Up The Creek In Rust Creek

Blue Eyes tells us he is in Argentina this week. He and his Mrs travel the world a lot, visiting corners of faraway lands even my imagination can’t reach. The photos he shares are exotic, and I don’t mean just of women. From Panama to Lima, Penang to Danang, sometimes he’s even back from Edmonton for some badminton. A few days ago, he called us on Zoom to say he met a young female doctor at Iguazú Falls.

“She hails from Adelaide,” he said in a strong Canadian accent. It wasn’t quite the Eh-d-laiied that I am used to.

“You guys might know her,” he said, gesturing to Chip and the old man.

“Apparently, she’s finishing up her stint at the hospital. Took three weeks off and ‘lone-rangering’ in Argentina & Ecuador before she heads back to Adelaide.”

“A brave lady! Travelling alone!” Chip said.

“We’ve noticed a growing number of young women travelling solo…….. equipped with just their mobile phones,” Blue Eyes continued as he switched his eyes to look at the old man. The subject of his attention was brazenly using his finger as a spade, digging something out of his nose.

The old man returned his gaze with a simple shrug of his shoulders before pasting the sticky stuff onto a used envelope from the bin. The world that he thought he knew very well was no longer the same. He arrived in Adelaide in 1977. Back then, the front doors of houses were closed only to prevent blowflies from entering. Daw Park, the inner southern suburb, boasted dry and hot summer days and mild Mediterranean nights in winter. Absent of the mature gum trees found mainly in the eastern suburbs or the European deciduous varieties that drop their leaves in autumn up in the hills, the roads in Daw Park had no need for road sweepers. Aussies in those days had not yet learned to litter the streets or throw cigarette butts anywhere they liked. It was customary to see bronzed Aussie blokes in their Hard Yakka boots and checked flannel shirts holding onto their empty Farmers Union iced coffee cartons till they come across a roadside bin. Kids could go anywhere they like, whenever they fancy. The creaky rusty Hills hoist was their merry-go-round and the Victa was not just a lawn-mower but also their pretend truck. The ‘burbs were as safe as a doona in bed. Apart from the three Beaumont kids who went missing from Glenelg Beach in ’66 , the crime rate was virtually zilch.

“You could go to bed without worrying about locking your front door,” the old man said.

“Sometimes, I’d wake up to find my housemates had even forgotten to shut it, so careless were they,” he said.

Streets were quiet back then, even during peak hour traffic. For a very long time, Adelaide was known as the 20-minute city because almost anywhere was just twenty minutes from the city centre. Traffic jams were foreign to the commuters till much later, maybe after the end of the 20th century. Residents would wake up smelling the salt from sea breezes from the west or the fresh fragrance of eucalyptus from a nearby park. Exhaust fumes were as foreign as the sighting of Asian kids. Every Chinese boy was assumed to be a disciple of Bruce Lee’s. Curries were horrible if at all available in the restaurants.

“I don’t remember ever seeing an Indian kid in school,” the old man told me.

Adelaide was a Holden country, the king of the road was either a Kingswood or a HQ Monaro. South Aussies were parochial. The old man said it was probably because the Holden factory was in Elizabeth, a satellite city north of Adelaide, named after Queen Elizabeth II. The Falcon XY GTHO Phase III was also a brute of a car but it was made in Broadmeadows in Victoria, so had a lot less traction in Adelaide. The ‘Kick a Vic’ campaign began in earnest after the Vics canned the State of Origin series. The AFL is weighted heavily with Victorian clubs and little is known that Aussie Rules football was a South Australian invention, first played in 1840.

“For some strange reason, young women these days have no qualms about travelling alone, even to Woop Woop,” the old man told Blue Eyes.

“They have no fear,” Chip chipped in.

Single, smart and confident, young women feel they are in total control of their lives. Perhaps, they were brought up by their mothers whose mothers had fought for women’s rights in the 60s. Or, maybe they have learned not to do as their mums say but do as they did. These were women who burned their bras in the heyday, and smoked weed and peed in their pants. Freed by the pill and randy with LSD, they embraced the sexual revolution with gusto.

“One of my sisters often used that popular phrase ‘make love, not war’ but she probably didn’t know what making love meant, back in those days,” the old man said.

“We were not even in our teens yet,” he explained.

The old man has trouble understanding young people today. Maybe the theory of evolution is somewhat over-used to explain animal behaviour. We often attribute human characteristics to our inherited genes. DNA-based reasoning cannot explain why these young women of today do not appear to have any concerns for their personal safety. It is as if the world changed suddenly and these women no longer worry about ‘The laws of the jungle’ and presume that even for the very feminine ones amongst them, the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ is as applicable to them as to the tough and burly rogue they were likely to meet out there in the middle of some god-forsaken land. It is an accepted fact that evolution ensures that the best genes are passed on to the next generation thereby perpetuating the aggressive characteristics that will always select the option of war over peace to satisfy their greed and power or to force their hegemony over other nations. But, is it not also true that the genes that enable us to select self-preservation choices are also inherited rather than the DNA that encourage the indulgence of reckless adventures and taking undue risks?

The old man has two nieces whose mothers are often worried sick by them. One of them is a sister’s daughter and the other is a sister-in-law’s daughter. The English is quite imprecise, the word is ‘niece’ in both cases. Niece One, a medical doctor, loves deep-sea diving and has driven a motorhome all by herself from Woop Woop via Truro to Eh-d-laiied. In Truro, she stopped in front of a run-down cottage in the dead country town and asked a couple of blokes who were sprawled on their canvas outdoor folding chairs having beer on their front yard. The only green on the yard was a pile of empty Heineken cans, everything else was either brown or yellow and parched dry.

“Say, do you fellas know of any place I can rent for the night?” Niece One asked. She had gotten behind schedule, hungry and tired, so she decided to stop there to rest and maybe explore the next day.

“Sure, pretty girl. If you don’t mind the mess, you can have our place here for fifty bucks,” the bloke with buck teeth replied. His friend with a hairy back simply looked with mouth open.

Niece One said, “Thank you! You’re mighty kind. Can I have a look around first?”

The place was unliveable. It felt eerie as soon as she stepped into their kitchen. Haunted, she was sure. Her eyes did not miss the layers of dust everywhere, and the cobwebs!

This house must be crawling with spiders!

She turned on the tap, hoping to soothe her parched lips. But the brown water didn’t appeal to her.

“Hey guys, this place looks like it has not been lived in for awhile,” she said.

“How did you guess?” Hairy Back asked before the two of them broke into loud guffaws.

Luckily, Niece One made the correct decision. She thanked the guys and decided to resume her journey to Eh-d-laiied instead. Many days later, the old man told her she was incredibly lucky to be alive to tell the tale. That was the house where the Truro murderers lived in.

“Oh, uncle. You’re too imaginative,” Niece One said.

Niece Two had a similar adventure in Africa too. Still not yet hitting 30, the pretty and smart woman is also a medical doctor. What is it about these two medical doctors who know no fear? Maybe they have seen too many deaths and handled too much blood in their work. They do not seem to be fazed by anything or anyone. Niece Two loves to spend nights in the outback by herself. The idea of sleeping out there with nature, with only the light of the moon to guide her and the twinkling stars to entertain her, fascinates her. It is nigh impossible to invite her for a dinner on most weekends, as she would be out there in the sticks travelling solo in her Veedub Kombi.

The old man’s mum flashing the peace sign with a V in a VW. How appropriate!

She was in Africa a few years ago, working as a volunteer medical officer near a war-torn town in Ethiopia. Upon her arrival that night, she got a sim card so that she could call home to ally her parents’ concern for her safety. Her conversation with her mum began cheerfully enough in the brightly lit convenience store. As mother and daughter chatted and exchanged news, the daughter decided to make her way back to her room in the nearby hotel. Deep in conversation, Niece Two was unaware that the streets were poorly lit and emptying of people after dark. An easy measure of the wealth of a place can be ascertained by the distance between the street lights. “The closer they are, the richer the country is,” said an Indian taxi driver in Doha.

“Mum, there is a gang of youths right behind me,” said Niece Two.

“What should I do, mum?” she pleaded.

“Don’t run! They will outrun you,” her mother said, her voice broken with fear.

“Mum, I have to hang up now. They want to talk to me.”


Luckily, Niece Two returned home safely a few weeks later.

“Oh, all they wanted to do was talk. They were curious that I wasn’t afraid to be out in the dark by myself.”

Jeremy Griffith, the Australian biologist, in his book Freedom: The End of The Human Condition argues that the Genesis story of Adam and Eve was wrong. Humans are ‘born sinners’ from the moment those two disobeyed God and ate the apple in the garden of Eden. They were cooperative, selfless and loving until they took the ‘fruit’ from the ‘tree of knowledge’ and for that ‘sin’ they were cast out as bad and evil children of God. Here, he is arguing that instead of DNA-based natural selection, humans hereditary traits are nerve-based and from theis nerve-based conscious understanding system, we developed a conscience or inner ‘voice’. Our fully conscious mind began to thirst for knowledge and started to think for ourselves; this conflict between our natural instincts and conscious mind puts us in a dilemma and from the inclination to disobey, a defiance of instinct, our decision to manage our conscious mind, to learn and experiment, is met with criticism and self-doubt from our instinctive self, which we have to learn to live with; this is the path that led humans to retaliate against their inner voice, or ignore it, but the result is we humans become angry, egocentric and alienated or in other words, psychologically upset. Once we understand that we are not bad and evil simply because of our inclination for learning, we will have freed ourselves from the guilt of defying our natural instincts. Perhaps, it is this nerve-based consciousness that is driving the young women of today to pursue outside knowledge and experiences.

Coincidentally, I watched Rust Creek a few nights ago. It was about a college girl who, failed by her phone’s GPS, made a wrong turn on her way to a job interview. She ended up deep in the Kentucky forest, all alone facing her mortality when two hilly-billies tried to rape her and having failed, they tried to kill her. Those two could not organise a chook raffle in a country pub, so dumb they were that they would not be able to find a bum in a nudist colony. Hounded like a wounded prey, she was found unconscious by a cousin brother of the would-be rapists. He was a meth cook with a head on him like a toilet brush. Who should she trust? The meth cook or the sheriff or his deputy? In Rust Creek, she was up the creek without a paddle. But, don’t be fooled by her sweet girl-next-door looks – just when you think she couldn’t fight her way out of a paper bag, she would surprise you!

Don’t Panic, We Have Music

He imagined the defenestration of the Westfield Shopping Centre’s manager when he was at his wits’ end. The bastard with the smile of a funeral home director and the steel heart of an assassin had told the old man his tenancy offered a product mix that was most welcomed and promised there would be no risk of any forced relocation upon the expiry of the lease agreement. But, Electronics Boutique (EB) came to Australia and Specsavers arrived from the U.K. The American game store was the first to change the game here. When EB offered the Westfield manager close to double the rent, it was bye bye sayonara time for the old man. At a time of his life when he should have been contemplating early retirement – he had bragged to his mother he would be ‘gone fishing’ by 40 – he was in far more trouble than Ned Kelly. The Westfield manager was so dishonest the old man felt he could have stolen Jesus from the cross and then returned to nick the nails. He had no choice but to relocate his shop to the only vacancy he could afford, at the dead end of the mall where it was busier to count the minutes of the day than the number of people who walked past.

‘Relocate’ seemed an innocuous word but it meant weeks of hard labour and cost years’ of potential profit. A shop fit-out in a Westfield mall required the landlord’s approval and of course, the bastards working in the ivory tower for the Westfield clan would only approve the most expensive design and construct package to “enhance the image of your business” but the unspoken truth was to increase the capital value of the mall. That’s right, fool. You pay and we reap the capital gain. ‘Relocating’ to a tight schedule meant working many long days that sapped the energy from every sinew of his body without adding a single cent to the till. To meet incredibly tight deadlines, he forced himself to keep at it even after his staff had left at 5.30 to avoid penalty rates. He spent late nights with petulant ghosts that came out to roam the corridors after everyone had left. It wasn’t deathly quiet all the time of course. There was the distant whirring of a vacuum cleaner or floor polisher from presumably the night cleaner and occasionally the security guard would show his face and ask, “Is everything alright?” One of them was a nice chap, incredibly fair, of Cambodian descent. A short and much younger version of Keanu Reeves. Earlier that evening he had come in with a ‘bachelor’s handbag’ for the old man, what Aussies call a cooked chook from Coles.

“I got you this chook earlier but didn’t bring it in,” young Keanu said.

“I saw you were serving the ugly sheila, so I turned around and left,” he continued.

“My mate said she was so ugly even the tide at Bondi wouldn’t take her out,” he chuckled and looked pleased with his own joke.

The old man did not stop his work. He smiled and paid for the chook. “Thanks for that,” he said as he ripped a leg off the cold chicken.

Throughout the marathon hours, he and his team packed up a shop full of stock, stored them somewhere whilst the new shop was being refitted and then re-displayed them on new powder-coated shelves and glass cabinets. A shop fit-out used to cost as much as building a new house. It didn’t make sense until the shop-fitter whispered in his ear that the bulk of the money in his asking price represented kickbacks to the Trade Union and landlord. Reality hit hard in the next few years. The dead end of the mall remained dead despite the ‘you-beaut’ shop he spent hundreds of thousands on to ‘enhance the image of his business’.

Australia was supposed to be a good country, so good if you planted a feather, you’d grow a chook.

Close to losing everything, the old man was on the verge of throwing in the towel. The thought of losing his life savings was bad enough but the idea of losing their house as well made him choke. And then The Mrs started to play up. He had trouble swallowing suddenly as he told me the tale. She wasn’t playing up, of course. She just wasn’t coping. It began so well, from a half partnership in a run-down store in March 1987 to full ownership of a franchise system eight years’ later. The good times promised so much blue sky but the sky turned maniacal and spewed acid rain and torrential storms on them. They closed their last store, the group’s 16th, in 2011.

Gulp. I need to breathe! He screamed inside his head. His Mrs already had had multiple panic attacks – waking up in the middle of the night, seeing an aboriginal man entering their upstairs bedroom from the balcony had unleashed an eerie howl from her. She went to the doctor’s the next day complaining of a palpitating heart and a rather irregular heart-beat. “What did your doctor say?” the old man asked.

Good, good, keep doing your yoga and meditation, but if you need medication, here’s a script for Kalma to calm your nerves.

Not long after that episode, she was so sure she was dying in her bed she sat up using only her abdominal muscles honed from years of yoga crunches and heaved heavily. “Wake up, old man,” the poor old woman squeaked. Her once booming voice had turned into weak raspy squeaks, as if a witch’s wand had demanded that she no longer be heard. It was rare that she would wake him up for anything. The old man stirred from his sweet dream but knowing his somewhat wet dream won’t turn into reality, he fought to remain in the other realm. The real world won the battle and he was abruptly transported back to his bedroom.

As abruptly as being slapped on the thigh.

“There’s no aboriginal man,” he said, rubbing his eyes vigorously to shake away the black floaters. He slipped the dagger that he had instinctively grabbed from his bedside drawer back into its leather sheath. The dagger was a gift from some schoolmates from yonks ago. His Boy Scout days had not taught him the proper way of storing a sharp knife – leaving it in a sheath long-term meant the knife had aged and blemished in the trapped moisture even though it had not been used for any purpose.

“The Aboriginal man was last week,” The Mrs said.

“I am dying,” she squeaked.

“I can feel it. See, no pulse,” she said, lifting her hand for him to feel her pulse like he was a doctor.

Her last panic attack was a few years ago. It almost cost them their marriage because he said it would pass, like all typical panic attacks.

“You’re not a doctor!” she raised her voice but only its pitch and not the volume.

“You never care!”

“You’ve never cared!”

“You’re just so lazy!”

She bombarded him with unsubstantiated accusations. Unjustified. Unfair. Unreasonable. The old man told me, quietly and calmly days after the incident, well away from hearing distance when she was in their garden.

“Take me to the hospital!”

“Don’t just sit there, I’m dying!”

It was winter. The gully winds were angry, smashing the gum trees like wild banshees intent on bringing death to their doorstep as the pendulum clock chimed twice with its rich metallic sound. It was so freezing cold even the moon stayed away. Dark and sinister, the angry clouds swirled violently and threatened to strike with lightning. I am so tired, oh, just let me sleep.

“You’ll be right,” he assured her. “Just breathe deeply, yes, yes, deep breaths now.”

Why panic? We have music.

Feeling a bit stressed? Is it too hard to get up in the morning? Lost your reason to smile? Play Debussy’s Clair de Lune. Sometimes, it is melancholic but most times it gives me peace.

“I like Bach’s Air on the G String; it lifts me when I am down,” the old man said.

“Anything to do with G strings lifts you,” I replied.

The old man smirked and conveyed in silence my silliness.

“I know, I know. Bach’s music lifts me too, it’s incredibly spiritual,” I quickly said to placate him.

Music Should Be Listened To, Not Heard

Leonard Bernstein

“Humans need music – that I have no doubt,” the old man said. It is true we need music, for any occasion. Even in death. There is music even for funerals. Music in movies is especially powerful. It adds so much more dimension to the story-telling. There is music to describe every situation, every emotion, anything that we can imagine can be conveyed by music. It can be inspiring, scary, spiritual, sad, happy, soothing, dark or even sinister. Praising the Lord requires music too; there is never a church service without songs and hymns.

It is true. I saw the old man immediately after rehearsal with his local orchestra last Tuesday night. He is a changed man. Gone are his scowls, his angry eyes and smirks. The sullen man with the unwilling smile has become a distant memory. Well… for that moment in time anyway. In his place was a gleeful, convivial character who displayed a sweetness in his demeanour, a cheerful disposition and social inclination towards his colleagues. He was almost skipping merrily as he stepped out of the building. His niece who plays the cello felt just as elated as he. They both appeared ecstatic, as if they had smoked weed or something. Feeling high, he said to her, “I feel amazing! It’s such a great feeling of joy, so uplifting. What a thrill. I feel like I have been injected with happy hormones.”

That is what music does. It can calm the angry, transform sadness into happiness, transcend earthly desires, bring peace and extinguish darkness. Why panic?

A rare smile!

A Successful Succession

Where our heart is set, there our impediment lies

Epictetus, Discourses, 4.4.1

A friend today informed me of his grand plan to sell one of his last remaining investment properties so that he and his Mrs can pare down his daughter’s home loan and “in no time, she will be debt free,” he said proudly.

“You know, we could comfortably live off her instalment payments,” he said, assuming she would return her parents’ love with filial piety and monthly repayments.

“What do you think about that?” I asked the old man when he popped over this afternoon.

“It is an assumption that most of us make,” he replied.

He looked unsure of whether to elaborate further. I could tell from the way he pulled at his hair absent-mindedly. His train of thought was interspersed with frantic scratching of his bum. How indecent. Just because we are old friends does not excuse the crudity of his body language.

“Your friend should remember Epictetus’ warning. Our greed, desires and ambitions make us vulnerable. Expectations of windfall gains set us up for disappointments,” the old man said.

“Not only that, it sets us up to disappoint others too!” he added.

“Surely you are not saying my friend’s daughter will disappoint him?” I scowled as I spoke.

“I’m not saying that!” he protested and fidgeted his bum on the cane chair to relieve the itch that won’t go away.

“I’m not that unkind. I don’t know her,” he said; his voice calm and soft again.

I gave him full marks for that. The best way to defeat anger and combat one’s temper is delay. He delayed his response sufficiently to expunge any toxic sentiments in his mood and calmed his wayward behaviour enough before explaining himself. There was simply no need to adopt the modus operandi that attack is the best form of defence with me. He knows me well enough to know that he can always say something without being shredded to bits by vitriolic reactions from me, so I was pleasantly surprised that he paused and gave a measured reply. It is true. He doesn’t know her. She could very well be a well brought-up girl who will care for her ageing parents without complaints.

“But, there are degrees of ageing,” he said.

I know what he meant by that. I have seen his mother aged over the years. At first, gracefully for a long period of time, and gradually her wrinkles became more discernible followed by a slow gait but then suddenly, the decline in her physical and mental faculties became so obvious that her carers grasp for sanity to help them cope. These days the matriarch can’t even be happy with her coffee.

“You see what I mean? If you can’t be happy with your coffee, what can you be happy with?” he asked.

When the old man was a lot younger, he assumed it would be a piece of cake to take care of his ageing parents when they needed home care assistance. But, in truth, he was as useless as an ashtray on a motorbike. His dad was still as strong as a Mallee bull but when he broke his hip from a fall, he was too heavy for anyone to help at home. They sent him to a nursing home instead. He was a silly duffer who didn’t consider that ageing robs us of everything, slowly. The early phase of retirement was sweet, even with the minor strokes that his dad suffered. The slurring of speech and paralysis on one side of his body was brief, but the warnings were not ignored. His dad went on a 180 degree turn and overnight, he spurned the things he loved, ‘Mahatma Gandhi’ (brandy) and ciggies (cigarettes). Aussie men have funny code names for the things they enjoy but don’t want their spouses to know. Having a Gunga Din and doing a King Lear with Casablanca isn’t attending a play or a musical. He would be at the pub drinking gin and beer with a wanker. They even sound quite cultured when they tell you they are pensioners enjoying their piano. Don’t fall for it, a pensioner’s piano is a poker machine.

