The Very Best of Lak

The one hundred and eight outlaws in The Water Margin are a disparate group from every level of society, ranging from the downright trodden, poor peasants, innkeepers, and fishermen to highly ranked military officers and influential officials of the court. The brotherhood of school friends and people close to me are no different. We come from hugely diverse backgrounds, yet we are able to intermingle and bond as a close unit despite our many different views regarding politics, religion and any matter under the sun. The one thread that keeps us together, I think, is our common decency and high regard for virtue and kindness. Some of us are like spring water, others are like the harshest desert, yet together, we become an oasis. The outlaws of the Liangshan Marsh are no different – virtuous and benevolent yet rebellious against the State, robbing from the rich and the corrupt and redistributing to the needy or unfairly treated. Their belief was that they would be shielded from punishment by the government since their actions were always out of loyalty to the Song emperor.

The next hero I salute will be enthusiastically welcomed to the Urghhling Marsh. I am quite certain. He is highly deserving and I hope the next two thousand words will prove it. His parents arrived in Malaya from Canton, China as a young couple. They were from quite well-to-do families. But during the communist era in China, most of their properties and assets were seized and redistributed to the people, so there was no inheritance to pass on to their descendants. The hero’s name is Lak, pronounced as luck, but despite such an auspicious name, luck did not visit him during his childhood.

When Lak was three years-old, his father was killed in an accident due to a faulty car door that would not shut properly. He was thrown out of the taxi he was in when the speeding driver veered off-course round a bend on a coastal road in the island of Penang. There were no seat belts to buckle up in those days. He was in his forties when he left his seven children fatherless. Lak was the youngest of five boys and two girls. The three oldest kids, although still very young, had to stop schooling. A casual observer would have wrongly deduced that their mother remarried many times. They had different surnames. Amongst them, there was a Chee, Choo, Chu, and a rather unique Chhoo. Very few today would understand that babies’ names were often mis-spelt at the registrar in mid-20th century Malaya. Their mother could only speak her own Teochew dialect and was likely not even aware her children’s surnames were different, such unimportance was given to their anglicised names. Although she was not quite forty, she managed to keep the whole family together, “through thick and thin,” Lak emphasised. “To her, nothing was impossible,” he added. “You just have to put in the effort, and everything can be solved,” she often repeated to her kids. Despite the sudden loss of her husband and her limited resources, she continued to send gifts and money back to China for her folks there. Her parents were not informed of her husband’s passing – she did not want them to worry in vain. She worked long days and nights until her body felt like a dead branch on a tree, ready to fall to the ground. She wasn’t just independent, she had many dependants and friends to support. “She still helped others when she should be the one to receive help?” I asked. Lak remembers a villager from Nibong Tebal who frequently travelled to the island to sell medicated oil. A friend of Lak’s mother, she would ‘camp’ at their house for weeks each time. In return, she would give her generous host some of her unsold stock. “Mom believed that we should help if it is within our ability,” Lak said.

Work hard and make an honest living. Do not steal or harm others in your pursuit of wealth.

Mdm Low Hooi Kean

They learned to make do with what they had. A single kembong fish would be a main dish and had to be equally shared over a meal. On the odd occasion, they would treat themselves to a bowl of Assam Laksa. They would consume the noodles and keep the soup for later. They would add plain Hup Hoe marie pia (biscuits sold loose from big rusty-looking tins) to the leftover soup and enjoy it as a second meal. They were too busy with life’s constant challenges; their focus was to subsist and persist – no one had time to self-pity and no one had time for those who were inclined to self-pity. Being the youngest in the family had its advantages. Lak was very fortunate as all his siblings had started working by the time he was enrolled in Primary School. As a pre-school kid, he did not feel he was deprived or underprivileged. In his neighbourhood, everyone was just the same as everyone else; they were all as poor as one another. The kids along that stretch in Weld Quay enjoyed the same seasonal activities, marbles, spinning tops, kite-flying, or fishing in the drain. But, once he attended school, he knew the other boys were different. Unlike a private college where all the students are from above average income families or rich, our school was a mixing pot without any exclusions. Lak discovered he belonged to the poor category, insignificant like a blade of grass in a football field. In class, he was given a card which entitled him to a daily slice of bread with a tiny dollop of jam on top and a glass of icy syrup water. Realising that very few kids were handed that card made Lak sad. As the years went by in school, he dreaded donation days for the Sisters of the Poor, and Teachers’ Day when other kids brought nice gifts for their teachers. “Except me,” he said. After the school holidays, everyone had stories to tell about what they did during the holidays. “Except me,” he said. During recess or before school assembly, there would be a long serried rank of eager beavers in white school uniform queuing up at the Indian hawker’s cart parked outside the school gate to buy lollies, plastic toys and other knick-knacks, “except me,” Lak said. “Did you grow up with an inferior complex?” I asked. “Maybe a little. But we had our pride and self-respect; we weren’t allowed to walk like losers,” Lak confided.

Lak’s mother

From the age of six, Lak followed his mother and a sister to work in a factory that repackaged junk food into small packets. Lak worked the morning shifts before attending school classes in the afternoon. He continued with this rigorous routine right through Primary School. The factory imported items such as sweet cured preserved plums and preserved olives in bulk from China and Thailand. They were paid on a piecemeal basis. The family worked as a team, and on a good day, they could earn about three dollars. After awhile, Lak’s mother showed her entrepreneurial mettle. Every two or so years, she made a trip to Canton couriering goods for people who wanted to send items to their families back ‘home’. With the fees she earned, she would purchase items that she knew would sell in China. Bicycles and sewing machines were among items that were in high demand. She was also a pioneer in the banking business, collecting monies from her clients before remitting them in person to their families in Canton for a fee. Success from these early ventures was replicated in Thailand every few months. It would not be an exaggeration to say she pioneered the import/export business between Thailand and Malaya. She brought from Penang what the Thais wanted and imported pots and pans, etc from Thailand. She did all that without any formal education and without any language and literacy skills. 

We will struggle but not bow down in defeat

Mdm Low Hooi Kean

In Form One when it was compulsory to join a uniform unit, the choice was simple for Lak. “Join the army cadet corp. No need to purchase uniform!” Lak chuckled. Life slowly improved. The family bought a black and white TV in the early seventies. Lak missed all the TV shows in the 1960’s as his mother forbade her children to watch from outside their neighbours’ front windows. “Toys? Comic books? Unheard of,” he said. The siblings shared a lantern for the moon cake festival. It was the one and only lantern throughout the many festivals they enjoyed as kids. The lantern was only used for a couple of nights before being neatly packed away for the following year.

Sometimes we are right, but don’t ever be dead right

Chhoo Lak Thiang

Early in his career, Lak learned that it is not always important that we are seen to be right. “Why not?!” asked Wu Yong, another outlaw in the Urghhlings Marsh, who believes we are wrong not to correct our wrongs. Lak then proceeded to ask Wu Yong a question that was only met with silence. “If you are driving on the right side of the road and a truck is roaring towards you on the wrong side of the road, is it important that you are right?” asked Lak.

My cost is one month of my life. My reward is the value my boss sees in me

Chhoo Lak Thiang

After obtaining Grade 4 results in the Form Five exams, the MCE, Lak decided to enrol in City & Guilds Electrical Courses. He discovered he was colour vision deficient, and quickly changed to a book-keeping course instead. “Working life wasn’t easy when all you had was just a GCE O level,” Lak said. “What’s the GCE?” Wu Yong asked. “You didn’t sit for Upper Form Five,” The Cook, another outlaw of the brotherhood replied. But Lak soon realised he excelled in accounting and was recruited by a licensed finance company as an Internal Audit clerk in 1977 earning a measly RM150 a month. In his wisdom, Lak saw it as an opportunity and a stepping stone. Without the paper qualifications, Lak knew that he had to prove his worth through his performance. He welcomed responsibilities above and beyond his position as a challenge to show he was ready for bigger and better things.”This was the most valuable lesson I learned from my mom,” he said. In 1991, due to the government’s policy on Bumiputra quotas, he was bypassed from a promised junior manager’s post. Fortunately, his boss recognised the injustice and rewarded him with the promised monetary promotion but without the position. Through the years, Lak gained his vast experience from working in various departments and subsequently he was elevated to head of a department. Eventually, he was promoted to the position of Branch Manager. I feel elated for Lak as I write this, even though this success happened decades ago. His achievement was not just a monthly fat pay cheque and a nice-sounding job title. It represents much much more. An accomplishment against huge odds. It brings relief and joy. A lightness of being, after a lifetime of struggle. Peace of mind. Certainty. Satisfaction. Opportunities. Dignity. Gratefulness. Success prompts us to be grateful, to appreciate what we have achieved and who we have around us – our loved ones who have supported us when we are at our lowest and encouraged us to carry on.

Lak met the love of his life in that branch; their romance soon turned into a wedding, but because the attendees were mostly bosses and colleagues, “it felt like a company annual dinner,” Lak joked. A fond memory Lak has was that after their nasi lemak breakfast, the groomsmen got ready to accompany the groom to fetch the bride from Malacca to KL, but none of them knew how to drive a Mercedes which Lak had managed to borrow from a colleague. The groom had to drive the beautifully decorated wedding car himself.

Through various mergers, Lak ended working in a bank. There by chance, he discovered Fraud Investigations and applied to be transferred there. Lak’s career found its second wind, as he found fraud investigations stimulating and challenging. There was a high-profile case of a highly respected Navy Admiral with some political muscle, an existing borrower with no known risks who applied for a bigger loan. Lak blacklisted him for attempted fraud despite a strong appeal from department heads and accusations by other bank managers of not knowing his job. In another case, a loan had been approved and was just pending disbursement. Fraudulent documents were detected and reported to the CEO who directed Lak to make his decision. Lak revoked the loan and directed the conveyance lawyer to recover all costs from the applicant. Such a bold step was unheard of in those days. The applicant attempted to litigate but his case fizzled out, proving Lak was correct to make that call. His judgement, integrity and tenacity was never again questioned by his peers. Equally, he trusted his staff, as if he had learned the wisdom from Liu Bei of The Three Kingdoms fame.

An astute lord does not employ those whom he suspects, nor suspects those he employs

Liu Bei, Prince of Shu

Lak, in recent years, has attracted my attention with his pearls of wisdom. It would not surprise me at all if he had gained his wisdom from the three blood brothers who made their oath in the peach garden to live and die together in The Three Kingdoms. Lak would know to seize his opportunities as they arise unlike Liu Bei who on numerous occasions missed to take control of new territories due to his pretences to uphold propriety and virtue. From Guan Yu, Lak would remind himself not to allow arrogance and over-confidence to lull him into complacency – as this was how Guan Yu lost Jingzhou, a fort vital for the Shu Kingdom’s grip on the Riverlands and central plains. From the third brother Zhang Fei, Lak would remember not to be hot-tempered and abuse his people as that was how two aggrieved generals decapitated Zhang Fei as he slept.

I have no hesitation to add Lak to the Urghhlings Brotherhood alongside Blue Eyes, Wu Yong The Cur, Four Eyes, The Cook, Lord Guan, Typhoon, Blue-Chip, Prez, The Mayor and Lucky Outlaw.

Lucky, Law The OutLaw

As I was thinking about the setting for the beginning of this story, I could not help but think of Wu Song the Tiger Slayer, in The Water Margin. He was returning to his village, Qinghe County, to visit his elder brother and had presented four farewell salutations to Song Jiang and Chai Jin a few days earlier. At the time, none of them had any inkling they would become outlaws of the Liangshan Marsh. He decided to rest overnight at a small inn before heading for Jingyang Ridge. The innkeeper warned him about a large man-eating tiger with a white forehead and protruding evil eyes which had killed about thirty locals and wounded many more. The remoteness of the forest, the tension in the air, the treacherous narrow paths, unpopular treks covered by thick vegetation, the scenic meadow and beyond it a green hill on the horizon, the pleasant whispers of cool mountain air, the warning signs about a menacing tiger on the prowl, the imminent threat to his life. These were similar images in the scene that I visualised in my mind as I pondered on how to start this story about the next outlaw in the Urghhling Marsh. I shall call this outlaw the Lucky Outlaw.

It was along a rarely used track in a mosquito-infested, energy-sapping humid jungle that the small group of travellers were dragging their tired feet on. One of them was a handsome man in what was once impeccable clothing and he moved and spoke with a respectable demeanour. He was bringing his six-year-old son with him from Johore Baru after a four-year stint as a teacher, to Rawang where his mother and siblings lived. The little skinny boy was Lucky Outlaw’s father, Law Nai Choong; the tall handsome man with piercing eyes and a large forehead, his fraternal grandfather, Law Chin Tang. Little is known of Chin Tang’s birth family or history. The impressive Chin Tang, born in 1910, was adopted from a family in Ipoh, by Law Chun Hoi and Lau Ah Say. They were a childless couple who adopted four children. Chun Hoi had a government job as an approved opium seller as he could speak both English and Chinese. Such a lucrative job was difficult to obtain in those days unless one had literacy skills and useful connections. They lived at 13 Welman Street, Rawang. Chin Tang was the third of the four kids adopted. When he turned nineteen, he was forced by his parents to marry their last adopted child, his sister by the name of Loong Chui Fung. The story goes that they were locked in a room by their mother for three days and the rest is history, as the saying goes.

Law Chin Tang with Chui Fung and two children in 1932

Chin Tang was indubitably a very intelligent man. He was dux of Victoria Institution Selangor in 1929 and was awarded the Loke Yew scholarship to attend the Arts faculty of Hong Kong University from 1932 to 1934. His poems are held in Hong Kong University to this day. He was one of very few with an education in those days; one with a university degree was virtually unheard of. Chin Tang’s father died in 1935 and although he was the third oldest in his family, he became the head of his family. Chin Tang and Chui Fung divorced in 1940 due to their irreconcilable differences as he was a learned gentleman whereas she barely finished high school. Chui Fung remarried but her new husband did not want to care for another man’s children so Lucky Outlaw’s great-grandmother had to look after Chin Tang’s four children.

Law Chin Tang, Best Scholar 1929

On the journey to Rawang, Chin Tang and his fellow travellers camped where they could. They were not the healthiest or fittest people to be travelling with. One rotund woman was especially slow and to describe her as a whinier would be quite kind. Chin Tang knew the group had to stay united. He tried to ‘make fire and water compatible’ for everyone. One night, whilst preparing to sleep in a long unattended animal shed – maybe abandoned, Chin Tang asked a friendly Indian man whom he had just met to look after his son should he meet with some bad tidings. The next morning, Chin Tang volunteered to reconnoitre the immediate vicinity before the group’s departure. Sadly, he never returned. No one saw him or heard from him again. Luckily, the Indian man was good to his word and brought Nai Choong, Lucky Outlaw’s father, back home to Rawang. Lucky Outlaw’s great-grandmother was left to look after her grandchildren alone with no money and no one left at home to earn money for the family.

