wanted. A friend of Papa’s in a WhatsApp chat told him that there were actually two human sacrifices mentioned in the Bible. The one we all know about was of course that of Jesus’. But, as the Holy Trinity, it was no big issue for Jesus, since He was able to quickly resurrect Himself on the third day. The other human sacrifice was that of a virgin girl, daughter of Jephthah. His pledge to God to kill the first thing that greeted his victorious homecoming after the conquest of the Ammonites had to be kept even though it was his own daughter. Who else would greet you at your door, if not your own flesh and blood? How foolish to promise God you will kill the one who welcomes you home. Did Jephthah expect it to be a lamb or a dog? It is terrible that her sacrifice did not even earn a respectful mention of her name in the Bible.

Why do men need such a covenant with God? To remove their foreskin is have the glans of their penises exposed all the time. Is it to make men perpetually aware of their sexual organ? Uncircumcised men only feel the full extent of pleasure when their glans are exposed during sexual arousal. Papa restrained himself from his sarcasm mid-way when he didn’t finish his next sentence. “Maybe God needed men to mark themselves to differentiate the pious from….” It will be unthinkable today to say that keeping their foreskin was a mark of their disobedience to God. Papa told me the tale about David, who in wanting to marry King Saul’s daughter to become king, delivered 200 Philistine foreskins to the old king. The Philistines were believers of other gods. Papa also told me the tale about the stubborn Zipporah who sacrificed her son’s foreskin in order to save Moses, her husband, whose life God had threatened to take. Had papa asked for my opinion, I would have said it was all about water. The lack of water in the Middle East meant a hooded penis was less clean and therefore, it was more hygienic to simply cut off the hood.

Talking about hoods, what about the hood of the clitoris? Female circumcision is banned in most countries – there is no support from the major religions to make it legal. Unfortunately, many African nations still allow it; every year, some 3 million girls are subjected to genital mutilation. I am just a puppy, and no matter how papa explained it, I cannot understand why they don’t call it that for male circumcision also. Why is male circumcision not called male genital mutilation? Do they think the male genital looks prettier naked? Papa told me a long while ago that we should do unto others as you have them do unto you. Do you think he means to those who allow tail docking, we should bite off their little appendage that wag like our tail when they are excited?

I have my tail intact! Who is tailing who here?

No, I Know

My name is Murray. I am a very clever Miniature Poodle, born in Murray Bridge. Read on if you don’t believe me. When I turned two weeks old, a tall Chinese man drove up the gravel driveway of my mum’s sandstone cottage. The crunching sound his car tyres made on the stones stressed me a lot. The visitors often parked right in front of the barn and from our straw bed below the window, now opaque by decades-old dirt and dead cobwebs caked permanently onto the pane, my siblings and I knew the visitors came with a motive. Whenever we heard the gravel crunch and the brakes of the cars squeal, our family would shrink by one that day. We were left with just the two of us when the Chinese man came and introduced himself. He smelt different, better actually, than the hunger-inducing aroma of deep-fried chips and burnt chicken nuggets that often whiffed their way from the kitchen of the main house. The smells were actually quite rancid, but we dogs don’t mind it. It was much later that I discovered the Chinese man smelt of fried rice and Cantonese roast duck.

Our mum’s owner, Alice Brown, didn’t ever cook Chinese meals. A typically bronzed Aussie woman in her hey-day, Alice Brown’s casual drawl from the post-war era no longer fitted the mould of a tough and forceful woman in modern Australia today. She harked from the time when a Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding was as compulsory as attending church on Sundays. Her CD collections were displayed prominently in the messy lounge room – The Seekers, Little Pattie and Helen Reddy still featured daily in her selections. “How may I help you, Luv?” she asked the Chinese man in a low husky voice that was incongruous with her sweet round face. When she smiled, her doe eyes disappeared beneath the many folds of subcutaneous fat. She wore a big tightly-bound bun and the muslin apron that hung from her neck introduced her as someone that Murphy’s Law resonated with. “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong” were the eight words printed in bold letters across it.

“Don’t mind me, Possum – we had just finished tea”, she apologised to the Chinese man about her greasy hands as she hastily rubbed her callused fingers vigorously against her apron that was well overdue for a wash. “Tea” to people of her generation meant dinner. In the olden days, folks in the outback went to bed early on account of dark nights without electricity, and therefore, without purpose. They had their dinner early whilst the food was still visible. Whatever light remaining would disappear soon after the dishes were washed in scalding sudsy water. Tarnished silver cutlery and sparkling dinnerware (one plate with a bad chip) were all dripping with suds as they rested on the dish rack. No, they did not believe there was any need to rinse them off. Water had always been precious in this thirsty continent.

Dame Edna Everage would have understood Alice Brown to a T – they hailed from the same era but the Dame turned worldly and fashionable after discovering the limelight of stage entertainment in the mid 1950’s. Alice Brown kept her sun-ravaged fast-greying golden curls short whereas the Dame’s thick and healthy tresse became trade-marked by an elaborate Wisteria-purple coiffure. New arrivals to the sun-parched country were easily fooled by these true-blue Aussies – sharing round after round of Aristotle during their raucous conversations showed a glimmer of their philosophical leanings but they only meant passing the bottle around. Aristotle was their code-word for the bottle.

The tall man picked my twin brother, but I out-muscled the puny pup that was crawling next to me. I was named Harley, after a motorcycle brand that holds an imposing presence on the road with its mean cult-like image of brute and chrome, and loud and obstreperous torque. Maybe in a previous life, I was a Harley Davidson rider with Morbius and Lucifer tattoos permanently stencilled on my burly arms and legs. Recently, there was news of Diego Maradona’s passing. It raised the hair on my neck as I watched the eerie throwback of seeing a version of my past resembling the football God in his prime. Stout, strong and muscular like a bull.