Slowly but surely, his dad’s physical condition declined and in his late eighties, diabetes robbed him of his left leg when gangrene set in beneath fresh bandages that the nursing home staff changed daily. At 91, he had pneumonia and passed away but not without being bed-bound for two years – the most dreaded fear he had. “Find a way to kill me if that happened to me,” he said to his son a couple of years earlier. Not without the sense of worthlessness when he could not even unbutton his shirt. Not without the loss of dignity that the physical inability to wipe his own bum meant. Not without the discomfort of losing the ability to swallow water during his final days. Not without the frustration from the disbelief in what he was saying about the noise coming from upstairs during the wee hours of the night. “There’s no upstairs here, Pa,” the old man repeated many times but they found out on the night their father died that in fact, there was a dis-used upstairs in that old nursing home run by the Greek Orthodox Church.

As he got older, people believed him less.

The old man’s mother is getting close to her centenary year of her birth. It is of course a day by day proposition when one gets to that age. ”Tomorrow may never come’ is a lot truer for her than for me,” I said. ‘The present is a present’ rings louder and clearer the older we get. Her dementia, although no longer a secret, still bugs some of her children. Everyone has been equipped with Dr Google’s notes about the stages of dementia and therefore should be adequately prepared mentally and emotionally to tackle the effects of her ravaged brain. She doesn’t play politics and she doesn’t know how to inhibit her prejudices anymore. Spending a day with her can feel as slow as a wet week. There is absolutely not a lot of activity she can engage in. Walking in the garden, admiring the roses, cuddling the chooks, feeding the goldfish are now all beyond her. The old man was aghast when a sibling questioned him why he was supporting their mother as she walked up the garden path to her front door.

“Let her be independent,” she said.

“I still let her make her own breakfast.”

“You don’t want her to feel worthless,” she advised.

You’re as thick as two planks of wood!

The old man screamed in his mind.

“Somehow, she can’t register in her thick skull that Ma has had too many falls already,” he confided to me.

Landing badly will mean the end of her.

“This sister of mine – she is as silly as drinking tea with her fork,” the old man said.

Her IQ is the size of her shoe. He muttered under his breath.

“Pa didn’t have a succession plan, so Ma won’t have one either,” he answered, having read my mind.

His father had a robust business and a share of a company that owned rubber plantations in West Malaysia. None of his children were interested in taking over the reins of the family business. So, a succession plan was not required; parts of the business were given away, other parts simply ended quietly. The shares in the rubber plantations were sold off cheaply.

“I never thought to ask him how he felt,” the old man said.

Disappointment, I bet, to have forgone all that financial reward that he would have dreamt of enjoying during his retirement. The golden nest egg that the vast acreages of land from the rubber estates represented was not his to behold since they were sold many years later at premium prices to developers.

We learn more from our failures than from our successes. But when it comes to our succession plans, there is no room for error. There is no second chance should we get it wrong. The old man’s eldest son had asked him a few times to watch the miniseries ‘Succession’.

“It’s interesting, Pa,” the son said. “It will make you think.”

He proved to be prescient. The old man has not stopped thinking about it all week.

Anyone considering retirement should watch it, if they have not been observing the British royal family’s stories. Even with them, it can get awry despite the clear delineation of duties and well established rules of succession – the pecking order to the throne is determined by progeny, gender, legitimacy and religion.

“It is kind of numbing to think that kids could undermine their parents’ intentions about who to pass their wealth to or who should control their business when they retire,” he said.

The old man holds the reins to his business tightly, small it may be, for that is all he has left. Contrary to popular advice, he had already given away the majority of his life savings to his children many years ago.

“You’re foolish,” his mother had said. She had all her marbles intact then.

“But, I believed it was the right time to do so, when they still needed my help,” the old man said to me.


What’s the point of giving them later in life when they no longer need your help?

I remained quiet and encouraged him to talk.

“Here, have some water. Your lips are as dry as a dead dingo’s donger,” I said.

He winced as he took a sip. The ice water stung his parched lips. His dog barked softly at him, asking that he hurry up and kick the partly chewed tennis ball back to him.

“Your dog is so demanding,” I said.

“He’s not ordering me. He’s asking nicely.”

“Murray thinks he is human,” The Mrs said the previous night, as he slept side by side with her husband on the mattress by their bed.

“No, he is better,” the old man replied.

Murray is smart too. He knows how to please the old man. Last night, the old couple came home late after a night out with some friends. Any time after ten at night is considered late for them. That’s what ageing means, by the way. The welcome Murray gave the old man would have melted any heart made of iron. It was so enthusiastic that he lost control of his bladder.

“You know it’s true passion when a male loses control of his dong,” the old man said.

Murray, sharing a pillow with the old man

“All we have left is what you see,” the old man finally continued.

“So, I must have a succession plan for my business.”

“Unless history repeats, and none of your children want anything to do with running your business,” I advised.

“Then, I’ll just give it all to my dog,” he said.

The old man realises he doesn’t need a succession plan for his three sons. There isn’t a lot left for him to pass on to them – maybe their old house, some fake antiques, a nice painting or two he had collected along his journeys and his pet fish. The coins in his pocket won’t amount to much, he confided.

“But, what I can leave behind is this one final advice to them. Find your ikigai – the reason you want to get up in the morning. It will give you a purpose to not just live but thrive. Your outlook on life will change – you will know what is important to you and what is folly. You will be happier, more collected, wiser, and live healthier and longer.

“Now that I am about to retire, I will change my ikigai and find new reasons to wake up in the morning,” he said with a hint of a resigned breath.

“Did you just sigh?” I asked.

He looked blankly into the distance, petting his dog’s head absent-mindedly.

Sigh. Why is my retirement as slow as the Second Coming?

Be Regal, Find The Marsh Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s just our yabbies,” he said.

“Sure?” I asked. Yabbies don’t sing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was only silence from him.

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

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

Don’t Be Harsh, It’s A Marsh

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

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

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

This is Wu Yong’s story.

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

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

“The bunkers were still around when I was growing up, but at the time, I thought they were just strange looking homes for the homeless,” Wu Yong said.

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

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

One afternoon, the scraggly old man did the unthinkable and stepped inside the laundry shop. Wu Yong was reciting some Mandarin words from a text book for beginners to his mother when he smelled a terrible odour. The mad man’s stench preceded his voice and by the time Wu Yong heard his raspy iteration about something he could not fathom, the boy panicked and fell off his chair. The following day, a white van arrived and two men took the poor Indian man away. He didn’t protest; he didn’t struggle. It was the last time Wu Yong saw him.

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

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

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

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

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

Wu Yong’s mother said there was a lotus pond in front of Cheong Fatt Tze mansion, so she wasn’t at all surprised that the area was called Lotus River. Wu Yong told me it is believable that there was a stream back then. The field between his parents’ house and SXI was so often flooded they could catch tadpoles just about any time they wanted. For Feng Shui reasons, a river is far more auspicious than a stream, so Lotus River, it became! That massive house with a massive garden was out of bounds for young Wu Yong. It was just on the other side of the field in a south-westerly direction. From their rooftop balcony, the boy used to look across into the vast compound and wondered how it was possible for someone to be so wealthy. A huge chiku tree at the edge of the property provided some privacy for the residents from the prying eyes of the boy. The tree provided Wu Yong with free chiku fruit too.

On lucky days, he would find some nice big ones on the ground, kindly blown down by the sea breeze. His mother taught him to store them in their rice urn to make them ripen quicker. The field was the best playground for the kids. Flat enough to run around playing chasey in the dry season and interesting enough to explore it after the rains leave. It did not need a good soaking before it turned swampy. A muddy field with fast disappearing paths was an insurmountable challenge for the kids wearing their compulsory white school shoes to school. Puddles and little streams were ideal homes for tadpoles and little fish. The sounds of crickets, frogs and cats on heat made a cacophony of sounds that caused sleepless nights for the boy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bait For A Debate

Sex. It is always the best bait for a debate. Bring up sex and their attention perks up. They will drop what they are doing and drop their pants if there’s a chance for sex, I imagine. It’s so easy to get the guys talking or more accurately, bragging about their sexual prowess. When it is quiet and no one has anything interesting to contribute, just mention ‘sex’ and the whole room is alive once more. Numerous debates ensued whenever the old man brought up the subject about sex. Who has a long dong – the longest dong? My next blog should be titled The Three-hour Bong with the Long Dong. Bet the readership will skyrocket!

It is just, oh, so predictable. Boys will be boys but old men? Why, they still think they are young boys. Why do old men still get excited when the discussion is about sex? Maybe they are still horny despite their physical limitations. Or, maybe they are simply reminiscing about their youth. Just let go, guys; it’s something we can’t control. It’s as certain as day follows night and as inevitable as having that “gotta go” feeling which comes with our ageing bladder. Always, the old man will be bombarded with a litany of responses and without fail, the matter of their first love will crop up.

Sex? It ought not be about sex. Now, if you think of it as making love…aaaahhh.

Love is a many-splendored thing!

Why is our first love so unforgettable for so many? Was it during an age of innocence or was it the idealism about falling in love for the first time? Was it the first-time emotion that can’t be forgotten rather than the person? Feelings…nothing more than feelings.

Feelings may not be positive, of course. Maybe for some, their first love meant a disastrous guilt trip or a sense of abandonment for the first time – an innocence lost – that could never be forgotten or a betrayal of trust that could not be forgiven – especially if one’s virginity was sacrificed (or gifted) for that love?

Rolling down on my face…
Trying to forget my feelings of love.

Sex is way overrated. He did too many three-hour sessions… maybe you haven’t experienced it and that’s why you’re still intrigued.

Three hours? It took him three hours to convince the partner to agree to do it!

Three hours? Prostrate (sic) problems? A blockage?

Three hours? He kept looking at his watch?

Three hours? Did he have to make coffee mid-way to keep himself awake?

“His trigger got jammed,” said another.

Wo-wo-wo feelings
Woe-woe-woe feelings
Again in my arms….

Why hold a woman when you want your fingers to be free?

I worry for him sometimes. First it was his unverified long dong, now it’s his imaginary three hour sessions! Sigh.

Hah, he has gone quiet. Perhaps he can’t find his three-hour recording; such a long session needed several C-60 cassette tapes.

See what I mean? Bring up sex and they can’t stop talking. Bring up sex and they will think of love. Think of love and some will think of their first love.

For all my life I’ll feel it
I wish I’ve never met you, girl
You’ll never come again

Some are happily married, of course. Those are the lucky ones. The old man is one such lucky guy too. Come next month, he and His Mrs will be married for 42 years. “Lucky?” he asked. He said it has nothing to do with luck. But of course, he is wrong. Love needs luck, unless you believe in the son of Venus. Cupid, whose playful habit of shooting arrows at innocent hearts, continues to be responsible for bad match-making. Today’s rate of divorce only excites lawyers.

