Hay And Berries, From Hay To Berri

January 1986. It was my first road trip from Sydney to Adelaide with my young family. Correction, very young family. First Son was 3 years old, the other two were still in nappies. I was a young man of 28 years – naively confident, ambitious without any definite goals, and a no-nonsense bloke (to put it kindly), or in other words, humourless. I was well entranced, caged in the trap set by societal norms of the day. Norms which have not changed much, not even after these last 34 years. Not even during a pandemic. Society still dictates that we have to find a job, and keep a job when we find one. If we find one. Bleary-eyed commuters, frazzled drivers on grid-locked roads, desperate shopkeepers in quiet malls, zoned-out factory workers bored out of their minds. We are all trapped in this setting we call life. All of us, in pursuit of happiness. In pursuit of a livelihood, or for those luckier or so we think, in pursuit of greater wealth. With the advent of consumerism, we now have more pursuits. Ancient life did not require us to work 9 to 5 or in many cases, from 7 to 7. To live well, all we needed to do in ancient times was find some plants and berries or kill a prey for food and protect ourselves from harm. We were free to roam the land and eat only when we were hungry. If we didn’t find any food, we went hungry. But, there will be the next meal, we just did not know when. But, later on, some urghhlings decided to form a tribe. Tribes invented land ownership and we became territorial. The concept of territories meant we were no longer free to roam anywhere we liked. Limited freedom to travel and hunt where we needed to, and the vagaries of the weather combined to force us to settle down in a single place – that led to agriculture. It was the Agricultural Revolution, also known as the Neolithic Revolution some 12,000 years ago that changed our lives forever. We lost our freedom. Since then, we may have invented human rights but we still have not rediscovered our freedom. Being territorial has also meant urghhlings cannot avoid wars – the pursuit of more land for more resources means our history is never short of conflicts, conspiracies and conquests.

I enrolled in a local gym a couple of years ago. They provided me with a free personal trainer, which made me feel special. That feeling of importance did not disappear a few days later when I recalled that my youngest son had paid Sam’s fees in advance. Sam, a well-sculpted Aussie male was perfect as a gym instructor, passionate about fitness and body-building, and importantly, he was a most affable chap. But he was also trapped in life’s pursuits. For him, he wanted to win a body-building contest. Every session started and ended on a treadmill. To warm up and to wind down. When I was on the treadmill, my mind took a snapshot of my own reflection on the mirror a few meters in front of me. It was in fact a snapshot of what my life was. On the treadmill, I began by selecting the machine settings required for my desired attainment targets, be it calories, time, speed or whatever. Much like what I want to achieve in any endeavour. I then pressed the start button and the pursuit started. Running, running, running. On the same spot, never venturing away from the machine, thinking only about reaching my goals. Dripping wet with sweat from my effort, I stepped off the treadmill at the end of the session feeling satisfied that I did my best, maybe I even managed to reach my targets. That snapshot in my mind woke me up. Life has been no different. We get up in the mornings, and almost immediately, we are on life’s treadmill. Grinding away, always with a target to zero in on. Get that customer, complete that project, seal the deal. Bring home the bacon. But, I missed out on smelling the flowers, meeting the neighbours and admiring their gardens when I spent all that time on the treadmill. Did I ever stop to truly enjoy a cup of coffee? Or pause to ask my colleagues how they were. That first visit to the gym was like the lobster dinner I had when I bit at a claw and lost a filling. The moment on the treadmill felt the same as when I discovered a tooth that was missing its filling. No matter what I told myself, I had to probe it, examine it, push on it with my tongue. I knew the filling was lost. Likewise, I knew I had lost something in this life. As we grind away monotonously, life becomes greyer and greyer, losing much of its vibrant colours. Familiarity makes us blind. Last week, First Son had his ear pierced. He needed to tell me that because I could not see it with my own eyes. I was too busy pre-occupying myself with life’s inconsequential demands. Why have I worked so hard? Why do we get up in the mornings? I hurt my back after three visits to the gym, and had to spend two expensive sessions with a chiropractor. Maybe I should say, Sam hurt my back. After all, he was supposed to be the expert. Experts should make sure their clients are well looked after. But, I was on a treadmill. So was he. Society dictated he had to earn a living, to pay for his rent, his bomb (an old car badly in need of a tune-up) and the 3 whole chooks and 2 plates of pasta he consumed daily. Running wheels are not just for our hamsters or pet mice; we too have our own running wheel. Life.

Back to 1986. My first road trip with my wife of 5 years, and 3 kids was not meant to be a holiday. It was never the journey but the destination for a young man in a rush. A new career beckoned me in Adelaide. A senior role, a well-paid executive position. It came with a company car, and with the other perks, it meant I could quite easily upgrade and buy a you-beaut full-brick house in a blue-ribbon suburb and call it our new home. We no longer had to live in the fibro house that bore the brunt of silly jokes; no more sighs of exasperation from Pa about a “Chao-Chu” (rubbish house). We no longer had to live near a “ghetto” for aborigines and worry about our kids mingling with “those” kids in a “backward” school more attuned to success in rugby and success in ridding their compounds of drug addicts. I planned to arrive at our destination within 16 hours. The idea of grabbing the opportunity for my family to enjoy a rare Aussie holiday in the vast continent we call “our country” did not dawn on me. It was only about getting to our destination. I did not realise it, but I was already stuck to my treadmill even then. So, I avoided the route to Melbourne, and missed Jervis Bay and the famous Kiama Blowhole. Mornington Peninsula? Scratch it off the list too, “too bad, we do not have time” was my reply to a friend’s suggestion that “the kids will enjoy picking strawberries at Sunny Ridge Strawberry Farm and the nearby Hot Springs”. Why visit Melbourne’s Chinatown on Little Bourke Street? Why? When we have our Sydney Chinatown all the while? After that, we could have left the hustle bustle of Melbourne and spend 3 days driving along one of the world’s most scenic coastal routes. The Great Ocean Road still escapes me although it has been on my bucket list. Back then there were 12 Apostles to marvel at – today, there are only 8 limestone rocks left, the rest have been washed away. We missed visiting Mount Gambier also, a region that reminded many people of the Bordeaux of France. The kids would have loved a short-stay in a nice country cottage and waking up to the sounds of roosters welcoming the sun. Past the vineyards, and soon we could have arrived in Murray Bridge, and then the German town of Hahndorf and then Adelaide! Instead, I unfolded the brand new Gregory’s paper map, smoothed it with both my palms and sought out the shortest route with my index finger. Showing the journey to The Mrs, my finger followed the route which was mostly dead straight on the map. See? Sydney, Wagga Wagga, Hay, Berri, and hey presto, Adelaide! Time required, 14 hours, 14 minutes. But, we have three boys, all 3 years and under. There will be lots of toilet breaks, tantrums and nappy-changing, I reasoned. So, my plan was to reach Adelaide in 16 hours. They will be comfortable – I bought a new Tarago van, well, it was a demonstrator model. Savings? $1,000. I did not like the rego number – it ended with 114. In Cantonese, 114 sounded like “yat yat sei” (die every day). I wanted the car dealer to change it, but The Mrs stopped me. In Mandarin, it is auspicious, she convinced me. 14 means “for life”. The number “4” is a good number. We need the four seasons, four directions (North,South, East and West), four elements (Earth, Water, Air and Fire) and we have four limbs. A day is divided into four sessions – morning, afternoon, evening and night. Four is a symbol of earthly balance and completeness. The Buddha already pointed out to us the Four Noble Truths. How could I disagree? I should have. A few months after we had settled down in Adelaide, our good friends Richard and Cindy missed us so much they came to visit. We took them to the Barossa Valley and on our way to the third cellar door for the day, a car smashed into the passenger side of my Tarago with the “yat yat sei” rego at an intersection. Apart from some minor cuts and bruises, no one was seriously injured. Since then, I avoid the number “4”, preferring the number “8” whenever possible. “8” in Cantonese sounds like prosperity, which until recently was another life pursuit for me.

We got to Hay in super quick time. Hay, as the name reveals, is a country town where one would see stacks and stacks of hay on the plain. A major wool growing area, the only memory I have of the town on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River was the many mini whirlwinds that escorted us out of the town. To get to Berri from Hay, I used the Sturt Highway travelling westwards. It was the most boring journey I ever encountered, all 5 hours of it was pretty much dead straight, dead flat and dead boring. The Mrs kept changing to the radio stations that played our favourite songs to keep me awake. 2CH was my favourite channel; I was keen on Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Don McLean and Anne Murray. I was very pleased when we reached Berri. If anyone tells you people can’t die from boredom, tell them they have not driven from Hay to Berri. To be sure, I can confide now that I almost fell asleep behind the wheel many times on that stretch. Berri, the Riverland town in South Australia is famous for its apples, citrus fruits and grapes. Nope, they do not produce any berries at all. Quite misleading that, until I found out it is not an English name. Berri is an Aboriginal word meaning “a wide bend in the river”. For me, Berri is the first place that welcomed me as a new “immigrant” of South Australia.

In the Tarago, from Sydney to Adelaide in 1986.

P.S. Sehchee, my sister in London, still remembers the fruit classifications from biology lessons in Penang. Believe it or not, grapes, lemons, oranges are technically berries but strawberries and raspberries are not!

2020 In 2020

Hindsight, they say is 20/20. The Mrs says it to me frequently. It is her way of telling me what I know does not make me smart. Who does not know what has already happened? At times, she uses it as an admonishment of sorts. “You should have known it would happen! Hindsight is 20/20, why did you decide not to do that?!” 2020 has been a dramatic year. Before the Chinese Lunar New Year in February this year, The Mrs already told me 2020 would be a bad year. I ignored her, told her she is so superstitious. “The sharemarket will cop a battering, time to sell off all your shares, son.” I overheard her advice to First Son. She even predicted the major floods in many parts of China. “Horrors, the Three Gorges Dam will be threatened! It may even be under water.” she warned, daily, over breakfast for weeks. Now, that is prescient, to know what is going to happen before it happens. 20/20 vision means you can see clearly at 20 feet what should normally be seen at 20 feet. In her case, what she saw 50 weeks ago has pretty much panned out. A 50/50 vision! But, she won’t take any credit for her perfect foresight. Chinese astrology long ago predicted that calamity would befall this year of the Gengzi (庚子年). It is all written down, eons ago. The year of the Metal Rat is the 37th year of the 60-year cycle of the Chinese calendar, bringing with it natural disasters, wars (tariff wars and trade wars included) and disasters such as pandemics and bushfires. Their predictions have come true about health afflictions relating to the “lungs and breathing” with symptoms including severe coughs, blood disorders and diarrhoea. Sounds familiar? For the doubters, let us look at the previous Gengzi year, i.e. 1960. It was the year of the Great Famine that followed the Great Leap Forward, during which up to 55 million Chinese died of starvation. I remember Pa’s old Chinese magazines that reported on the herculean feats of the collectives that managed to almost double their agricultural output from 1957. We did not know it then, but they met their grain targets by simply lying about it, inflating actual figures by up to 10 times. At the same time Mao, without any knowledge of metallurgy, ordered the peasants to surpass the UK’s industrial output in 15 years. The peasants’ focus on the land was diverted to convert their backyards into backyard furnaces, producing steel from scrap metal, except that they used woks, pots and pans when they ran out of scrap. If 1960 was not calamitous enough as a Gengzi year, let us go further back to the one before that, i.e. 1900. 1900 was the year the Eight-Nation Alliance invaded China during the Boxer Rebellion. The following year, the defeated Qing government was forced to sign a peace treaty that required them to pay an indemnity in the billions in today’s value, over 39 years. The foreign legation guards would remain in China until WW2. By now, most of us should be convinced the Gengzi year really does bring death and misery, especially to the Chinese. 1840 was one of the worst Gengzi years – in April that year, the British parliament declared war against China. It was the beginning of the First Opium War, a war that followed Britain’s gunboat diplomacy to extract a huge advantage over China, who at the time was their largest trading partner. Europe’s demand for Chinese luxury goods e.g. silk, porcelain and tea created a huge trade imbalance whereby China only accepted Britain’s silver as payment for their trade deficit. The British resorted to ply opium to the Chinese to fix their trade imbalance, against the wishes of the Qing government. A Qing letter to Queen Victoria which appealed to her moral and legal responsibilities went unanswered. Drug trafficking sanctioned by a monarch. It is no wonder today we still call drug traffickers drug lords. The Opium War left an indelible scar on the Chinese – they lost Hong Kong and was forced to grant territorial, financial and trade concessions to the Western forces.