Not before long, another tragedy struck when their home was bombed in 1942. This left only the middle and back of the shophouse in a somewhat liveable condition. The next two years were a desperate time for them; most days they had only one meal of rice congee to survive on. Nai Choong, at a tender age of seven then, sold cut-pineapple at the Rawang railway station to help support his family. “Dad almost never discussed this time in his life with us as it was a very sad and difficult time for him,” Lucky Outlaw explained without being asked. The following year, Lucky Outlaw’s great-grandmother died leaving the children as orphans and a $500 debt for her casket. A boy, the youngest of four, was sold for $90 and the second sister at fourteen, was married off to an admirer. Nai Choong and his eldest sister were taken in as servants by a very good friend and distant relative of their father’s, Mah Kam Tong, who had studied at the same university in Hong Kong with Chin Tang. Mah was quite a rich man in his day and lived at Bukit Bintang Road in Kuala Lumpur. Although Mah had ten children of his own, he allowed the two young orphans to attend school with them. Nai Choong and his sister did not have a room for themselves; he slept in the hallway next to the adult servants’ room. A piece of string was tied to his toe so that he could be woken up at 5.00 am without disturbing the master’s family. Nai Choong’s chores began immediately – he would be off to the baker to get fresh bread, then helped prepare breakfast and cleaned the kitchen before going to school. After school, he would be required to do general house-chores and kitchen work, helped with the laundry and ironing, and later when he was older, he became their cook as well. It would be quite late in the evening, after clearing the dining table and washing all the pots and pans and dinnerware, before he had some time to study. Whilst everyone had already retired to their rooms, he would urge his elder sister at the kitchen table to keep up with their school work with the aid of a 10-watt lamp. She found those tasks too demanding. It was no surprise that she was often caught asleep during classes at Bukit Nanas Convent. The nuns took pity on her and took her in as a boarder after her first year with the Mah’s. She remained there until she finished school and went to the local teachers’ training college in Kuala Lumpur.

Nai Choong lived with the Mah’s from 1944 to 1954 as their servant. A child servant from age eight. The harsh reality for this poor boy pierced my heart and I simply could not continue writing. I must have stared at my computer screen for a long while whilst my synapses flashed about in absolute disarray. No sensible words could pour out. How did he cope with so much sadness? Orphaned at such a tender age, what force did he discover to carry on? His days were long and tortuous, his duties and chores never ending. The obscurity of his entire person, more or less a child slave, putting up with ragged days and ragged nights with no end in sight should have smothered his self-confidence. Any self-loathing would have been justified, the insecurity, vulnerability, self-doubt too heart-breaking to imagine. The deep well of despair, humiliation, and his stunted world of aloneness would have driven any mortal to give up, let alone a kid. It would be totally understandable if there were any feelings of self-revulsion and stinging anger. He was not unloved like a stray cat, or kicked around like an empty can though; remarkably, he felt grateful – to have been fed, clothed and had a roof over his head. More importantly, he was not deprived of an education. He was sent to school at St John’s Institution Kuala Lumpur with the Mah boys. Nai Choong despite all the setbacks and challenges, managed to obtain Grade One in the University of Cambridge Local Examination Syndicate Overseas School Certificate Exams. He obtained a scholarship to go to Kirby in England for a teacher training course. There he met his future wife, Teoh Saw Choo of Bukit Mertajam who had also obtained a similar scholarship. Lucky Outlaw’s parents were at Kirby together from 1954 till 1956. Upon their return to Malaya, they quickly married and were stationed in Bukit Mertajam (BM). She taught at BM Convent as an English teacher and he at BM High School as a Science & Mathematics teacher.

Lucky Outlaw their first-born, was named after a nun, Sister St John who was very kind and inspirational to his mother. His parents had three other children after him, a sister born two years later, in 1960 and two younger brothers. He attended Stowell Primary School in BM from Standard One till Standard Four after which the whole family moved to Penang. The parents felt that there were better schools on Penang Island. Lucky Outlaw attended Standard Five to Form Two in St Xavier’s Institution (SXI).
He left SXI in early September 1972, at age thirteen. He remembers not getting the English Prize in Standard One because he could not spell ‘vegetable’. I did not have the heart to inform him I won the English prize that year in my class. He was the dux in our class in Form Two. He informed me that he, and fellow outlaws Wu Yong, and Typhoon were amongst only six students who got promoted from Form 1A2 to Form 2Comm1 after sitting for the ‘progress test’. “I was blur-blur; those sort of things were not on my radar, but I was pleased Lord Guan and The Cook were the other Urghhling Marsh heroes there,” Wu Yong said. He admitted he did not have that competitive streak that Lucky Outlaw had from young.

Form 2 Commerce 1, 1972

On 11 September 1972, Lucky Outlaw’s family sailed from Singapore to Fremantle arriving nine days later. “My parents decided that it was economical to sail than fly and we could bring more furniture and other belongings for our home in Sydney,” he explained. The trip on the Indian Pacific train was not a bonus like how it was promised to be. “It was quite boring actually, we were cooped up for three days in a train with only red desert sand to look at …. We realised how big Australia was when we arrived into Sydney; it was like arriving in an oasis,” Lucky Outlaw said, forgetting a similar outback scenic offer from The Ghan to Alice Springs can cost over $5,000 per one-way ticket. “Did you have any regrets, leaving our Motherland?” I asked. “I lack a true childhood friend although now with our Xaverian brotherhood, I have reconnected with some childhood friends. This also amplifies the strength and importance of the unity and love of the family unit,” he said.

The family that plays together stays together

John Law Choong Chet

On arrival in Sydney, he attended Form Two in the third term at Patrician Brothers High School in Liverpool. “I suppose it was a challenge to catch up, being two terms behind the class?” I suggested. “No, I managed to win the Maths and Science prizes,” he said proudly. Lucky Outlaw was dux and school captain in 1974. In 1975 he moved to Patrician Brothers College in Fairfield for his Form Five and Form Six years. He was made school vice-captain and scored the highest points for HSC for his school. He was equal first in Biology for the whole of New South Wales in 1976.

Try your best with every exam; even if you do fail, at least you have tried your best

John Law Choong Chet

Those academic accolades are mentioned to demonstrate that studying came easily to him and that he had been given every opportunity to succeed by his thoughtful parents. “You’re an aberration, Lucky Outlaw, you succeeded without failure,” I said. Cao Cao, Prince of Wei in The Three Kingdoms once said, “a military commander is like a physician”. When a physician treats more and more, his medical knowledge and skills improve, but after more and more have died. Lucky Outlaw, however, has been lucky throughout his life. Those along the way has also been blessed by him – countless lives have been soothed or saved by him.

Without failure there is no success

Cao Cao

Their parents’ sacrifices were not lost on the children. Even before sitting for his HSC exams, Lucky Outlaw had already been given a place at ANU to study Commerce Law. He remembers praying to God, placing his life and his future career in His hands. “God gave me the marks to do medicine at Sydney Uni,” he said. He started in 1977 and graduated in 1982 and so he feels very lucky. “I have enjoyed this vocation of medicine where the poor should have access to medicine like the rich,” he added. In his career as a GP, he has never charged for a consultation for children under 18 years of age and he won’t ever send a reminder bill to delinquent patients. “If they can’t pay my low charges then they need the money more than I do,” he said. His charges for working adult patients are half of what other doctors charge and those unemployed pay half of that again. 

“I am so proud of both my parents – of the sacrifices they endured for their children, especially my father. He was literally a penniless orphan who fended for himself yet was able to win a scholarship to England. When he died in 2013, my mum retired comfortably due to their life-long hard work, frugality and astuteness with their investments. Not only that, my other siblings have also done well. Both my sister and brother are doctors too and my youngest brother is a qualified accountant”. “How were they frugal?” I asked. “Oh! When we attended church, the priest in his sermon told the congregation he was impressed with an Asian family working together in the garden of the house he had walked past….. he was unaware they were us. My parents made their own curtain, bed sheets and pillowcases to save money….. we helped sand and polish the timber floors, paint the whole house and landscape the garden….mum knew how to sew, she even made us some shirts, not the most fashionable but a shirt was a shirt!” he spoke proudly. I got the feeling his loving recollection of his parents were for him as soothing as moonlight streaming down on a koi pond.

50th Wedding Anniversary celebration, Lucky Outlaw on the far right.

Man is not a mere stalk of grass, how can he be without emotions?

Lu Su, adviser to Sun Quan, Wu emperor of The Three Kingdoms

“Were you sad when you left home?” I prodded. “It was exciting times for me! I was already 27, one of the oldest bachelors still living in his parents’ home. I met an Air New Zealand hostess and quickly followed her to Christchurch!” Lucky Outlaw promised to dig up some old photos of the beautiful girl to show me. But, I don’t think I will be so lucky.

For the Law family, Australia has certainly been a Lucky Country. To cap it all off, Lucky Law is married to a Kiwi, his sister to a Spanish Jew, his brother to a German, and the youngest to a Japanese. It did not escape his father who lost his own father on that remote stretch of jungle track near Rawang and endured untold sadness after, that his children in multicultural Australia have married the very peoples who were at war – the ANZACS, the Japanese, the Germans, the Jews and the Chinese. Lucky Outlaw inspires many with his righteousness and benevolence. Au fait with just about any topic, the successful and kind doctor enjoys a myriad of interests in life, be it music, food, travel and performing in his choir. I have no hesitation to add Lucky Outlaw to the Urghhlings Brotherhood alongside Blue Eyes, Wu Yong The Cur, Four Eyes, The Cook, Lord Guan, Typhoon, Blue-Chip, Prez and The Mayor.

Lucky Outlaw

Early Mayhem For The Mayor

The mayor in our brotherhood needs no introduction. Everyone knows him by that nickname. “Why Mayor?” I asked a few friends. No one seems to remember how his name stuck. He used to work as a barman in many famous drinking holes in Penang. Later, he joined The Holiday Inn at their Barons Table grill room and was put in charge of the bar. His career as a young man for many years after he left school was around food and beverages, as a barman, a restauranteur, and an inn-keeper. When I was reading about Du Xing in The Water Margin, I knew Mayor was our Du Xing, the appointed inn-keeper near the Liangshan marsh who acted as the eyes and ears or early warning system for the gang of outlaws. Du Xing had a fierce face, with big eyes and ears. A quarrelsome character, he was often involved in fist fights and became an outlaw when he killed a business partner. Mayor during school days was also frequently involved in back-alley fights with rascals and other gang members. He shares many similarities with Du Xing, except he is not ugly like ‘Demon face’. Mayor possesses a wide beaming smile that does not seem to leave his attractive fortune-giving thick lips. One old-wives’ tale taught me that men with thick lips, flat noses and long earlobes are blessed with unimaginable riches and longevity. Decades of pulling my earlobes and biting my lips have been unrewarding for me thus far. To make a woman swoon, a man usually uses charming words, struts like a peacock or croons with a sexy voice. Mayor simply needs to smile. Oh, such wonderful lips!

Mayor’s paternal grandparents were both born in Penang. His great grandparents were Malays. Malay as a race was first coined by JF Blumenbach, a German who lived in the 19th century. He clumped all Australo-Melanesians together and called them Malays. His paternal grandfather worked as a clerk in Chartered Bank. His grandmother was a Thai from Pattaya and thus, her descendants are Peranakan. “What can you remember about her?” I asked. “She was a cheroot-smoking matchmaker who loved to munch on sireh (betel leaf),” was all Mayor said. As an afterthought, he added that he enjoyed going to the Rex cinema with her for Chinese movies.

Life during his childhood years was tough. Mayor remembers they were often moving “house”. His family lived in a rented room during his school days and shared the rest of the common areas with the landlord. There was always a reason to relocate -a rent increase (never justifiable in his dad’s mind), or the rent became unaffordable, or the landlord simply changed his mind (they were too noisy?), or the room was too crammed for all of them. Perhaps, it was due to the constant pressures of life that he was whacked a lot by his mother. Mayor’s dad worked at Universal Cars on Anson Road. He was a clerk in the lubrication / service centre for Ford cars. “There was never enough money to put food on table, I think my dad’s salary was less than RM350 a month. How to support a wife and three children?” he asked with both palms facing heaven. “When I was small, I envied those schoolmates whose families had cars. The bus was my only mode of transport to school from Std 3,” he recalled. “Sometimes, we were so desperate my dad had to borrow money to pay for food,” Mayor’s voice quivered. He often was sent to a relative’s house to borrow supplies like rice, soy sauce and eggs. He harboured bitter memories from childhood about the serious deprivation they suffered and opportunities lost if their father was not poor. One night, they all went to bed hungry and in tears. He decided right there and then that he will not be poor like his parents. He promised himself that he will not fail when it is his turn to provide a basic level of security and comfort for his family and to give his children a good education – essentials that he was deprived of during his teenage years. He has lived by that promise ever since. The great Sima Yi comes to mind when I write this. He was Cao Cao’s military general and regent during the Three Kingdoms period of China.

I am not one to beg for a bowl of soup at a banquet. I would rather be the one who delivers a cup of rice to a man in need.

Sima Yi

“I remember when I was about ten years-old; we had just moved into a Rifle Range flat. I got a severe beating from my mother. I felt very depressed and decided to walk all the way through the Batu Gantong cemetery, then along Western Road to my paternal grandparents’ house in Kuching Lane, Pulau Tikus”. That journey took almost an hour for the little boy. Another childhood memory was at St Xavier’s Branch School when he tried to be a hero and dared to complain about the physical abuses by his teacher, Mr Norbert Martin. At that time, the 12 year-old leader gathered a few classmates to discuss what steps to take. A young classmate, The Cook, suggested that Mayor ought to bring his parents to school to confront the teacher. Mayor’s mother turned up the next day and slapped her son in front of the whole class instead. That was a scar upon a scar. His parents were too busy making ends meet and had no time to guide the children in their school work. Another scary moment during that period of his life was the sectarian violence of May 13, 1969. “We were living in Tanjung Tokong Lama”. “As a kid, I was scared witless to see the words ‘Bunoh Cina’ in red paint on the roads,” he said. Those two Malay words were chilling for a young boy. ‘Kill Chinese’ was the message that appeared everywhere overnight. His parents were strict on all of their kids – the adults’ behaviour made them even more fearful. They were not to leave the house for whatever reason. His dad was angry at the politicians. Overnight, the Malays had become the enemy in what was a racially harmonious society. But, once the troubles were over, his dad taught him never to hate.