“Sure, you need luck to meet the right person,” I said.

“You’re dead meat if you marry the wrong person!”

Can you imagine the lonely nights by yourself? You’re downstairs bogged down with regrets whilst she is upstairs, oblivious of your sorrow. It isn’t just the long flight of stairs that physically separates you from her, but also the stifling chasm between two strong minds that won’t connect due to their utter incompatibility in logic and jarring philosophical mismatch. Where once they were all over each other like a rash, they are now planets apart like earth and the dark side of the moon, both facing the same direction but never seeing each other. Like a broken synapse, there will be no direct communication and understanding between them, even if they tried their darnedest. Yet, like the moon and earth, they are good together. Earth benefits from the moon in terms of time, weather, tides and migration cycles of some animals. Shielding earth from strong solar winds, its magnetic field helps make it a more liveable place. Tides helped with evolution, apparently, as early forms of life were able to migrate to land. The moon’s gravity slows down earth’s rotation, turning our time into 24 hours a day. Yeah, earth is better off with the moon.

In spite of their many differences, they are good together.

I stole a quick glance at the old man. He was day-dreaming at his desk, not looking at the two big computer screens in front of him. Realising I was looking in his direction, he promptly straightened his back and busied himself at the keyboard. “Don’t disturb me please. I’m flat out like a lizard drinking,” he said. Such a weakling, I thought. People who pretend to work hard when they are being observed aren’t honest with themselves. I simply walked away. Thinking I had switched my attention elsewhere, he helped himself to a cracker biscuit and wiped his oily hands on his cardigan. I wasn’t quite sure which was stranger, to see a grown man wiping his dirty paws on his clothes or him wearing a thick cardigan in the middle of summer. A frigid winter in the US and Europe and a cold Adelaide in the middle of summer.

“Global warming my arse,” he said.

The old man said love and marriage are two different things. Love may lead to marriages but marriages often break up. Couples from arranged marriages sometimes end up in love. His parents who were match-made had a rocky marriage of sixty seven years till death parted them. Love is the enabler for a marriage but not the glue. The glue requires composites such as respect and trust. Love is just a feeling and feelings do not often last. Lasting marriages need commitment and compromise. It is shared experiences and true friendship that will continue to bond a couple even if the other ingredients have waned. The old man still looks up to his old man for his staying power and by that, he didn’t mean his dad’s sexual prowess, although they did produce eight children and four miscarriages in quick succession. His old man was born poor, in Shaoxing, China. Penniless, he arrived in Penang like many of his peers, literally with a shirt on his back and not much else. “From such dire beginnings, he scrubbed up quite well,” he said about his old man. He struggled for yonks but he got lucky. He met the woman who was destined to be his wife – in case you’re confused, she is the old man’s mother. No doubt, the woman had a suspicious mind – forever accusing her hubby of this and that, complaining a laoban should work in the business – she did not understand he was working on the business – and many a time made him as mad as a box of frogs with her tirades about missing money in the till. He was not the type to whinge about his bad luck though, not that he ever said marrying her was bad luck – he would not cry even if a shark bit him.

“That’s the power of love?” I asked.

Feelings like I’ve never lost you
And feelings like I’ve never have you
Again in my life…..

The old man’s mother had a suspicious mind. Fast approaching the centenary of her birth, her brain is starting to exhibit signs of dementia. A suspicious mind mixed with dementia is a cocktail of immense tragedy for her ageing children. None of them seem to be able to accept that their once loving and caring mother can turn into a delusional and toxic mess. She can’t help it anymore, dementia has seen to that. The sane ones will know not to engage and avoid the hurt from her comments. The less stoic ones will be forever hurt and cannot accept the ridiculous accusations. “I hope you’ll have the sense to deflect or walk away when that happens,” I said. My unsolicited advice produced a deep furrow on his forehead and not much else. Maybe there was a soft ‘grrrr’ but that could have been from his dog. There is a noticeable increase in paranoia and more frequent episodes of her things going missing – not because they had grown legs or somebody had stolen them but due to the more mundane but equally stressful sudden memory loss.

We made her our matriarch. Treated her like one with our filial piety. We allowed her that unwarranted sense of entitlement. No use regretting it now! And we sure can’t blame her for being self absorbed and believing she did everything right for us. She surely tried her best to be a good mother and that’s more than good enough. Poverty deprived her of basic education, yet she fought for us; made sure we all went overseas to further our education. We are forever thankful for our education, without which we would still be plebs toiling for a master and not knowing what freedom is. Lest I forget, she was always there for me, except for a few years in my mid-teens when the mahjong bug got to her. Reverent, strong, steadfast and thrifty, we never went a day without a meal even though we were a big family of eight hungry mouths.

The matriarch and her ladies-in-waiting

Sex. The bait for a debate about sex, gender and the trans. People are so woke these days; we can get cancelled for mentioning words like ‘mother’ and referring to someone as a ‘she’. It used to be so simple but today, we are told sex is no longer binary. I woke up one day recently and discovered a large segment of society sees sex is not just male or female; someone can feel they are both or different! I get it. We should not be marked by our sex organs. Happiness for the transgender. Happiness for the creepy too for the male voyeur can simply claim to be a woman and enter women’s spaces such as public toilets. It is amazing to see how the minorities have the power to dictate this debate. It won’t be long before we see all-gender bathrooms in public places. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe the transgender are no longer the minority. Does erasing sex as a legal category reduce gender-based bias and inequality in our society? I don’t think so. Women have always had power. Women can be strong as men can be weak. It is not about our gender; it is about our will and spirit.

For me, a woman is someone who has ovaries and a man is someone who can’t be pregnant with a child. History is written by victors, it is said. Yet, women have always featured prominently, even at one of the earliest moments in human history. I used to believe the Chinese had the earliest written texts, you know, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, The Analects and The Doctrine of the Mean by Confucius. But no! Our earliest writings were by a woman. Enheduanna was the first known writer in all of human history, around 2300 BC. She was the daughter of Sargon who conquered the cities of Sumer, believed to be the oldest civilisation in this world. Installed by her father as High Priestess at the Temple of Nanna, her writings were a thousand years earlier than Genesis, assuming it was Moses who wrote it and fifteen hundred years before Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were written. Much of her early works were about Inanna, the goddess of love, fertility and war to the Akkadians, Assyrians and Babylonians. The religious mythology of these races had a significant influence on the Old Testament, e.g. the story of Noah’s Ark and the flood reflected the many older flood myths of Mesopotamia. Enheduanna, a woman who should be much revered at least in literary circles is hardly remembered today. But, women are well represented; we have great writers in recent history, powerful women such as Jane Austen, Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, J.K. Rowling, and many others.

To rule men – usually the stronger of the sexes physically- women had to be stronger in mind and spirit; they had to be strongest in their resolve, discipline, tenacity and the brains to outfox the schemers. China had Wu Zetian, the only female emperor and Hua Mulan, made famous recently by the eponymous movie and Empress Dowager Cixi who held power for 47 years. Previously a male god, Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. changed into a female form so that she could be more revered. The British Empire had Queen Elizabeth II, a figurehead who didn’t wield real power yet held the fallen empire’s 57 colonies and territories mostly together as a commonwealth. A woman highly respected for her charity work, Elizabeth II was the longest-serving monarch in British history. Any monarch who reigned over a country for 70 years without losing their head deserves admiration. Power to that woman indeed, soft power that it was. In the Bible, we have the Virgin Mary to shock us in awe of her magical powers. Humans need miracles and what better miracle than for a woman to give birth to a child without ever having sex. Could the authors of the Bible have been woke? We don’t need your sperm! I was intrigued to read more about her powers. But, I was disappointed. A thick book, the Bible does not say a lot about the mother of Jesus. She is mentioned on only three other occasions – at the wedding where her son turns water into wine – a deed I would have been severely punished by my dad, had I surreptitiously substituted whisky for Chinese tea; at a sermon when she attempts to see her son; and of course, she is there at his foot when he was in great pain and despair.

Earlier this week, the old man and His Mrs watched Tar, a movie about a composer/conductor of the Berlin Phil, one of the oldest orchestras in the world and perhaps the most acclaimed. Cate Blanchett deserves all the accolades she gets. What a fine female actor she is! It is amazing that her small country can produce such female giants in the film industry – the other is Nicole Kidman. The old man thoroughly enjoyed the story which allowed a viewer a rare glimpse into the world of classical music and an insight into the workings of a professional orchestra. The story of the lead character in the movie, Lydia Tar, is about a distinguished woman conductor in the male-dominated world of orchestral conducting. Currently in the US, there are no women chief conductors among the top 25 orchestras. What does it take to be a maestro? You need to be a musical genius, a strong personality with faultless time-keeping and inspirational zest. One who needs to be powerful and strong on the podium to gel everyone together and convince them of the musical vision and hopefully realise that goal together – a challenging task in a top orchestra that is populated by the best players who have their own egos and musical interpretations. None of those attributes are the domain of men, so will the next woman maestro stand up please?

Done. They Are From South Sudan

The early morning promised the whole day would be a scorcher. It was not quite half past seven yet but the old man could already feel the sting of the golden rays from the clear blue sky. The gully winds failed to turn up in the night, leaving the old man certain of one thing that laid ahead; a tortuous day with no reprieve from the blazing sun.

He was thankful he didn’t make any rash promises to his absent neighbours about fixing the ongoing weed problems in their garden. Although he felt capable of surmounting the challenge himself, he had second thoughts that his nebulous idea to pour concrete over the weeds would stop them from spreading on the strip of land once and for all. The useless land sat some three feet above the garden on top of the retaining wall that bordered the neighbour’s property on the higher side and a bank of rainwater tanks on the lower side. Pred, their back neighbour, who owned a professional garden landscaping business said they didn’t have the resources to help. A Sri Lankan who arrived in Adelaide just a few years earlier, Pred was already adept at being vague when he had to be. Sounding more and more ocker, his Aussie drawl must have been acquired by many a visit to the local pub in Norwood, just a stone’s throw away. Instead of saying the task was too challenging even for his company, he merely promised to get a contact number of someone from another business that could help.

“You’ll be right, mate. I’ll getcha the blouck’s number,” he said. Aussies don’t say bloke, they say blouck.

With a heavily cropped haircut mostly covered by a red baseball cap and a set of pearly white teeth that wouldn’t be hidden behind smiling brown thick lips, I could tell the dark-skinned man was at least three decades younger than the old man. The old man’s Mrs adored Pred’s five-year-old son. Danny was no ordinary boy, even at his age. Chirpy and bright, the boy was often seen leaning over the back fence looking at his neighbour’s activities.

“Why do you always come out in your pyjamas?” the nosy parker asked The Mrs.

“Hello! What’s your name?” she asked.

“My name is Danny! D A N N Y,” he replied.

