A Trilogy. Apology, Elegy & Eulogy

The funeral director at Alfred James said we were there to celebrate. Celebrate someone’s death? Mrs Yelland was someone so dear to me. It was her funeral yesterday, 25th November 2021. But, how on earth can we bring ourselves to celebrate her passing? The modern meaning of ‘celebrate’ has been skewed to mean a happy time, to party, to enjoy a happy occasion with a feast, dance and grog. For me, it usually means a rock lobster with fried noodles, i.e. rarely. The funeral director was like an apparition to me – I could hear her and could see a body smartly dressed in a black suit from the corner of my eyes but whose face I did not even have the courtesy to look at. Forgive me, I was in mourning. She explained to us that the true word for ‘celebrate’ is to solemnise an event or honour a person in order to publicly acknowledge that the event or person has significance. She spoke professionally in a low and appropriately sad voice. Her comforting words were very possibly from a template she will often use in her opening delivery as a professional. My mind had wandered off before she finished. The Mrs was thoughtful enough to collect a big bunch of red roses from our neighbour’s garden and present it beautifully in a nice box. If not for her, we would have got there empty-handed. I felt the urgent need to apologise to Mrs Yelland as I looked intently at her lonely coffin in the front of the room.

We were almost late for the funeral. “HURRY UP! WE CANT BE LATE TODAY!” I yelled at the heavy footsteps upstairs. Ever since The Mrs retired over ten years ago, she gets to do whatever she wishes. Her time is strictly hers too. No longer dictated by other people’s schedules, she was also late for her doctor’s appointment. How do I know this? Because they rang me. She wanted to show her respect and love for Mrs Yelland and asked to deliver her eulogy at the funeral. But, she woke up the day before and thought she saw a ghost in the mirror. Around her eyes were big dark circles and the sudden greying of her hair made her look ghostly. She looked more like a panda bear than a ghost, I thought, but I kept quiet as neither would sound right to her. So, she said it would not be appropriate for her to stand in front of everyone looking like a ghost in a funeral. A few days earlier, she had tripped whilst tending to our neighbour’s garden in the front and fell down the rocky slope. She tried to get up by grabbing at a nearby branch (luckily it was not one with rose thorns) but she slipped and fell further. A second attempt also failed and she tumbled down the moss rocks. She hit her head against a rock but at least it stopped her from falling further, I reasoned with her. I suspected the mild concussion caused her hair to suddenly turn grey but she was adamant to put the blame on me instead. I made her old and grey. I was watching The Legends of Chu and Han on Youtube when she walked in. No, she limped into the house. She showed me the deep gashes on all her four limbs, as proudly as a Vietnam vet would to prove his battle scars amounted to bravery. Her dishevelled hair and soft whimper prised my attention away from the TV. “I fell down,” she said with a trembling voice. You won’t need to ask her what my reaction was; she will tell you I nagged and scolded her like she was a kid. She won’t tell you I quickly got up and got her some band-aid and antiseptic cream. And, of course I did not nag! I merely asked her why? Why did you not learn from your lesson? Why won’t you learn? Why won’t you wear proper shoes and leather gloves? There are snakes in the garden, you know! Her excuse? We Chinese are accustomed to wearing our thongs at home. Flip-flops are the most comfortable and easiest to wear. But, she won’t accept that wearing thongs or wearing my leather sandals are a bad idea in the garden – they aren’t purpose-built protective footwear for the gardener, right? “Just be nice and pour me a gin,” she said, trying to change the subject. Since then, I have been properly chastened by her stories to her friends that I am a really unsympathetic nag. A few weeks earlier, she slipped and fell on the neighbour’s property; she did not know how to negotiate the slippery wet slope of their steep driveway with the slippery leather soles of the oversized leather sandals she was wearing; oversized for her because they belong to me. I told The Mrs this is a serious matter. People of our age should not be falling so regularly. We ought to be more careful and take necessary precautions. Mrs Sage from two doors away came to visit us after The Mrs had her second fall. She walked into our house with her sand shoes on. I did not have the heart to tell her to take them off – I imagined it would be an enormous effort for the old woman to bend down, teeter and take them off in front of me. It makes logical sense to wear thongs, see? Just fling your feet and the thongs come flying off them. No laces to untie, no need to bend her back or lose her balance. The Mrs is always this convincing. I will need to apologise to her too.

The funeral director brought me back to the room. She was about to play a cello duet performed by two of Mrs Yelland’s students. It was a concert they performed in Manchester over ten years ago. Before they came on, I had apologised to Mrs Yelland. It remains my huge regret that I visited her only four times in the six years she spent in the nursing home. On the first three occasions, she could still remember us and we were able to have meaningful conversations. There were no moments to dull our minds whenever Mrs Yelland was around, longueurs and she could not exist together. The last time I saw her was in June 2019. By then, her illness had robbed her of her beautiful thick long hair and agility. Her hair had turned all white and thinned enough so that parts of her scalp were visible. She no longer waltzed or clicked her heels like a tap dancer in the lounge. Her lips had become two thin lines of skin which hid a mouth that was empty of teeth. Saddest was that wretched illness had also robbed her of her memory. She did not recognise any of us. She no longer asked about my father whom she always admired, because she knew about how he spurned a childhood of abject poverty and left home at nine years of age to fend for himself. She could also feel his pride and amazing support for the boys – her boys. Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease. It may actually be more cruel to us than to the patient, since the patient would not be aware of her debilitating condition later on. Well, that is what I hoped for anyway. It would be too cruel if she knew she had lost all her precious memories. When her mother passed away, Mrs Yelland confided to me that she was fearful that one day she too would be afflicted with Alzheimer’s. She would have lived with that worry for decades. That is also the cruel thing about the disease. I told her I was sorry for not checking on her more often. Even though she did not recognise us, it was not sufficient reason to not visit more often. The pandemic offered me a good reason for awhile, but to use it as a reason would be too convenient. She would not have liked me to be a malingerer. On the weekend before she passed away, I had actually planned to visit. Murray, my son’s dog can vouch for me. I told him during a long walk. That I did not get to do it hurts even more. The regret is more painful today. I am so sorry, Mrs Yelland.

The cello music was impossible to ignore. I had listened to it many times over the years, but in that room, on that occasion, it was especially beautiful yet filled with deep sorrow. The Andante of Jean-Baptiste Barriere’s Cello Sonata in G for two cellos ripped out my heart. I could not contain my tears and towards the end, they freely flowed down my cheeks. I did not see any point to wipe them off. No need to hide. I wondered why Barriere wrote such a sad movement, and for whom did he write it. It is to me an elegy, a lament for the dead. A wonderful choice, for Mrs Yelland, played by two of her students.

Before I had the time to compose myself, the funeral director had asked me to read my eulogy for Mrs Yelland. I had never made a public speech in my life. It had become a phobia, I did not want to admit. How can someone in his sixties evade speaking in public for so long? I was a confident student in my first year of university. When asked to present a talk on the theory of price elasticity, I stepped in front of the big tutorial class full of confidence and thought I could be as impressive as the lecturer. I started delivering my full understanding of the topic without any notes, but I bombed out when drawing a graph on the blackboard. Looking up at the board above eye level and writing with a chalk that kept breaking was a very different experience from looking down at a piece of paper on my desk and scribbling on it with a pen. It was embarrassing. I became confused and lost control of my talk. The lecturer must have pitied me when he asked me to stop. I was a total wreck as I trudged back to my desk with my tail between my legs. That scarred me forever. So, when The Mrs told me she could not deliver her eulogy and I was given no option, I became afraid. My hands turned icy cold. Sophie, Mrs Yelland’s daughter, called to tell me it would be very appropriate for me to speak. I had no choice. My ice cold hands were frozen by then. I had to make many trips to the toilet the day before the funeral. I learned that anxiety does cause diarrhoea and not just morning sickness which I had lots of on the days of school exams. But, on the morning of the funeral, I was calm. Although I had not ever made a public speech and in front of so many people, I had no qualms at all when the moment came for me to stand up. I simply told myself it was not about me. So, there was no reason to be self-centred or self-conscious. Or be nervous! I did not even care that I was swimming in my old new suit. Hardly worn, it was made to fit me perfectly some ten years ago. I was not aware I had lost so much weight since practising intermittent fasting. Mrs Yelland never cared about material goods or brand names. She cared even less about money and high fashion and pretentious people. Photos beamed on the big screen showed her to be a very beautiful young woman with very kind eyes, a perfectly shaped nose and perfectly shaped lips. Her living room was well lived in, not at all a display room, but instead it was crammed with the most impressive collection of books, cello music sheets, CDs and DVDS. Her vast vinyls collection was comprehensive and included recordings of all the great cello legends. It was clear to me Mrs Yelland would not bat an eyelid over my ill-fitting suit. I knew I would be alright before I made my first public speech. Because, it would be about Mrs Yelland. It would be for her.

My eulogy for Barbara Yelland (24.01.1948 – 03.11.2021)

My wife, Joon, first met Barbara in a school carpark. We have always called her Mrs Yelland out of our respect for great teachers. Mrs Yelland was visibly late, rushing towards her old yellow car – her long strides somewhat slowed by the burden of a cello strapped on her shoulder. A cello! “She must be a cello teacher!” Joon cleverly deduced. Even though Mrs Yelland was clearly in a rush, she kindly stopped for Joon. “Excuse me, excuse me!” Joon yelled across the carpark. “Will you teach my sons?” she asked. “Twins!” Mrs Yelland’s eyes sparkled. She already knew they were twins because in that school in 1989, they were the only three Asian kids, one older brother and two twins. “They are good kids, and they lurrrve music!” “Their brother is already learning the violin and piano,” Joon continued to sell our kids. But, all Mrs Yelland promised was to give us a tape of Suzuki’s music for them to listen to. We didn’t know at the time, but that was her way of saying yes. Years later, she told me there was no doubt she would teach them. She was curious to discover how to teach twins.

Mrs Yelland taught them till they were twelve, apart from a short stint of about six months when she joined the ASO when they were six or seven years old. Her absence dramatically showed what a great teacher she was. The contrast in her teaching methods was like night and day when compared with the other teacher’s. Their enthusiasm for learning soon reignited when Mrs Yelland returned. She took them everywhere – for Suzuki rehearsals and concerts – we, the parents, were tied to our business and could not leave work. Occasionally, she treated them to a cake or pie at her local deli. She was the one to introduce them to mince pies. Yes, son. There is no meat in mince pies! The other benefit she gave us was she came to our home to teach. She wasn’t just their cello teacher. She was their cello mum. Her devotion,  and passion for the cello was, I think, the catalyst for their love for music.

Friday nights were special. Mrs Yelland came at five pm. Although she made it a point for the twins to take turns to start each lesson, there would be the inevitable jostling and subsequent misery by the one who had the second lesson. In actual fact, they each had two lessons, as the one who had to wait would still be observing the lesson. It was quite common during a lesson for the twins to suddenly scream out “The chicken! The chicken!” Mrs Yelland had tears in her eyes as she told us how hilarious it was to witness the panic in the boys as they stopped the lesson abruptly to clean and cook the chicken. We didn’t arrive home from work till six thirty, so it was their responsibility to get dinner ready.

Dinner was usually at seven, during which the adults’ conversations would veer perilously from religion to politics and refugees and even the environment. Our dinner conversations could be best described as lively and boisterous. Mrs Yelland was proud of her Irish roots and very much a romantic humanitarian. A single mother, on a single income, she had no qualms about helping others. Her political leanings were the opposite of mine and her strong sense of social responsibility, I now should acknowledge, was right and I was wrong. Mrs Yelland’s kind heart ranked highest despite her modest economic means. She had the most beautiful soul.

Lessons would resume at eight and not finish until eleven. It was not unusual to find one of the twins quietly crying on the staircase. I did not have to ask him to know that he felt aggrieved that his lesson was shortened by dinner, and that he was not compensated with any extra time. They were both happiest when Mrs Yelland asked them to play cello duets. It meant no one missed out on playing time! Mrs Yelland called them “My boys”. “My boys should compete in the Eisteddfods!” My boys this and my boys that. It is no wonder they loved her so much. Mrs Yelland asked Joon to enter their names in the local competitions. She refused. She was too scared of failure, for the boys’ failure. She didn’t want the boys to be scarred so young. “No, my boys will learn a lot from it,” Mrs Yelland said. Being their cello mother, she entered them in the Eisteddfods instead. She was right, of course. The opportunity to perform in public from an early stage was so important to their development, to anyone’s development. Before the youngest turned ten, the brothers won gold in the Eisteddfods playing Beethoven’s Ghost Trio. A devilishly difficult piece. Especially the piano part. Only Mrs Yelland had such confidence in her boys to pull it off with that!

Music has enriched our lives beyond what I could ever imagine. Mrs Yelland and her boys took us on their amazing journey, traversing the music world and meeting so many interesting people and places. There were so many highs we enjoyed together. We attended many competitions and concerts together. Mrs Yelland travelled with us to Hobart, to attend a national competition. Our last concert together was at a lunchtime concert at the 2014 Adelaide International Cello Festival. She was already suffering from early Alzheimer’s but she was so thrilled with their performance. After the concert, we stopped by a cafe and had cappuccino and cake. It was a  great moment that made a lasting and permanent memory for me, but alas for Mrs Yelland, she had forgotten she attended the concert by the time I dropped her home.  Mrs Yelland, thank you for being part of our family. We love you and will always love you. I will hold on tightly to the happy times we had together. Your memory will live on whenever I hear cello music on the radio, music you taught your boys.

Thee were many speakers who shared wonderful stories about Mrs Yelland. She is indeed one of the greatest cello teachers South Australia has produced. Her big heart and beautiful soul in the cello world was, to me, unrivalled. An inspiration to many and greatly admired by all despite her huge dislike for bureaucracy and head-numbing red tape. Many mothers said that Mrs Yelland was incredibly generous, she always gave much much more than the allotted time. It is true that no one could afford their lessons if they had to pay for what they received. That was for sure. She gave so much to all her students. “I should not be paid more for enjoying what I do,” she said to one mother who tried to pay for the extra lesson. We were convinced Mrs Yelland will live on, not just here, but all over the world. Her love for music, her soulful artistry, her musical interpretations and perhaps most importantly, her passion for the cello will spread far and wide via her students, many of whom teach in other countries today. When the funeral director asked us to pause quietly and celebrate Mrs Yelland’s memory in our own way, I screamed inside my head, wanting desperately to have a last look at her and say my goodbye face to face. But, the coffin was closed, separating the dead from those alive in the room. The thought did cross my mind later as I stood close to the coffin and laid both hands on it to say my final goodbye. Maybe it was just a prop and she was already somewhere else. I do not know why I did it but I softly tapped the coffin’s lid with my fingers and lowered my head before I left her one last time. Maybe I wanted to leave my fingerprints with her. Vale, Barbara.

Nonsense, Where’s Common Sense?

The old man wished he could be as dead as a coffin. At least, it would be a very good night’s sleep. Sleep had become as elusive as a winning lottery ticket that was once his big wish in life. During his most troubled years, and there were many uninterrupted years of them, sleep came easily. “As soon as your head hit the pillow,” The Mrs said to him. Yet, at a point in his life when worries were few and the pace of life leisurely, a good sleep had become rare like hen’s teeth. Maybe his friends were right, they often commented that he thought too much. “Purge your mind of thoughts. Empty it!” “You think too much!” “You over-think!” “You’re off on a tangent again!” But, they did not know that his mind was mostly dormant in bed. Why did they frown on it if he didn’t lose sleep over it? After he left home to carve out a future for himself in South Australia, his mother secretly prayed to the Kitchen God for a bountiful life for him, whereas he prayed to (the Christian) God for love and happiness during his many bouts of homesickness. “May my days be filled with love and happiness so that I have loads of reasons to celebrate,” he prayed to the absent deity. Maybe the ageing God was hard of hearing, and granted him loads of reasons to be celibate instead. Or, was He confused by the Chinese boy’s ‘R’s’ and ‘L’s’ and gave him loads of reasons to cerebrate rather than celebrate? 

The old man snorted and lifted his head abruptly from his new pillow in a failed attempt to arrest the runny saliva that had leaked out from his parted lips via his wayward tongue. He had wanted many times to place a face towel on his new pillow to protect it but he never got around to it. In the end, he didn’t care. The pillow had not delivered on its promise to give him a good night’s sleep. A Father’s Day present, it had cost his son over a hundred bucks. But, it was neither high enough nor low enough for the old man’s troublesome neck. The label falsely claimed that the memory foam would mould itself to the user’s head and neck but the old man’s discomfort was insufficient reason for his son to return it for a refund. “We know how hard it is for a business to stay in business,” was all he said. After a few more disturbed sleeps, the old man finally decided the best position for his neck was for the memory pillow to be propped up by the old flat one which had followed them all the way from Sydney in 1986. Nothing is recklessly thrown away. It remained in their possession despite the dark yellow stains formed too many years ago from errant bodily fluids made during careless activities. A strange phenomenon, that; we never know how or when the stains come about. We suddenly notice them one day. Just as well there are pillow cases. Pillow cases are a wonderful invention. We can’t tell the age of a pillow once it is inside a pillow case. “It is common sense to keep old pillows, right?” the old man asked without expecting an answer.

The nights were especially troubling for him. In the dead of the night, his frozen shoulder felt heaviest and stiffest. The weight bore down on his arm like an iceberg ripping apart the steel hull of a ship. The searing pain woke him up before he reached deep sleep. “It felt like a piece of meat taken out of the freezer,” he told The Mrs. Cold, heavy, frozen but in extreme pain. Imagine the meat feeling every cut by a cleaver. When deep sleep didn’t come, visits to the loo became frequent. The old man was not surprised his mates had the same problem of having to empty their bladder frequently during bedtime. The bladder can’t be full, can it? Not when one avoids drinking during the night. Where does the piss come from? Where is it during the day? Why doesn’t it come during the day and spare us the trouble at night? To the old man, it seemed to appear at night with alarming regularity despite him not drinking a drop of water after dinner. His friends lost sleep the past two nights, coincidentally with crypto prices crashing. They were newbies to the crypto world, yet the old man had learned a lot from them being the quiet student intently following their boisterous conversations that centred on the remarkable future of the crypto world. A 10-15% drop in crypto prices is considered a mere dip. Hardly a crash, not even a correction. “Buy on the dip,” was their popular catch-cry before the dip. But, they never answered the old man’s question about what a dip actually meant. A 10% drop was of course a dip, and was a strong signal to buy more but those fellows lost sleep since their crypto portfolios lost value. Instead of executing their mantra and buy on the dip, these old men all shrunk into their caves and trembled at their losses. Maybe they were shuddering at the thought of having to explain their rash decisions to their Mrs. “Aiyah! You bought Bitcoin! (without my permission?!) Aiyah, the sky has fallen!” It was nonsense, of course. Where was common sense? They knew cryptocurrency was not for the faint-hearted, the volatility worse than Melbourne weather where it was common to experience all four seasons in a day. Besides, they told the old man they were prepared to hold their coins for a minimum of five years. It hadn’t even been five weeks! Their bonhomie evaporated like a drizzle in a desert. Their camaraderie suddenly sounded like a party in a pub with no beer. 

The superfluity of self-pity and sad emojis became too much for the old man. “You guys are the expert,” he began his declamatory statement. “Instead of licking your wounds, why not seize this brief setback and turn it into gold?” Oldies like us are screaming for a Youtube channel that can teach us all about crypto and blockchain. “Host a daily channel on cooking and crypto – that’s the best-selling combo on Youtube. One can cook and the other can talk about blockchain technology,” the old man cajoled his mates. Is it not true that cooking makes us human? Is it not also true that technology makes us human? Why is crypto going to take over the world like the first computers and Microsoft did in Web 1.0, or the billions the FAANG companies reaped in Web 2.0? Ecosystems on the Ethereum blockchain and the alt-coins will be the big winners in Web 3.0; the massive disruptions to the traditional markets and networks caused by decentralised financing (Defi) and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) will be beyond our imagination. Human error is the error to include humans. Blockchain enables computer code or algorithms to operate smart contracts and automatically settle payments without human intervention and is therefore extremely efficient, accurate, secure and foolproof; and of course, Bitcoin will become the new digital gold, replacing fiat currencies as the true store of wealth. It is said fiat currency is money backed by soldiers with weapons. It may be stable in the short term but in the long run, fiat money is depreciating at an alarming rate. By contrast, Bitcoin is volatile in the short term but extremely solid appreciating its value in the long run as its scarcity (maximum 21 million coins), durability (cannot be destroyed) and portability (ask any recent Afghan refugee) by definition make it a true store of wealth. Today, we cannot imagine why anyone would want to buy land in the virtual world let alone pay big sums to build stadiums and concert halls there. But, all that is coming! Even Facebook has changed their name to Meta, short for the metaverse where possibilities are only limited by our imagination. The old man implored his mates to host a Youtube channel to introduce all these concepts in simple language to the uninitiated. A beginners’ guide to investing in cryptocurrency, if you like. “This will be your pot of digital gold!” he told them. All the old man got was silence from his mates. Later, one of the old farts responded, “You’re full of ideas, huh? No wonder they call you NATO.” (no action, talk only). It’s truly nonsense. Where is their common sense?

The old man got up for the sixth time that night. It was a mere trickle that took a long time, maybe he was reading the news or fake news. His attempts to pee are almost as pitiful as Murray’s – his son’s puppy, with its hind leg raised, squirting air instead of shooting a jet of urine to leave its territorial mark. Why did it feel like his bladder was chockers yet in actual fact the output could be measured by a few beads of wee. As he tucked himself back in bed, he tugged at the thick cretonne that had replaced the 100% goose down quilt. It had been an exceptionally wet and cold spring, but that afternoon, The Mrs caught a whiff of summer and decided the cretonne had stayed long enough in the linen cupboard. The old man had read somewhere that naphthalene mothballs were carcinogenic. He was glad those were the last from a big bag The Mrs bought a few summers ago. Although the odour is toxic, the sweet-smelling fumes reminded the old man of his childhood. His mother had the excuse of ignorance and therefore was easily forgiven. The Mrs, on the other hand, should have the common sense not to buy them again. The problem with common sense is it is not so common. For instance, why is the world getting rid of gender pronouns? For centuries, we have used his and hers cleverly to identify male and female. Today, we are told to be gender neutral, and use they, them and theirs instead. Even in France, there has been a backlash against what is seen as American-inspired wokeism. Why is the whole world hell-bent in changing our beautiful languages that are steeped in meaning and tradition for the sake of gender and minority inclusion? The old man wasn’t sure anymore that wokeism was a good idea. It seemed to make sense that any form of discrimination and oppression should be identified and the culprits purged. The MeToo and BlackLivesMatter movements woke up the masses but look at San Francisco where we now find extreme woke culture being adopted in the form of legalised crime. Stealing goods worth $950 or less is just a misdemeanour. It is not theft. Shop attendants pretend they do not see the crime being committed and no one gets arrested since prosecutors cannot undermine the law. Can you believe this nonsense? Where is common sense?

What about the ex-PM of Malaysia? Where is common sense there? The convicted criminal roams the streets freely and is accorded the status of a VIP. He is seen escorted by a fleet of cars and motorcycles as he stopped by a restoran (Malay word for restaurant), reminiscent of a royal visit by Prince Charles. He was this week awarded a RM100 million house and land package by his own political party. A kleptocrat being handed more money by its people? His party, UMNO, has amazingly returned to govern the land after being voted out by an angry and disillusioned populace recently. There is much wrong with democracy that this can happen. Did I say govern? Did Najib govern? Will you let a thief manage your personal budget? Can a kleptocrat govern? Can the word even be correct? ‘Crat’ means a ruling body e.g. autocrat or technocrat. Najib is a convicted criminal who stole billions of US dollars from his people. Some of the loot was found in his bank accounts and in his home. All are returned to him. Even more strange, he has a passport and can freely travel overseas. Anyone who is convicted of a crime is a convict, and is required to serve time in jail. Not Najib, not in Malaysia. Where is common sense? What nonsense.

The old man woke up early this morning after another bad night’s sleep. In four days’ time, his home state of South Australia will reopen its borders. There have been zero cases of community transmissions for so long we don’t even remember when the last lockdown was. The economy has been vibrant, life as normal as pre-pandemic days apart from checking into premises with QR codes and wearing face masks in high risk settings such as transport hubs and health care services. But, from next Tuesday, anyone who is double jabbed from any jurisdiction that has hit 80% vaccination rate can come in without any quarantine. Those from an area with community transmission with over 80% vaccination rate will need to present a COVID-19 test within 72 hours prior to their arrival. It is only those from an area with transmission and a vaccination rate of less than 80% who will need to quarantine for seven days. The State Premier said with borders reopening it was “inevitable that there will be cases coming into South Australia”. So, it is not if but when Delta virus will be let into our community. A deliberate albeit well-considered decision. SA Health modelling shows at 80% vaccination coverage, there will be a 27% chance of an outbreak of more than 100 cases per day, resulting in 13 deaths over 300 days. Unlucky 13. The chance of an outbreak will be 64% without facemasks, with 55 deaths. Their third scenario involving partial compliance of vaccine passports was horrendous. That is the scenario PM Scomo is recommending – no restrictions for the un-jabbed to mix freely in the community and no mandatory vaccines except for those working in aged care and healthcare. Where is common sense? We have been living here for much of the pandemic free of the virus and apart from not being able to travel overseas, living a normal life not dissimilar to pre-pandemic days but now we are asked to live with the virus, and some of us will die. What nonsense! Where is common sense? Why won’t we learn from Europe and Singapore where a new wave is back with a vengeance? Look at Denmark where over 80% of its population aged 12 and above have been fully vaccinated. After declaring that COVID-19 is no longer a “critical threat to society” the government is re-introducing restrictions less than two months after they were scrapped. Many countries have reintroduced restrictions and versions of lockdowns recently. The Netherlands football team played in an empty stadium last week in a World Cup qualifier. In Australia, we only look at 80% of adult population being fully jabbed. South Australia has not even reached 80%. Where is common sense? This is nonsense!

We will want to live with the virus, but the virus will want to live in us.

Wu Yonggang
Murray wondering where the chooks have gone.

Mourning After The Morning

“Why can’t you be nice to me?” The Mrs asked. Her eyes do not leave the painting she is working on, whilst her brush busily dabs away at the elaborate lace-top of the woman’s dress. A Middle Eastern Princess, I think. I dare not ask if they are diamond studded beads or pearls. When it comes to The Mrs, it is best to pretend you know, even if you’re not really sure, because “it should be so obvious to you!” I shudder whenever she asks me for my opinion about her painting. “What do you think?” I think she means for me to say I like it. She has been working on her masterpiece for over a month. At the end of each session, she will ask me to comment. So far, I have been able to offer some thirty well-considered and more importantly, intelligent and well-delivered comments. One wrong word or a slightly critical phrase or an opinion that is totally unacceptable to the artist would be disastrous! A good dinner depends on how honest and clever my comments are. “Umm, the dilapidated wall behind her looks too clean.” “I know. I haven’t finished yet!” “Umm, there is not enough depth between her chin and her neck. It looks one dimensional.” “I know. I haven’t finished yet!” “Umm, the persimmon seems to be too pale behind her lacy veil” “I know. I haven’t finished yet!” “Umm, her white Romanesque garment seems too solid. Stiff.” “I know. I haven’t finished yet!” The Mrs is, of course, well aware her work is a work-in-progress and of all people, she would know best what’s yet to be improved, corrected or changed. The long and deep cleavage that I liked so much about the subject next to the Princess is gone! Rubbed out. Her two soft white mounds that made that dark cleavage have been covered up. Painted over and flat like an ironing board. Just like that, the young girl in the painting is no longer nubile. Damn. Now, both her women are flat-chested. WHY?! The Mrs very well knows I liked that beautiful woman she painted – she had a pair of voluptuous breasts cleverly presented through an alluring piece of see-through top with a plunging neckline. She is cruel to shrink their busts. And so, I proceed to tell her what I think beautiful women should have. Blah blah blah blah blah. She has heard it all before, and it does not surprise me one bit that she has already disappeared into her own world where the beads on the woman’s clothes take precedence over everything I have to say. I should remind myself that when asked to comment, people only want to hear what they want to hear. Be positive! People like positivity. No negative vibes please! (Even during a football match)

I am some seven feet away from her, splaying lazily (and somewhat obscenely) on my weathered dark olive green leather sofa chair. I loved the smell of new leather. Those were pre-vegan days. I had only heard of vegetarianism in the eighties and nineties. In someone’s car back then (I can’t remember whose), I luxuriated on the back seat and told myself to enjoy it, leather being a luxury I could least afford. And when I finally owned my leather furniture, I beamed with pride and joy. A few years later, just before the media crew from RTHK flew over to interview us for a documentary on the life of our 18-year-old musician son, I added a matching set of dining chairs to my leather collection. I believed in fate then and knew the filming of the doco would be a success. What were the odds to find those leather chairs in the identical colour made by a different brand, from a different furniture retailer, quite a few years later? The TV documentary had to be a success! Adelaide’s harsh climate hasn’t only damaged my skin; the extreme dryness has been unkind to my leather furniture also. The once magnificent and expensive leather lounge set is riddled with white jagged scars from years of neglect – the fleeting imperfections of fine crack lines that were easily polished off with Meguiar’s leather cleaner and conditioner are now permanently and grossly etched on the old leather. As wrinkled and deformed as their owner. The broken back leg on its right side informed me years ago that my bad sitting posture needed correcting. I haven’t fixed my posture, looking at how I spread my legs sitting heavily on my right side, and the extent of me fixing the broken leg? I cleverly used an old round lolly tin to prop the chair level. Fate played its part again, I was presented with the lolly tin that was exactly the required height.

I rattle off the many assets a beautiful woman should possess. Poise, grace, posture, shiny long hair, a great body and long slender legs, and…. and then my phone lights up from a WhatsApp notification. As usual, when my mind is inattentive, the notification will impose on me to stop whatever I am doing. I find my eyes moving away from her painting to read the message, but a reflection on the black plasma screen of the TV distracts me instead. Instinctively, my eyes swerve away from it after a brief glimpse of the ogre. I know the reflection has to be mine. There is no one else in the room. I feel relieved to have avoided looking at myself. The Mrs was right a long time ago. The reflection although fleetingly caught on the black screen is undoubtedly that of a whingeing old bastard, whose angry scowl and ice-cold sneering eyes belong to the person I did not want to become.

A soon-to-be masterpiece by The Mrs

“Why can’t you be nice to me?” Can you blame her for asking? I know I am a dubious character. Happy wife, happy life. My friends drummed it into me in recent years although they have gone silent about it for awhile. Like most things about me that need fixing, people give up on me eventually. After learning that I cannot be persuaded. The Mrs’ often used sentence about me springs into my mind. “Stubborn old man!” Happy wife, happy life. It makes so much sense. When she is happy, I’ll be happy! Be uxorious. Women love uxorious men. Which woman does not love to be pampered by her husband? or be the centre of his universe? He who does everything for his woman, and thinks of her every need and every want is well on his way to building a happy life with his wife. He who impresses his wife with his knowledge, and is able to articulate them intelligently and positively will enjoy better dinners together! It sounds easy. I can be that man also, surely. But, I am the type who instead goes searching for the female word for uxorious. What do we call a woman who is passionately fond of her man and does everything for him? Especially being submissive to all his desires? A woman who makes him a hot breakfast? Cooks him lunch, since he is working from home? How about afternoon tea? Would you like an Arnott’s biscuit, luv? To go with your piping hot coffee? Just the way you love it, my precious? But, let’s not spoil your appetite, darling. I am planning tonight’s dinner menu already, my sweetheart. You will simply find it divine, my angel. It’s your favourite, babe. Always, I will cook your favourites. Lobster noodles! Yes, love. Oh, my darling. You will be so delighted. There is no such word that applies to a woman! Only a man can be uxorious. And so, I am off on a tangent, forgetting how to be uxorious, and instead, I find myself asking why. Why is there not a word for women to pamper their men? That is simple. They don’t!

Why won’t honesty pay? Why can’t men be honest and tell their Mrs what they really think? I am supposed to tell her first the good news. Heap the litany of praises she feels she has earned first. “Oh, darling, This is a masterpiece!” “I love it! You’re amazing!” “They are Klimt women!” “NFT it, You’ll make millions!” And then, when she is visibly pleased and feeling proud of herself, I can then continue with some constructive comments. “I like women with big knockers. Paint them with big knockers!” “Don’t hide the cleavage! There is nothing wrong for women to flaunt their God-given assets! Use it or lose it. Show it if you have it, right? Yet, I would be the first to castigate other men for sharing nude photos of younger women, “Think! What if she were your daughter? Would you share her photos?” I stood on my pedestal and slew my friends with my pointy finger. “Will you be this happy with your stupid smiles if your daughters were sluts?” “What if those milk jugs were theirs?” With those words, I wiped the smiles off their faces. But, I am as guilty of dishonesty and double standards. Flaunt it if you have it. Yes, but that shall not apply to The Mrs. We fought for years over that. Didn’t the Old Testament teach us the woman is her husband’s chattel? I support coverture. Cover yourself up! She wanted her freedom. Protect her rights. Be independent. “What’s mine is mine, and these are mine!” she screamed. Flaunt them since they were hers. Since she has them to flaunt. Many can only wish they have them! The little person that I am was only interested in hiding her cleavage, and I began to hide her dresses that I deemed too revealing. If she can’t find them, she can’t wear them. You know the ones. The black body-hugging tank top with the sharp V-neck. The silly summer dress with a round cut-out circle that’s bigger than a peep-hole. It doesn’t just show a glimpse of her cleavage. It shows EVERYTHING! The damn loose-fitting blouse with a lightweight paper-thin fabric that also showed EVERYTHING whenever she bent forwards at the dining table. No, I can’t be uxorious! I am egregious. Too possessive.