Do not be angry.

Anger will only lower your intelligence.

Do not hate your enemy.

Hate will make you lose your good judgment.

Rather than hate your enemy, make use of them instead.

Cao Cao

Mayor and I were classmates in Form One. I had forgotten it until someone thrusted our class photo under my nose. Somehow, we didn’t mingle then. He was one of the boys who stuck a little mirror on his shoe. I shan’t disclose the reason why he did it except to say our teacher Mrs N Ah had a habit of wearing only white undies her short dress barely covered. The way she sat on the raised platform with her legs apart became the focal point for the class. Many still consider that was the best year of school. Mayor started working night shift after his Lower Certificate of Education (LCE) exams at Intel Bayan Lepas canteen. “My plan was like a bright star in a dark sky,” he said. ‘If I passed the LCE, the money I earned would be handy for my Upper Secondary school years but if I failed, I would have a promised job in Intel as a production operator,” he beamed. Mayor passed and enrolled as a Social Science student. In school, he was active as a valued member of the tug-of-war team, the dragon boat team, and was also a prominent member of the 7th Georgetown North Scout Group. “I spent my school holidays mostly in Kuching Lane with my maternal grandparents”. There was a kampong (village) next to the lane, where at the end of it was a stream. “We had so much fun there playing in the water, catching tadpoles, stealing rambutans and mangosteens from private orchards. I’d go there the very next day after school,” he said. “The depressing thing for me whenever I visited them was that they would always see cane marks on my legs,” he sighed. “How come?” I asked. Mayor looked at me incredulously. He did not need words but his facial expression told me I was dumb to even ask. “Report card days are always on the last day of school,” he said with wasted breath.

In Upper Secondary, Mayor started forming more bad habits. During recess time, he and a few regulars like Michael John Thong, Alphonsus Scully and occasionally Lye Kim Leong would climb over the school wall near the basketball courts and disappear for the rest of the day. “What did you guys do when you wagged school?” I asked. “Oh, nothing exciting,” Mayor replied. “You know, the usual stuff,” he said. “Sneaking into the cinemas, smoking in coffee shops, playing billiards in the community hall, group dating, shoplifting favourite snacks or drinks from the Indian stall-owner if we saw he was preoccupied or getting into fist fights with older school boys at the Boston Bar, it was not such a thrill,” he added casually. “It was more exciting to loiter at the open-air carpark between F & G blocks of Rifle Range flats and wolf-whistle at girls passing by, or hang out at the Convent Light Street bus-stop after school to tease the girls waiting there. Best times!” he added.

Immediately after his Form 5 exams (MCE), Mayor disappeared from the school scene and worked for two years at Chuan Lee Hin, a wholesaler in Siah Beow as their van assistant peddling Camel cigarettes for RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. The next ten years, he was in and out of employment working as a barman for the likes of Cozy Corner at Oriental, Princess Coffee House and VIP restaurant at Townhouse Hotel. “At that last job, I became ‘kwai lan’ (Hokkien for idiotic) and tried to form a workers’ union at the workplace”. He soon discovered the terrible truth about powerless workers without a union. He was immediately sacked. He tried his hand as a plumber in construction sites in Butterworth for about six months but found the job tough. The following eight years, he was back as a barman at D Bierkrug, a German pub at Sri Bahari Road, then at Villa Roma coffeehouse at Sunrise Gurney Drive. Then on a fateful afternoon, an ex-general manager of one of the venues approached him to join him in a new venture at a Johore Baru hotel. Before too long, he left the hotel job after marrying the woman who made his legs ‘feel like jelly’ the first time he saw her in a coffee shop. She ran an agency dealing in life and general insurance. He joined her in her business but found the purely commission-based job unrewarding. He hated the constant rejections and did not enjoy the cold-calling style of work. But, luckily he remembered the promise he made to himself all those years ago about not wanting to be poor ever again. His wife was instrumental in tapping into his obvious talents and vast network from decades working as a barman. He firstly approached his drinking buddies, and with their patronage and their recommendations, Mayor was quick to achieve the Million Dollar Club in just his second year. Indeed, he has been a bright star in a dark sky ever since.

Breakfast at Canary Wharf

Dying to succeed. Die I must also succeed.

Choong Kok On

Here is a man right in front of me, who has tasted the depths of bitter despair to now shining brightly as only a newly-born star can. I was eager to know how he achieved such success, given his background. “Will you tell us your secrets to success?” I asked. “Perseverance. Desire to be successful. Be systematic and organised,” he said with a firm voice. Mayor was unaware the first two were also Sima Yi’s secret of success – persistence and enthusiasm. His wife told him he would never be rich working for someone else. “Luckily, I listened to her!” he enthused.

One. I am afraid of pain.

Two. I am afraid of suffering.

Three. I am afraid of dying.

So, I have no choice but to obey Cao Cao and work for him.

Sima Yi

Very soon after joining the Million Dollar Club, Mayor realised his dream of owning his own prestige cars. He did it for his dad. “Dad worked for a car dealer, but he never owned a car in his life,” Mayor said. Mayor has owned impressive cars like the Citroen Xantia, Mercedes E200, Citroen C8, and BMW X5. Mayor is a worldly man, attending annual business conventions around the world prior to the pandemic. Not bad for someone who was a rascal as a young lad whose only guiding light was never to be poor again. He is happy all his siblings have also climbed out of the poverty trap. “We don’t have to be poor again,” he said with a great sense of gratitude. Yet, I sense a lot was left unsaid. The ineffable miseries of his childhood, I suppose, will remain loud in the silence.

Mayor at the Keukenhof.

“Please, can you share some more,” I asked Mayor. Clearly, he is a man who can inspire many to get out of their dark hole, to give themselves a fighting chance, to not give up, to perhaps even dream of greatness. After some coaxing, Mayor added, “One must be humble, caring, and always put the other party’s interests first. Be a willing listener, be a problem solver not a whinger, show a deep well of patience, offer realistic solutions and never force your products down someone’s throat. Learn to win friends, enjoy their company and be genuine”.

Like Du Xing who was conferred the title “Martial Gentleman of Grace”, Mayor is also a gentleman full of grace and kindness. Du Xing was one of the few Liangshan heroes who survived all the campaigns. Mayor inspires many also for being a survivor despite impossible odds. He enjoys a healthy reputation as a successful and honest insurance broker. I have no hesitation to add Mayor to the Urghhlings Brotherhood alongside Blue Eyes, Wu Yong The Cur, Four Eyes, The Cook, Lord Guan, Typhoon, Blue-Chip and Prez.

Our President’s Precedents

The character in The Water Margin that most resembles the next hero in my story has to be Chao Gai, the chief of Dongxi Village who became the leader of the marsh brotherhood. Chao Gai’s inspirational leadership of great heroes and unrivalled kindness that instilled many to follow his saintly crusade made me put down the book and contemplate on where I have gone awry in my own life. We all fondly refer to the President of our class reunion committee as Prez. That Prez also exhibits such heroic qualities and magnanimous heart forced me to stop and consider why I have been a lesser man with a smaller heart and a narrower mind. He has a heart that clearly does not discriminate or incriminate but is well balanced, hospitable, virtuous, kind, and above all, caring and generous. Why, why, why then, have I remained in the shadow of moral mediocrity and continue to occupy myself with the self-imposed staleness of increasingly meaningless goals of the financial and material kind? What causes a person to choose the path of selflessness? To own an instinctive inclination to reach out and help those less able or less fortunate? It seems counterintuitive to common sense; surely the Theory of Evolution requires us to look after ourselves first and foremost? I felt a deep sense of shame as I read about Chao Gai’s kind deeds and related them to Prez’s ever-present big-hearted compassion that puts his benevolence and courage often in the limelight. These heroes share a common thread – they are brave, selfless, kind and often reach out to help the needy or less fortunate. I can’t tick any of those boxes with real conviction for myself, and this has been as annoying as a blowfly to my conscience. I should not mislead the reader – I do of course, also contribute to society, with the efforts from work and small donations to charities and medical research. But, they are not really worth mentioning and pale in comparison to the innumerable fundraising campaigns, charity work and support for orphans, the needy and the elderly that Prez has led.

Prez’s paternal grandparents travelled from Fujian in Tong’an via Singapore and settled down in a rented room in Kimberley Street, Penang. They had two sons and two daughters. Prez’s father was the youngest of the four. Prez never met his maternal grandfather – apparently, he converted to Christianity but attended only one service before he succumbed to an illness. His entitlement from that single gesture was a right to be buried in the Western Road cemetery. Prez’s maternal grandmother was a kind and generous woman. She outlived her husband by many years but she was buried in Batu Gantung, far away from his final resting place on account that she did not convert.

Prez’s dad was known as Ah Tong. Educated in a Chinese-medium school, his lack of English language skills was of no consequence during pre-colonial rule. As a young man, he worked as a lorry driver distributing ice blocks, and later transported pigs for Khow Lee, the famous Kuala Kangsar Road pork shop. In 1956, he and his wife Hong Choo had enough saved to start their hobby farm – rearing pigs and poultry in Air Itam. It was his mother who imparted the first rule for Prez to abide by throughout his life. Prez’s benevolence and compassion directly stem from her instruction – the emphasis to give rather than take. He has a collection of rules which he steadfastly lives by, a set of precedents if you like, that are established by long practice.

Give before you take.

Hong Choo
Hong Choo and Ah Tong at a tea ceremony.

A fond memory for Prez was the motorcycle rides with his parents from their home in Beach Street in town to their farm, although he was scarred by one trip when he dropped one of his slippers whilst sitting sandwiched between both parents. His mum who was a pillion rider behind him saw that he had lost a slipper, but she too made not a single sound and thus saved the four-year-old boy from his father’s rotan (Malay for rattan cane). He had a tough childhood but that did not deprive him from having some happy memories too – shooting birds with catapults, catching and nurturing fighting spiders and staging fights, swimming in the river with the neighbourhood kids, and avoiding police raids during Chinese New Year gambling sessions were especially exciting moments. His favourite prank was “pounding itchy berries upstream, downstream kids ‘kena’ (suffered) itchiness”. Prez was still only a kid, but he was not spared the daily chores that a farm demanded even from a boy – collecting dried wood for the furnace, chopping banana tree trunks, collecting weeds and food scraps for the pigs, bathing the pigs and clearing the pigsties of their wastes, collecting eggs and cleaning chook poo from the nests. They kept some goats too, but those proved to be a handful, as they were prone to damaging neighbouring crops and fences.

A 1937 painting of Ah Tong‘s clan professing their love for their motherland during a wedding celebration.

In 1963, his family moved to Air Itam to live, thus avoided the unproductive daily commuting time. His parents retired in 1969. Air Itam lies on the foothills of Penang Hill, a verdant valley with a few pristine streams. The cool clear water and clean fresh air from the hills they enjoyed was a well-kept secret. The family house still stands, now over a hundred years old. Prez is the sixth child in his family, the third son.
He attended La Salle School in Air Itam before joining my school, St Xavier’s Institution for Fourth and Fifth Form. “You were in our school’s Army Cadets, right?” I asked. “Yes, the cadet uniforms were the cheapest,” Prez said, indicating that monetary concerns outweighed passions and interests. In the first few weeks in his new school, the teacher pestered Prez incessantly to buy the compulsory accessories – a school tie, a cap and a coloured tee shirt for the Sports ‘House’ he was selected to. His dad finally agreed after muttering to himself for weeks whenever asked for the money. Prez described how bad their living conditions were. I was reminded of the Chinese word for poor, qiong 窮. It is formed from three words. The first word at the top is a small cave. The second word below it on the left is body, and the last word on the right is an archer’s bow, bent and stretched. So, 窮 describes how a person is hunched over, cramped and stretched to the limits in a tiny harsh dwelling. A picture of abject poverty.

Prez had to attend Upper Form Five, after which he accepted tertiary education was beyond his family’s budget. He contributed to the family’s coffers during those High School days but the amounts earned from an uncle’s car-wash operation and tuition fees as a part-time teacher were not enough. Two older sisters fared worse, sacrificing their education, and did not complete high school. All the children had to work from an early age; his two brothers ran a stall selling their family farm’s chook eggs at the Chowrasta market for many years.

From 1977 to 1979, Prez worked as a construction labourer in Kuala Lumpur after abandoning his ambition to further his education at a tertiary level. His big break came when he joined Jabatan Telekom in March 1979. There he stayed and built his career in warehousing and logistics and later branched to technical and service restoration until his retirement in 2018. Today, Prez is still blissfully married to his wife of 39 years. She was the irresistible girl from three doors away and together, they produced two daughters and a son. They enjoyed their childhood together, “swimming in the river, playing ‘tar li tui’ (chasey), and spent a lot of time together in their teens – hiking, picnicking, camping, etc, etc, etc”. Prez refused to elaborate what ‘etc, etc, etc’ was or where they were enjoyed. Instead, he offered this additional detail, “She had lots of admirers but I beat them all because of my honesty and good reputation in the neighbourhood”.

“What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.” 己所不欲,勿施於人。


The above saying takes different forms throughout history. The Bible’s version is well-known by all, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. This is a favourite rule that Prez keeps in his heart – one could say this is another unshakeable precedent he adheres to. “No one wishes ill-will on themselves, similarly, we ought not wish ill on others”.

“If we were all to practise this, then the world will be rid of evil a long time ago. There would be no urghhlings for me to write about,” I said.

Prez sighed and observed this fact,”Time and time again, humans are less loyal and trustworthy than dogs”.

A friend, John Scalzi, taught me this prayer recently, ‘Dear God, please help me be the person my dog thinks I am’.

Education is the only fortune.

Lim Theng Lye

Prez was the kampong (Malay for village) tuition teacher when he was still in High School. His passion for education was infectious and for that, he would have unknowingly helped many children to a more promising future. The universal convention about the value of education adopted by the kampong kids would have stemmed from this precedent that Prez holds dear. He did not forget the importance of physical education either. Prez built a concrete badminton court on land adjacent to their house, and espoused the discipline that regular exercise from their twice weekly badminton sessions was good for health and happiness. His appreciative daughter told me they didn’t have money worries in school. “As much as honesty is the bedrock of our loving family, papa is our drumbeat of learning”.

Fortunes are dictated by fate, life and death are prescribed by heaven.


Prez is an ardent follower of this precedent. “If you can’t change your fate, change your attitude,” he said. “We may not be born equal, but with the right attitude, nothing is beyond any of us,” he instills in his children. I see him as a straight arrow, outright without artifice and wears no mask of pretence.