First Son did not need this much Gengzi history to act on his mother’s free advice. Very early in the pandemic, he offloaded his total investments in his favourite ETF. The exchange-traded fund he had his savings in had vastly outperformed the local index. First Son is an intelligent investor – after all, he has read Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor. That makes him far more intelligent than me – I had only read 3 years of UNSW’s Bachelor of Commerce degree and lost big-time in the last two major sharemarket routs. The Mrs loudly celebrated First Son’s good fortune when the Dow dropped like a brick into the harbour. “Aiyo, see? I told you so! So lucky you listen to me!” she pranced around her kitchen impersonating the great Maradona celebrating his “Hand of God” goal in the 1986 World Cup. Although the ETF is now trading higher than the pre-pandemic level, maybe we have yet to see the worst from the Gengzi. 2020 has not finished. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush, son.

For those who believe in the Tarot, the card corresponding to 20:20 is Judgement. It symbolises a renewal, a new era of independence, a freedom of the body or the mind. In 2020, there is indeed a renewal. We see massive change in the way we live, from the massive fatalities around the world. The pandemic has brought a lot of grief, especially to the Americas, Iran, Indonesia and large chunks of Europe. We no longer shake hands when we greet, we do the elbow bump or the Asian bow, hands together near the chest, clasped or in a prayer-like position and accompanied by a respectful bow. We see people on the streets wearing masks all over the world now. In my early travels, I marvelled at the uniquely Asian social etiquette of caring for their fellow citizens by not spreading one’s germs in public. I think it is this caring for the greater good rather than caring for one’s “human rights” that clearly shines through in which is the better social norm to adopt. In 2020, I have watched football being played in empty stadiums, where the echoes of coaches’ commands can be clearly heard. There is a total absence of cheering, chanting, stomping, singing, booing or flag-waving. Hardly an audible applause when a goal is scored. Last night, I attended my first online live Christmas concert by one of the great symphony orchestras in the world. Prior to 2020, who would have thought we would pay to attend an online concert? The music was beautifully performed by the orchestra that was less than 1/3 of its usual size. Limited in size due to the social-distancing rule, the programme lacked the usual big work we are accustomed to at an end-of-year Christmas concert – Handel’s Messiah. A Christmas concert is meant to be uplifting – the carols hark the angels and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. The orchestra players certainly did their best to lift us from the doldrums of 2020 yet what I felt was a great sense of sadness. The night was devoid of a usually packed audience. Only a smattering of light clapping and hitting of bows against the music stands was all the applause that rewarded the soloist. There was no cheering, chanting, whooping, whistling. No raucous applause. No shouts of bravo.

I will admit that I have been to a Tarot reading. It was in 1986, the year I returned to Adelaide after having spent 8 years in Sydney. In those 8 years, I got my B.Comm degree, met The Mrs in the university, married her immediately after our graduation, and we became parents of 3 boys. Yeah, those were busy years! My first job as a trainee accountant of the Commercial Bank was based in Sydney’s Chinatown. Yup, hindsight is 20/20. I should have patiently stuck to the bank – The Mrs has not stopped reminding me of my brashness. “You could have been someone very high up in that circle.” Did she mean in banking or in Chinatown? But, I hated it in that circle. It was grey, cold and impersonal – everyone there reminded me of Mr. Dawes in Mary Poppins’ Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. Every tuppence mattered. We had to balance the books to the last cent or we could not go home that day. I hated it more when it became personal. There was one blonde bitch who took a strong dislike for me. Maybe I had bad breath, maybe I stank – it was summer. Maybe I took her friend’s job. Maybe I balanced the books with ease and she didn’t. Maybe she encountered too many Chinese customers who gave her trouble. She did not tell me why she couldn’t stand me, but maybe it was simply that I looked different or smelled different. Maybe. So, I quit and got the job as a factory accountant in Matraville instead. The HR manager, (Personnel Manager, in those days) with her beautifully posh British accent, said I was Godsent. Wow, that was the one and only time someone said that about me. I felt like rain. The world needs rain, right? It was a better feeling than working with cold and grey white racists. I was happy until my brashness got the better of me (again) and I decided to move to Adelaide. The Mrs did not hesitate. I think she knew at the bottom of her heart we had to leave our very good Sydney friends. We loved them so much we spent all our weekends with them – they were as addicted as us to Mahjong. When The Mrs returned to Sarawak to visit her ageing parents, she took First Son with her, meaning I was left to look after the two younger ones. That did not stop me from visiting our friends. I discovered it was possible to play Mahjong, carrying one baby in my left arm, and bouncing the other baby on a bassinet with my foot. So, it was an easy decision to leave Sydney in the end. The Adelaide job was too good to refuse. The boss told me I was “set like jelly.” At the time, I felt strange to be described like jelly – wobbly, fruity and soft or spineless like jelly fish? He meant I was set of course, the job was mine for sure and it came with a blue 4.1 litre Ford XF Fairmont Ghia. He made me the Administration Manager or loosely known as King of the Office. There, I met Esther. Esther was a beautiful damsel with gorgeous facial features but she waddled like a duck. Suntanned, her deep almond eyes and high cheek bones complemented her full lips. But, her thick waist and oversized butt made her clumsy. I worried her 6-inch stilettos were not meant to support such a heavy load. “Have you had your future read?” Esther asked me one night after work. It was almost compulsory in those days for “management” to stay back after work and mingle with the staff in the smoke-filled boardroom. I used to go home smelling like an ashtray. With a bottle of West End Draught in her hand, she traipsed towards me and almost tripped over the waste paper basket. “So? Do you know what the future holds for you?” She insisted on knowing. “Yeah, sure.” I said. I was in Hong Kong a few years earlier, assessing a job prospect when The Mrs suggested we consulted the Gods in a Chinese temple we happened to walk past. “But, they told me nothing I didn’t already know.” The Gods told me not to accept the job offer, that Hong Kong was not a place for me and my young family to call home. The small one-bedder offered to me was barricaded like a prison to keep thieves and robbers out. The view from a small window was of a concrete jungle. The many small square compounds were concrete too. No flowering bushes, no Angsana trees laden with a golden bloom. Not a single tree, if I remember correctly. Esther told me to do myself a favour and have my future read by a Tarot medium. Which young and ambitious person doesn’t want to know their future, right? Apparently, 98% attend a Tarot reading for relationship reasons. Who to marry, who to break up with? The rest go to know about their health and wealth prospects. Why did I go? Curiosity, I guess. Esther insisted. She felt there was something I needed to know. So, I went. But, I went prepared. I was not going to reveal anything to the Tarot reader, I said. No ring on my finger, no watch, no Pierre Cardin suit. I parked behind her street and walked to her house. I did not show off my blue XF Fairmont Ghia. I kept my body language to a minimum, and hardly said a word. No easy clues for her! Yet, she knew a lot about me. She knew about my weaker left eye. Was I squinting? She knew about my weak tummy – maybe I left a hint of overnight fart in my pants? She knew about my toe problems which only became apparent to me last year. She knew I lacked fibre in my diet, but I was sure I did not look constipated. She told me to spend more time with my father – I am forever thankful I took her advice. She knew Pa had a very strong bond with me, he was “a very wise man. Very spiritual, a wonderful person.” She knew I need to be near water. She told me to build a nice pond, with a waterfall. She said I thrive on stress but the water will be calming for me. She told me about my windfall gain, ten years before AMP demutualised and gave me $36,000. She told me I would enjoy lots of international travel – what hints did I give her? None! She told me I would stay married to the same woman. Yeah, I am loyal like a dog, she could see that? She told me one of my sisters will divorce, many decades before it happened. Of the five sisters who married, one did divorce. 20%? That’s about the right odds, except she did not know how many sisters I have! I did not hold the Judgement card, no 20:20 but she told me I had the best card, the Magician’s card. With it, you can achieve whatever, as long as you believe it. Just do it, don’t hold back. Maybe it was the subliminal message that encouraged me to go into business for myself. Well, for The Mrs actually. The most accurate predictions she made were about my kids. She wasn’t told how many children I had. Yet, she knew I have three sons! She said First Son “has a scientific mind, exceptionally bright and very successful.” A doctor? A chemist? Well, he did Computer Science in uni. That is surely scientific! She said the other two sons would be both famous, known even as far away as in the streets of New York. Second Son sees his father as his idol, she continued. He does not suffer from peer group pressure. Baby Son is a total charmer, born with a golden spoon in his hand. I do not know about that idol bit, but she is spot on about the rest. Baby Son indeed is a “shuai ger”, a good-looking dude and as Pa used to say, “he can be a movie star!” There is one prediction that isn’t true though. Or, at least, it has not come true (yet). “There will definitely be a 4th child”, she repeated. She tapped at the Card of Birth and held it up. See? You will have another son. A true gift. Highly intelligent, a very special person. He will be very very well known, more famous than a politician. “Hmmm, more famous than our PM?” I asked.

Don’t Whine About The Wine

Australia’s largest trading partner is flexing their economic muscles. Our PM is a fool, mate. In chess parlance, he made a Fool’s mate. It is awfully difficult to drum up business – our trade emissaries would have spent millions wining and dining the Chinese, attended uncountable trade shows with our commerce delegates and perhaps even kowtowed to the throngs of Chinese buyers privately. Keeping a customer is often harder than winning one. To win one, you spend big on the marketing campaign and make sure your offer is of better value in terms of price and quality. To keep a customer, we have to exert so much more effort and at the same time incur ongoing expenses to keep the customer happy – honour our commitments, deliver more than we promise, maintain good communication channels and if necessary, keep a close relationship closer. Fix any problems quickly, stay competitive by regularly reviewing the quality and price of our products/services and avoid doing or saying anything to upset the customer. It is simply common sense, any average business understands these basic tenets. Yet, what do Aussie politicians do? They embark on a campaign to annoy our biggest trading partner. In weighing up the nation’s security versus prosperity, they choose to harm our economy by deciding that China poses a clear and present risk to our security. In 4G communications, Edward Snowden had already abundantly showed that no nation is safe from being spied on. PRISM is the American National Security Agency’s code name for their program in harvesting internet communications, without our knowledge and therefore without our permission, on a grand scale. So, why would 5G suddenly become a new threat to our security? Data from our communications is the number one source of raw intelligence – it always has been. It is not something new just because Huawei is at the forefront of the technology. What is new is that a Chinese company is leading the world in internet technology that will likely make it the authority on the Internet of Things. So, Huawei 5G has to be slowed down so that the US can hope to catch up. The Huawei decision is the first of many Australian narratives to loudly and publicly side with the Americans – this is seen as a necessary strategy to affirm the ANZUS treaty and to be regarded as a reliable member of the Five Eyes nations. As I said, the Aussie political elites embarked on a Fool’s mate when they continue to assume that the military alliance with the US is the best guarantee for our ongoing security despite the one obvious fact, i.e look at where Australia is situated on the world map and look at where the world’s largest economic power has shifted to. Look at the other Asian nations that are located much closer to China. Their biggest trading partner also happens to be China – they have their grievances and disputes, but hey, they do not grab their megaphone and loudly lambast China whenever their mood dictates. Everyone plays the long game; they know the end-game is to survive and prosper, despite their political differences. The ASEAN members have most to lose from China’s initiatives to corral back islands that historically belonged to China in the South China Sea. Historical claims are not valid under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled in 2016 in the case brought against China by the Philippines in 2013. But, who is the PCA? Contrary to popular belief, the PCA is not an agency of the United Nations, which may be why China therefore continues to ignore that ruling. ASEAN’s response has been mute unlike that of the Americans and Australians. China’s neighbours prefer to carry on doing business with their largest customer whereas the latter two which are located very far away from the disputed islands have been sending their warships to the hotspot for “war exercises”. Recently, India and Japan have joined them to form the QUAD, a military alliance to further annoy and threaten the Chinese. “You make me your enemy and we will be your enemy”, China has declared. Scomo, please do not touch your chess piece. Your next move could checkmate us. Do not run your country by running it to the ground. Be alert and be aware but do not mess up the nation’s economy by messing with our biggest trading partner. Remember, they are our biggest customer and we do not berate our customers with loud accusations and publicly confront them over their internal issues that we do not fully understand.

As if to further show our ignorance of our standing in the real world, some prominent Aussies have been quick to promote the boycott of products made in China. As if that would make a dent to their economy. Don’t we know they call us small potatoes? We, as a country, are no bigger than any of their big cities. The volumes we buy from them is pittance. Such unfriendly strategies are self-defeating, they only add fuel to the fire. We joined in the chorus about Trump’s “China virus” and foolishly and unilaterally called for an independent investigation into the source of the virus. It seems they have already decided the source is China since they have called for the investigation to start in Wuhan. Recent discoveries have suggested the virus was already present in Italy, Spain and in the US in late 2019. We lambast the Chinese about the Uighurs, Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Not so long ago, we saw fit to shake our finger at them for the exploitation of child labour and of untold damage to the environment. We scoffed at their empty residential towers, the highways to nowhere and the cities that are devoid of people. All that to perpetuate the outdated crass belief of white superiority over all others. That a small country like Australia can stand on the world’s lectern and think we can dictate to a global power with our free speech (at times evidence-free) shows our haughtiness and misplaced arrogance. The world has been the poorer when leaders show lack of leadership in the necessary art of mutual respect and courtesy.