Why can’t I be nice to her? I am so nice to Murray. He’s my son’s pet although I am sure Murray thinks I am his pet instead. Murray greets me in the mornings like he has missed me for an eternity. So enthusiastic. With so much love and excitement. If I had to use one word to describe us, it would be ‘inseparable’. We are glued together throughout the day and when we go for our walks, I am his shadow. He leads and I follow. Loyally. Without a protest. Without any attempt to dissuade him. The Mrs and I were glued together too, once upon a time. For a very long time. Until she decided I wasn’t uxorious. Did she expect me to be? Why?! But, I am at the extreme opposite end of uxorious to her. Obnoxious, actually. So, the glue lost its adhesive properties. I suppose that is what freedom is. Independence is what she demanded. But, Murray doesn’t care about independence. He loves my company. He doesn’t insist on freedom, quite happily tagged with a collar and leash. I know he is smart. He actually enjoys his independence without demanding it. He always gets his way anyway. I told him he can sit on my lap during office hours but he outgrew the square pillow ages ago and has also recently outgrown the long contoured orthopaedic pillow. So, he simply plonks himself on my desk. Murray, how do you expect me to work? Murray has no shame. He has no inhibitions about letting off his dog farts. If you have not been exposed to dog farts, let me tell you. They stink! I could be in the middle of a phone conversation with a customer. It is of no consequence to Murray. He simply sets off his silencers right into my arms. The pungent invisible cloud envelopes me, it seems forever. The customer on the phone has no idea. My voice remains calm, professional. I do not show any annoyance. I feel fine about it. There is no protest, no reprimand, no threats. Murray gets away with anything. It is a relationship that thrives, unconditionally. I should begin to treat The Mrs like Murray. Like a dog. And then, she will get away with anything.

Murray, let me do my work.

Two mornings ago, we had a violent storm that lasted through the night. The fierce winds were not the playful gully winds that often visit – they didn’t stop howling and lashing at everything till about seven that morning. There was still a light drizzle when I shared a couple of photos of my roses on WhatsApp. It felt like just a normal morning despite the violence during the night. But, as soon as I stepped outside, it felt different. Something did not seem right. It was too quiet. The birds, normally noisy in conversation and laughter, were silent. The air felt foreboding before sending down a heaviness that choked me. The colour of the sky was grey. It escaped me that the dark clouds still looked menacing. The ground was wet and littered with dead branches and leaves. The gorgeous panicles of new blooms I admired the day before laid wasted, destroyed by the storm. My inner peace thrashed. Death. I felt death was everywhere. The silence forced me to quicken my steps. My chooks! I feared for their safety and rushed towards their coop. Oh no. Oh no! The roof of their nest box was on the ground, its hinges had broken off from the softwood frame over a year ago, and I didn’t see a way of fixing it. Bloody made-in-China shit. Why would they use softwood to make this? Coops are meant to be out in the open, facing the harsh elements. Softwoods won’t ever do. An old piece of discarded timber seemed heavy enough to weigh down the roof and kept my precious hens safe and dry. Good enough, I told myself. The last killings by a fox was over two years ago. It won’t happen again, I told myself then. I was resolute to make sure my last three chooks would retire gracefully and die a natural death from old age when the time comes. I promised them that when their other four sisters were taken by that evil fox. Yes, evil. It killed them for joy, not for food. Unforgivable. I found all four of them that day, two without their heads. After that disaster, I got a Foxlight for added protection. It’s a gadget that throws psychedelic light after dark. The sly fox will think it is a farmer patrolling the area. It won’t come near. It was just last weekend I decided not to “waste” the battery. We are home all the time, and I always check that the hens are back in the coop before locking it up every night anyway. There is no need to have the Foxlight on. I cleaned the predator deterrent and packed it away, separately from its battery. Save the battery for when we next go on holidays. I did not think we would be travelling anytime soon, despite Australia reopening its borders later in December.

The coop was empty. The clumps of feathers on the metal tray that catches their poo from where they perch sank my heart. I started to panic. Maybe they managed to fly away. Please. Please. Do not let them die. But, it wasn’t to be. Fate can be unkind. I found Dottie first. She was lying a mere meter away behind the coop. I picked her up and sobbed. She was still warm, but headless. “I am so sorry, please forgive me, Dottie.” I continued to sob. Why did I not leave my bed as soon as I woke up? I woke up a good half hour earlier than normal. Instead, I laid in bed reading some inconsequential news. News that won’t change my life. And then I wasted more time checking on crypto prices. Wild fluctuating prices that won’t change my life either. But those actions took their lives. I could have prevented their slaughter. Dottie was still warm. She was the most beautiful. The prima donna. She never allowed me to cuddle her, not voluntarily anyway. The only times I did was when she was brooding. Contentedly captive in her nest, tricked by millions of years of evolution. Sitting for weeks on her empty nest, fulfilling her duty as a mother hen hatching her eggs that weren’t there. I laid her down on a dry patch to find the others. Where are the others?

Dottie in 2017, I doted on her.

Reddie and Dottie grew up together. They were siblings from the original five chooks we adopted on 25 March 2017. They died close together. I found Reddy just a few steps away, under the broken tree branches. She died of fright, I think. There were no wounds on her body. No bare patches, feathers intact, no teeth marks, no blood. Thankfully. I deluded myself briefly. No matter the lack of evidence of violence. It was a terrible way to die. To die from terror. That is violence of the worst kind. The fear of being eaten alive killed her. I feel remorseful. A promise so easy to keep, yet it was not. A promise to keep them safe. To reward them for all the eggs they have provided us with. A well-deserved reward that any of us would want. A peaceful retirement in an environment that is pleasant and serene. And then to die a natural painless death. I failed them. I am so sorry, my lovely trusting friends. It may be true I looked after you with diligence and loving care. Bade you good morning as I let you outside for you to freely roam in your run. Cleaned your coop without complaint. Collected your poo daily. Checked for ticks dutifully: Fed you unfailingly twice a day. Made sure you were contentedly cooing in your coop before closing the doors by sundown. Wished you good night very evening before the sun retired. But, I didn’t protect you. No, I did not. I neglected to do the most important thing – to check on your safety. Your untimely death is the undeniable truth about my guilt.

Picture taken when a sick Reddy was being consoled by Brooke.
Reddy in my arms. She always loved a cuddle.

Their obsequies were simple and humble; not televised, no long queue of black limousines and not even a single hymn was sung. Just the one grave digger, one pall bearer and one mourner. Just me. No fancy coffin, just a bit of used cardboard, no white flowers common in funerals, but two freshly cut red roses were placed on their bodies. I laid them side by side. I knew they would like that. Together in life, always. And now together in death, forever. No priests, no prayers, no eulogies. Just the sounds of the mournful rain. Yes, the heavens opened up and even the gods cried for them. I am so sorry. So guilty.

Please forgive this old fool. This irresponsible old fart you unluckily came home with. Come 7.30 pm when the day is almost lost to the night, I would be looking out into the backyard from where I sit. Head half-turned to my left, staring at your coop, wishing you goodnight. Sleep well, my ladies. Please forgive me, for I can’t forgive myself. You trusted me to look after your well-being, yet I failed you. I failed but you paid the ultimate price. That makes me one lousy urghhling. I am so sorry. So miserable.

Reddy and Dottie’s final resting place. White roses for Brooke. I still have not been able to find her.

Three Sons And The Four Seasons

It’s spring here in Adelaide. Without a doubt, this is the prettiest time of the year. Everything comes alive – the sounds and colours are most vibrant in October and November. A few weeks earlier, the birds returned from distant lands; their tweets and chatter transform the park across the road from me into what sounds like a busy market place. Almost Vivaldi-like. The music of Antonio Vivaldi sometimes gives me that impression. Italians are super romantic and passionate. Wild hand gestures punctuate almost every sentence. I have yet to meet an Italian who keeps his hands still during a conversation. They must gesticulate using a lexicon of signals and gestures that are interestingly descriptive and entertaining. I have a friend whose favourite gesture is probably the Italian salute, and as if to avoid penance, he will immediately follow it by placing both hands in prayer. He is also prone to swipe the back of his hand against his chin and aggressively flick it forward to mean “I don’t give a damn!” Italians love to cup their fingers into the shape of a beak and shake it. This gesture is not to be confused with the frantic fluttering of wings that birds do to signal heightened sexual activity. Before too long, the loud chirps of their hungry babies will add to the din that greets me every morning. I mean the birds, not the Italians.

Rainbow lorikeets, kissing or feeding? Photo by Yeoh Chip Beng

Mother Nature chooses this season to be the most rewarding. My house may be just fifteen minutes to the city, but the bucolic setting of my immediate surroundings gives me peace and joy. It wasn’t that long ago that I was pruning the fruit trees and rose bushes. To prepare them for a change of season, I generously shovelled heaps of chook poo at them. All done carefully, of course, for I could not risk the nearby fish pond to be contaminated with wind-blown poo. The cherries are early this year. Normally fruiting in December just in time for Christmas parties, I have already been plucking them from the dwarf tree. It is still the most useful tree that is less than a meter tall.

The most stunning are of course the roses. They are head turners, so showy they stop cars on the road. It would be remiss of me not to mention that the garden isn’t mine. It belongs to my next door neighbour. They are hardly here, so I could be forgiven for treating it like it’s mine. The Mrs and I do all the work, so I think it’s alright if we enjoy it as much as we can – and that includes posting photos and bragging about them. Did I say bragging? No, a school friend said so. It was quite shocking for I did not expect to be accused of showing off what the garden is more than capable of showing off its own glory. A few months ago, a retired horticulturist could not resist knocking at my neighbour’s door to offer advice on how to prune the roses. He also asked for permission to return to take photos of the roses when they are in full bloom. I wonder if he has secretly returned to do that and shared the photos with his friends. Why else would he ask to take photos of them? There was a knock at my front door just then. You won’t believe it, but that was John popping in to ask for permission to take some photos!

John will return when the sun isn’t so fierce to take photos of the garden

There is a problem with spring though. Hay fever and fickle weather! My itchy and swollen eyes feel like they have almost completely been rubbed out, yet the itch drives me more insane. My nose no longer look like my nose, bulbous and red and it feels like it needs a new washer. The constant dripping drives me mad and I am out of tissues again. The violent sneezes are as exhausting as an intense spinning session in the gym. Each bout of sneezing seems to get louder and louder and more violent. By the end of the day, I feel pooped even before I take Murray, my son’s dog, for a poop in the park. Well, I say I take him but he actually takes me wherever he fancies. The leash may be hooked to his collar but there is no doubt I am being led by the dog. If his mood takes him north, he will have no qualms about crossing the busy main road, no matter if it is peak hour’s traffic. If he wants to visit a reserve in the east that’s got a creek and three mini waterfalls, I go along. The good thing about him taking charge is that I have discovered new places and streets that I had no reason to go to before. “Before” represents the last twenty six years of my life. A win-win situation, right? We took an especially long walk last Sunday. After a few detours, he took us almost to the shops a good forty minutes away. The clever dog knows where the tap is in another nearby park. If he is thirsty, he will lead me there even if I am not in need of a drink. He never asks me if I am tired or thirsty. Between the two of us, I am definitely the more considerate. It was one of the longest walks we had that day. I had plenty of time to think and reflect on life. Somehow, my mind wandered to the distant past. A time when my three sons were little boys, just discovering the big world of classical music. The eldest was seven and the other two were five and a half. (Strangely then, halves were important). It was a time when there was very little need for inhibitions. They would skip and prance to happy music, dance to lively music, hide under their blanket to scary music, jump and chortle to grand music. When there was melancholy music playing on the radio, their mood would turn funereal. Their innocent mirth was a joy to witness, and if music had such wonderful powers to give them the gift of joy and wonderment in life, then music should be a part of their lives. It was a no-brainer to me that all my sons would learn music. During the long walk, Mrs Yelland came into my mind and we had a long chat together. She was their cello teacher. No, more than that, she was their cello mother. I made a mental note to write to her daughter who now resides in Wales. Since Mrs Yelland was my sons’ cello mother, Sophie has to be my cello daughter. Warped, convoluted, but please keep up with me. Sophie is dear to me, as dear as a filial daughter is to a father. She has grown into a wonderful and most considerate person. I wanted to apologise to Sophie that I have not been visiting Mrs Yelland – the very good excuse being the pandemic; it would be wrong to risk the well-being of the nursing home residents there. The borders of South Australia will open up later this month. So, I told Mrs Yelland I must visit her before the risk of contagion increases.

A few red roses for Mrs Yelland

First Son learned the piano from an early age. By the time he was seven, he was very good at piano and violin. He had all the attributes to be fantastic as a musician, with perfect pitch and a set of golden ears that could discern every subtle change in sound and rhythm. The twins were even more precocious and composed a rather delightful short piano duet one Sunday morning whilst The Mrs and I were still in bed. I called it “Morning Glory”, so glorious was their music that morning. They had just turned five and had not received any music lessons directly. They did tag along to their brother’s music lessons and I can only assume they picked up some knowledge from them. If the violin and piano teachers knew, they could have reasonably asked to double their fees. I nudged at The Mrs and whispered softly to avoid spraying my early morning bad breath on her, “They must learn music.” The violin teacher, Mrs Tooke, looked like a young Maggie Thatcher. A Pom, her accent was definitely BBC English. A beautiful blonde, she always appeared with a neat and proper coiffure, with every curl in its right place. The nude-pink lipstick on her mouth somehow complemented her stern ocean-strong blue eyes. Upon First Son discovering his violin was not in his violin case, his lesson was immediately over. Mrs Tooke said, “You forgot to bring your fiddle? Pack away your empty case and I’ll see you next week!” Needless to say, there was no discount for her tuition fees that month. We didn’t ask and we didn’t get. So, it was no surprise to me that Mrs Tooke informed us she had no room to take the twins as her students.

The Chinese word for ‘crisis’ has two brush strokes. 危机 One stands for danger, the other represents opportunity. In a crisis, be careful but look out for the opportunity. It was only about three years earlier when we left Sydney and made Adelaide our home. In those days, finding a music teacher was by word-of-mouth. Yellow Pages, a business telephone directory, did not list music teachers. So, we were almost desperate for the twins, not knowing who to approach. Of course, I now know the most sensible thing to do then was to enquire at the Conservatorium of Music or attend an ASO concert and randomly ask a violinist of Adelaide’s symphony orchestra after the concert to recommend a teacher. But, opportunity came in the form of a woman who was visibly late, rushing towards her old yellow bomb in the school carpark – her long strides and quick pace somewhat slowed by the burden of a cello strapped on her shoulder. A cello! “She must be a cello teacher!” The Mrs cleverly deduced and chased after the woman who was quickly disappearing amongst the cars. Even though Mrs Yelland was clearly in a rush, she kindly stopped for The Mrs who was trying to catch her breath as she chased her down. “Excuse me, excuse me!” The Mrs yelled across the carpark. “Will you teach my sons?”she asked. “Twins!” Mrs Yelland’s eyes sparkled. She already knew they were twins because in that school in 1989, they were the only three Asian kids, one older brother and two twins. “They are good kids, and they lurrrve music!” “Their brother is already learning the violin and piano,” The Mrs continued to sell her kids. “Let me think about it, but first I will give you a tape of Suzuki’s music for them to listen to,” Mrs Yelland said. The Mrs persisted. “If you say you will, I will immediately buy two new cellos for them,” she assured Mrs Yelland. Mrs Yelland said in her usual infectiously enthusiastic manner, “No, I will go to the shop and pick two good cellos for you.” It must be an Irish way of saying yes. The Mrs later found out she was the talking point in town; everyone knew about the Asian woman who bought not one but two cellos from the music store. Each ⅛ size cello was $800 and by the time she paid for the bows and soft blue cases, I was a month’s salary short in my bank account. “Years later, Mrs Yelland told me there was no doubt she would teach them. She was curious to discover how to teach twins.

My three sons loved The Four Seasons. Vivaldi’s violin concerto was written three hundred years ago and it still rocks today! It actually comprises four concerti, there being three movements in each concerto and each concerto vividly describing each of the four seasons, starting with spring, and ending with winter. I have seen many paintings that capture the four changing seasons but Vivaldi’s Four Seasons stands alone in the great repertoire of classical music to describe the changing seasons using musical notes. But, it isn’t in the classical period, baroque in fact. Nigel Kennedy’s interpretation of ‘winter’ for me was the best. His relentless piercing sounds of dagger-sharp shards of ice, and evil sounds of a horrible storm give the feeling of destitute and death. Spring gives us singing birds, soothing streams and happy feelings. Summer is harsh music, stifling heat followed by a late storm in the form of wild arpeggios. Autumn is to be played ‘drunk’ as marked by the composer. Drunken peasants and their hangovers are cleverly depicted in the slow movement.