Man may calculate, but it is heaven that ordains. 人算不如天算

Old Chinese saying

“God’s plans supersede our own. Man proposes but it is God who disposes,” Prez said this is also one of his favourite precedents. In other words, let us put our best foot forward, and give it our best shot in any endeavour. We commit to any undertaking with as much effort and determination as possible, but let us not be disappointed with our ‘personal best’. We cannot grumble if we have tried our hardest.

A droplet of grace will be repaid with a fountain of gratitude. 滴水之恩,当涌泉相报

Han Xin, a military general to Liu Bang, eventual founder of the Han dynasty. 

Prez’s loyalty and benevolence can shame people. There is never any favour that is too inconvenient or any kind deed that can be ignored by him. But, it is also his immense sense of gratitude that can overwhelm even a man with a heart of stone. Prez teaches his children they must follow this precedent and be as indebted to kindness and patronage, and never to abandon anyone who has put their trust in them.

Like his dad, Prez had great intentions for lasting friendship. So one day in 1980, he pulled out from storage an old list of names and addresses of his classmates from his last year of school, and started an annual reunion. After a request from Jason Lee in 1982, Prez organised the first reunion of all Lasallians from the same year. In 2009 following a suggestion from Joe Tan, he formed our brotherhood and named it LaSaints58 – Brothers Forever. This group comprises schoolmates born in 1958 from the three schools, La Salle, St Xavier’s Branch and St Xavier’s Institution (SXI). There have been recent murmurings from some quarters that we should be politically correct and call ours a fellowship instead, to be all-encompassing since some girls did join SXI in Form Six. The founding committee members were: Stephen Loo Vitong, Michael Ang, Lawrence Cardosa, Steven Tan Jit Huat, Gilbert Chin, Roy Liu and Patrick Leong. Sub-committee members were: Wilson Gan, Mak Kem Seng, Tan Chueen Seng, Oh Teik Soon, David Sivampatham, Admiral Ch’ng, Lye Tuck Lum, and Loh Thiam Fook.

Loyalty, Courage and Discipline are my only three conditions.

Guan Yu, courtesy name Yunchang

Guan Yu, the God of War, a military general who served Liu Bei during the late Eastern Han Dynasty in the Three Kingdoms, adopted a son by the name of Guan Ping. He had only three conditions for the young man before he accepted him. Loyalty. Courage. Discipline. Prez considers these three attributes as important as honour, compassion and righteousness. These are the six pillars of a great precedent for his children and those who follow him. “We will remember these precedents until our teeth fall out,” his daughter promised.

Prez and I never attended the same class in school. He still has that demeanour of a young larrikin whose infectious laughter can make an elegy sound happy. It would be fair to say we never met in school, although I did recognise him from some school photos he shared. Angelina Jolie may have her amorous hot lips and Brigitte Bardot her famous pouting lips, but Prez’s trademark thick lips complement his flashy white teeth also. Meeting him two years ago was like ‘seeing sweet rain in a time of drought’. The respect he commands is unrivalled and his popularity is universal. I still hold dear in my heart his wonderful kindness when during the first wave of the pandemic in March last year, he attended my aunt’s wake despite a lockdown order in place. After observing the Buddhist obsequies, he paid his respects and handed a ‘white handkerchief’ to my cousins, as a condolence gift from our brotherhood. When we were feeling devastated and emotionally vulnerable, he was there to support us in our grief. I have no hesitation in including Prez, a most worthy man, to the brotherhood alongside Blue Eyes, Wu Yong, Four Eyes, The Cook, Lord Guan Typhoon and Blue Chip.

Prez, our President.

Chip, The Blue-Chip

When I think of excellence, absolute reliability, top shelf quality or highly prized assets, the word that comes to my mind is blue-chip. Throughout my life, I have come across very few examples of that. In real estate, I was lucky to purchase one such awesome property on the final morning of a rushed three days in Brisbane, where The Mrs and I left our mid-teenage sons to pursue their tertiary education. The waterfront villa along the Brisbane River in Kangaroo Point went for a song in a very depressed market, such was my astute negotiation skills against a rather desperate Singapore-based seller. In the sharemarket many moons ago, I was also lucky to acquire some BHP and Oxiana shares, both true-blue Aussie blue-chip mining companies, with all that mineral wealth in the ground for them to dig in perpetuity. Before the reader gets too excited, I have long divested all of my blue-chip investments, such was the topsy-turvy economic cycles we lived in. There is of course, one other who belongs in the blue-chip category. The perspicacious fellow is my good friend Chip. His general knowledge is astounding and often mesmerising. He has the strange ability to discern what most others don’t and to understand what escapes most. I am proud to say that he is perhaps even more blue-chip than we first met in 1965.

When I was reading The Water Margin, a hero by the name of Hua Rong pricked my interest. He was ranked fifth leader in the brotherhood and put in charge of supplies such as food, ammunition and other important provisions without which, the whole gang would have disintegrated. He was their quartermaster, in other words. Chip’s reputation in school was that he was the quartermaster of our troop of Boy Scouts. The success of a Coronation Camp was measured by the quality of the activities, the attendance of beautiful Girl Guides and the quality and adequacy of the food and drinks. The latter criterion was under Chip’s domain. I still hold fond memories of Chip and a few other close friends chopping down 30-foot high bamboo trees alongside the turgid and fast-flowing river behind my parents’ old house at Scotland Close. This was in preparation for building tents for the camp. We transferred them to the campsite about an hour’s ride away, one at a time, tied to two bikes one behind the other about 15 feet apart. Hua Rong was known as “The general with the uncanny arm,” such was his remarkable accuracy with the bow and arrow. He convinced the leader of the outlaws his archery skills were no fluke when he brought down the third bird from a column of flying geese with an arrow through its head as he announced he would. Chip may not have an uncanny arm – I know that because he did not destroy me in the tennis court last Boxing Day – but he does have an uncanny ability to read the ‘mood’ of the brothers and to smooth any ruffled feathers before they became rumbustious. You will never witness Chip annoying anyone or becoming a target for ridicule or scorn. He is much too aware of his surroundings and perceptive of potential discord. Chip does not have Hua Rong’s thin waist and overly broad shoulders but he is as handsome-looking with healthy red lips and somewhat stained teeth from his love for the daily ‘short black’. There is an old saying that a person who is guarded about his privacy ‘holds his teeth very closely to this lips’. So, I was a little surprised that Chip agreed for me to write his story. It is a compelling one to share and I hope young readers will find it inspirational.

Chip grew up in a tough neighbourhood where gangsters and triads roamed the streets after dark. His house was in Third Street, a stone’s throw from the infamous street ‘Chit Teow Lor’ or Seventh Street. “Were you ever beaten up?” I asked. “No, we felt safe as they left us alone.They saw us as their neighbours,” he said. “Did they try to recruit you?” I asked. Chip did not answer my question but he said, “I knew where they hid their guns and parangs (Malay word for machetes) – under drain covers, in stacks of firewood piled in the back lanes. I would peer through my bedroom window’s wooden plantation blinds and witness gang fights”. It stuck in my mind that despite his growing up in rough and violent surroundings, being saturated with daily vulgar words from neighbourhood kids, Chip has maintained a gentlemanly charm throughout. I have not once witnessed any vituperation from him. Chip’s childhood days were happy and carefree – running in the back lanes, playing open-air badminton with neighbours and catching guppies in monsoon drains. His inquisitive mind was not bound by school rules and it meant school homework was not a priority for the young Chip. It was not surprising that he was never in the same classes that the elite boys and semi-elites attended. Although we were in the same school from Standard One right through to Fifth Form, I knew Chip only because we were cubs and scouts. I did not have to see his report cards to know his academic results were poor. “Did your dad spank you when asked to sign them?” I annoyingly asked. “Papa’s favourite remark was ‘you can do better’,” Chip replied.

Childhood days were mostly difficult days. “But papa unfailingly ensured that there was food on the table…….though he was seldom at the table with us when we had our meals,” Chip informed me his dad was always busy at work. “Papa brought home bundles and bundles of vegetables every day….. alas, most were rotten and after the usual big effort, mama would manage to salvage enough to barely fill a plate”. Even though his father was a vegetable seller in the market, Chip’s family never enjoyed the best and the freshest vegetables at home. Chip’s dad arrived in Malaya from Houxi, in Jimei District, Xiamen municipality, at age three. The year was 1927. “Papa was brought over by his grandfather,” that was how Chip started his story. Papa’s grandfather was helped by clansmen upon his arrival in the new country and found work in Sia Boey Market. When he was ten years old, papa’s school life at Sum Min School ended. He had to work in Prangin Market to help his grandfather make ends meet. Three years later, he would be all alone in the world – his grandfather perished as a statistic of the Japanese bombing whilst working in the market. At the age of 16, the boy became his own boss when he opened his own stall at the market. After two years of steady income, the young business owner married a gorgeous girl he had eyed for awhile. It was during the Japanese occupation, an era when single ladies were married off no matter how young to avoid the hungry eyes of the Japanese soldiers.

“My father also had a skirmish with the Japanese soldiers,” Chip continued. 

“He was 18 or 19 then……he had just married my mother”.

“He was on his way home from the market when the Japanese soldiers rounded him up and herded him up a truck”.

“A Taiwanese lady who knew my father witnessed his arrest and without a thought for her own safety, boldly walked over to the soldiers pleading for his release”.

“This lady spoke Japanese and calmly lied to them that my father was her son”.

“If not for her, I wouldn’t exist,” Chip said with hands placed together in prayer.

Papa was forever grateful to the Taiwanese woman, and called her ‘mother’ from then on. His own parents finally reunited with him in Penang in 1937. It was an awfully long ten years for the boy, growing up without his parents. But, a short four years later, his father returned to China leaving his mother with him. It makes sense now that Chip says he had two paternal grandmothers. “My (real) grandma was very likely from a wealthy family – she was a ‘bind feet lady’….. can you imagine how a lady with bind feet lived in Penang during the war?” Chip asked. “My ma had to serve her day and night, such were the demands from an incapacitated mother-in-law”. I detected a newfound pride in his voice for his mother. Chip’s family tried to track down their grandfather in China a few years ago. But they drew a blank. An old-timer said to them, “He left, came back and disappeared again soon after”.

Family photo, 1969

13 May 1969. “We had a curfew in place, if you remember. I witnessed the clashes between the police and the triads. I experienced the acrid smell of tear gas which was used crowd control measure. Post 13 May, there was an obvious change in the neighbourhood landscape …… a sudden disappearance of certain neighbours….”.

“I was told that they were triad members and had been arrested and ‘buang’ (Malay word for expelled) to another town”.

“So, was life quieter? More peaceful?” I asked naively.

“No, a new wave of crime descended …… drugs! I witnessed sachets of heroin exchanging hands in broad daylight. As we walked along the five-foot-way to the local provision shop (chai tiam mah), we could see sachets hidden in cracks of walls, under pot plants, etc”. It was beginning to be obvious to me that kids who grow up in rough neighbourhoods do not become feckless later in life. If you were weak, you were dead. Schools and colleges are places that hopefully make us smart. But it is the streets that teach us to be street smart. Chip has been the one who knows to read his surroundings quickly. He is a true master at reading people too. He enjoys the benefit of knowing he can trust his personal judgements of characters and situations.

“We could smell the alluring scent of opium they were smoking, as we walked through the zinc sheds at Chulia Street towards Penang Road on the way to school,” a friend chimed in.

“No wonder you found excuses to walk the back lanes of Presgrave and Tye Sin streets, the sweet smells from the opium dens along there were no secret,” I added.

Visits to the chai tiam mah were happy moments for Chip. “Mama would say “go get rice or sugar or salt” and I would run up the five-foot-way without detours to the shop and buy the provisions obediently”.

“Why happy moments?” I asked, expecting him to share secrets of a crush on the lanky shop-owner’s daughter whose beautiful deep-set eyes were perfectly matched with a long pig-tail and mysteriously soft fair-toned mounds on her chest.

“The uncle will reward me with a lolly!” shouted Chip, who was innocently unaware of how boring his answer was to me.

 Friends are important – they make you or break you.

Yeoh Chip Beng

To this day, Chip does not remember how he was sent to Sydney to further his education. Like many others, he had to stay back a year after his dismal results in the M.C.E. I was not aware many of my friends had to suffer the ignominy of attending Upper Fifth Form. In truth, it was not really an embarrassment to repeat Form 5, many failed because of the Malay language test. Chip finally grew up, in his first year in Sydney. He surrounded himself with the right people whose focus was to leave home, get to Australia, have that free education, gain some life experiences and go home as a successful graduate, and live happily ever after. For most students from Malaysia, money was tight. Chip was no different. “We do not have to be poor forever,” we reminded each other.

It was a no-brainer that he would join me and another childhood school friend as flatmates. We found a flat in a brown building sitting high on a hillock in Kensington, a mere half-hour’s walk to the university. Chip was our Hua Rong in the small brotherhood – imaginative, resourceful and a great cook! Reaching home at 3pm was a daily thrill for me. I would rush up the long flight of stone steps and head straight to the rear of the building pass the rusty Hills hoist from which would hang uncollected for days, racy undies and lacy bras. I used to wonder what the owner looked like. Chip would be visible through the kitchen window. “Chip!” I would yell out happily as I got into the kitchen from the laundry room door. Chip would turn around, with his signature grin complete with perspiration on his forehead. “Fried rice?!” I asked enthusiastically one afternoon. It surely was. Chip’s fried rice was special before the Chinese restaurants called theirs Special Fried Rice. Three eggs, Birds Eye frozen peas and sweet corn, and a hint of tomato sauce. Our weekly allowance was meagre, the rent represented 80% of my earnings as a waiter. Our food bill was limited by whatever savings I had left. Chip was in the same boat. The other flatmate came from a rich family, so he was able to supplement his meals in the uni cafeteria and in his favourite American burger outlet. My lunch was standard and never varied. One peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich and a 125ml carton of wholesome milk. Some uni friends called me and the other flatmate ‘The Fat and The Thin’- there is no need to guess who ‘The Thin’ was.

We celebrated Chip’s 21st birthday in our Silver Street flat in Randwick. We moved there from Kensington after we had our 24-inch Panasonic TV and my pride and joy, a 10-speed bicycle, stolen. It was a small party without booze (unaffordable) and girls (also unaffordable). We did not dress up for the occasion and we cut one another’s hair in the vain hope that we would look presentable in the photos. No photos will be presented here, unfortunately. Chip understood we would turn up without presents – we were poor students on our own, without any financial backing from home. But, Chip cooked up a storm. It was one of the best meals I had in years. The finale was a big wok of birthday noodles impressively garnished with yellow egg strips and red egg strips. He did it all himself, is that not simply incredible? Every birthday ought to be celebrated with noodles with red egg strips, a Chinese tradition that has virtually died here.