Please pour me the wine
$88 for this? Where can you get it? Not in China!

Please stop me. Pour me the wine and I shan’t whine anymore. Sai weng shi ma, yan zhi fei fu. 塞翁失马, 焉知非福 When the bandit chief loses his best horse, is it bad news or good news? The stallion came home with a horde of mares and foals! When the bandit chief’s son broke his leg, is it bad news or good news? He remained safely at home and didn’t have to fight the enemies in battle. In the conflict between China and Australia, it is definitely good news for me! I love rock lobsters but never could afford them regularly. When I was last in Singapore, just a few years ago, Aussie rock lobsters there were cheaper than ones here! Then, a 2kg lobster with yi-mein (Cantonese egg noodles) cost well over $400 in Adelaide. My host in Singapore gleefully shouted me that dish and saved 1/4 of the price. It didn’t make sense then and it still doesn’t make sense now. Sure, overseas customers can afford it more so why do they pay less? In 2009, at a G’Day USA function in LA, I was shadowing the waitress who was serving the most delicious Spencer Gulf king prawns. She was a pretty lass, bright and alive, but I was actually eyeing her prawns. Those were the best South Australian prawns I ever tasted. Freshest, sweetest, most succulent. Ever. I shall reveal how many prawns I had that night. But I found them in LA, not home where they came from. It didn’t make sense then and it still doesn’t make sense now. Why is it we can’t buy the world’s best king prawns here? They are local! I understand the rich people overseas are willing to pay for them but hey, they usually get them free in events such as the G’Day USA which are funded by us taxpayers. Similarly, the same applies to all the best produce we churn out. Many years ago, I found our best pears, peaches and plums in Hong Kong and Singapore. Prices weren’t much different but they get the best, handpicked, I suspect. We get the deformed ones, the smaller ones. We get the tasteless varieties, picked two seasons earlier and frozen just for us. It didn’t make sense then and it still doesn’t make sense now. A couple of years ago, my sister from London came to visit us. Her hubby loves French wine but he was finally swayed by some of the Barossa’s best. They were good enough for him to cart a box back. It’s hard to understand and even if some of them didn’t break in-transit, those premium wines were cheaper in the UK than the cellar-door prices we paid here in our backyard. It didn’t make sense then and it sure still doesn’t make sense now. I love a good steak too. Our Angus beef has a unique exquisite taste due to its marbling. But a good ribeye was reserved only for Christmas, and only when our good neighbours invite us over. My excuse? Only they have the sous vide machine! The price is simply unaffordable, since the Japanese and Singaporeans can outbid us for our steaks. But, there is good news on the horizon. China this week just banned another Aussie beef exporter. I think we will still have our ribeye this Christmas after all, even though our good neighbours cannot come back in time due to the pandemic.

Cooking steak is a science these days!
Looking forward to half-price ribeye this Christmas
Christmas 2019

China has stopped buying wine from us. I know, I know we should be happy as we get to enjoy our great wines at a low price. I shan’t whine about it but I just realised my wine collection has depreciated in value by a lot! A good excuse to drink more, I suppose. Cheers!

A Gambit Or A Gamble?

The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix has been my source of entertainment this week. An orphan girl discovers life in an institution isn’t so mundane when she found the janitor playing chess by himself. She skips lessons and in-house movie sessions and finds every excuse to clean the blackboard dusters so that she can watch him play in the basement. During the day, she is addicted to thoughts about the game and she realises the white-and-green pills prescribed to calm the orphans’ behaviour somehow sharpens her mind to focus on chess. In bed, whilst the others are sleeping, she is looking up at the ceiling where the giant chess pieces are being moved by her mind – this is how she memorises the new moves, and searches for any flaws. Memories of my life as a young father flood my mind as I follow episodes 2 and 3. The journey my sons took in their pursuit of their passion are quite similar. The discovery of something that pulls at their hearts. An inextinguishable passion. An insatiable love, in their case, for music. Not just cello music, anything classical, and later, any music. Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, John Williams, Norah Jones, Adele even. The discovery of young talent, almost prodigious some said, is a beautiful feeling. Especially when it’s one’s own children. And then, the scary phase. What their teacher saw in them and believed to be their destiny seemed far-fetch and unimaginable. To extrapolate a young child’s passion to some irrational and ludicrous goal of national stardom was irresponsible, I felt then. It is a lot worse when there are two of them. “They are just kids!” I said. “Just let them play at their leisure, no goals, no pressure, just for fun”. “How can we be the fair and responsible parents we think we are if we dictate what their careers will be when they are only 6 years-old?” So many what-if’s. What if they lose their interest halfway? Will they have anything to fall back on? What if one does well and the other doesn’t? What if they both do well but we cannot afford either of them to pursue their dreams? What if we can only fund one but not both? What if we mortgaged our house but still come up short? What if business turns bad and we can’t afford the loan anymore? What if they are stranded midway? What if they lose interest? What if they mixed with the wrong crowd? What if they flopped and blame us for the gamble? The following year, their teacher, Mrs Yelland, enrolled them in a local Eisteddfod competition. “No! No competition!” The Mrs bellowed with a certain non-negotiable voice. “We are too busy, we work everyday. We can’t chauffeur them there and everywhere” she reasoned. Mrs Yelland, with her usual wit and alacrity, said she would do all that for them. “It will be fun for them!” she assured us. “I will buy them a cupcake at the deli”, as if that was all it would take to erase our anxiety. “What if they bomb out?” I asked myself. They don’t have to win a medal but for me it was equally imperative that they don’t permanently scar themselves from a disastrous experience. What if they break down on stage? What if they suffer a memory lapse? What if one wins and the other fails badly? Why teach them to compete with each other? What if both embarrass themselves? What if they are below par, not good at all? The best result I hoped for them was a draw for both. It did not matter about the placing. We got the next best result instead. One came first and the other second. The latter asked me for a can of gold Duplicolor paint from our auto shop on our way home. He insisted that he would spray-paint his silver medal. He was right, of course. They both deserved the gold medal. Call it a draw. Just like the story in The Queen’s Gambit, once they got the competition bug, they just kept winning. They defeated all and sundry, even those far older than them, even those in high school. Even those in uni. In their last Eisteddfod competition, they clinched the senior prize, as joint winners. The ideal result for them, finally. No, not for them. For me. Just like in the mini-series, I started a scrapbook to keep a record of their success. After that, there were lots of air travel to compete in the Young Performers’ Awards. Fondly known as the YPA, it remains the ultimate classical music competition for Australians. The national competition attracted people almost twice their age and included professionals too. One of my sons won the YPA, and soon after, the scrapbook became a drawer of media clippings and magazine write-ups which spilled over and became two drawerfuls. By the time they left for the UK, I needed a full-size travel luggage bag to keep them all. They left home at 15 to further their studies at a university in Queensland. The following year, our local university reversed their decision not to accept under-aged kids and provided them with full scholarships to entice them back. Little did the uni know that we did not need any enticements, as it was a big strain on us financially to fund their tertiary education away from home. For their postgraduate degree, they won a competition to study under a world-renowned pedagogue in the UK. That was a big deal, as the grand old master taught only 7 students a year. For both to be accepted, it meant the rest of the world could only muster 5 other students to be taught by him. Many of the what-ifs did not happen, and I am still grateful for that. Both of them managed to secure full scholarships for the majority of their time in the UK, I did not have to re-mortgage my house after all. OK, I just lied. I did take up a mortgage against the family house to fund their instruments. In those days, one stringed-instrument was as expensive as an average suburban house and a bow the price of a second-hand car. So, each of them was lugging the equivalent of a house and car on his back. Thankfully, The Mrs did not ever object to my “madness” as my mother called it. Ma, with immense exasperation, said I was out of my mind to put such a burden on myself but that was a father’s prerogative. A father’s gambit. How else could they have competed against the world’s best?

Not many world-class chess players risk their queen in opening moves. The Queen’s Gambit is similar to the Scandinavian Defense (1.e4d5) which features queen moves by Black on the second and third moves. But, instead of 1.e4d5, the Queen’s Gambit starts with 1.d4d5 followed by 2.c4 where White appears to sacrifice the c-4 pawn. But, can Black later protect its own pawn from this apparent advantage? Political manoeuvres and the deployment of strategies by our government officials to engage our allies and foe similarly require astute thinking and planning well before words are spoken and actions taken. This was not the case this week when Prime Minister Scott Morrison (aka Scomo) reacted to a mischievous tweet indulgently and without prior discussions with his cabinet team. The Brereton Report revealed war crimes committed by Australia’s SAS soldiers. 39 Afghans were killed, of whom some were tortured, and two teenagers had their throats slit. They called it blooding, the first-time killing of the enemy in a war. In this case, the murdered Afghans were used as props with enemy weapons placed on or near their bodies to depict them as killed in action. Scomo’s foolish reaction to the “repugnant” tweet by a middle-ranking Chinese official and his indignant demand for an apology from China is likened to President Xi admonishing a local Aussie city council official and demanding the nation’s apology for that private person’s behaviour. In chess parlance, Scomo made a Fool’s mate, the briefest checkmate delivered after an extraordinary blunder from a ill-disciplined bluster. After all, there is no denying the ADF personnel did commit abhorrent war crimes, and that the image tweeted was not a fake photo. Many in the media reported it as “digitally altered” but that does not mean it is not art. A piece of art that depicts a vulgar reality which then encourages analysis and in-depth discussions is good art, especially if it also resonates with the viewer and arouses emotions. There is absolutely zero chance that President Xi will reciprocate with an apology that was demanded by a very angry leader of a middle-power nation. So, why did Scomo make such an ill-advised move? Why ditch diplomacy and treat our biggest customer as our enemy?

China represents 48.8% of our exports. Why treat them like they are our enemy? China has said recently, “Treat us like your enemy and we will be your enemy”. Why did Scomo make a move that will only end in defeat? He demanded an apology, but that will not come. He demanded that Twitter takes down the tweet, but Twitter has not only ignored his demand but has not slapped a warning label on the tweet to say it is misleading or fake. He posted a lengthy message to the Chinese diaspora in Australia on WeChat but that has been removed by WeChat as they deem it to be misleading, distorting the truth and confusing the public. I suppose that is the PM’s gambit. But, his gamble spells economic disaster for his nation. Let us hope it will not also be a military disaster. See https://www.afr.com/policy/economy/china-hits-48-8pc-of-australian-exports-20200804-p55i9d

The PM’s gambit, a gamble that will surely fail

Hooray For Murray II

I miss Murray today. I got up at the usual time before the pendulum clock struck seven times in my mind. The made-in-occupied-Japan clock stopped working years ago. The Mrs threw it into the green bin but I salvaged it for whatever emotional value it still gives me. I can still hear its loud ticking and metallic strikes, sounds that I mostly fondly remember, but that is because I was never an insomniac. Its six o’clock strikes in the evening, however, were the most dreaded sounds during my early teens. It meant I had to go upstairs to close the venetian windows in the haunted shop house. It was usual for me to feel the hair on the back of my neck stand whenever I rushed past my grandma’s huge photo above her altar. That photo seemed to grow bigger as I grew bigger. Grandma’s eyes followed me in whichever direction I ran. Even when I tip-toed. But, I digress, let me return to Murray. It didn’t feel usual this morning. Murray wasn’t downstairs wagging his tail with his precious teddy bear hanging from his teeth. He bites on it so that he doesn’t inadvertently bite my hand from his enthusiastic welcome. He was not here to greet me like I have just returned after an eternity from a faraway place. His teddy bear is his first toy but it is the only one that has survived intact. I reckon his first toy has a psychological hold on him, maybe he can relate to Linus’s security blanket in Peanuts. Almost all his other toys were consigned to the rubbish tip very early on. His monkey will follow soon – it has been completely gutted and has only one limb left. “Monkey” used to be chubby and happy but he lost his squeak ever since the white fluffy cotton inside him was devoured by the ruthless pup. The plastic part that squeaks when he tramples on it or shakes it violently like a wounded prey has long been bitten into small pieces. The family room was just quiet, stuffy and stale with a faint scent of sambal oelek, after yet another 40-degree day yesterday. Murray had gone home with First Son the night before. He didn’t even look back to say goodbye. There was no woeful look on his face to tell me he didn’t want to leave. There was no “thank you” licking, no tail behind his legs to show his sadness that he wasn’t asked for his opinion to stay or go. He just sat obediently to be leashed and led away. First Son turned the light off at the porch and locked the front door. At least he said “bye” to me. Murray gave me nothing, not even a nod.