Not knowing what shyness was, he introduced himself to The Mrs. “We are your new neighbours,” he said.

“I’m going to school this year,” he said in his loud chirpy voice. His big round eyes lit up with excitement as he began to imagine what life in school would be like.

“I’ll have lots of friends… we will play cricket and basketball everyday!”

“Did you have a good Christmas?” The Mrs asked.

“Yes. I got three presents.”

“Did you like your presents?”

“No. I wanted a truck but dad gave me a puzzle instead.”

“Oh, you’ll have to pray harder next time, ok?”

“I will. I have already started!” the little boy exclaimed before quickly asking The Mrs if she would like to meet his grandma.

“Sure, I would like that,” she said.

“Grandma, grandma!” his young voice sounded with urgency over the fence, loud and sharp. It then trailed off into a string of foreign words that the old woman did not understand.

“Hello there,” his grandma said, as her face appeared from below the fence. “Danny tells me you want to see me.”

“Yes, he wanted to introduce his family to me,” The Mrs replied. One by one, their heads popped up from their side of the fence and that was how they all met The Mrs. In her pyjamas.

Danny, his grandma and Hunter, a male Rhodesian Ridgeback. Hunter’s forebears are great lion hunters.

A few weeks passed but Pred did not give the old man the blouck’s number. But, just when the old man had given up on another empty promise, he stopped combing through his contact list on his phone for gardeners and landscapers when he heard Pred’s voice shouting from the back.

“Hellooo. Hellooo there. Anyone home?”

The old man could see Pred’s head over the fence as he stepped out of his house. From that distance, the only thing really stood out was Pred’s set of white teeth. The old man’s vision had always been poor. Bespectacled since his teens, he never did any ‘rough’ sports like jiu-jitsu or basketball. Although the epiretinal membrane on his left eye had not deteriorated, the news from Professor Weng Chan was not good. The old man’s visit to the Pennington Eye Clinic a few days ago was a downer for him since.

“Your cataracts are more obvious,” the professor said.

“But it’s not urgent. We can do that any time.” He smiled to reassure the old man and wished him Happy Chinese New Year.

Gong Xi Fa Cai,” the old man replied. His new year’s greetings did not address the concepts of happiness and good health. Typically Asian, it was all about congratulating someone for their prosperity.

The casualness in the professor’s voice was reassuring. No need to worry. The old man beamed a fake smile to hide his anxiety. He admired his eye doctor; how intelligent one must be to be a professor at such a young age. Efficient and effective, he did not dilly-dally and make small talk. The celerity of his actions showed him to be very distinguished and successful.

Another loss for Malaysia. The old man lamented quietly at the brain drain his motherland continued to suffer due to the ugly politics of racial discrimination and religious fanaticism. Whenever the ruling class favours nepotism and corruption on a grand scale, the fabric of society will surely decay over time. Those who are fortunate enough to leave will leave or at least have everything in place for a quick exit strategy. A friend recently posted a Youtube video by James Jani who espoused his blinkers-on opinion about Crypto (including Bitcoin) being the world’s greatest scam. “Bitcoin is a ponzi,” he said.

“No, fiat money is a ponzi scheme,” the old man replied, adding spite in his tone to show the level of his annoyance at online influencers who promote fake news through wilful intent or gross ignorance.

James Jani is a white Englishman who doesn’t understand how desperate people in other less fortunate countries are; they are the unbanked, without banking facilities, or without affordable banking facilities. If his country’s currency were to debase at 75-99% per annum, such as Lebanon’s, Venezuela’s or Argentina’s, would he say those fiat currencies are ponzi? What would he do then? And if his country were to be at war and his countrymen had to flee as refugees, what savings and assets would he take with him? What could he take with him that would not be easily seized from him?

“G’day, Pred,” the old man greeted his neighbour, teleporting himself back to the present.

“How ya goin’?” the new Aussie replied with his new drawl.

“I found ya some bloucks, as I said I would,” he said.

“If ya like, they can start right away.”

Half an hour later, Deng was at the gates. Deng came with two other mates. A big and tall bloke, he had a very Chinese sounding name but he was all black. African black, to be precise. I immediately thought of Deng Xiaoping, China’s one time great leader who opened up the country’s economy to the global market. The speed of modernisation and technological innovation in a single generation had led to the rise of another superpower. The Deng in front of the old man was no Chinese though. The size of his thick neck showed how strong he was.

“How did you guys flee your country?” the old man asked.

“With difficulty!” Deng replied.

“I hope you didn’t lose everything,” I said.

“We lost a lot, but luckily we got some Bitcoin just in time.”

James Jani, where are you? I thought to myself as I drifted to the metaverse.

“I can show you how to fight off a lion,” Deng told the old man.

His speed and agility surprised the old man. In a blink of an eye, he was crouched low, as if ready to strike with his spear. There was no spear in his hand, of course, just an imaginary one.

“See the pointy end of the spear?” he asked.

“Lions are afraid of the sharp point,” he explained.

“They won’t attack you if you aim at their eyes.”

“The lion will scrape the ground with its paws vigorously and create a dust cloud to make itself invisible. Be careful, this is not the time to run!” Deng continued teaching the old man.

“If you turn your back and run, you’re dead,” he warned.

“What should I do then?” the old man asked.

“Keep waving your spear sideways; make sure the lion knows you’re ready to strike.”

Simple advice. Just appear to be strong and brave.

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”  

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Deng and his two cohorts did not just appear to be strong and brave. They were strong and brave! In the four hours that they braved the searing summer heat, they transformed the strip of thick overgrown bushes and weeds into a barren path of pebbles. No weeds anymore!

Deng, compacting the soil with dolomite gravel.
Before and after, four hours apart.

They arrived from South Sudan three years ago. I remember reading about their misery and the bloody massacres with guns and machetes and that young kids were kidnapped at gun point after their parents were murdered; how the girls were forced into prostitution or taken as ‘wives’; how little boys were made into child soldiers and brainwashed into fighting their own people. Many were victims of ritualised killings for the pleasure of the rebels. I hadn’t heard of Juba, their capital or bothered to look at the map to find where the country was located in Africa. I read with sadness about their wretched lives and their constant fear of being attacked and tortured, and how women had their lips cut off if they did not obey their cruel ‘husbands’ and the agony and horror of forced female genital mutilation without anaesthesia. No knife? Never mind, they used scissors, glass, sharpened rocks, and fingernails even.

“Why do they practise FGM?” I asked the old man. “Is it a religious requirement?”

“Those parts are said to be unclean; girls should be clean,” Deng said as the old man looked at him with mouth agape.

Coincidentally, the old man watched the movie ‘Machine Gun Preacher’ that night. He picked it not because he had read the movie’s plot but simply chose it because he saw the main actor was Gerard Butler. Movies starring Butler, Liam Neeson, Jason Statham and Keanu Reeves always got his nod.

“Why, I asked?”

I need not have asked. I knew him well enough to know he was a sucker for action-packed movies.

It wasn’t until the end of the movie that the old man discovered it was based on a true story about a violent ex-con who turned to God when he was at the most dire moment of his life. Sam Childers found God and almost immediately his life miraculously turned wonderfully good after a hurricane demolished his town. The destruction in and around his neighbourhood led him to start a business as a builder/roofer. Business boomed and soon God was calling on him to build a church for everyone, not just for the good people but for the bad ones too. As if that was not enough to satisfy God’s plan for him, he flew to Africa to save the young kids of South Sudan. He sacrificed all he had, including selling his business when he could not raise any more money to build and run an orphanage in Nimule. Sam and his wife Lynn founded and still operate Angels of East Africa today.

If your child or your family member was abducted, and if I said to you I could bring your child home, does it matter how I bring them home?

Sam Childers

Agape About Agape

The old man listened, mouth agape with cynicism as he listened to a friend’s story about unconditional love. It felt far-fetched to him that there can be agape love in this world. There are biblical examples of this highest form of love, of course, but he thought they were just stories told in faraway lands over two thousand years ago. Even God has shown His love can be conditional, he thought to himself as the friend’s euphonious voice got increasingly higher-pitched and his busy hands gesticulated wildly. He learned at age seven in catechism class that there were sticks and carrots involved in religion. If he wanted to avoid purgatory in hell, he had to obey God and be a good boy. The young boy understood even then that it was quite the norm in life for people in authority to adopt the carrot and stick methodology to induce proper behaviour. In his Malay class, the ‘stick’ the teacher resorted to was pulling and twisting his students’ nipples to demand full attention during his lessons. An example of a ‘carrot’ was his brother offering kopilui to the local policeman when he was caught cycling with a faulty dynamo after sunset. Everyone in their community referred to a bribe as kopilui, in broken Malay for kopi duit (coffee money). It was in adulthood that the young boy discovered kopilui was also payable to reduce one’s sentence in purgatory through “indulgences” paid to the Catholic Church prior to the Reformation wars. The catechism class teacher taught the young boy in Std 1 that God’s carrot for everyone was a promised trip to heaven after death. Paradise forever. Perfect days for eternity – no surprises, no shocks, no disappointments, no stormy weather, no calamity, nothing interesting to write home about except maybe the wonderful candy stores that sprout out magically in every corner handing out heavenly sweet lollies, all free of charge for the residents in heaven. Every day would be perfect, perfectly calm, perfectly the same and therefore predictable. Boring, the young boy said to himself. But, if he were to do bad things, his sins would be known to the all-knowing God and oh-my-god, you would pee in your pants if the wrath of almighty God descended on you. God carried a big stick. The teacher had already told the boy he was born a sinner in an earlier class. All he had to do to save himself from hell was believe and trust God. “Confess your sins,” the teacher said. The young boy said it was a silly thing to do, to confess to the priest what God already knew. Why tell someone so that that someone can tell God what he already knew? “God’s love is unconditional. He had already sent his Son to die for our sins,” the teacher continued. So either way, the young boy felt everyone would be saved. Otherwise, Jesus would have died for nothing and that wouldn’t be right. The all-knowing God would not, could not make such a silly mistake. Gotta trust God, He wouldn’t dangle a carrot and not give it to me. It was logical to believe that God, although known to be vengeful and wrathful and often raged against his enemies, would ultimately show compassion and demonstrate his capacity to love us, his children, unconditionally. Good or bad, kind or evil, filial or disobedient, sorry or not, happy or sad, we will have our carrot, unconditionally. That is agape love. No wonder the old man looked at me, mouth agape.