Chip’s birthday noodles
Boyhood pals, from Penang to George Street, Sydney in 1979.

Chip surprised himself that he did amazingly well academically – the first year results were beyond his expectations. Distinctions and High Distinctions became the norm even in his second year. His excellent results got him invited to the Honours programme in UNSW. He was tempted and wanted to stay the extra year in Sydney. Money was tight at home but he could struggle through another year, he reasoned. But the decision was made for him. A prestigious Big 7 audit firm offered him a job in Singapore and that was that. No further discussions were entertained. It was fatuous to argue otherwise. This street kid from yonder was heading to Singapore and entering the world of international banking and high finance.

Chip with his lovely wife, a symbol of international success.

During a recent visit to Chip’s home which nestles in the lush green hillside above Penfold’s Winery, I looked at him admiringly from a distant whilst he was busily serving his signature Ribeye filet. It was as usual, the epitome of a perfect steak only Chip amongst us, can master. It crossed my mind that he had every reason to be house-proud. A man’s home is his castle. Chip’s castle is beautifully designed and tastefully decorated. The sprawling garden is well maintained and showcases Adelaide’s skyline and the distant shoreline in the west. No matter how he dismisses the quality of his castle in the blue-ribbon suburb, a casual visitor cannot miss the banner that spells success. There he was, carving the steak in his kitchen, yet the vision I had of him was that of a grand old master of the corporate world, a retired Finance Director of a famous public company based in Sydney, and a retired acting chairman of another publicly listed company in Melbourne. How did he get to the top of the echelon of the predominantly white club? Today’s modern women push for more gender equality in the corporate world, demanding more leadership positions for women. Yet, it is the bamboo ceiling that is a lot harder to break for Asians in Australia. Where 9.6% of the community has an Asian background, a paltry 1.9% of executive managers has Asian origins. Chip from Third Street, Penang achieved what most say is only for the dreamer. He did it without fanfare and none of the pomposity that often is packaged with glittering success. He did it against all odds, arising from a background that was fragile, frugal, dismal and bleak. I have no hesitation in including Chip, a most worthy man, to the brotherhood alongside Blue Eyes, Wu Yong, Four Eyes, The Cook, Lord Guan and Typhoon.

The best Ribeye that would tantalise any steak lover.

A Boon For Typhoon

Whilst reading The Water Margin, a dilemma developed in my mind about the loyal and noble heroes in the epic tale. On the one hand, we cannot deny that they held honour, virtue, loyalty and trust to the highest degree yet the judicious killings of anyone who crossed them were unpalatable for me, especially the wanton massacres of maids and servants to rid their murderous acts of witnesses. Their vicious and ruthless treatment of those they found contemptible was for me as repulsive. “Leave hair not leave heads” 留 发 不 留 头 often their modus operandi. We can easily overlook the rebels’ excessive drinking but the cannibalism of victims was too often portrayed as a normal practice. Yet, there was also the idea of the virtue of Zhixing which was often repeated in the stories, the Confucian virtues of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and trustworthiness. Similarly, when I was a kid, Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest appealed to my moral instincts in clear black and white terms. Their good over evil, helping the poor and down-trodden by robbing the rich and unjust was simple but effective story-telling that left me starry-eyed about the value of heroic virtues, outlaws they may have be. The one hundred and eight heroes in Liangshan Marsh showed a high standard of sincerity, respect, filial piety and loyalty – all virtuous qualities. These noble qualities and perhaps the style of writing that lent acceptance of these men as heroes made it less disturbing for me even though the outlaws were at times frighteningly violent. It was the noble hero, Chai Jin (or Nobleman Chai), also known as ‘Little Whirlwind’ who most impressed me with these virtues. Without Chai Jin, there would be no great stories about Lin Chong, Wu Song and Song Jiang, who all sought refuge in his residence from corrupt officials. Chai Jin’s generosity and virtuous qualities remind me of a childhood friend since schooldays. Instead of Little Whirlwind, I shall call him Typhoon.

Another incredible man of virtue was Liu Bei of Three Kingdoms fame. His legitimacy to the title of Son of Heaven was the most certain, his righteousness and his lineage was unquestionably that of Emperor Xian’s, the last emperor of the Han Dynasty. Also known as Liu Xuande, his compassion and honour for his people made him the most virtuous of the three kings who vied for succession to the Han throne. He was often seen weeping after hearing some bad news. Despite the counsel from his magnificent adviser, Zhuge Liang, the virtuous Liu Xuande was often conflicted between the obligations of his patriarchal (imperial) ambition and the loyalty and honour to his fraternal brothers which Zhuge Liang viewed no more than as a military pact. Liu Xuande’s eventual demise from a defeat at the battle of Xiaoting was avoidable, had he not sought to avenge the deaths of his blood brothers. Despite Zhuge Liang’s countenances, Liu Xuande ranked honour among equals higher than loyalty to authority. Liu Xuande, king of Shu-Han, also motivated me to write about Typhoon.

Typhoon was born and brought up in an idyllic fishing village at the northwest tip of Penang Island. Telok Bahang was predominantly a coastal bay enclave and flourished as the second largest fishing base for trawler boats and inshore fishermen. Away from the shoreline, agricultural farms and plantations dotted the landscape. He was the seventh child in a family of eight children of which three were daughters. Had he been a girl, he would have been given away. “Not sold?” I raised the question in my mind. “No, girls were ‘worthless’ then,” was my conclusion. Typhoon’s Papa was a hard-working rubber tapper in maternal father’s 30-acre estate. For extra income, he did odd jobs like gardening at neighbouring farms and sorting fish on the fishing boat jetties. His impoverished childhood meant his physical attributes were under-developed. Mama helped wherever possible; her children already more than a handful. Income was meagre and putting food on the table was tough. On May 13 1969, the country exploded with racial riots after the politicians played the race card to divide the people. But in their village, there was no racial tension. Malay families lived as squatters in maternal grandfather’s estate. Mama and her Malay soul sister, Mak Nan continued as if the world had not changed. A few months later, after an agonising three years of debilitating decline in health, Papa succumbed to cancer. Typhoon was a wee lad of eleven years of age, but even he knew the tough times were about to get tougher. Village life offered a little respite from the financial upheaval and vast emptiness for a quiet and shy boy without a father. The beaches were his popular stopover – walks on the sand, collecting seashells, digging for clams, netting shrimps, catching sea worms, and watching the sun disappear behind the hills over Muka Head were all cherished memories. By the plantation, the siblings bathed on the river, did the laundry, fished for catfish and fetched water for the vegetable plots.

Telok Bahang in the 70s.

Papa was a native of China who hailed from the Province of Guangdong. He was of the cantonese speaking Pan 潘 clan. Like many other provincial folks of his time, he journeyed to Malaya to seek a better life. Mama was a Loo 呂, her father was from Guangdong too. Papa arrived in Penang with a brother and a nephew, each with a small rattan basket of belongings. Unlike other arrivals who stayed in the town in search of prospects, they took a bus and headed for the furthest part of the island. Noticed in a coffee shop at the fishing village where they arrived, all three men were offered work and free accommodation by a local landowner who would become Papa’s father-in-law. Typhoon’s parents married in Telok Bahang when Mama was only 15. Papa’s actual age was unknown, “My guess is as good as anybody’s,” he said to Mama.

Old photos of Papa were destroyed by termites.

None of Typhoon’s siblings progressed beyond secondary school. The girls were the first to dropout. Education wasn’t important anymore once Papa died. Mama needed their help in managing the household. The elder boys got to complete senior school after which they had to find work to supplement the family’s income. Mama’s income from tapping rubber was never enough. Growing up in the rural countryside had its downsides. For one, it narrowed Typhoon’s perspective of life. There was little development and few opportunities around, nothing much beyond the green landscape of the kampong. It was foreign to harbour any ambition. Typhoon was the only one in his family to acquire a tertiary qualification but it wasn’t immediately after secondary school. There was a short stint selling batik and a shorter one manning a book store. He was lucky to gain a diploma under the sponsorship of the local authority he was working for and completed a degree course in Health Sciences years later through distance learning. He learned the lessons of resilience and self-reliance during those long years. “If you could turn back time, would you wish you were born in more vibrant and ambition-driven surroundings?” I asked. Without any hesitation, he gave me a resounding “No!” “Growing up in a village was blissful and unforgettable.” “Once a kampong boy, always a kampong boy,” he said.

The village boy together with three siblings rented a room on the upper floor of a communal home of ahmas or majie (妈姐), a sisterhood of retired maid-servants. The house at 83 Muntri Street was conveniently located right opposite our school’s side gate. “It was not home to me; there I was plagued with anxiety until the weekends when I would rush back to my village and feel instantly rejuvenated,” he confided. I was surprised to learn of his anxiety and home-sickness, both good enough reasons to consign a sufferer to mediocrity. Yet, Typhoon was one of the smartest in school. During our time in school, the system had no qualms about grading and ranking us. Sometimes, the teachers even caned us or twisted our nipples. The system of reward and punishment was practised by all; I was more aware of the punishment side – detention for any minor offence, a swift lash of a bamboo cane was the standard price should one’s hair touched the collar. We knew exactly where we sat in the hierarchy of intelligence. Typhoon resided in ‘A’ class throughout lower secondary school. In High School, he belonged to the elite ‘Science 1’ group. Typhoon was more versed in the rewards side of the system. He was highly respected both by peers and teachers, and enjoyed real status; he was rewarded with enviable positions such as the Secretary of the Board Of Librarians, the Vice-chairman of the Chess Club and  the Vice-chairman of Buddhist Students Society.

His sobriquet was The Amorous One, the villagers called him “Goh Paik Si.” He reckoned it was on account of his bike’s rego number 584, the number to the locals meant Chu Pak Kwai, the Amorous Pig. He sounded surprise when I told him it was more likely due to his irresistible good looks and his attractive kind-heartedness made him the village Romeo. Whilst thinking about stunning good looks and amazing attractiveness, I must mention Diaochan’s incredible feat in the Three Kingdoms where she used her beauty and charm to bring down the treasonous warlord Dong Zhuo and his foster son, commander Lü Bu, two warriors whom all the rebel leaders failed to defeat. That Diaochan could bring about the demise of powerful men without a dagger or sword spoke volumes to me. Equally, Typhoon has that same ingenuity and confidence to succeed where most others fail.

Diaochan sets her trap

We can’t stop the wheel of life from turning. But there’s a pause button we can use to reflect and review.

Phoon Choon Chee

It is mighty difficult to find another person as resolutely honest and noble as Typhoon. I had not seen him for over forty years prior to our last meeting at a school reunion two years ago. He had lost his chubbiness and soft pink lips. His once-sparkling innocent eyes looked tired but wiser and offered a window into his soul. Therein I sensed unselfish love, purity and moral quality. His steady and usual sangfroid nature is still very much appreciated by his friends; we know to count on him to break any awkward impasse by posting a funny photo to calm the group during frequent furious exchanges amongst some of us. The well-combed shiny black hair has been replaced by short swept-back silver-grey locks that closely resemble those of Pierce Brosnan’s. In fact, his whole demeanour, the wide smiles, the deep wrinkles on his forehead all reminded me of the actor. Quite charming, well-mannered, sophisticated, stylish and suave. Debonair, in one word. But, the essence of the man is course, his virtue and general moral goodness. There is no doubt in my mind Typhoon is a worthy man to join Blue Eyes, Wu Yong, Four Eyes, The Cook and Lord Guan in their brotherhood.

A boon for Typhoon meeting Junie, a true love story

Lord Guan, Go On

Reading an epic novel is a big challenge for me now. What is required is time (lots of it), attention to detail, good healthy eyes and most of all, an unfailing memory. Early in my life, I think I was too eager to acquaint with the few ‘epics’ that my brother left lying around. I was too young and naive to understand the concepts and politics, yet I soldiered on thinking I had the high brow to absorb everything I read. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Gogol’s Dead Souls and Diary of a Madman were read by the time I was seventeen or eighteen. Tolstoy’s War and Peace, crammed full of human suffering, l lost, unfinished, I think. There were hundreds of characters in those stories, that a brain such as mine simply could not store all their names and idiosyncrasies. The most vivid picture I got from them was the bitter cold Russian winters but even that, I am no longer sure. Maybe I got that in my head from watching Dr Zhivago. But, one thing is for sure; the rouble is the name of one currency I do not have trouble remembering.

Recently, I finished reading The Water Margin. It is a story of one hundred and eight heroes of Liangshan Marsh, and many more who did not join the brotherhood. Which means a lot of names and characters. During the past week, I have been weakened by the winter flu and so, it was easy to tell myself to neglect the garden. Neglect the rowing exercises. Neglect the early morning Qigong routine. Maybe I have been telling my body to delay its recovery, so that I have every excuse to shorten my working hours, and retire to my bedroom early. There, I have been squirrelling away my energy and waking hours to race through the novel. On the weekend, I started on Three Kingdoms, a not-to-be-missed classic wonderfully translated by Moss Roberts. Again, hundreds of heroes and villains, usurpers and wannabes. Russian names may be long, but Chinese names sound too similar! And each character will have a minimum of three names! A real name, style name, and sobriquet. My hero in the book is no other than Zhuge Liang. I have mentioned him a few times in the past. Having lived in Australia for over forty years, I forgot the name that appears first is not the first name. Zhuge (pronounced Chu-ger) a double surname, Liang his given name, and his style name Kongming. As if these were not enough to tell us who he was, he gave himself the nickname, Master Sleeping Dragon or Crouching Dragon, from a stretch of hills near where he lived, Sleeping Dragon Ridge in Xiangyang. A hero with four names! Whilst reading these two books, I urged myself to write about a childhood friend, whose life has been as turbulent as red sprites during thunderstorms. Yet, it is equally true to say his is a life that is fully lived, colourful and filled with a full spectrum of human experiences. Please allow me to laud Lord Guan. Go on, I hope he will invigorate you as much as he has inspired me.