I liked the kind look of the Chinese man. He returned my brother to the straw bed and picked me up instead after my perfect demonstration of standing on my hind legs caught his attention. No, I know the art of persuasion. People are careful to pick the best, the strongest and the healthiest. My brother and I were priced the same. The Chinese man easily saw I was the better value and did not flinch when told my price was not negotiable. He sounded too eager to seal the deal and Alice Brown, although in her late 80’s, was still as sharp as a tack. I liked the man immediately – a generous chap who would not hesitate to pay a fair price and did not quibble about a few dollars and cents.

Now I proudly call him Master. Master held me up apprehensively like a first-time father would with a new-born. Uncertain of the strength of his grip, he almost dropped me as I struggled to free my neck from his thick hands. He looked like a super-fit UFC fighter but the way he gingerly bent down to pat my head before picking me up belied his tough exterior. The roughness of his palms and the little bit of dirt under his middle fingernail misled me to think he was an avid gardener. I found out later they were made coarse by the handle bars of his dumb-bells.

Master didn’t agree that I should be named after a bike. So, he re-named me after an inconsequential town instead. He runs an internet-based business – maybe he liked the name Murray because it sounds like money. “Come Murray! Come, money!” Due to the pandemic, there has been a huge uptick in the demand for pets during the lockdowns. Master has almost doubled his money from investing in me but he hasn’t yet considered sharing some of his profits with me. Minutes after the required cash exchanged hands, Alice Brown bade me a quick farewell and placed me in a cage in the back of a neglected Rav 4. I took a fleeting last look at my birth place and said my goodbye. The garden, if one could still call that, was in its dying throes. What was once a quaint English rose garden had long been overwhelmed by nine years of the Millennium Drought. Salvation Jane, Dandelion, Bindii and the prickly Thistle had overtaken the withered and scraggly rose bushes – telltale signs of the ageing occupants’ impending demise. Even the most ardent gardener will eventually surrender to Mother Nature.

My first car ride was on National Highway M1, heading in a north-westerly direction towards Adelaide. It was quite apparent Master seldom washed his car. His boot was littered with yellowed and curled up receipts. scrunched up bank statements and other investment accounts that should have been paperless to save on fees and quite a few used foam coffee cups accentuated the mess. Does he have a sight impairment – he can’t see them? Was it his way to avoid littering the environment? My questions will remain forever unanswered. His rubbish kept me amused for about an hour until he announced, “Welcome to your new home”, as he drove up the short steep driveway into the multi-level carpark.

Master lives in a boxy building that is pigeon-holed with small rooms. The only way up to his one bedroom apartment is through a steel box which opens with a loud “TING” whenever he presses the button that has the arrow pointing up. Master was upset with me one day when I farted in the steel box they call a lift. The young lady, in a tight red dress, standing next to him pinched her nose tightly when the odour rose upwards towards her nostrils. I think she assumed it was Master’s uncontrolled indiscretion – she found me too cute and adorable to be capable of such outlandish behaviour. No, I know she won’t think I was capable of producing such evil smells. I do wonder what Master feeds me that cause such pungent gas to grow inside me. Master pretended he had anosmia, a nose impairment, and stared blankly at the walls of the lift. He scolded me as soon as we left that stinky steel box. “Do that again and you’ll spend the night in the bathroom”, before adding “in the dark!”. What a mean fella.

The following morning, Master brought me to see his parents. Humans are strange, why would his parents teach me to call them papa and mama. I am not Master’s brother, am I? Let me describe mama first, since she is the more interesting character. Mama is always “hen lei”, which means very tired in her mother tongue. It is very easy to please mama – all she needs is my total attention right before dinner is ready. No, I know when food is about to be delivered. She is better than Uber Eats, the waiting time is short and her food is to die for. The Uber Eats meals that Master frequently orders in are oily and salty and take too long to arrive. Mama is a great cook – her favourite Youtube videos are mostly about quick and easy recipes. When she is busy in the kitchen, I am at my best behaviour. Mama loves me to sit still like a quiet boy but instead of reading a book, I read her face and body movements. When she blows into my dinner bowl to cool down the food from her wok, I know it is dinner time! No, I know to walk towards her and wag my tail. She loves that and the routine that follows next. “Murray, sit. Stay, stay, stayyyy….”. Mama wants me to be like a Madame Tussaud waxed puppy and remain stationary until she yelps out “OK!”. That’s the command for me to come alive from the pretend coma.

In the first few months of my life, I struggled to get up the two steps from her kitchen to the family room. Each step was almost two-thirds my height. Mama said I looked so cute like a ball of fur trying to roll up the steps but would she say the same if she saw Master climbing over chairs and bar stools to get to the family room? Mama should be certified mad. She reckons her chooks understand her every word. The other day, she told me I should be more like them and accept that everything she says is correct.

Papa on the other hand, is just predictable. I love him as much as I would love my grand-dad. He loves me unconditionally. Unlike mama, he does not hold a tasty treat and toy with it whilst asking me if I love him. No, I know he knows our love is mutual. Words are not necessary between us. I know papa very well and can accurately read his every look and gesture. I know when his day is done without the need to look at the clock. I am off his lap even before he shuts his laptop, and doing the downward-dog by the time he stands to stretch his aching arms above his head. His sighs and laboured breaths tell me when he is despondent and that happens a lot when he is watching his football team play, which is often before the crack of dawn here. Last week, I whined to tell him it is time to change his team. For me, Manchester United are obviously much inferior than their city neighbours. Yet, the old man foolishly persists and his agony will continue to be self-inflicted.