Apparently, agape love is not promoted only in Christianity. A Greek word, agape is the purest form of love, sacrificial and willingly given without any expectations and it wouldn’t be withheld under any conditions. The love of God for man is said to be agape. The boy’s teacher said so. “God won’t punish us because Jesus already took that punishment.” How unfair, the young boy said to himself at the time. It was just the night before when his mother sent him to bed hungry for a misdeed that was done by a friend who lived next door. Why did ma punish me, I’m the innocent one? He remembered asking God as his tummy complained loudly. The other religions talked about unconditional love too, although “bhakti” in Hinduism, the world’s oldest religion by far, is more concerned about unconditional devotion of a devotee whereas Buddhism, without a deity, expresses unconditional love as loving-kindness and compassion for all living things.

I coined the word urghhlings when I wrote about ugly earthlings. In the early 70s, I read in a newspaper article people in Hong Kong enjoying a meal of raw brains straight from the open skulls of screeching monkeys. I remember witnessing a roadside vendor outside the Chowrasta Market in Penang ripping off the skin of live frogs before chopping them into pieces with his cleaver. In a cooking programme on SBS, a proud restaurateur in China spoke proudly of her chef whose knife skills and wok skills were applauded by diners who were in awe of how he gutted, scaled and deep-fried the fish in a matter of a minute or so. The camera focused on the poor fish, its glistening sad eyes staring blankly into the camera as its mouth struggled with desperation, gasping for air as it laid on a plate, fried to perfection from tail to cheeks. A dog is a man’s best friend. So, all the more reason that I can’t forget the video of a vile woman who stomped on a puppy with her stilettos. Recently, a friend posted a TikTok clip of a Cambodian woman munching on live tarantulas dipped in sweet chilli sauce. She could not stop mmmm, mmmm, mmmm’ing during her meal, tearing each apart one at a time, some with her hands and others with her teeth, all the while savouring the remains of spiders in her obnoxious mouth. God, should cruel people be shown unconditional love too? Would not that leave you agape too should agape love be given to such undeserving people?

“It is nigh on impossible to witness unconditional love, is it not?” the old man asked.

“We are just the unlucky ones,” I said.

“I don’t think there is anyone capable of giving unconditional love,” he said. “Sad, but it’s true.”

“There has to be,” I replied.

He got me thinking. My mind wandered off, desperately hoping to come up with a name, any name, that might prove him wrong.

“Can you make me a cup of tea?” he asked.

Apart from the monotonous sound of running water from the aquarium, the room was quiet. The old man broke the silence with a raspy weak voice, a reminder of a terrible cough he had weeks earlier.

“Are you there?” he asked again.

“Hey, can I get a cup of tea?” he asked, sounding annoyed.

I was pulling my hair, sitting on my sofa, opposite him. The afternoon sun was weakening, its rays less intrusive, visibly withdrawing from the family room. Soon, it will cool down enough for me to brave the summer heat and step out into the garden. There are always chores to do, chook poo to sweep, fish to feed, weeds to pull, rose bushes to prune, plants to water. But, I couldn’t stop pulling my hair. The more I think, the harder I pull. No, I can’t afford to pull my hair, not at this age. I’m losing hair fast as it is.

“Stop! I can’t think,” I said aloud.

“Of course, you can’t,” he said smugly, as he scratched at a spot near his butthole.

I did not bother to explain. It wasn’t that I couldn’t come up with a person who is capable of agape love, but I didn’t feel I needed to explain to him why I needed to prevent further hair loss.

Pulling my hair out over this just isn’t worth it.

“Sorry, did you say you wanted tea?” I asked. He waited till I looked at him to nod.

As I waited for the water to boil, I thought of The Mrs. “If there is anyone on earth capable of unconditional love, it has to be a mother,” I said to the old man. The Mrs’ love for our three kids was pure and unwavering. An ambitious young career-minded woman, she even sacrificed her career as a qualified accountant to become a stay-at-home mother. That speaks volumes of the power of a mother’s love. We lived on a single income – mine – that supported seven people in our household, us and her elderly parents. I was the head of the family but she was the heart. The heartbeat in the home, giving life to all of us. My family would not have functioned as a unit without her. She made sure there were hot meals for us, every day. Delicious, home-cooked meals, varied and memorable. “So that they will always remember to come home,” she said. For sure, she demonstrated unconditional love for our kids, always….except when one of them went to a music lesson with an empty violin case because he forgot to pack the violin inside the case or when another asked for help with his homework in the middle of the night because he forgot to get it done after watching Seinfeld, or when two of them cried on stage because they found the first time on stage too scary. Her love was always unconditional until something flared up that caused her to stress.

“What about The Mrs’ love for you?” the old man asked.

“Is her love not unconditional?”

“You know, for better, for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health?” he added, the sarcasm in his voice deliberately obvious.

“How strong do you want your tea?” I asked, jiggling the teabag a few more times than I normally would, and evading his question.

I did not feel obliged to tell him about The Mrs’ love for me.

We watched Operation Red Snake last night. Together. A rare occurrence, that. Normally, she would have headed straight to her sanctuary after dinner. Upstairs in her bedroom with the door closed gives her peace and serenity – for her, a universe away from the violent movies I normally watch. Operation Red Snake is a film about women fighting ISIS alongside Kurdish forces. But, The Mrs could not bear to watch and she started to get restless. The beginning of the story was too graphic for her. The impending violence and the promised terror was enough for her to reach out for another handful of Ferrero Rocher balls. I glanced at the coffee table and saw there were already a few scrunched up golden foil wrappings. “You’ll complain tomorrow I didn’t stop you from over-eating,” I said with incredible prescience.

The Yazidis men who refused to renounce their belief in the Christian God were killed right in front of our eyes. The Mrs winced. I winced too, not because of the violence. I recoiled from the confronting images that agape love for their God brought them. Love of the purest form, demonstrated by their preparedness to die for their belief, being encapsulated by terror and bloodshed. Raw, barbaric but real. An assault on our senses that was too soon after a heavy meal. When the Yazidi girl was sold as a sex slave and then raped by her new master, The Mrs said, “Enough is enough! If you want me to sit here and watch a movie with you, then it has to be a comedy!” Unconditional love maybe but a very conditional requirement to sit with me. So, we watched Dog instead.

Dog was supposed to be a comedy but it made The Mrs cry. The last scenes were difficult to watch. I was surprised The Mrs did not reprimand me for choosing the comedy. It was raw, barbaric but real. Lulu, the retired military dog, was being processed to be euthanised. A war hero with a purple heart, she had served the US Army Rangers with distinction, saving many of the soldiers’ lives and contributing to many ‘kills’. I discovered that up until November 2000, military dogs were put down after they had served the army. Their use-by-dates generally last for about ten to twelve years. Dogs are the most loyal friends – unquestioning, supportive, trusting, protective and unwavering. “The best at demonstrating agape love, and they don’t ever withhold their love!” I said to The Mrs after the movie. But, they were treated as equipment, abandoned in the battlefield or euthanised even if they were purple heart recipients once they were injured in combat or slow due to age. “So much for loyalty and love, we humans cannot even reciprocate with kindness and gratitude,” The Mrs said, her face contorted with phantom pain. Understandably, these combat dogs come home exhausted, wounded and emotionally scarred with PTSD. They aren’t playful or sociable and may well be dangerous in our society having been trained to sniff out drugs and roadside bombs, and kill the Taliban and others. Where is the agape love for these wonderful loyal friends of ours?

Murray insists on sharing my pillow.

“We were in Melbourne last month,” the old man said. Talk about being mouth agape at Agape! I was captivated by his story and was almost disbelieving that such a blatant thing could happen in our society. “We were aghast at that Greek restaurant we went to in Richmond,” the old man continued.

“They didn’t tell us they had run out of the wine we ordered but kept serving a similar wine from the same wine region,” he said.

“Didn’t you test the wine first?” I asked with incredulity.

There are rules to follow before wine is served in a restaurant. The bottle’s label should be shown to the person who ordered the wine, to check that the correct wine is being served. Only then should the bottle be opened – at the table and not before – so that we can check for defects like a damaged cork.

Why didn’t you ask to see the label?” I asked again.

“I didn’t want to appear like I know a lot about wines, ” the old man said coyly.

“But, my curiosity got the better of me later, and upon checking the wine label, I was horrified at their dishonesty,” the old man said.

“What did you do?” I asked, my curiosity piqued.

“We didn’t want to cause a scene, all I said was ‘You should have told us,’”the old man whispered.

“So, I sat there, mouth agape at the Agape restaurant’s stealth in brand switching.”

Old Feuds In The Fjords

Their house is eerily quiet once more. The rowdy conversations and arguments, the booming guffaws from the boys and the constant din from the TV now a distant memory. Droplets of Shiraz spilled from the 2016 Basket Press lay caked on the edge of the dining table – missed by The Mrs – offering real proof that she is no longer hawk-eyed and insufferable at small indiscretions such as him leaving crumbs on the table or him being blind to the clump of hair collecting at the drain hole cover in the shower cubicle. By ‘him’ I mean the old man, who sits with back curled up like a letter ‘c’ waiting for his son to serve him some steak. He ought to know how to fix his posture and why. It would not surprise me one bit if the old man complained of a bad back or neck pain. There was enough talk about yoga poses and the merits of stretching over the years. I find it a contradiction, him telling me he practises Ba Duan Qigong, the eight brocades. The endearing oohs and the aahs as the pink ribeye was being carved up from the bone of tomahawk steaks was ample reward for their eldest son whose culinary skills were always thought to be non-existent. In the background, the rhythmic ‘tok-tok-tok-tok’ of the Thai mortar and pestle, krok and sak, promised another delicious serving of sohm tahm. Sounds of Christmas still echoed in his head as they sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to their guest, Mr. Laurs, former teacher and much cherished mentor to the boys.

Perfect Tomahawks. Photo by Mr. Laurs
Happy Birthday Mr. Laurs, the boys’ former teacher and much cherished mentor.

Looking at the old man’s demeanour, it felt like his whole life was sucked out of his body by the jet engines of the B737 as the plane took off from the runway. He wasn’t there, of course, at the runway to watch the plane take off. He wasn’t even there at the airport. He didn’t want to cry in public, so he bade them – his twin sons – farewell and closed the front door of their house. He leaned his back on the door and closed his eyes until he could hear the old Rav 4 leave their driveway. The eldest son drove them to the airport. His flat was closer to home and there was no risk of him crying. “You take Murray along too,” the old man said moments earlier. “I’ll clear the table,” he said, quickly turning away after hugging them tightly. The hugs were brief – he didn’t want them to smell him. Old people smell bad. Like the smell of dead skin. He didn’t believe in scented soap but that’s all he used these days after being told he smelt like an old man. Never mind the chemicals, I need the fragrance!

The fragrance unfortunately didn’t last. A son scrunched up his nose as he parted from his father’s arms, maybe from an allergy to the pollen in the air, maybe not. It didn’t matter to him. He knew he smelt bad, like an old man. Murray didn’t want to leave. He stood on his hind legs and clung on to the old man’s thigh and wouldn’t let go. Murray presumably didn’t mind the old man’s body odour and he obviously loved licking the back of his hands. His Mrs said, “That’s because you don’t clean your hands properly and he can still smell the steak you had.”

“C’mon Murray, you have to go home,” the old man said. He gave the dog a big goodbye hug. Murray wouldn’t complain about his bad smell. The miniature poodle quickly jumped onto his lap and used his paw to pull the old man’s arm closer to embrace him. “We are late, Murray! Let’s go!” the eldest son said, dragging his dog away. “Whose dog is it really?” I asked. Neither father nor son replied. A sore point I gathered and wisely dropped the subject.

The following day, I dropped by to see how he was. I have known the old man for what now feels like an eternity. Despite my frequent suggestions that a morning shower is good for him and good for those around him who suffer from his BO, he doesn’t flinch when I tell him he stinks like a salted fish. Look at him now. His luminous green t-shirt, wet with sweat, clinging to his thin frame and not helping to hide his belly bulge. He is not your typical beer drinker, so I guess his football belly was the price for his indulgence in peanuts. He had just got back into the house from the back garden. His hair, tied up in a bun, seemed greyer by the day. I could smell him even from where I sat. His poor wife has to suffer unnecessarily. “Why don’t you take a shower now?” I asked. He looked up, gave me a frown and moved his mouth to speak. He brought his lips back together, the choice to remain silent a wise one, as I was ready to argue about the merits of taking a shower in the morning.

“You smell like a salted fish today,” I said.

He shifted his butt to relieve the pressure on his bony bum. “I’ve done a lot this morning!” he said, offering a silly defence for his body odour. He began to rattle off from his list of chores.

“Feed chooks, done
Scoop up pond debris, done
Clean pond filter, done
Hand-water back garden, done
Dispose of fallen fruit, done
Pick watercress for chooks, done
Make coffee, done.”

“Whilst you’re at it, make me one please,” I replied. He is a stubborn old man and he knows it too. Often the object of scorn from friends, he has grown accustomed to their mockery. For me, it feels absurd that he should allow himself to be targeted so frequently by his so-called friends, but he has a hide as thick as a rhino’s. They don’t seem to hurt his self-esteem at all.

“How do you do it?” I asked. “How come you’re unfazed by their constant derision?”

He told me he learned it from Epictetus, the Greek philosopher. We don’t control the situation, but we control what we think about it. We can’t control common opinion but we control our own opinion. We should not be bothered by what we can’t control. What we can control are our reasoned choices, desires, opinion – our mind and our will. We should endeavour to gather knowledge so that our choices are made correctly and supported by good reasoning.

Christmas was simply a fortnight of non-stop celebrations. The family had been deprived of a full reunion for three years, due to the pandemic. “The kids did come back in September, but just briefly.”

“Not everyone was home then, seokuku (youngest aunty on paternal side) and her hubby were away,” the Mrs added.

“Kids?” I asked. The old man forgets that those boys of his aren’t kids anymore. In fact, they aren’t even boys anymore. I wondered quietly what they should be called, in woke times like now. “Non-binary people are hard to please for people our age,” I said. Is a person with a ‘long dong’ man, or woman or both? They can be something in between, or they can be transgender or not. People can get in trouble for suggesting mothers must be women and fathers must be male. Not so long ago, it was obvious that a person who has a womb is a woman. Not any more! “This will be a long-standing feud for years to come,” the old man said.

“Talking about feuds… how was Christmas for you?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” he asked, pretending not to understand my question.

“You know,” I said.

“You had a long feud with your neighbours – the Iranians, right?” I continued to probe.

“Oh, that idiot!” he said. Ali, a respectable scientist in the community, was also a successful plantation owner. But he had a few rather annoying quirks as a neighbour. “Oh, he was a rather interesting character,” the old man said. One day, he hired a lorry to cart some rubbish from his property but he lost control of the vehicle and smashed into his brick fence.

“I was busy serving a customer in my shop but he kept talking on the phone, yep, yep yep, yep, yep. You have to pay for it, you have insurance, I don’t.” he said. He sounded genuinely believing his own logic. Short and dark-skinned, he was polite and friendly face-to-face but behind a computer screen or phone, he was a rude and unreasonable man. Of all the things he was stressed about, it was his receding hairline that he should have fixed.

“NO, I WON’T CLAIM FROM MY INSURANCE,” the old man bellowed. He mentioned a few times there would be an excess amount to be paid and the claim would affect his ratings. “My no-claim bonus will be gone and future premiums will be higher, blah blah blah blah.”

But, Ali was deaf to the old man’s protestations. “You pay!” he shouted, unaware of the spray of saliva he had left on his phone.


“I… hello, hello!” the old man replied before realising the Iranian had left to huff and puff somewhere else.

…….and their feud lasted many years after that.

When Ali’s pride and joy, a 30-foot palm tree, shed its fronds, miraculously, they always fell on the old man’s side of the fence. Always, the wind sided with Ali. For years and years, the old man was so pissed off that it somehow ended up as his job to drag the heavy palm leaves out to the verge. One day, as he was dragging a leaf out whilst venting his spleen and showing off his unrestrained usage of vulgar Chinese words, he saw Ali pulling a fruit-laden branch of his mandarin fruit tree fully over to his side and tying it up so that it remained within his boundary. The old man had enjoyed his neighbour’s mandarins on a few occasions and knew how sweet they were. Ali knew the rules. What’s on your side is yours and what’s on my side is mine. From that day onwards, the old man would simply toss the palm leaves over the fence. They are all yours, Ali.

“Didn’t you have a long feud with a back neighbour too?” I asked.

“Ah, don’t remind me of that guy!” he said.

Trevor died many years ago. A lab analyst, he was unaware his laboratory in the University of Adelaide was full of asbestos in the walls. He died of mesothelioma just a few weeks after the two neighbours had agreed to shake hands and end their feud.

“What did you guys fight about?” I asked.

“Honestly, I don’t remember!” the old man said.

“Whatever it was, it must have been something really unimportant then.”

“Oh yeah, it may have been about the brick shed of his at the rear of his yard,” the old man said, suddenly remembering the grievances of old. The stonewall was at a scary angle, as if the wall could at any time fall on to our side.

“I kept telling him, ‘My Mrs spends a lot of time in our garden right here,'” the old man said, pointing to where he stood.

“It’s supposed to be therapeutic in the garden, you know, listening to the birds sing, feeling the caress of the gentle breeze…”

“But, My Mrs couldn’t relax knowing that the wall could suddenly come down and fall on her head. The bloke would not listen to my complaints,” the old man continued.

“I don’t have money,” the sickly neighbour said. Eyes sunken, gums inflamed and the loss of jaw bone as visible as the loss of teeth, his shocking appearance softened the old man’s belligerent stance. The man had major medical and dental problems – a goitre on his neck heavy like udders, he was shirtless as he tried to clear some debris from the fallen roof of his shed. His rib bones were pushing hard at the scaly bag of skin that covered his hairless chest.

“He was just all skin and bones,” the old man told me.

“You want to fix this, you can with your money,” he said, as he gasped for air.

Sadly, he gasped for air for the last time not long after. RIP, Trevor.

The old man could not remember how Chromecast set his TV to show beautiful scenic images from all over the world when it was on ambient mode. “Google must have done it for me,” he said, making no sense at all. We were enjoying a cold beer together during the New Year’s Day public holiday when a jaw-dropping scenery appeared on his big screen. The heavenly white mountains in the background were perfectly captured in the picture as well as in their reflection on the vast expanse of blue water in front. “Awesome! These must be fjords in Alaska,” the old man said, his voice more jubilant than earlier in the afternoon after the cricket match in Sydney was washed out.

“I must go!” he said, the urge to see some fjords close up suddenly firing up in his mind. These images ought to be treated like the best marketing tool for the tourism industry. Not a word spoken, not a penny spent. A beautiful picture sells itself without a thousand words written about it.

A week later, he had made up his mind. “We are going,” he said. “My Mrs said ok!”

They will visit New Zealand in a few months’ time. The Land of the Long White Cloud, aptly named by early maoris who saw the islands sprawl out like strands of cloud across the horizon, was always so close and readily accessible that the old couple had forever told themselves they would one day visit it but never did.

“Yeah, North Island for about a week, then Christchurch and Queenstown after that.”

“Nice! I hear Queenstown is beautiful!”

“The fjords are near there, right?” I asked.

“Don’t miss Middle Earth,” I said, revealing my interest in the Hobbits and the Lord of the Rings stories.

“I won’t!”

“That’s in the North Island. For sure, we will spend some time in Hobbiton,” he said.

“You bet,” he said, giving me a clumsy high five whilst stepping on a well-gnawed tennis ball and almost falling over the coffee table in the process.

Steady there, old chap, we aren’t young anymore to high five each other.

The truth is sometimes best left unsaid. I left him to rub his sore ankle for a moment. He got some old well-past-the-use-by-date Five Photos Brand Tienchi ointment from a book shelf next to his sofa chair. “This is really effective for sprains,” he said as he sparingly dabbed a bit of it on his ankle. It smelt surprisingly soothing, summoning childhood memories of old white-haired Master Lao Tan who used to teach Tai Chi to the older kids near Wearne Brothers Motors in Penang.

“Tan-pek saved my life, you know,” the old man said. This was his story to me.

Tan-pek was always in his impeccably ironed white shirt and matching white trousers. A dapper man, with pure white hair, white strong eyebrows, sparse and long white beard, and long untidy white fluffy ear hair too. He could have been easily cast as the Shou of the Fu Lu Shou, if he held a staff and a gourd containing the elixir of life. The God of Longevity lived up to his legend, for me at least. I was not quite twelve when during the month of the hungry ghosts, I woke up early one morning and in a trance-like manner, went cycling in the cul-de-sac outside my house on Scotland Close in Penang. Instead of cycling, something told me to sit on my bike and be stationary for as long as possible. Suddenly gravity took over and I hit the ground, with the middle of my head. For about seven days I was bedridden, feverish and lost all appetite. My world started spinning, and as the days passed, the spinning got faster and faster until I had to grab the sides of my bed to avoid falling off it. The wound on my head wasn’t visibly alarming but it scared me when I felt it with my index finger. Softer than tofu, its texture was more like douhua. My mum’s frantic visits to the sinsehs were in vain. We tried assorted bitter herbs mixed with bitter powder, but nothing relieved me of the vertigo-like symptoms. In desperation, my mum flagged down Tan-pek who was on his way back to his office at Wearne Brothers from lunch. He didn’t even go upstairs to look at my injury. After listening intently to my mum’s description of my condition, he gave her his script; he told her I would need to complete three dosages to be fully cured. Three bowls, no less! I couldn’t, I simply couldn’t, but I did finish two bowls in two days. The infrequent tremors in my brain today do give me some regret in not taking that third dosage.

The non-FDA concoction consisted of one baby mud crab, its shell must still be soft. One small rice bowl of a young boy’s fresh warm urine, my own, of course! Pound the live baby crab (so sorry, crab), slowly add warm urine to the paste until it is of a porridge consistency.


Consume above crab gruel completely, do not waste any, scrape any leftovers that could be stuck to the bowl. Crushing a live crab is cruel, so eat it all, innards, lungs, eyes, soft shell, legs, the lot, don’t waste a life.

No Dill, No Deal

The old man sat hunched in his office, suddenly all alone again. I have often reminded him about correcting his posture but my new year’s resolution will be steadfast this time. I shan’t bother offering my opinion about anything anymore to anyone. “It’s silly to,” I told myself. Besides, it’s sheer audacity to think I know better or think I am wiser to advise someone.

2023 arrived quickly and last night I had to scramble my thoughts wildly to come up with a new resolution for the new year. The old man agreed.

“We can’t go into a new year without a new deal with ourselves,” he said.

“No dill, no deal,” I replied, echoing the words I had heard over lunch on Christmas Day.

The old man’s youngest sister, Lil Sis, whilst serving a platter of Australian rock lobsters, said to him exactly those words after he told her he had forgotten to bring the promised dill from his garden to garnish her lobsters.

“No dill, no deal. You’re not getting any lobster today.”

She looked disapprovingly at her brother. Too often, he disappointed them with his forgetfulness. I can’t tell if it was his eagerness to please or if he thought his readiness to say yes to any request made him less annoying to people around him. Whatever it was, I had told him many times over the years to write things down, either mentally or in a little notebook.

“Youse don’t want to disappoint anybody, especially those who are important to youse,” I said.

“If youse say you’re gonna do somethin’, youse better make damn sure youse do, otherwise there will be hell to pay for!”

No dill? No deal.

The futility of offering him advice or reminders had finally woken me. Hence, the new year’s resolution. Nobody appreciates free advice! Why did it not dawn on me sooner that he would have cringed every time I offered an unsolicited opinion? No wonder he is unpopular with his friends! He is exactly the same, opinionated and thinks he always has something useful to say about everything! I remember a friend told him recently to just go and play his violin somewhere else when he was noisily commenting about Malaysian politics of which he knows very little. To be fair, he was just asking about aspects of the Malaysian Constitution but when people are tensed about the political situation in their country, the last thing they want to have around is a noisy empty barrel that serves no useful purpose.

No dill, no deal.

These words have haunted me since Christmas. We have been making deals ever since we were kids. To let his kids earn the occasional pocket money, the old man used to give them easy chores like washing the car or helping out in his car accessory store if a staff member called in sick on a Saturday. Similarly, in his teens, he worked in his father’s dry-cleaning shop after school every afternoon. The deal? A Mamak kari, usually chicken curry or beef rendang but never kambing. He found the smell of goat revolting. He made deals with his next door neighbour too and kept the secret of how to acquire handpicked fish from Swatow Lane Aquarium shop without paying for them. The neighbour, Ah Teik, a boy the same age as the old man went to the same school but was never in the same class. Street smart, I think he was streets ahead of the old man and showed him the realities of life outside his house. Life on the outside was exciting and ‘full of possibilities’, unlike the stuffiness and absence of liberties at home. Ah Teik had googly eyes reminiscent of Bart Simpson, big, round and bulging. “No, it’s not stealing them,” Ah Teik reassured his neighbour. “We are just setting them free.” The two boys simply hung around the aquariums all afternoon, attracted to the fish like lollies would to most other kids, leaving their hand prints on the glass as they excitedly pointed to the various specimens they admired. The green nets hanging on the side of the racks were ready tools for their mission. Ah Teik scooped up the most beautiful and healthiest (most active) fish their eyes had zeroed in like radar detectors whilst his neighbour kept watch like a sniper for any staff or customer intruding into their territory. When it was safe to do so, he released the meticulously selected fish into the drains in the shop. All the drains lead to one destination – the main drain outside the shop. After that, it was simply a matter of patience as they waited by the drain a little short distance from the shop for the fish to make their way there. “Rescuing fish from drains isn’t stealing,” Ah Teik said convincingly. “It’s saving them from a certain death,” he added. Oh, they did steal one thing from the shop though – a plastic bag to carry the fish home, but plastic in those days was a fantastic invention, it won praise not condemnation.

No dill, no deal. In their case, it was no Molly, no deal. I vaguely remember it was a Black Molly that killed their friendship or maybe it was a gorgeous black goldfish. It was a long time ago – the old man seemed unsure of his facts these days. The two boys were nine years old. One day, Ah Teik climbed over his house to the neighbour’s back rooftop balcony and secretly swapped his lousy, ugly, skinny, deformed fish for the gorgeous one with long flowy fins as graceful and with as much poise as a Russian ballerina. He knew exactly where his friend kept his prized fish, in a big oriental earthenware vat on the balcony. Immediately above the vat was a window of a bedroom whose occupants’ privacy was protected by a pair of often-closed timber venetian slats with paint flaking and peeling off, its colour more grey than the original white due to mould that thrived in the tropical moisture. Glazed in a chocolate brown colour, the vat had crude phoenix and dragon motifs and was deep enough to drown a baby or a drunken man. His Mrs’ dad, Chia Hu Sien, in fact died in a pool of water much shallower than that when she was just three years old. Thirsty from imbibing far too much alcohol, he came home late one night and decided to teeter to the family’s earthenware vat where they stored their drinking water in the rear garden. He did not make it to the vat but collapsed in the dark and drowned in a puddle of his own vomit and water left by a recent storm.

We can’t argue with nature

If it wants you to die, you die.

Wu Joonpin

Chia Hu Sien was a respected herbalist by day and a disgraced drunkard by night. The Chia family was Hakka from Taipu province in Guangdong, China. Only the learned were able to prescribe traditional herbal medicine in those days. I was told he could play the Er-hu, a Chinese two-stringed instrument. His calligraphy was good enough to be carved on shop signages in Miri town. Summing up quickly, he was an intellectual man. His elder brother was a stamp seal maker who carved names and characters from Jintian quartz. The youngest was a photographer. Think about that, intellectuals who were known for their art and photography back in the early twentieth century. They were not lowly ordinary folks. Fleeing the Japanese invasion of China in 1938, he settled in Sarawak but in under three years, he was to find himself under Japanese rule again. His drug store closed due to the war. Good excuse, but other drug stores somehow remained open. He worked for other herbalists but could not hold any job down. In a small town, everyone knew everyone and worse, they knew everyone’s farts and warts too. People would smell the stinky air and know who the culprit was. Chia was a drunkard and a bad husband. His warts and all were no secret. Often seen propelling his bicycle with alcohol flowing in his every vein in the wee hours, he was well-known for spending many a night face down on his own vomit in town. The concerned nosey-parkers would knock on the door of the family home and say, “So-and-so, your husband is found lying at where-and-where.” Humiliated, she had to walk to where-and-where to drag him home. A bad deal to marry a dill (idiot in Aussie slang).

When the old man graduated from UNSW, his first job was at the CBA, not the Commonwealth Bank of Australia but the Commercial Bank of Australia in Sydney’s Chinatown. In his mind he was a qualified accountant and when told their training programme required him to serve as a teller for a minimum of six months, he wanted to negotiate a deal. No deal. So, he left that job and forever annoyed His Mrs for abandoning a career path that would have delivered them a more cushy, low-risk lifestyle. A year later, the CBA got swallowed up by the Bank of New South Wales and became Westpac. A great deal but who knows, right? He could have been made redundant anyway. All of us are always making deals – with our parents, our siblings, our bosses and so many others. The old man said the most impactful deal he has ever done was with his spouse. For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. Compromise, compromise, compromise. How else could you live with another person forever? It is no wonder that many marriages do not last and it is no wonder that for more and more, marriage is not in their equation. Who wants to be in a deal where one’s freedom is curtailed? Compromised. Who wants to be in a deal where everything has to be justified, every action explained, every cent accounted for, every decision must be right (or else)?

Don’t get me wrong, His Mrs certainly isn’t like that at all, at least not all the time!

“I’m joking!!” I said.

“But she won’t believe you’re joking!!”

“But, I am joking!”

“Heck, you’re on your own, no one will protect you now.”

It took me years to learn not to make silly jokes, especially jokes that are at the expense of someone else, or jokes about religion, race or politics. It’s just not worth it. We can’t even joke about sex anymore. Wokeism today is about being gender-neutral. At least don’t make the male superior. It is not alright if an orchestra has only male players or if a board of directors of a business has no female representation. Social media will see to it that the orchestra is boycotted and the products or services of the business are kicked out of the country. Look what happened to L’Occitane. Being “firmly committed” to Ukraine was not enough, they had to close their Russian shops and website, days after defending its decision to continue trading. The sudden U-turn did not leave their business unscathed by today’s wokes. Let’s pause and think again. Russia invaded Ukraine. It had nothing to do with the Russian people and Russian staff of the French cosmetic company. It had nothing to do with France. Yet, wokeism demanded every country and every business had to boycott the Russian people. L’Occitane paid a heavy price for their lack of enthusiasm to embrace today’s wokeism.

“You know what?” the old man asked me. Wokeism isn’t a modern-day phenomenon. Look at what the Buddha had to do about 2,000 years ago. He had to manifest himself in a female form. Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, was actually a male! Elizabeth Vijaya, a High School friend of the old man’s explained it this way: The Supreme Atma or God comes to human beings in many forms. Shakti, the female form, is power. God is beyond gender, so God can take the form of a female to meet certain purposes for humans.

Painting of Guan Yin in the living room. A living Goddess of Mercy.


“In fact, the most important deals we make are with ourselves,” the old man told me.

Where we live, what we do, how we present ourselves, whether we practise Intermittent Fasting, diet or exercise. How we decide to invest or spend, work or retire, borrow or save are deals we make with ourselves. Austrian economists call it the time preference theory. A dollar today is worth more than one in the future. The higher the discount in the future, the higher the time preference. So, those who are willing to invest their capital today hoping to reap later rewards are said to have a low time preference.

“So, a person like me who is willing to delay his retirement, has a low time preference,” the old man explained.

“In other words, you have a low discount rate for your future income – you still think it is worth it to work,” I deduced.

“What you think you’ll earn in the future is still worth the sacrifice you put in today,” I said.

“While we retirees enjoy our day in the golf course or gather for a group outing or go travelling together, you’re slogging away working your butt off,” said another in a mocking manner.

The old man frowned but said nothing. He did not find it necessary to explain himself. There are good medical reasons to delay retirement. Keeping the mind and body active helps to maintain a sense of purpose; the feeling of participating and contributing to society is a powerful aphrodisiac that enhances our well-being.

No, dill. No deal.