Red Sprite, lightning above turbulent thunderstorm clouds

When I read about Lu Da in The Water Margin, I thought amongst my friends, Lord Guan is the perfect hero that most resembles him. He was also known as The Fat Monk. A popular character, he first appeared in Chapter Two of the novel. Killing the butcher who forced a pretty girl to be his concubine and then tricking her of all her money, Lu Da went on to be a great hero of the marsh. Lord Guan bears many of Lu Da’s physical attributes. Both big with big strides and monstrous jumps. Lord Guan also possesses a towering frame, massive thighs, and a big face with a generous nose, bushy eyebrows and fat ears. A gentle giant, he has big smiles whereas Lu Da wore a fearsome military look. Lord Guan has the presence of a happy and contented monk, often helpful and caring but never mendicant. I chose the name Lord Guan for this friend because his namesake was also a hero in the Three Kingdoms, a historical novel attributed to Luo Guanzhong. There, he was also a giant of a man, with crimson-coloured phoenix eyes, and brows like nestling silkworms. With a rather imposing stature and breath-taking presence, he with Zhang Fei declared their absolute faith in Liu Bei and all three prostrated on the ground in a peach garden and became blood brothers. They annihilated the Yellow Scarves, a dominant rebel group which although defeated hastened the collapse of the Han dynasty some thirty odd years later. But having been reminded of my friend’s life story, I am convinced he is a man of much more depth and substance than Lu Da and therefore more suited as the leader of the band of brothers I am writing about. My Lord Guan has tasted the full gambit of what life has to offer, from the bitter fruits that he spits out instinctively to the sweetest and juiciest rewards that he enjoys in the privacy of his abode. Lord Guan should be compared more with Chao Gai, the leader of the brotherhood! Lord Guan, go on!

Guan Yu aka Guan Gong, is today revered as The God of War by Taoists and Buddhists.
Lord Guan aka Guan Yu, courtesy name Yunchang

Chao Gai was the obvious leader of the marsh, the votes for his leadership were unanimous without any abstention. What makes a good leader? I suppose, first and foremost, one ought to be born with leadership qualities. A leader is born but of course can be made too. Chao Gai was the village chief, generous and hospitable to everyone, including visitors to the village. He was particularly fond of making friends with heroes, people with like-minded virtue and ethics. He had great influence over his people. He was very fit and strong, disciplined and never neglected practising with his halberd. Lord Guan possesses such qualities too and he is also a long-time Qigong practitioner. His honesty is beyond reproach; his generosity always present, and his virtue unshakable. He believes in reincarnation and it would be the least startling if indeed Lord Guan turns out to be a reincarnated Chao Gai. “But there is no evidence of reincarnation,” I said. “Of course there is!” He swiftly replied. “Why does a newborn know how to suckle a breast?” “And why are some born blind or deformed? Karma! It’s their punishment for having lived a bad life in the previous one!” He answered his own question before I could even raise my hand to respond. Very rarely do I find a truer friend, and a more just man than him. He doesn’t resile from an agreement; neither does he renege on a promise. He will be the first to step up and apologise for any wrongdoing. Lord Guan, go on, show us your mettle.

Born from a Penang mother and an Ipoh father, Lord Guan possesses a towering personality. In school, he symbolises the horse – magnificent, handsome and fast. His sobriquet, however, is The Bear, some see him as the huggable and adorable one, but for me, I sense The Bear is also powerful and indefatigable. Decisive, intelligent and fair, his reasoning is never that of a pedant. Lord Guan, go on, show us you’re irresistible and irrepressible.

Lord Guan finds durians irresistible!

Lord Guan’s parents were match-made during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya. The maternal side, worried about the Japanese taking their daughter away for nefarious reasons, quickly pushed her to the arms of Lord Guan’s father. Lord Guan’s grandfather was from China who left his wife and family in Guangzhou to seek his fortune in Ipoh. He married a local woman and had seven sons and one daughter with her. During the Second World War, Grandpa Guan’s sundry shop business suffered from the frequent extortions and unpaid rations by the Kempeitei. The business collapsed and he died soon after the war was over. Lord Guan’s father was suddenly entrusted to maintain the whole family household, despite being ranked No. Four son. He started out as a daily rated census taker and subsequently joined the civil service a few years later because he could speak and write in English – a rare ability amongst his peers during those early years in Malaya. A family household does not mean one family – in today’s terminology, it is a household of many families. With his salary he sustained not only his own growing family but also had to support his younger siblings and their immediate close relatives. Lord Guan’s grandmother insisted that her fourth son should help all of them as they were her own sisters’ and brothers’ children. Lord Guan’s mother was the one responsible to make ends meet even when it seemed impossible. She had to keep a tight rein on the younger ones besides her own growing number of children. Money was tight but Lord Guan’s mother kept a tighter fist on household expenses. Those were difficult days in Ipoh, when even a grain of rice mattered. “Stop looking at the salted fish, your meal will be too salty,” I imagined she said. There was never enough on the dining table. Lord Guan’s grandma was a part time mahjong player and helped chipped in the household expenses when there were winnings. But, odds of her losing were always higher.

When Lord Guan’s grandma passed on and her siblings and extended family left after completing school, Lord Guan’s father transferred in 1961 to Penang for career prospects – the other reason, never mentioned, was the couple ached to leave the sad affair of their eldest daughter’s passing a few years earlier. Making a livelihood in a new place was like making a new life. Lord Guan enrolled in the same school as me. Basketball, football, camping, Cubs and then Scouting were his main focus when in school. We got on famously right through the first eleven years in school as I too enjoyed the same activities. He did not join me in Form six but stayed back to repeat his fifth Form. “Upper five” meant a year of watching his peers move ahead of him. He could only look forlornly from afar as some of his mates started courting the pretty girls in Lower six using puerile tactics. Envious of some of them leaving for overseas studies, he had the option of being a trainee SIA pilot or repeat the same subjects. “Mom decided for me against my father’s wishes,” he said. The following year, he left for the U.K. The rolling hippy scene there was such an amazing attraction for the teenager but the gloss was quickly dispelled by the cold reality that “the majority of the Brits was a poor lot.” He completed his degree from Polytechnic Manchester in 1982 and joined a Singapore semi-government company to work. There, he lasted two years before “better prospects” lured him to Kuantan.

In 1986, a near-death encounter at Karak Highway taught him some important things about life. His car was a total write-off in the rotational collision. “I was going round the bend when my car decided to spin around a few times. “I could clearly see what was happening and whilst trying to counter the centrifugal forces, I was screaming profanity in slow motion.” His car was spinning in the wrong direction and he could see his car catapulting towards the guard rails that hugged the cliff edge. When he regained consciousness, he thanked all his gods and lucky stars that he had crashed into the cliff face instead. Surprisingly, he had only sprained his wrists. That and a big bump on his head were bragging rights to prove his death-defying escapade. “Everything goes very painfully slow if you aren’t due to die,” he concluded. “So, what was the message you took away from that?” I asked. He smirked and said, ” As in Wall Street the movie, it told me one must enjoy life to the hilt, live life full of possibilities – you never know when it will be all over.”

A second death was predicted by fortune tellers in 1995. It was another crash, but this time it came in the form of the 1997 Asian financial crash took the wind out of his sails and wiped out his whole world. He sank into a financial abyss, so deep there was only darkness. “Bankrupt, you mean,” he corrected me. His honesty stunned me. If I were a bird, I would stop knowing how to fly, and if I were a fish, I would stop knowing how to swim. “Thankfully there were kind people like Ah Chuan and others who helped me in so many little ways,” Lord Guan said with a deep sense of gratitude. “The road to recovery is always tough and from all the spiritual teachings I encountered, I learned that the natural self shall be our beacon,” he said. Lord Guan had his glittering career swept away from under his feet. Through no fault of his, he lost everything when the financial crisis gripped much of Asia. Economic bubbles and crony capitalism from lax American money supply meant the whole thing was set for a major calamity. Countries with currencies pegged to the increasing US dollar saw their GDP plummet as their exports became uncompetitive. The crisis brought down the 30-year-rule of President Suharto. Asian sharemarkets crashed and unfortunately, Lord Guan was then a high-flying remisier with big-time clients. Some jumped from tall towers and others reneged on their contracts. Saying it in a way that would displease their ears, “they avoided him like he was a carrier of a deadly virus.” Lord Guan was left with massive unpaid contracts. During the few years before the crisis, his broking firm was setting profit records. Taxes on the previous years’ profit were outstanding and becoming payable by the time the financial tsunami swept away everything he owned. Lord Guan was so virtuous and honest he did not siphon out monies or squirrel away hard-earned savings for his young family prior to the crash. “My common trenching business in Penang was being owed monies which could never be recovered. Margin calls and rotating deals ensured I was buried totally in losses in the tens of millions,” he continued. There is an old saying, “No point killing a battered horse when the horse can still be useful,” – his stockbroking firm continued to use him to trade with his corporate clients until the Tax Office sued him for outstanding taxes. The tax officers did not care that he had massive losses to claim deductions against the prior years’ profits.

Lord Guan considered running away. Penniless and unemployable, he was useless to his family anyway. The couple could not support their family anymore. This is the worst nightmare scenario for any parent of little kids. His super loving wife who never considered abandoning him, decided to try her hands on direct marketing, and he on selling credit cards and later, insurance. Lord Guan’s name was black-listed everywhere, all he could really do was be her driver and gofer. His name was not only unusable, it was a barrier to a job. “To go out and seek job opportunities, I had to live on RM10 a day, an allowance from my mother – bless her soul – she still saw something in me,” he said. A great friend saw his predicament and offered him a sales job selling pottery. His sales was shitty and he couldn’t keep the job. Then one day, an ex-client offered him a sales job for commercial electronic door access and CCTV systems. From sales, he became a technical support staff and eventually he came out and worked for his wife in her own CCTV business.

During his “second death”, his friends brought him to see not one but a few monks, and Indian and Chinese fortune tellers who all separately concluded that he was supposed to be dead. “It was total darkness, there were no stars in my life chart and the total absent of light, according to their calculations and readings meant death. Strangely, they all had the same conclusion. They were dumbstruck to be reading the fortune of a dead man. Somebody up there must have done some horse-trading using whatever little merits Lord Guan had to help him live on during the total darkness.

The fallen suffers a life which is worse than death.

Beh Chooi Guan

With a feeling of absolute worthlessness, hope also abandoned him. Nothing to his name and nothing positive to look forward to. Almost daily, there was mud and shit hitting the fan for him to face and the innuendos and whispers continued for years. Ostracised by some of the so-called friends. Blacklisted by financial institutions and labeled a bankrupt with no bank account to his name and no credit card to depend on. Being bankrupt means you cannot own anything and you still have to make however small contributions to help settle some of the debts. For government debts, there can be no deals done. What is owed has to be fully paid. They won’t look at the following year’s losses to cancel what was owed – “they will extract blood even from stone,” he said matter-of-factly .

“I’m so sorry you went through all that darkness and stress,” I said. Life can be so unfair and unyielding. “You’re amazing to climb out of such a dark deep hole,” I revealed a new-found admiration. Lord Guan’s heart-wrenching story is the real story of great success at the echelon of corporate life being struck down by events too big to predict. A truly black swan day that would have brought anyone to their knees. That he climbed out of it after decades scraping in the bottom searching for scraps, without bitterness and recriminations, deserves utmost respect. That is the mark of a truly virtuous man. After the darkness which lasted what felt like an eternity, he began to look after his body like a temple and cultivate his mind and heart like a productive garden. “Live life to the fullest. Don’t assume you’ll get a second chance,” he advised. “Everything will run its course, and remind yourself of the old adage when you’re at your lowest, things will only get better,” he spoke with profundity. “Life should be kind to you by now,” I suggested. “When you see me fly to distant places, you will know I am free like a soaring eagle again. But for now, I am the old horse running free on the grasslands.” I liked the picture he painted for me. Either way, he is contented and uncomplaining. “What is the real story here?” I asked. With the briefest pause, he said, “There is always someone else who is worse off than you if you decide to turn your head behind to help.” Lord Guan, go on, we salute you. I think Lord Guan is a worthy man to join Blue Eyes, Wu Yong, Four Eyes and The Cook in their brotherhood. Lord Guan, go on, you are their natural leader.

The Cook In My Book

Li Kui featured a lot in The Water Margin; not surprisingly, as this colourful character is full of vigour and straightforward honesty. If the band of heroes wanted anything done, the go-to fellow was Li Kui. He got things done. “Things” usually meant killings. When I came to the part where Li Kui split open Taoist Luo the Immortal with his axe, and upon seeing his blood was white, he exclaimed that the celibate must be filled with sperm. I knew I had to write about my friend who is equally sharp-witted and hilariously funny. I shall, for obvious reasons, call this friend The Cook. He is as brutal as Li Kui, but not with killings but with his honesty. Li Kui, also known as The Black Whirlwind, was dark-skinned, rash and obstinate. He wielded his axe effortlessly, “chop, chop, chop,” and “crack, crack, crack,” as he hacked his victims into many pieces. Wherever he went, people were scared of him – he had that nasty killer’s demeanour about him and it would not surprise me one bit that if looks could kill, it would be his. The Cook, on the other hand, is a fine specimen for any lady. He has the killer looks and it still irks me that the pretty girls in school fell for him as they over-looked me – and I am the taller and darker one. Maybe they found me mawkish when I should have been hawkish. He has a fair complexion, with faint freckles and big attractive eyes with double eyelids (something I only get if I rub my eyes hard). He wears his hair well-combed, never tousled. He frequents a local Malay barber whose services many cannot afford or justify. Like Four Eyes, he is a strong swimmer, gliding playfully in the water like a dolphin. Needless to say, a strong swimmer possesses a finely tuned body that is toned to perfection with a long torso, a flat abdomen, a thin waist and powerful legs. Unlike Four Eyes, The Cook did not win at any swimming meet, but as a swimming instructor, he too attracts a bevy of star-struck teenage girls. Why didn’t I learn to swim, guys?

Li Kui was brash, uncouth, strange-looking and his antics amused many. The Cook protested that he is nothing like Li Kui, “He’s the hatchet man – everyone avoided him!” He sneered before adding “I’m the exact opposite,” he emphasised that his good looks often got him out of trouble whereas everyone feared Li Kui and his fierce looks and wild temper often got him into serious fights. But, The Cook did admit his reputation as a “pain in the ass” was difficult to object to. Today, he is under lockdown due to the pandemic and so, his focus is on cooking up sumptuous meals for him and his pretty wife. Just like Li Kui, he often goes “chop, chop, chop,” and “crack, crack, crack,” but instead of chopping up people, he is busy hacking salted fish bone, pork ribs and ox tails with his cleaver. His “kiam hoo koot” curry and beef curries are legendary. Be sure to note he accompanies each food tasting with his poppysmic trademark as he deconstructs the dish he is cooking.

The Cook’s family name was wrongly spelt, it should have been Weng.
His forebears liked to think that they were good merchants but they were really just obedient and savvy – they knew how to bow to the right people, and bend over for the ones with power and influence. For all their efforts the highest title they were bestowed was that of a Salt Official, an honour awarded by the Imperial Palace that rewarded them a monopoly on salt. The Cook’s grandfather had a wooden plaque with “Salt Official” incised in gold characters. Grandpa lived in a courtyard house with its own lily pond in Longyan China, near Jiangxi and Guangdong. That they managed to pluck themselves up and leave the Chinese equivalent of the Appalachians was, of course, a stroke of luck. But, they also managed to string together a network of collecting stations in Indonesia trading in native products such as tobacco, gambier, nuts, coffee, and rattan, with export depots in Singapore and Penang – “that was a bigger stroke of luck”, The Cook surmised. I think The Cook was quite unfair to attribute a genius’ foresight and pioneering spirit to mere luck. His father was supposedly the love child of Grandpa’s and his Eurasian lover who was of Indonesian/Dutch blood. So it has been whispered, but there is no one left to confirm this rumour.The Cook contended that it fits with his hazel eyes, high bridged nose, light-coloured curly hair and handsome looks.

The Cook’s parents married when they were barely out of their teens – an arranged marriage that the young kids did not know how to object to. “The Dialect Association made the introduction,” he said after a long pause. “Mom and Dad were from the same Hokkien sub-dialect group, their accent was very unlike Penang Hokkien,” he said.
The Cook reckoned his dad was a big catch for a sundry shopkeeper’s daughter from Kerian, Perak. In those days, a daughter of a sundry shop owner would have been a lucky strike for any self-respecting bachelor, so my unlocking of The Cook’s hidden meaning that his dad must have been a really really wealthy merchant would be spot on. “Chinese family fortunes are supposed to last for three generations; arse luck I’m the 4th,” he complained. His dad had a shop in the Chinese section of Beach Street in Penang when The Cook was still a little boy. It is of course quite forgivable for a little kid to think his family was poor. A cocktail of peer group pressure and parental ruse meant most kids in school grew up not knowing they were richer than the others. Most of the bosses and their wives (towkays and towkay-sohs) knew to act poor, so their children would study hard in school to climb up the ladder of success. Crying poor also allowed them to negotiate better deals and secure looser payment terms from their suppliers.

“Later on, dad began to import wheat flour and safety matches,” The Cook said. “Safety matches?” I asked. The Cook looked at me with disdain and said, “Yes, they are matches that don’t ignite by accident.” His mum was busy with seven kids and did not involve herself in the family business. Her full lips were never weighed down by gravity, the sweet smiles they produced melted anyone’s bad mood and they often turned harsh words into kind ones. She was no termagant. Her children were all very attractive and smartly attired. The beautiful daughters wore pretty dresses; the boys incredibly captivating with their handsome looks and strong muscular bodies. Everyone looked intelligent and happy. A casual glance would tell a passer-by theirs was a well-loved, well-fed and wealthy family. No one wore unmatched socks that needed rubber bands to keep them tight around the ankles and no one were embarrassed in school with uniforms that were three sizes bigger – their possessions were mostly made to fit or made in England.

When The Cook was little, he did not know the shop in Beach Street belonged to them. He assumed his uncle owned it and that his dad was the worker, because whenever he visited, his cousins were always there playing in the shop. They told him they often stayed behind till late, whereas he was often told to leave before it got dark. When the war came, all business contacts were severed with the Indonesian suppliers. Konfrontasi in the mid-1960s was a violent conflict that erupted when the Indonesians opposed the formation of Malaysia. The Cook’s dad lost his shop and ended up as a commission agent at a first floor office along Penang Street. It was rumoured that some old company money was parked in Singapore but no one bothered to find out. The Cook didn’t pursue it either – “if the horse has bolted, there is no point to close the gate,” seemed like an appropriate reminder. “It could be worth a fortune,” I prodded. He looked at me and screwed up his face with a pout before adding, “The rice is already fried, and you want it uncooked?” He seemed annoyed at my inane questioning, so I did not delve into it further.

Unlike Blue Eyes, Wu Yong and Four Eyes, The Cook did not pack his bags and leave town when opportunities seemed thin after their school years were over. “The other side is not necessarily greener,” he contends. So, he made his side greener. For that, I salute him! That is exactly the one special trait of Li Kui’s that I admire. He is doggedly loyal and unequivocally forthright. If you want to pick someone to stand by you through thick and thin, pick The Cook. He found opportunities where others didn’t. A small octopus may camouflage itself and hide in crevices or under rocks but bet on The Cook to catch it. He has a knack to find success when most others fail to even hear the opportunity knocking. A successful loss adjuster in his heyday, he was as feared as Li Kui but by scammers and fraudsters who panicked at the sight of him.

The Cook calls himself the AA Cook. “AA?” I did not dare ask him if that meant he was an anonymous alcoholic. His encyclopaedic knowledge of cooking stupefies me somewhat. It is not just the names of pork cuts and beef cuts or the myriad of fish and shellfish he knows or the exact proportions of spices and herbs for a dish, it is his ability to serve up a Peranakan, Mediterranean, Indian, Malay or the many Chinese provincial styles of the most delectable food at a moment’s whim. I bet his Mrs is very satisfied with him. His mom was a superb cook; “She taught me the basics,” he replied when I asked how he knew the tiniest intricacies of cooking. By that he meant he watched and learned as she busied herself in the kitchen, and magically produced superb dishes that only stoked the children’s appetite. It was said that he was the only one in his family who could read recipe books. He has this gift of visualising everything he reads that it becomes real. He can taste the food from reading its recipe, and he can tell you the recipe from tasting the food. The immense fecundity of his imagination left me speechless.

The Cook’s guiding principle was possibly adopted from Alfred E. Neuman, “What, me worry?” The man simply does not own a single wrinkle on his face. “Worrying never got me anything,” he said as he pointed to his thick mop of hair that is devoid of a single strand of grey. His mantra has always been “Be brave! Where are your balls?! Try new things. Don’t stop learning.” He left one big motto unsaid, but I knew from his body language that it was about telling himself he is better looking than the next guy and that gives him his exaggerated swagger. He names his proudest achievement by singing “Staying Alive, Staying Alive.” I think The Cook is a worthy man to join Blue Eyes in his brotherhood.

Stayin’ alive, live long and prosper!

From The Angle Of An Angel

When I read about Song Jiang in The Water Margin, I could not help but admire his filial piety and his big heart of gold. He is the hero who I must write about, I told myself. Song Jiang, as described in the book, was a most charitable man. He never refused to help anyone who asked him for money. He assisted those in distress and raised anyone who had been crushed by their circumstances. He was also known as Welcome Rain or Timely Rain, for his positive influence on people was akin to falling rain on parched lands. He was instrumental in saving Chao Gai, the eventual leader of the brotherhood, and three other leaders including Wu Yong, from certain arrest by Imperial soldiers. Later, he also saved Wu Song the barehanded tiger killer in Jinyang Ridge, from a gang who caught him when he fell into a stream so drunk that he couldn’t get out of it. Song Jiang had great leadership skills and it was no wonder that they appointed him Second Leader to replace Wu Yong after he refused the top post in deference to Chao Gai. One day, Song Jiang got into trouble when he reached out to help a medicine seller. A tenacious brigand who thought only with his fists and axe was offended by Song Jiang’s audacity to help the medicine vendor despite his warnings not to. After fleeing from his attacker, Song Jiang was rescued by a pirate, the elder brother of Zhang Shun. Zhang Shun was a muscular fellow who could swim as well as a fish and stay in the water for seven days at a time. Zhang Shun was fearless and unbeatable in the marsh. It was both Song Jiang and Zhang Shun who caught my imagination to write about my friend Four Eyes, a living angel, in this chapter.

Four Eyes is as dark-skinned and athletic as Song Jiang. He has all the virtuous qualities of the hero too – compassionate, charitable, accommodating and generous. A powerful swimmer just like Zhang Shun, the girls were attracted to him like octopus to coral. Why octopus, you may ask. With an inspiring physique like his, I imagine the girls would have used their arms and legs like tentacles to feel his powerful and perfectly-chiselled muscular body. On the weekend as I was watching My Octopus Teacher, it amazed me to see the female octopus clamouring all over the bloke’s body with her sensitive suckers. I could see that the snazzy hunk’s well-defined body would have had a similar effect on the English girls when he went over to the UK in 1979 for his ‘A’ Levels and then for a Polytechnic degree. “Ah, English girls,” he sighed. He did not have to remind me of the story of a housemate who, upon seeing other housemates had gone out shopping and left them alone in the house, asked him if he wanted to go to bed. Four Eyes innocently told the beautiful blonde honey with the alluring pony-tail he was contented to read his book as it wasn’t quite bedtime yet. Four Eyes was our school Sportsman of the Year in 1975. He represented his country in the Schools’ International Swimming Meet in Jakarta that same year, and waterpolo in the 1977 SEA Games in KL. In the UK, he became known as the Amorous One when his name tag at a fancy dress party had the first two letters, G and L, blotted by some spilt red wine. “How on earth did you splash red wine on yourself?” I asked inquisitively. He said he would tell me on the condition that I do not disclose it to anyone. All I will reveal is it has something to do with an amorous female octopus. No word of a lie!


Talking without thinking is like shooting without aiming.

Marcel Gan Mah Seang

“It is too late to say sorry to someone you have hurt unintentionally with your words,” Four Eyes’ dad drummed into him. “Words,” as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said in Le Petit Prince, “are the source of misunderstandings.” Four Eyes learned that long before I read it in that charming little book. His dad, Four Eyes Papa, bought two sets of Encyclopaedia for him and his five sisters and a brother to use. He would make sure they looked up the words for themselves rather than be spoon-fed. “If you take the trouble yourself, you won’t ever forget,” he taught them. Four Eyes Papa was a Thai national, born in 1921; his father was the District Officer of Kantang in Southern Thailand. Well-to-do, their meals were served on gold-rimmed porcelain plates and they drank from pure silver cups. Their mansion was a shining example of opulence and their private verdant garden was quite exotic, with Chinese weeping willow and Japanese maple adorning the path to a rotunda that was furnished with intricately-carved teak outdoor furniture. Four Eyes Papa was smuggled out to Penang at his mother’s insistence to avoid him being conscripted to the Thai National Service. His mother, originally from Penang, still had a sister there. It was arranged that the sister would adopt Four Eyes Senior as her own. That was how his name changed from a Thai name, Pratip, (surname unknown) to a Chinese name. Four Eyes Papa was a smart man, blessed with an abundance of wisdom and common sense. He was a qualified accountant at age 15, a time when many of his peers were equipped with low literacy skills. “He must have read Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet,” a friend gathered from the way he serenaded the girl living on Kedah Road and climbed up the rainwater pipe to whisper love-words in her ears. “His jaunts were as romantic as Romeo’s,” the friend exclaimed. The girl next door, who was adopted by her parents, was irresistibly beautiful and equally intelligent. It became quite obvious soon after that she would become Four Eyes Papa’s wife. A few months after they were married, they heard of the plight of a young girl who was about to be sold as a future Ahmah Jie (maid servant). The married couple was quick to adopt her as their first child, such was their compassion and kindness for the girl. Their union, made in heaven, brought them much happiness and love. “This bountiful God has thought of everything,” thought Four Eyes’ Mama, as she looked lovingly at her litter of seven children. Four Eyes Papa, an altruist who would give you the shirt off his back, was respected in his community as a selfless man. He had no qualms about wearing ink-stained shirts to work, skin-deep matters mattered not. Whenever frowned upon by busybodies, all he said was “old shirts are more comfortable.” Theirs was a big family to support, but the struggling couple still generously donated to battlers and beggars who frequently knocked at their door for alms and food. That is compassion from the angle of angels.

Four Eyes’ Mama worked as a seamstress at home to help make ends meet. In a family of seven children, life was not meant to be easy. Every weeknight, after checking their school bags for homework, she would then scan their exercise books and report cards for any red marks. Four Eyes, despite my best efforts, would not reveal if he was ever caned by his mum. After their school work had passed her scrutiny, she would then start on her own work. Work meant burning the midnight oil till two to three in the morning. The kids helped by sewing buttons and hemming dresses. It is no wonder Four Eyes still has that lift in his little finger and deft wrist movement whenever he shakes hands with friends. When they got too tired, the two brothers would sleep in the lounge near their mother’s sewing machine. The rhythmic chugging and whirring of the machine was like a lullaby for the boys. Some nights, Four Eyes’ Mama slept at her old Singer machine to avoid disturbing her husband’s sleep. She would be up at 5.30 a.m. to prepare breakfast for everyone. Four Eyes Papa bought weekly social welfare lottery tickets but never checked them for the winning ticket – his way of contributing to the welfare of the needy. That is thoughtfulness from the angle of an angel.

Four Eyes, on the far left

When Four Eyes was four years old, Second Sis had a bad bike accident that required their mum’s full attention. Distraught and struggling to cope, Four Eyes’ Mama moved him to a care-giver’s home so he could be properly attended to. A month passed and he came home a very sick boy due to terrible neglect at the care-giver’s. Second Sis felt immense guilt about this and she vowed to forever look after her siblings. She worked as a nurse at the Charing Cross Hospital and channeled her earnings to help support them. Their school fees and petty expenses were covered by her, right through to their tertiary education. She took up a loan and bought a house in Kenton, Middlesex for Four Eyes and his brother to stay during their time in the UK. Every Christmas the two brothers were given two suits each. “You are what you wear,” Second Sis said to them as she insisted they picked better quality garments. She and her husband have not stopped caring and looking after everyone in both their families. It is quite natural for a devoted daughter to look after her family, but it is equally important for her to also care for his family – they are a beacon of love and understanding. The monthly remittances home were always prompt and generous. That is undying love from the angle of an angel.