Papa, although shrinking, is still quite tall. I get so tired of having to look up at him whenever he takes me for a walk. No, I know I shouldn’t feel insecure; for sure he will never abandon me. They do not understand how strenuous it is on my neck – I don’t see them looking up to the sky all the while during their walks, yet that is what I do, looking vertically up at papa’s face to make sure he does not run off without me. Papa is a little bit weird. He insists on deliberately looking to his left and then looking to his right three times before he crosses the quiet street to the park opposite. Their house is in a cul-de-sac, which means there is hardly a car that zooms pass. No, I know he is merely teaching me to cross the road but hey, all I have to do is scoot across when he yells “Now!”.

Papa adores me which makes it really easy to manipulate his feelings. He especially loves it when I whimper and sob as he walks down the stairs from his bedroom each morning. That is how he knows I miss him so much. I stay over with the old folks on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Their “Good morning” wishes to each other are comparatively bland. Mine please them a lot and they are immediately cheerful – they believe I am sincere with my “over-the top” welcome. I mean, who else whimpers and sobs when they say “Good morning”?! They gauge my enthusiasm by the speed and vigour of my tail-wags. No, I know I shouldn’t be insincere, but a good performance is highly rewarding. I get a few extra minutes of belly-rub from both of them. Humans have to pay to have a good body rub at a massage parlour; I get mine by simply saying “Good morning”.

Papa feels loved, and that can’t be so wrong of me, right? Papa loves football – he thinks I love being the goalie. Between you and me, that game easily bores me but I shall not disappoint him. Let me confide here that I prefer to chase the chooks instead. No, I know I am the king of the backyard when I turn maniacal to make mama’s girls squawk. The cacophony sounds almost symphonic, especially if the Kookaburras and Magpies chime in. I imagine I can be a modern-day Vivaldi. The girls are flustered by my fierce barks and are visibly terrified by my attempts to mow down the galvanised fence. No, I know I am the silverback in the backyard but what I fail to see is why they act with absolute nonchalance and walk away unperturbed as soon as papa throws some grain and seeds at them. Instantly, they will forget I am even there. I think their bird-brains simply switch off, which explains why they have such short memories. Just take a look at them now, waddling side to side, proud of their overgrown backsides. I bark with contempt at Brooke, her feathers around where her eggs pop out from are often smeared with her own poop. Mama should not have told me they think I am as threatening as a little lost kitten.

24 May 2019 will live in my memory for a long time. On that autumn day, I lost my balls. No, I know you will try and use fuzzy words to disguise the brutality of the act. Humans are good at doing that. They use words to mollify their victims so they feel little or no guilt from their cruelty. Yes, call it what it is please. It is callous, cruel and downright rude. Don’t I have rights too? When the state sanctions a killing of a human being, they call it “neutralise the target”. They use weasel words such as “alternative news” when they mean “fake news” or “negative patient outcome” when they mean “dead”. When they say “with due respect”, they are about to show their disrespect and argue with you. Master brought me to the vet on that fateful day – he said I needed to be neutered or desexed. I failed to understand him at the time, wondering how to desex me when my sex was already determined – a male endowed with all the wonderful organs intact. They cut off my balls. So that I won’t chase the ladies in the park. “Urghhlings”, I heard papa cry out in pain when I told him it hurt so much. So what if I loved playing chasey?

Papa loves playing chasey too – but I think he has forgotten how the Don in The Godfather died in his tomato garden. He thinks he gets enough steps on his “Health app” by routinely chasing me round and round the garden bench like a runaway lawn mower. Papa is devoid of fresh ideas – his favourite game is “Fetch”, a brain-numbing game of throwing the ball towards me so that I can return it to him. Mama says he is colourless and boring. I agree! The old man insists on playing the same game, day in day out. No, I know he means well, playing Treasure Hunt, a sun-bleached bone being my treasure. But the poor chap simply hasn’t got a clue when he plays hide-n-seek with me. Somehow he doesn’t realise I can smell the bone a mile away – no matter how deep he buries it. Chinese lessons are held during afternoon tea time – the only time I have to respond to his “hai yao mah” (还要吗). I am expected to nod my head enthusiastically before he will grudgingly give me some biscuit crumbs. A real scrooge. No, I know he means well, the Butter Scotch biscuits are too sweet for me. They are bad for my teeth.

I don’t need to brush my teeth.

But, why does papa not brush my teeth instead? Whenever he brushes his teeth, he threatens to brush mine too. I bite my teeth to show him mine are even and white, and my deadly incisors need no sharpening. Poor papa, his are crooked, jagged and worst of all, coffee-stained, despite the straw he uses. Look at his photos – there isn’t one with him smiling. It is not because he is sad, it is his malocclusion that embarrasses him. No, I know I shouldn’t say that. He couldn’t afford to have his teeth perfected by the local orthodontist during his prime – which says a lot about his prime. He harped about beauty being skin-deep. “Pretty teeth don’t improve the taste of food”, he insisted.

Papa lives a boring life, too sedentary for my liking. I do enjoy his phone conversations with Horace though. Horrors, Horace sounds like a customer from Hell. No, I know papa should be more patient with his customers, but from the gist of his complaints, Horace is an internet illiterate who shouldn’t be buying stuff online. I pity papa sometimes – the fools he has to tolerate would drive me mad too. Yesterday, there was a woman who claimed she did not receive her parcel even though her online tracking showed it was delivered. “Please can you check again?” I heard papa ask in a tired and resigned voice. “NO, I KNOW IT IS NOT HERE!”, the woman screamed at him. Today, she rang to say she forgot she had her order sent to her daughter’s address, so everything is alright now. After she hung up, I heard papa cursed under his breath the same 4-lettered vulgar word that is too frequently used in the Netflix miniseries they watch nightly. Papa is always working at his desk. No sales reps call on him anymore, ever since he moved his office to home. No one buys him his favourite cappuccino anymore – he used to enjoy free coffee from reps who queued up to see him. He reminisces a lot about the “good old days” but those days aren’t coming back.

No, I know he feels his “reign” is over – he is almost a “has-been”, ready to join the retired or the irrelevant. I sincerely wish he is aware not to become irreverent with bitterness or despair. I keep him company, as loyal as a dog, one may say. I am always in his arms when he works. He looks a lonely figure, his back hunched with a perfectly shaped C. His mind convinces him he sits with a straight back. No, I know I cannot admit that I pity papa – that being the only reason why I am glued to him all day. He thinks I behave like a booze-besotten drunk, so dependent on him that I would panic in his absence. Click, click, click click, he frantically punches at his keyboard. Papa thinks he is a fast writer, but he does not know how to touch type, so how fast can he be? I suspect his speed was at best 30 wpm, his productivity at the keyboard further reduced by the numerous back-spacings and corrections. He blames me for slowing him down. The nerve of the man. No, I know I should tone down and be more respectful. I do like to rest my hand on his as a way of affirming we are good pals. This morning, I was surprised to see 000000000000000000000000000000000 appearing on his computer screen as my paw accidentally slid off his hand and landed on the 0 on his keyboard.

Papa is difficult to understand, maybe he is just difficult. I was just two weeks old when I became a member of this family – my total length including my tail was shorter than half his lower arm. Today, I am fully grown. Yet, he still makes me lie on the same pillow, knowing I have more than doubled in length. No, I know I sound like I am complaining. But, it is just my way of sharing with you the frustrations I have. Papa should be certified mad. The other day, he asked his goldfish who was the oldest philosopher. Confucius, Socrates or Plato? He kept asking them. He told me they couldn’t agree. I could have told him the Chinese sage was the paragon of sages and the oldest, but he didn’t ask me.

Why won’t papa buy me a pillow?

Papa works many hours at his desk. I have nothing to do, except wait for him to finish work so we can play together. Papa has another disorder, it is called trichotillomania. He leaves his hair everywhere like a dog leaves its pee everywhere. I have noticed he is prone to yanking his hair more violently the more he has trouble reconciling his creditors ledger. I can’t say papa is fair to me. Papa should appreciate me more but he complains at my slightest indiscretions. He farts a lot but when I reciprocate, he gets upset with me. “Aiiiiya! Murray! Stop it!”, he yells at me impatiently. He forgets I am the one with the superior sense of smell. I suffer his bad smells silently, as a loyal friend would, whereas he will make a big song and dance about the small puffs that I push out occasionally. Hush hush, please do not tell him this puppy does it on purpose to pass his time. He doesn’t know I find it quite entertaining to see his hilarious reactions to my harmless flatulence. We are often confused about our own scent. Does he smell like me or is it the other way round? Papa said his clothes stank of my farts. I could have just as easily argued my point but I wagged my tail instead of my tongue. No, I know I am beginning to smell like an old man.

Look, synchronised yoga

Shhh Or Shoo

Shhh or shoo. Either word isn’t kind. This is the truth about how it feels when these words are used on us and when it comes from someone who frequently bears the brunt of such words, then maybe you would want to refrain from using them too often. Either word would amply describe me if I were limited to one word to portray the whole of myself. At work or business, what I say usually stands. No one would tell me to shut up or shoo me away like an annoying fly. But, socially or within the comfort of my own castle, the ugly truth is undeniable. Sure, it bugs me that I am in the wrong universe. I feel it. I often feel I am in a place that I don’t belong. People around me do not know the real me. Am I really who they think I am? Am I not more? Much more than the bumbling fool they often snigger at? Why am I only one they poke fun at? The joke is always on me, it seems.

As I sit here deep in my thoughts, I must emphasise that I am not one who likes to lift off drying scabs and relive old wounds. No! This is not who I am. This must not be who I am. It does not matter if they can’t appreciate me. It must not cut me down even if it is true that I am a lot less than the lies I tell myself. For a long time now, the castle in my mind has been carefully built to protect myself. The ego had been my hero. The arrows aimed at my direction had been mostly successfully thwarted. My defence had stood firm, the thick walls impenetrable. Rock-solid and stoic, I let my wit come to the fore and try to be the Perry Mason in my life. So silly is my conclusion, now that I take stock of who I am. We should never have the need to defend ourselves. Who cares what their impression is of us? Why bother if they can’t see our positives? Why feel hurt if they are often dismissive of our input? Does it really matter if they think less of us? Why should we feel we need to be appreciated? Why behave like the entitled? So what if we are misunderstood? Let it be. Let them be. Forgive and forget. Better still, just forget – there is nothing to forgive.

It is easier to go around anointing myself as the annoying one. When I re-connected with my school friends, I announced myself as the idiot in the group. It is self-deprecating. Why do I disparage myself? Without self-respect, why would anyone respect us. I think it was a poor attempt to be like a lotus – to tell them I could rise above the mud, the muck they think I belong to. My friends tell me to be quiet a lot, especially when we are barracking for our football team, the great Manchester United Football Club. “SHHHHH!” “GO TO BED AND LIVE YOUR NIGHTMARES BY YOURSELF!” “SHOO!” “LEAVE NOW!” There is one who is especially unkind. He thinks he is the referee on the field, frenetic with issuing red cards to me. A red card is much more than sending a player to the sin-bin. In Rugby, a yellow card offence means the player is sent off the field for 10 minutes. In soccer, however, a red card means the player is sent off for the remaining duration of the match. So, I know full well what a red card means when this friend flashes it at me. He intends for me to disappear for the rest of the match. How unkind. How unwelcoming. Friends are supposed to be inclusive amongst one another. He talks a lot about the need to avoid negative vibes, but to exclude a friend surely is the most negative act?

When I was a young boy, any man past his 50’s was an old man in my eyes. At 62, I am glad my eyesight is failing. The old man in the mirror looms large. I suspect he is decaying faster with each passing year. Last night was another Chap Goh Meh, the last night of another 15 days of Lunar New Year celebrations. It was a wonderful party although my bubbly mood was somewhat pricked by a casual observation an acquaintance from another table made about me. He pointed to my should-length hair and said I remind him of a person who zhoujianghu. In olden day China, those who “walk the rivers and lakes” travelled far and wide in search of a livelihood. It depicts a vagabond, a shady desperate con-artist whose survival requires street-smart deception. A quack, a charlatan? Did I remind him of Rasputin, I wonder? No, I said to the man. I prefer the word “Thu-fei”, a bandit. But, do you see what I mean? This encounter sums up my life pretty well. A happy occasion, a wonderful party with family and closest friends that ended with an unsought somewhat derogatory comment about me from someone at another table.

Playing with my heroes

11 April 2018 was a happy day for me. When in New York, the two places not to be missed are the Metropolitan Museum and Tarisio, a respectable auction house that deals in fine instruments and bows. I was turning 60 that year. The concept of retirement was already growing in my head. For much of my life, retirement meant one thing. The freedom and time to pick up my violin again. But, as I accelerate towards this inevitability, I decided I wanted to reward myself with a really good violin. Second Son was in New York at the time – he was my reason to be there. America is not my idea of a good holiday, if the truth be told. It was my second visit to the Big Apple, but those officers at the airport were as unwelcome and arrogant as the ones in LA. They did not treat visitors to their land as paying guests but rather saw us as potential enemies. Or, maybe it was just the way I looked. The hair and my scowl won’t hide the Rasputin image I sub-consciously project? “WHY ARE YOU HERE?” the officer bellowed whilst scrutinising my passport. “WHERE WILL YOU BE STAYING?” his cold eyes piercing. “HAVE YOU BROUGHT ENOUGH MONEY?” He behaved like a real prick, a bully in a bad mood. He knew I couldn’t retaliate, not even with acidic words to teach him some manners.

Second Son met me and his mum in our hotel room the next day. America by then had become a nicer place to hang out. We were in the centre of the world. After all, isn’t that what the Americans believe? They are the most powerful nation on Earth, the wealthiest and New York, the city that never sleeps, that has a street named after a wall, in 2008 crushed all the economies of the world with pure greed and not grit. Second Son enthusiastically took me to the 55th Street where the famous Tarisio store is located. Tarisio featured regularly in The Strad, a magazine I subscribed to for over a decade. So, that feeling was special. To finally arrive at a place we only read about for a big part of our lives felt like a big achievement, ridiculous as it may sound. The chap at Tarisio made me feel special for I was able to tour their premises and even occupy a room for as long as I liked. He was ostensibly lively, switched on like a string of 10,000 light bulbs – clearly at work to shine and impress his clients. Ordinary people who walk in from the street aren’t accorded such special courtesy, of course. I felt special because Second Son was there with me. The chap obviously knew Second Son – they were on first names basis, even though Second Son was a Londoner. I felt so happy for my son. He was well-known, not in a small pond, but on the biggest stage too. The chap, after a chirpy conversation with Second Son, arranged for a few fine instruments to be brought into the room. No, no Strads, no Del Gesus of course. We settled for makers that were within my small budget. The chap was surprisingly nice, for an American. To accord us so much time, knowing my budget was minuscule was un-American, right? He couldn’t be a true New Yorker, I decided.

After admiring the instruments for a long time, I thought it best to start playing them. After all, what good is a beautiful violin if the sound is crap? I picked up the violin that had enthralled me with its beauty and brandished a modern-looking bow like it was a Samurai sword. I was horrified. The sound was dead ugly. I grimaced at the violin. “What a shit of a shovel” I thought – that’s an old Aussie parlance for something so shitty it should be immediately discarded. There I was sitting on a chair below a display of framed photographs. Legends in the business looked down at me, literally. Isaac Stern and Pablo Casals were both heroes of mine. I think I wiped off their smiles with just one swipe of the bow. The violin sounded crappy, not because it was made in some East European sweat-shop. It was me. I looked into the wall mirror across from me. I recoiled as if I had seen Joe Blake in the garden. Joe Blake, the snake – in case you do not understand this old Aussie slang. I looked the part, with my long hair. My bow hold looked perfect, the sound from it ought not to sound tight. But, it sounded awful. I thought I could simply put bow to strings and produce a flurry of notes from Vivaldi’s A Minor violin concerto. Vivaldi’s concerto is popular due to its vibrancy, it makes you eager to get up and dance. But, the first note I produced was cruel to Vivaldi – it was a delivery that was dead on arrival. “SHHH!” The Mrs was quick to caution me. I quickly handed the beautiful violin to Second Son. “Here, take it off my hands before they shoo me away” I said. For the record, I did not bid for the violin. Their estimate price was USD50,000. The chap never followed up with me about bidding. I think he knew the truth about me when he heard the “shhhh” and the “shoo” in the room. Or, maybe he was annoyed I broke the G string.

Guess It’s Gas And Hot Air

There was a fair bit of gloating this week. Alas, for me it was more about bloating. We (humans) landed on Mars again a few days ago. I couldn’t stop marvelling at the amazing intelligence we showed in not only successfully reaching the planet but also precisely manoeuvring the rover, with a drone on its belly, to land safely and gently on the red soil. Ok, Man didn’t land there but a man-made machine did. I decided there and then the world ought to stop looking for intelligence out there in space. We have it in spades here on Earth! It was a thrill to watch the NASA team congratulate themselves – there were fist-bumps and celebratory raised hands; the absence of hugs and kisses and handshakes was reassuring, again a sign of intelligence in the room. If the Americans were gloating, they truly deserve to enjoy that euphoric moment. It was pleasing for me to witness their relief and joy at the same time. Relief, because anything could have easily gone awry, a loose screw could have wiped out the multi-billion dollar mission. Joy, because this was a magnificent example of the intelligence of mankind and our ability to become the creator of another form of intelligence, an even more powerful one that is artificial (non organic). Unfortunately, the Americans were also guilty of gloating despicably this week. Not by NASA but by their tech giant, Facebook. Google was surprisingly well-behaved after their early hot-air and bluster, quick to sit down and negotiate a deal with the major media organisations here. Google threatened to withdraw their search engine from Australia, but we all know the billions they make from us – they weren’t ever going to walk away from this gold mine. I think it is fair and reasonable for these digital bullies to pay for the news content they use, right? After all, their annual turnover dwarf many a country’s GDP. Australia’s news media code is designed to mandate the digital platforms to pay the local media companies for using their news content. It is yet to become law but Google has already struck up a deal with the big media companies. As with everything, there is always the good and bad sides. This deal will of course entrench Rupert Murdoch’s vice-like grip on Australian news. His Sky News and The Australian are likely to follow their big American cousin, the super conservative TV station Fox News, and shamelessly promote “alternative facts”. Kevin Rudd this week revealed he was afraid of Murdoch whilst he was the Aussie PM. An old man he may be, but to make the most powerful man on the land cower with fear? That’s sinister and dark; it’s dangerous when one man can exert so much power and influence over the world. Murdoch has become too powerful when the world no longer knows if the news he broadcasts are true or fake.

Google got their maths right, coughing up a few million dollars to rake in billions from Australians but Facebook, on the other hand, have shown their tenacity to bully a middle-power sovereign country that is Australia. Not only have they refused to sit down and negotiate, they spitefully pulled all news from their platform two days ago. This is before the code is even law! A stern message to the Upper House no doubt but the senators didn’t blink. Facebook didn’t think carefully, and are now in damage control mode to defend their decision against claims of promoting fake news yet silencing real news that the community rely on, e.g. health and emergency news on natural disasters and bushfires. I guess the whole world is watching intently on how they too can follow suit and extract some payments from these digital behemoths. The hot-air blowing from Facebook will be curtailed soon enough. They have got away from this thieving for too long.

The other big news coming out of Canberra this week is also a lot of hot air. The matter is most unfortunate, of course, but for the PM’s office to deny any knowledge of the rape that occurred in March 2019 beggars belief. The revelation of a text message from a senior staff of the PM’s office in response to the complaint back then is damning. That it took almost two years ago for the victim to reveal the alleged rape is symptomatic of the many problems victims face or feel they are pressured with. Be it social stigma, self blame or guilty conscience, doubts about what actually happened or just simply peer pressure or pressure from the top. The victim, Brittany Higgins, was reportedly too drunk to sign herself into the parliament building on the night of the alleged rape. The cancel culture may attack me for saying this but I have to ask why would a young lady get so drunk and follow a man to a building he had no right of access to? Was she so intoxicated that she couldn’t ask to be dropped off home instead by a friend? If so, why did she let herself get to that stupor? If one hops into a mud bath, should one be shocked to find oneself caked in mud after? If a girl allowed herself to be so drunk that she had no control of her senses, and plonked herself on a sofa in a room alone with a man she hardly knew, is it reasonable to expect the man not to be aroused and think of sex? Men are aroused almost every minute of the day! How is a man to curb his natural instincts by telling himself she isn’t ready for sex when the woman seemed willing and ready all night? Or convince himself whilst in an inebriated state that the woman who had spent the whole boozy night out with him that she didn’t want sex? Should he be judged criminally if he guessed wrongly about her intentions? Is a “No” given midway during sex a “No or maybe”? In retail a “change of mind” is no valid case for a refund, but what about a “change of mind” during sex when the act is a lot more intense, exciting or even frenzied? Isn’t that what they both sought from the effects of alcohol? To curb their inhibitions? The common explanation given by victims is that they were too drunk to give consent. What if the offenders were to use their state of drunkenness as an excuse – they were too drunk to know that consent was not given? Higgins has since accused the PM of “victim blaming”. It is wonderful that she came forward and “outed” her rapist – she said her inspiration came from Grace Tame, 2021 Australian of the Year, a sexual assault survivor and advocate. But, there is a big difference between advocating for victims who have been abused and blaming others for other reasons. Is it acceptable that a victim can keep it quiet for two years after declining the invitation by her boss, a cabinet minister, to lodge a police report at the time and instead, turns around and points her finger at others for not doing “enough” to support her? It isn’t so much as victim blaming but victim blaming others, I reckon. In Chinese parlance, I will say “fang pi” 放屁 or simply, go fart.

Talking about farts…. some of my friends engaged in a late night conversation earlier this week on the topic of farts. It isn’t a disgusting subject, to be truthful, since many of us suffer from a bloated tummy. Why do we have so much gas? It could be from the beans, nuts and wholemeal oats we eat, I suppose. Lately, I suspect it could be the lactose from milk. Maybe, it is simply the case that I should go to the toilet more often. It is common sense that the longer we leave the food waste inside our colon, the more pungent the gas will be.

I keep telling The Mrs we are eating too much raw vegetables – that’s where my farts come from.

When we were kids, we used to recite this hokkien poem loudly:

Ting tong tiang
Ting tong tiang

Who finished his meal and did a foul fart? Chui chui chiak par pang phooi chau hiam hiam
 Eat a dead chicken without cleaning its intestines
Chiak sie kay boh liam tor

Eat a rat’s tail without cleaning the dirt Chiak ngiau chu boey boh cheng toh

Run to the lane behind and take off your pants Chow ki arh boey lor thau kor

I am encouraged by the polymath, Benjamin Franklin, a founding father of the United States. He said we should fart proudly. But, how can we when we don’t know if it will be a silent one or loud one? How can we when we don’t ever know what will come out? Will it be that sweet lemony fragrance or the tropical mango one? Mine is usually of another tropical variety even though I haven’t been to Malaysia for two years. It is that dreaded rotting durian smell that still explodes from my system. Why, I cannot say since durian is something we hardly find here, and even if we did, it is so expensive we tend to just walk past the aisle in the shop. I reckon a fart is the one thing even the most powerful and feared president or dictator should be afraid of. They may dress themselves in a five-star general’s outfit or wear the most expensive Italian suit, but let out publicly one smelly fart that they couldn’t control its volume and it will be enough to bring anyone who pretends to be our superior down to our level or lower. I can say I am usually a considerate person and I try to do all my flatulence in the bathroom. But my problem is I find it hard to let them out whilst my body is in a vertical position. The ideal position for me is when I’m lying on my back. I guess what I am trying to say is that I tend to fart when I’m lying down in bed. It is quite exasperating for me to sit on the toilet seat and try my utmost to expel the gas from within before going to bed. It usually doesn’t work. It is frustratingly typical that when I give up after a big effort, the urge comes as soon as I lay flat next to The Mrs. The question I no longer ask myself is do I leave the bed and try again in the bathroom. No point, since I can’t do it sitting or standing in there. On the rare occasion that it did, the stench would stubbornly follow me back to my bed anyway. No amount of fanning it inside the bathroom would it be dissuaded from joining me in the main room. That is how clingy my farts are to me. So it seems every night The Mrs has to put up with the explosions that come soon after I tuck myself in. The most frequent question she asks me as soon as I join her in bed is “Did you just fart”?! You know me, I do not answer stupid questions. She should know it wasn’t her and since there are always just the two of us, why ask me if I did it. Her question simply did not need to be answered, right? If it is about the pungent gas, there is no need to guess.

Let every fart count as a peak of thunder for liberty. Let every fart remind the nation of how much it has let pass out of its control. It is a small gesture, but one that can be very effective – especially in a large crowd. So fart, and if you must, fart often. But always fart without apology. Fart for freedom, fart for liberty – and fart proudly.

-Benjamin Franklin (as related to me by Choon Chee)

A Bull In The Year Of The Ox

Huat Ah! Heng Ah! Ong Ah! These are words I haven’t uttered since I was growing up in Penang in the 70’s. These are Chinese New Year wishes in hokkien. Most cultures wish for happiness for the coming new year. So, it is common to wish one another Happy New Year. But, we Chinese first and foremost will wish one another prosperity. Gong Xi Fa Cai in mandarin, Keong Hee Huat Chye in hokkien, Gung Hei Fatt Choy in cantonese, Gung Xi Fa Jei in shanghainese. They all mean the same, congratulations on your prosperity. Huat Ah! Heng Ah! Ong Ah! is about wishing one another prosperity and red-hot success. ‘Gain more wealth’ is not about happiness, so please wish me Xin Nian Kuai Le (新年快乐) instead. When a sage or a monk talks about the search for happiness, they inevitably steer (pardon the pun) us in the direction of inner peace and contentment. Personally, I have done well and got through 2020 unscathed. The pandemic still rages on all over the world but here in Adelaide, life feels very much like pre-pandemic days – normal. We have been very lucky – no mask-wearing or social-distancing necessary. The year of the Ox starts from 12th February or 12022021, a palindrome. Not surprisingly, some of my Chinese friends trumpet that as an auspicious sign of a prosperous year ahead. Fair enough, may the gods grant us prosperity. We will ask for happiness later. Although I find it difficult to connect happiness with the ox. After all, what is an ox but an adult steer? A male calf becomes a steer after being castrated. Why are animals castrated unless you want them to be easily controlled? I wouldn’t be happy if I were castrated. I wouldn’t like to be easily controlled. If you had a choice, wouldn’t you prefer to be called a bull rather than an ox? Why do Westerners name this year the ox and not the bull? The punter celebrates when it is a bull sharemarket. We would not call any market an ox market unless we are selling oxen, perhaps. We describe our euphoric sentiments as bullish and ascribe masculine words such as stallion, stud or bull to our virile strong men. We do not connect happiness to a word that implies castration. Never an ox. You want a happy year, call it the Year of the Bull. Don’t call it the Year of the Ox. Or, follow the Chinese. Avoid gender-specific words. 牛 Gu in hokkien, Niu in mandarin.

Happiness has come to me early in the Year of the Bull. On the very first day, in fact. No, it isn’t inner peace I found. Neither is it from contentment. Don’t mind me, I am just being facetious. The sage is right, of course. We can’t be truly happy without inner peace and contentment. Those are the foundation slabs without which our temple of happiness cannot be built. I picked up my first violin at age 9. Br. Michael picked it for me. Br. Michael, always in his Lasallian white long robes, was my school music teacher and school orchestra conductor. The orange-red violin was a cheap mass-produced one from China. I suspected it was from a sweat-shop – it was still sweating from a badly coated varnish. But, he knew that was all I deserved. I suppose he could tell from my school shoes. You know the ones. They are white all-rubber shoes that weren’t as white as the white canvas shoes that the other boys wore. The ones that turned slightly yellowish over time. Or, maybe he noticed my school uniform. You know the ones. Two sizes bigger so they would last an extra few years. My socks were hand-me-downs from Pa, overly long and thick. They had to be folded multiple times and tightened with rubber bands around my ankles. Or, maybe he noticed the absent school tie – the one I couldn’t afford. I was never selected to be a class monitor or a school prefect. I didn’t know why then, but this is the excuse I have just told myself. No school tie, no worries, we won’t make you a somebody. You do not get picked to be a monitor, you get picked on by a monitor. My second violin arrived quickly, just a year later after I had proven to my parents I was serious about playing the violin. Wise parents – they knew not to fork out any more money until they were convinced it wasn’t just a fad that would vanish like the morning dew. Wiser parents – they let Big Sis buy it for me. Big Sis happened to have a friend’s mother who would be visiting from London. So she asked the friend, a violinist, to pick a “good one” from a violin shop in London. An opportunity not to be missed – a free delivery from London! Big Sis was thrilled by it. I was thrilled with it. It possessed the most important thing – volume. The one thing I thought would impress everybody, a BIG sound. I didn’t know about the importance of tonal qualities such as richness, depth, warmth, brightness, softness, brilliance, lyrical colours, etc, etc. I just wanted it to be powerful. A loud tone does not mean it has a carrying sound, but I didn’t plan to be a soloist who must be heard in the last rows of the concert hall. I was happy, I could not “out-play” my friends but I could drown them out with my power. I was very proud to own that violin. When First Son outgrew his 3/4 size violin, he inherited my pride and joy, a Matthias Rudemann. Please do not Google it. It will say there aren’t many great matches for your search – which is a lie. There is not a single result. It was a German-made, but the truth be told, the Germans are not known for their violin-making.

The great luthiers were Italians. The word “luthier” is originally French, from the word lute. Today, luthiers make stringed instruments that are bowed or plucked, e.g. violins, cellos, guitars. A great French luthier was Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. An outstanding 19th century luthier, he made over 3,000 instruments. Folks, if you have some spare cash to invest, this is the one I would recommend – a J.B. Vuillaume violin or cello. He is the real deal, yet somewhat still not priced out of the stratosphere. In October 2019, his 1845 cello, a copy of Duport Strad, sold for GBP 350,000. That price is just for a very good copy of a Strad. A real Strad is beyond my reach. Strad is of course short for Stradivari. His most famous violin, “The Messiah” was made in 1716. It is famous also for being hardly played. Its claim to fame is probably its price, a lofty USD 20 million a few years ago. Every layman would have heard of the name Strad – it would not be wrong to say Stradivari was the most famous of all. He came from Cremona, Italy. The other big names from the Cremona School during 17th-18th century are Amati, Guarneri and Bergonzi. The earlier great makers came from the Brescian School – names such as da Salo, Ruggieri and Maggini. The 18th century also produced two other important schools. One is known as the Milanese School which included famous makers such as Grancino, Testore and Landolfi, and the other is the Venetian School with big-name makers such as Montagnana, Guadagnini and Tononi.

This brings me to talk about my dream. I have long dreamt of owning a Strad. The closest I got was my 3-year subscription to The Strad, a monthly publication that covered anything and everyone concerning stringed instruments. I have measured my investment returns in real estate and share portfolios but they come well short against a hypothetical investment in a Stradivarius. The monetary return can be calculated but what is often missed is the pleasure of owning a piece of fine art. The joy of admiring beauty. The aesthetic beauty created by an artist or a master craftsman is to be marvelled at. The exquisite sounds that can emanate from it. It is a treasure that will continually give pleasure for generations to come. That is the true value. I have always had my heart set on a Stradivarius yet when the opportunity was presented to me last week, I chose another. What does that say about me? Fickle? Confused? Idiotic, perhaps. Someone who does not really know what (or who) he wants? Sorry, Stradivari. I suppose you have been so unattainable I want it to remain so. A son introduced me to the magnificent craftsmanship of another fine Italian maker. A modern-day master. His name is Paolo Vettori of Florence. This maker is as good as they come in terms of his woodworking and varnishing finesse, but he has one added advantage. He can still source the best “ancient” wood, even if it means acquiring them from used timber beams from old mansions. These days, no one can make a wild claim and get away with it. Dendrochronology is so advanced the experts can tell if instruments are made from the same log of wood. Tree rings with the dark and light areas tell us the age of the wood and also reveal the environmental conditions in which the tree lived – key factors that can determine the quality of the sound from the wood. When I saw Paolo Vettori’s copy of a Guarneri Del Gesù violin, I decided that is the one for me. I am finally realising a dream from a long time ago. A dream I saw in my mind whilst playing at the back row of an amateur orchestra in Penang next to Mr Yeoh, a bald-headed remisier during the day but a solo violinist in his dreams. Fondly known as “Kana-thau” or “Olive head”, Mr Yeoh owned a beautiful Italian violin that was so very precious to him that he slept with it wrapped under the satin sheets. But the sounds they made together were not so beautiful. His teacher should have corrected his wobbly vibrato. But hey, his passion for music and his obvious love for his instrument taught me a violin can be loved as tenderly as a woman, and great music is for all ages. Mr Yeoh, rest in peace and may your violin still be lovingly caressed in your arms in heaven.

No bull, but I am so very happy to know Paolo Vettori will be making me a copy of 1744 Guarneri Del Gesù ‘Ole Bull’. I hope she will turn out totally the way I have imagined her to be. I can’t wait to test her G-string or caress her slender neck with my left hand whilst running my fingers along it. The one thing I won’t do is tightly grip her throat. Her tone from her rounded F-holes will no doubt be alluring. The turns of her scroll flare outward when looking at her front or back, quite typical of a late Del Gesù. Her two-piece back will be revealing to all who want to take a peep and her arching, hopefully full and curvaceous, will flatten in the centre. She isn’t a cello, so although I can’t squeeze her between my legs, I can surely hold her comfortably between my chin and neck. Her body is surprisingly compact, measuring an ample 35.2cm but it is her sexy curves that will capture my attention. Those curves are accentuated by a slimmer upper bouts and more rounded lower bouts. Her C-bout ribs are said to be attractive, but I have never formed a penchant for ribs. I will need to practise my “finger exercises” to improve my fingering technique on her. Her purfling should be inlaid in a neatly formed channel, the white section is probably maple – wouldn’t that just make her purr? I have not considered getting a new bow yet. I’m still pleased with the stick I have. This is indeed a happy Year of the Bull! Heng Ah! Ong Ah!

My Matthias Rudemann violin