A home-sick Murray. When can he visit his mum in Murray Bridge?

Hooray for Murray. I read that the prices for pooches have almost doubled during the pandemic. Murray has turned out to be a fantastic investment! The lockdown had desperate people yearning for companionship, what better loyal friend than a pet dog, right? I love my gold fish but guppies aren’t puppies, not quite as cute and cuddly. I have always kept fish, right from primary school days. In fact, that was how I unfriended the boy who lived next door. He climbed over the back balcony wall and swapped my beautiful hand-selected goldfish with his inferior ones. His reaction when I challenged him? He swapped back what was his, the smartypants smirked and retorted. What an urghhling. He showed less grace and feelings than fish. When an old shubunkin I had was dying, its mates gathered around her and comforted her with their long tails. One old companion of hers curled its body close to hers for quite a long while, as if to hug her with palliative care. Yes, fish have feelings and a level of consciousness that seem to understand that death is upon them. Similarly, chooks also know when the stench of death is near. A few years ago, my chook run was penetrated by a fox. I used to accept that carnivorous animals kill but only for food. No matter how violently or bloody, death was seldom quick for the prey. I wrongly believed that in the animal kingdom, it is only human beings that kill for fun. Witness the gladiator, the matador, the safari hunter, the circus, the Melbourne Cup, the Royal Ascot, the Queen’s Cup steeplechase, etc, etc. I was shocked to learn that a fox kills for fun also. I lost three chooks that morning. I lost faith in animals. Dolly lost her head, but otherwise, their bodies were not eaten. All day, the surviving chooks were both very quiet, as if in deep mourning. That evening, I witnessed Brooke, my brown chook, extending a comforting wing around her companion as they perched together, fearful of the impending darkness. Poor Reddy, like me, has not been the same ever since that trauma.

Hens do lend each other a comforting hand

I fell in love with a black puppy that I met at a rubber plantation. “I want it, Pa!” Pa said no, that was going to be someone’s dinner one day. They killed dogs by stringing them up on a tree and bashing them until they yelped no more. Those poor loyal dogs trusted the gangly balding bloke whom I called “Ah Song”. Tanned and hardened, he had hands as strong as a vice, and eyes as cold as steel in winter. “Why doesn’t he put his dog in a gunny sack and drown it in the river?” Pa didn’t answer me. But, that conversation changed his mind and he gave the black puppy to me instead. I called him Shiny on account of his black shiny hair. He was my only pal at home. Whenever I got my hair pulled by a couple of bigger sisters, I’d go to Shiny and tell him about those bullies. That was how I became a cynophile. Cynophile, a dog lover, not sinophile. The Mrs is Chinese, I suppose I can be described as a sinophile too. But she calls me a thu-fei. Unfairly, I should add. What is a thu-fei, you ask? It’s bandits in Mandarin. You know, in kungfu movies, they are rogues dressed in black desperately in need of a good bath and they predictably die in the first few seconds flailing against the hero in white. I got into trouble with The Mrs once for being a fool. She reminded me our wedding anniversary is in March. Every year. Last March, I said “No way! It’s either in February or October”. “Not funny!” she yelled. It’s actually a true story. My very close friend who is as dear to me as a close brother, related his story to me. Richard and Cindy were married in Sydney in October 1979 but his dad misheard they were going back to Penang for their wedding in February that year. In Shanghainese, “Ding huang” is an engagement whereas “Cheak huang” means a wedding. They went back to Penang for their engagement but it became clear to the bride she needed to have brought along her wedding gown! Everyone thought it was their wedding day, a tea ceremony was included too. Theirs is a beautiful love story. Last year, they renewed their wedding vows on a love boat. Pre-pandemic, love stories on love boats were enviable. Next March will be my Ruby anniversary with The Mrs. Surely, it will be safe to take the COVID vaccine and go on a love boat too?

My love for Murray is unlike Shiny’s. It was not love at first sight. I wanted his brother instead. Murray was previously known as Harley, his brother was nameless – the weaker one, but more adorable. I could have doubled my money too, had there been no objections to having a dog at home. You see, The Mrs is an airulophile, a cat lover. But, Murray has turned her around, she now loves dogs too. What’s the word for someone who is both a cat-lover and dog-lover? Fickle? The Mrs holds vetoing rights. Her “no” is louder than mine! She didn’t want a dog. She offered many weak excuses. “Our old carpet would be ruined with dog pee”. “Our old furniture would be scratched”. “Our tiled floor would be dirty with mud-caked paw prints”. But, The Mrs too has fallen in love with Murray. Love that grows over time is the stronger love. Those who fall in love at first sight can also fall out of love quickly. What we call puppy love, a brief fascination or crush for someone when we were very young. But let us not decry our first love, Sigmund Freud recognised the durability of first loves. Why do we refer our childhood crush for someone as puppy love? Could it be that we understand how a puppy loves? With utmost loyalty, unbridled admiration and unconditional respect for us? Maybe even as great as worshipping us? Can we love our puppies as much as they love us? Murray insists on sitting on my lap during office hours. It is a wonderfully warm and fuzzy feeling especially during the cold wintry days. But, it’s not so comfortable in summer. It is another 40-degree day today, I can’t imagine Murray would want to be enveloped by me at my desk but then again, why not? The puppy loves me! But I should teach him not to fart right into my arms as he has been prone to do lately. Murray, it stinks! But, he doesn’t give me the gelid look even as I try to push him away.

Murray is on the right.

Murray loves me. I know. He is amazingly caring, sometimes I think he is a nurse. When he visits, he unfailingly checks on my wound. There is a bad gash on my knee, I don’t even know how it got there. I think I woke up with it a few days ago. Murray inspects it with his nose, and gives me that reassuring look that all is well. The other day, he prompted me to change the band-aid after refusing to stop sniffing at it. I can tell he cares a lot. But, Murray, I wish you won’t ever feel compelled to kneel for your favourite Arnott’s Scotch Finger biscuits. You know, I will treat you some anyway, right? Hooray for Murray! Just like my pet fish and chooks, the pup shows being human isn’t necessarily being a human being.

Murray, you do not need to kneel, ok?

Hooray For Murray

It was deathly quiet again this morning. Reminiscent of the COVID-19 lockdown in February, this morning was free of petrol fumes and free of snarling traffic noise. South Australia had been COVID-free for seven months prior to the weekend. Recently, I got so cocky I bragged about how normal life here was. I even chided my neighbours for their hesitance in returning to Adelaide when they had the chance during a long lull of zero cases in Kuala Lumpur. Now, they can’t return as they are experiencing another serious wave there. Correction. Now, they won’t return since we are also now in a major six-day “circuit-breaker” lockdown. Kudos to the South Australian government. They have imposed a hard lockdown. It was reported in some quarters that these measures are extreme. Considering that there have been just 23 cases linked to the “medi-hotel” cluster, of which 17 are within the family of the security guard employed in the state’s medi-hotel system, and considering that there are zero cases on the first day of lockdown from over 20,000 tests carried out near the clusters, it does feel like the state premier has over-reacted to the threat. But, most agree it is better to be safe than sorry – just look at the woeful American experience. It is inevitable for the virus to escape into the community and as long as the country welcomes back returnees from overseas into the CBDs, spending their 14-day quarantine in the cities’ hotels, then this cycle of wave-on, wave-off will continue. It seems we are as cavalier and ruthless as the 14th-century Mongol army that hurled plague-infected cadavers over the walls of the besieged Crimean city of Caffa. The city folk did not stand a chance – the Mongols captured Caffa without having to brandish their weapons. We know it is nigh impossible to contain the virus in the confines of a hotel – the frontline workers have to return home to their families, or work that second job after hours – thereby providing an avenue for the coronavirus to leave the hotels. How do we prevent aerosol transmissions through the hotel air-conditioning systems? How do we expect these workers to be 100% vigilant at all times? Allowing returnees to come to the cities gives me the feeling that we are just like the Mongol army.

Luckily, we decided we qualify as a business that provides “essential services”. So, we can remain open for business. The cops may disagree. They may say 99.999% of the things we sell are non-essentials but hey, we sell face masks! For the first time, they are mandatory in South Australia. Hooray! It was with Murray’s nod that I imported some from China when things looked dire in April. I remember asking Murray at the time, should we? 要吗?He nodded and bowed politely. Yes. No one looks to buy face masks from my shop, we were stuck with dead stock. Murray had not been in my good books until now. But, today he is our hero! We can continue to trade just because of this one product alone! Who is Murray, you may ask. Murray is First Son’s pup, born in Murray Bridge. The state premier went overboard by decreeing that we can’t engage in outdoor exercises and that means we can’t walk our dogs outside either. But hooray for Murray! The police this afternoon agreed that since we can travel to the shops to buy our groceries once a day, and since walking is a form of transport, there is nothing wrong with me walking Murray to the shops. One thing is obvious though. If you’re a coffee addict, then you’re stuffed. Coffee shops are not allowed to trade during the lockdown. Only bottle shops can remain open to look after the alcoholics – we cannot have them feeling down in the dumps; they are known to be “moody” without their regular liquor boost.

Murray has to spend his lockdown with me. He can’t take it being restricted to the office or First Son’s little apartment all day. In his home, I imagine all he has to entertain himself is to bark at the traffic below his third floor apartment that overlooks one of Adelaide’s finest parks. But here, he has much more to occupy his time and amuse himself. He loves chasing the chooks, but they have not taken much notice of him ever since they discovered he is just all noise. He may growl menacingly, he may scratch frantically at the fence but they behave as if he’s invisible. Even when he barks crazily like a mad dog, they don’t hear him at all. Poor Murray, he doesn’t know he is being ignored. He acts like he thinks they are all afraid of him, he genuinely believes he’s the king of the backyard. But the old hens, they just give a little shake of their ever-growing fat behind and slowly walk away.

Murray acts like he is a hungry wolf but the chooks know he is toothless

When he is let out of my house, he soon disappears behind some shrubs. Murray hides when he does his poo, never in front of me. He is not shy to pee in front of me but poo? No. When I do mine, he understands why I close the toilet door too. We are polite with each other and know to allow ourselves some privacy during poop time. Once, I was too hasty and caught him smelling his own poop. I suppose that is how we can check on our own health sometimes.

Lately, he has been less inclined to run after tennis balls. He will play “fetch” a few times with me but there is never any hint from him when he does not want to play anymore. You’ll know when he is disinterested – he will simply not return with the ball. “Murray, Murray, where are you?” He makes the decision about which game to play. “给, give, Murray”. The ball will be precisely placed on my palm if he wants to play “fetch”. But, if he wants to play “goalie”, he will agitate side to side abruptly like a football goal-keeper who is about to face a penalty kick. Murray follows the EPL with me; it is not surprising that he can leap high and fast to stop a ball heading past him.

Murray is an ardent follower of the English Premier League

Often, he is just as keen to destroy the poor ball. To save it, you will need to ask him to give it back. He knows to drop it right at your foot. When I am engrossed at work, he will drop it on my foot repeatedly to remind me he is waiting for my turn to throw it. Sorry, Murray. I have quite often forgotten you are still there under my chair. It may be many minutes later before I realise I have left him tensed and poised, ready to pounce to block my next kick. He loves to accompany me at work. I do ask him for his opinion when there is a need to make an executive decision. More often than not, his input is not required when I am merely performing the menial tasks. So, he can be caught napping but hey, let us not blame him. Today, it is 37 degrees but the air-conditioning has not been turned on. We are an environmentally-friendly business. Some of my cynical Penang friends think I am just a scrooge, saving on my energy bill. Well, let us not entertain their idea for now.

Busy at work! Murray resting his eyes

Before I forget, let me show you Murray’s office. He has a nice chair to occupy when he wants to remind us he is the chairman of our company. Most times though, he would rather be at my desk supervising what I do. He has admonished me a few times for being curt and unfriendly with horrible customers who are horrors to deal with. Horace comes to mind. I am sure Murray prefers to work with me. First Son does not offer him any biscuits during morning tea breaks but I do! “Want some more, Murray? 还要吗?” Murray will nod his head unambiguously, of course.

Look at Murray’s pictures on the wall. His first doggy bone and his paw print on his 1st birthday

Murray shows me the way to place The Mrs in a happy mood from the very first moment she comes downstairs in the morning. He makes her feel like she is the most important person in his life the way he greets her. No, much more than that – he treats her like she is the only person in the world. Yes, that is how he tells her she is precious. Cherished and loved, unconditionally. No matter how hard she tries to leave her bedroom silently to surprise him, his ears prick with the slightest creak of the timber floor and the small lift of his head from my arm informs me he is fully alert of her impending arrival. He will jump off the pillow from my work desk and race to his sofa chair to grab his security blanket. His tail will be wagging as frantically as the mee goreng seller fanning his charcoal fire, eager to greet her like a long-lost best friend. He forgets he was with her last night, lazing on her ample body like a cherub whilst watching Netflix’s Bloodline S3 E8. He will give her his most adorable look, with those big round doe eyes as he bites on his security blanket. He is clever enough to know that shielding his sharp teeth will avoid any inadvertent cuts to her hands during his uncontrolled and frenzied morning welcome. He makes her feel incredibly important and indispensable with his insatiable desire for her hand to pat him continuously. Any attempt by her to remove her hand from hugging him will see him clawing it back towards his body. I should try that tonight. Will it work for me? Will she feel the love from me? Will she reciprocate like the way she pats and hugs him?

Murray knows when it is knock-off time. I can’t explain it, but he knows when I call it a day. Before I even close my laptop, he will be up on his legs, doing the Adho mukha svanasana or downward dog pose. He is very good at it, and unlike me, he has never attended a yoga lesson. My only yoga lesson was a free one, an introductory session whilst I was holidaying in Singapore. OK, Murray, our work is done for the week! Let’s go out and have some fun! Fun for me is the necessary duties in my neighbour’s garden. Clean the pond, and check on the filter. Water the fruit trees with the pond wastes. Feed the fish. Murray knows these chores must be done first before we can play. I can see him gnawing at a sun-parched bone, holding it upright with his front paws. Very good dining etiquette, Murray! He enjoys it like it’s the best rib-eye steak.

Yum! It is as good as a rib-eye steak

Murray loves scratching himself on the lawn. He has a tendency to go berserk and start running round and round the teardrop shaped putting green, growling away like a broken lawnmower that won’t start. I find him most endearing when he smiles and exposes his ugly teeth as he rubs his whole body on the synthetic grass. Bless my good neighbours for insisting on the fake lawn. A tedious job prevented! I lost my argument that fake grass does nothing to invigorate a sense of freshness that cut grass gives us. But that was before I found out that the green leaf volatiles cut grass give is their way of screaming out their distress at the damage inflicted on them. The “green” scent is a distress signal!

When it is close to dinner time, Murray loses interest in the games we play. He doesn’t have a watch yet his sense of time is uncannily accurate. He just knows when to abandon our game and rush home. He knows to sit at the door to be picked up. He understands he is not allowed into our home with dirty feet. It is routine for me to wash his feet first in the laundry tub. Murray offers his leg, one at a time, for me to wash. Clever boy! No one told me how to wash his bum – I don’t even know if it needs to be washed. I hope I am doing it correctly, wipe with a sponge and hose off with running water. We have dinner together. Having said that, I should correct myself. We start our dinner together, I should say. It only takes a minute or two for him to finish his meal but I am a slow eater. A meal lasts me 30 minutes easily. He is patient though. Once he knows there aren’t any second helpings for him, he will hop up onto his sofa chair and wait for me to do the dishes.

Where is my dinner?

The Mrs gets special attention at night. Murray simply knows how to please her. No one gets his attention at night bar her. Her lap belongs to Murray during Netflix time. The Mrs feels especially wanted and loved. Hooray for Murray. I have learned from him how to please The Mrs. It is so easy! Murray is always agreeable, he never argues with her. To him, she is always right! Completely right. Why didn’t I know that before? Before we say goodnight, Murray wants me to play chasey with him. I will run around the coffee table after him like how The Godfather chased his grandson around the tomato patch in the garden. Murray, I won’t collapse and fall down like The Godfather, right?

Netflix time with Murray

Soliloquy Spoils The Tranquility

It is the first Saturday of November today. The morning brings me the peace and calm that eluded me during the week. Murray, First Son’s puppy, sprints about the garden like a mad dog unleashed in a new place. He does not disrupt my peace, but that is before I discover the poo he left inside the old music room last night. The chooks, startled by a mischievous Murray, celebrate their release from the coop but their squawks only temporarily break the tranquility of a morning that is touched by the occasional cool whiff of fresh hillside breeze. The nosy magpies and noisy parakeets add to the harmony that The Mrs and I have infused into this creation of ours, our garden. There will be those who say they are as raucous as an open-air Italian food market but for me, their chirps and tweets are as musical as the flute section in a Rossini overture. I walk through the open side gate and the alluring scent of my neighbour’s rose garden awakens my senses. Perfect.

Gentrified tranquility disturbed by my soliloquy

But then it begins. Should I have brought a book with me? I should, at least once, use their nook designed to be a reading corner. But, what about the mozzies? It is still early and the bloodsuckers will be still hunting for victims. Talking about suckers, I think of losers. The way Trump describes the fallen US soldiers as suckers and losers. He may very well lose the election just because of that. John McCain’s widow decided to do something rather than just be angry with the President’s description of her hero.Yes, the late John McCain was a war hero. War heroes, we should honour them lest we forget. Instead, Trump dishonoured their fallen heroes. Will Cindy McCain have done enough to flip the traditionally red Arizona to the Democrats? One would think insulting the nation’s war heroes would be the ultimate act of treason by their Commander-in-Chief, right? Yet there we have it. Over 70 million of Americans just voted for Trump last Tuesday. Go figure! But who can? There is simply no ounce of logic that can describe it in words, let alone justify it. Trump’s loyal base is predominantly less educated, white and live in the sticks. But, many live in rich cities with thriving economies like Miami in Florida too. Yet, this time round, the landslide that many pundits predicted Trump will lose by, has been largely avoided with the help of Cubans and Latinos. Didn’t Trump make it clear he dislikes black immigrants? Don’t they come from shithole countries, he asked? Didn’t he say Nigerians will never “go back to their huts”, after visiting the United States? In May 2018, he said undocumented immigrants are animals. His failure to treat the pandemic as a serious health threat to the American people raises the spectre that here is a man who is only concerned about saving his own political career. He puts his re-election success ahead of the lives of his people by prioritising an open economy over the proven measures of social-distancing and washing hands when COVID cases were starting to increase. He politicised the simple and effective responsibility of wearing masks. Lockdowns and contact-tracing are tough choices to make but when governors adopted such policies when the science said there is no other choice, he tweeted his army of loyal supporters to LIBERATE those cities. He is playing with people’s lives with his political games, over 240,000 dead and almost 10 million infected in the country whilst he presides over his election campaign. Yeah, for him, that’s all that matters – four more years. Enough about him. The garden’s tranquility has been unnecessarily broken. There is no sign of the dreaded mozzie. So, I decide to head towards the reading nook where I can rest awhile to clear my head from the incomprehensible Americans, yes, all 70 million of them.

I should have brought my book to read here.

Murray is telling me he is hungry. He does not practise fasting and I should not impose my discipline on him. Let me pick a few cherries for Murray first.

Leave these cherries to ripen a bit more? The birds will say I should!
My favourite fruit tree will deliver an abundance of the juiciest prune fruit soon!

Whilst Murray is exploring the garden and looking for a good spot to do his “early morning business”, I decided to sit by the creek and listen to the gentle sounds of running water. Now, that is relaxing and soothing, isn’t it, Murray? Murray? He’s nowhere to be seen. Murray used to stick close to me, a bit like my shadow. But of course, he is now two years old. He isn’t so “liam-liam”, (hokkien for clingy) anymore. Which is good. I never liked him standing at the toilet door, waiting for me to finish “my job”. I had to be as quiet as possible knowing he is within hearing distance. He is becoming lazier too. Or, maybe smarter. He doesn’t think a smart dog should be fetching the ball over and over again when all I do is throw it away every time he brings it to me. He is often seen lazing in the sun rather than running around chasing a tennis ball these days.

Murray from Murray Bridge, on the bridge
The garden offers the best place for a therapeutic experience.
Murray, are you playing hide and seek again?

Murray, where did you go? He tells me he wants to explore the front garden. Maybe I should too. Just so I can genuinely praise The Mrs for the effort she has put in this week. Unlike her, I have neglected the front garden due to time constraints. The clock does not stop ticking when I occupy myself at work or watch the progress of the US election. The latter has seen me spend much time in front of the TV this week. The neighbours have not been back this year. The pandemic has snipped their wings – they haven’t been able to fly anywhere since Christmas. They could come back, of course, but they cannot imagine being stuck in a hotel room for 14 days. Plus, it would be risky to be stuck in a plane with the likelihood of being seated next to someone who may test positive. So, we have not seen them all year and being the good neighbours that we are, we have been looking after their garden whilst they are stuck overseas. Murray, don’t run out to the street, ok?

It’s the chook poo that these roses love!

But, it didn’t take me long to ask myself what do 70 million Americans see in Donald Trump? I can understand the Taiwanese barracking for him; after all, they would look to him as their saviour against China’s President Xi who has repeatedly said Taiwan is part of China and will one day be reunited with the mainland. Somehow, Trump’s blatant lies and divisive tweets do not faze his supporters. They love him because they don’t see him as a politician even though he has been in politics for over five years now since he announced he was running for presidency in June 2015. Why are these 70 million Americans not turned off by Trump when he tells the world he will not accept the results of the election should he lose because it will mean it was rigged and stolen from him? And that he will not promise a peaceful handover? That’s just nuts that the leader of the supposedly greatest democracy of the world can risk a civil war in his country just because he will not accept the will of his people! In the US, more than 1,000 people are dying from the coronavirus every day in recent weeks. Yet, these voters believe him and his quackery about the pandemic. Downplaying the virus is of course self-serving for the President who believes he cannot lose the election, but it is costing misery and death in America. Donald, you’re a quack. Quack, quack. Why is Donald Trump so popular despite his many flaws? Or is it because of his thorough disagreeableness and his proclivity for malicious bullying that almost half of the American population flock to him? After all, he denigrates all and sundry – his opponents as well as his allies – but never once has he criticised his supporters. Stop! I should stop talking to myself. It is disturbing that I am so out of touch with reality. I cannot see what 70 million Americans see. What is so good about their President? By now, the tranquility the garden offered me is totally gone and I should also leave.

My Pa, My Pal

I was very much glued to Pa when I was a young lad. Pa was not just my father to me, he was also my hero who could do no wrong. I would have followed him everywhere, ardently like his shadow, but I was only a kid. You know the ones, keep silent and know your place, be invisible. But, Pa didn’t treat me like a kid all the time. Sometimes, he would invite me to follow him. Even day trips to faraway places. I would wake up no matter how early – it would always be dark before the sun rose – and follow him excitedly to catch the early morning ferry to Prai and from there the long drive to inspect rubber plantations in Selama and Sungei Petani. Most times, the “tao-yu-tiam towkay” (Soy sauce King) would meet us at the ferry terminal but when he didn’t show, I would be doubly happier. It meant I could sit in the front of the car. Every trip was a cherished memory. I would watch Pa do what he did best, and that was to manage the operations and audit the results of the business by casually chatting with the supervisors and workers. He would take me to Penang San Kiang Association not for ping-pong games and tai chi lessons but for mahjong sessions. You would see us there, every weekend and even on the occasional week night. San Kiang Association was a club for migrants from the three Jiang’s in China, Jiangsu, Jiangxi and Chejiang. Pa usually won at mahjong. More often than not, I would see him pocket the winnings into his baggy trousers. It did not annoy me that I was sucking in all that stale air and tar-filled nicotine from the players’ breaths in the enclosed room. Pa was there smoking as well, and therefore, it would be nothing wrong with that. Pa was always smartly dressed and suitably attired for any occasion. He was my dear father, my pal. Whilst he was alive, I could never dream of calling him a friend. My young eyes saw Pa as way above that – superior, a higher authority that demanded respect. The patriarch. I did not question or doubt our patriarch, ever. Of course, I was wrong. I was just a kid. Pa was not the enlightened one. He did not belong to the noble class, he was not knighted. If anything, he was benighted during his youthful years. Ignorant, uneducated, and by today’s standard, rather deprived. He never pretended to be anything but true to himself – he never forgot his roots and regularly sent money home to his mother. He just carried himself so well – I felt he was simply faultless, as a son anyway. It was only after Pa passed away that Ma told me he sent back enough money for his siblings to buy a shop-house in Shaoxing.

11 June 1959, Pa visits his mother on his 2nd homecoming

Pa left home when he was just nine years old. Home was in Shaoxing. In those days, it was more than four hours away from Shanghai, the place of his apprentice indenture. During his apprenticeship, he quickly learned one rule – gobble down his food quickly or go hungry. There was never enough to share. He never learned the luxury of enjoying his food slowly and chewing deliberately. The skinny lad that was Pa went home penniless after two unforgettable years of hard slog, sweat and tears. He never admitted to crying, but I imagine he did. His masters reneged on paying him his paltry wages for the two years. They explained to him that he broke the contract when he returned home for Chinese New Year. It was a bad time to be living in China during the 1920s and 30s. I suppose that would be true right up to the Cultural Revolution also. Survival was the only game in town. If you wanted more, if you had a bigger dream but you were penniless, then the only option was to leave. Not long after he returned home, the reality of desperate poverty forced him to accept the offer from his boss and move to Malaya where greener pastures were promised to him. He arrived in Malaya in the early 1930s, with just a few dongpan (copper coins) to his name. His travel bag was made of cloth and contained only a few personal items. Unlike me, throughout his life, he never saw the need to carry a leather bag. Pa did not see the need for unnecessary flouting of material goods. In Malaya, opportunities were aplenty. Pa even taught himself basic book-keeping and English. But, life wasn’t meant to be easy for a new immigrant. During the Japanese Occupation, he was arrested for spying against the occupiers. Unknowingly, all he shared was a chess game by the roadside with an alleged communist sympathiser. That was enough reason to capture and torture both men. My father shared a chess game with a man he hardly knew. His battle strategies were on the chess board, nothing as serious as a resistance fighter plotting against the invaders. In jail, his own survival was being challenged and his life was a day-by-day proposition. At any moment, he could have been summoned by the Kenpetai for a beach-side execution. He reckoned he only survived because a fellow cell-mate, a teacher, had given up the fight to live. The dying man spurned his plain rice porridge and pushed his rations to my father instead. By the time I was born, Pa had built a profitable laundry business which catered to the needs of European expats, wealthy tourists who flocked to the Pearl of the Orient and RAAF personnel based in Butterworth. By then he had a small share in a coconut plantation and he managed the consortium’s first rubber plantation in Sungei Petani. He invited many relatives and clansmen from the San Kiang community to join him in these ventures. Many made comfortable livelihoods from the laundry operations that serviced the hotel industry in Penang. Those who joined him in the plantations business made a tidy fortune from the land sold off after the rubber plantations and oil palm estates were no longer productive. But, we do not have perfect stories to tell. Pa sold his shares too early when he moved to Australia – he missed out on the real estate bonanza. Others had bad stories to share too. There will be those who regretted moving to Penang, a big city in those days. Some of their children became addicted to drugs, some got involved with crime, some died young. There were illicit sexual escapades, broken marriages and failed investments. There were success stories but there were many flops too.

Pa and Ma at Penang Botanical Gardens in 1966

One of the earliest regrets I have was that of getting Pa in trouble when I was at pre-school age. I was playing by myself on the five-foot way in front of our shop-house one evening. It must have been just before 7pm when the daylight was about to disappear. It was getting dark but not pitch black that I could not see. I looked up as a car sped by and I thought it was Pa’s sky-blue 2-door 1962 Opel Rekord. Maybe it was my enthusiasm to enjoy an evening ride – my mind was quick to tell me it was him in the car, as a rear passenger. Excitedly, I yelled out and waved my hands “Pa! Pa! Stop, I want to go with you!” Ma rushed out from the shop and asked me what the commotion was about – what I saw and who I saw. Later that night, I was awakened by a huge row. Ma was confronting Pa over the incident. To say that their exchange was deafening is to put it mildly. I was so scared by the intensity and aggression of their voices yet I was curious to see what was going on. Hesitatingly, I lifted the pillow ever so slightly from my face and peeped out from behind the shadows. My small movement did not escape Pa as he continued with his denials that it was his car that zoomed past the house. My eyes met his sad eyes, as he moved his index finger up and down at me, as if to say “Hey son, you have really got me into trouble with your big mouth.” To this day, I cannot understand why he was rebuked for that. Maybe, he forgot to buy a loaf of bread that he promised Ma? Big Sis later corrected me – Pa’s Opel was metallic blue in colour. I respect my father. A lot. It would not have been easy to live with a woman like Ma. She has always lived frugally. A Ningbonese, a Penangite. Both exceedingly infamous for their extreme thrift. They carry the reputation as the “Chinese Jew or the Chinese Scotsman”. By that, I do not mean their religion or faith or race but their natural inclination to be extremely wise with their money. Ma would haggle about one cent with anyone in the wet market. Some of the seafood vendors and grocers would visibly shudder to see Ma approach their stalls. With eight children at home, how did she share one apple? Ma would slice that apple into eight pieces, equally. If one piece was slightly thicker, a slither would be cut from it to compensate the child who was short-changed. She taught us to be fair and equitable at all times but I also had to unlearn that to stop myself from being annoyingly exact in later life. Ma has a lifelong propensity to lose things despite being a very careful and fastidious person. She kept her precious jewellery and collectible coins hidden in nooks and crannies that people would not find and/or under layers of linen and clothing. I suppose she hid them so well even she herself had trouble finding some of them. For the record, I do believe some of her things were stolen and perhaps that was the reason for her paranoia. Her detailed account of what she lost in the shop-house convinced me there would be some truth in the matter. Too many workers and tenants lived in that house with us. Her fridge and food larder were daily audited and inspected also. Today, we know to eat our food freshly cooked and prepared from fresh ingredients for maximum nutrition but Ma The Frugal insists on living the way she has always lived, i.e. choose the oldest food in the fridge to eat first or those closest to or past their use-by date. She cannot bear to throw away food, even if they show early signs of decay. Can you imagine how long it would take Ma to prepare a meal? Selection of the ingredients alone would take a good half an hour. How did Pa put up with her fussing around at her fridge? Her fussing and rummaging at the nooks and crannies? How did he cope with her remonstrations when her mind told her some precious item was missing? How did he keep his sanity from her insane suspicions? Ma was here at my home for lunch yesterday. She decided it was her prerogative to also inspect my larder and fridge. Maybe it was just her curious mind at work, checking price tags to see if I am a shrewd shopper. Relax, Ma. I am a Ningbonese. A Penangite too.

1988, Pa after his daily morning exercises, at our Highbury home

Pa settled in Australia in 1988. He was only 71 then. At the time, I thought he was a very old man with a bad limp, compliments of a stroke which struck him on his 60th birthday party. Pa fought the disease with every ounce of will he had. He was a fighter, the type who would just not stay down. It was inspiring to see him beat the disease with his tenacity and remarkable discipline. Pa spent a good chunk of his mornings going through his very thorough exercise routine which included long walks followed by the gentle yet strenuous Tai chi moves. Ma and my eldest sister, Big Sis arrived a couple of months later. They had to make sure all Ma’s precious belongings were packed properly in the container and more importantly, accounted for. Many of Ma’s boxes and bags of belongings remain unused or should I say, useless. Unused but not unpacked. Of course, she regularly unpacks them, inspects and checks before repacking them carefully. They are still precious to her – once upon a time, paid for with hard-earned money, prised from proud savings, with big plans to use them for so-and-so and for whatever occasion. They remain valuable to her, brand new but destined for the rubbish tip if Vinnies or The Salvos reject them one day.

Pa suffered two more strokes during his years in Adelaide. They were mini ones. The problem with mini strokes was that they were not alarming. Sure, we were more attentive to Pa’s diet but most of us did not heed the warning signs seriously. Some of us continued to take Pa to his favourite fish and chips joint. The fish is fine but the chips? They are deep-fried and contain high salt. Not recommended for a stroke patient. Pa came to stay with me for a few weeks when both Ma and Big Sis went back to Penang and Kuala Lumpur for a holiday. They were Pa’s carers, they needed more than a brief respite. A sister took Pa for a medical check-up after his stay with me. His blood pressure and cholesterol levels were high. A letter came soon after. From her, who else? In it, she accused me of providing Pa with unhealthy food. Did you take him to KFC all the time, perhaps insinuating that The Mrs was too lazy to cook? Nope. I did not. Pa ate what we ate and for the record, we have not consumed KFC food for many decades. But, I did not bother to reply to that unreasonable letter. After Ma and Big Sis returned from their holiday, it was decided Pa had to be moved to a nursing home permanently. He had fallen down whilst putting on his coat and broke his leg. After that, his health started to deteriorate slowly but surely. Although Pa fervently exercised every morning, he was diagnosed with Type-2 diabetes. If only back then the science existed to inform us that Type-2 diabetes is reversible simply by fasting. Our ignorance ultimately led to Pa losing his left leg. His foot was always freshly bandaged, professionally and properly. My eyes never went past the clean, bleached-white bandage. It made me assume the nursing home was doing everything right to treat his wound. They never told us it was so bad that there was a risk for gangrene. Pa, I am so sorry I did not do all I could to take better care of you. I trusted the professionals unreservedly. We all did. How foolish and ignorant of us. Despite my daily visits, despite the time spent with you, I did nothing to prevent the loss of your limb. I remember the subsequent years you suffered from the phantom pain. I remember your reluctance to lose your leg due to the old Chinese belief that we must enter the next world with our whole body intact to ensure a good next-life. I admire your consent to the amputation without a whimper. No complaints, no protests, no finger-pointing. I sensed your huge reluctance but thankfully, you kept it brief.

Pa stayed in a nursing home for four years. He would have hated it there, at St Basil’s nursing home in St Peters. But, being the wise and considerate man that he was, he understood the circumstances and never complained. Earlier on, he asked to go back home but Ma explained it very well to him – she and Big Sis were not able to take care of him anymore. Pa was susceptible to falling and they didn’t have the physical strength to move him let alone lift him off the ground. That was that. Pa just accepted it and never insisted on having it his way. He never made it ugly for us. He didn’t try to make us feel guilty. There were no tantrums, no whingeing, no ploys to manipulate any of us. He always greeted me with a smile whenever I visited him at St Basil’s and that was daily. Occasionally, twice daily if he wasn’t his usual chirpy self. It was habitual for me to stop in front of his room and wash my hands at the wash basin directly opposite his bed, before entering his room. If he was awake, he’d be sure to call out my name to welcome me. “Yung-gor, nung yu khung lei ah?“, he asked in his Shaoxing dialect how is it I had time to visit. Pa was always pleasant to be with, right to the end. His end didn’t come quick enough for him though. He told me to “help him go” if ever he was bed-ridden. That was about 18 months before he lost the ability to move by himself. I told him if it happened, hopefully by then it would be legal to do so. Pa didn’t agree it should be illegal to help a loved one die with dignity. But, the pro-life lobby is too powerful. It should not be a crime but it still is in South Australia. It should be seen as an act of love. The offender should not have to face the consequences of which there are many – legal, emotional and psychological. Pa lingered on and the last year of his life was pretty ordinary. He had trouble swallowing his food, and once he could no longer enjoy his meals, he lost interest in the meaning of life. One day, he told me he missed a good plate of Char Koay Teow, a famous Penang street food. I served it to him, blended and therefore gooey. He finished it without a sigh. And later on, he did not even want to go out anymore. It became too hard to move him from his bed, even with a mechanical lifter. The straps hurt him, maybe the nurses were too heavy-handed and bruised his bed sores but his dignity was likely bruised too. If you can picture cattle being lifted high for slaughter, then you can understand his feelings at the time. His last six months would have been tortuous for him. His eyesight was failing, he had become incontinent and he had even lost the enjoyment of an outing. Visits to his favourite restaurants ceased. I used to push him to the nearby Jade View Chinese Restaurant for the occasional lunch. He would be on his wheelchair, bright and attentive of the surroundings as I deftly manoeuvred his two-wheeler along the footpaths leading to the restaurant. I knew every root-damaged pavement and every bump on the footpaths in that section of the neighbourhood.

One graffiti artist thinks the plural for graffiti has an ‘s”

Pa loved life. I think he was thankful of the life that had been dished out to him. No matter that he had it tough at the beginning. The bitter days away from home at such a tender age. The nights he went to sleep hungry and cold. The loneliness and fear the young boy would have felt in a foreign place far from his mother’s bosom. And then to arrive as a teenager, on a foreign land with foreign smells and foreign-looking people, alone without family and friends, with just a few copper coins to get by? Scary. The sense of adventure may have been a thrill, the limitless potential for a new life exhilarating, even. But, the uncertainty and the unknown would have been equally daunting. I think Pa counted his blessings and appreciated what he had. He knew life could have been a whole lot worse than what he had carved out for himself. He was never one to complain about bad luck or to dwell on negatives. Two months after he turned 91, Pa left this world on 10 April 2007 but he hasn’t left me. I keep him in my heart, always. He calls out to me to be strong when times are challenging. He tells me to look at the positives when troubles direct my attention to the negatives. He reminds me of his wisdom when my impulses want me to be rash. He insists I walk on the right side to avoid the Urghhlings on the wrong side. Pa, you’re my pal and my beloved father. I thank you for everything you did for me. You were the stepping stone for me to build our next generation. The luxury of vocation, the opportunity to follow our dreams, is the legacy of your toil and sacrifice.

My family in 1960, I am on Pa’s lap

Mum About Mum VII

Throughout my life, I have declared I am my parents’ 7th child. Every legal document listing the names of my family members will reveal that; including the application forms to support my siblings’ applications to come over as Australian permanent residents, states that fact. But, the penny just dropped. I was Ma’s 11th pregnancy. In her mind, I would be her 11th child. It is not as if Ma never mentioned them. On the contrary. They are remembered by Ma on every anniversary of their demise. Some times, she would tell me he or she was born on a particular day. Ma reminisced about them recently. I paused ever so briefly, after she mentioned all of them to me. The weight of her emotions did not even cause a ripple on my conscience such was the impervious layer of my apathy. Maybe I did not detect her sadness. Maybe she said it matter-of-factly. Maybe I had heard it too often from her. Maybe, in my mind, they were not born and therefore were inconsequential to be mourned for and remembered. Life goes on? They did not even earn a little patch of ground to prove their existence in this world. No grave, no headstone, nameless forever. The truth is I would not exist, had they survived. There were four of them, in fact. Three were miscarriages, between 3 to 6 months old. Ma curled up her fingers and pointed to her palm. “He was just this big.” I think she was referring to the last one. Ma was only given a quick glimpse each time. The first was in June 1948, a 6-month-old foetus, a boy. The following year, there were three more casualties. Deaths, in fact. The second fatality was another 6-month-old, a girl, followed by the “beautiful boy who flashed Pa the sweetest smile”. He survived his slightly premature birth, but he did not hang around to enjoy a cuddle from Ma. He sneezed and died minutes later whilst Ma was being washed by the midwife. In December 1949, Ma lost another boy, a 3-month-old foetus. Ma does not know how they were disposed of. There is no record, no trace, no certification of their existence however temporary, no funeral, no evidence. They only exist in Ma’s memory. Even Big Sis cannot vouch for them. Big Sis was born in 1943. I arrived 15 years later. Penang was already a very different place. Big Sis was born during the Japanese occupation of Malaya. She experienced terror that I only read about or watch on the news with little emotion. Terror that does not haunt me despite the news anchor’s warning that they contain graphic scenes that viewers may find disturbing. Big Sis’ cries had to be stifled in the fields behind Anson Road on nights when the Japanese carried out joint operations from the air and on the ground. It did cross Ma’s mind that someone could have strangled her baby to death had she not stopped crying. They would not let one baby jeopardise the lives of many, right? Big Sis was a cry-baby, a noisy one, Ma’s neighbours often complained. It is easy to understand why. After all, we all know a hungry man is an angry man. A hungry baby is a cry-baby. During the war years, there was little time to rest or sleep and scarcely anything to eat. Not surprisingly, Ma produced insufficient breast milk to keep her baby contented. No one could afford powdered milk then, and even condensed milk diluted with water was beyond their budget. Condensed milk would become the cause of my elder siblings’ poor dental health later on in their lives. After the war, Ma fell pregnant almost every year for fifteen years except for 1949. That year, she was pregnant three times. Ma never suffered from tokophobia, despite the recurring pregnancies and multiple miscarriages. Prior to carrying me in her womb, she did not once try to abort a pregnancy. She did not try the pineapple solution either. Some of her peers suggested a heavy pineapple diet will minimise the chance of a pregnancy by increasing the acidity of her womb. But, today’s research suggests the enzyme in pineapple, bromelain, is conducive to help women with implantation issues. Maybe, Ma misunderstood her peers. Maybe they meant for her to rub pineapple on her private parts to kill off Pa’s sperm, but that is also another myth. Pa and Ma brought Big Sis to visit Ma’s mum, Ngabo, in Bagan Datoh for the first time in 1946. There, Ma’s youngest sister, Suleh Ahyi made a huge impression on Big Sis. She was so skilful in harvesting sugar cane and stripping the bark of the cane with a chopper. Suleh Ahyi was about 12 years-old then. What impressed Big Sis the most was the way the bare-footed Suleh Ahyi seemed to avoid stepping on any of the dung that littered her pet goats’ pen. That was the last interstate outing Big Sis enjoyed as the only child in the family. Big Sis was a good helper at home even though Ma had Ying Jie as a maid. Her job was to carry basins of warm water for Ying Jie to bathe Ko (my brother) and Neechee (my second sister). Ying Jie was tasked primarily to look after Ko. She resigned in 1951 after Pa showed his dissatisfaction with her sloppy effort in mopping the floor. 1951 was a good year, the start of a mini-boom in his laundry business. His shop underwent a refurbishment – new flooring and new fixtures and fittings. Pa voiced his annoyance at some wood chips and shavings on his new floor – Ying Jie obviously missed them during the first mop. Yung Jie joined our family in 1953. Before that, Neechee was looked after by Suleh Ahyi. Suleh Ahyi left her Bagan Datoh home when she was 16 to stay with Ma. So, in 1948, both Ma’s sisters, Balapai Ahyi and Suleh Ahyi, briefly lived with her. She was their eldest sister, their guardian. Suleh Ahyi was 19 when Neechee was born. That would have been a huge relief for the teenager after having witnessed her sister’s three miscarriages and one neonatal death. Suleh Ahyi and Neechee were inseparable. Suleh Ahyi looked after Neechee 24/7 as if she was her own, and even shared her bed with the baby. Big Sis, 7 at the time, looked up to Suleh Ahyi as her role model. Suleh Ahyi with her bright deep-set eyes and high cheekbones would surely have been a real stunner in her teens. Big Sis said the local boys would wolf-whistle Suleh Ahyi and call out “Champion! Champion!” as she walked past them on her way to the badminton court at the local church premises near the Cold Storage on Friday nights. Suleh Ahyi would glare and smirk at the boys with the haughtiness of a beauty queen. Big Sis’ love for music was sparked by her teenage aunty who sang her bedtime songs from her Zhou Xuan song book. Suleh Ahyi’s favourite evening pastime was sleeping on her back with legs crossed as she mimicked the Shanghainese songstress. Surrounded by music from the “Golden Voice”, Big Sis would grow up to be a classically-trained musician from Trinity College London and a hugely respected piano tutor of the highest calibre in Penang.

In 1953, Suleh Ahyi turned 21 and was married off to a tall, dark and handsome bloke. Her husband, a tough burly guy, reminded me of a young Jean-Claude Van Damme except my uncle was a lot smarter. He could speak Tamil fluently. Both Big Sis and Neechee felt a huge loss when Suleh Ahyi left, the house suddenly seemed quiet without her singing. The following year, my third sister Sehchee, was born. Sehchee suffered from bad bouts of diarrhoea for some four years. Yung Jie asked Ma to pray to the Monkey God as Ma grew desperate. A doctor blamed her for over-feeding Sehchee and another said the cause was irregular feeding. The Monkey God suggested Ma changed the baby girl’s diet from powdered milk to rice porridge and the problem miraculously disappeared. Two more daughters were born after Sehchee before I arrived in late 1958. But, my arrival was preceded by an attempt on my life by Ma. It felt like a mother’s smother.

A Mother’s Smother. Ma told me she tried to kill me. She should have asked me, I would have let her, willingly. Unconditional love, that. But, I didn’t know that was her wish, and so I fought and repulsed the smothers, not knowing they were by her hands. She relinquished, I won. I was not even three months old. I could feel her despair, her remorse. Ma was 35 years old. By then, the scars from ten childbirths, four of which resulted in deaths, would have jarred her. In her mind, they barred her from further unwanted pregnancies. She did not want anymore, the burden of the heavy responsibility was too much for one woman. Six rowdy children already occupied the home plus one horny man who kept wanting the love-making. “Tsk tsk tsk, your Pa. He wanted it even when I was five months pregnant! Do you think he may have caused those fatalities?” Ma asked me. I am no medical professional but I firmly assured her. No, Pa didn’t risk their well-being. As if that too absolved any guilt I may have harboured about my own predilection. I think the amniotic fluid in her uterus would have protected the four siblings who didn’t make it. RIP, my three brothers and my sister. One of the boys was very handsome, your father was very pleased with him, Ma said. Fair skinned, with a constant grin. He beamed a huge smile at Pa when their eyes first met. The midwife inexplicably left the baby near an open window. One ominous sneeze was all he hinted to Ma of his impending demise. She went berserk at the midwife but it was too late to save him. He passed away a brief moment later. Mornings in 1950 Penang were cool and fresh. The sea breeze could send shivers even to young adults. My brother didn’t stand a chance. Whereas I was lucky. By 1958, the devastating effects from WW2 were waning. Food was becoming plentiful, less exorbitant.

In my third month of enjoying a warm safe refuge in Ma’s womb, I came under attack. My world was being destroyed by a vile brown chemical. What the?! Who’s there?! What do you want from me? I’m just a baby. Don’t harm me, I’ll tell my mom. I have six older siblings, you will not dare! Ma took three dosages of that brown liquid, prescribed by her gynaecologist. It was the doctor who gave her the murder weapon. They want to kill me? Oh mother! The Plan: Madam, take a spoonful every four hours during the day. Do not stop until you have the result you seek. This bottle gives you ten dosages. Ample, for what you want. Ma almost died from it. I almost died from it. The pain was so severe she left her chundering all over the bathroom. When she doubled over from one chronic bout of seizure, she almost fainted. The next day, her Second Yiyi (maternal aunt) came to visit. She had heard about The Plan. Silly woman, what if? What if it’s a boy? Ma did not divulge whether that changed her mind or the chundering did.

Ma knew before I was born that I would be a really stubborn child. If that horrible liquid could not kill me, it could only mean I was destined to disobey her in everything else. My will to live was so strong my parents named me Forever Strong. To complete my family, Little Sis was born three years later.

From left to right, Suleh Ahyi, Balapai Ahyi, Ma and Nga-Bo in 1964.

Mum About Mum VI

Why would they not be happy for me to write about mum? By they, I mean some of my siblings. Aren’t they proud of her? Ma’s grace, her tenacity to survive a war, her frugal ways to make ends meet and build a comfortable nest for us. Were there any insidious secrets that can’t be told? Perhaps, sexual misconduct and scandals so embarrassing they must be buried forever? Any unforgivable crimes that are not allowed to resurface? No, no and no. Then, why the frequent barrage of reminders of what not to write and criticisms about what I write? For a long while now, I have stopped sharing my stories with my siblings. Save the angst, avoid the anxiety. There was neither applause nor encouragement for me to continue. Only the opposite. As if what I have written about mum is repulsive, revolting or repugnant. Or, in one sister’s opinion, mum’s stories should simply remain private. Don’t let me mislead you, there is no ill-feeling between me and them. They just guard their privacy zealously whereas I view that we have nothing to hide and ought to be proud to tell our parents’ stories. Ma wants me to write. That is all that matters. I can tell. She can skip her afternoon naps when she reminisces about her past to me. She becomes talkative, alert and responsive. She becomes fully awake. They can tell. They will choose to leave us when Ma gets into the groove. They don’t want to know. Off they go, to Bunnings. To Burnside Village. Wherever. I don’t want to know, as long as they leave me alone. Don’t censor me, don’t tell me what I can write or can’t. And, don’t censure me after. Ma wants her stories told, and that is good enough for me.

After the Japanese surrendered in 1945, Pa and Ma took the opportunity to visit their elders in Teluk Anson. That was their happy hunting ground, where they met. Where they fell in love and married each other after being given the necessary nods from their elders. They had not returned since they left the town in early 1941. Five years had passed. The elders had all grown older and wearier. Wars do that to people, I suppose. Lives wrecked, livelihoods wrecked or worse, diseases and a painful death for the unlucky ones. The clan was lucky, almost all had been spared. It was a joyous occasion. When the Japanese left, it felt like a suffocating, dark and heavy cloud that was suppressing all traces of normality had lifted and a fresh sea breeze had suddenly blown in and dispersed the acrid air from the town. The wholesome spontaneity that everyone expressed with their smiles and laughter was unrestrained and genuine. The exuberance, the joy, unforgettable. Pa and Ma spent two weeks there. They even popped in to check on their Indian tailor friend, the one who made Ma’s wedding dress. He happened to be overstocked with bundles of fabric and clothes made for customers who had failed to collect their orders. The war made him desperate for cash. Pa, the ever-ready entrepreneur saw the opportunity to make a buck and helped his friend offload the unwanted stock. His mentor, my grand-uncle Ngagung also had lots of garments dry-cleaned for customers who had not returned to collect their very fine clothes. Perhaps his wealthy European customers, many of whom were plantation owners, had fled the country when news broke of the Japanese invasion. Pa got them at a bargain also. When Pa returned to Penang, he did not waste a day to set up a store at “Mor-lah” flea market adjacent to Chowrasta wet-market on Penang Road. It did not dawn on me until recently that “Mor-lah” was very likely derived from the Malay word “murah” or cheap. Pa did a roaring business with the used clothes and fabrics he got from Teluk Anson. Ma said he had his pocket picked when they went to celebrate their bonanza at the grand opening night of a new cinema called The Majestic straight after work. Most of their profit was lost that night, some $300. Pa soon quit his “Mor-lah” store. No, it was not because he was demoralised by the loss of his takings but he did it to avoid the taunts the fellow retailers dished out at him. Apparently, he was clumsy with the metal rule and lacked the finesse that his competitors had with their slick movements when measuring the length of the materials. No matter, the early success and resulting feelings of euphoria sparked Pa’s enthusiasm for identifying good business opportunities. In August 1946, they moved out of their bomb-damaged house in Bishop Street to the shop-house at 3-J Penang Road. Ma had just fallen pregnant but that was no justification for her to avoid the long hours for some two weeks in that 2-storey house cleaning it from top to bottom. The shop-house must have been strategically acquired, for within a month, Pa had negotiated a buy-out of the Eastern & Oriental (E&O) Hotel contract from his uncle, Li Fook, for $500. This was a contract to provide all the laundry services for the hotel which was situated only about 200 meters from the shop-house. During the war, Pa and Ma had hidden from the Japanese in uncle Li Fook’s Anson Road property; the elder clansman did not mind that his business was passed down to Pa. In April 1947, my brother, Ko, was born. He had a maid with a distinct harelip to look after him during the “Mua-Guek” (Zuo Yue) or full month. Traditionally, women had to spend the first 30 days as postpartum confinement. I suppose despite the myths, it should be taken advantage of as their maternity leave, a chance to simply lie in bed, rest and learn how to breast-feed. During those early years, there was no herbal chicken soup or pig’s trotters in ginger and black vinegar for Ma. No extra nutrition to help her recuperate. I should ask Ma how she coped without washing her hair or taking a cold shower or going out for an evening stroll during the 30-day lockdown, and did Pa “leave her alone” for all that time during her confinement? Big Sis was cared for by our mum’s younger sister, our Balapai Ahyi, so named after she settled in Bayan Lepas many years later. Balapai Ahyi moved into the Bishop Street house to stay with Ma in December 1943. She was only 13, but it was decided Ma would take better care of her than their mother who as a widow was struggling to fend for herself and her youngest daughter at home. The maid with the distinct harelip left after Ma’s “Mua-Guek” and was not seen again. Ma heard she went to work at the Thai-Burma railway, an idea that sounds preposterous unless she had absolutely no idea of its horrific history.

In January 1948, Pa returned to China to visit his mum. That would be the first of only three visits after he left his homeland in his teens. He had ‘not made it” when he returned to his village. Surely, he would have felt he had fallen well short of his ambition. Who amongst us did not harbour the dream to be a “self-made” person by the time we returned home after a long stint away? Pa had spent all his savings procuring the E&O contract – he was almost penniless at the time and it was by taking up a loan from a Hong Kong man who went by the name Ng-san that he could bring home a bottle of Ghee Hiang sesame oil and some clothes for his mum. I do not know why the Cantonese and the Japanese use the same honorific word “san” for Mr. The business from E&O had been disappointing – the Canadian sailors had left Penang, and the spate of rainy days made it very difficult to hang the linen out to dry. To be more brutal, the business had turned out to be a dud investment. Pa was away for almost 3 months, a one-way journey by cargo ship to China took 20 days. Ko was almost a year-old when Pa returned home to Penang. By then, Big Sis was already a fast eater – just like Pa – but it could be because all she had was rice and Chay-thong”, Ningbonese for watery sauce from a vegetable dish. I checked, it meant no meat and no vegetables. Ko was a slow eater and wanted only mother’s milk. Obviously, he was born clever. Powdered milk was unaffordable and condensed milk with bread was not to his liking. Big Sis was sent to Bukit Tinggi to be cared for by a distant relative, Poddy Ahyi. Anyone from Zhejiang in those days was embraced as a distant relative. Big Sis remembers using a small umbrella as her security teddy bear. She can’t explain how she found an umbrella to be cuddly as a teddy bear but it must have been comforting for a 3-year-old in the home of a distant relative. Pa was the 4th son in his family of five sons and three daughters. He left his Shaoxing home when he was just 9-years-old to start his apprenticeship in a dhobi shop in Shanghai. He knew his family was too poor to afford all of them at home. So, he volunteered to leave. Their days were not always so desperate and miserable. Pa told Big Sis when he was a little boy, he watched from a distance his grand-father’s funeral. The vantage point from a hillside offered him a bird’s-eye view of a long funeral procession that snaked along the fields from the village to the local cemetery many miles away. The quite elaborate occasion would have been fitting for a feudal lord. That little snippet of a story raised more questions than it answered. Who was Pa’s yeh-yeh or Ahya, in our Shaoxing dialect? Why did it strike Pa that his grandpa was inexplicably so much wealthier than them as their circumstances at home clearly showed? Why was he not part of the procession? Why did he observe the funeral from a great distance? Did he not have the right to mourn publicly? Was he deliberately hidden from view? Was it really his yeh-yeh’s funeral or someone was just telling fibs to a young boy? Facts mis-remembered or truths from a little boy’s innocent but naive perspective? This next bit is undoubtedly true. Pa’s eldest sister committed suicide rather than accept the man who was match-made for her by their father, my Ahya. “Why?! Was the bridegroom so grotesque?” I asked. We never did find out why. The man, deprived of Pa’s eldest sister, married the 2nd sister instead in order for Ahya to honour his deal and avoid slighting the man. The couple could not produce a child and so they adopted one of Pa’s 2nd brother’s son. Haizhong, 海忠 whom I met in Shaoxing in October 2007 is their grandson. So legally, he does not bear my clan’s surname although he is still my first cousin once removed. The West does not differentiate between a progeny from an uncle or an aunt, but the Chinese can always tell. Due to his adoption, I am his “Jiu-Jiu”舅舅 from the maternal side rather than his ‘Ah-Song”, 叔叔 from the paternal branch of the family tree.

Balapai Ahyi married in August 1948. She was 18. She was pleased with the Shanghainese bloke Pa match-made her to. Ma said her sister left with a lingering broad smile. Two months earlier, Ma lost a 6-month-old baby. It wouldn’t be her only miscarriage. According to Ma, the boy didn’t make it because she was weak and malnourished. Ma had spent long days and nights making a cheongsam or Qipao and two sets of blouses and shorts for her sister’s wedding gift. The two sisters were as fragile as porcelain. Ma reckoned she got her ill-health from those long hours at the Singer sewing machine. My memory of Balapai Ahyi was of a sickly but beautiful and elegant lady with jade-like complexion who often behaved as if any strong gust of wind would blow her away. The newly-weds moved to Ipoh and bore a beautiful daughter in 1950. Not long after that, they settled in Bayan Lepas, when her eldest brother, my Do-Ahjiu, gave them his struggling laundry shop there to take over. Do-Ahjiu was a very active businessman, quick to seize opportunities to open shops. He would have been a fantastic creator of franchise businesses had he taken that next step to replicate the same business in different locations rather than start different businesses.

To ease their pain from the miscarriage, Pa upgraded their car in late 1948. It was a Hillman Minx, a tortoise-shaped car made in England as most good things were back then. But, the pain quickly returned. In January 1949, Ma had another stillborn – a 6-month-old girl this time. That year, on the 5th August, my parents lost a newborn, a son. He managed to give Pa a sweet endearing smile before he passed away a few minutes later. Four months later, Ma had a miscarriage, a 3-month-old boy. 1949 would turn out to be the worst year of their lives – three babies lost before they could even embrace them in their arms or hear them give the happiest sound any mother would love – the first cry of a newborn. In October 1951, My Second Sis, Neechee, would be born. Ma attributes her successful birth to the Javanese medicines her neighbours from Medan gave her. They lived three doors away, on 3-G Penang Road. I only remember the name of their shop, Kam Sisters. In December that year, Pa went to Singapore either for a short holiday or to scope the port city for opportunities, leaving Ma to look after the business as well as their three kids. Neechee was their lucky baby. Business boomed for the next two years despite much turmoil during the Malayan Emergency which intensified after the assassination of the High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney in October. Penang, also known as the Pearl of the Orient, was a favourite holiday destination for the British and New Zealand troops (the Aussies arrived later) – the fighting against the Communist guerrillas took place in the jungles of Malaya but the R&R place of choice was Penang. Pa was a flamboyant man, so Ma jealously said. A tall handsome man, he was habitually well-groomed and well-spoken. He commanded attention when he spoke, aided by a confident and firm voice and of course, why wouldn’t he be confident? His cars turned heads. Who did not find him irresistible? He loved cars and loved Peking opera. His favourite role was playing Zhuge Liang, a war hero during the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history. I was brought up by Ma to believe that my family eked out a hand-to-mouth existence when we were little. But, now I realise Pa the car-lover acquired quite a few cars during those years. He started with a tortoise-shaped second-hand car before trading it for the Hillman, and later changed it to an Austin, then a Morris, and a Fiat after that. When we were in our early teens, he bought an Opel, followed by a Ford Capri in the 70s and a Corolla after I left for Australia in 1977. Ma never got her driving licence. Pa was her driving instructor in 1952-53. The three lessons over a 9-month period she had were too much for her weak heart. During those days, there was just the one set of traffic lights, at the Chulia Street and Penang Road junction opposite Odeon cinema. (It is likely Ma meant the Capitol cinema, Big Sis said) With hardly any cars on the road, it should have been a great time to own the road. Ma said she could not find the spare time to have lessons but I suspect she was reluctant to sit behind the steering wheel. She failed to reach Gurney Drive after starting her lesson at the Penang Road and Northam Road junction. The grand mansions which flanked Northam Road sat on acreage blocks that abutted a private stretch of Penang’s famed pristine golden sands. It was those magnificent manors which bore the heavy influence of British architecture that caught Pa’s attention and his mind was momentarily transported to a world of dreams which beckoned the likes of Yeap Chor Ee, Yeoh Wee Gark and Loh Boon Siew. Those were men of great stature, legends amongst Penang’s self-made tycoons. “Bilik! Bilik! Blaaake!!” Pa yelled when he suddenly saw his precious Hillman heading towards a ditch. Ma could not find where the brake pedal was. “It was a near-miss by a matter of inches” Ma said, but it was enough to bring Pa back from his dream and for Ma to forever quit learning to drive.

Ko, Neechee and Big Sis, and the Hillman Minx

In all her previous seven pregnancies, Ma never went to visit a doctor once. In those days, people did not think they could afford a doctor’s opinion. During the 1950s and 60s, old wives tales were still relevant and therefore prevalent in Asian cultures. Mothers or grandmothers ruled the roost – we did not have doctors to look at our wounds, aches, fevers, or broken limbs or dentists to extract our rotten teeth, let alone ask them for the correct diagnosis. We never went to bed with wet hair as we were repeatedly told that it would make us sick. We only secretly cracked our knuckles and ribs to avoid our ears being pulled for not obeying their wise advice. Apparently, old wives believed knuckle cracking will give us arthritis. Every of Ma’s aunties seemed to have the God-given skill to predict the baby’s sex whenever Ma fell pregnant. In late 1953, Ma fell pregnant again. “You will have a boy this time!” Ma again trusted Mother Nature to grow a healthy baby in her tummy, no visits to midwives or doctors were warranted. The war may have ended eight years earlier and business may have delivered profits healthy enough for Pa to buy his favourite car, albeit second-hand, yet the accepted practice at home was that the informal (and therefore free) consultations with the herbalist on Campbell Street was enough to ensure a proper pregnancy. Third Sis or Sehchee was born in July 1954 when the British Empire was weakening and the colonial masters were starting to leave Malaya. Abdul Rahman had become president of UMNO in 1951 and a year after Sehchee was born, the alliance swept to power in the only general election before Malaya’s independence in 1957. The departure of the British meant that the laundry and dry-cleaning business had truly passed its heyday. Sehchee was a sickly child who suffered from frequent bouts of diarrhoea. Frequently rebuked for being a cry-baby, it ought to have been easy to understand why her discomfort made her cry. It was only in the 1970s that Ma fully understood why. Sehchee was fed powdered milk during her early childhood. The Swiss-based Nestlé was embroiled in a controversy in 1973 – their infant milk formula Lactogen was named “The Baby Killer” in a German magazine. Women all over the world were misled by their advertising that promoted the magical powdered formula offered more health benefits for infants than mother’s milk. A switch that was expensive not only in money terms but especially costly in increased malnutrition and infections, retarded development and often death.

Ma holding Sehchee with Big Sis, Ko, and Neechee (partly hidden) at Penang’s Botanical Gardens. Pa’s Austin parked behind.