Irreverent To The Irrelevant

For relevance, I shall write about Blue Eyes. As our hair become grey and sparse, and our backs can no longer be held upright and straight, my many childhood friends increasingly remind one another we are being treated with irreverence more and more as we become irrelevant in our own space. “Don’t work so hard – we will end up bitter and forgotten anyway.” “We are old, there’s no need to teach anyone anything, even if you are sure you are right.” said another. “Don’t try and protect your loved ones from any misfortune in this world. You can’t. Just love them.” “Forget about hair-care treatments and anti-ageing creams, they are useless.” said one who is balding and wrinkled. Blue Eyes has been the only one to teach me how to remain relevant, but only to myself, as we accelerate to the final phases of life – the planned obsolescence of our own self which we call retirement and the inevitable ending that no longer scares me.

My eyes were glued to Blue Eyes when I first spotted him in Primary School. The mixed-bloods usually have stunning looks and Blue Eyes only reinforced that idea in my head, despite his denials that he’s Eurasian. Tall and swarthy are traits that beautiful or handsome people possess. Although he was just average in height and fair-skinned, that lovely boy still caught my attention. It wasn’t anything sexual of course, since we were only about seven years old. One could say a baboon or silverback can also be the star attraction in a zoo. Being attractive isn’t just about looking handsome; it’s also about charisma and having a special presence. There is an old saying that being tall does not mean you can see tomorrow. Yet, I suspect Blue Eyes saw what his future would be and planned to live it that way from very early on. His pinkish white skin was well complemented by the shiny mop of bouncy and soft curls. I was disappointed for him on days when he came to class well-groomed with Brylcreem. I am sure he loved his soft curls as much as I did. Faint freckles and a cherubic button nose vied for cuteness against a pair of deep dimples whenever he smiled. What attracted me of course, were his doll-like flirty eyes. They were decorated with the most luscious curly eyelashes that Shirley Temple would have been proud of. For some strange reason, his eyes appeared blue to me. His moniker has stuck with me ever since.

This black and white photo can’t show his blue eyes.

Blue Eyes has a tendency to misspell the four-letter-word that means fornicate. “Pharque,” “Pharquer,” “Pharqueing,” amongst a plethora of variations on the theme. This is mystifying especially in this day and age when the norm is to go for abbreviations and band-aid fixes. Why lengthen a four-letter-word? We were often in the same class at school, although I was too shy to mix with him on account of his superior background – being Eurasian, I mistakenly believed. In early post-Colonial days, the ‘Ang-moh’ (red-haired) still held sway over the plebs. One day in 1971, he simply vanished. That was the day after we stood side by side shooting a jet of pee into the urinal to see who lasted longer. He didn’t show up in school and after a week had passed, no one I asked knew why. In those days, students didn’t say goodbye when we left school. No hugs, no announcements, no handshakes, no goodbyes.That was the last time I saw Blue Eyes.

It would be 48 years later before we met again, in a WhatsApp chat group for our year’s alumni. “Blue Eyes!” I called out to him enthusiastically, possibly as excited as the Eureka moment was for Archimedes. But of course, no one knew who Blue Eyes was, least of all Blue Eyes himself. “None of us had blue eyes,” they chortled in harmony but I was adamant they did not look carefully. I had learned about the Third Eye from the fake Lobsang Rampa just before Blue Eyes vanished from school. It told me he was a free spirit, carefree and with boundless energy and absolute freedom. He did four years aircraft engineering in the Singapore Airforce. Maybe it was the Skyhawks he serviced that gave him his wings to quit the mundane routine of a “grease monkey tinkering with turbine blades” as he put it. He paid a hefty price to break the 12-year bond with the Air Force, so he could get as far away as possible from everyone and everything.

Free. Where the buffalo roam

I was reading the book Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance a few weeks ago. It conjured up the image of Blue Eyes and his Mrs travelling the vast outback of Canada from the Prairies of Alberta in the Northern Rockies southwards to Montana, being wowed by the vastness of the plains and the rolling hills. He on his Suzuki Hayabusa, for decades the fastest production motorcycle on the road, and she on her BMW 650. She understood that riding two up was not as fun as riding solo. So, she decided on riding lessons and hopping on her own ride. That was when the philosophical questions came up in my mind about the life choices they made. At an early age, they chose to be childless rather than bring up another human being to contribute to the damage to Earth with consumables and what-not. Maybe he also meant that at the time they could ill-afford to feed another mouth, after paying off the bond indenture to the Singapore government. Robert Persig in Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance sought to explain the metaphysical concept of Quality whilst criss-crossing the back roads of country America heading northwest from Minneapolis to the Dakotas with his son on their motorcycle. Persig’s alter ego Phaedrus, a brilliant and tenacious scholar of Philosophy, as the story unfolded, illuminated the difference between rhetoric (the art of persuasion) and dialectic (logic) and his ultimate conclusion that we ought to care about quality. Phaedrus was another reason why the story, for me, connected to Blue Eyes and his childhood obsession with Morbius, an antihero, a living vampire in the Marvel world. Tattoos on his body are positioned in order of his favourites, Morbius, Namor and Dr. Strange. “Why Morbius? I asked. “Oh, that’s an easy one. I love his beautiful ugly mug, and he tries to kill the baddies for food….” Ah, kill the Urghhlings. I can relate to that.

Morbius, an anti-hero, his hero.

I finally found out why Blue Eyes looked so sweet and adorable in school. He is more mixed-blood than a biracial! His mum, a half-Japanese, half-Peranakan was rather free spirited also. His dad, a streetwise Peranakan, “altered course” after surviving the Japanese firing squad during their reign of terror in Penang. They split up when Blue Eyes was nine, consigning him to a young life growing up without “family-ness”. When the angst and arguments simmered, he was allowed to visit his mum who had moved to Singapore. He loved the old Penang Airport, still holding fond memories of his jaunts to Singapore to visit his mum during school holidays. At an age when I was still playing marbles and flying kites, Blue Eyes was already eyeing “the gorgeous ground hostesses in their figure-hugging outfits with firm butts and curves and the smoothest hands….” He apologised for digressing. What truly caught his eyes were all the beautiful tall posters of holiday destinations, such as those of the Eiffel Tower, London’s Tower Bridge, Taj Mahal, and of beautiful women in conical straw hats and long dresses posing in lush-green Vietnamese paddy fields. He wanted to see all those places, like right then and there! Years later, his Mrs was also another influencer in his life who encouraged him to soar like an eagle and free his spirit. She too desired to see the world, be it organised or off the seat-of-the-pants, spartan or otherwise, aimlessly without a destination or with a luxury cruise. She loved it and lived it as much as he did.

His aircraft engineering credentials could not get him a job when they arrived in Vancouver on tourist visas. The sum of money they had left from selling their car was fast running out. He thanked his good friend, an ex-Airforce buddy for putting up with them for the two months, and headed as far east as they could with the pittance they had left. When they got to Edmonton, they decided it was serene and far enough to be their new home. A short stint as a pizza delivery guy was followed by two years as a cook for a pool hall. Every day, he did the lunch shift from 11-3pm, and after a short break in the arvo for “errands and shit”, he would get back to the joint for the 7pm-2am shift. That lasted two years before his manager, “a good bloke,” got arrested for drugs. “The pharquer,” he said after a long contemplative pause. There is an ancient Chinese saying: “Don’t pull the tiger’s whiskers,” but Blue Eyes wasn’t aware of it then. The next manager wasn’t so kind and didn’t appreciate his easy-going style, so Blue Eyes ripped off his apron and left. His timing was perfect. His HDB flat in Singapore had finally sold leaving them with some chump change (North American slang for loose change). The clear option for them to stay on permanently in Canada was to start a small business and hire some locals. His mother-in-law stepped in with a loan and with his chump change, it was enough for him to become a bona fide owner of a video rental store. Those VHS days were big money churners but there is an old saying that “money does not grow on trees”. He worked 12-15 hour days, 7 days a week for about 6 years. His bank manager saw fit to offer them generous loans so they could buy themselves a new house, a couple of rental properties near the university and two other video rental outlets in outer suburbs. They also opened a printing store called Campus Copy next to the university to cater to the students’ stationery and printing needs. It felt like they were printing money during those good times.

Alas, I must also share another old Chinese saying: fu wu chong zhi, huo bu dan xingBlessings come along alone; troubles often come together.” Their video rental business got hit by disruption innovations in the late 1990’s, the DVD and a few years later, online streaming. Did any of us expect a thin round disc could destroy a major global industry? His stores were finally brought to their knees in 2008 when the Global Financial Crisis hit.

Blue Eyes and his Mrs got out their motorcycles and wiped off the thick layer of dust that had caked onto the leather seats. He meticulously serviced those beasts of the road before bringing them to life again. Now, I could take the time to describe how he carefully serviced every moving part of his motorcycles and how he replaced the engine oil with the best quality golden colour oil, or describe the amazing sceneries of the Canadian outback or fill you with details about the bone-shattering cold that comes with a white winter or how silence enfolded them once the stars studded the black sky above the plains, but I am not writing a novel. So, I will skip the thrill of a rare sighting of bald-headed eagles in the Yukon or the suspected sighting of the Eastern Elk – extant or extinct, out Woop Woop somewhere, or the bodacious ride even when the wind sock warned them of 180kph headwinds that would knock their boots off. Indeed, the couple were both airborne, blown off the road by a vicious tempest and landed on the other side of the road where an oncoming 4WD narrowly missed making meat patties out of them. After many days of riding somewhat aimlessly without a schedule, they felt released from life’s unyielding treadmill. Blue Eyes woke up one morning and said to his Mrs, “We have cars and motorcycles, yet we still walk to our bed.” They hugged each other tightly, and then both broke out in laughter. That moment of enlightenment has become the bedrock of their lives. Freed by the knowledge of the futility of possessing and accumulating many things we think are necessary when our needs are actually simple and few.

A long weekend white knuckle ride to Lethbridge

I haven’t yet retired from my business in which I have been at the helm for over 30 years. “It is time to pass the baton to your son,” Wilson, a good friend, said this week. It’s time to smell the roses, watch the durians drop, catch a free bus, varnish the timber doors, rest or do nothing. Read a book. Write a book. Trim the roses. A myriad things to do that await me as the sun in my life starts to set. That got me thinking about leaving my own “hamster wheel”. How does a hamster feel without its wheel? Does it die prematurely? I am still in my business not because I am a necessary cog. I am here because I am like a hamster who is afraid to be without its wheel.There can be no doubt that anyone is replaceable. What will become of me when I am “not required” anymore? If I peer into the mirror long enough, I would admit that I have been “surplus to requirements” many years ago. Will those around me treat me with irreverence as my relevance becomes questionable? Will I be made to feel like a waste of a bowl of rice? “Of course not!” I hear The Mrs shout. “Ba, don’t be silly!” my adult sons will chide me. Last Sunday, I lit a joss for Pa. He has been gone for 14 years already. I cried almost daily, mourning his passing for the first 2 years. After that, I cried for him during times when I was emotionally fragile. But, I have not shed a tear for Pa after his 10th anniversary. When I was a little boy, he was the air that I breathed, the water that nourished me, the meaning of my life. When I grew up and became a father myself, Pa was the rock that my foundation was founded on, the sage who I would go to for advice. He was the one who laid the stepping stones to secure a safe nest for my family, He was always relevant and I remain reverent. The next generation won’t be the same, I can’t expect. They tell me to be stoic. Be practical. Don’t be emotional. Don’t be foolish. Soon I will be irrelevant. Will they be reverent?

“Does it matter?” Blue Eyes asked. We ought to live for ourselves, not vicariously through others. “Be brave to live the life of your dreams. Don’t worry, you over-think.” “What’s your advice, Blue Eyes?” I asked. He came up with a beauty.

“Live! Be carefree!”

There is always more room in your life to ‘pharque’ more shit up!

Richard Lim

I am much soothed by a great line I read from the Water Margin (Sui Huchuan), 四海一家 , “Within the four seas, all men are brothers.” I will find some relevance there.

Si, Si. Scalzi Is Never So-so.

We moved into this Federation-style house in 1995. It took over two years and a big advance from Pa to build it, without which the whole project would have remained a piped dream. The extended delay, due to a long wet spell that made the builders curse the soggy and challenging conditions, was actually a relief for me. It allowed me more time to arrange my finances and sweet-talk my bank manager to grant a generous loan. Everyone at the time said my bluestone house cost “too much”, well over its “market value”. The Mrs and I didn’t argue. After all, “value” is what each of us perceive. As with most things, the pair of us could see value in things many others cannot – like rearing chooks and growing potatoes. How much does one price a cul-de-sac? A dead-end street means a lot less traffic – which must mean highly prized safety for our young kids from goons in their fast cars and would-be deviant predators. How much is a bush-setting 18 minutes from the CBD? The luxury of enjoying an environment of mature eucalyptus trees which infuses us with that soothing peppermint scent each morning is difficult to price. What about the daily cacophony the galahs, parakeets, crested pigeons and kookaburras offer – our abode comes with free access to their musical performances that never fail to delight anyone who is ready to pause and listen. How much are we willing to pay for our privacy? This plot of land with its established trees cleverly sits on a level that hides us from all our neighbours – we cannot see them and more importantly, they cannot see us. (I have been known to pee in the garden; ah, the inconvenience of old age) I could have picked a modern design that had simplicity of form, yet functional and minimalist with vast open plan living, and floor to ceiling linear glass walls that invite the views of our garden into our home. Instead, I revealed my taste for the old-fashioned and chose Federation architecture that was the rage a hundred years earlier. The irresistible features which give my house that “old world” feel is of course the ornate architraves, timber windows and delightful leadlighting. Leadlight is why the spotlight is on John Scalzi in this story.

Making friends does not come to me naturally. Maybe I am overly ribald in the way I speak. Family members will undoubtedly say it is my indecorous manner and crass body language. My entrances to private conversations are seldom timely and often off-putting. Since my arrival in 1986, I can count the number of friends I have made in Adelaide with my fingers – thumbs are not yet required. It is also not easy for me to keep a friend. Maybe I take friendships seriously, which may be why I am contented to have just a few close friends. If we are allowed only one spouse in a marriage, why would anyone think we must have many friends? For me, a friend is someone reliable and trustworthy, one who I know will be non-judgemental and stand by me even if I had been disappointing by my own standards. A friend is someone who could be absent in my life for a quarter of a century, yet when we reconnect, everything still feels right and cosy as before. John Scalzi is, by this definition, definitely a friend.

I have known John since “kindy” days in 1986. Our first-borns met and became best buddies in kindergarten and being their parents, we became good friends too. Highbury was the suburb we lived in. I was impressed by Highbury, a blue-collar suburb it may have been. It was a suburb with lots of gum trees! Relocating to Adelaide meant we had to say goodbye to our Sydney home which nestled in between Long Bay jail in Malabar and La Perouse. The latter was known as a ghetto for aboriginals and the former was infamous for its human waste treatment plant. On days when the sea breeze blew inwards instead of out towards the open sea, it was abundantly clear to all and sundry why Sydney had a poo problem. Besides, a football fan like me knew all about Highbury being the home of Arsenal FC. The name had a nice ring to it, any name with “high” in it was high-sounding enough. To this day, I should regret choosing Highbury and not the other high-sounding suburb that was within my budget, Kensington Park. I could have made many times more capital gain from the suburb with that royal name. But, never mind. Highbury is where I discovered the Scalzi’s, and what precious gems they turned out to be! There are more important things in life than to strike gold or oil. Striking a meaningful friendship is one of them.

I received a message today in a group chat. It could easily have been sent by John Scalzi. A simple message, yet I had the temerity to discolour its golden advice, diminish its aura, and poke fun at its seriousness. “A wonderful reminder for our soul,” the sender said.

“Treat people the way you want to be treated. Talk to people the way you want to be talked to. Respect is earned, not demanded.”


My immediate response? “Do I have a soul?” was all I managed to contribute. Just last week I asked Matt, a sales recruit from 10 months ago, to talk to customers the way he would talk to his mother. “My mother swears like a trooper, and I do that back to her,” was Matt’s reply. I told him a religious friend of mine often prays for me and my family, mostly to keep us safe. It is, of course, unbecoming of me to tell Wilson not to bother God on account of me. God is just way too busy looking after everybody. “He needs a rest. He’s not coping well, look at the disasters around the world,” I added. Matt said “I have Satan on speed-dial and already got my First Class one way ticket to Hell and I’m bringing the weed to the party he’s hosting when I get there… so there’s no point praying for me….” John Scalzi can never be this vulgar. How would a Catholic like Scalzi respond? I can almost hear him say “Of course God can cope. Christians just need to learn that He answers every prayer…….what they don’t realise is often the answer is ‘No’!” For clever answers, look to Scalzi. He is never cantankerous and his replies are always laced with effervescent wisdom. He leaves a person smiling even whilst he is pummelling the idiot with common sense. Scalzi will say common sense is not so common. You’re either right or wrong, you don’t get to stand on both sides with him. Si, si. With Scalzi, it’s never so-so.

Esoteric discussions on matters beyond the grasp of the average person best suit my friend John. I asked him what is the best motto he lives by. He could have said Clever people solve problems. Wise people prevent them.That would be so him. Or, One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. He is that understanding which is why I have not witnessed him being judgemental. Another saying he likes is The main ingredient of success is the rest of the team – that would be an appropriate indication of why he was successful in his career. I will come to that later. Being the loving husband to Anne, the awesome father to his children, and the amazing son to his 91-year-old mum who lives with him, it would not surprise me had he picked A hug is the best medicine in the world. His wisdom may have made him consider this other wonderful saying, Take risks. if you win, you’ll be happy. If you lose, you’ll be wise. Either way, he wins. He has shared with me many other wise words such as Never argue with a fool, people will not notice the difference, Wise people think all they say, fools say all they think. and If only closed minds came with closed mouths.Without any hesitation, he told me his favourite is If it is to be, it is up to me. He didn’t ask me which saying I liked the most. I would have told him, Science is a bit like sex. It has practical consequences but that is not why we do it.

“If it is to be, it is up to me.”

William Johnsen

This sums up Scalzi really well. He doesn’t wait for fate. He won’t sit back and wait for others to step up. He does not procrastinate. Something may be beyond our control, but he will make his choices. He won’t leave it to chance. He will be the one to grab the bull by its horns and lead by example. He sets the goal and drives towards it. He is a leader who doesn’t blame someone else if a job doesn’t get done. When there is a will, there is a way – he will make sure it is done! “Success with integrity,” he added. Integrity is a big piece of the puzzle that completes the picture of John Scalzi. Si, si. Scalzi is never so-so.

John told me about leadlight not long after we met. I had wrongly assumed the terrarium he made was stained glass. I was impressed by his craftwork and when I praised him lavishly for something my awkward and clumsy hands can never do, he impressed me even more by making one for my house. Leadlights are decorative glass windows or doors made of small pieces of cut glass puttied in lead cames (channels). Stained glass is costly and therefore rarely found in residential houses, as the coloured glass has to be painted and then fired – work that requires fine craftsmanship and artistry. When I showed John the rain-soaked skeletal structure of my house on-site during a prolonged delay, he told me he was capable of making the leadlights for my front door. He had the quality and confidence of a master tradesman. How did he acquire such lofty skills? I mean, he only gained his knowledge from the store that sold him the lead cames and tools! His day job was as a purchasing officer in the SA Police Dept. Prior to that, he worked as a theatre orderly in the RAH. Yet, when he spoke, the medical knowledge that he revealed was incredible. Even my GP who sees me as an idiot was amazed. John thinks he won his promotions in TAFE Supply Branch and in the Country Fire Service. No, John. We win a lottery, lotto or a football match. Appointments to high positions are earned. They don’t fall on our laps. He showed me how far one can achieve in life without a university degree, although he did collect a splatter of diplomas and certificates along the way. He was the Chief Procurement Officer (Director Procurement & Contracting) in the Education Department, responsible for a final-year budget of $600m, for 20 years prior to his retirement. Si, si. Scalzi is never so-so.

The leadlight door John Scalzi made for me in 1995

My family cannot understand why the inside door to the dining room remained incomplete for almost 26 years. The door was installed before we moved in, but it lacked the glass panes to keep the room warm. “Do you know how much energy you have wasted, ba?!” I didn’t think First Son minded when he was becoming a lanky teenage boy. He often used the gap in the top panel to practise his slam dunks with a tennis ball. What can I say? “Ba is an idiot?” I have learned to be quiet when my adult sons are around. They believe they know more than me even though I have crossed more bridges than they have crossed roads, and consumed more salt than they have eaten rice. My boys forget the stressful times and long days I toiled whilst they were growing up in the comfortable confines of this place they called home. Maybe that is the wise thing to do, forget. Or, maybe they simply were unaware. That is the price of an uncomplaining father. I didn’t reveal the juggling acts of a tired man who had seven mouths to feed. Anyway, completing a door was not on my mind when there were never enough hours in a day and a bank account that was running on empty. For two decades, work meant seven days a week. Maybe, that was just my imagination. No one remembers now. The door John made for me was a gift. A house-warming gift that was not reciprocated with a house-warming party. Oh, how I value this great friendship. A lesser person would not have forgiven me. Si, si. Scalzi is never so-so.

I was digging into my lunch in BBQ City when I felt a tap on my shoulder about a year ago. I looked up with some loose strands of noodles hanging out of my full mouth which was crammed with pieces of succulent roast duck. “Hi! I thought it was you!” John’s friendly voice boomed out. Smiling was difficult with a mouth over filled with the best roast duck in Chinatown. It made my eyes more narrow and slant than they normally are. A photo taken after I had quickly pushed down the delicacy down my throat accentuated my ugliness much more. My crooked coffee-stained teeth and vanishing tuft that hastened a receding hairline placed next to John’s genuine smile and adorable kind eyes made me sneer when I ought to smile.

John with the original 1993 plans

Recently, I confessed to John that the inside door of my house was still unfinished. It was a confession that reaped immediate rewards. Today, I am proud to show you what a magnificent feature it is in my house. The Mrs and I certainly do not feel we overpaid for our house, especially with this latest leadlight. John, thank you for this lovely work. It is a work of art. Above all, thank you and Anne for your lovely and cherished friendship. Si, si. The Scalzi’s are never so-so.

Finally, this 1993 project is complete.

It’s Fine, It Is Fine

I have to tell you about this amazing machine that was given to me recently. Not only is it made in China, it is also invented by the Chinese. But, who knows, the Americans may claim it was also stolen from them. The world changed markedly when Trump became POTUS. People became less civil. It became fashionable to be crass and rude. Lying and cheating is the new norm. Anyone and everyone can say anything, accuse another for crimes against humanity without a shred of evidence. Use that as an excuse to sanction another country. It is now alright to use profanity against another country as the Phillipines’ Foreign Secretary did this week to China. It is hideous when politicians talk about war on Anzac Day, a day when we remember the war dead. They talked about free nations needing to be “armed, strong and ready for war” when we ought to pause and think of the sacrifices millions made in past wars. The drums of war are beating, Australia’s Home Affairs boss added. But, for whom and to whose rhythm? Military hawks are running around the corridors of power, clamouring for more shiny missile warheads, warships and submarines. Those who ply their trade in the military industrial complex are rubbing their hands with glee. Urghhlings. Herbert Hoover said it is older men who declare war but it is the youth who must fight and die. Poignant letters written by young men, many who had not even really lived, are kept in the Australian War Memorial. Despicable are those who talk incessantly about the evil deeds of China, hoping to garner support for war. There are also those who disguise their anti-China rhetoric by saying they are actually against the CCP and not against the Chinese. They have their hands on their hearts as they proclaim that their democratic way of life is the superior one. Down with socialism and communism, they shout. But, perhaps the truth about today’s conflicts with China was revealed by President Joe Biden when he blurted out why they want the world to thwart China’s ambition to continually surpass their own achievements but which the US see as the ambition to be the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. He doesn’t want that to happen not because the Chinese are evil communists who are squashing the freedoms of their people – no, it is simply a selfish ambition to maintain the status quo by using human rights as the catalyst for any aggression against their competitors. The Americans want to remain number one, and they will do anything to defend their position. It’s fine, it is fine if a country wants to improve their own living standards. It is a good government if they govern for the good of the people. They shall not perish from the earth, if Abraham Lincoln was right.

A typical day in Australia, the drum of war beating.

Sorry, I digress. I meant to talk about the machine that was a gift to The Mrs from her sister. I have owned many machines in my lifetime but this one, I say thanks aloud every day. Sure, I appreciate all the other gadgets I have, including my laptop and mobile phone, of course. But, these other machines don’t make me feel healthy every time I use it. The brand is Joyoung and for me, that is such a well-chosen name. It does make me feel joyful and young! Although, initially it made me feel stupid. The instruction manual is in Chinese. The buttons on the machine for different selections are also in Chinese. I did not know how to use it, as intuitive as I thought it ought to be.

It’s fine, it is fine even if it is all in Chinese. The Mrs knows how to read; besides, her sister is just a video call away. They chatter to each other almost daily. The Mrs shares more words with her sister than she does with me. Our planets aligned when we met but now, we realise we are from different planets. What’s that saying again? Men are from Mars, women are from Venus? It’s fine, it is fine that we see things differently. She has just left to get her AstraZeneca jab. People of our age group weren’t supposed to get our jabs until September or October but many in the older age groups have spurned theirs, so we can jump the queue. What queue, though? I am not an anti-vaxxer but I have decided to procrastinate, blaming it on my genes – Pa was also averse to big and thick needles. Sorry, Pa but it’s fine, they won’t fine me for not taking the Covid-19 vaccine. I am thankful I have the luxury of choice in this matter. I can still choose to wait and see, whilst there are no active cases in the community here. What are the longer term side effects of these new vaccines, especially the mRNA ones? No one can tell me except to say it is safer with the vaccine than without. But, how do we weigh up our options properly if we do not have the relevant information in front of us? It’s fine, it is fine, is all the medical experts tell us.

It is all in Chinese!

I used to make my own soy milk. I looovve soy milk, ever since I was a kid. But, it is a lot of work to convert soy beans to soy milk. First, you’ll need to soak them overnight. Then, you’ll need to stand in the kitchen and remove the outer skin – the easiest way is to rub the beans together like washing your linen to make the skin come off. Then, you’ll need to separate the skin from the beans. Next, grind the beans with water and squeeze out the milk using a muslin bag (I used one the bank gave me to carry the daily takings for banking). The last step is to boil the milk in a big pot, stirring it continuously with a wooden spatula so it does not stick to the bottom of the pot. Skim away the foam as much as you can. Be very alert to reduce the heat before the milk over-boils like a volcano. Cook it for about 10 minutes to destroy the toxic enzymes. The whole process takes an hour, easily. Don’t forget to clean the pot, wash the sink, and make sure the blender is spick n span too. And wipe off any white drips on her stove! The Mrs will swoop down like an eagle if her hawk eyes detect a messy kitchen. The end result is a beautiful glass of the smoothest and finest soy milk. But, we do end up with a lot of wastes – the skin, the solids (lees), and foam. I bragged to some friends who love to cook that the Joyoung machine wastes nothing. Everything is consumed. They were skeptical and asked me how fine is the milk I get. “This machine blends and boils but does not strain.” “You eat the residue?” another one asked incredulously. “That’s a very different tau-chooi (soy milk in Hokkien),” he added sarcastically. “Yeah, I don’t like the residue,” another chimed in. “It’s fine, it is fine enough,” but I failed to convince them. Of course, the Joyoung is not constrained to just soy milk. We can use it to make milk, thick soup, herbal soup, even porridge. The Mrs and I have been enjoying this daily routine ever since. Soon after our IF clock passes the 16-hour mark, The Mrs will holler “Come and get it!” It’s fine, it really is fine to enjoy our almond milk, mung bean, red bean milk, black bean milk or sesame milk too. It is such a healthy feeling to feed my empty stomach with such goodness. It is no wonder that I say “Thank you”, every time I enjoy a glass of goodness. The other good thing – it auto cleans so thoroughly that all that is left for me to do is pour the “dirty” water into the rice pot to cook our rice with or use it to water the plants. It’s fine, it really is.

Now, let’s pray that Einstein was wrong when he said, “I know not with what weapons WW3 will be fought, but WW4 will be fought with sticks and stones.” May the drumbeats of war die out well before our heartbeats stop.

Our Host A Ghost 2

A reader commented that he found ‘Our Host A Ghost?’ disappointing. It failed his horripilation test. It seems now I am also somehow responsible for his piloerection – his hair should stand up on the back of his neck. So, what makes a ghost story scary? Does every ghost have to be able to turn its neck 360 degrees? Spew vile words and green vomit and shake our beds violently? Or is our appetite for creepiness only satisfied with overt violence and gore? A bus driver lost in the country roads of Heidelberg inadvertently finding the same life-size crucifix on the same small roundabout three times seemed paranormal enough for those of us in the bus. A thick ancient book with eerie-looking texts so frightening your eyes dared not cast on it in case it sucks out your soul failed to increase his anxiety and stress levels too. The evanescent dust that rose from within the pages only made him yawn. “The guy simply lacks adrenaline,” I heard myself say. Anyone else would have felt their own knees clattering, heart rate and blood pressure skyrocketing, and wet cold palms squirming.

Well, I have many more ghost stories up my sleeves. This one will surely stop him from reading to the end, although I am not sure that is what I want. If Heidelberg doesn’t scare him, Prague will definitely make him cower in his dark corner. After all, what I experienced in April 2004 still haunts me. What I felt – what I encountered – have remained in my dreams since. Since then, my last two visits to Prague by comparison were sedate and uneventful; the Old Town no longer exuded any old charm. It was as if the centuries-old spiritual connections to their other world have been finally severed. Severed by throngs of tourists and ubiquitous modern bars and restaurants. I walked along Charles Bridge in 2017, desperately trying to reconnect with the spirit world – hoping to again feel the presence of King Charles IV and the Habsburg Kings, Maximilian and Rudolf II. All I witnessed were noisy tourists, busy vendors and street performers. I even went to the former Prague Ghetto in Malá Strana, now known as Josefov, named after the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. Again, I was disappointed to find rude and rowdy tourists, some were even treading haphazardly on the messy disarray of tomb stones that protrude from the ground like uneven and crooked teeth on decaying gums. They disrespect the dead, lacking sobriety in their eagerness to take snapshots and videos of the final resting place of ten thousand poor souls buried on top of one another.

The Old Jewish Cemetery where I slipped and fell, I think

My first trip to Prague was with The Mrs, Big Sis and mum. A sister joined us from London. We arrived at our host’s apartment building early, after a succinct and entertaining brief on the history of Prague by our taxi driver. In those days, there was no Airbnb. It was also without the convenience of and Everything was arranged by London Sis – she being sharp as a tact and most organised when it comes to finding bargains and places of interest for first-time visitors. Our apartment was situated at Malá Strana, i.e. just a stone’s throw away from the old Jewish Cemetery. The taxi driver had told us Golem’s creator was buried there, a rabbi by the name of Judah Loew. Golem was molded from clay and mud in the dead of night to protect the Jewish from anti-Semitic attacks. The creature would lie dormant until the Shem (Hebrew magic word) was whispered and Golem would come alive. The very helpful taxi driver had also handed me some tourism leaflets. One that he said I should not miss was the Ghost Walking Tour through the Old Jewish Town. I promptly folded the leaflet and carefully put it in the right side pocket of my jacket.

Prague has seen countless wars since its early beginnings in 850 AD. Countless massacres. Countless beheadings. Countless ghosts, therefore. Many martyred in the name of religion. The story of Jan Hus still reverberates loudly; a visitor cannot miss the monument built in 1915 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his martyrdom. For a long time safe under the patronage of Wenceslas IV, he lost his head when he lost the support of his king after he righteously denounced the sacrilegious sale of indulgences by the Protestant king during the fraught period of dual papacy. The proceeds were intended to fund the war of the Pisan Pope against the Roman Pope. There were also many wars with their neighbours. During the Thirty Years War, the Swedes looted a lot of treasure from Prague Castle. There was also much looting done by the Nazis. Emperor Rudolf II purportedly collected the nails from Noah’s Ark and a phial of dust from which God created Adam. I wonder who has them today. Maybe the Russians, if the Nazis didn’t get their hands on them? Prague fell under Soviet rule when the communists took over. Prague’s history is littered with too many conflicts and wars, i.e. too many lives torn apart, sacrificed, and destroyed. Too many gruesome deaths. Some of us believe that those who die an untimely death, a reluctant death, an excruciating death or from a treachery become ghosts. Their souls refuse to let go or move on to an afterlife after they perished.

Our host was late by a good 15 minutes. The old man towered over us. He had a crooked nose and a crooked back. His fingers were deformed too, wrecked from a long period of rheumatoid arthritis, I observed. He hunched badly, due to a hearing loss. Perhaps from years of bending down to mouth level, straining to understand what people were saying to him. He wore all black, as if in mourning. He failed to apologise for being late and he did not offer any excuses either. There could be no excuses – back then, Prague was a quiet town, with very few tourists. London Sis was animatedly in deep discussion with him about house rules and what-not when I noticed something very odd. We were standing by the roadside at the bottom of the stone stairs of the apartment building. The late afternoon was turning chilly, and I was glad Big Sis was helping Ma put on her long coat.The sun was coming down onto the gargoyles of the Gothic apartment building casting oblique grotesque shadows on the quiet road when it struck me that the one above us was sneering at me. It was the most hideous creature I had ever since in real life. As I squint up against the setting sun to examine it, it appeared to break from the stone moorings and attempted to take flight. I quickly dismissed it from my mind. “It must be the shadows playing tricks,” I soothed my nerves and refrained myself from telling The Mrs. London Sis caught my attention and gestured that I should be the one to help with Ma’s and Big Sis’ luggages, as our host jangled the bronze keys from his pocket whilst heaving himself up the steps to the apartment.

Our rooms were magnificent. Full timber floors and high ceilings. Resplendently presented with red velvet curtains and ornate Gothic fireplaces in every room. A strong floral musk filled the air – someone had been too liberal with the spray, I felt. The crisp bedsheets and pillow cases all had sharp fold-marks, reassuring to those of us who notice such details about fresh linen. Everything was in order. We thanked our host and were about to let him go when he asked me quietly if the leaflet in my right pocket meant I was interested in the place. Talk about horripilation! I pretended not to hear him and waved him goodbye, without offering a handshake. I did not want him to feel how icy cold I suddenly felt.

The restaurants were dimly lit and poorly patronised. Ma wanted to try their Chinese cuisine. A disaster. The discoloured char-siew was fatty and burnt, sitting on a thick layer of oily and gooey syrup. The rice was uncooked and dry. Still famished after our first night’s meal, we went for a stroll and could not resist walking into a pub around the corner. We wanted to eat what the locals ate. A disaster. The pubs only sold cheap beer, stewed dumplings and salty goulash. “Cheatin’ Czechs,” I grumbled under my breath. They charged me more than the menu prices, I realised belatedly after I had parted with my money. “Overcharged by quite a lot!” London Sis hissed. When I complained to the smiling waiter, he said “No English! No English!”

It had been a long day. We all decided to go back to our apartment and rest. Besides, it was getting uncomfortably cold.

We had all said our goodnights hours ago. The Mrs was curled up like a furry puppy. I watched her cheeks rise and fall gently as she snored cutely. Normally, I would be in dreamland as soon as my head hits the pillow. But, I only sleep well in the familiarity of my own bed. My own smell, to be exact. Much to the disdain of The Mrs. She likes her sheets smelling fresh like gum leaves in a park. The floral musk still smelled strong in the room, but I have the nose of a dog (gross exaggeration).There was an underlying smell that I could detect, but I could not figure out what it was. No, it wasn’t the odour of putrescent meat. It was much fainter than that – a bit like a neighbour’s overnight durian or a stain of Gorgozola on a sleeve. I sat myself up against a pile of pillows as gently as I could. I made sure not to stir up The Mrs, just in case she mistook it as another of my failed attempt for sex. For a long time, I peered into the darkness of the room. The longer I looked, the more my eyes got accustomed to the dark. Even though the fireplace was not lit up, I could make out the “Fleur de Lys” motif on the stone mantle. The ornate carved castle dragons on the Corinthian columns seemed to beckon to me. I didn’t want the shadows to come alive, as they do the longer we look into the darkness. So, I sat there in my brand new blue striped pyjamas and closed my eyes tightly. Maybe I dozed off. Maybe I didn’t. To this day, I can’t be sure. But, this I remember.

There was a previously unseen whitish grey fabric that divided the room like a curtain. On the other side of it was the fireplace. As it was drawn open from both ends, I got up and walked towards the carved dragons. Strangely, I could not reach them even though they were just about one meter away from my bed. Instead, I found myself leaving the building and was met by my host at the bottom of the stone steps. “I knew you would come,” he said. “This way…” he gestured with his hand towards the direction of Prague Ghetto. As we walked past the Klaus Synagogue which is on the left of the street, he finally spoke again. “The building to the right of the Old Jewish Cemetery houses drawings by the children of Terezin concentration camp. I must insist you go there.” he voiced his intention firmly. “The Gestapo sent over 150,000 Jews to Terezin, including 15,000 children. Less than 150 children survived.” “You wanted to see ghosts in your walking tour?” he used a growling voice that was most confronting. “Now, you walk inside by yourself,” he said as he opened the wrought-iron gates of the cemetery. It wasn’t a nightmare I was having. I saw them. They looked so thin and pained with sorrow. So withdrawn from the world. No, they are not from this world. They do not belong here. But, they do not want to in the other world either. They weren’t ready to go, so they stayed. “We weren’t buried in coffins,” a voice said. “They wrapped us in muslin.” “….and simply threw us into the hole on top of one another,” another wailed. I panicked and rushed to leave. The spitting rain had turned heavier and I fell to the ground as I slipped on a muddy patch. Momentarily I lost my sense of direction before stumbling out of the cemetery. “Now, you will pay your respect to us, and go to Pinkas Synagogue. “Our names are inscribed on the walls there.” “Us,” he said. Us! My host was one of them. A Bohemian Jew.

Charles Bridge in 2004. Without a soul. Sorry, I meant without a living soul.

When morning broke, I found myself tucked snugly in bed. I kicked away the heavy blankets, and readied to sit up. The Mrs immediately frowned at me and shook her head. “WHAT?” I said. What have I done wrong again? “I just woke up!” I muttered to myself. “You should know by now not to get into my bed without changing into your pyjamas!” The Mrs said. To argue with her would be as futile as sand fighting to stay dry on the beach. I glanced at the fireplace and saw my blue striped pyjamas crumpled in a heap on the floor. The Mrs followed my eyes and walked to them. She picked them up and pointed to the mud stains, “Where have you been? They are wet!” All I said was we must visit Pinkas Synagogue that day.

Our Host A Ghost?

It was in 2006, on my first visit to Heidelberg. I confused myself with Gutenberg, bragging to The Mrs that it was the birthplace of the printing press as we unpacked our bags in the cold and damp motel room. Those two words easily confused me, berg and burg. Our tour guide taught us the former means a mountain or an iceberg, whereas a burg is an ancient fortress or walled city. It was later after my holiday that I discovered my mistake – the berg in Gutenberg does not denote it as a place on a hill. Gutenberg lived in Mainz when he invented the printing press and started the printing revolution. The only connection to printing Heidelberg has is that it has the oldest public library in Germany. Nestled less than two hours from the Black Forest, our motel in Heidelberg was not easy to find. The Contiki coach driver meandered totally lost along the back roads of villages and small suburbs for a good hour. His voice started to quiver and rise in pitch and volume as he spoke animatedly to someone on the phone. It was obvious to many of us at the front of the coach that he was seeking directions from a loud-speaking German woman whose patience was growing shorter by the minute. Hey, it is dangerous to drive a big bus and speak on the mobile phone at the same time. I beseeched to his good sense, albeit silently in my mind.

“Is it safe?” I mumbled to the tall and handsome Indian man sitting immediately in front of me, pretending to be Lawrence Olivier in The Marathon Man. The tall and handsome Indian man who I had earlier mistaken as Dennis Nimbalker, a good friend in High School, jumped up from his seat, clearly agitated. I hasten to add he didn’t understand I was mimicking the dentist in the movie, about to torture Dustin Hoffman by extracting information about how safe “it” was. He turned to me and with a raised right eyebrow asked me if I too felt it was unsafe. “Yeah, why don’t you tell the driver not to speak on the phone – you’re nearer to him and…” I said. Before I could even finish my sentence, the bus came to a screeching halt on the gravel path next to the narrow road. The small group of Malaysian students near me woke up from their slumber, disturbed by the commotion. “Uncle, what’s wrong?” the pale thin girl whom I gave my 3-minute noodles to for lunch the day before called up to me. She told me they had nothing to eat whilst we were strolling aimlessly along the dismally cold and empty street up in a quiet town near the Swiss Alps. She complained that the exchange rate was some ridiculous figure of about ten to one and she and her friends were running short of money very quickly. A single Swiss sausage without any condiments cost twelve euros. The Mrs and I had brought along a kettle and a hot water flask each – with biscuits, tea bags, instant noodles and hard boiled eggs prepared in our hotel room, we could visit anywhere and not go hungry. Ever since we sacrificed our lunch to them, those students considered us as their uncle and auntie. All day, it was uncle this and auntie that.

“It’s the driver,” I said with a disguised soothing voice. “Are we lost?” the pimple-riddled boy next to the pale thin girl asked. His face reminded me of mine when I was a virile teenager who had just discovered the opposite sex was far more interesting than kicking a terribly scuffed football on the school field. The grossly underweight boy had hands that could not hide the details of his phalanges. His fair skin hardly hid his white knuckles, so tightly was he grasping at the shoulders of the seat in front of him. I remember wondering how thin he really was, even his puffy winter jacket hinted at his under-nourished state. “No, we are not lost.” I said. But the driver is! I shouted inside my head. They were asleep and would not have realised the coach had stopped in front of a small roundabout three times already in the last half-hour. On the roundabout stood a massive crucifix that was out-of-proportion to the size of the island. Fear suddenly gripped me, as the grotesque image of an evidently suffering Jesus Christ cast my mind back to the school chapel during my first year in primary school. There, I was permanently scarred by a similarly over-sized crucifix with a tortured dying man whose outstretched limbs were nailed onto the cross and legs brutally smashed making it impossible for him to push himself up the beam to lessen the strain on his body. A crown of thorns, pushed into his head, mocked him in death as a false king. The Jesus Christ on the roundabout appeared very much emancipated and in his death throes with that pain-ravaged look on his face, I felt he was pleading for someone to finish him off and free him from his gruesome torture.

Again, the same roundabout! The same crucifix. The same contorted face of a man dying an agonising death. The sun had very quickly decided to set, waking the night as the driver turned off the engine. As he was studying the map on his lap, turning it upside down, someone on the right hand side of the coach gasped loudly. This was followed by louder gasps and then, the tall and handsome Indian man’s young bride was on her feet. “Look! Look!” she whimpered. Dennis Nimbalker’s doppelganger got up too, as did many others on the left side of the bus. We edged towards the right side of the coach, the windows fogging up like small mushrooms in the process. Behind the rusty iron gates of the property away from the side of the road stood a two-storey motel that looked neglected and uninhabited for decades. The old building was grey and foreboding against the fast darkening sky. A single bulb suddenly flickered and dimly lit up the lobby, as if the concierge had just realised their guests had arrived. The halation from the shimmering glow conjured up grotesque shadows against the wall. “No! No! Please don’t let this be our motel!” the young Indian bride whispered with a violent shudder. An old Italian couple behind us started praying loudly. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come….(indiscernible murmuring).” That all of us in the coach could, as one, feel the ominous signs of the crucifix and the motel spelt impending disaster for me. I was ready to jump off the coach, should The Mrs tug at my hand. As if he could read our minds, the driver obeyed our unspoken command and cranked up the engine. Many of us gave many loud sighs of relief as the coach slowly inched past the eerie motel. Once the motel was behind a bend and out of sight, the mood in the coach relaxed considerably. The relief on many faces was soon followed by loud whoops of delight and raucous celebration.

The driver apologised on the PA system but no one cared. We were all jubilant when told our motel was only minutes away. By that time, the soft grey shadows of the lingering sun had disappeared. Darkness had overpowered the sun, and the lazy moon was nowhere to be seen.

Our motel was cold and damp. The night manager had little time for us, I gathered from his facial expressions that our late arrival had spoilt his plans for the evening. He rushed us through a bleak dinner of pea soup and a plate of cheese, cold cuts and slices of green capsicum and tomatoes. I can’t remember if there was any pretzel. There was certainly no beer, something that I had looked forward to all day. As we were unpacking our bags in our room, I said to The Mrs “Isn’t it odd that the night manager behaved unprofessionally?” He may have been smartly attired in his black suit but I found it discomforting that he avoided eye contact with his guests. The Mrs suggested it may have been a long day for him, maybe he just wanted to go home. “Anyway, he did say our host, the owner of the motel, will come say hello to us in the morning.” Our room was cold. The extra blankets we asked for did not warm us up. The night manager apologised that the heating system had broken down earlier in the day, and they had not been able to fix it. Our first day in Heidelberg had been nightmarish, I hoped the night would improve. It didn’t.

There were dogs howling in the dead of night. Wolves, I reasoned. Next door to us, someone was showering all night. Running water normally gives a calming ambience, it settles me when I am at my most anxious mood. But, the noise of the cascading water disturbed me. How could anyone shower for such a long time? Isn’t the heating system stuffed? I inched closer to The Mrs for extra body warmth. She mistook it to be another sexual advance from me. “Not tonight, dear.”

We were up early the next morning. I was curious to find out who was next door to us. I wanted to tell them cleanliness is a virtue but not paranoia! Did they sterilise themselves from the long shower? It was the old Italian couple who prayed in the coach. The old chap asked me how was it I was able to take such a long cold shower. “Buongiorno,” I greeted him. I chose not to spoil his day. Our host didn’t show up to greet us despite the night manager’s welcoming speech. No one cared, we weren’t there to meet him anyway.

Our day was spent in the Marklplatz, the old market place of Heidelberg in the Old Town. I have to say Heidelberg was an eerie place, even in broad daylight. It was mid-morning by the time we re-assembled outside the Church of the Holy Spirit. The sun threw sharp outlines of light and shape on the stone pavers. The tall black door of the ancient church was slightly ajar, luring me to go nearer the main entrance. A waft of eerie music reached my ears, beckoning me to walk inside. Heidelberg or “Holy Mountain” is the oldest city in Germany with relics of old forts from the 5th century BC to prove it. It saw many bloody wars between the Romans and Germanic tribes during its early history. The church itself had been fought over by invaders for centuries during the Middle Ages. Many wars, countless massacres. Too many died. So many ghosts. The one thing that made the most lasting impression on me about Heidelberg were its books. They were ancient! My aversion to churches and chapels from childhood stopped me from stepping into the church, despite the eerie music’s best attempts to lure me inside. I cast my eyes to the little stalls that lined the side of the building instead. They remind me of the temporary shack across my dad’s shop on old Penang Road, the one that sold comic books and other magazines pegged high on a string above our heads. I still remember the old Indian vendor with a shiny bald head. He was only ever seen wrapped in white cotton dhoti with a white t-shirt to match. I reckon I committed my first sin in his stall, falling for the temptation from his lollies and preserved fruits soaked in sugar syrup in big glass jars. Cheap plastic helicopters and toy soldiers in plastic bags were a constant threat to my innocence too, as much as the apple was to Eve, I comforted myself.

The one stall that abutted the church scared the living daylights out of me. In broad daylight! It was an unmanned book stall but wide open for anyone to enter. No one steals books, right? No one would dare steal those books! It still sends shivers up my spine, thinking about it. The stall was dark even though it was almost noon by the time I walked in. The books were scary not because of the stories inside. The books screamed at me; beseeched me not to touch them and not to turn the pages. They warned me not to take photos of them. I had the urge to look closer and bent forwards towards the leather-bound one closest to me. It was bigger than my 13-inch laptop but thick. At least a ruler’s length. I didn’t recognise the letters at all, but I knew it wasn’t Greek. It wasn’t the odour of something putrescent but there was a definite smell. Mouldy, with a hint of dankness. A hint of evil perhaps. It sat there, as still as a book would, but a shaft of daylight suddenly hit it. The stale air in the room was disturbed, and when I saw a plume of grey dust rising softly from the dark brown leather cover of the book, I grabbed hold of The Mrs’ hand and bolted out into the sunlight. Goodbye, Heidelberg. To this day, I am thankful we did not meet our host. Where there is light, shadows lurk. Perhaps it was the shadow of ghosts that I disturbed.

Palatine Library, the Bibliotheca Palatina, was kept here. Most of its collection of manuscripts and early printed books were looted and given to the Pope.

Risky Being Risqué

Last week, I confided to Keith what had been bothering me. Keith, a good friend who shares many of my flawed traits, shocked me. He told me to be risqué. Nothing major, these flaws of ours but at the same time, they can be rather annoying. We are almost like peas of the same pod, so similar are we with our jaundiced views of the world. But, Keith can cook really well whereas he jokes that I, being one of very many accountants in our chat group, can only cook the books. Most of us were from the Science stream of our school – how so many of us ended up being fastidious and “very exact” accountants is a mystery. “Purely accidental,” Chip, a rather fastidious chap, said. Someone as punctilious as he surely would not have resigned himself to an accidental event to determine his career, I thought. People like him do not take such risks. Chip wanted to be a hotelier but he too ended up as an accountant. The penny suddenly dropped – Chip could have been talking about me. Yup, that is one of my flaws – leaving it to fate (or accidents) to decide which path to walk. A gung-ho trait, come what may – just deal with it. Keith was also like that. In my case, I was destined to go into Dentistry, except that my dad withheld the letter of offer from the School of Dentistry and the rest is history, as the popular saying goes. Keith became a loss assessor instead. He was so lost at the time, he said. It was the only job available to him as his MCE results were so poor he did not qualify to do the A levels. Aloysius, another fastidious chap in the conversation said he responded to a job ad in the Straits Echo for audit assistants. At the time he was clueless what audit was. All he knew was that his folks could not afford to put him through uni. Aloysius did not realise education was free in Australia during those short but wonderful years. My 4th Sis told me, and I assumed everyone knew. No need to share news that the public already knows.

What I confided to Keith was the drop in my WordPress readership statistics.The numbers looked bleak. I thought he, with similar flaws like mine, would be sympathetic. After all, he understands what narcissists love – they seek adulation or at the very least, appreciation of everything good about them. They need to satiate their sense of their own importance or popularity. For bloggers, vital numbers such as visitor numbers and numbers of views per visitor reveal a lot. The bloggers who are concerned about the popularity of their writings may very well feel deflated when those numbers drop like bricks. My stats are awful. They are like bricks. I started blogging in 2019. Then, the views per visitor was a low 2.52. Rather than being dismayed by the low number, I told myself it would only get better with time. The following year was a bad year – the pandemic struck. But, the number of visitors dropped 40% when one would have expected it to improve, given that people, forced to stay at home, went online in droves searching for content to keep themselves occupied. Not only did the number of visitors drop, the number of views per visitor also sank, to 1.93. Demoralising, surely, to a narcissist. 2021 has been even more devastating, the new low is now 1.60 views per visitor. Yup, numbers do not lie and my falling popularity is sticking out like dog’s balls.

Keith and I have too many flaws to mention here. One thing we have in common is our lack of concern about how others feel about us. We are not afraid to be seen to be annoying so long as we are true to ourselves. You may say that is the opposite of a narcissist. Yet, sometimes, I think it is precisely because the chap is so confident in his own skin that he simply doesn’t care what others think of him. So, he calls a spade a spade. He is always prepared to speak the unvarnished truth. It is similar to cooking a dish, he does not add extra spices to disguise a rotting piece of meat, just as he would not add icing to a stale cake to make it presentable.

I was therefore taken aback when Keith suggested I should take more risks when I write. “Don’t be staid,” he advised. “You’re not an accounting firm. No one wants to read about numbers and stats.” he echoed The Mrs’ remarks made to me a few weeks ago. Remarks that cut me like a sharp razor. Yet, when Keith said it, I felt non-plussed at first. After pondering on it for a few seconds, I replied in bold. “Stats matter!” I argued with total seriousness as only an accountant would. “Be risqué,” Keith continued. He suggested that I write about my sexual exploits during my youth. “Share with us nitty-gritty tales about your girlfriends in school, for instance.” We all know sex sells, but I was a virgin in school. Nothing to capture anyone’s attention here. “Maybe some explosive scandalous gossip.” Keith persisted. If only I had lost my trousers in a hotel room, I could surely share all the saucy details here.

I could write about the Girl Guide I met in a Jamboree. But, that’s risky, I decided. The facts weren’t risqué but my thoughts were. I remembered her as Janet. Her pigtails were unforgettable. In fact, she remains the only girl I have met with the cutest pigtails. Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. She flicked them side to side like how Cheng Pei-Pei flicked her daggers with her pigtails in The Flying Dagger. I had the hots for that Kungfu actress even before adolescence gave me pimples and a croaky voice. Janet had the sweetest smile reserved purely for me. Her alluring pout captivated me instantly and those full glossy lips of hers made me crazy. I discovered what priapic meant after that moment. Her glittering and deep-set eyes laughed whenever I spoke to her friends. She didn’t say a word but I felt she was screaming for my attention. When our eyes finally met, the whole world stopped and everyone stood still with eyes shut as if to allow us the privacy to say hello for the first time.

I mis-remembered her as Janet. Sorry about that, Susan.
Cheng Pei-Pei, my puppy love.

Maybe it is easier if I write about myself, but who am I to think I can hold a reader’s attention? I don’t have personal stories about underage sex or drugs or rape. Even if I did, who would bother to be interested? I could paint myself as a villain perhaps and describe all my flaws that make me an ugly person. Expose the possibility that I could have been gaslighting my colleagues? It is easy to destroy a person’s reputation but it is manifestly much easier to destroy a person’s sense of self worth. Just drum into them they have an inferior complex and they will begin to believe they are inferior. Or maybe if I confessed to my readers why I am an idiot and a fool? Show them the scars in my mind and the psychological baggage I have been carrying ever since that night when I was almost sexually assaulted by my school chaplain?

I could fake a crisis in my life and create a dilemma that requires my urgent decision to either end the boredom of a rather mundane daily routine that bedevils my mind and disrupt this life that has been kind to me, or continue with the secure and peaceful existence that has provided me with a long-lasting marriage and three wonderful sons? Create some uncertainty in the reader’s mind about my well-being? Pretend all is not well with my marriage, for instance? Keep the readers hooked. Get them to wonder if The Mrs will divorce me? But that’s too risky also. Let’s not give any more ideas to her. She won’t need too many reasons to encourage her!

I considered writing about my health. Recently, I went for a medical checkup. I had been neglecting my own healthcare. My previous visit to a doctor was almost three years ago. At a time when I should have had a digital examination to check for any prostate problems, I avoided it like how a chook would avoid being wet. It was scandalous a few years ago when a politician said he chose a young female Chinese GP for a prostate examination because young Chinese females have small hands. But, really, can you blame him? I would not want a doctor with massive hands to examine me either!

My blood test results were perfect. The doctor said perfect, not just good. Perfect! And not merely perfect for my age. Perfect for any age, I think. Well, it was perfect until the LDL cholesterol reading was read out. “5.8”, a really bad number that any doctor would unhesitatingly prescribe a permanent dosage of statins. I refused my doctor’s advice like how a naughty boy would refuse to go to school. “I would just flush them pills down the toilet,” I said. As a compromise, I agreed to sacrifice full cream milk, cheese and butter. The other bad stuffs to avoid aren’t big in my diet anyway. I hardly eat bread, so avoiding butter is easy. I am not a big meat eater, so saying no to red meat, fatty meat and cured meats is easy to do. The only thing is I have to settle for skim milk instead. Skim milk is as boring as having sex without a wild imagination. Keith, is that risqué enough? If not, I am out of good ideas.

Lastly, the only other thing to grab my reader’s attention or eke out an emotional response has to be about death. Write about the drama of death. All good stories often involve the hero’s death. Jason Lee, a jolly good friend who was one of my best pals in Form 5 rang me earlier this week. We went to the State Library every day in the last 8 weeks before our MCE. There were distractions in the library but for once, pretty girls ranked lower in importance than the quest to pass our exams. By then, my pimples were popping violently like shaken champagne and I learned that libido was fun, unlike judo. Jason said we are all born to die. Death is not only inevitable but it is also the last thing all of us must face. Death is universal, it doesn’t discriminate. Alright, let me try to be risqué here. Death is universal but it can discriminate. A childhood hero, Bruce Lee, died happily whilst enjoying sex with his girlfriend. A nice way to write about death, isn’t it? Better that than write about Meghan Markle’s narcissistic personality about why she won’t be attending Prince Philip’s funeral. She said she didn’t want to snatch the world’s attention from the dead man. She is such an ugly Urghhling, don’t you agree?

Why do I write? It isn’t for a want of a big following. It isn’t even about the number of views per visitor on my WordPress account. Once upon a time, maybe briefly, I harboured that dream. Like how a Youtuber friend would eye the number of views and likes on a video he recently posted. The new hope to be an overnight sensation didn’t last long. There will be no Booker prize in my name or any literary award to aim for. I think I write to disturb. To disturb my own mind. In that respect, it is risky work, facing up to and then exposing my own psyche, my flaws, my prejudices. I write for selfish reasons. To improve my command of the English language. To organise my thought processes, to reach a considered conclusion about a subject matter. To build self-confidence. I don’t write to foment unrest in my mind but rather to put down in words my jumbled-up thoughts that sizzle inside my burning head at frenetic speed sometimes. The hope is of course to write something new, something interesting that a reader will turn the page and stay with me till the last word. That is all I hope to achieve – to disturb my reader, to touch someone emotionally or intellectually. If I can evoke an emotion or thought through my stories, I would feel very thankful.

Worship The Warship

What do we really see when we look at the sea? For me, I see stories – lots of them, as I gaze out to the vast expanse of water. Where do the waves go? Where do they come from? How far have they travelled before arriving at the shore? How deep is the sea that I am looking at? Has anyone drowned recently? Unlikely, since that stretch of sun-drenched sand is patrolled by bronzed chaps and chicks donning red caps and wearing bright yellow vests. The surf lifesaver has become a new Aussie icon. Tanned, fearless, selfless and strong on our beaches, they are as identifiably Australian as Bondi Beach and the Sydney Opera House. The sea was turquoise and choppy earlier on but now it is almost pitch black and calm. Suddenly, it is quiet, very quiet without the busy seagulls and the narcissistic blondes in the briefest bikinis. Look at the sea carefully, as carefully as you would cross a busy street. Is there a dangerous rip current ready to pull you in and will it snarl at your futile attempts to swim back to shore? Will you get thrown up high by a huge playful wave before it dumps you hard into the water? Will you be fooled by the gracefulness of the jellyfish? Do you even know how to treat its sting? Is it harbouring any Great Whites out there, just a short ride in a lightweight tinny? What is a tinny, you ask? It’s an aluminium boat no bigger than a sampan but its lightness makes any ride a choppy one, even on a perfectly calm day. The last one I was in made me puke up my breakfast, to my colleague’s horror. Would it surprise you if I told you that was the only time he invited me to go fishing with him?

A view from Henley Beach, South Australia. Photo by Yeoh Chip Beng.

Once upon a time, I wrote to a girl that my love for her was like the sea. I was so absolutely sure I would return to her as surely as the sea always returns to the seashore. On a starry night, upon seeing the push of the current towards the shore, she would realise it was as strong as her pull on me towards her heart. See the tracks on the golden sand? I reminded her then. Our footprints will be intact and undisturbed by time, we both echoed. “The moment will surely come when we are together again retracing our footsteps,” absurdly I wrote on the aerogramme. Strangely, I have never enjoyed sand on my feet since. I was born on a tropical island that nestled in a sheltered paradise in the Straits of Malacca. Penang, long long ago, was known as the Pearl of the Orient. The story of the pearl is also a love story. If you cast your mind to an oyster with its hard shell protecting the naturally-formed pearl inside it, you will feel the perfect harmony and caring love between the living shellfish and its precious jewel in the sea. The more pristine their natural environment is, the more exquisite will be the pearl’s perfection.

In school as a child, I was taught that the island I was born in was founded by Francis Light, and then colonised by the British Empire. It was much later that I discovered that the earliest remains of its natives were well over 5,000 years old. That is significantly much older than the island of Great Britain itself, which was formed in 1707. It is also much older than England by some 4,000 years. Artefacts found in Prai indicated that the earliest inhabitants of Penang were nomadic Melanesians who were hunter-gatherers. Francis Light arrived in his “country ship” named Eliza. I reckon he should have called it a warship as it was laden with cannons and manned by artillery personnel alongside two escort naval ships, Prince Henry and Speedwell.

Human history is littered with the romanticised ideas of swashbuckling buccaneers and all-conquering Vikings who raided large parts of Europe by stealth from their narrow-bottomed long warships. Who hasn’t read Treasure Island and pretended to be young Jim Hawkins? Many of us would have sung “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!” for the first time during our childhood without even knowing what rum was. War movies glorify the honour and blood shed during famous battles between warships such as the 2nd Battle of Guadalcanal and Battle of Surigao Strait. They were Hollywood movies of course, since the battles were won by the Americans over the Imperial Japanese navy. The Titanic may not have been a warship but we can’t deny how so many romanticised its ill-fated maiden voyage, made unforgettable by James Cameron. What about the other much-acclaimed naval movie, Master and Commander, about a British naval captain during the Napoleonic Wars? Or Midway about the Battle of Midway, a turning point in WW2. Why do we romanticise tragedy? The idea that we can glorify battles between warships and build awe-inspiring stories around so much destruction and death is typical of urghhlings.

When I look at the sea, I am often reminded of a black and white war movie, set in the Americas. The scene of that Spanish beach landing still haunts my mind. The Spanish soldiers, terrified and weary, were pinged down on the shallow water near their small landing crafts unable to advance towards the beach. Their warship anchored in the background, was too far for them to return to it. So near yet so far, as one by one they got shot down from where they stood. They started praying, softly at the beginning, but their voices soon grew bolder as more men joined in like a hesitant choir. They quivered as they prayed. I imagined some were repenting, others admonishing themselves for hurting their loved ones during foolish moments of rage.That remains for me, one of the most poignant scenes I have witnessed on TV. When all able-bodied and super-fit fighting men could do was to stand and pray and wait for death to come. What stories did they flashback in their minds? Who did they love? They sure as hell weren’t worshipping their warship then.

Today, there seems to be a lot of talk about the potential for a hot war between America and China. The arena of war commonly anticipated is the Taiwan Strait, also known as the Formosa Strait. US destroyer the USS John McCain passed through there earlier this week as a “routine” freedom of navigation move. A “powder keg”, military experts have been comparing the might of the US navy against the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in that region. One headline this week screamed out that the PLA’s new warship puts US to shame at sea. Not so long ago, we used to compare the number of aircraft carriers amongst nations and the results determined that the US were far superior with their overwhelming fleet of nuclear-powered warships. But, their long-range strikes have been quickly negated by the current crop of fast and stealthy missiles. Today, it is about the superiority of missile destroyers and their vast numbers of Vertical Launch Systems (VLS) cells. The VLS is designed to overwhelm the enemy through speed, stealth and sheer numbers. They are the “big guns” of modern warships. The PLA will soon have a fleet of 14 such destroyers each with 112 VLS cells whilst the US navy is (inexplicably) retiring theirs.

The other hot zone for potential conflict is in the South China Sea where disputes have arisen between China and the neighbouring nations such as Brunei, Indonesia,Taiwan, Japan, Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. In 1951, Imperial Japan was forced to relinquish islands such as the Paracel and Spratly Islands which they invaded during WW2, but the authors of the treaty did not (or could not) resolve the matter of true ownership. The Kuomintang government had established the eleven-dashed-line four years before that but those islands which fell within the zone were not returned to China. I was curious to know why the “Paracel Islands” sounds French when they are so far away from France. It is simply because they were claimed by the French when they colonised vast lands in Southeast Asia and ruled French Indochina for 67 years. When the occupiers lost to Viet Minh forces, they handed the Paracel Islands, also known as Xisha Islands, to the North Vietnamese. But, does this recent history of ownership justify Vietnamese claim to the islands?

Just days ago, the US sent the USS Makin Island, an amphibious assault ship, and the USS San Diego to bolster their presence in the South China Sea. It seems their worship of warships will be unceasing as they continue to wander far from their backyard, menacing any country they arbitrarily decide is a threat to their status as the world’s biggest economy and the most powerful country. How would they react if the PLA were to move their warships to patrol the Gulf of Mexico as a routine freedom of navigation deployment?

More and more people in my circle of friends are rooting for war. They see China in the ascendency and show their impatience for China to right the grievances and suffering from the Opium Wars. To those who cannot curb their priapic urge for war, go take a cold shower. People die in wars. Do not worship the warship.

From The Crypt To Crypto

It is another Good Friday today. It is fast approaching the two thousandth anniversary of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, yet I can’t see any signs of mass atonement in the world. Is that because we urghhlings already know our sins are long forgiven and the promise of eternal life granted to us no matter what we do or not do? We are saved from our sins and we should celebrate. I would have been deservedly reprimanded by my own father had I taught my sons any crimes and misdemeanours they were to commit would have all already been forgiven, and an eternal reward awaited them no matter how they behaved. I could have told them the killing of Jesus ensured that. Recently, I practised this teaching of forgiveness and generosity in my business by offering my staff positive reinforcements of encouragement and re-training of the business procedures. I told them their mistakes will be forgiven and that there will be no punitive repercussions as long as they worked hard and followed the rules. Sadly, the incidence of costly mistakes has increased markedly since. Just yesterday, I reverted to the previous policy of “Thou shall pay for your mistakes (ones that are so basic they ought to be avoidable).” We should be responsible for our own actions and take ownership of our bad behaviour. “You make a silly mistake, you shall pay for it.” It is no different to the sign in the shop that says “You break it, you buy it.”

In 2016, archaeologists opened a crypt they believed to be Jesus’ tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The marble shrine, the Edicule, which protects the tomb is apparently made from materials from the 4th century A.D. So, why would anyone build a tomb some 400 years after his death? For what purpose would they seal it, I ask? The Jews never cremated their dead. They believed in the resurrection of the body which was just as well for Jesus, otherwise he would have resurrected without his body. He rose from the dead on the third day, meaning his tomb has been empty ever since. Why use a big piece of marble to protect an empty tomb? Were tomb raiders so foolish to raid an empty tomb, I wondered?

In my internet-based business, we are looking at the development of blockchain technology and questioning how we can use its applications. We were slow to embrace technology and didn’t trade online until 2006. We decided we should not be derelict in our duty to keep up with technological progress. I can’t help but think how much the world has changed since Jesus was sacrificed by his father. One of his last words were “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That still reverberates with me even today. That the Son of God felt forgotten, abandoned and left to suffer and die an agonising death just moments before his last breaths. How deeply disturbing and terribly sad. How cruel when it was so easily avoidable with his almighty father by his side. What has his death achieved? Was his suffering and despair necessary? The deep despair and nauseating feeling of abandonment when he was dying undoubtedly would traumatise many as it did me when I was a boy learning about his death on the cross. Why the sacrifice of a human being was permitted when the sacrifice of animals was riled at by him? When I went to catechism classes, I was taught that he died for our sins. And having been taught that, why did it not stop any of us from sinning? Yes, because we knew we have been saved already! I was 6 years old, but even then I had the nerve to ask why on earth would some strange-looking man die for my sins so long ago when I wasn’t even born then? He would have been as vague of my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather’s distant descendants as I am ignorant of my not-so-distant ancestors. The Chinese may have had written records for many millennia but just a few generations ago, my ancestors were too poor and illiterate to have any records written down about their own family.

I feel like a blockhead whenever a conversation switches to blockchain technology. I understand that it is not very green as it consumes a lot of computer power running all the algorithms and we know computers are hungry for energy. So, what isn’t good for our environment will not last, right? If so, then why even worry about it? Wrong! We can bet it is just a matter of time before some clever people invent something else to fix a problem. And they already have. Just two days ago, I read that Ethereum co-founder Joe Lubin has created a 99% energy efficient blockchain! Blockchain 1.0 was about using the distributed ledger technology for cryptocurrency. Blockchain 2.0 saw a few high tech firms use it to add value to their businesses. China has already embarked on Blockchain 3.0, setting industry standards and building the underlying infrastructure for blockchain applications worldwide. Domestically, this will transform business models within the digital ecosystem across all major industries and drive innovation and improve collaboration with the government in China.

Recently, I was gobsmacked to hear that a piece of digital art went for $69.3 million. Bought by a syndicate from Singapore, it wasn’t a Picasso, or a van Gogh. Art that you can’t even hang on the wall and admire the brush strokes or knife strokes of the artist. You can’t smell the paint or feel the texture of the canvas. It isn’t 3D like a sculpture and you certainly cannot carry it in your arms. It is digital! Which means you can simply copy it and share it online. (for free!) My son explained to me it’s a NFT. “A what?” I asked with an incredulous gasp. I thought he had been watching too many episodes of The Wire or The Sopranos. Both miniseries contained a lot of the F word. “No, it means non-fungible token,” he replied impatiently. “Oh, you mean a token that fungi can’t grow on?” I feigned interest as I have never shown any interest in fungi or mushrooms. No, non-fungible means it is unique and can’t be replaced with something else. A bitcoin is fungible, one can trade it for another bitcoin, whereas digital art protected by blockchain, is non-fungible (apparently). This is where he lost me. Can’t a digital file be copied as many times as we want, including art that is embedded with an NFT? I suppose the same goes with traditional art. I have a print of one of Monet’s most iconic works in my office. Anyone can own a Monet print, but only one person or museum can own the original. The other major advantage of a NFT is it is not as easily stolen as say, an artwork in a museum. Having said that, it is not unknown for cryptos to be stolen or lost due to misplaced or forgotten passwords.

Monet’s famous piece, which I bought for $20 at the Metropolitan Art Museum.
Beeple’s The First 5000 Days, the first NFT I heard about

Visa announced three days ago they now accept cryptocurrency to settle transactions in their payment network. They will allow USD Coin, a crypto that is tied to the US dollar, giving it stability and avoiding the volatility that some cryptos are susceptible to. Stablecoins are cyptocurrencies that are pegged to fiat money, exchange-traded commodities such as industrial metals, i.e. some “stable” asset or basket of assets. At the same time, Paypal also came on board with crypto this week by announcing they will accept Bitcoin, Ethereum and Litecoin as a form of payment. I am guessing it is a matter of time before China’s Alipay and WeChat Pay reverse their decision to ban crypto-related transactions. There is a new coin called Dogecoin, a derivative of Luckycoin which got a lot of exposure from Elon Musk. For a coin to see a big spike in its value because of a person’s tweet sounds dodgy to me. Please excuse me if I mispronounce it as Dodgycoin.

It seems clear that the era of central banks’ issuance of digital currency is upon us. China is by far the most advanced, having been developing the digital yuan for over five years. Beijing recently distributed $1.5 million free digital money as part of a trial run during the Lunar New Year to see if the digital format could cope with the extra high turnover. The digital yuan is not a cryptocurrency according to the experts but they don’t seem to know how to classify it; safe to say it is highly secure and very low in volatility. Who will win the war of the currencies? The central bank or the big tech companies? Somehow, I can’t see governments relinquishing their grip on monetary sovereignty. I’ll bet on the central banks to win this war.

Who Gives A Fig About A Fig?

I didn’t give a fig about probiotics. More money-making schemes, I said to myself sarcastically, for years. I was foolish to disregard The Mrs’ advice, since I was a witness to how my own father struggled with bowel problems. We did everything we could – extra fibre, laxatives, extra fluids, more vegetables and less meat. Hardly any meat in the end. What he couldn’t avoid was to stop taking his medication. It was much later that I learned that many medications e.g. narcotic analgesics such as codeine and Tylenol are known to cause chronic constipation. The Mrs’ dad, Gung-gung, had it much worse – chronic constipation weakened him so much it eventually affected his health. His episodes were so bad we had to take him to the Royal Adelaide (RAH) a few times. What the doctor dug out from him one bad night was a load of shit as big and round as a soccer ball. Poor doctor. Poor emergency ward at the RAH, actually. No matter how many squirts of air freshener and odour eliminator they sprayed, the stench lingered all through the long night. The ward and its immediate corridors were enveloped by that foul invisible “presence” that overpowered all and sundry who were unfortunate to be in its path. Gung-gung didn’t give a fig about the ruckus he caused that night – he went home a visibly happier man and more importantly, a much lighter man.

Poor Baby Son and The Mrs who accompanied gung-gung there were clearly unhinged from the visit. Baby Son decided medicine was not a career path for him to pursue after that episode – he didn’t give a fig anymore about his ambition to be the first doctor in my family. His image of the medical profession was forever ruined after the doctor almost succumbed to one of the foulest odours he ever encountered. Baby Son was also horrified to see the doctor put his hand right into gung-gung‘s backside and shove the shit out like how Murray would dig out his doggy bone from under the dirt with his paw. The Mrs suffered from breathlessness soon after that trip to RAH. She didn’t give a fig anymore about having her windows closed all the time to keep the rooms dust-free. She decided fresh air was more important than stale air.

Recently, I also had problems with my bowels. It was “all in and no out” for quite a few days. The over-riding sensation was that I desperately needed a “traffic cop” inside my body; my waste system was in turmoil – it reminded me of a chaotic situation recently in the CBD with some of the major traffic lights failing. It desperately needed the cops to arrive quickly to tame the road rage that was imminently threatening. Similarly, I could do with a kind and friendly “cop” that could direct the flow inside me smoothly but without the ridiculous antics. Remember the dancing cop who directed traffic in Bhubaneswar, India (, or the robotic North Korean traffic ladies who wowed every tourist in Pyongyang ( In and out, in and out, without a traffic jam – that was all that mattered. I found my “traffic cop”, thanks to The Mrs. I know you won’t give a fig what it was, but I will tell you anyway.

The Mrs put me onto Kimchi but the strong garlic repulsed me as I imagined people being repulsed by my breath. She then suggested I add 3 scoops of Greek-style yoghurt to my rolled oats for breakfast. I disliked yoghurt forever after the first scoop back in the early 1990’s. Anything fermented tasted off to me, such as chou tofu. People call it stinky tofu – you won’t need to wonder why. I could smell it a mile away, it was as if the streets of Shaoxing along the night market stank of blocked drains that night. I shunned yoghurt even when they were free in hotels and cruise ships. But, the situation was dire. I was desperately bloated and the farts were becoming decidedly toxic. So, I listened to The Mrs and started adding yoghurt to my breakfast. Half a tablespoon of Gumeracha honey was enough to take away that “off” flavour, so it wasn’t so bad at all. Miraculously ever since then, I feel the ever-present “cop” waving its hand ever so smoothly directing the flow of food and wastes inside my body. No more jams! A good friend, Keith, warned me against too much yoghurt. According to Ayurveda teachings, yoghurt is very cooling and “too much” will adversely affect one’s sex life. I told him celibacy affect one’s sex life a lot more. I didn’t give a fig about his mumbo-jumbo superstitions.

Yesterday, I took the afternoon off to spend a short holiday in Old Reynella. I wasn’t quite five minutes away from home when I realised I had forgotten my mobile phone. I remembered an old friend, Aloysius, also forgot his phone when he left Penang for a short-stay in Singapore. For him, he felt so lost and helpless as if he had lost a limb, so attached was he to his phone. But, I didn’t give a fig about it, and didn’t turn back to get my phone. No one would miss me (that much) and as it turned out, it was bloody fantastic to be really away from everything. No football, no social media, no fake news. The Mrs and I stayed at St Francis Winery in Reynella. It is only a winery in name only, they converted it into a resort a long time ago. As soon as I walked into the premises, I felt we had been there before. And, as soon as I saw the dining room which overlooked a retirement estate across the quiet street, I knew we had lunch there a few years ago. The Mrs was adamant she, the one with the superior memory, had never been there. “No, no, no!” she argued. “Unless you’re telling me you had a rendezvous here with someone else!” she seethed under her breath. I quickly changed tact. “You’re absolutely right, darling. I got a memory like a sieve. It’s just a feeling of déjà vu, and not a rendezvous!” I corrected myself without further ado. Who gives a fig about my defective memory anyway! Third Son later told his mother he remembered we were all there for lunch on Boxing Day just 3 years ago. Phew!

It is important when visiting any place to walk around the streets and parks if you want to learn about its history. I discovered that the township of Reynella was formed in 1854 when John Reynell sold 40 acres of land which cost him £40 15 years earlier, for nearly £3,000. He was also the same bloke who planted the first commercial vineyard in South Australia. The famed winemaker, Thomas Hardy, worked for him and together, they became the largest wine producers in the McLaren Vale, a well-known wine region here. But, will anyone else give a fig about John Reynell? I don’t think so. This morning, we came across a fascinating high-end boutique store called Woolcock. The name itself fascinates me. I mean, how and where does a name like that originate from? The store proudly sells classy and high-street designer clothes from Italy, Germany and France. If one wears a piece of garment from them, one will never be worried to see someone wearing the same clothes. That is the meaning of “exclusive”. I told Mr Woolcock I had full admiration of his shop but “I have to lodge a complaint,” I said. “You do not sell men’s clothes.” He didn’t give a fig about my complaint, he said. “You’re not the first to complain and you won’t be the last,” he said softly with a smile as he waved me away. I was thoroughly impressed with the glass dome ceiling he made himself though. Years ago, I designed something for a fee-free client that was as wonderful but a lot less gaudy. It would have cost the owner $26,000, a steal, I thought at the time. But, she said she didn’t give a fig about that idea. “One could roast a chicken in the room with such a glass ceiling in the middle of summer,” she reckoned.

The glass-dome ceiling in Woolcock Ladies Clothes, Reynella

My mother was with us in Reynella. “Why don’t you tell him he needs a haircut,” Ma nudged at The Mrs during a short coffee break. It was the best cappuccino I had in years. I meekly conveyed to the barista that Big Sis enjoys her coffee hot, not lukewarm that most places serve. Hot is the only way, the barista agreed. Isn’t it good not to give a fig about what others say is right or wrong? They say the right temperature should be 60 C to 70 C. Bullocks, I say. both Big Sis and I like our coffee hot, say 85 C, ok? The Mrs feigned a fainting spell when Ma prodded her again about my shoulder-length hair. “The old man is as stubborn as a mule,” The Mrs protested. “Will someone force him to cut his hair and shave his beard?” Ma persisted. Why does she give a fig about the length of my hair? I should be glad that Ma no longer criticises me about fasting. So, her list of complaints about me is getting shorter, thankfully.

Who gives a fig about a fig? A sister-in-law in Kuala Lumpur told me earlier this week she woke up at 3.30 in the morning in a panic. She rushed downstairs from her third storey luxury penthouse and was lucky not to have tripped herself when she missed a step due to her eagerness to get downstairs quickly. “Eagerness in the middle of the night?”, I asked wryly. Whatever could have turned her on in the wee hours, I wondered. She explained in tedious detail that she was awakened by the thought that a squirrel would help itself to her ripened fig whilst she slept. It was the fear of missing out (FOMO), a common emotion – the hokkien word is kiasu but honestly, fear of losing out to a squirrel is a bit too much to understand. “First come first serve! Not my fault!” she yelled in the dark at the squirrel. Poor squirrel – life must be so stressful for the pitiful animal. It did not think the lady of the house would give a fig about a fig. If only it knows the fig sign, it seems appropriate here.

A ripe fig in a Kuala Lumpur garden stolen from a squirrel.

Hubby, It’s Our Ruby

A couple of weeks ago, The Mrs surprised me when she out of the blue invited a Malaysian couple to our ruby anniversary. It was immediately after we had reacquainted with them during lunch at Wolf Blass Winery in the Barossa Valley. I met Wolf Blass a few times in the late 1980s. He was a very important customer of the cardboard box factory I worked for. A wine mogul whose wines were as big and bold as his personality, he was never seen in public without one of his signature bow ties. They made him so cool and dapper I was tempted to copy him. But, why spend money when I had all those old ties I brought from Penang in 1977? You know, those left in my parents’ dry-cleaning shop that their customers forgot to pick up?

I pulled The Mrs to one side and with my hand on her arm, I whispered, “Why invite them? We hardly know them!” Since the pandemic, the couple have been stuck here, unable to return to Penang, whilst their very close friends who like them are also new Australian permanent residents, are stuck in Penang. So, I imagined we were like extras in a movie set, invited to spend the afternoon with them to make up the numbers. The Mrs screwed up her nose and snarled. “What do you want me to do now? Pretend they didn’t hear me?” She still wore that quizzical look on her face as she walked back to chat with her newfound friends. Her chortles were the loudest, almost booming. She possesses a rather low laughter threshold – my definition of a lucky person. Before we got married, we watched an episode of Mork and Mindy together in her rented house on Royal Street in Maroubra. After that experience, I decided it was too dangerous for me to ever sit through another comedy with her. My left arm and back were bruised black and blue from her wallops that she felt necessary to impart when she laughed heartily at every punchline. It made me jealous to observe how easily she cracked up at jokes that I didn’t find funny at all. How blessed, I thought, to be able to see the funny side of anything and everything. Laughter is the best medicine, as they say, and no matter what bitterness life throws at us, it is laughter and positivity that will get us through the darkest days. Whenever she was about to tell me a joke, she would tell me she had a really funny joke to share. She was clueless that it was this “mental preparation” that made me nervous. “Will I find it funny? Do I laugh now? If not, when?” I asked myself. My soft and restrained “ha-ha’s” were often unconvincing – without sufficient conviction – but, if I didn’t laugh at all, she would be sure to say I was made of cold stone. Pebbles do not laugh even in the most unspoilt turquoise-blue creek.

On Sunday, we will be married 40 years. Despite the heavy air of familiarity and the dullness of mundane routine that occupies most of our days, I recalled that warm fuzzy feeling of knowing why she was the one for me all those years ago. It was her infectious warmth, her genuine friendly nature that dazzled. That was what made her special. I mean, she was not the type who would go out of her way to make another person feel important. That would be unnatural and actions such as those could be seen to be deliberately conceived. Her impulse to reach out and make someone feel included was innate, I think. There was nothing fake about her when she offered her friendship. There was neither an ulterior motive nor an advantage that she sought. “Curb your enthusiasm!” I warned her. “Don’t be gullible! There are wicked ones out there who will disappoint you and hurt you.” “Best not to trust strangers,” I added. She had a natural tendency to treat everyone right. It did not matter to her if that person was someone she had just met or a mere acquaintance.

It is not just her inclusiveness and her natural inclination to welcome a stranger that still makes her an attractive woman today. It is also her kindness and beneficence that radiate that familiar and comforting warm glow when she is not weighed down by my antics or by my saturnine predisposition. Just earlier this week, I witnessed exactly this beautiful character of hers whilst feeding the hens. Is it not quite typical that we need animals to remind us of what is beautiful and kind? Dottie the old chook was enjoying her breakfast alone when two crested pigeons swooped down from the tree above and after a fleeting survey of the surroundings, jauntily enjoyed her breakfast without asking or waiting for her permission. You know, Dottie did not even flinch or look up at them. She treated them as her own and not as outsiders. She shared her food with them as she would with her family. Her agreeableness was there for me to witness, much like what The Mrs has shown me, right through our long marriage. Yet, I have not really embraced this way of life. The caring, honest readiness to accept and welcome others. It is also her preparedness to believe there is good in everyone that makes her charming – more than that, actually. It is her natural flair to assume the best about others that is so disarming. She would be the one in our travelling party to venture away from the group and make new friends. That has always been her quality – her natural curiosity and interest in other peoples and cultures explains her readiness to converse with anyone. Her openness is, by any measure, a healthy and positive trait. Upon reflection, I was the one to dampen her enthusiasm for life. In the early years, I poured doubt into her open and trusting mind, and warned her about the risks of opening herself up to new ideas, new people, and new experiences. The boundaries I imposed on her were too restricting to someone whose spirit reminds me of the eagle’s. A bold spirit that soars freely and effortlessly should not be contained by someone as dour and grey like me. I can see now why her immediate surroundings were emotionally suffocating. The disparaging attitudes from my ugly cynicisms and wayward opinions have largely damaged the esteem The Mrs once had for me. We were as incompatible as an ice-skating rink in a desert.

Dottie was unperturbed that the pigeons enjoyed her breakfast without the need to ask for her permission

When we were courting during our uni days in Sydney, I sought to impress The Mrs with my nous in stretching our weekly budget. After I left home in January 1977, I promised myself I would not burden my parents again for my living expenses. The fact that education was free in Australia helped lessen my worries too and I knew a few hours’ work on the weekends would be enough to pay for every day-to-day expenses. Airfares were unaffordable and so, I did not get to visit my parents in the last two years of my uni life. It is only right to have no such sense of entitlement. So, I showed The Mrs how it was done. “You go to Coles and Woolies? No, try no-frills Franklins! They are the place for all basic necessities.” “Fruits and veggies? Get them from Duffy Brothers.” A cabbage there cost 10 cents and a box of stone fruits near closing time will set you back only 80 cents. Seafood meant Silver Biddies, at 20 cents a kg. “Chicken maryland? No – chicken wings and giblets will do. $6 for a side of lamb?” No, that was food for the entitled and never appeared in my shopping list. Steak was never T-bone but chuck. No other cuts would be suitable for rendang, right? But then, I screwed up and revealed the true traits of a Ningbonese. The ones from Penang were renowned for being tight-arsed, extremely thrifty! