Three Hundred & One Red

After reading about the agoge system of education, the old man decided to watch the movie, 300, last night. The agoge system was practised in ancient times in Greece, by ancient the old man meant a few hundred years before Christ. At age seven, Spartan boys were sent away from the bosom of their mothers to learn about the art of war and to prepare their bodies for the harshness of war. They would only return home as fighting men if they survived living in the wild on their own after their training, usually by 30 years of age. In the movie, a young Leonidas, the future king of Sparta, triumphed over a giant black wolf, its black darker than the blackest night and its eyes redder than the colour of blood. A spartan had to be tough, a Spartan had to be strong. They were trained to withstand pain and the harshest conditions. Freedom wasn’t free at all, it came at great costs. For a Spartan, there was no surrender. There was no retreat. Three virtues were often repeated. Honour. Duty. Glory. Every Spartan soldier was expected to stand and fight. And die. Their only request in return was not a monument. Not a statue in their honour. Not a street named after them. No, they only wished that we remember them. That’s the least we can do, for they died for the promise of freedom. Molon labe pronounced as moˈlon laˈve – come and take them. This was Leonidas’ reply to the Persian King, the wannabe god, Xerxes, who demanded that the Spartans lay down their weapons and kneel to him. Molon labe, give them nothing but take from them, everything. To victory!

Molon labe

King Leonidas on the eve of the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC)

Men are not born equal. Not all lands are equal. Spartan believed they were far superior, in bravery, strength, resilience and the willingness to die for their people. That three hundred of them could be enough to repel and defeat the King of Kings, Xerxes the Persian emperor of “the world”, who invaded Greece with a massive army in the hundreds of thousands supported by a navy. Why send only three hundred men to defend his country against such a powerful foe? Even back in those days, no man was above the law, not even King Leonidas. So, when he went to consult the Delphic Oracle about going to war against Xerxes during the Carneia, their Christmas season, the Pythia forbade Leonidas to go to war. So, Leonidas could only “go for a walk” with three hundred of his bodyguards to protect him. The Pythia, a priestess, was revered as the mouthpiece of their god of prophecy. In the movie 300, the inner sanctum of Apollo’s temple had been bribed by a faction that was anti-war and ordered the Pythia to say that their glorious city would be decimated by the Persians if they went to war.

Not all lands are equal in value and importance. The old man suddenly thought of Ukraine today. He paused for those who have lost loved ones and for those who have lost everything. War is never good. War is never the answer. Yet, has there ever been peace on earth in the history of mankind? Urghhlings, to the old man, will never learn for it is in their genetic code to be the superior animal, a terrible consequence of evolution. Ukraine, unfortunately, sits at the border of Russia and that makes the land strategically important. To Russia, Ukraine is their redline that it does not become part of the EU or more precisely, that they are not part of NATO, a military alliance that requires the whole alliance to defend a member country that is at war. To the US, Ukraine is their chess piece to keep Russia in check and prevent their Cold War foe from advancing towards the west. Somehow, the US does not seem to accept that the Cold War ended once the Soviet Union self-destructed and blew itself into many separate states without a gunshot being fired. That was 30 years ago. Talk about slow learners! Despite the initial reservations by many EU countries, the US got their way and inserted in paragraph 23 of the 2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration, that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO. Four months later, many Georgian villages were bombed to smithereens by Russia, for they too share a common border with Russia. The war lasted twelve days. It was made very very clear to the world then that Russia will not allow NATO to be at their doorsteps.

Men are not born equal. Some are downright foolish. The old man said, “Why would the Ukrainian President insist on joining NATO?” Given the lessons from Georgia, why would any Ukrainian leader aspire to become a NATO member? Despite repeated warnings from Russia that they will not accept US and European encampments and military bases at the border? The West may trumpet the fact that Ukraine is a true democracy and therefore every democracy should be strongly defended but why have we forgotten that their previously elected President was ousted in a coup and the overthrow of Yanukovych’s government in 2014 following the Maidan Revolution was welcomed by the West simply because he was pro-Russia? There is a certain Marvelisation by western media to make Zelensky into a superhero. He is definitely a hero in social media and already has a street named after him in America. His portrayal of a leader defending his country against all odds is a throw-back to the Spartan folklore about the three hundred heroes who defended their land against the Persian invaders. Appropriately, Zelensky appears in his regular video posts unshaven, rugged like Rambo, and in military-green defiance against a superpower. He is on the streets, digging in, rallying his troops, asking to join NATO, asking NATO to join in the fight, fighting. He is not in some gilded palace enjoying the finest wines and grapes. He is wearing a green t-shirt, no silk or satin robes. A self-sacrificial hero in the mould of a Spartan, Leonidas, no less. A former comedian, he reminds the old man he may still be one. Fancy asking NATO for fighter jets and no-fly zones – still showing a naivety that the US and the rest of Europe will join him in his fight. A no-fly zone, although necessary to prevent Russian MIGs from entering Ukraine’s airspace, will entail the shooting down of Russian planes. That is akin to asking for WW3 but a war that the world has never seen before, a nuclear one. Some in the West are already saying Zelensky will go down in history as a legendary hero, a profoundly inspirational leader who did not blink. The old man said, “Alexander the Great is buried on the same grounds as his mule handler.” What good is greatness once we are dead?

But, we know freedom isn’t free at all. Too many lives have been lost, many more will be sacrificed. Zelensky will be martyred in a country in total ruin. Will they be free? His story to the old man echoes that of Leonidas’. Tricked by his ‘Delphi Oracle’, Zelensky’s Pythia isn’t a priestess, but the one paragraph in a summit declaration some years back in which his country was promised membership to NATO. To the old man, Zelensky isn’t a hero. He is a fool to sacrifice his people, and his country for some fanciful notion that freedom is a price worth paying for in blood and misery. Ukraine was already a free and independent country; the only price for that freedom was not to join the NATO. “A good enough deal,” the old man said.

Only the dead is truly free. Free from the ugliness of this world.

Wu Yonggang

A few nights earlier, the old man watched Red. It was a random choice, well….not really, the old man has a predisposition for movies by Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren. The former, because his movies are often action-packed and the latter, because of her great acting. It is a story about retired people, a subject matter at the top of the old man’s mind as he contemplates retirement himself as more and more of his schoolmates show what freedom looks like upon retirement. More importantly, what it feels like. For the Spartan, freedom wasn’t free at all. For his fellow schoolmates, freedom reads like paradise to the old man. Wake up at whatever time, eat wherever or cook whatever you fancy or don’t cook at all. For someone who still works 8.30 – 4.30, this kind of freedom that awaits the old man feels exciting. The thought was enough to make his hands turn cold and hasten his heartbeats. In the movie Red, the retired folks were all ex-black ops agents. Their forte was just like the Spartans, standing and fighting for the state. No questions asked, they did as they were told, killed whoever, wherever and whenever. But having retired, they knew too much and it was their turn to be “disposed of”. So, the old team members reunited to repel the assassin sent to kill them. That was also a good example of retirement! So much to look forward to for the old man, right? Except he knows that in reality, retirement won’t be as testosterone-charged and exciting as in the movie Red.

The old man discovered that Red stood for Retired, Extremely Dangerous. At age 63, the old man often winced from the ‘knife-cut’ pain on his back whenever he woke up with the doona on the floor. That’s the problem with the not-hot-and-not-cold nights in late summer / early autumn. The doona is too heavy for such nights, so he is prone to simply kick it off the bed. But, the temperature would be quite cold just before daybreak, cold enough to inflict piercing pain around the scapula region of his back. “How dangerous can you be when you can’t withstand a night without your doona?” I asked him. He was silent as he raked his rather unkempt hair with his crooked fingers that are riddled with arthritis. His Mrs nagged him. “That shocking matted hair of yours is well overdue for a visit to the Japanese hair-dresser in Trinity Gardens,” she said in a tone filled with acidity. He seemed embarrassed and dipped his head, lost for words that normally flash in his mind like lightning. A fluff of goose down jettisoned itself from his receding hairline and floated onto his right foot, highlighting the grey yellow patch on his big toenail – a tell-tale sign of a fungal infection at best or a hint of kidney disease at worst. A closer look revealed two sets of toenails that were screaming for a proper pedicure. His Mrs had nagged him plenty of times the week earlier about personal hygiene but somehow to the old man, first impressions and looks mattered little. “What will become of you when you really retire?” I questioned him with a voice of authority. “Mope around all day in your pyjamas, unshaven, ungroomed with a shock of entangled hair and smelling of unbrushed teeth?” A confident executive in his younger days, he was regularly seen in his pinstriped suit, prancing along Pirie Street with his lanky boss with thick round glasses, a strong nasal twang and a clownish grin. After he was head-hunted to work in Sydney, the young executive started walking with a swagger, as would anyone whose commands were unquestioned and his sentences as final as the dicta of High Court judges. A couple of years after those heady days, he discarded his suits and became his own boss, an entrepreneur. He knew what freedom was. Yes, that’s right – a boss who answered to no one, and was never a yes-man appreciated what total freedom was. He was not beholden to the bank manager, the business was cashflow positive from day one. Freedom wasn’t free, it came with great costs – but he learned that lesson too late. The arrival of major international retail chains saw the leasing executives of shopping centres abandoning their support for his shops, and instead they rushed to kowtow to their new retail gods who had limitless cash to splash. He realised it was all a ruse to soften him up with rent-free terms and the occasional subsidised shop fit-out. Suppliers threw money at him by “buying” his business with monetary incentives such as free consignment stock, volume rebates and shelf-talker and shelf-display rebates. Fully-paid overseas holidays were annual events, sometimes so frequent that he even gave a long-serving manager one of the free trips to L.A. During those heydays, he felt like a tiger. His suppliers said, “moˈlon laˈve – come and take them,” and so he did. He took from them, everything. Discounts, volume rebates, advertising rebates, sponsorships, free holidays and so on. Sure, they were win-win deals. But, for the old man, those days are long gone. Today, he is fast approaching retirement, and although he still feels like a tiger, he is becoming a toothless one. The day he lets go the reins to his business is the day he becomes truly dispensable. That, after all, is the true sign of a good manager, right? To make everyone in his business dispensable.

Red. Retired and extremely dull. “Will it come to that?” the old man asked me. I did not have the heart to tell him, dispensable also means expendable. No one would care.

Art by the old man’s son at age 8. Hold on to those precious to us and don’t let go. Stay safe. Stay alive.

Hegemony And Money

The old man was up early this morning. It is the beginning of autumn, the most pleasant time in his world, Adelaide. A few years ago, a Malaysian friend had said to him that his world was very small, the implications of which did not escape him. She meant that he wasn’t worldly. He was being compared with another chap, a Hongkonger, in their conversation. A schoolmate from way back, the Hongkonger was a lot more travelled, more seasoned, more savvy, more worldly and much more successful as an entrepreneur plying his trade in the fine art of promoting lifestyle in the rarefied realms of sommeliers, viticulturists, high fashion jewelry designers and jewelers. The old man seemed troubled as he sucked in the fresh air that reinvigorated his arteries and lungs whilst practising a version of Qi Gong that he had in all likelihood butchered. His brows were knotted, his lips in their usual position – turned downwards forming a perpetual scowl as his mind disappointed him again and again from his quest at meditation. It was not from the realisation that he had portrayed himself to his friends as low-brow and brutish making a livelihood from petrol-heads that disturbed him today but the events from recent days had clearly upset his equilibrium.

The old man often finds solace and comfort in his neighbour’s garden adjacent to his. There is a little stream that produces a variety of soul-soothing sounds from four tiny waterfalls that lead the water to a beautiful pond the size of which can be described as big for a suburban water feature. The old man has often been heard to call the stream a creek, so prone to exaggeration he is that no one ever believed the size of the silver trevally he claimed he caught off Magnetic Island in late 1981. The stream flows in a north-east to south-west direction as it cuts the beautiful garden in half. On the left side of it is a rose garden with delightful blooms of Pierre de Ronsards and the alluring scents from a ring of Mr Lincolns. On the right side is a mini orchard of apples, plums, pears, cherries, peacharines and persimmons. He did not spend a single cent on fruits from the shops all summer just past because the neighbours have been stuck overseas, unable to return because of the pandemic. They will finally be back next month but they won’t be the wiser about the absence of fruits in their garden. There is also a putting green for the master of the house, an avid golfer who lives and breathes everything to do with the tiny white ball.

Two of the four mini waterfalls

Marcus Aurelius is the old man’s hero. Not only was he a philosopher expounding the merits of Stoicism but he was also a benevolent emperor who presided over a Roman Empire that was relatively peaceful and vibrant. As a student, he was rather impatient with the Greek and Latin subjects being taught – his interest was in the Discourses by a former slave, Epictetus, whose moral teachings were of the Stoic school. The old man has been asking himself all week. What would Marcus Aurelius have done if faced with today’s threats? Would he continue to be stoic or would he be heroic? The recent events unfolding in Europe are terrifying for the old man. He has family members in London and Amsterdam, not quite a stone’s throw away from Kyiv but any nuclear fall-out will not take long to reach Western Europe if the nightmarish scenario of burning nuclear power plants were to happen. The previous evening’s headline news was exactly that. Europe’s major nuclear power plant, whilst billowing in dark smoke and smouldering, is now under Russian control. It turns out that what was ablaze was a training facility on the site although that has not stopped various countries from calling it a “war crime”. What will Russia do with it? Hopefully, they still simply turn it off or turn it back on and not blow it up. Is the Russian strategy simply to deliver a cold winter to much of Europe, thereby forcing them to buy Russian oil and gas? Has America miscalculated by using their favourite option in their playbook by applying trade sanctions (a well-disguised word for what is in fact a military siege that causes untold misery and suffering) and for the first time in history, withdrawing the SWIFT payment system from selected Russian banks? Selected banks only? Why not all? Is this war about the same reason? Hegemony? The political, economic and military dominance of one country over others? Or is it about money? The US military might has often been used to force the one rule on the world that matters to them – to ensure the continued use of the USD as the global reserve currency which allows them to print money with total abandonment in exchange for the world’s economic output?

The sad truth is that Russia saved Europe from Germany in WW2, and they should have been revered in our history books for their huge sacrifices and heroic acts against the Axis forces of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. Operation Barbarossa planned for the Nazis to capture Moscow in four months but before that, Hitler successfully secured the food supplies and raw materials his army needed for that offensive by capturing Ukraine. In their failed mission to protect Kyiv, the Russians lost some 700,000 men. Does any Ukrainian remember this sacrifice? Our history books will show that the Nazis were repelled in the two major battles to occupy Russia, namely the Battle of Moscow and the Battle of Stalingrad at a huge cost to the defenders. Some 1.6 million Russian soldiers paid the ultimate price in those two battles alone. Yet, after WW2 ended, the Americans, in their own admission, mismanaged the peace by pushing the Soviets into a Cold War. They became enemies when they should have become partners instead. During the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact saw many East European countries support one another in a defence pact with Soviet Russia until it was dissolved in 1991. Since then, Poland, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and the three Baltic states – Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania – former members of the Warsaw Pact and under Russia’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, became members of the European Union and in some cases signed up with NATO. This alliance, formed in 1949, was to safeguard the freedom and security of its members through political and military means. The questions that cannot find a reasonable answer is why has NATO expanded rather than dissolved following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and why has America retained their military presence in Europe for the past two decades when their perceived enemy is broken up?

Not an inch

U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, https://books.openedition.org/ceup/2906.

In Document 119, Record of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker, February 9, 1990, Baker said, “And the last point. NATO is the mechanism for securing the U.S. presence in Europe. If NATO is liquidated, there will be no such mechanism in Europe. We understand that not only for the Soviet Union but for other European countries as well it is important to have guarantees that if the United States keeps its presence in Germany within the framework of NATO, not an inch (emphasis is mine) of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction.” Besides the Americans giving that assurance three times, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl also gave the same guarantee to President Gorbachev. Rubbing salt to the Russian wound, during talks of the German reunification in 1990, wherein the Two Plus Four Agreement would see to it that the two German countries would become one and that the four victorious forces in Germany (the US, UK, Soviet Russia and France) would renounce their rights to any territorial claims, it was also discussed that there be a NATO-Russia Founding Act under which NATO’s eastward expansion would end at the new Germany’s eastern border.

War is always bad and wrong. The West could have easily avoided this one or prevented it. Russia has always maintained that Ukraine joining the EU or Nato is their red line. Why have the Biden administration and its predecessors continued to ignore this? Why did they play this deadly ‘game’ with millions of Ukrainian lives at stake? What would Marcus Aurelius have done? Would he have taken the stoic route or the heroic route?

There is nothing worse than a wolf befriending sheep. Avoid false friendship at all costs.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.15

In search of what his hero Marcus Aurelius would do today if he were alive, the old man decided to find relevant words from his many wise remarks that may throw some light into how the great man would act or react to today’s hostilities. The above quote is perhaps very appropriate for those who have chosen to risk their lives in recent days. It is always wise to choose your friends carefully and trust only those who have a good track record of being trustworthy. Are they wicked? Are they two-faced? Do they speak with forked tongues? Are they trouble makers? Do they have a sinister agenda where they stand to gain from your demise?

The best way to avenge yourself is to be not like that.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.6

The best advice Marcus Aurelius gave to those harmed by past grievances is not to exact revenge. If someone had cheated you, lied to you and tricked you into giving up a prized possession, do not be vengeful. If you meet dishonesty by giving back dishonesty, you will be as bad as the other party. You will have proven them right, that you are bad, that we are all bad. If they have broken their promise and reneged on their guarantees, the best way is to leave such scoundrels alone. Do not embrace them in your life. Form new friendships instead.

Leave the past behind, let the grand design take care of the future and instead only rightly guide the present to reverence and justice.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 12.1

Leave the past behind. Forget the wrongs people have done to you. Persist and resist by focusing on reverence and justice. Learn to be virtuous instead, show respect and be honourable in your deeds and words. People will recognise the good in you and your life will be rid of turbulence and stress. If nothing else, you will find peace.

The old man found peace in the grand design of the pond.

The person who does wrong does wrong to themselves. The unjust person is unjust to themselves – making themselves evil.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.4

When we do something bad, we don’t ever feel good about ourselves. Most of us (all of us?) have a conscience that disturbs our peace when we do or say something bad or evil. The gratification may be instant but fleeting if we benefited from a lie or a bad act. Rarely do we go unpunished or feel rewarded for long. Our conscience is often a good judge, although biased towards self, it will also pour guilt on ourselves as an evolutionary process of self-preservation or as the necessary course of action for the safety of one’s family or community. A very selfish reason not to do something wrong!

That which isn’t good for the hive isn’t good for the bee.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.54

That which doesn’t harm the community can’t harm the individual. If you bring war to your country, you can’t be a good leader for your country as many of your people will die. At his neighbour’s creek next door, the old man was concerned about the increasing numbers of bees buzzing at the water’s surface. The creek is where he finds his peace and quiet, but lately his paradise has been disturbed by the threat of being stung by the bees. Someone in his neighbourhood must be harvesting honey from a hive. What should he do? Start his own army of bees? Or introduce a bio-threat to wipe out the bees? Is this why President Putin has been restless of late, flexing his military muscles as he attempts to bring down the Ukrainian government? Has his peace and quiet been disturbed by the neighbouring hive that NATO has been bringing closer to his borders?

The stream is no longer fully visible due to the vigorous growth of the water cress, but the bees make it difficult for the old man to harvest them.

Often injustice lies in what you aren’t doing, not only in what you are doing.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 12.15

When a narrative is well-scripted and well-repeated, it is very difficult to debunk it. Damn if you do, damn if you don’t. The old man knows that killing the bees that visit the creek for water and nectar from the surrounding flowers is wrong, yet they are destroying his peace and serenity by being there. He is haunted by his own voice. War is always bad yet how do the Russians drive away those who threaten their peace if they won’t respect their own honour and abide by their promises?

Does the light of a lamp shine and keep its glow until its fuel is spent? Why shouldn’t your truth, justice and self-control shine until you are extinguished?

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 12.15

Let us live a life that prizes truth and justice. There are so much fake news and distorted facts that we no longer know what or who to believe anymore. Social media is rampant with conflicting ‘news’ about the conflict in Ukraine and mainstream media are also caught up, intentionally or otherwise, in the web of deceit and lies. Family members are entangled in the barb-wire of conspiracy theories and even long-time friends are being injured in the crossfire of a battle of words during a heated argument. We ought to value truth and justice. So, rather than be trigger-happy and forward a message without checking its veracity and accuracy, let us pause first and check the facts before posting video clips and text messages from social media. There is really no urgency to be ‘first’ to share the news.

He Said Nigga, I Said Nei Ge

My kids loved The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. That was how we got to know about the actor, Will Smith. At the time, I didn’t think he was a good actor, his expressions seemed affected, his voice too often high pitched, but maybe that was because I was little exposed to the Black American culture and failed to understand that it was how they express themselves. My kids were all very young and therefore easily influenced. I didn’t have the time to stay at home much in those days, life got in the way. It was already getting difficult to vet what they watched on TV in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. There was already too much kissing and the kids were giggling lots whenever they saw boobs on TV. My huge regret has been the wasted years when my focus was on building my retail business rather than building a strong bridge with my boys. After all, they were under ten years old then, and it made sense that it should have been me who influenced them rather than a black guy in Bel-Air, right? I watched a few snippets of the TV series and found it entertaining and harmless. There were no steamy sex scenes and certainly, there was no vulgarity and drug-taking scenes, well, at least not in the episodes that I watched (checked, I mean). Homosexuality hadn’t made it to mainstream media as HIV was still killing millions around the world back then, and so there were no gay bars and same-sex kissing for me to explain to the kids. Last week, I happened to find the new sitcom called Bel-Air being aired on Stan. The story is the same as its original, I think, based on a smart but loud West Philly teenage guy by the name of Will Smith, who commits a minor crime and with the help of a rich and influential uncle, was sent to live with him and his uppity family in the the wealthy surrounds of Bel Air to start a new beginning. The story-line seems the same (I am not entirely sure, as I did not totally follow the old sitcom) but the language used in the new series is atrociously ‘modern’. I mean, they used a lot of the n-word in their conversations as well as in the rap music played. I didn’t quite finish the first episode because The Mrs didn’t like the swear words and the inappropriateness of hearing the n-word. There was a scene where some white boys copied Will and used the n-word. They were quickly set upon by the ferocious teenager because they were white and therefore were not entitled to use the n-word. Yeah, go figure that. A black dude can call himself ‘nigga’ but the white dudes can’t, not even if it is used affectionately as a term of endearment and without malice. Rap music uses the n-word a lot and now that rap music has universal appeal, aren’t they exporting the n-word to all and sundry? Which begs the question. Should rap music that contain the n-word be sung only by black people? Crikey, does that mean I am deprived of my freedom to sing a song that I like? What if I like Kanye West’s songs or Lil Wayne’s? I am not allowed to sing them publicly? Stick to Barry Manilow and Perry Como in my next karaoke sessions with my friends? For many years living in Australia, I got accustomed to faceless hoons screaming “Ching Chong go home” or “Chink, open your slit eyes” as they zoomed past in their old bombs. Would I call myself a chink? No way, right? Because it is derogatory! No one in their right mind would use a racial slur on themselves…..unless the word is harmless to them. So, what does that tell us when Black Americans are happy to call themselves by the n-word?

I met The Mrs in our first year in uni, in 1978. This was in Sydney during my second year in Australia. I was already practising minimalism well before minimalism became a fad. My flat had only bare necessities – a student’s desk and chair, a hand-me-down noisy fridge that made funny noises in the middle of the night (it was a prized possession from a friend’s aunty), a small TV and a single mattress. Possessing very few things and a half-empty vinyl wardrobe that was bereft of any good clothes was not upsetting, neither was it embarrassing since that fact had not registered in my mind. The only branded clothing I had was a pirated Adidas shorts from a night market. The “knock-off” in my mind was an original; in those days, we did not have originals to compare with. I suppose I was like a ghost, moving incognito in a jacket I was so proud to wear. My first jacket (there was never a need to wear a jacket in Penang) was a threadbare, hand-me-down cotton jacket that was not quite black and not quite grey. It had a Greek symbol in white embroidery, a scientific symbol that inspired me – I forget now but maybe it was the alpha symbol. I did not make any new friends on campus in my first year. I had promised a girl in Penang I would be back for her and had set a daily reminder that I was there to study and get good marks to justify the opportunity given to me by my parents to become an educated man. I was a lanky chap who did not own a comb and therefore whose unkempt hair needed no description. Owning an equally untidy face that was riddled with exploding pimples to match did not affect my sense of self-worth. The excess excrescence of hair on the tip of my nose did not disturb my peace also. In those days, I had a misplaced belief that I came from a poor background because I had not known what real poverty really was. I think my parents did the right thing, their values of thrift and self-reliance only strengthened my self-confidence; I had already believed it was quite alright to be poor – it wasn’t so bad! The coconut-shaped hairstyle was Gerald’s creation. Gerald, a friend from the same school in Penang since 1965, was the reason why I left Adelaide for Sydney after I failed to get into Dentistry. Well… I did not fail but I failed to get in. A lifetime ago when we were in our teens, Gerald would strum his guitar as we sang The Beatles’ When I Am Sixty Four. It was beyond my imagination how we would feel like or look like when we are 64. Yesterday, Gerald turned 64. I told him I couldn’t see him knitting a sweater by the fireside or digging the weeds. I think he knitted his eyebrow instead. His father was a doctor and his mother, a headmistress – so, I easily forgave him for his poor control of the scissors. He wasn’t born to be cut someone’s hair.

Next to Pa with my favourite cotton jacket draped on my shoulder in front of the UNSW Faculty of Commerce Building

I was not stalking The Mrs. Everywhere she went, every tutorial class she attended, every lecture in any lecture hall, one would see my shadow not far behind. It just happened that way. I was only three seats away from her just a row back from where she sat and therefore knew what brand of hand cream she used as she applied it on her slender typist’s hands whilst waiting for the lecturer to turn up. During the summer vacation, she would find a job in Martin Place as a typist and earned easy money in air-conditioned comfort whilst other average overseas students slogged in Chinese restaurants or factories in Glebe and Rosebery. When she changed a tutorial class to a night-time slot, I did the same. I think she thought it was fate that we were meant to meet and fall in love. Was it luck that we met, or was it from reading John le Carre’s books that I knew the art of ‘tailing’ a subject? I contend our marriage was arranged. Stars that were arranged and aligned by the heavens brought us together. It was therefore impossible for an insignificant mere mortal like me to hold my promise to the girl in Penang. Guilt forced me to ban myself from returning to Penang. For thirty six years. It was a self-imposed exile not so much to expugn the guilt inside me but more the lack of strength to face my friends who all loved her as a dear friend and my gutless unwillingness to find out if my deceit had damaged someone’s faith in and love for other people. I feared they would all be prigs shaking their pointy fingers at me with the righteousness of priests and monks.

I summoned my courage to talk to The Mrs in a crowded bus after coming out of the examination hall at the end of the second semester. Summer had arrived early. The smell in the packed bus was revolting, stuffy and stuffed with a witch’s concoction of sweat, poison and farts. A pursy Greek guy next to me must have had garlic for lunch and the pungent smell was reeking from his armpit that was directly in front of my nose as he clung to the shiny but sticky chrome bar overhead. The white guy looked at me but I gave him a smile that did not express welcome. I was worried The Mrs would mistakenly think the odour belonged to me – a poor student like me did not have the capacity to invest in body deodorants. It was out of the question for a poor student to pay for a good smell. The garlic juice oozing out from his pores made my head spin and I became self-conscious of my bad breath. I seldom checked on my own breath but what quality of breath would you expect from someone who used half the amount of Colgate than what was necessary and who deemed mouthwash was only good for spitting out? In my head, the vapour from my open mouth was beginning to blow out an amorphous cloud of fetid gas of rotting meat that had been trapped in the gaps of my teeth. I quickly clamped my lips tightly. But, I had to talk to her. So, I asked her in an uncertain voice with hardly-parted lips to keep the amorphous breath from exiting my mouth as I spoke, “How did you go in the exam?” She said “so-so”. “And you?” she asked. I said “so-so”. That was the sum total of our first conversation; it was in Mandarin. I must have sounded convincing, even though I felt uncertain about my command of the Chinese language. Most Malaysians could speak a few Chinese dialects in those days, but if you weren’t educated in a Chinese-medium school, chances were that you couldn’t converse in Mandarin at all. So, I did well and went home happy to have finally “met” her and did not make a fool of myself in the process. She assumed from my looks that I was an Engineering student – you know the type, nerdy, skinny and bespectacled, whose facial complexion was badly in need of strong exposure to sunlight, but I told her I was in her same Accounting classes. Sigh, I did not need anyone to explain to me that she had not noticed me at all. The Mrs has not changed. How I wish she would blandish me and make me feel grand!

I learned the word “nei ge” 那个 from her, although in the early days, she pronounced it as “na ge”. Before we met, I had not used those two words. To me, they were too imprecise, as vague as the words Aussies loved to use, such as thingy, thingamajig or that thing. Hey, what’s that thingy in your briefcase? or did you bring that thingamijig with you to the beach or that thing will kill you if you keep thinking about it. “nei ge” 那个 is also a word filler, you know, um, er, when you need time to form the next sentence. The Mrs, on the other hand, loved to say nei ge 那个. As a young man, I was interested in her periods for one reason and one reason only – to check on her ‘availability’. I never kept count or checked on her ‘days’ even though her standard excuse to refuse my sexual advancements was always the same. “I have that thing arriving,” she would say “Wo lai nei ge” 我 來 那个. Occasionally, I would be lucky and she would say 我 们 可以 做 那个, “Wǒ men kěyǐ zuò  nei ge”, we can do that thingy. In the sitcom Bel-Air, they too frequently use the word that means thingy. Whatever, whoever or whichever occasion that they cannot give a specific name to, they call it ‘jawn’. I turned off the TV, with a sense of wonderment. No matter if a person is in China or in Philadelphia or Australia, we all have the same vernacular predisposition. Pass me the thingy! Where is that thingamijig? Wow, isn’t that just jawn?! 我 们 做 那个! Let’s do that thing!

Nothing Iffy About Iggy (Part II)

Who you are in life is your own doing.

Daniel Louis Wong

Iggy began formal education at Mrs D’ranjo’s kindergarten, next to the Convent Primary School in College Lane. The little boy was a frightened child who needed a security blanket in the form of his elder sister to visit him during recess time. His most vivid memory in the kindergarten were the cats that were well- cared for by a person or persons unknown to him. Growing up in the dark shadows of his father’s strict discipline and towering personality, Iggy learned never to talk back or ask too many questions. His sisters went through this regime also. Their mother was their saviour if trouble brewed. The servants were all very nice to them and the kids played with their servants’ kids. There was no discrimination at all, status or skin colour did not rate a mention. Everyone was equal in that household. Iggy only learned about race and ethnicity when he went to church, his outside world. In Pulau Tikus, there was a social hierarchy of who was who and where you ranked in society. Iggy learned that the fairer Seranis belonged to the upper echelon and the darker skinned somehow congregated to the lower rungs. But, his dad taught him to ignore the discrimination, “work hard to get what you want in life,” was his advice.

Labor Omnia Vincit

School motto of St. Xavier’s Institution, Penang.

Iggy got his academic education in St Xavier’s Branch School but the school’s motto was actually strictly applied by his parents who taught him to work hard, “doing all the housework and school work promptly because, if you don’t do it, it will not get done,” Iggy said. “Scrubbing the floor, cleaning pots and pans, washing cars and sweeping the house became our duty,” Iggy elaborated. “Labor Omnia Vincit” was the school motto which the boys lived by. Iggy did not deviate from that, even after the pretty girls joined them in Form 6. By then, for many of the boys with raging uncontrollable testosterones, their motto became “Amor Omnia Vincit”. All were conquered by love except for Iggy.

If you don’t do it, it will not get done.

An aphorism by Ignatius Wong

“We mixed with Indians, Malays, Chinese and Seranis and had lots of fun,” Iggy said of his childhood. To this day, he still cherishes his friendships formed during primary school days, and hold fond memories of Urghhlings Marsh brothers such as Four Eyes, The Mayor, and The Cook, plus others such as Tan Ban Leong, Patrick Leong, Hong Meng, Deloke Charas, Howard Tan, Joe Tan, Mohd. Tahir, and Mustapha Kamal. They grew up together chasing peacock fish in the streams and climbing rambutan trees. “It was a good life,” Iggy reminisced. For Iggy, time has not effaced their footprints in the sand and their distant laughters, although soft and receding, still replay in his mind. School mates such as Colin Andrews, Benard Packiam, Terrance Tan, Charles Barnabas, Peter Aeria also attended the same church as Iggy. They were best of buddies in school, nothing dandiacal about that.

My friends make my life a mostly wonderful one.

Another aphorism by Ignatius Wong

Iggy’s mum, Cheah See Hoon, was born in 1922, in a rural town called Telok Anson. Her father, Francis Cheah, was the manager of the rubber estate owned by his relatives, members of the Cheah kongsi (Hokkien for clan or company). See Hoon learned to speak Hakka from her Hakka baby-sitter. She also spoke Tamil fluently, having grown up in the rubber estate where the majority of the labourers were Tamils. From them, she also learned to be frugal and independent. Her schooling ended during Standard 2 after her parents passed away due to beriberi and as orphans, she and her siblings went to live with their Aunt Sally who was married to a Serani man named John Boudville. Iggy’s mum had a hard life as a teenager, slaving away in Aunt Sally ‘s Fettes Road house, cooking, washing clothes and ironing from dawn to dusk. Her stories encouraged Iggy to be as tough later in life, but also kind and helpful.

After primary school, Iggy went to SXI at his father’s behest. Iggy’s dad used his close connections with the Christian brothers to make surprise visits to his son in school. “I had to do my best,” Iggy said, inventing warm water. The Spanish have a saying for that, someone who says something that is quite obvious is inventing warm water. It was a tough life getting up at 5.00 a.m. preparing his own breakfast and recess-time food. His pocket money was ten cents a day. The routine did not vary much, “Catch the bus at College Lane after early mass and be at school before 7.00 a.m. for catechism class,” he said. In the first week in Form One, he couldn’t read what was on the blackboard due to an undiagnosed short-sightedness and so he got kicked out of Form 1A2 and was sent to class 1B4 as a laggard. For reasons unknown, the teacher, Mrs. Nah Soo Leong, was the most popular teacher in that school. To be enrolled in her class was a cause of celebration usually met with whoops of delight and excitement, yet for Iggy, he felt out of place during those early days.

A typical school recess time was running about with his friends and treating one another as a target with a tennis ball. They sweated like pigs. It didn’t matter since everyone in the classroom smelled the same. Iggy joined the school band and learned to march. He wanted to join the drums section but ended up in the bugle corps. Later on, he joined the bagpipes which the school was famous for. “I owe a lot to Peter Lee, Aloysius Low and Mr Michael Barbosa for allowing me to learn to play the flute, bugle and bagpipes,” Iggy said, before adding, “and of course, to Mr Koh Chin Seng and Mr Nicholas Ng who were instrumental in my love of music.” Blowing the pipes improved his lungs and “made it strong and powerful”, he said. Some of the students nicknamed him “The Gasbag”. From Form 2 onwards, he was transferred to the Industrial Arts stream where lessons learned in the woodwork classes were most beneficial to him in his adult life. For that, Iggy wishes to thank Mr Too Koo Sin, his woodwork teacher. Iggy met many friends like David Christopher who remains his best friend today and Kuppusamy, Tan Chuan Guan and many Catholic mates in the morning faith enhancement class by Brother Peter Papusamy. Iggy’s dad had by then relaxed his iron grip on discipline at home, and Iggy was allowed to join them on field trips to Penang Hill and Tanjong Bungah where the Christian Brothers had their bungalows. The LCE exams were a huge hurdle for Iggy as he suffered from Typhoid during the exams, but luckily the injections and medication he took helped to lower his fever.

In Shuihu Zhuan, Squire Chai, the hero who reminded me of Iggy’s father, owned a mansion in a large estate. The squire’s uncle similarly owned a beautiful mansion in a nearby prefecture. A distant relative of Grand Marshal Gao Qiu, Yin Tianxi, served in the imperial court in Dongjing. After a prolonged spell of harassment to force Uncle Chai to relinquish his property to Yin failed, the latter ordered a gang of thugs to beat him up so that he would surrender his mansion for free. Squire Chai arrived too late to save his elderly uncle who died of his injuries. This tragic story in The Water Margin about the dastardly deeds of seizing control of someone else’s property echoes that of the family disputes and attempts to gain coercive control of the family home during the latter part of Iggy’s teenage life.

Iggy’s dad, a good singer and a disciplinarian.

The family moved from their Burma Road house to a smaller house on Kelawai Terrace in 1964. Their new mansion on Gurney Drive was being constructed. That year, Iggy had a severe bout of bronchitis, so his mother kept a hen to provide fresh eggs for him. His health improved quickly. The hen, named Emily, became his pet. Emily lived in the house and being Iggy’s life saver, he cared for her diligently. All was well until July 17, 1975. Iggy’s dad passed away and the whole world collapsed. One day they had money and the next, absolutely nothing. All the money in the bank was frozen. Iggy became a pauper overnight. The night his dad was sent to the General Hospital was filled with trauma but it was also the most confusing time for the teenager. “It is during a crisis that you can truly see who your true friends are and who are out for a pound of flesh,” Iggy said. When news of his dad’s death broke, his step-sisters and step-brothers descended on them like vultures to a carcass whilst their dad’s body was still held in a morgue. The bank said Iggy’s dad was the sole signatory and all monies were in his name. It was at this juncture that Iggy was exposed to the rigidness of the law and the coldness of the courts. It was a nightmare for the 17-year-old who had to deal with lawyers and administrators to resolve the ownership of the house and the family’s finances. The house was divided into three shares. Iggy’s mother held one share. His step-sisters were hounding them to get out of their home so that they could sell the house and get their share of the money. Iggy’s mother refused and a ‘battle royal’ ensued. Their mother, a rotund Nonya woman with a typical oriental face, was a kind soul and welcomed everyone into her kitchen with a meal or at least a cup of coffee despite their desperate situation. Seeing the lawyers’ bill rising fast and copping the constant abuse from the older step-children, Iggy’s mother finally gave up and they moved to Seremban in 1983. After they sold the house and settled the court costs and other legal expenses, they had only $30,000 left.

1975 was also the year of the Malaysian Cambridge Exam (MCE). The life-changing exam was just another trial in Iggy’s life that year. It was then that Iggy realised he had better pass the MCE or else there would be no hope of any further education. Uncle Ah Leong gave them $40 a month to carry on. “It was a time when life taught us to appreciate friends,” Iggy said. He studied and got through the MCE and landed in Sixth Form in SXI, despite the tumultuous events a few months earlier. A Christian charity paid for his exam fees and school fees. Iggy gave tuition lessons to pay for the bus fares and bare necessities such as cheap veggies from the side streets to take home for his mother to cook. The neighbours helped out with their leftovers. “We were so grateful to them. We all made do with what we had,” Iggy said. 

Iggy’s mum had the natural inclination of inviting everyone who came to his house to sit and eat. It is like the Nyonya adage of “masuk, duduk dan makan.” Come in, sit down and eat. “There is always a meal for any visitor,” Iggy said whilst shrugging his shoulders as if to say he did not know why and how she could afford to. Iggy misses her famed helpings of Jiuhu Char, Asam fish, Bubur cha-cha, and her ‘must-haves’ such as Sugee cake and Nonya Kuehs – Kueh Kaput, Kueh Baulu,and Kueh Bangkit. Dressed in her typically dark coloured sarong and baju which highlighted her fair complexion, she worked in the house from morning to night and the centre of all activities was her kitchen. Food, of course, was the subject of her life. When Iggy was still a kid, her most-repeated sentence was “Wait till your father comes home.” She had a great way of reminding her kids who was boss by telling them the story of the Ten Commandments and putting the fear of God and their father’s cane in them. The turmoil caused by the stepsisters demanding money made life a living hell for Iggy’s mum. It was uncomfortable too for Iggy whose mind was always about his mother’s dire financial situation and how to survive another day. Memories of his Form 6 life were devoid of the pretty girls in class, even though he was the only boy there. All he cared about was to work hard and help support his family. He couldn’t afford to attend university after passing his Form 6 exams in SXI, and the only choice he had to consider was which jobs to apply for. Iggy found a job as a factory worker in Mostek Electronics in Bayan Lepas. “Venturing into the employment sector was what education was all about, right?” he asked. Opportunities to get into the government sector was slim with his P8 result for Malay. It was his worst subject amongst all the subjects he sat for at the MCE. His first pay cheque of RM90 was given to his mum. He never stopped giving her his wages after that. “She gave me life and made me what I am,” Iggy told me. His mum passed away at the age of 85, in May 2008. Iggy played Amazing Grace on his bagpipes as a goodbye tune for an amazing person.

In 2012, both Iggy’s stepsisters Ethel (Lily) and Theresa (Molly) passed away. He called them ‘Godma’ because when he was baptised, they stood in as godparents in a church ceremony. As such, it was their father’s rule that they should all care for one another. Lily was born in 1924 and Molly two years later. They attended the Catholic school at the Pulau Tikus Convent. It was very likely they too were taught to do housework and cooking just like their much younger siblings much later on. Sewing and needle work was also compulsory at home. Their father required the girls to be skilled in home duties as well. Lily and Molly were both good cooks and bakers. It was a tradition to be able to make cakes and jam tarts as well as to be able to cook Chinese, Indian and Serani food. The two sisters were spinsters who also lived in the Pulau Tikus Lane house. Lily worked as a seamstress, sewing and making dresses in various boutiques in Georgetown. Molly was a cook in the Uplands School in Penang Hill. It was mainly for the expatriate children and their teachers. Molly worked till her forties. Iggy remembers her as rather hot-tempered, and attributed that to her being often close to a hot stove and oven. 

In 2017, Iggy started to experience health problems. He survived a heart attack but hasn’t been able to recover from a bad knee which gives him constant pain. He also suffers from gout, describing the unbearable pain with a trembling voice. “Even a soft light breeze feels like a deep cut to my toes,” he said whilst signalling that this would end his story. He forced himself up and the loud creaking of his old knees almost drowned out his voice. “Got to go and teach now. Catch up with you later, bro,” Iggy said, forcing a sugared smile from his heavy lips which are often turned downwards, burdened by gravity. Despite his debilitating condition, Ignatius Wong does not display any bilious temperament but rather, he remains sanguine that every day will be a good day. He continues to teach English and Malay to the local Chinese children. There is nothing iffy about Iggy. He becomes the latest member of the Urghhling Marsh brotherhood.

Nothing Iffy About Iggy (Part I)

Having heard Iggy’s story, the one character in the Water Margin that wandered into my mind was Squire Chai Jin. The squire, the most noble hero in Liangshan, was a descendant of Emperor Chai Rong of Later Zhou during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. Emperor Chai Rong, also known by his temple name as Shizong, abdicated in favour of Emperor Taizu, founder of the Song Dynasty. So, in return, Squire Chai was provided with an iron charter that bestowed on him and his offspring perpetual wealth, protection and respect. He first featured in the Liangshan Marsh story when Lu Da and Lin Chong, important heroes of the marsh, were fleeing from constables sent by Marshall Gao Qiu to kill Lin Chong. Chai Jin’s reputation spread far and wide. He was famous for his generosity and kindness; he enjoyed opening his vast estate to visiting scholars and virtuous travellers in need of food, wine, and shelter so that he could meet interesting and well-travelled people. He was well-known for helping anyone he welcomed into his house with money as well. As such, Chai Jin was described as born with ‘dragon eyebrows and phoenix eyes, white teeth and vermilion lips.’ 

 Iggy’s story starts with his great-grandma Maria Da Souza. The King of Siam persecuted Christians during much of the 18th century. In the 1820s, Maria’s family left their Portuguese-Siamese community with the help of Father Pascual and moved to Port Quedah. They then moved to the island of Penang, following the establishment of Penang as the base for Francis Light’s East India Company. By the time the British took over Malacca in 1824 from the Dutch, the Catholic Church was already well rooted, with the community swelling with labourers from India especially Tamils from Southern India and economic migrants from southern China who were attracted to the Malay archipelago which boasted of tin mines in Larut and Taiping, rubber plantations, vast acreage of pepper and other spices and important trade routes to the ports of Penang and Singapore. Iggy’s grandfather, Wong Fei Hing came from the province of Kwangtung and through the port of Canton arrived on a junk boat as a singkek, an indentured servant, to the Ghee Hin clan. He landed in Penang and worked as a coolie in the Pulau Tikus market. He worked his butt off to pay off his debt and once freed from his indenture, he started a business dealing in meat at the market.

The Catholic Church, being a close-knit community, established schools for the boys and girls around the church. The church was an attap structure and served both as a community hall and a place of worship. It is now the Kelawai Road cemetery. When the church outgrew its location, the Eurasian community gave its priest a piece of land between College General and Burma Road. The present Immaculate Conception Church stands where the old brick church was erected. The surrounding areas are what is now called Kampung Serani (Serani Village). The Serani are of mixed Portuguese and Malaccan descent with a strong Dutch and English heritage. They are also known as the Kristang or Christian people.

Great-grandma Maria, a spinster, was a pious woman with dark brown skin. Her short height was typical of an average Siamese woman of Songkla whose clothes and wooden clogs failed to give the illusion that she was taller than five feet. In her sparse wardrobe that was impregnated with the scent of incense hung her favourite clothes – sarong and baju kebaya panjang. She wore a bun or kondek hair style. A no-nonsense woman, she believed people should show mutual respect. She treated others with courtesy and respect and expected nothing less in return. Having fled persecution and sacrificed her previous life of comfort and relative luxury, she adopted an orphan girl from the convent in Light Street to keep her company. The girl, of Indian stock, was named Mary and she grew up in the Serani community. No one asked about her race as long as she was a Catholic. In the 1860s and ’70s, all things, big or small, had to be referred to the priest. As was a custom in those days, every eligible bachelor was sought after, and marriage was inevitable for a man. Great-grandma Maria arranged for Mary to be married to Wong Fei Hing after he was baptised with the name Peter. Peter kept his pigtail braids as was traditional for all Chinese men in the days of the Qing dynasty. He bore an uncanny resemblance to the legendary Kungfu master, Ip Man. It would not be surprising if he was indeed an adept martial arts exponent, his alert but hard, dour face with a crooked right ear (perhaps broken from a fight?) could not bother to smile for the camera. To have his photo taken, he chose his favourite beige changshan or long gown. It was not resplendent but formal enough for a Manchu custom. Peter was a good Catholic and a hard-working man. Peter and Mary had five children. The eldest was Iggy’s uncle, Uncle Joseph who later became Yusoff. Following him in quick succession were Aunt Catherine, Aunt Maria and Iggy’s dad, Daniel. He was born on 8th May 1888 in Kampung Serani, Pulau Tikus. The fifth was stillborn.

Iggy’s grand-dad, Peter Wong

Daniel Louis Wong was brought up in the Serani community and went to St Xavier’s Branch Primary School at the Noah’s Ark beside the church. He did his secondary schooling at St Xavier’s Institution in town. In the 1900s, SXI was the school for all Catholic boys. In that school, the cane ruled the day – the teachers viewed corporal punishment favourably, no one thought it was wrong to inflict physical punishment on kids. If a kid was caned, he had better not complain to his parents, for they will cane him for getting caned. All the children in the Wong household suffered in silence and learned the notion that discipline was not something that could be compromised. As money was hard to get, they learned the ways to live a frugal life. Joseph, the eldest boy, mixed with the kids in the Malay kampong in Tanjong Tolong and unsurprisingly, he got hitched up to a Malay girl in the village. He converted to Islam and became a Malay. In those days, one could convert one’s race easily, as all that was required was a name change. So, Joseph became Yusoff. His family lives in Gombak today. Peter, although a tough disciplinarian, did not begrudge his son’s apostasy. When he passed away, he left his business to his eldest son, Yusoff but it went bust soon after, as the kind soul that he was had been swayed by the  easy-going and relaxed way of life in the Malay community. “Smoking rokok daun was what he did well,” according to Iggy’s dad.

Great-grandma Maria had fortunes left by the Royal House of Songkla which she gave to the church where they in return cared for her. This was where I started to connect this story with Squire Chai Jin. To this day, Iggy’s family still has links with the abbotts of the Siamese Temple in Bangkok Lane. After school, Daniel Wong went to work in the General Post Office and started in the mailroom in town when he was twenty years old in 1908. The following year, he married Mary Lim at St. Louis Church in Taiping, whom he met through a matchmaker. The couple bore ten children of whom three died at an early age. Not much was spoken of Mary after she died suddenly from an illness. Daniel’s second wife also died quite early. He worked in the post office for twenty years and retired from government service at forty years of age. He then ventured into business and started Kuching Mosaic Works in the area bordered by the streets which he named Kuching (cat in Malay) Lane and Pulau Tikus (rat island) Lane just before 1929. His belief in hard work and discipline made him a successful businessman.

He told Iggy horrible facts about the history of Penang, having lived through both world wars. Iggy remembers his dad’s story about the Battle of Penang during which the German cruiser Emden attacked the Russian and French ships on 28 October 1914 and blew them up. “The bodies and carnage floating on the sea made red by blood was a time you would not want to live through,” he said. Sad to say, Daniel Wong’s next war experience was even worse. During WW2, the Japanese bombed Georgetown in December 1941. The people were helpless and defenceless during the invasion, as the British quickly surrendered in just a few days. Many of the town folk fled to Pulau Tikus where they dug bomb shelters and hid under houses. The war in Penang was a one-sided affair. The RAF had Buffalo aircrafts but they could hardly get them off the ground. The fighter planes were decimated as they sat idle like sitting ducks at a funfair, except the carnival was the joint Royal Air Force base and Royal Australian Air Force base in Butterworth. Many dead bodies littered the so-called military stronghold of the British army. Many of the living were not spared either. The Brits left the locals to face the Japanese. Iggy’s mum, Cheah See Hoon, who at the time was a 20-year-old unmarried girl said, “The British took off like cowards and the aura of the white man’s supremacy was forever changed.” She called them “bloody useless buggers.”

“The Japanese soldiers were the most brutal and heartless people ever to conquer Penang,” Iggy’s dad told him. His parents told him gruesome stories of rape, murder, decapitation and fear as well as torture – the Seranis and Chinese fared the worst. During the Japanese occupation, life was hard, food was hard to come by, and people were constantly harassed by the Kempetai. See Hoon, an attractive girl, had an intense fear of the occupiers after many of her Eurasian and Chinese friends were tortured or disappeared. Iggy remembers his dad’s stories about the French priest who suffered the most, from the ‘water treatment’ dished out by his torturers. See Hoon’s brothers were rounded up and sent to Thailand to build the Siam-Burma Railway. Iggy’s schoolfriend, Gerard Loh, also had a similar story about his father, John Loh, who was forced to work on the actual ‘Death Railway’ where he lost his leg in Kanchanaburi, when he was aged 18. Nothing could efface the brutal hardship and suffering the teenage boy saw and felt, but his faith was his salvation. As Gerard Loh said, “It is a pretty long story of a man who came through life with a physical handicap that may have destroyed him but had a faith in God that never faltered to his last breath.” Years after the war, many survivors of the war still visited Iggy’s mum and dad to share their horror stories. The hatred for the Japanese was total and deep rooted. The one big positive gained from their trauma was that their shared stories and bitter experiences helped form a close kinship amongst those friends. Till the day he died, Iggy’s dad kept a deep dislike for the Japanese – he refused to buy anything that was labelled Made-in-Japan. But, he did not let the evil and despicable acts of their captors destroy him. He espoused to his children to be kind and helpful even if there were others who would take advantage of their kindness and generosity.