Mrs Yelland taught the twins till they were twelve, apart from a short stint of about six months when she joined the ASO as a full-time cellist when they were about six or seven years old. Her absence dramatically showed what a great teacher she was. The contrast in her teaching methods and their pace of learning was like night and day when compared with the other teacher’s output. When she asked to return to teach them, our celebrations were loud and long. The other benefit she gave them was she came to our home to teach, negating the cumbersome task of packing and transporting the instruments to school. Not that there was any risk of the cellos being damaged in transit, the boys treated them like their most precious belongings. You see, each son had his own cello. His own. No need to share, and wait their turn. Unlike everything else. They had to share, even the hand-me-down clothes and the few toys we bought for them. “Can you get us this, ba?” one of them would ask. “Can you get us that, ba?” the other would chime in. My standard reply was “Get? You mean buy! We don’t have money.”

Friday nights were special. Mrs Yelland came at five pm. The angry exploding sounds of her yellow bomb never failed to announce her arrival. By the time she and Sophie stepped into our driveway, the boys would have opened the door. Mrs Yelland never parked her yellow bomb on our driveway, even if it pelted hail – it leaked too much oil and there was no guarantee the engine would start again. Although Mrs Yelland made it a point for the twins to take turns to start each lesson, there would be the inevitable jostling and subsequent pouting by the one who had the second lesson. In actual fact, they each had two lessons, as the one who had to wait would still be observing the lesson. It was quite common during a lesson for the twins to suddenly scream out “The chicken! The chicken!” Mrs Yelland had tears in her eyes as she told us how hilarious it was to witness the panic in the boys as they stopped the lesson abruptly to rush to the kitchen. Their mother won’t arrive home from work till six thirty, so it was their responsibility to get dinner ready. “Sorry, Mrs Yelland! We have to clean the chicken and put it in the oven first!”

Dinner was usually at seven, during which the adults’ conversations would veer perilously from religion to politics to refugees and even the environment. Our dinner conversations can be best described as lively and boisterous. On a few occasions, I had the insensitivity and temerity to cause her to storm out of the house midway during her meal. Sophie would follow her out too, of course. But, that is why we are a close-knit family. Mrs Yelland would always return, calm and collected after furiously puffing a cigarette. The wraith of smoke that followed her inside told me she had been smoking again. Mrs Yelland was proud of her Irish roots and very much a romantic humanitarian. A single mother, on a single income, she had no qualms about helping others. Her political leanings were the opposite of mine and her strong sense of social responsibility, I now should acknowledge, was right and I was wrong. Mrs Yelland’s kind heart ranked highest despite her modest economic means. She supported and even provided shelter for two very unfortunate Sri Lankan young siblings fostered by a rogue who abused them violently and sexually. 

Lessons would resume at eight and not finish until eleven. It was not unusual to find one of the twins quietly crying on the staircase. I did not have to ask to know that he felt aggrieved that his lesson was shortened by dinner, and he was not compensated with any extra time. They were both happiest when Mrs Yelland asked them to play cello duets. It meant no one missed out on playing time! Mrs Yelland called them “My boys”. “My boys should compete in the Eisteddfods!” My boys this and my boys that. It is no wonder they loved her so much. Mrs Yelland asked The Mrs to enter their names in the local competitions. The Mrs refused. She was too scared of failure. She didn’t want the boys to be scarred so young. “No, my boys will learn a lot from it,” Mrs Yelland countered. Their cello mother entered them in the Eisteddfods instead. They won. First Son won a bronze in his violin section. The twins came first and second in theirs. I was asked to buy some gold paint so they could spray it on the silver medal. My boys were already showing their competitive streak! Before the youngest turned ten, the brothers won gold in the Eisteddfods playing Beethoven’s Ghost Trio. A devilishly difficult piece. Especially the piano part. Only Mrs Yelland had such confidence in her boys to pull it off with that!

Music has enriched our lives beyond what I could ever imagine. Initially, my intention was for my sons to enjoy making music together and experience the fun of playing in their local orchestra. I was a violinist in the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra, a gang of amateur musicians that met every Friday night for practice and supper after that. Maybe it was the supper that I enjoyed as a young teenager, but the fond memory of playing music amongst friends was indescribable and indelibly stamped in my mind. Instead, my sons and Mrs Yelland took The Mrs and me on their amazing journey, traversing the music world and meeting so many interesting people and places. There were so many highs we enjoyed together and not a single low. We attended so many competitions and won them all. We attended so many concerts together. Mrs Yelland traveled with us to Hobart as well, to attend a national competition. Our last concert together was at a lunchtime concert at the 2014 Adelaide International Cello Festival. Mrs Yelland was already suffering from early Alzheimer’s but she enjoyed the twins’ concert so much that day. She was especially proud to see the long line of fans waiting patiently outdoors to get into Elder Hall as the queue zigzagged and spilled onto the pavement on North Terrace. After the concert, Mrs Yelland and I stopped by a cafe and had cappuccino and cake. A great moment that makes a lasting and permanent memory. Sadly, Mrs Yelland passed away in the wee hours of Thursday morning. I will miss you forever, Mrs Yelland. Vale, Barbara.

Mrs Yelland and her boys, with Sophie and Mrs Macri, their piano teacher.

The Armed Man To The Old Man

My elderly parents were backseat passengers in the car that I was driving along Mount Barker Road in 1977. Pa was 60 and Ma 54. I was 19. Teenagers can be nasty to their parents, I realise that now. To a teenager, they were old. Very old. So old, I was already worrying about their well-being. That is not exactly correct. The truth is I was worried that they would die at any time. Etched in my mind was my father’s remorse and tears upon opening a letter from his family in China. His mother had died many weeks earlier and he had no idea for all that many days as mail took a long time to arrive in those days. He would have felt every laughter, every pleasure he had during the mourning period sickening. Pa was far away from home, he felt the distance at that moment incredibly vast. He was alienated by it all. What was the purpose of life except to labour for money so that he could send some home regularly? He didn’t get to say goodbye. No last minute embrace or holding hands. Just written words to tell him he won’t ever see her again. That is what happens to the aged. In the last quarter of our lives, death can come suddenly. Quickly. No time to embrace. Pa passed away in 2007, peacefully and without pain. I held his hand during his final hours, whilst listening to the Buddhist chants being played on a cassette player on auto-reverse. Surprisingly, instead of driving me crazy, the repetitive deep and melodic sound was soothing, trance-inducing and helped make the room calm. It would have been a huge regret for me had Pa left us in a state of tension and pandemonium. No written words. Just comforting words to let him know his suffering in this world was at an end – that he could leave at the time of his choosing, when he was ready. I was one of the first to know the exact moment when Pa took his last breath. I gasped and turned to my mother but she already knew. Married for 66 years, I suppose they understood each other by telepathy. My brother reminded me to remain calm and quiet. No noisy regrets, no loud laments, no despair and definitely no wailing. To this day, I still regularly (at least weekly) light a joss stick for Pa. The Mrs insists he has gone to the next world in his afterlife. A new body, a new being. “He won’t remember us anymore,” she confidently assures me. It matters not to me, for I remember him and I want to forever remember him.

Pa was a 60 year-old man in my car. He had just recovered from his first stroke. His birthday bash was too exciting for him, the poor old man could not keep calm at his big do. Suddenly, he found himself slurring his speech and the left side of his body refused to listen to his brain’s commands. He had George Peppard’s good looks but without the blue eyes. Tall and handsome are words that apply to him. Always neatly attired whenever he went out, he presented himself as a confident successful man with a lot of self-respect. Pa never kept his hair long, he liked them short and neat. They complimented his well-proportioned eyebrows and high bridged nose. His eyes were friendly when he wasn’t being audited by Ma, but they sometimes turned blank when her interrogations became ridiculous. Perfectly shaped and blessed with double eyelids, they were not slitty and not bulging. Looking at him in the rear view mirror, I thought he was old. I feared he could die any day. Today, I am 63 with three quarters of my life spentthe average lifespan for a man here is 80.9 years. Heck! Wasn’t I driving that car along Devil’s Elbow on Mount Barker Road, a notoriously head-spinning turn to Eagle on the Hill, not so long ago? Didn’t I have an exciting future ahead of me? Wasn’t I deciding what profession to be in when I grew up? What kind of person I would become? Would I be studying Philosophy and discussing the merits of Rousseau’s The Social Contract? Would I be thinking the Queen had divine rights over her subjects? Sun-tanned from Boy Scout activities and football games played bare-footed in the school field, I was fit, sure-footed with a strong left foot always positioned as a left-back. Gashes and sprains were normal aches and pains for a boy growing up without a busy mother to molly-coddle and fuss over a broken hand or worry about knees riddled with pus. Ma had eight children plus one dead-on-arrival after a sneeze and three miscarriages. A busy mother maketh a tough kid with scabrous knees, I think. She was too occupied with chores and audits to chasten me for my misdeeds and misadventures. Contraceptive pills were not available yet and they were expensive when first introduced. So, she would not have used them anyway, even if they were available. When pregnant with me, she tried to get rid of me the cheap way using some foul herbal mix from the drug store in Campbell Street. I refused to die. It made me tougher but I do not know if it made me more defective. I have been described as “empty inside”. But, what does that say about my shell? An empty shell can still be prized. I know because I have two in my bathroom. Big ones, a conch and a Nautilus. The Mrs and I carried one each in a bag all the way from Bali. Precious to her, so it matters not if I am empty, see? Besides, Buddhists would see nothingness as a great thing. Nothingness does not mean nothing exists. It is simply a state of pure consciousness in which the mind is emptied of all desires and objects, a sensation a baby must surely feel when snuggling on the bosom of its mother. I had never hoped to be clever but to know contentment, even if it means to be emptied.

Me, also an empty shell. Sigh.

A classmate’s wife died three days ago. May she rest in eternal peace. I could die any day too. This isn’t a sudden realisation. Not since the pandemic struck. Without vaccines, we were all candles in the wind. As it turns out, even the fully jabbed are not fully protected. I got my first jab in August. Since then, I have suffered from debilitating pain. The cause? Adhesive capsulitis. My doctor said it wasn’t possible. The frozen shoulder is on my other arm. Not on the arm that was jabbed. A coincidence then. From old age. If Pa was elderly at 60, I am certainly no longer young at 63. Many school friends have retired, some gracefully, a few dismally. Ban Leong, a very good friend from secondary school, announced yesterday he will retire soon and duly listed a litany of things he would do once ‘Freedom Day’ arrives. His loud announcement made me feel older and much slower. It felt like they had all reached their destinations and reaped their goals with utmost satisfaction and pride. In my mind, I am the old turtle struggling to make a little headway out to the open sea against the strong currents, punishing waves and unyielding headwinds but invariably finding itself being swept back to the shore, overturned and over the hill. Once virile, now going senile. Once fit, now feeling like shit. Once lean and fast, now a has-been and fasting. Once modern and decisive, I am mordant, corrosive and toxic. Yesterday seems so far away, it was about golden eggs and investment gains, today I harp about back aches and shoulder pains. Yesterday, I felt peerless, tireless and ageless but now, what bothers me is the tardiness, stiffness, and giddiness.

Earlier this week, I took a photo of the rocky pathway that leads from my pergola to the chicken run at the back of my garden. The land slopes down gently from the rear, so we landscaped it with moss rocks, stacked as a retention wall yet looked like they are in their natural state in the wilderness. The nooks and crannies are perfect hideouts for the local population of blue-tongued lizards and the recent arrivals of small black geckoes. Undoubtedly, there would be the occasional brown snake but I shall not scare myself and pretend they aren’t there. These moss rocks have always appealed to me. Anything that is naturally formed is beautiful, especially moss rocks, stones and pebbles. I shared the photo with my family and someone promptly replied, “Nice composition!” I suspected they would have missed the moss rocks, since the standard roses would have demanded the most attention, complemented by ‘wild’ cerise Red valerian (Centranthus ruber) flowers from seeds spread by playful gully winds a few seasons earlier or perhaps a glimpse of the fuchsias and the mature trees in the back had drawn their eyes to the neighbour’s side gate. My eyes actually did not leave the moss rocks, the kiss-me-quick’s failed to entice me. After they were laid in 1996, I could saunter up and down the slope, even in the rain, as sure-footed as a mountain goat. But, suddenly last year, I lost my confidence. Gone was the goat, and in its place, an old man emerged. As I stare at the photo, I can see the old man checking his step, heaving his leg up, hesitantly, slowly, painfully. Uncharacteristically. Similarly, on his way down, he limped untowardly down each moss rock like he was barefoot on a pile of shattered glass. Visibly struggling, this was a man clearly in decline. An old man. I guess the image shocked me. I was young for so long. It felt like youth would remain with me forever. But, without any warning, that youth was no more. As I take a deep breath and sigh, I realise the gentle reminders were there all along – such as the time when my eyes could not discern the black buttons on the black remote of my since-discarded Pioneer surround sound system, or the weekend afternoon naps that I started to take last year – a luxury I thought at the time, but were actually a necessity in truth. I have become the old man. Not lubberly but still, clumsily. Fingers have turned arthritic and stubborn, refusing to do the simplest of tasks such as threading a needle – they used to be nimble, dancing and racing up and down the neck of my German-made violin. Taste buds play havoc with my mind. Even a favourite beer can become mawkish. Every dish is salty, every drink less divine, and made me sickish. Every little deterioration not quite noticeable but over time, I begin to realise how pernicious these changes have been to my moods and therefore my character. I am not becoming old. I am old. I am already in a state of decline. The body is decaying and the mind is malfunctioning. Learning new things and new words was never a challenge. Now everything is! The eyes are tired, no amount of rubbing helps. The time for audio books has surely arrived. Not so long ago, a holiday would perk me up and a pretty woman would make me sit up. Not anymore. This old man has become languorous, happier with inactivity and rest.

A ‘natural’ path of moss rocks acts as a retaining wall. Don’t miss the kiss-me-quick.

Lately, I have been listening to The Armed Man – a mass for peace, written by Karl Jenkins. The part I listen to over and over again is XII. Benedictus, about half way through the choral work written to commemorate the victims of the Kosovo War. It starts with the cello solo and when the choir repeats the tune so beautifully played by the cellist, it bleeds my heart. The sorrow and pain is too hard to bear. Although it is about horrors that a war exacts on the lives of people, the agony and soul-searching misery strikes me personally. I feel like I am weeping. Mourning the loss of my old self, the young man is forever gone, and in his place now is the old man. A few bars later, the choir soars as if the spirits of the dead have risen to heaven. That’s when the hair on my arms stood up. It is so captivating in most parts yet at this juncture of the music, I feel relief. A release from this material world. There is hope even for the old man. The Armed Man to the old man is not all sorrow, pain, terror and death. After the Benedictus, “Better is Peace” brings a surprising calm to the old hoary man. There is hope. There always is. Yes. Hope springs eternal as much as life returns to my garden in Spring. In this soliloquy, I didn’t want to dwell on the popular idea that age is just a number and a matter for the mind to dismiss. The physical impairments are real, not imagined but certainly can be slowed down if not reversed temporarily with proper diet and ample exercise. But, can we deny that the excesses and neglect of our past have consequences and isn’t it true that when we were young, we never thought we would be old so soon? Being old is a shitty feeling, our internal organs which originally radiated perfect health and efficiency now feel ( and maybe even look) like copper pipes weathered with verdigris, the encrustation clogging our once pristine pipes, veins and arteries.

For hope, I go to my garden where it is bountiful.

Fans of Jan’s

I was supposed to meet Jan in a hayshed by the fireplace for drinks three nights ago. We would be spending a ‘night at the farm’ but I wasn’t sure if Jan would be there. It sounded romantic, this short getaway in the Adelaide Hills. It conjured up in my mind a rather wonderful escape from the daily humdrum of my life, worsened tenfold by the pandemic. Although a mere twenty minutes from home, to reach Woodside, a quaint town in the hills, I would need to summon enough courage to traverse the winding country road called Greenhill Road. Why courage, one may ask. Well, although the scenic road is not very steep, it does offer many opportunities for an acrophobic sufferer to look down the cliffs and scare himself. The driver of the second vehicle in our party was quite upset with me later. “What took you so long?! We were going well below the speed limit!” he bellowed. Unbeknownst to me, I was so slow I held up traffic quite badly all the way along the single-track country road. I was similarly slow back in 1977 in my first year in Adelaide. Then, a new wide-eyed arrival from exotic Penang Island, everything and everyone were different. Driving on the freeway from Mt Barker to Adelaide on a pitchblack night, negotiating a rather devilish bend known as The Devil’s Elbow, I was scared witless when a cop car waved at me to stop. I did not know about racial profiling, but I assumed I was being hollered up because of my Asian looks. It couldn’t have been my driving – I was being so careful and slow. As it turned out, I was slow. Too slow. The traffic police told me to drive faster or he would fine me for obstructing the road! “You’re driving abnormally slowly without a good reason,” he explained in a strong ocker accent. In those days, anyone without a Malaysian accent was speaking Strine to me. Talk about unnecessary added pressure. Had I known that acrophobia was a good enough reason to drive at half the maximum speed, I would have argued my case. Instead, I behaved like a subservient student. “Yes Sir, I will be faster. No Sir, I shan’t hog the road.” My parents were sitting at the back of the car. Pa, who was visibly annoyed by the cop, could not understand why I would be told off for driving carefully on a steep winding road that the authorities did not see fit to install some road lights along it. At the time, I thought my parents were old. Pa was 60 and ma was 54. Teenagers can be so unkind.

It was a gorgeous Spring day to be out in the hills. A mere half an hour from the CBD, Woodside in South Australia is as rural and romantic as the vineyards and sunflower fields of Tuscany. This well-kept secret is right at my doorstep – why have I instead harboured the dream of one day enjoying the warm glow of the Tuscan sun? To get there requires an arduous 24 hours of air travel and killing time in airport lounges. The dominant colour was green apart from the white and brown barks of gum trees. It will be another three months before the whole place turns reddish brown and parched dry. A rather kind light breeze carried the scent of the Eucalyptus trees all over the hills to the verdant valley below us. The vast expanse of a myriad shades of green was captivating as was the autumnal red and gold a few months earlier. The sweet minty fragrance was as calming as the now familiar smells of camphor and menthol of Tiger Balm, the ointment The Mrs uses nightly. I used to recoil from the aroma of the balm, it gave me a bloated sensation. Ever since I sustained the painful symptoms of adhesive capsulitis from my first AstraZeneca jab eleven weeks ago, I too have been using Tiger Balm to soothe my frozen shoulder. Now I love the scents of the recuperative balm, although the reprieve from the pain is only temporary.

The Mrs and I arrived at our destination pleasantly relaxed in a ready-to-party mood, satiated with the fresh countryside air and aromatic scents of the Eucalypt forest. The driver of the second vehicle, Chris, my younger brother-in-law, had also calmed down and was no longer punctuating his sentences with wild hand gesticulations. He flashed me a smile and immediately, I knew the holiday would be one to enjoy. The occupants of his car all wore sweet smiles, especially ma, our family’s matriarchal figure. I knew, for sure, the holiday would be memorable as she heaved herself out of the car without a complaint, with eyes made beady by droopy eyelids shining excitedly like those of a pregnant woman’s. It reminded me of the time when I dropped The Mrs off at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital at Paddington. Her laughing eyes too were sparkling with the excitement of a mother who was about to see her first child for the first time. Chris and I each won a $200 Great State Experiences voucher. These vouchers were provided by SA Tourism to help the local tourism industry get back on their feet after the pandemic-induced lockdowns had crippled many businesses in the sector. This was the second time I had won free money from the State government’s ballot. The first one I let expire without helping any struggling tour operator. My conscience had bothered me and I promised myself I would not repeat the offensive oversight. Chris wanted a riverboat holiday but I was more persuasive, so we booked six of us for this ‘Night at the Farm’ at the Barristers Block Winery.

Adelaide Hills Rainbow Lorikeets were the first to greet us (Photo by Yeoh Chip Beng)

As part of the package, the first attraction was a 5-course ‘Spring plates’ lunch with wine pairings. We were immediately shown our table on a lawn area overlooking the vineyards that seemed to stretch at a gentle incline all the way up to the sky. I was already impressed by the warmth of their welcome and the lack of distrust by the staff. There was no insistence that we had to leave our credit cards with them for ‘safe-keeping’ or the need to prove our identities first before they poured us their arrival drink, a 2021 Poetic Justice Sparkling Blush. With names like Barristers Block and Poetic Justice, it was easy for us to decide that the place was probably owned by a Silk or two. Lunch was great. Yes, I have just that one word to describe it. It is high culinary art, designed to steep our senses with the finest tastes and smells and impress our eyes with the most pleasing visual presentations. A degustation, no less, by a high calibre chef with each dish nicely matched with a wine that complements the flavours and textures. So, in many respects, I succumbed to the sin of gluttony that afternoon. I was a very willing participant who unreservedly satisfied his desires for the most wicked of tastes and sensations from the morsels of rich meats and tantalising wines served in front of him. Charlotte, the bubbly and attractive waitress assigned to us was superb with her friendliness and prompt attention to our needs. She rattled off her wealth of knowledge of her wines like an oenologist who is also an expert linguist. I regret I did not record down the beautiful words she used to describe the wines.

  • Northern Territory Barramundi Brandade with 2020 Barristers Block Adelaide Hills Riesling 
  • Western Australian pan fried scallops with 2020 Barristers Block Adelaide Hills Chardonnay
  • Duck breast salad with 2019 Barristers Block Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir
  • 12-hour braised beef short rib pie with 2016 Barristers Block Wrattonbully Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Artisan petite four chocolate selection with 2019 Barristers Block Wrattonbully Sparkling Shiraz

Sous vide whole duck breast served on a salad of fennel, red onion, baby beetroot, spring leaves and red radish with a light vinaigrette
Beef short rib slow cooked in a rich stock of caramelised onion, spinach, mushroom and ‘Bully’ shiraz jus.
Little Sis and ma sharing a happy time

Lunch lasted three hours, not because ma chewed her food ever so slowly but also because we wanted the pleasures of the experience of fine food and wines to last longer. Seeing we were one of the last guests remaining, we decided not to delay the staff from their other chores. We checked into our villa about half an hour late. Ma was feeling drowsy and mildly inebriated. I reminded myself not to divulge to my other siblings that I had not stopped her from enjoying her drinks during lunch. They will be sure to use the recent news that even the Queen’s doctors had told her to give up her nightly martini. It had been my main argument against their will to deprive ma of one of her very few pleasures left in life. Ma’s not a big drinker, not even a nightly one. What can be so wrong about a little bit of alcohol once in a while? She is her most chirpiest self when she is clinking glasses with us during dinner on a weekend. Ma was in top form that day. Most of us needed time off to recharge our batteries (no, I do not mean for our phones) but ma was raring to go once she recovered from her brief stupor. Whilst some younger members of the holiday group rested, a sister and I took ma to what we believed was a horse-riding session. We didn’t think our 99-year-old mother would be able to get up a horse. We were right but she was braver than the little girl in the queue to pat it. Unlike the girl, Ma did not flinch or hesitate to get near the horse.

No ghost stories here.

In the villa, a strange thing happened. I had keyed in the password for the wifi network for my laptop and I thought to do it for the others who were resting. When they got up, I told them I had the password with me to fix it for their devices. The Mrs said “No need, I already got mine working.” Big Sis said hers also automatically connected. Strange, isn’t it? How does a wifi network that requires a password work without the password being entered in the settings? Strange things often happen to me wherever I go. Especially in strange places. I have written many chapters on ghost stories. I told myself there won’t be one to tell here. Readers have become cynical about my ghost stories; they think I made them up. There have been recent episodes but I shan’t be sharing them. No point. When no one believes them, they think I imagined them. The villa is clean, I announced. The Mrs agreed after swiping her forefinger along the window ledge and examining it intently. “Isn’t it nice to have a maid? she lamented, obviously thinking of her sister in Kuala Lumpur who was about to engage a new maid from Indonesia. I didn’t bother to explain that my meaning of ‘clean’ had nothing to do with dust. Alright, maybe it did! “From ashes to ashes, dust to dust” does refer to the dead.

A lovely tin shed

Chris returned from the big barn about a hundred meters away and informed us afternoon tea was a mere half an hour’s time. The barn reminded me of the tin sheds I used to see in rural villages (kampongs) in Malaysia. Rustic only because it is rusty. Virtually the whole building was riddled with rust. Whatever areas without rust were the absent tin walls now replaced by clear plastic sheets. The only difference here is there are no coconut trees swaying in the breeze and the air is pleasantly dry, without the energy-sapping humidity that envenomed my mood and made me into a capricious young man in the 1970s. Chris interrupted my thoughts and brought me back to the present. He said loudly, “I told them we do not need the maker to stay back and talk to us.” His wife said, “Oh how rude! Of course, we want the maker to join us for drinks!” I happened to agree with Chris and kept quiet and stayed out of trouble. The programme said we were to enjoy a pre-dinner drink at 5.30 pm with the maker in the hayshed by the fireplace followed by a pizza dinner. Who cares how their pizzas are made, I thought to myself. Who hasn’t been to a pizzeria and watched how great pizzas are made anyway? That was when my sister told me we would be meeting Jan in the hayshed for drinks.

Pre-dinner drinks with Jan

Jan isn’t their pizza maker. Jan is the boss. Strong and strong-minded, with a big and strong personality. Jan is the winemaker. She is the maker. The maker is some powerful being who makes things and also makes things happen. She started the business and made the business into what it is today. I checked out her website. It was as she told us. She went into business with a group of men who mistook her to be an easy prey. A single woman in the 1980s. She provided the land and they, instead of providing the capital to fund the joint-venture, deliberately with-held the money to choke the business of vital cash flow. They wrongly thought she would be forced to hand over her land to them as a distressed seller. Instead, she kicked them out after a lengthy legal battle that cost her well over $400,000. A princely sum in those days during a time when interest rates were some 22% p.a. and as Treasurer Paul Keating said at the time, “This is a recession we had to have.” Jan paused silently as Chris took over the conversation and described how he struggled to meet the bank interest payments as a fresh uni graduate trying to save his first investment and not drown in a sea of debts.

“The genesis of Barristers Block? A true ‘colourful’ Australian story, grounded in the harsh realities of farming during the nineties and the six-year legal battle to save our vineyard. Thus, we affectionately named our winery Barristers Block. We’re certainly not lawyers.”

Jan Allen

Jan commanded our attention at the table. Not many people can. After all, the group I was in included some rather powerful women. Ma, for instance. But, our matriarch was not interested in the conversation. It was not conducted in Chinese. So, much of what Jan said didn’t mean much to ma. She was more interested in the cheese basket and the dried fruits and nuts. Big Sis on the other hand, listened intently but was strangely quiet. The Mrs, normally the most vocal in our group and the loudest (by decibels, I mean) was also surprisingly kept in check. Maybe the topics were not her preferred subjects. The Mrs does not care much about why Pinot Noir are reds and Shiraz and Cab Sav’s may look identical yet taste so markedly different. It was very apparent quite soon though that Jan was like a long-lost friend. She had much to share with us. No holds-barred, she was as honest as the day is long or like an old Chinese saying, she made us comfortable like a soft light quilt on a wintry night. She was great company, like a bright lamp on a dark night, refreshingly interesting and entertaining with her many life stories. She may be a successful business owner now but she can’t shake off her natural self – a warm, kind and generous person. The natural thing for most people during tough times is to do whatever is necessary for self-preservation and keep the business going until it can’t go anymore. But, Jan let slip whilst she was describing the toughest moments of her life that her priorities were about keeping her staff employed. “I am paying for their mortgages,” she said.

Woodside is a beautiful rural town in the Adelaide Hills wine-growing region. It is just a stone’s throw away from Lenswood, a countryside famous for its apples, cherries and pears. When you are there, you’d feel the urge to live there. The place oozes spades of romantic charm in a little corner of the world where troubles seem so far away and conflicts are as foreign as a raindrop in a desert. But, Jan tells us that is not so. In December 2019, a bushfire swept across the region and burned over 23,000 ha over many days. It would become known as the Cudlee Creek bushfire. It took just minutes for Jan’s vineyard to find 100% of its vines burnt as incredibly hot flames licked the tops of 40-foot high gum trees and fire raced at well over 100 kph down the valley from the top of the hill, devouring 84 homes, over 400 outbuildings and 292 vehicles. Just over a month later, on 2nd February 2020, the coronavirus arrived in Adelaide. Jan’s winery, Barristers Block, was under prolonged lockdowns for many months during the pandemic. Prior to Covid further traumatising Jan, her tales of woe from the fire caught the attention of our prime Minister, Scott Morrison. He promptly turned up at her door to offer her a hug and support. “Give us your top ten reds,” Scomo said to Jan during the welcome dinner for the prime ministerial travelling party at her premises. When it was time to call it a night, Scomo flashed a credit card to settle the bill, which was just over $350. Surprisingly, his card got declined. Scomo unashamedly called his wife and asked her to transfer some funds into his card. “See how down-to-earth our PM is?” Jan asked me enthusiastically without expecting a reply. “And he is so honest! He paid for the wines with his own money!” she spoke with a higher intensity in her voice. It dawned on me that this was why Scomo is so popular in Australia. His country loves him. Country folks love him. We see him as one of us, a regular, normal everyday man and honest (he pays with his own credit card) and therefore when he speaks, he speaks honestly. No matter that he picked a fight with the nation’s biggest trading partner. No matter that business lost is America’s gain. No matter he is risking our young soldiers’ lives by beating the drums of war. Hyping up conflicts. Hyping up the distant threats of war. No matter. He is one of us.

Scomo was followed weeks later by Albanese, the opposition leader and Penny Wong, the Senate leader of the Labor Party. They also visited the region destroyed by fire and sought to gain some political traction with the people. Jan had become the face of the tragedy. For her, it also meant many weeks of media frenzy. Suddenly, the world’s media was interested in what she had to say. She fretted and hated being interviewed by some of the world’s biggest news networks. “It’s free publicity!” I said. “Yes, I know! My son, Lachlan said pretty much the same thing and told me to enjoy it!” Jan said whilst screwing up her nose. I could tell she would have been a very beautiful and attractive woman in her younger days. She had it all, the blonde hair, the curls, the big smiling eyes, the sweet endearing smiles from her pink lips. The quick brain, full of words, messages, stories and ideas. She had big hands, farmers’ hands actually but they weren’t callused or scarred. Just strong. Yes, a strong woman with a strong personality and lots of colourful stories to tell. A proud honest woman with nothing to hide. She even told me her age, without me asking. Not that I needed to ask. She revealed her age by telling me “crypto is not real money.” “Not money?” I asked with a false high-pitch voice, feigning surprise. “Why do they call it currency then?” I pressed. She looked at me and did not reply. Checkmate, Jan. Older folks do not know anything about blockchain and cryptocurrency. Yet, they tend to be the loudest and surest in denouncing it. “Bitcoin is worthless!” “It does not produce any income!” I gave up many months ago trying to convince anyone about crypto. I wasn’t about to try again. Certainly not with Jan. She is smart, I think, not withstanding that she lost a lot of money in legal fees fighting a group of conmen. She is smart but if I can’t even argue the merits of crypto and DeFi to people close to me, what chances do I have to change her mind? Besides, I don’t have to be right. It came to me quite suddenly one day last year whilst reading an article shared by Mak, a dear friend from primary school days, about kamma. I no longer have to challenge anyone who says I am wrong. If they think they are right, let it be. They very well could be right. Jan could be right. Crypto may prove to be not real currency one day. No more having to be right, no more having to prove myself. No more measuring ourselves against others, no more measuring others. No more “I’m not wrong, I’m Yeong” cutting retorts. It is easier to say “I’m Yeong and I can be wrong.” In fact, it’s even easier to say nothing, and that was what I did with Jan. I was completely silent even when she said “My staff told me the maximum daily withdrawal limit was $2,000 from his crypto account.” As if that is a universal fact. As if that consigns crypto as worthless. It isn’t important what others think of us. So what if they think less of us, it does not make us lesser beings. That is freedom. That is peace. That is ultimately happiness.

Just as in the great ocean 

there is but one taste 

— the taste of salt — 

so in this Doctrine 

and Discipline 

there is but one taste — 

the taste of freedom”

The Buddha

I was the first one to wake up the next morning. It was before the grandfather clock struck seven times. Ma was a close second. The nonagenarian never ceases to amaze me. Where does she pack her energy in? We had to drag her to bed the night before and that was because we were all tired out from the full day’s activities. It was already past 10.30 pm anyway. She should be in bed! You can call me inane, maybe even insane. That night, I woke up only once to pee, to minimise any accidental sightings of the unknown. At my age, I have a habit of waking up three or four times during the night to pee. I can still remember the sounds a pee made. It may now be a distant memory but somehow I was proud then that I could create the loud sound of a jet powered body of water plunging into the toilet bowl, the echo from which gave the impression the source was a big long pipe. Nowadays, the plinking tiny sounds I make do not wake up The Mrs anymore. But that night I did wake her up. “Is the faucet dripping?”she asked innocently, not realising she transformed me into a dolorous wreck. In the morning, I disguised my grief and asked her in a business-like voice, “Did you open the toy cupboard in the middle of the night?” The door was definitely shut when we went to bed because I didn’t even know it was a cupboard full of toys and children’s books. I had kicked a woolly ball that must have rolled out from the cupboard on my way back from the toilet. So, I turned back and closed the cupboard door. That was the first thing I checked the next morning. Luckily, it remained shut. “Phew, no ghosts after all.” I said to myself but it did not prevent the hair on the back of my neck to stand up.

Breakfast was superb. It had not escaped my notice that Jan sent her chef Alex and vivacious Kylie to serve just the six of us. We were treated like VIPs right throughout our stay. Ma was the happiest she had been for a long time. Not a single complaint. Everything was just right for her, and therefore for everyone. It did feel like Goldilocks had finally found her perfect world. Not too hot and not too cold. Even the food they served was perfect in every way. We did not flinch, not even once. There was not a single rebuke from ma, not even at the slightly pink duck. Not even at the slightly salty bacon. Not even at the bill! After a tour of the vineyard, we decided to buy some of their wines at the cellar-door. Even though all three wine fridges are chocker with fine wines. These are good people, they deserve our support and we love their wines. Jan was great, she gave me an extra big discount. A goodbye gift perhaps. But, we will be back, Jan! We are your fans. When I got home, I rummaged through the contents of my wallet. I was sure Jan gave me her business card and I was sure I saw her jot down her personal phone number on it. I felt sure she said to give her a call and arrange a dinner at our favourite restaurant, The Empress at Toorak Gardens. It was a date. But I could not find her card. It must have been a dream. A lovely dream.

Everything in this photo was razed to the ground in Dec 2019. The vines are trying to grow back from their blackened stumps.

The Empress Will Impress

Wu Yong celebrated his 63rd birthday earlier this week. It took him all of sixty-three years to work out that his mother is thirty five years older than him. A few weeks ago during a Saturday lunch with his mother, their conversation somehow included the topic about great soups they have enjoyed. When asked by Wu Yong’s wife, his mother said she had never tried the soup named Buddha Jumps Over The Wall. “Neither did your Pa,” Wu Yong’s mother said to him. His Mrs later said privately to him that they should arrange to enjoy the dish together with his mother soon. Encouraged by her thoughtfulness, Wu Yong proceeded to enquire about the dish for his birthday party. He wanted it to be a special occasion this year as time waits for no one; his mother is 98 (or 99 in lunar years), with a century beckoning and the promise of a letter from the Queen. Apparently, legend has it that a Tang Dynasty scholar was cooking a pot of soup one day and the fragrance was so intoxicating to a meditating monk on the other side of the wall that it disrupted his focus on his breathing. Instead, he was taking deep breaths, enjoying the sweetness of the air that was beginning to give him hunger pangs. That he jumped over the wall to find out what the temptation was showed that he was eager to succumb to it. When Daniel Wong of Empress Restaurant quoted the cost of the dish for a table of twelve, he half-expected Wu Yong to recoil in horror at the price. But Wu Yong, who is a little hard of hearing sometimes, misheard and believed the price was quite reasonable. He left Daniel agape with incredulity when he said, “Yes, we will have it! Even the Buddha would jump over the wall to have it, why not me?” The Empress’ seduction had again triumphed over the ill-disciplined Wu Yong who has yet to understand that his brother-in-law’s favourite saying “A fool and his money are easily parted” was actually meant for him. But, Wu Yong just like the monk, had already succumbed to the temptation. He wanted the soup, and was adamant the price would be no barrier for his mother to enjoy something even a Buddha would fall for.

A friend of Wu Yong’s who had the privilege to enjoy such a dish some forty years ago said, “Ah, it is overrated and overpriced, no big deal. I was not even full from it.” Wu Yong was tempted to tell her that if she wanted to be full, just eat plain rice. Instead, all he said was, “It’s a delicacy fit for an emperor, not a staple food!” 

Verdict: Wu Yong had three bowls of Buddha Jumps Over The Wall! It was so good he did not have words to describe the ecstasy he felt. It was an explosion of sorts. That sensation lasted right throughout the three-hour meal. “And when we bade farewell, I was almost drunk not from the five bottles of fine red wine we drank but from the pleasures of the sensational soup,” Wu Yong said. No wonder Buddha jumped over the wall.

So, what is this dish that could tempt a Buddha? Here is the recipe, from the taste Wu Yong described to me.

The soup tastes better if simmered on slow heat for 8-12 hours. 

Ingredients

Soup ingredients A:

  • Black chicken
  • Chicken feet
  • Pig’s stomach
  • Pork tendons
  • Pork bones

Soup ingredients B:

  • Jinhua ham
  • 24 large dried scallops
  • bamboo shoots
  • Shitake mushrooms
  • Jujube

Other Ingredients:

  • Dried Fish maw (soaked in water)
  • 12 whole Dried Abalone (soaked in water)
  • Dried Sea cucumbers (soaked in water)
  • Sharks fin – ethically sourced  (soaked in water)
  • 24 Quail eggs

Seasoning:

  • Ginger
  • Salt
  • Shaoxing rice wine (added last – could smell the fragrance)
  • Soy sauce
  • Rock sugar
Buddha Jumps Over The Wall

Wu Yong smacked his lips after slowly relishing his third bowl of soup. He was the last one at the table to finish his final portion. “That’s it, folks! I can happily call it a night now!” he announced with gleeful satisfaction. A guest, Mr L, took him seriously and excused himself from the table. He went over to the restaurant manager, Dan, on the pretext to ask for another bottle of wine but deviously, he ordered his favourite dish, the devilishly delicious Cantonese roast duck – “the best ducks are right here” Mr L proclaimed. The Empress is famed also for their tea-smoked duck. Little did Mr L know that a world of flavours was about to descend on their table! The next dish to arrive was a deep-fried Australian rock lobster with yee-mein in Cantonese style. The lobster 龙 Lóng dragon, meaning the Emperor and long unbroken noodles are a symbol for royalty and longevity in Chinese culture.

Longevity noodles fit for the Emperor

The Cantonese roast duck was presented next – it was so succulent and enticing that Mr L could not wait for photos to be taken of it first. The meaty duck came along with the other dishes specially planned by Daniel Wong for this occasion. The Seafood birdsnest was another superb dish. Despite the name, there is no bird or fowl in it. The nest was simply delicious, made from deep-fried taro and filled with an assortment of fresh seafood. Importantly for Wu Yong, it included his favourites, Gulf Spencer King Prawns and seared deep sea scallops. The braised pork hock was melt-in-the-mouth super tender. The feast was finely balanced with a couple of vegetarian dishes – mixed mushrooms with broccolini, and snow peas with fresh lotus roots. Daniel knew the grilled wild-caught snapper with chilli sauce was never going to be rejected by Wu Yong, who made known long ago to The Empress staff that he was a seafood fanatic. Daniel was up early to secure the fish from the markets that morning. The fresh snapper, although deep-fried, was moist yet firm; its sweet juicy flesh crowned by crispy skin readily tore off the bone in big chunks.

Seafood birdsnest, later demolished by Wu Yong, a seafood lover
A super tender whole pork hock braised to perfection
Mixed vegetables including snow peas and fresh lotus roots
Mixed mushrooms and Broccolini
Fresh wild-caught snapper from South East waters off South Australia
A tropical Surprise! Photos by Yeoh Chip Beng

For dessert, The Empress’ young chef, Xiao Bai, surprised the party with a refreshing serve of tropical fruits. For the record, there was no complaint about the presence of the ‘King of Fruits’ – some may regard the durian as the smelliest fruit in the world, but the part-goers could not get enough of this most revered fruit. It certainly was a treasure to enjoy.

It may have been Wu Yong’s birthday but it was not lost on him that it was also his mother’s ‘Labour Day’ 63 years ago. So, it was quite appropriate that he handed her a dozen red roses freshly cut from the garden. The wine flowed freely throughout the night and the laughter was only interrupted by the “Wow’s and Oooh’s” and spontaneous claps as each dish was introduced by Dan. But, like all good things in life, the happy gathering of friends and family had to come to an end when Wu Yong realised they were the last ones left in the restaurant. The diners asked for Xiao Bai to come out from his kitchen and heartily applauded him for a wonderful achievement. Wu Yong poured him a glass of red wine and thanked him profusely for a fantastic meal. It must be mentioned also that Dan looked after the party-goers like they were his best friends. He is a great asset to the restaurant, settling well in his role as the restaurant manager. It is no easy feat to fill Michelle Wong’s very big shoes. Congratulations to the Wong family. To Michelle, Daniel, Eric and Ronald, Wu Yong toasted a heartfelt thankyou for the wonderful feasts that the Wong family consistently produces from their restaurant. Indeed, The Empress will continue to impress, hopefully for many more years to come!

A dozen red Mr Lincolns please
Familiar decor of Empress Restaurant, 351 Greenhill Road, Toorak Gardens SA 5065, https://www.empressrestaurant.com.au/

Park Moon’s Park On The Moon

This year’s Mooncake Festival was celebrated on 21 September, or the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunar calendar. It is also known as the Mid-Autumn Festival although it is definitely Spring here in Australia. Celebrated by most Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese communities world-wide, I was surprised to receive a tin of mooncakes this year from my bank manager. He did not understand the story behind mooncakes, so he asked me. Luckily, I had Googled the night before our meeting and impressed him with my knowledge. There is the legend about beautiful Chang’e flying to the moon after stealing the elixir of immortality from her husband, the archer Hou Yi. He was the hero who saved the world from global warming by shooting down nine suns. The other legend about mooncakes originated during the end of the Yuan Dynasty when Ming guerrillas communicated with one another through hidden messages in their mooncakes. The messages would then be eaten with the mooncakes to destroy any incriminating evidence. I was hoping to link this custom to the Water Margin, but unfortunately the Ming uprising occurred a hundred years after the civil wars of the Water Margin.

Could the greenish areas be parks on the moon? Photo by SY Rees

It was Wu Yong’s wife who first told him the story about Wu Gang, on account they both share the same name. “Why are you so “bo uak tang?” (not lively in Hokkien) she asked Wu Yong many years ago. “Why aren’t you like Wu Gang?” she added, unaware he was seething silently. Wu Yong’s other name is Wu Gang, it is common for a Chinese to have two names and a surname. The Wu Gang who lives on the moon is famous for his tireless attempts to chop down an osmanthus tree. We know that if such a tree can exist in nature, it won’t be just a single tree. It would be a park full of trees that produce white and orange blooms with the alluring scent of ripe peaches. Little did Wu Gang know that the osmanthus tree he is tasked with cutting down is a self-healing tree. Wu Gang was sent to the moon during the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century – apparently to achieve immortality. It is somewhat annoying to learn that the story about Wu Gang isn’t real. For that, we ought to blame Neil Armstrong and his Apollo 11 crew. That’s one small step for man, one giant blow to Wu Gang. A futile toil in a park on the moon. That was how I thought of Park Moon, the next hero in my Urghhling Marsh brotherhood.

Park Moon is fairly tall with a somewhat fair complexion. A handsome man with meticulously groomed hair, his face is broad but it is not a moon face. It isn’t round and it isn’t pock-marked with crater-like depressions like those on the moon. For a top-tier executive who had served his employer globally for over three decades, he does not have a coldness of a bank manager or a sneering scowl of an art critic. He is a kind man who cherishes his parents’ love and upbringing and acknowledges the big part his teachers helped shape his destiny. A loyal friend, he remains true to his schoolmates and work colleagues, some of whom he continues to mentor. Park Moon’s surname is Moey. On one of his business class trips to Europe, the air stewardess referred to him as Mr. Money. Park Moon placed his forefinger to his thin lips and told her the “n” is missing in his surname which was why he had to go earn some money. It was this quest to pursue his lofty ambitions to be a successful man with loads of money that reminded me of the futility of Wu Gang’s mission on the moon. All the money in the world may get us all the consumer goods we want but as John Lennon said, all we need is love. Park Moon paid a big price for pursuing his dreams. His marriage to a Singaporean lady ended in divorce and he lost touch with their son, a smart young man who graduated from NUS as a Chemical Engineer.

Today, Park Moon has mellowed and is more content with life. Happily remarried to a Convent Datuk Keramat girl who was once his ex-neighbour, he has two lovely daughters with her – one is a doctor and the other is in the biotech field. “I am exchanging money and perks for happiness as well as to prolong my life with less stressful work. Stepping down from a high position to a lower post can be painful and discomforting initially, especially in terms of pride,” he said. He is right. No good being Wu Gang for the osmanthus tree cannot be chopped down; all the rewards and status cannot buy us happiness and health. “This is one of the best decisions that I have made in my life,” he said, in a serious voice.

Happiness is my new rich, inner peace my new success. Health is my new wealth and kindness is my new cool.

Moey Park Moon

Park Moon’s grandfather spent a year or two in the US working on the railroad. He was smuggled into the country as the Chinese Exclusion Act was enforced in 1882. To avoid detection and capture, he had to wear socks only, to keep the noise level down. Movements and hikes were done strictly in the dark. With the money saved, he went back to China and built his house. His second attempt to re-enter the US a few years later was foiled and he was forced to return to China. That was when he and his four older brothers had their sights on Malaya. They arrived in Malaya in the early 1900s, and settled in the Kulim-Machang Bubok-Bukit Mertajam area. They were from Toishan, a county in the Pearl Delta area of Guangdong. Park Moon’s grandpa was in the woodworking / carpentry trade.

Park Moon’s father, Moey Hua Cheng, was born in 1921 in Kulim, Kedah. He was the second son, but from the father’s second wife. “One of my sisters told me that after he had passed away,” Park Moon said, divulging a once tightly-held family secret. His father’s mother was chased out of the house by the matriarch, the first wife. Hua Cheng was brought up by his stepmother. He studied till Standard 3, which was a big deal in those days in Malaya. When he was in his late teens, he was employed to work in a goldsmith and pawn shop, then partly owned by a distant cousin. “He married mum in 1940,” Park Moon continued. They moved to Penang after the war where he worked as a shop assistant for Cheong San Goldsmith at 43 Campbell Street. “Dad worked there till he retired at 72,” Park Moon said, an acknowledgment that it was the norm in those days for a person to work only for one boss in a lifetime. Despite his short time in school, he could speak, read and write Mandarin very well. He was talented at Chinese calligraphy and was the go-to person if anyone required proper Chinese writing for a big occasion. He was also fluent in Malay and could write Jawi well, and as he was also trustworthy, he helped retain a sizeable repeat business from the Malay community. They were mostly farmers who happily spent all their earnings after their harvest, and then a few months later would return to the shop to pawn their jewellery for needed cash; a cycle they repeated every year.

Moey Hua Cheng: ‘Be nice to people on your way up as you do not know who you will meet on the way down’.

Park Moon’s mother, Kong Kui Yon was a foster child raised by a Hakka family. A year younger than her husband, her marriage to him was match made. She was eighteen, of child-bearing age and therefore much sought-after. By the time she was forty in 1962, she had borne eight children. She used to talk about her real mum but never mentioned her father and her other real siblings. In those days, they treated birth parents and siblings as real, adopted ones weren’t. Probably she never knew them. She was brought up in the Kulim-Lunas-Machang Bubok area but didn’t attend school. Her role then was to do the housework and tap rubber for the foster family. Despite her illiteracy, she learned to read some Mandarin. She was a mentally strong and capable woman, pulling the family together through her skills as a fantastic homemaker -juggling the meagre budget and making sure that there was always food on the dining table and clothes for her children to wear. “The clothes were hand-me-downs from good neighbours and friends that mum somehow was able to alter and make good again,” Park Moon said. Besides helping her husband make gold bracelets till late at night, she also supplemented the family income by washing clothes for others. Once or twice a week, she would join a group of women in washing the Penang ferries as well as cutting or removing the overhang threads from jeans produced by a knitwear factory near their neighbourhood. Park Moon fondly remembers his mother’s excellent yong tau foo (Hakka stuffed tofu) and other Hakka delicacies as well as fantastic Cantonese dishes and soups.

Park Moon’s mum with his 4th Sis in 2014.

It is fine to wear old clothes that need mending. The important thing is that we did not steal them.

Kong Kui Yon

As a shop assistant, Hua Cheng earned about $150 per month. This was never enough to feed his family of eight children. The eldest is a boy, born in 1941, followed by four girls and then three boys. Park Moon is the sixth in the family. Before 1964, they all lived in a rented room in a house occupied by three other families who were also tenants at Lorong Susu (off Macalister Road). The room was so small the older kids had to sleep in the common corridor, which still left many young ones sharing the bed with their parents. How Hua Cheng and Kui Yon continued to satisfy their sexual needs without waking up the children deserved annual accolades. In 1964, Hua Cheng and his younger brother managed to pay a deposit for the purchase of a single-storey terrace house in Green Lane area, with the $2000-$3000 given to them by their stepmother as “a token of goodwill” upon her death.

Education is the only way out of poverty. Have a good life, be respectful and kind.

Moey Hua Cheng

Hua Cheng drummed into his children that education was the only way out of poverty for poor families like them. Unfortunately, to his big disappointment, the four eldest children were not so good in their studies. They attended Chinese-medium schools due to his patriotism for his father’s motherland. Mao Zedong could do no wrong in his eyes and he did not want his children to lose sight of their culture. But, being from the Chinese stream, they ended up working in local companies run by Chinese families and were therefore lowly paid. Hua Cheng began to believe that children in English-medium schools had better career opportunities, thus sending his next four children to be taught in English. He was very strict with them. Getting 80 marks in weekly tests was never good enough. A score of 90 would only earn the question “why not higher?” Like many kids in those days, Park Moon did not attend kindy and therefore could not read or write at all when he began his school life. Despite the poor start, he came ninth in class overall and that secured him in the top class from Standard 2 to Form 3. Throughout school he was an average student except he got a duck in his Form 1 English test. A student’s mark would begin at 40 out of 100, for one mistake. A second grammatical or spelling mistake earned a 20 point deduction. Park Moon’s command of the English language improved in leaps and bounds after that trauma. He did not tell me but I suspect his dad caned him. The good thing about being an average guy was that he could get along with both the more academically inclined classmates as well as the mischievous and street-wise types who were known as the “kwai lan kia”. Park Moon’s class nickname was “panjang” (long in Malay) because his scrawniness made him seem taller than most even though he was not the tallest. 

Park Moon was a reasonably well-behaved boy who kept a low profile, yet he was caned three times by the headmaster, Brother John. One of the canings was rather frivolous – he was called out for walking on the grass even though there was no “Do not walk on grass” sign. The other two occasions were for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Things got a bit rough among the boys playing marbles during recess and he was punished for their transgressions. But the one incident that Park Moon will never forget was his detention by his Standard 2 Form teacher for not understanding her instructions to complete a workbook exercise despite her numerous explanations. So she lost it, grabbed his hair and banged his head hard against the desk. The poor boy was too shocked to cry and too afraid to tell his father whose unshakeable belief was “Teachers are always right”. In school, Park Moon was known as the History King, being the top student in the subject. He got into SXI’s Form 4 Science 1 after better than expected results in the LCE. Science 1 boys were daunting to mix with. He perceived them to be smarter. He did not require his sense of inferiority to be the excuse to leave SXI for the Technical Institute (TI). His father saw technical education as his path to a better future. So, he pleased his father and enrolled in TI instead. Like most of his friends, he failed Bahasa Malaysia in the MCE and had to repeat it. Upper 5 was his St. Paul’s moment. He started attending church and eventually became a Christian. He passed his MCE this time with flying colours. After a year in Lower 6 Form, he arrived in Sydney, Australia with $3,000 in his pocket. It was all the money his father had. “So, make it last till you find a vacation job,” Hua Cheng said to his son. But to young Park Moon, it sounded like “swim or drown”.

Park Moon appreciated the gravity of his situation and was very careful with his finances during his matriculation and first year in Uni. For lunch, he survived on a 250ml carton of milk and a meat pie. Every day. I did not tell him but Wu Yong, another brother of the Urghhling Marsh lived on a 250ml carton of milk and a strawberry jam sandwich. Every day. Park Moon’s room was spartan. Book shelves, a study chair and a single bed with faulty springs were bought from The Smith Family which sold donated or used goods to raise money for children’s charity. During a hot and dry summer in his matriculation year, he had a difficult four weeks – knocking on factory doors from Rosebery to Parramatta looking for a job, feeling more and more desperate by the day. Then out of the blue, an Indonesian senior whom he barely knew introduced him to Fritzel & Schnitzel, a restaurant in Hunter Street for a kitchen hand job. The restaurant had just been taken over by a Lebanese family who fled the civil war. Within two weeks, he became the second chef because the owner and his Lebanese chef got into a very serious argument and the chef stormed out in a huff. In his second summer, he got a job in Rosebery – assembling one-armed bandits. The factory workers were migrants and refugees (Vietnamese, Chileans, Croatians, Serbs, Greeks, Italians, Turks, etc). The Croats didn’t like the Serbs, the Greeks hated the Turks and everyone called the Italians wogs. Working in hot and crammed conditions with them was torture. They were mostly bigger, taller and smellier than Park Moon, whose nostrils were just at the right armpit height of his garlic-loving colleagues who seemed to skip their daily baths. A Vietnamese shared his horrifying experience fleeing the country by boats deemed unseaworthy and the many obstacles and traumatic experiences exacted by pirates before they were able to reach Australia. 

In his third summer, he got a job at an ice factory at the Pyrmont fish market. It was a one-man show, but would have been a physically demanding job even for two. In the morning, he had to make three to four runs per hour to the fish auction market, delivering five pallet loads of ice each time, using a manual lifter. The pallets loaded with ice were stacked up to his chin level. When the auction hours were over, typically by 12 noon, he then had to bag party ice and store them in the freezers, and when they were full, he stored them in a 40-ft container parked outside the factory. A typical day started at six in the morning – catch the no. 273 bus from Randwick to Pitt Street, then a ten-minute brisk walk to Pyrmont. His day finished at 10 at night. Sunday was the only rest day. He got paid well, for a uni student, but he also got stomach ulcers for missing his meals. It did not make sense why the boss would employ a weak-looking Asian boy for such a physical job. “Why me and not one of the stronger white guys who were in the queue?” he asked his boss. “Because you were the hungriest,” he said simply. In his fourth summer, he was required to do his industrial training at one of the shires in NSW which was quite close to the Queensland border. It was a good experience staying with an Aussie family. The family would drive him to ‘nearby’ Inverell on Saturday which was a good two hours drive away, and in return, Park Moon would cook a Chinese lunch for them the next day. He also tutored the family’s daughter who was in Year 6 or 7. The father would reciprocate and teach him golf and lawn bowling while the son who was about 17 years old, taught him archery.

With best mates from uni days. Albert Tan (L), Torng Maw (mid)

In December 1983, Park Moon completed his double-degree course in Science and Engineering at the University of Sydney. He was promptly recruited by Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit Corporation to work on their new MRT system. After six years there, he felt he had learned enough field work in civil and tunnel construction stuff and electrification works. He then moved on to the insurance industry, and was trained as a Risk Engineer with FM Global. He loved the opportunities to travel worldwide. “With full perks, executive suites in 5 or 6-star hotels and always Business Class!” he said candidly. One day, he could be at a Newmont mining site in remote Indonesia and the next day, in a super dust-free room like in a TSMC semiconductor wafer fab in Taiwan. Essentially the job exposed him to all kinds of industries – power plants, semicon fabs, pulp and paper mills, etc. More importantly through all this, he got a global network of friends. As his father used to say, “Why make enemies when you can make friends?” His first trip to China was in the winter of 1991. The feeling was unreal the moment the plane touched down in Beijing – somehow it felt like a home-coming for him even though that was the first time he stepped on the land where his grandfather was born. “I was joyous, I could feel the tears in my heart,” he said. There were no streetlights in Beijing- only the light bulbs in the shops gave some dim light. The main shopping area was however full of people. The drive from Beijing to Tianjin was uneventful. The roads were very wide, but empty of cars. Instead, there were miles and miles of people in drab grey clothes on their bicycles being passed by a few tractor driven carts. The country was poor, the countryside dismal. Beggars trudged the streets pitifully, those without limbs sat on the roadsides, busily swatting at flies. He could see people carving blocks of ice from the frozen rivers and ponds. When he arrived at Tangshan which was hit by a huge earthquake in 1976 with the highest number of casualties on record, the factory had put up banners at the main gate to welcome him. Once the main gate was opened, as if prompted by a conductor, the factory employees started clapping and singing “Huan ying, huan ying” like a 1000-strong choir of sixteen voices. Park Moon found out later that the plant was hardly producing anything.

On his second trip to China, Park Moon got into trouble with the local authorities. It was in January 1993, during one of the harshest winters there. He was smuggled up the train from Changchun to Harbin without a train ticket. The plant manager had either forgotten or could not buy the ticket. Having boarded the train at the depot one stop from the train station, Park Moon thought he was provided with a spacious First Class cabin. But, when the train stopped at the train station, he soon realised he was in a six-person cabin and he was the seventh without a ticket. The temperature outside was minus 20C. The icy cold conditions motivated Park Moon to rustily argue in poor Mandarin with the train conductor whose strong Manchurian accent provided his errant passenger with a good excuse to plead ignorance and feign being insulted. The other six passengers relented after a rowdy few minutes and made room for the non-paying guest. The compromise was good enough for the conductor to extricate himself from the cabin without injuring anyone’s pride. With a little whimper, Park Moon bowed respectfully and said “Xie, xie, thank you.”

Park Moon, one of the nicest heroes in the Urghhling Marsh Brotherhood.

Park Moon is one of the nicest guys I know from my school. In 1996, as he was waiting for a table at the Red Lobsters Restaurant in Toronto, an elderly man came up to him and asked if he could share his table. Park Moon turned around and saw a man with a noble face and a bad posture. He looked decent enough and smelt clean, although his jacket looked slightly threadbare and his pants were clearly in need of a hot iron. “Sure, fine,” Park Moon replied and signalled to the waitress to set the table for two instead. When asked for his order after being given enough time with the glossy menu, the old man told the waitress he was with Park Moon, and to let Park Moon order for him. A free rider! Park Moon thought to himself. “Would you like a glass of red wine?” he asked his self-invited guest. “I’m ordering a T-bone steak for you,” he said in a soft warm voice. “I will have a lobster,” Park Moon said to the waitress and smiled sweetly as he closed the menu. When their meals arrived, the elderly man did not hesitate to pounce on his steak. He ate the medium-rare meat like a man who had just disavowed his vegetarianism. Meat, glorious meat,” he seemed to be humming to himself as he emptied his plate in a blink of an eye. He placed his steak knife and fork side by side at the 4 o’clock position, signifying he had finished his meal. But, Park Moon had barely started pulling at his succulent 0.8 kg Maine lobster. Suddenly, the elderly man leaned forwards and yanked a claw from the lobster with his deformed fingers that were riddled with arthritis. The meaty claw flew off the table to Park Moon’s dismay and utter shock. Park Moon stepped off his side of the table to pick up the claw. As he bent down, he noticed the restaurant’s carpet, once freshly laid and springy to the feet, were discoloured and heavily-trodden with many small but visible bare patches. Park Moon returned to his seat with the claw pincered by his right thumb and forefinger. The elderly man asked if he could still have the claw. He broke into a radiant smile when his host offered him the whole lobster instead. Park Moon had lost his appetite.

He left his position as Engineering Manager after ten years with the company when Marsh (a major global insurance broker listed in NYSE) came calling. Park Moon became the Managing Director of the risk consulting business unit covering Asia. The company was flying high, so to speak, and he was doing exceptionally well personally, until Spitzer (a US attorney in NY) came along and started to haul-up brokers for non-compliance on financial and accounting misdeeds. As they say, all good things must come to an end and the company came under a lot of pressure from shareholders and market analysts. He called it quits after ten years with Marsh and joined their competitor, AON, also as the Managing Director of risk consulting. He stayed just three years with them and re-joined Marsh in his old role for another five years. By then, he had grown stale in the business after almost three decades in the same field. Today, Park Moon works on a retainer with international German insurer, HDI Global.

This group of teachers and friends helped shape Park Moon’s life. From left, Sally Lam, Lesley Samson, Johnny Phun, Wilson Gan, Yoke Pheng and Oh Teik Soon.

Zero Hero, Write About Nero

Typhoon, a hero in the Urghhling Marsh brotherhood suggested I write about Nero, since there is no new hero to write about. It has been a disappointing few weeks. My project to write a book based on fellow schoolmates from our childhood is stalling. We call one another ‘brothers’. It started so well. The excitement this project created was palpable. The brotherhood from school of course, pales into insignificance when compared with the heroism of the 108 heroes of Liangshan Marsh in the Water Margin story. We were after all merely kids who grew up in a very safe town environment – we did not have to survive the carnage of wars or overcome insidious plots by corrupt officials of the court or fight tigers in the forests. I stand accused of being grossly ridiculous to even try to compare the sharp vicissitudes of fortune many of these heroes of the Song dynasty suffered to the ordinary struggles we experienced in the 20th century, yet I felt sure our forefathers may have had their own heroic stories to tell, uprooting themselves early in their mostly wretched lives to seek greener pastures in faraway lands. Their quest, although without any of the virtuous deeds of the Liangshan bandits such as rebelling against corrupt officials, or staging civil unrest against the emperor’s rule, was still admirable for the sheer bravery and pioneering spirit to seek fortune in unknown lands.

In the Water Margin, I could almost feel the likes of Song Jiang’s and Lin Chong’s searing pain as they had their faces branded in Chinese characters that condemned them as criminals. Or, smell the foul breaths of Wu Song and Li Kui who were both often so drunk the former killed a tiger with his bare hands once and the latter’s wrath and maniacal violence made him a fearsome character. Often, it was taking justice into their own hands that turned these heroes into outlaws. Due to corrupt magistrates, justice was seldom properly served. “Taking justice into their own hands” meant only one thing. A bloody killing. There is the story about Inspector Lei Heng aka The Winged Tiger who cracked Bai Xiuying’s skull, spilling her brains on a street, for abusing and assaulting his feeble mother. Bai was a songstress who won favours and protection from a lustful magistrate using her beauty and sexual prowess. Also as gory was the story about Yang Xiong who upon discovering his wife had been adulterous with a monk in their own bedroom, plunged his sword into her breasts and pulled out her heart, spleen, liver, kidneys and lungs, and hung them up on a tree. Wu Song similarly ripped open Pan Jinlian’s blouse and sank his dagger into her breasts. With both hands, he removed his sister-in-law’s heart, spleen, liver, kidneys and lungs, and displayed them at his murdered brother’s altar table. Later, he fought and killed Ximen Qing, her lover, at a nearby inn. He chopped off both their heads and placed them at his brother’s memorial tablet as a gesture of respect and justice served. I swear, these gruesome murders were so palpable I could smell their blood and feel their pain. But then again, it could be just the chronic pain I am suffering that I feel.

For two weeks now, there has been no positive reply from any schoolmate for me to write their story. In a few cases, there was simply no reply. Silence. If only silence is consent. I could write about this friend whom I held in high esteem as a young boy. For me back then, he was as heroic as Superman. Nothing could defeat him or his mind, at least. He travelled fast, in his sister’s Honda N360. At the time, most of us were still negotiating the back alleys on our bicycles. My childhood best friend, I knew his idiosyncrasies well. Born with leadership qualities, he outshone me in just about anything or with anyone. The girls flocked to him like bees to honey. He could do the cha-cha as well as John Travolta. Slick. Smooth. Suave. Stylish, with 4-inch high clogs and 16-inch bell-bottoms sweeping the dance floor. I can still see him with his unbuttoned pink shirt and sharp winged collars. High fashion then, nostalgia now. He was the performer, the star, the soloist on stage. I was the stagehand, in the background, in the dark. No spotlight on me with him around. I knew his parents well. Both jolly and round. The kindest folks around me in my teens. I enjoyed many meals in their cosy home. His mum would not take no for an answer. Maybe I never said no. Her food was wonderful but not plentiful. Yet, there was always some for me. I have no doubt they treated me like a son. His mum was so concerned about the girl I was dating she went to my mother to warn me. Apparently, the girl had a “reputation”. I did not know this story till just last week. My mother would not elaborate apart from saying I was stupid. Did I use the past tense? Sorry, my mother still thinks I am “ben-ben” i.e. somewhat stupid. I still do not know whether to agree or disagree. I suppose that makes her right.

With zero hero in the midst, I am asked to write about Nero instead. Why Nero, I asked. “Oh, he fiddled whilst Rome burned, of course,” Typhoon said. Apparently, this was just a myth. Ancient Rome was a slum full of poor quality housing. Wooden houses burned easily. Some 70% of the city was destroyed in a great fire during Nero’s reign in the first century. But, we know the violin was not invented until the early 16th century, according to recorded history anyway. The oldest violin is made by Amati of Cremona, around 1565. Ok, maybe Nero fiddled on a viol instead. The viol has two C-shaped sound holes instead of the F-holes of the violin. It has six or seven strings instead of the four strings. But, Nero could not have played on a viol, because it was invented some 1500 years later! It later dawned on me that perhaps Typhoon was being sarcastic. To say that Nero played music whilst his city burned has a second meaning. It describes decadence, detachment from reality or worse, decay and disregard for his people’s suffering. Rome was in moral decline. Nero was reviled for his excessive indulgence in pleasure, debauchery and luxury. Conspiracy theorists believed he ordered the fire started, to grab land for his Golden Palace and pleasure gardens. Maybe he wanted an excuse to persecute the Christians and kill off the then obscure religious sect.

According to Typhoon, Nero was like a hero to the Roman commoners though in fact he was a cruel leader. He was a stepson of Claudius and became Emperor at age 17, attaining heroic status at a very young age. He was devoted to poetry, art and music, he fiddled the lyre, obviously he didn’t “lyred” the fiddle whilst Rome burned. He even participated in the Olympics and won every contest he participated in. In the chariot race, he was thrown from his chariot and yet was crowned winner on the basis that he would have won had he completed the race. What a hero!
At age 31, he fled Rome and committed suicide after he learned that the Roman elites had tried him in absentia and condemned him to death for being public enemy number one. Strange that, he almost got away with uxoricide and matricide for which he was never charged. From hero to zero, that was Nero.

Did Typhoon imply that I was out of touch with reality? Fiddling with my violin whilst friends were wrecked with economic hardship? At a time of huge suffering during a pandemic, how dare I bother them about writing their stories? There are more urgent matters to tackle, warring against a virus and putting food on the table as The Cook needs to do daily. Too many matters to think of than worry about giving me stories to retell. Blue Eyes has been back to Edmonton and then back again to the blue waters of Panama. Four Eyes, suddenly with factional wars to quell in his workplace. The Mayor, running for re-election, recruiting pretty young girls to wave his banners. Prez running around like a chook without its head, garnering support for the hawkers and the needy in his township. Lord Guan, that towering hero of the brotherhood, still wishing to escape to Hong Kong where a white pleasure yacht full of flowing champagne and a bevy of young beauties is parked on a once fragrant harbour awaiting his arrival. Besides, there is climate change to worry about. Look at the billions of syringes, vaccine vials, face masks, plastic food packaging being dumped daily.

When I run out of heroes to write about, I can always turn to Wu Yong. He is the least popular of the heroes in my Urghhling Marsh stories. To me, it is his many annoying characteristics that make him the least popular and therefore one of the most interesting to relate to. Wu Yong learned the violin in school, from Brother Michael. He attended just a lesson or two before switching to a private teacher, Mr Woon. Br Michael was an authoritarian. He ruled the school with a long cane which he hid inside the long sleeves of his dazzling white long dress. He prowled the school grounds like a tiger prowling his territory. Any straggler in school to him was like an intruder to a tiger. To be challenged and defeated. Any boy who dared defy his instructions and rules would be swiftly caned. Wu Yong did not feel comfortable learning from “Lau Hor”, nicknamed ‘the white tiger’ on account of his race, his white robes and his fierce demeanour. Wu Yong failed to turn up for the school orchestra’s rehearsals after one session. Such was his disdain (or was it fear?) for the Lasallian educator. A school is only as good as its teachers, that is true. But why did they have to be violent? Why did they exact punishment on little kids with such voracious fierceness and unrestrained fury? Did they not know violence begets violence? Wu Yong wondered how many students went on to become violent adults themselves. Wu Yong played the violin rather badly for eight years, although he was convinced he was good enough to apply for a music degree in Vienna. “I knew I would not be good enough to be a performer, but I could become a music teacher,” he reckoned. But, he was honest with himself. He knew he spent more time on the football field than in his music ‘room’ – the 6 ft x 3 ft tiled landing just in front of the toilet and bathroom. He wasn’t cut out to be a footballer, and even less as a teacher. He wanted to be a dentist instead but he failed in that too.

Wu Yong vowed to join his local district’s symphony orchestra this year. At an age where many of his peers have already retired, he knew he should pick up his German-made violin again before his eyes start failing and his fingers become too stiff to dance along the strings. He gave himself one season to hone his skills before applying to join the orchestra. “Well, it is already a new season,” I said. “Have you enrolled?” I persisted. Wu Yong got visibly upset with me. His eyebrows knitted up, his forehead wrinkles scrunched even more. His scowl menacing, his beady eyes cold like steel. I immediately knew I had struck a chord with him, pardon the pun. A raw nerve, actually. “I am suffering from a frozen shoulder,” Wu Yong said icily. “I have not been able to pick up my violin since my last practice in late July; I showed so much improvement too,” he added. Wu Yong blames his incapacity on the recent vaccine jabs he had. He had a winter flu jab on the 1st Aug and his first COVID-19 jab nine days later. He suspects the two jabs so close together had caused him untold joint pain, general muscle pain and a severe frozen shoulder. Only now does he fully understand why they call it a frozen shoulder. At rest for a short while, his shoulder would feel like a slab of meat in a freezer so cold and dead it is; and when he moves it, the pain is so severe and agonising he sometimes wishes he is dead instead. He has not had a good night sleep since the COVID-19 jab eight weeks ago. That is 56 sleeps ago! The intense and prolonged pain is making him into a gloomy and moody person which in turn is affecting his general health. Wu Yong reported to his doctor that his may be a case of “Subacromial-subdeltoid bursitis” following COVID-19 vaccination. But, his doctor casually pointed out that his frozen shoulder was on the opposite side, not immediately above the injection site. “Ok, that may mean it is not a case of SIRVA! So?” Wu Yong protested. “Just because it is not a shoulder injury related to vaccine administration does not mean my agony is not due to the vaccine, right?” Wu Yong countered, “I had no history of such prolonged joint pain, and no chronic shoulder injury.” “Is it a mere coincidence that I am in such constant agony?” he asked, still convinced the symptoms of adhesive capsulitis occurred a day or two after his vaccination. Although without any medical knowledge, he firmly believes his is a case of arthritis from a COVID-19 vaccination. As expected, his doctor dismissed Wu Yong’s amateurish diagnosis. Anyone would. Everyone did. Maybe he thinks he has stumbled onto an “eponymous disease” such as Alzheimers, Chrohn’s, Parkinson’s, Hodgkin’s, Guillain-Barré, Tourette’s syndrome. Will he call it Wu Yong’s? What is a Tourette syndrome, you ask? It involves a sufferer making uncontrolled repetitive movements such as shrugging one’s shoulders, blinking or making unwanted sounds repeatedly. An example in the brotherhood would be Blue Eyes whose uncontrolled outbursts of the various versions of “pharque” and “pharquer” make it colourful reading in our chats. If he is not careful, I fear Wu Yong will be expelled from the Urghhling Marsh brotherhood. He just isn’t cut out to be a hero. With his frozen shoulder, he can’t even repeatedly shrug his shoulders.

Wisteria in full bloom but it is doom and gloom for Wu Yong. How will he sweep up the fallen petals with his frozen shoulder?

Barramundi, Calamari and Verdi

What pandemic? What lockdown? I was in the Adelaide Town Hall last night, attending a special preview performance of Verdi’s Requiem, and the whole place was buzzing with people. “Are you a VIP?” a pretty usher asked me. Well, I no longer felt important after that. “This section is reserved for VIPs only,” she continued to hurt my ego. I smiled, said “yes” and walked right past her. I knew she would not have the audacity to check the veracity of my answer. So, why even bother to ask, right? Don’t they know VIPs do not like to be asked if they are important? We damn well know we are! A special preview event for invitees only but due to the actual concert being sold out tonight, they decided to open up the rest of the hall for sixty paying guests. We are very lucky to live in this part of Australia. What pandemic? Life has been pretty normal apart from two very brief lockdowns. We have lived with zero cases and zero deaths from Covid-19 for much of this year. Live with the virus? Why, we here live normally without it. Alright, it has not been so “normal”. I get it. It is mandatory here to wear masks too and I am so used to social distancing that big crowds do worry me. That said, last night was the first time this year that I had no uneasiness about shaking hands and hugging people.

I will be 63 next month, yet there were still so many tasks that required my attention before I could leave home for the concert last night. “When will it slow down for me?” I asked myself. There were the three chooks to feed and their poo to sweep; the nine fish to feed and their poo to scoop from the pond. There was the adorable puppy to bond with. Yes, not play with or look after but a close bonding with my best pal. He is virtually glued to me. If he could talk, he will say I am his shadow. Before the chores were done, I went inside the house to check if The Mrs was getting ready. Surreptitiously, for it is dangerous to be perceived to be hurrying her. Retirees somehow lose their punctuality. She was so efficient and time-poor she was always on time. Not anymore! Secretly, I am envious of her freedom to do as she pleases, say what she likes and lose any sense of time. “No need to rush,” she will say. Rushing to get ready for the concert, I borrowed a rather “expensive-looking” jacket from my youngest son’s wardrobe. Knowing this son, it won’t just look expensive. The jacket has been hanging in there for many years. That, I am well aware of. “Such a waste,” I convinced myself it ought not be wasted. Fashion changes – it was a present from his aunt, The Mrs’ sister from eight years ago (at least). I have seen him wore it once. Never mind. He won’t know if I borrowed it, I decided. The Mrs said I should not tie up my hair. She said long hair suits the jacket. Wow. For years, she had grumbled how ridiculous I look with long hair.

I had not ventured out at night for a long while except occasionally to my favourite local restaurant, The Empress. Honestly, they do make feel like the emperor, so important do they make me feel. Besides, they never ask if I’m a VIP! What pandemic? The roads last night were full of cars, all jammed up snarling and blowing fumes. Electric cars can’t come quick enough. Yet, the governments here insist on levying a road user tax for EV’s. Go figure. I used to think Aussies are smart. After circling the Town Hall three times, I dropped off The Mrs right at the front of the hall, as she commanded unnecessarily. I know her so well words are no longer required. You’d think by now she would know I already know what she wants. There would be no free parking, I decided. Normally, my luck would deliver me a vacant car space when I needed one. After another futile round of hunting for a free parking bay (the thriftiness learned by all Penang people), I drove into a carpark nearest the venue, unaware of the stress it would cause me later.

I paused to admire my jacket in the reflection on the Town Hall glass door before I sauntered in, feeling like a young Bruce Lee. It is a phenomenon I should examine one day – how good clothes make us feel good, and how special clothes make us feel special. “Are you one of the musicians?” a very pleasant young lady asked. Maybe I have a violinist’s long strong fingers but it was a strange question nonetheless. “No,” I said and beamed her a smile without showing my teeth, which my dentist had reminded two days earlier “are quite badly stained.” She just wanted extra business, I told myself and ignored the obvious response she was looking for. No, you will not whiten my teeth! Who goes around asking people if they are musicians or professional photographers? Somehow, I get asked that a lot. Even at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York once. There was an exhibition by a Japanese photographer, and one of the lady ushers excitedly asked me if I was the celebrity photographer. I think she was poised to hand me a programme for my autograph.

The Mrs immediately had to go to the loo, declining a glass of wine in the process. I pounced on a red. Wine, I mean – the waitress was a blonde. We arrived early, yet the room was already full. The night’s programme informed me there would be 70 minutes of catering and beverages. Free booze and barramundi. Party time! A waitress approached me as if I was fresh air and offered me some deep fried stuff. I am normally disinclined to partake in such unhealthy stuff, but why decline free food, right? I used my two fingers like pincers and zeroed in on the golden round ball. Lightly crumbed calamari, I assumed. “I’ll grab one more, for my wife,” I said to the vivacious girl holding the round tray of food. “Yes, I am sure she is here tonight,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. Ah, humans are all the same. She must be so used to guests wanting a quick second serve, pretending to reserve a second morsel for their absent wives. With a glass of red on my left hand and a calamari on my right hand, I stood there observing the crowd. People are nice when they believe we are all A-list guests. Suddenly, there is no class, creed or race to divide us. We are all the same. We belong to the VIPs. I think that is how the urghhlings can become better earthlings. Just treat everyone as important. Listen, we are all A-listers and the world will be a better place. A couple just in front of me were making small talk between themselves. They angled their bodies differently and created a slightly bigger distance between them. Ah, an open invitation for me to step in and make them less conspicuous. I used to dislike such functions in my early years as an accountant. Having to make small talk, smile sweetly and be watchful not to make myself sound like a fool. A bean counter must project himself as dour, grey and boring – isn’t that what an old saying suggests? Never mind, I have been comfortable in my own skin for a very long time. I have no qualms about being alone in a big room full of well-dressed patrons. I am well-dressed too. It is amazing how my son’s jacket transformed me! Anyway, the couple turned to smile at me, as if pleading for me to enlarge their circle. Some couples can’t make small talk between themselves! I was quite contented to keep to myself, observing people from a distance is a kind of voyeurism. Maybe. Anyway, I stepped forward and said hello to them. He was a good-looking Italian gentleman, a State champion once upon a time in ballroom dancing. That was how he met her, a woman from Suzhou with typical Chinese looks but her skin was deliciously smooth like silken tofu. Flat face, flat nose, small eyes on a round wide face that showed a lack of discipline with her diet. She wore a scarf that was multi-coloured with patterns that mainland Chinese love. I did not have to ask where she came from to know. Her accent later confirmed it. “Hello, I am Jing,” she introduced herself. The Mrs had just joined us and asked, “Are you Korean?” Sigh. Koreans do not wear scarves that look designed for mainland Chinese. As soon as The Mrs found out Jing was from Jiangsu Province, her inhibitions vanished and instantly, the two women were behaving like long-lost friends, chatting away in mandarin with ever increasing tempo and volume. Somehow, the mutual friendliness gave The Mrs licence to talk freely about me. I pulled the Italian man slightly away from them so that they did not appear rude. His name was Carmen -not Spanish as I believed. “Carmine-red was a very common colour for soldiers’ uniform,” he said. Red coats apparently were popular to hide the blood of wounded soldiers so that their comrades would not be demoralised.

The sweet smiles of the waitress approached me again. This time, I was not going to let her go. “Ah, barramundi for me please,” I said. “And my wife is right here,” I gestured to The Mrs who seemed in another world by then. After offering the food to The Mrs and her new best pal, the waitress said, “here, another piece for your girlfriend,” she chuckled as she waltzed away. There is a reason why I am born with two ears. One to listen to the boring man in front of me and the other to catch some of the chatter from the ladies. “He’s good looking?” “No, the father is so much more handsome! Like Gregory Peck!” The Mrs disagreed loudly with her companion. “I told my husband, in our next life, don’t flirt with me. Don’t say a single word to me. Don’t catch the same bus. Pretend you don’t know me,” she continued. “I’d rather be a pebble than marry him again,” she said. At that point, I jumped into their conversation, and offered this logic to Jing. “We have been married for over 40 years, Jing,” I started. “Ask my wife why she is still with me if I am such a lousy husband!” Luckily, I was saved by the clinking of glasses. Speech time. Phew. And then it was concert time. On the way to our seats, another usher asked me, “Are you VIP? The first four rows are for VIPS only.” I replied, “Yes, I know that.” As I was sitting down, I saw a violinist from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. “How are you?!” I asked excitedly. He looked at me, somewhat puzzled. “Oh, maybe you don’t remember me,” I said. “Of course, I remember you,” he said. “You’re so-and-so’s (son’s name) father,” he exclaimed. Somehow, in that split second, I lost my own identity. Maybe he recognised my son’s jacket.

Verdi’s Requiem was awesome. That is one word I seldom use. ‘Awesome’ is normally reserved for the universe. That kind of greatness. The youthful exuberance from the orchestra was especially a joy to witness. I could tell they were playing on cheap instruments, but their playing was superb and amazing for their age. The Adelaide Youth Orchestra, or ADYO gave an insight into the health of the musical world in Adelaide. I am happy to report the doom and gloom expressed a few years ago by some observers is incorrect. We have a lot to look forward to, if last night was any hint. Powered by a full orchestra and a 100-strong choir, last night’s Requiem was thrilling to witness. It was a wonderful event. The concert was awesome, the orchestra impressive and the choir magical. The soloists, simply divine. Bravo! At the interval, I went and congratulated the conductor, Keith Crellin. He looked at me blankly but shook my hand anyway. I had to mention my son’s name, as he did not recognise his jacket. “Ah, you’re his father!” Keith exclaimed. I definitely lost my own identity last night.

ADYO’s Verdi Requiem

After the concert, the sadness of the music followed me all the way back to the carpark. A requiem or mass for the dead. Why would anyone write for the dead? It is as defeatist as an artist painting about death or a landscape of rubbish in a landfill. “Who on earth would want to display it on their wall?” I asked The Mrs after she showed me her painting of rubbish last year. Her painting wasn’t rubbish of course – it was just about rubbish.

Rubbish. This painting is not rubbish, it is about rubbish.

Anyway, we had a big scare when we got to the carpark. Our ticket would not scan properly to open the entrance door to the building that was locked up at 7pm on the dot. After a long wait on the phone, the AI that was manning the phone failed to show any intelligence. In the cold, we were getting desperate and I was on the verge of calling a cab when a car turned into the driveway and the boom gate opened noisily to let it into the carpark. “Hurry up!” I hurried The Mrs to keep up with me as we quickly followed the car inside. Although the machine failed to read my ticket earlier, it did not fail to charge me $29 for the parking. With the new ticket that it spat out, we proceeded to Level 4 to our car. The Mrs was cursing under her breath as by then she was getting tired and cold. My fear was soon realised – my car was not where I thought it would be. After a short frantic search, I realised the white car in the corner was mine after all. I had been looking for her blue car instead. When we got to the boom gate, the new ticket would not open the roller door. The message read “Unreadable ticket.” “Are we in a third world country?” I asked. “Nothing seems to work tonight,” I said. It felt as if the dead had been awoken by Verdi. Luckily, I persisted and tried another boom gate instead of assuming the same ticket would be unreadable by all scanners. The boom gate opened and I stepped hard on the pedal to the metal and my car screeched out before the boom gate came back down.