Ian Henderson was Four Eyes’ best friend at the Polytechnic. He brought Four Eyes to visit his parents and they tried to convert the home-sick boy to Christianity. “They proselytise; it is the right thing to do if you truly believe it is right,” Four Eyes said. But, he politely declined, “I am a free thinker, and here away from home, I am finally free to do whatever I like.” In February 1984, their last year at the Polytechnic, Ian Henderson suddenly passed away. At the funeral when all the mourners had left, Four Eyes whose thick glasses failed to hide his red swollen eyes, strode up to the open coffin and asked his best friend, “Why have you left me, brother?” At that moment, a white figure rose up from the coffin and said to him, “Now I appear before you, do you believe in me?” His legs gave way and he crumbled clumsily onto the nearest pew. A voice called out from the direction of the coffin, “Grief not, for he is with me now.” A few weeks later, the grieving mother invited Four Eyes to pray at her son’s burial spot. The newly engraved words on the marble tombstone said “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Four Eyes gasped softly. Those words struck a strange chord with him. Four Eyes worked as a duty manager in charge of Housekeeping after his graduation. His claim to fame was introducing a room checklist for staff to work with. A few years passed and Four Eyes had run out of options to renew his UK visa. His boss at The Cumberland Hotel in Harrow was an old Jewish woman in her 70s. She adored him and fussed on him incessantly. She suggested to him a local girl whom he could “marry” for convenience so that he could stay permanently in the country. But, Four Eyes could not bring himself to complicate the simple life that he lived, a problem-free and stress-free life that he valued. The old Jewish woman cried at his farewell party, her discomfort was clear for all to see. “Why didn’t you marry her instead?” I asked. “You would have inherited all her wealth!” Four Eyes was like a ray of sun to her, bringing her lunch or dinner to her penthouse every day. Her kids only went to her for money whereas he was her friend who stayed to chat and livened up her life with humour and zest. That was genuine companionship from the angle of an angel.

As his visa had expired, Four Eyes returned to Penang, his hometown. Life was quite lonely for him during those days. One day, whilst working at Lone Pine Hotel, he met Pastor Koe, a fellow schoolmate from his year whom he briefly failed to recognise. He related to the pastor his experience at Ian Henderson’s funeral. Pastor Koe asked Four Eyes to open his heart to God and ask for His guidance. “What am I to do?” he pleaded during his prayers. According to Four Eyes, God sent him to the local swimming club one afternoon. Whilst he was treading water in the middle of the pool, he saw a beautiful girl swimming towards him. The girl bumped into him and her arms splayed around his taut and suntanned body. He told me that was how their love story began on the spot where their hands and bodies entangled. He vowed to sweep her off her feet, make her swoon, ‘sing with rapture and dance like a dervish’. “I promised her we will be deliriously happy and live a full life together,” he confided. A Catholic girl, she invited Four Eyes to her church that very weekend, and it would be safe to assume Four Eyes has never missed a sermon since. He was “slain” in front of the congregation on that very first visit. His eyes were closed yet he saw a bright blue light flood in through his skull and soothed his mind. Soon after, he realised he was crying, his eyes were filled with tears of joy. He saw the light again when he witnessed an apparition at the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows on Macalister Road. The same bright blue light was shining on top of the statue of Our Lady. Four Eyes became calmer, more caring and considerate. His parents saw the transformation in their son, and they too converted to the new faith without wavering ever after. That is unshakeable faith from the angle of an angle.

We are all guilty of the good we did not do.


The above quote is least applicable to Four Eyes. He continues to help many charities and orphanages. But, he is acutely aware there are many more that fall through the cracks and are missed by the institutions. He makes it his mission to also help the needy who do not have a safety net to rely on. “They are equally deserving to be succoured in time of hardship and distress,” he said. Once upon a time, Four Eyes was in a coffee shop with a few mates. A stationery pedlar came to their table and asked to sell them a box of pens. Four Eyes, without hesitation paid $20 instead of the asking price of $10. The pedlar tried to give the $10 change to Four Eyes, but Four Eyes told the pedlar to keep it, the extra money was his bonus. The pedlar’s face lit up with a broad smile and his eyes sparkled. After he left their table, Four Eyes’ mates said he was crazy to give so much. “No one pays double the price for pens!” One of them became quite querulous and added, “You will spoil the market!” Four Eyes didn’t care to reply. In his heart, he understood $10 was not quite enough to buy a packet of cigarettes, but it was plenty to feed the bloke for a whole day. That is generosity from the angle of an angel.

I think Four Eyes is worthy to join Blue Eyes and Wu Yong in their brotherhood.

Curse The Curs

Wu Song, one of the one hundred and eight heroes in The Water Margin, was my inspiration to write this story. I watched the episode maybe a hundred times with Pa, and briefly even harboured a wish to be like him. He was incredibly strong, totally fearless, righteous, tall and handsome. Wu Song enthralled both Pa and me by killing a man-eating tiger with his bare hands. With his bare hands! He cut open the breasts of his adulterous sister-in-law, Pan Jinlian, and pulled out her heart, lungs and entrails after finding out she poisoned her husband (his older brother) who to her was ‘three parts dwarf and seven parts imp’. But, to be as brave as he, I would need to get drunk. Very very drunk. I have been tipsy but never drunk in my life. So, it won’t be possible for me to be like him. Just as well, since I discovered later in the book, he indiscriminately slaughtered some nineteen maids and servants in Colonel Zhang’s house. That is the trouble with this 14th century Chinese classic, despite the common thread of Confucian morals fighting the debauched, nefarious and corrupt. The heroism, righteousness and benevolence of these heroes cannot right the wrongs of their callous brutality and violent disregard for the law, corrupt or otherwise.Their path to rebellion and correcting injustices through the people’s support was a concept brilliantly adopted by Mao Zedong in his uprising against the government of the day some 500 years later. The acceptance of The Water Margin turned full circle when the Maoist teachings were discarded following the collapse of the Cultural Revolution; the ageing leaders knew too well that a rebellion against them would undo all they had achieved.

All week, I tried to encourage some of my childhood friends to permit me to write short stories about them. We hail from a Lasallian / Xaverian brotherhood formed from years growing up in the same school. We have been calling one another “brothers” ever since. The idea that I could mimic the style of The Water Margin and write about my friends from school pricked my interest. ‘Within the four seas, all men are brothers.’ invigorated me. I was excited by the prospect of writing tales that encompass tragedies or traumatic experiences of our elders during the Japanese Occupation in Malaya, and about their successes or failures following the great promise and hope for a new nation that post-Colonialism offered; and subsequently, the decades-old Malaysia’s ‘Malays First’ malaise, right through to the tumultuous changes at breakneck speed the internet has brought us. I hoped to uncover stories of black swan events and heroic fights against many injustices and discriminations that a brotherhood like mine has lived through. I wanted to share their stories and at the same time, reveal each person’s unyielding belief or ethos and life’s heroic crusades. Disappointingly, no one has come forward. I was hoping my chapter about Blue Eyes would be good enough to placate any privacy concerns they may have. Unwilling to give up on this idea, I thought if I enticed them with a substantial gift each, I would gain acquiescence from a few brothers at least, but this has also been met with silence. Incredibly at our age, everyone still prize their privacy above all else and prefer to remain anonymous. A friend said I should be generous, and tell my own story first. “Be eponymous,” he suggested.

Wu Yong at 17 years-old

I decided to write about Wu Yong instead since there is no one I know who can be as interesting as Wu Song. Wu Yong is nothing like Wu Yong ‘The Inquisitive Scholar’ in The Water Margin, of course. No, he isn’t so clever like the strategist who was second-in-command of the outlaws of the marsh. The Wu Yong I know is known locally as Wu Yong the Cur. Cur means a mean, cowardly person. It also means a mongrel dog. Wu Yong is a scrawny chap with a sallow complexion – especially during the winter months – and puny limbs that attract ridicule from his sister. “Keep fasting and you will shrivel up fast!” she said. He looked up at her with his narrow cloudy eyes, and swallowed back the words that were at the tip of his tongue. Wu Yong loves his dog. He once told me, “Dogs have many friends because they wag their tails, not their tongues.” Dogs keep secrets very well, of course. I have asked my son’s pup, Murray, many times to confirm if my son has a girlfriend but Murray merely wags his tail and licks my hand with his wet tongue. Murray does not gossip. Wu Yong cannot understand the olden day contempt for dogs in China. Every dog is a mongrel, a cur. They won’t say “you fart” but they will include the poor dog and announce, “you blow dog farts.” If something is smelly or bad, the word “dog” must be included. The Chinese character 臭, “zhou” meaning smelly, repulsive or bad, is formed from two words: self and dog. Since ancient times, dogs have a pejorative connotation in Chinese culture. A slur will often consist of the word ‘dog’ in it. Zou gou 走狗, “go dog,” or a traitor. Hanjian or traitors who aided the Japanese during their occupation of China were also called zou gou. 狗男女, add a dog to men and women and we get awful men and women. Another example of the unworthiness of curs is the saying 狗眼看人低, “dogs’ eyes look people down,” or useless people looking down on others. Curse the curs.

Why do the Chinese have such a low opinion of the dog?

“Out of a dog’s mouth will never come ivory tusks.” – one who can’t be successful.

“If the dog leads the man, the man is blind.”

“From the lowly perspective of a dog’s eyes, everyone looks short.” – You’re nothing!

“Dog head dog brain” – you’re a drifter.

“Hang a goat head, sell dog meat” – cheat with false advertising.

“Before you beat a dog, find out who its master is.” – you’re not important but your relative is.

“Dog without a master” – you’re miserable and unfortunate.

“When money is stolen you can only beat the dog.” – you’re to be blamed for everything.

“Wolf heart dog lungs” – you’re ungrateful.

“He painted a tiger, but it turned out a dog.” – a disappointment.

Display a “Beware of the dog” sign – Conceal our weakness through pretence.

Wu Yong and his dog

Wu Yong leads a comfortable middle-income lifestyle in the suburbs but throughout much of his life, he finds the respect that is extended to many others around him is often withheld from him. His mother often calls him reckless or rash. 冒失. He is not refined and not smart, like a bull in an antique shop. His choice of words are often provocative and he does not give her confidence when important decision-making is required. His tendency to speak his mind – to set things straight – often annoys his friends. They misunderstand and say he is captious. His siblings have learned to simply ignore him, “Oh, he is just blowing dog farts.” Yesterday, Wu Yong got his name struck off the small dinner club that he was invited to join only a few weeks earlier. An intellectual discussion about blockchain and cryptocurrency attracted personal attacks about him as a blockhead for daring to debate such “techie” matters with his dinner hosts. He was criticised for attempting to correct their statements that there is no income from holding cryptocurrency or that whoever holds it is merely for tax evasion reasons. He told them about staking, Defi lending, yield farming and interest-bearing accounts but they didn’t listen. They said he was “blowing dog farts.” In such serious disagreements, typically people resort to attacking his foolishness instead of solely focusing on the subject matter. By exaggerating his hand gestures and mimicking the way he speaks at three octaves higher in pitch, they successfully depict him as a fool. As his mother often reminds us, he is 冒失, rash. They know it, and so, by reminding him of his poor investment record and being grossly underweight in his retirement nest egg, they made sure he doesn’t forget he is a pariah, financially. He is also “ , bèn, bèn” foolish, his old mother confided to me. “His brother is much cleverer,” she whispered into my ear. I know one of his sons had recently said that about him – his foolishness, so I am beginning to think it is true of Wu Yong. Poor bloke – he honestly tries hard to please his mother, wanting desperately for her to be proud of him. He once said of his mother, “No, I don’t find her termagant at all, but she has been a firm matriarchal figure all her life, even to her own sisters.” His love and adoration for her knows no bounds. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, Wu Yong told me he feels like an outcast – unpopular, misunderstood and therefore usually picked on. A friend said to him, “You’re a fool to gamble with your retirement funds.” “Bitcoin isn’t real like gold! You can’t treat it like it has value – it is not a precious metal.” Wu Yong explained to me he understands why gamers are prepared to pay thousands of dollars for a game skin. Yes, the need to feel successful and respected is as important to people who spend the bulk of their time in the virtual world and owning a rare accessory in a game gives them a status that they may not have in the physical world. So, who is to say they are wrong to perceive value in things we do not quite understand? Seldom understood and incapable of presenting himself as an intellectual, Wu Yong is often the subject of criticisms and ridicule – an easy target in any group that is looking for some light entertainment.

He is sometimes overheard singing the lyrics of his favourite song, My Way,

I will state my case of which I’m certain….

I did what I had to do
I saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway…..

But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall and did it my way!

I told him that may be the reason why he is unpopular; he has the habit of just spitting out things that aren’t agreeable like they are early morning phlegm. “Why don’t you swallow your pride and bite your tongue instead when the situation isn’t to your advantage?” I asked. He simply shrugged his shoulders, put his hands in his trouser pockets, and trudged away slightly hunched, without saying a word. I pity him. Many, including his Mrs, find his odd mannerisms and harmless coquetry annoying. His neighbours say he is indecorous, they may have heard him pee in the garden and not forgiven him.

Wu Yong’s many years of long days and ultimately, business flops mirrored that of Blue Eyes’. But that’s where their similarities end. Blue Eyes found the freedom to be himself and travelled the world with his Mrs after they found the key to unchain themselves from the prison that their small business had become. Wu Yong’s mental anguish resembled more like the artist LS Lowry’s, not that he can be compared to the great artist. Punishing long hours and limiting in leisure time, Wu Yong’s life-long sacrifice is only now belatedly beginning to bear fruit. He informed me he is more than halfway to building the requisite nest egg for his retirement. He seems unaware at 62, many of his peers have already retired. LS Lowry had to deal with a very self-absorbed and demanding mother who took every opportunity to denigrate his work. She made him feel diminished as a rent collector during the day and a wannabe painter at night. (Others labeled him a “Sunday painter”, so he agreed and said ‘I’m a Sunday painter who paints every day of the week!’) After her husband died, she resented their industrial surroundings in Pendlebury whilst reminiscing about her wonderful young life as a promising concert pianist in an affluent suburb in Manchester. LS Lowry is famous for his stickmen paintings of lonely people going about with their lives in bleak industrial landscapes. Echoing his own sad and miserable life, he once said of his crowds of stick figures: “All my people are lonely, and crowds are the most lonely thing of all.” His paintings reminded his mother of everything she hated about her life, to the point of her encouraging him to burn them all. Luckily for the world, he didn’t. Despite her hurtful opinions of him which she dished out liberally, he lovingly cared for his suffocating and mean mother without a complaint. It was sorrowful for him that he could never please her. Many years after she died, he was awarded a knighthood for his contribution to art. He turned it down. Apparently he said, “What’s the point? It’s too late for Mother.” Painting helped him forget he was alone; he couldn’t have lived otherwise. Wu Yong said he can relate to that. His voice, soft, rueful. He too feels alone, unappreciated and often misunderstood. But, like Lowry, he too has a steely resolve to get on with it and find comfort in doing the things he enjoys. Wu Yong does not rely on hope to get by. He said hope is just a trick for us to stick around a little longer, waiting for something to change or someone to reach out to us. I think Wu Yong is worthy to join Blue Eyes in his brotherhood.

Inspired by LS Lowry

All my people are lonely, and crowds are the most lonely thing of all.

Laurence Stephen Lowry