After the Japanese surrendered, he began his coffin-making business and started Morden Casket. He provided aid to many people trying to get back on their feet and to make life liveable again. His magnanimous spirit and charity was another reminder of Squire Chai. He also learned from the swift capitulation of the British during the Japanese invasion that the white man was no better than any other person. Their words of reassurance and guarantees were nothing but empty rhetoric. Similarly, the Kempetai were cruel and crass. The Japanese banana notes became worthless overnight. Every change of power makes one wiser and smarter. In 1950, he married again at the age of 63, to See Hoon, who was by then 27 years old. He knew her as she was the sister of his daughter’s husband, Hin Jin. So, his son-in-law became his brother-in-law. There was much objection from his children from his earlier marriages, but as they say, love conquers all. From this union, they had Xavier (who died an infant at 11 months) , Rosalind (b. 1955), Iggy (b. 1958) and Ann (b.1960). Iggy’s dad built a mansion at 427 Burma Road between Kuching lane and Pulau Tikus Lane. It was a beautiful stately house with a big well-maintained garden and several servants quarters; Iggy was especially pleased with the tiles his dad designed. “They were a checkerboard style,” he said. Iggy was born in the house. The children all loved the house and the garden gave them ample space to play. They had many people looking after them, since ‘them’ was a big number. The kids never considered the workers and nannies as servants but as their aunties and uncles. This pocket of land and mansion with the numerous servants and maids also reminded me of Squire Chai’s vast estate.

Iggy’s dad was a disciplined and pious man, he followed the Ten Commandments to the letter. He was 72 years old when Ann, his 17th and last child, was born. A hard worker, he built his business with time and sweat and expected all in the family to do the same. He was hard and tough but harder still on himself. Discipline was his mantra. “A good practical education and knowledge will lead you to success,” he often repeated it to his children. Bad behaviour was not tolerated at all and they were not allowed to use the four-letter swear word for copulation. Whoever uttered it would be swiftly caned and soap rammed down the mouth to literally clean it. Iggy’s dad worked from before the sun was up till dusk every day and never missed his daily prayers. The kids all joined him during prayer. He always made time to read their school work each day. When he turned 80, he decided to give up smoking and drinking. His liquor cabinet was donated to the church. “I think the priest had a jolly good time,” Iggy said. Occasionally, he would visit the convent and schools to check on Iggy and his sisters. Iggy’s dad was a very strict man who expected a very precise timetable to be adhered to at home, much like Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music. The kids had to follow a strict protocol when it came to eating, studying and behaving at home and at functions such as birthday parties, they were required to sit quietly while the adults danced, sang, drank and smoked the night away. 

Who you are in life is your own doing.

Daniel Louis Wong
Iggy and his bagpipes.

The Rising Son

First Son is turning 40 in a few days’ time.

A simple sentence, yet it hit me hard yesterday. We call him ‘Boy’, he being born a boy. We Chinese are so exact in our simplicity. Had The Mrs given birth to a girl, I would have called the baby ‘Girl’. There is no need to muck around – unless they were twin boys or twin girls. Calling my twin sons by the type of sex organ they have would be a useless way to get either to help with a chore. Calling them ‘Twins’ did’t work either – no one answered. So, “Boy” was reserved for First Son. Sometimes, he was “Boy-Boy” when The Mrs was in a good mood.

Boy-Boy

Boy is turning 40. The focus should be on him, right? Yet, the selfish gene in me could only think about myself. He’s turning 40 means I’m not turning old. I am already old! How did it happen? I hate to use the old cliche, but it is truly just in the blink of an eye. Yesterday, the painter working next door said I looked young, but by young he thought I was about 53 years old. This morning, the window cleaner working next door thought I was the same age as he. When his question about my age was simply met with silence, he said I looked 54. All I said was my son is turning 40 in a few days’ time. So, he asked me what my secret was. “The blue zone,” I said. “Okinawa,” I suggested. He being Italian suggested Sardinia. Fair enough, “just learn from those living in the blue zone,” I concluded. He said he practises Intermittent Fasting once a week. “Once a week is really intermittent!” I said. “I do it intermittently, daily,” I added with a silly pride in my voice. Well…. it’s ok to be happy, I reminded myself.

Introducing Alberto, a world famous bass guitarist, to The Urghhlings

The painter looks like he’s always out in the sun, with a sun-baked smell sweetened by a hint of paint fumes and ruffled hair drenched in sweat that is alarmingly exposing much of his forehead. He goes by the name of Alberto Pancotti. Alberto Pancotti is also his stage name. He has been painting my neighbour’s timber windows and doors all week. They obviously love timber features in their house. “All week just to paint the windows and doors?!” my neighbour asked, pretending to be ignorant of the timber features so that maybe they can hope for a lower bill from the painter. I invited Alberto in for a cup of coffee a couple of days ago. He tried some “love letters” for the first time in his life, and loved them. I told him he’s the first man I’ve given love letters to. We have “love letters” only during Chinese New Year. Better known as “kueh kapit’, these delicious coconut crepes are so flaky and crispy that I have yet to find someone who doesn’t like the Nonya invention. Alberto the Painter looks unkempt and grotty with random paint splashes all over his white shorts much like a Jackson Pollock work of art. His hair is sparse at the top, so you won’t find him nodding his head much. He saw the photo of my sons performing at Carnegie Hall proudly displayed on my four-foot aquarium. So, we started talking about music and how lucky musicians are, “working” when they are in fact enjoying; getting paid to play on stage and fulfilling their passion for music. Alberto then told me he is also a professional musician – he plays the bass guitar and double bass which he self-learned and mastered in six short months. Wow! I could not imagine him on stage as a rock star, not when he is wearing Jackson Pollock pants and a simple white cotton tee. He is actually a member of The T.I.C. Band. “Tic?” I asked without tack. Tributes In Concert Band is a very sought-after band for music festivals the whole world over. You will know them if you are an Elvis Presley fan. They are well known and a must-have band in any Elvis festival. Little Adelaide never ceases to surprise me, it may be just a small dot in the world yet, we keep producing world-class people who are the best in their field. The Sydney Elvis Festival promoted them as the world’s best Elvis band. They got a rave promo spiel in America also. See https://www.tupeloelvisfestival.com/tic-band

Boy is turning 40. I should focus on him. He already made us cry even when he was in a test tube. The Mrs and I had just got married for a few weeks in 1981 when she realised there was something wrong with her. I could have told her that but she never asked me. Suddenly, she had a craving for sausages and sausages only. She was working in the investment arm of OPSM Superannuation Fund near Martin Place in Sydney. One morning, she told the tea lady she didn’t know what was wrong with her, rejecting the Arnotts biscuits offered by the kindly old woman who spent her idle time in the tea room knitting something woollen. “I used to love these biscuits, especially these Butter Scotch biscuits,” The Mrs groaned. “Silly girl, you’re pregnant,” was the tea lady’s uncanny prognosis. So, on the weekend, The Mrs sent me to the chemist to get a pregnancy test kit. It was the same chemist that I was too embarrassed to go in to buy my first packet of condoms, so I sent her to get them instead. She did the test in the morning and being a Saturday packed with fun activities, we forgot to check the test tube until many hours later. I rushed to the bedroom from the kitchen when I suddenly remembered the result was waiting to be discovered. I felt numb and dazed when I saw the brown ring on the bottom of the tube. What? How? Disbelieving it, I trudged uncertainly to the kitchen and handed the tube to The Mrs. My pale wan face was enough to tell the story. She burst out in tears and I joined her in an embrace that told us our world as we knew it had ended. That was forty years and nine months ago. My life changed forever when I brought a new life to this world. Scrubbed out from my lifestyle were the words carefree and careless. Parenthood did not allow me the luxury of being either. Looking back to that moment in my life, I will now admit I was far from ready to become responsible for a new-born. We live with the choices we make in life. The choice I made in the brief moment of frenzied sex was to not bother with a condom. Well, we had just got married for a few weeks. We were young and hungry for each other. We didn’t have the money to buy a new bed for ourselves, so we simply joined our single bed mattresses on the floor. By the time the sex was over, our mattresses were far apart. I guess the earth moved whilst we moved. The sex we had was as steamy, urgent and wild as the sex scenes imagined by D.H. Lawrence. No time for a condom! Wear something for sex? No, take everything off!

Boy was stubborn even in his mummy’s tummy. The Mrs said he made her crave for roast duck. That had replaced the sausages she so desperately needed for many months. I didn’t understand the fanciful whims of a pregnant woman and told her I wasn’t going to spoil her by granting her every wish. Whoa!! I took it back very quickly. She made it feel like it was the end of the world if she didn’t get her roast duck from Sydney’s Chinatown. I made that long journey in prime time traffic to satisfy her urge but by the time I came home with the juiciest and freshest roast duck, her urge had waned. I knew for the rest of my life I’d never ever understand women, especially pregnant ones. The gynaecologist said the baby was a prankster with the worst timing. Dr. Ng’s century egg pork congee had just arrived at her table in a restaurant in Sydney’s Chinatown when Boy decided it was time he was introduced to the world. She had waited patiently for some thirty minutes for her congee but before she could dig her spoon into the bowl, her pager beeped for her to return to work. The Mrs had already suffered twelve hours of labour pains by then. No amount of coaxing by Dr. Ng would entice Boy to face the world. The stubborn boy showed who was boss. Dr. Ng in the end pronounced that the mother was developing a fever and the breeched boy had to be pulled out by caesarian section. It being an emergency surgical procedure, the father would not be granted access into the delivery room. So, I missed out on seeing my own creation come into this world; all I did was loitered in the waiting room after finding myself a nice hot cuppa. The Mrs missed out on seeing her baby’s first cry too. A nurse led me to her later in the night, it was already well past sixteen hours after her water broke at five in the morning. She was still shivering violently after coming out of the anaesthesia in a dark lonely corridor. “Just one more child, ok?” she pleaded in a whimpering tone with me. What an amazing woman, I thought to myself. If it were me, I would have screamed “No way am I friggin’ going through this hell again for anyone!” So, I said in a benevolent voice, “Sure, one more and that’s it, luv.” The Mrs didn’t get to see Boy until the next morning.

Boy was a handsome baby. Somehow, he copped a lot of negative remarks about his looks. “Bak pao bin,” my sister-in-law said. For those who do not know Hokkien, it meant “pork bun face”. Hmmmm, delicious. Someone called him “moon face” too, but I didn’t mind. Bert Newton, a huge TV personality, was also affectionately called “moon face” and he didn’t care. Uncle Daniel said Boy was a genius, and I whole-heartedly agreed. Pa said he was going to be a movie star. A star, anyway. Boy was just nine months old when he displayed his amazing brain power by stringing sentences in Mandarin. One afternoon, The Mrs took a few hours’ break from him and caught a taxi to Coogee to visit her parents. Ma was visiting from Malaysia, so she babysat Boy whilst he had his afternoon nap. She sneaked out to the local bottle shop to get a flagon of dry sherry, her favourite drink in those days. As she was opening the front door and before she could take her first step into the house, Boy asked his grandma in Mandarin, “You’ve gone to buy wine again?” 您又賣酒啊?Ma was lost for words, her hand holding the flagon behind her back did not hide the truth.

We adults did not understand how much we disappointed our kids. I mean, we didn’t even know the names of the computer games and movies they played and watched. So detached were we from their interests. It was the era of Police Academy, Return of the Jedi, The Protector, Duck Tales and Commando, and in games, the rage was Donkey Kong 2, Greenhouse, Alley Cat, Striker and Parachute. When Boy was 8, he wrote in his diary he wanted to buy a “good book” in a book store just opposite the mall from his mother’s shop. So, he asked her if she could get it for him. “Mum just ignored me,” he wrote. See, from a child’s perspective, he felt his mother ignored him. Maybe The Mrs was busily serving customers or ordering stock? Maybe her mind was miles away worrying about her ill mother? I disappointed him too. He thought I knew everything, I think I may have told him that. I bought him a joystick and left him to install it himself. He rang me to tell me there was no input socket on his computer for the joystick. I told him that joystick would fit any computer and to wait for me to fit it when I got home from work. All three boys were so excited and greeted me wildly as I stepped into the house, they had waited all day to play with the joystick. The reason is withheld but I had to bring it back to Tandy’s the next day. Disappointing!

There was also the time when I lost a bet and forgot to pay him. His mother had allowed him to go to TTP with her, a shopping centre in Modbury where she worked. But, he woke up too late and missed the outing. When we got home from work, we told Boy and his two brothers to dress up for Thea’s anniversary party. Thea Dubois worked for us as our house cleaner. We loved apricot season, as she would bring a big bag of apricots from her garden for us every week. Yummy. I forgot the way to her house and kept reaching the same wrong street. Boy said to me I had gone too far up, but I was sure I was right. So, I asked him to bet $10 if he was so sure. Boy said he didn’t have $10, so we agreed on a dollar – he told me he was sure he had that in his money tin. I turned the car back and surprisingly, Boy won the bet, he was eight years old. We found Thea’s house!

Boy reminded me of the day they almost died. In a passage in his diary, he wrote 4th Aunt took them to the Cottage, a cinema that was showing Jack and The Beanstalk. She left the three brothers and her two kids in her car whilst she ducked out for a “short meeting”. But, she had an argument with the person she was meeting, and they were stuck inside the hot car for a long time. “We couldn’t breathe because there was no air. The doors were locked and the alarm had gone off. The electric windows were up and they could not wind them down. 4th Aunt quickly turned on the aircond for us when she arrived.” Jack and the Beanstalk was boring by comparison.

Boy was a confident boy. He usually beat his brothers in chess, but come to think of it, he used to beat and kick them all the time too. On the odd occasion that he lost to them in a chess game, he would tell himself he lost because he was watching John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg and Monica Seles play at The Australian Open. Boy was the eldest by two years and therefore the most alert. Uncannily, he would be the first to know lunch was ready in the kitchen. Gung-gung, maternal grand-dad said he would call out to his brothers to let them know, “Come, eat!” but after he had scoffed down a few mouthfuls first. It is therefore not surprising that he was always bigger and taller than his brothers.

Boy has grown into a confident young man. I was hesitant to use the word ‘young’ since I am not convinced turning 40 is appropriately considered young. He is attuned to how the most successful people think and do. I suppose it is a good method to adopt, follow the path of the clever, the righteous and the wise ones. Follow the wise, I like that he does that.

“Take a good hard look at people’s ruling principle, especially the wise, what they run away from and what they seek out.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.38

Unfortunately, it does mean he therefore doesn’t listen to my advice as much as I like. I do not have the right credentials, see? The 1987 and 2008 sharemarket crashes saw to that. Besides, he complains I need to be stoic. I learned about stoicism when I was a scrawny teenager, reading about the heroic tales of the Spartans. Soldiers who fought fearlessly and loyally, who stood their ground without complaints against impossible odds to rise up victorious – that’s stoic. The Agoge, a state system that emphasised duty, discipline and endurance would have suited Boy, so much respect he has for their philosophy. He bought me a book for Christmas. It has daily messages or reminders about being stoic, containing daily quotes by Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Seneca and Epictetus. Two Romans, one Greek but all three, superb philosophers and thinkers. Marcus Aurelius was also the last emperor of the Pax Romana, an age of peace and stability for the Roman Empire, perhaps reflecting his stoic philosophy. But, I do wonder if Marcus Aurelius minded his opulent and sybaritic lifestyle, being an emperor? It would be quite easy to preach stoicism and encourage us not to sweat the small stuff whilst immersing himself in pleasure and treasure.

One of the most important reminder from Boy is to keep to the path of serenity. I have stopped chasing fame and fortune a long time ago. Most things are ephemeral, anyway. They don’t last, especially fashion and material wealth, perfect weather and luck. So, there’s no need to pray for them. The only true thing we possess is our ability to make choices; our mind is the only thing we control, everything else is outside our control – even our physical body can be marred by illness or impairment. So, it is truly simple – all we have to mind is our mind.

“There is only one path to happiness, and that is in giving up all outside of your sphere of choice.”

Epictetus, Discourses, 4.4.39

So, maybe by the end of this year, I will be a rising Stoic also. He is already one, my rising son. A saying I love from the book he gave me is this:

“No one can lose either the past or the future, for how can someone be deprived of what’s not theirs?”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.14

Similarly, no one should be able to deprive us of our peace and happiness since that’s not theirs but ours to hold dear.

May 1983. At the Sydney Opera House. It may be in the past, but the memory is still a present in the present.

A Ray Of Hope, After Rai

Siargao Island was a tropical paradise before Typhoon Rai hit it a week before Christmas last year. The island is home to Gladys’ family, a bunch of lovely kind-hearted people who are devout Catholics. Gladys works for me, officially as my Personal Assistant, although we have never met in person. Her office is in Cebu but I have never been to Cebu. She assists me in my business which is located in Adelaide but she has never set foot in Australia. That is the power of the internet. She can carve out a nice career and support her family from the comfort of a room in her flat over 5,200 km away from me assisting me in my work. She has been doing that for over seven years. Isn’t that amazing?

When she told me she had lost contact with her family for four days, it was gut-wrenching for me. It would have been a lot worse for her. Four days is a long time to not know if your loved ones are alright or not. Are they safe? Are they bleeding? Bones broken? Is her young daughter OK? Is anyone dead? A worse thought that is best left unsaid, is anyone alive? All she could tell me about her hometown is only gathered from the news. I got more details about the devastation from the internet than from her. Facts on the ground were scant as they were without electricity in the aftermath of the storm. The sandy beaches were no more. A popular destination for surfers and sun-seeking tourists, it was a paradise lost after the storm sliced through the archipelago and zeroed in on Siargao. The devastation reminded me of some scenes in the movie ‘Apocalypse Now’. Smouldering remnants of wooden huts, smashed coconut trees, some left standing, recoiling with fear, others littering the beaches like used match sticks strewn in a heap of rubbish. Adults with empty stares hunched in despair, ignoring naked children bawling their eyes out. The images cleverly used by tourism gurus – that of thatched holiday huts and exotic night clubs and bars, swaying coconut trees in the idyllic cool setting of a beach paradise, bronzed well-sculptured hunks and long-haired blondes with hourglass bodies covered by the skimpiest bikinis – were all wiped out by Rai.

Siargao, after Rai
Gladys’ home and her mama’s store, after Rai

Thankfully, Gladys was able to board a ferry from Cebu to find her family unhurt a few days later. She did not share any horrendous stories that my imagination had pictured in my mind. The groaning houses breaking up into smithereens, roaring of the gales, shrieking of the sea, lashing of piercing rain, the tossing of corrugated iron sheets and shattered glass like out-of-control missiles in the air. None of that. Gladys did not witness death, not even the impalement of a bird by a broken branch or a twisted carcass of a village dog under a messy clump of broken palm leaves. Her mama’s bangaray (convenience store) was left mostly standing, and luckily the much needed stock in such desperate times were salvageable. “We are so heartbroken,” Gladys said, regretting that in their province, insuring their properties and businesses was not a “popular” thing to do. She reminded me of my own father who also did not believe in paying insurance premiums to protect his business and house from unforeseen disasters. Insurance premiums are a waste of money in good times, I suppose. Why throw away hard-earned money to bet on a bad event? Maybe Pa believed in the power of positive-thinking. Just believe that bad things won’t happen and they won’t happen? See, insurance is therefore superfluous. Or, maybe he was superstitious. If you think something bad will happen, it will happen. If you think you need insurance, then you will surely meet a disaster that requires compensation. Pa was lucky – in the end, he proved insurance money was dead money. I haven’t been so lucky. The hundreds of thousands of dollars I have forked out in my lifetime will unlikely be recouped. It is rather safe here in South Australia – after all, Adelaide is the home of the Clipsal switch which was invented by Alfred Gerard in 1920. All new houses require safety switches to be installed, so the incidence of fires caused by short circuits are rare these days. God is often described as loving and kind, yet there are, in insurance parlance, acts of God that are not insurable. There are two main fault lines in Adelaide, but our insurance policies do not cover us for earthquakes, acts that are not caused by humans and therefore presumably, only the vengeful God can be held responsible for. In the Bible, God did throw tantrums when he was displeased with humans but luckily so far, God does not throw typhoons at us here. I should reconsider my policy on insurance. The payouts from my insurance policies have been so minuscule it does feel I deserve to be an object of ridicule should I persist in paying these exorbitant premiums.

Gladys sent me good news today. There is a ray of hope after all, after Rai. Things are looking up for her family. They have got back their lives on the rail again. Her dad had worked hard to clean up the mess left by the storm; the photo of him on his way to collect water from the village well showed he was far from being a doddery old man. Despite the calamity around him, he still wore a sugared smile of calm and confidence as he posed for the camera with his bright blue bucket. His white t-shirt had a big hole on the front and the ragged sleeves told me they had seen better days. His old pair of sandals barely covered the dry grey mud that had caked onto his tired feet, but the deep lines on his forehead had vanished and a glimmer of hope had replaced the doubt and fear in his eyes. Gladys told me an anonymous person helped them with a sum of money to rebuild their damaged house on the day the photo was taken. The donation was a sum equivalent to six times her monthly income. The aid was enough to repair their battered house with a brand-new corrugated tin roof and the smashed timber walls are now solid stone blocks. Her mama’s convenience store abutting the left face of the house now has a concrete floor and is rebuilt with new roof trusses. The walls are solidly made of stone blocks and cement built on a strong foundation, giving the building a sense of permanence and purpose, a world apart from the humble wooden hut that was an excrescence foisted on their wooden house.

Work-in-progress with bags of cement to cement their future
You may huff and puff but you will not blow down this shop-house.

It is a nice way to end this story by sharing with you how Gladys and her mama celebrated their luck, coming out of the disaster caused by Rai relatively unscathed and wholly intact. “The children and my neighbours send you a thankful message,” Gladys wrote to her anonymous benefactor. “May God bless you and your whole family even more,” she added. My normal utterance of “urghh” to earthlings will be toned down for an extended time, having witnessed the kindness and goodwill shared in her neighbourhood. I wanted to tell her the bloke who extended his hand out to help them surely would not be expecting any special favours or recognition from God but refrained from doing so, in case my insensitive words came across as sour grapes. It wasn’t the time or place to be questioning whether God would bless someone even more for simply doing the right thing. After all, it would not sound like the right thing to do if the kindness he showed had an ulterior motive of benefiting himself. Is helping others for our own selfish reasons (to earn God’s favours) truly helping others? For me, self-serving altruism is exactly what an urghhling would do, performing altruistic acts as a guile to help oneself gain a benefit from God. But after Rai, it feels like there is a ray of hope for the people of Siargao. For them, it is irrelevant to contemplate whether altruism that is self-serving is indeed a good deed.

Gladys’ mama handed out food packs to the children and the needy in their village.
A smile that brings out a smile in me

The Final Chapter For The Chap

The solitary chap was walking in the cool depths of the rain forest. He wasn’t stringy but neither was he pursy. He looked fit and strong, his gait sure like a mountain goat’s. He was well attired like a commando in his khaki green long-sleeved military-like garment and black long boots. His black bag strapped from his left shoulder over to his right back could have contained anything. Emergency food supplies, daggers, nunchucks, maybe even a pistol? He had the looks and more importantly, the height and physique to be skilled at hand-to-hand combat. His footsteps could be heard crunching on the hard sunbaked gravel path, which meant he wasn’t worried about being heard. He walked slowly, occasionally looking leftwards out to the mass of green foliage that keeps the old secrets of the hills. Seemingly distracted, the chap was perhaps searching for something or some spiritual sign the hillside may shed. Distant insects screeched incessantly whilst from the thick jungle undergrowth just left of the path, crickets chirped busily. They were not at all disturbed by his presence; they sensed the chap wasn’t boorish, harmless in fact. The jungle was not stirred by his noisy boots, even the cool hillside breeze that normally made the leaves wave an enthusiastic welcome had not appeared. The sun had not lost any of its effulgence, indicating the moon was still may hours from making its entrance in the sky. He was well-liked and well-respected by his peers, a stolid chap whose kindness and generosity shone like a beacon in the dark. Last September, he said he needed a bit more time to pen down his story for inclusion in The Urghhling Marsh book. “Kindly allow me to settle down a bit,” he said, showing his politeness and courtesy. He didn’t need to be blandished or bribed with a payment. He wanted to share his stories with those in the brotherhood. His mother had just passed away and not surprisingly, the pain from the loss would need time to abate. There were lots of stories he wanted to share, so vivid the memory of his dear mother was. The need to communicate his strong love for his family and friends was made more urgent by his recent outpouring of grief. But, in the end, the chap’s final chapter did not include any of his own words. He didn’t get to write them down. So, this chapter is written for him to honour his wish to be included. We called him The Admiral.

In the Water Margin, there are one hundred and eight heroes in the Liangshan Marsh. It would be easy to measure up one of them to The Admiral. Great fighters like Lu Da, Lin Chong, Zhu Tong and Lei Heng are all well-revered leaders of the brigands. Brigands they were, but the Marsh brothers’ much valued virtues of loyalty and justice were beyond doubt. That was what they fought for. The authorities were corrupt, and the magistrates blind to the injustices against the weak. The brigands took the law into their own hands and fought for the common people for the common good. They rid the villages and towns of corrupt officials and in upholding the ways of Confucian teachings, they rebelled against tyranny. Likewise, The Admiral was a highly respected leader in the brotherhood. “A humble, helpful and kind-hearted brother,” Park Moon said. “Judging from his good deeds, he was an exemplary follower of Christ through his magnanimity and humility in reaching out to the poor by distributing food during the pandemic using his own personal funds without expecting anything in return. He is a very fine example of the beatitude “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” – Mt 5:7,” Aloysius added. Like many in the Urghhling Marsh brotherhood, The Admiral cherished the virtues of justice, benevolence and respect for the righteous. But, unlike The Liangshan Marsh brothers, the Urghhling Marsh brothers did not become outlaws. Wu Yong and Typhoon, fellow brothers of the Marsh, said that although they did not know The Admiral very well, they agreed that The Admiral was a reflective pulse of their community, who exuded warmth, friendliness and kindness. Chip, The Blue Chip, said, “The Admiral’s generosity and friendship was an encouragement to those around him; a fine soul who left too early.” The Cook philosophised when he said “Good people are irreplaceable, and good people tend to leave too soon.”

The Admiral owned a friendly face. His wavy hair was still mostly black and neatly cropped to accentuate its thickness. When he smiled – and it was often – his creased forehead displayed deep lines of a thinker or philosopher. The crow’s feet around his eyes provided proof of his constant smiles and pleasing facial expressions. The rather fleshy, generously-proportioned alae of his nose flared out of a bulbous tip, suggestive of wealth and success according to some sooth-sayers. He had a towering personality and a towering physical presence. A photograph of him and Lord Guan showed both to be of similar build and similar height. We know Lord Guan from an earlier chapter to possess a towering frame and an imposing physical presence, so clearly, The Admiral was an indefatigable champion too. Who amongst the one hundred and eight heroes of the Water Margin was The Admiral comparable to? The penultimate chapter in the book revealed that character to be General Zhang Qing.

General Zhang Qing was a magnificent military man. Known as the ‘Featherless Arrow’ for killing or stupefying his adversaries by throwing stones at them, Zhang Qing was an unbeatable foe. After the brigand’s leader, Chao Gai, was shot by Shi Wengong, his dying command was that whoever avenged his death would succeed him. It was Lu Junyi who eventually captured Shi Wengong, but Lu Junyi, a new recruit to the brotherhood, declined the post in deference to the senior leadership team. So, the brotherhood decided the contest for the leadership would be between Song Jiang who was the acting leader and Lu Junyi. Whoever was first to conquer the prefecture assigned to him would be chosen as their chief leader. Song Jiang won the contest and became the rightful leader; Lu accepted the position of Second-in-Command as he could not defeat the defender of Dongchang Prefecture, General Zhang Qing. The ‘Featherless Arrow’ would go on to defeat fifteen of the brigand’s leadership team in an hour, reminiscent of the legendary fighter Wang Yanzhang who defeated thirty-six generals in approximately one hour, during the Five Dynasties (A.D. 907). In the final chapter, the book revealed that General Zhang Qing, upon witnessing Song Jiang’s generosity towards him, by then a defenceless defeated foe, who not only prevented his fellow brothers from exacting revenge for their injuries sustained by the stones hurled at them, but also apologised and saluted him for his bravery in defending the Prefecture he was assigned to so ferociously. The final chapter in the book described the ceremonial induction of all one hundred and eight heroes into the Loyalty and Justice Hall. Song Jiang proposed that they held a big ceremony to pray for those who had died in their battles for justice and secondly, to seek forgiveness from the Song Emperor by offering their services to him. So was achieved this assembly of brigands who turned themselves into heroes to serve their country faithfully and fearlessly in the name of justice. A perfect ending to a great story, but unfortunately, the final chapter of this legendary tale was very different from the ending in the book that was translated by JH Jackson. The final chapter as written by Shi Naian had a terrible ending. The Song Emperor, after granting the Marsh outlaws amnesty, cleverly used them to suppress rebellions, knowing this was a rewarding way to get rid of these rebels whom he did not trust or appreciate. Many of the Liangshan heroes, fifty-nine in total, died suppressing the Fang La rebellion, including General Zhang Qing. Song Jiang and Lu Junyi were both poisoned by officials of the State but to prevent his men from retaliating and rebelling once more, Song Jiang ordered Li Kui to poison his most loyal follower, Black Whirlwind. When Wu Yong discovered Song Jiang had died, he hanged himself and was buried beside Song Jiang’s tomb. Death was the price of loyalty.

The final chapter of The Urghhling Marsh unfortunately sees the deaths of two brothers this week. Rest in peace, brothers Albert Poh and The Admiral, Ch’ng Cheng Hoe. Albert Poh was also well-loved and well-respected in the brotherhood. The band leader of Rhythm Beats, his musicianship was known and cherished throughout the community. His story will remain unwritten, as it was his expressed wish to keep a low profile in life, and therefore out of respect for him, his death shall also be kept private. Death is part of life, as is falling leaves in autumn. Some say we are only truly dead when we are totally forgotten. In the Urghhling Marsh brotherhood, no one will be forgotten for their stories and therefore their memories will live on. The Liangshan Marsh brothers pledged their eternal loyalty and fraternity to each other. Their oaths were made by drinking wine mixed with their blood. In the Three Kingdoms, Liu Bei, Lord Guan and Zhang Fei made a similar oath in a peach garden.

We may not be born on the same day, in the same month and in the same year. But, let us die on the same day, in the same month and in the same year.

The Peach Garden Oath

Follow The Signs Or Science?

Murray can’t read. He is a smart dog but he is illiterate. So, we don’t follow the signs during our walks. I swear it’s the truth when I say he may recognise a few words. Otherwise, why would he pee on the post that said ‘No Dogs Allowed’ at the entrance to a grand old private property? You’ll have to forgive him, he hates being left out or singled out. Like me, he hates being discriminated. No dogs allowed? Teach them, Murray. You may piss on their post. He never attended lessons on how to read and interpret road signs. If he did, he would surely protest at why there are road signs for kangaroos, koalas and wombats but none for dogs. There’s even a sign for sharks. Isn’t that discrimination? He ignores me even when I tell him the dark, brooding clouds are just ahead of us; even when heaven is spitting at us, Murray will ignore the signs of impending rain and continue ahead. Nothing seems to stress him, honestly. Yesterday, I quailed as a big Great Dane ran at high speed towards us from a distance. I must confess that I took a few steps back, putting Murray between The Great Dane and me. Luckily, it only walked around me once but decided to smell Murray’s butt instead. Murray seemed to enjoy the experience – I know because he was wagging his tail. True tale. If a great Dane or German or whatever bloke from whichever country rushes over to smell my butt, I would be wagging my finger and crying out “Rape! Rape!” Murray reads the signs wrongly, I am sure. How can he treat that as a sign of friendliness when his butt is being examined at close range by a strange dog?

Murray leading the way, ignoring the traffic signs

I have lived here in this leafy eastern suburb of Adelaide for twenty odd years. But, it is only following Murray and not following the signs that I have discovered many interesting places close to my house. He even led me to Undelcarra, the original stone cottage that was built in 1848 by one of the earliest settlers in South Australia, a Scottish farmer by the name of Peter Anderson. In 1876, the house and 30 acres were sold to Simpson Newland – much of the estate is now named after him. Yesterday, Murray took me to a small white cottage that sits on a rather large and very beautiful corner of a reserve a mere 12-minute walk from home. There are no signs to lead me to this gem of a place. It is just off busy Glynburn Road which was a quiet road with just the occasional car spluttering exhaust fumes when we first arrived here. It was more suited for a horse and carriage, I thought at the time. A slow “klop, klop, klop” sounding off a cobblestone path would have been perfect. Big old deciduous trees line along it to provide a lush green canopy in spring and summer and colour it golden in autumn. The small cottage is well hidden from view, so idyllic is its location. It is only 10 minutes by car to the CBD of Adelaide, yet you would think it is in woop-woop, away in the sticks, if you look at the photo. The cosy stone cottage with a section of bricks painted white, from a distance, beckoned me to walk closer. The white French windows further emboldened me to approach them. I like everything French, especially my L’Occitane body lotion. The grey Colorbond roof matches nicely with a cloudless blue Adelaide sky that hangs a great distance away in heaven, in stark contrast to the low threatening skies often weighed down by grey moody rain clouds that frequent places such as London and Penang. The homestead is hugged by mature gum trees not quite a stone’s throw away in the front and in the far rear, two old trees rise majestically a third way up the sky. A man was tending to the garden of agapanthus, lost in his world of deep green fleshy leaves and vivid blue flowers. I deliberately scrunched hard at the thick carpet of brown fallen leaves – a sacrifice made by the gum trees to welcome our summer – but the noise I made did not stir the man. I was hoping to ask him if his property was for sale but I could read the signs very well. He was beset by a paroxysm of coughing and wheezed heavily before resuming his tender caring of the agapanthus around him. He was fully absorbed in his garden, oblivious to the sounds of a stranger nearby and his obvious disinterest with my presence and time spent admiring his secret paradise told me he wouldn’t be a seller. He didn’t have a care in the world.

The white house that I instantly fell in love with.

In my everyday life, signs are very important to follow. I’ve known for many years when to switch off the TV during The Ashes. Somehow the soothing voice of Richie Benaud during Australia’s summer in the 1980s and 1990s was an unfathomable trigger for The Mrs To transform herself into an emotional wreck. It still baffles me that the sound of Aussie summer which my eldest son and I thoroughly enjoyed had such a strong hold on her mind. She found both Benaud’s and Tony Greig’s voices monotonous and annoying, especially on hot late afternoons when what she rather preferred I did was to water her precious garden. I wasn’t alert to the helpful signs that she was throwing at me for many summers until the day she told me grown men with beer bellies should not laze around at home watching cricket when they had better reason to be helping with garden chores. That day, I found her voice much less soothing than Richie Benaud’s but I knew to read the signs that told me to bite my tongue. There was this dark cloud hovering just over her head, see? I told The Mrs both great men of cricket taught me their sport was the best game to follow, but The Mrs gave me the finger sign instead. Maybe she didn’t but my conscience sure thought she did. Sometimes, the signs are very encouraging, such as after dinner just now. She put on a rarely seen demeanour, one I hardly remember these days. She grabbed me playfully around my waist with both hands from behind and teased me to visit her garden outside. I had to quickly suck in my extended tummy which was untimely bloated with an extra big serving of spicy fish-head curry and jasmine rice. My mind had to cast back to our courtship days to recall that sweet docile voice she used to coax me to watch her ginger plant grow in the front garden and to admire that single skyward-pointing chabai burong on her chilli plant. “It’s big,” she purred, reminding of the time when she said my, er, ego was big. After that, she tried to coax me to the back garden to watch her tomato plants grow. The signs were safe enough for me to politely decline her invitation. Her diadia voice ( ) being employed to lure me to her garden indicated her coyness and sudden sweetness. But, watching plants grow isn’t my cup of tea; so I casually walked back to the house and as soon as I was out of sight, I rushed to the TV to watch the 5th Ashes test, live from Bellerive Oval in Hobart.

Whilst watching the movie Dune from my big screen TV, I was intrigued by the planes used by non-Fremen in the planet Arrakis (sounded and looked uncannily like where Iraqis live). I could not resist and paused the film to google to confirm whether these ornithopters could actually fly. I marvelled at how these planes, powered by flapping wings, are actually operable. Science is remarkable when it can copy nature so well. The dragonfly has two sets of wings that work independently, allowing it superior agility in the air. It will still be able to fly should it lose one wing. The wings beat so fast our eyes cannot follow their movement. I enjoy watching futuristic movies, as they often show us a glimpse of what our distant future will be and how science will shape the technology of tomorrow. I was curious to see that the battles being fought did not feature any advanced weaponry. In fact, there were no guns used at all. The warriors were limited to hand combat and the weapon of choice was the humble dagger! The combat scenes were inspired by a Filipino martial arts style known as Balintawak Eskrima. Mind you, the 1965 story written by Frank Herbert is set in the year 10,191. How can there be no guns in Dune? Again, I had to pause the movie and google for the answer! The science theory offered is that advanced technology made high-speed projectiles ineffective against the body shield that uses a force field which works like an electronic barrier. Only a slow-moving blade from close range can penetrate the shield. Any weapon that has a high velocity will be rendered useless. No guns in future, what will the gun lobbyists in America say to that?!

My favourite niece sent me a photo today via WhatsApp. I had not known such a precious photo existed. “Was it from a digital camera or film?” I asked. I didn’t even remember posing for the camera. It was a portentous moment in my life, yet I could not recognise where it was taken. It was clear to me what the occasion was but if not for the photo, a lot of the details would have been lost, so defective is my memory. The year was 2001 when Second Son won the national competition in Sydney, so it had to be a film photograph. None of us could afford a digital camera in those days and the phone camera was not invented until the following year. That makes the phone camera 20 years old! Today, it feels inconceivable that we do not take a photo with our mobile phone at least once in a week, be it a selfie or a photo of our breakfast to prove the endurance of our intermittent fasting regime. Before this breakthrough in science, we did not take photos unless the occasion was special. A special dish in a special restaurant setting would not justify the cost of a film. It had to be a birthday party or someone’s wedding or winning a national competition. Processing film photos was expensive in those days – we had to be discerning of what or who to justify the cost of a photo.

Celebrating a famous win on the steps of Sydney Opera House

The older I am, the more interested in science I become. Are the signs becoming ever undeniable? Increasingly clearer? With fellow cohorts lisping after losing their teeth, or fumbling in dim light not finding the black buttons on their black remote controls or not knowing how to operate their mobile phones or how to find their vaccine passports in their phone wallet, or staring at things without comprehension of what they do, or seeing old schoolmates alarmingly ageing too quickly and worse, receiving news of ailing friends in hospitals. Looking at the above photo of my two cute little nieces who are both now professional health workers further reinforces the fact that I am already an old man. It is a sobering fact, the signs of which I can no longer ignore. So, maybe I have a newfound interest to look at the advancements of science as a way forward instead. No, it is not for the hope of finding a cure for ageing, I am comfortable about growing old. Years as a gardening hobbyist have taught me to respect the laws of Nature. What grows must eventually mature and die. It is increasingly likely that our longevity can be increased by 20-30 years; not just years but years of healthy life. They call it healthspan rather than lifespan.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already helping us in this new frontier and it is within our reach today to slow or reverse the ageing process. In olden days, kings and emperors drank the blood of young subjects, hoping to stay young or escape death. Today, scientists are attempting to make this hope a reality by successfully transferring blood plasma of fit exercising mice (runners) to old sedentary mice to rejuvenate the organs of the old mice. Amazingly, most of the beneficiary effects of running were transferred to the sedentary mice via the runners’ plasma. The effects on neurogenesis were clearly noticeable, such as improved learning and memory in the sedentary mice.

Other exciting developments in medical sciences include Binah.ai, powered by AI. They recently announced they can measure our blood pressure within a few seconds, by looking at the camera of a smartphone or laptop, i.e. totally contactless. There is also the AI design company Iktos which is partnering with South Korean biotech Astrogen to expedite drug discovery for the treatment of neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s. Iktos’ deep learning generative modelling will speed up the discovery of new therapies.

In the field of nanotechnology, researchers have created a super powerful molecule that will allow them to make more advanced nanostructures (artificial DNA structures) for detecting diseases as well as for treatment of diseases. Also very exciting is the second-generation AI-powered digital pills which aim to improve outcomes and reduce side effects. Examples include digital pills that contain sensors that can pick up internal bleeding or pills with sensors or cameras when swallowed will swell to the size of ping-pong balls so that they do not immediately pass out of our guts but remain in situ in our body for longer. AI can take photos of the patient’s bowels and send it to the medical team as it travels along the gut.

Another device is a corkscrew-shaped microrobot that can swim through blood vessels and unblock blood clots. Its design was inspired by the tails of bacteria such as E. Coli. Researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong inserted the robot into a synthetic vein filled with pigs’ blood and found it made clot-busting drugs work almost 5 times better than the drug itself.

There is also exciting advancements in refining the effectiveness of deploying CAR-T cells in the fight against cancers. Currently, once they arm killer T cells onto the Chimeric Antigen Receptors (CAR) and release them into our blood, these are amazing at killing cancer cells but unfortunately, they will also kill normal cells that happen to carry the same protein as the cancer cells. That would cause a great deal of carnage to the good cells of the patient – a cytokine storm could lead to multiple organ failure. So, researchers are using synthetic proteins that only activate the CAR in the presence of blue light. Another team is using ultrasound radiation as the on-off switch to control the CAR. Other researchers are working to develop new CARs that function like biomolecular computers, i.e. man-made genetic circuits that are able to independently make logical decisions to attack cancer cells.

In the wearable tech sphere, instead of watches we now can wear a tiny ring on our little finger. The Movano ring tracks users’ health along a wide range of parameters, including sleep, heart rate, heart rate variability, activity, respiration, temperature, and blood oxygen. The ring can improve the wearer’s quality of life by gauging their lifestyle and their resultant health consequences more accurately. In the brain mental health area, there is a new development by iSyncwave. It is a comprehensive EEG solution (hardware-software-remote telehealth solution) that can screen the brain and use deep-dive predictive analysis to detect not only neuro-related diseases but also potential mental conditions in just 10 minutes. It does this by integrating both EEG brain mapping and LED therapy.

Another recent news that excites me is researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and the National Cancer Research Centre have identified a way to repair genetic damage and prevent DNA alterations using machine learning techniques. If we understand how DNA lesions originate, AI will find better targeted cancer treatments whilst also protecting our healthy cells. Perhaps the most exciting for me is the project headed by Elon Musk to implant Neuralink chips in human brain. Last year, they successfully inserted a chip into a monkey that controlled its mind to play ‘MindPong’. Musk hopes to get FDA approval later this year to implant his Neuralink chip on a human with severe spinal cord injuries. Sadly, Christopher Reeve died almost two decades ago, otherwise, he might have loved to be considered for this trial. Clearly, the signs are there for science to ultimately triumph and increase our healthspan substantially.

Credit: https://analyticsindiamag.com/neuralink-elon-musk-chip-monkey-mindpong-fda-spinal-cord-injuries-bodily-task-suffer-the-human-brain/

It’s Nifty To NFT It

The alluring scent from the room aroused my curiosity. I had never been inquisitive about a fragrance since my Form Six days when the boys in my class clamoured and rushed to the rust-encrusted British Green iron-framed windows to gawk at the girl they called ‘Charlie’. She was so nicknamed simply because one of boys discovered that was the brand of perfume she wore. To this day, I still wonder if she was aware of the disturbance she caused in my class, the frequent disruptions to what our Chemistry teacher was blabbing about very likely resulted in my first red ‘F’ for a test I sat for the following week. I followed the scent into a room. They were two exotic-looking women who were most likely sirens posing for an artist. I immediately thought of Norman Lindsay, the Australian artist famous for his sensual paintings of well-endowed nude female models. The taller one caught my attention first. Inexplicably, my head turned to the right and my eyes, which normally would scan everything in a new place first and be prepared for any surprises, (as taught by John le Carré) just zeroed in towards her. Fair and nubile, her ballerina-like posture and sophistication showed her class. Glamorous and radiant were two words that rang loudly in my mind. (Virginal and sexy were the other two words, but I would hate to divulge that). She wore her lacy silk wimple without draping around her neck and chin, purposefully exposing a deep dark cleavage. I have seen enough Playboy centrefolds to know that a cleavage of that depth can only mean the most perfect curves that hug a pair of close-set full and soft breasts. No, I never had to resort to buying Playboy magazines. My first boss in Adelaide ran a litho laminated packaging business but in 1987, he embarked on paper-recycling and started a short-run box factory in South Australia. As his accountant, I was also responsible for the finances of those two new operations. Stupidly, I proved myself to be super efficient, and therefore missed out on a pay rise. The only fringe benefit for me was the weekly discarded magazines that the men casually dropped on my lap. They mistakenly assumed such magazines would interest me.

The tall lady had a kind sweet face which showed a shyness as if she was not accustomed to see a man appear in front of her. I apologised for the sudden intrusion but my voice did not attract her to look at me. She simply flashed a shy smile, her full lips did not part to reveal her gums and her eyes remained shy. The ripeness and fullness of the persimmons she was carrying, I gathered, were supposed to represent the sweetness and roundness of her breasts. I was later reprimanded by The Mrs for such an absurd interpretation of the imagery. Persimmons simply symbolises good luck and longevity, nothing about lust and sex! It is fair to assume The Mrs was unimpressed with me again. Immediately in front of the siren sat a pot draped in a blue cloth with an old Chinese symbol that meant longevity. Later, I discovered that the pot contained the most exquisite soup fit for royalty. It is named ‘Buddha Jumps Over The Wall’ because the shark fin soup is so delicious that even Buddha would succumb to its temptation. She has to be the empress, I deduced.

Day 23. 26 October 2021. The empress would soon lose her cleavage.

Next to the empress must be a princess. She appeared arrogant to me. Head raised to the sky, her nose in the air – she exuded an air of arrogance and superiority, too uppity for me to bother with. She wore a neck piece of blue sapphire and white gold. Her matching blouse was a rather finely woven fabric with the most exquisite inlaid pattern of blue and white. She wouldn’t know it then, but before the week was out, her blouse would have shrunk drastically by more than half to reveal a very lissome frame. She was carrying a red chain of money coins but I knew from their style of dressing that they do not belong to the current era, and therefore those coins could not be Bitcoins. I excitedly told The Mrs, expecting to impress her but she scoffed at me. She told me Bitcoins are not real coins, and they certainly do not jingle and jangle. Although it was true that I could not hear the chink or the clink of the coins, I did not mishear the sounds of the oud wafting in the background. Yes, the oud with its 11 strings. The music that was playing in the room as I stared at the two beautiful women in front of me told me they must be Middle-Eastern. I was wrong, of course. There were ouds in China too. The music I heard was pentatonic and rather mellifluous, the sounds formed a perfect harmony with the picture in front of me. The floral scent in their room soothed my senses. It reminded me of the uplifting fragrance of the delicately perfumed L’Occitane Rose body cream – its floral and rather feminine scent never fails to please me. Just as I was entranced by the captivating scent, I caught a stench of blood and bone intruding the open window in my own living room, courtesy of a wayward wind from the rear garden. Just like that, I was immediately brought back to my present surroundings. A lot had changed since I first cast my eyes on the two women. A week later, I visited them again. So much had changed so fast that I feared for their well-being. Will the empress still be pleasant and pretty? Or has she become haughty, cold and old? Rather than a virginal Eve in the garden of Eden, is she edentulous instead? Does she still own the healthy red full lips or have they turned into a thin line of dried grey skin? Is her face still smooth and fair? It would be sad if that too has been ravaged by the cruelty of time. Would I see wrinkled lines and deep etched scars shirred onto her well-proportioned heart-shaped face? Will liver spots have marred her bare arms and have those slender and porcelain-smooth limbs turned into thin sticks of excessively loose blotchy wrinkled dry skin and bone?

Day 26, 29th October 2021. The empress was forced to change her dress. The princess would soon lose her neck piece and half her blouse.

The painting I described above is the first commission work The Mrs accepted. Her patron is Daniel Wong, the owner of Empress Restaurant whose only request was that the painting, which will be hung in his bedroom, must have “beautiful women”. The work is a fine piece of art which tells a story of riches and beauty yet somehow, something is very wrong. The dilapidated walls show major cracks and holes, a clear sign of disrepair that hints that all is not as it seems; their world is literally falling apart and the neglect an indication of their imminent fall from grace. Perhaps, it is the story of life. It is never perfect, even for a royal family. Meghan Markle can surely attest to that. The Mrs took over 30 days to complete her work. Although a “working day” for a retiree is no longer 8 hours, the total amount of time and effort she spent on this is a lot. This week, she started having regrets about parting with her masterpiece as the handover to her patron looms. I suggested it would be nifty to NFT it. She jumped on my suggestion and I think, for once in her life, she did not think I was stupid anymore. “NFT it?” she asked. “Yes, NFT it,” I replied and surprised her with a smile. It dawned on me that the scowl that I wear on my face could be the reason why people around me think poorly of me. My lips are not accustomed to turn upwards and my fierce beady eyes hide my solicitude for people. “We will tokenise your painting,” I continued. By making the file of her painting into a non-fungible token, she will own it on a blockchain, i.e. it will be stored in a distributed digital ledger as an asset that can be sold and resold and which cannot be replicated. “Nifty, right?” you will still own the rights to its digital form, even though the physical painting is sold. It is not just art and music that can be tokenised. In the future, it is very likely that almost anything will be converted to NFT. Anything that the owner does not want to be copied will become an NFT, e.g. the title deed to our house or a page of verified news by a journalist. It can be a certificate of authentication of your Adidas shoes or Hermès bag or a proof of our membership to a football club. A token of Manchester United will allow the holder to special rights to the football club such as voting rights of the next season’s jersey design or an entitlement to special event tickets. These rights will confer value to the owner, and therefore can be sold and resold. The excitement of this revolution of the internet is not unfounded. People call it the Internet of Value or Web 3.0 where the decentralised blockchain technology will deliver exponential growth to not just our world but also to virtual worlds or metaverses. Today I learned that accounting firms PricewaterhouseCoopers and Prager Metis have bought virtual land and the latter is building a three-storey office building in Decentraland. Even they know they will find clients who need professional accounting advice in the metaverse.

Chip, a childhood friend, taking a professional quality photo of the painting, for me to NFT it.

For actual NFT, go to:

https://opensea.io/assets/matic/0x2953399124f0cbb46d2cbacd8a89cf0599974963/23779026692225455927566208210787087405998476125685143994439331188375229038593/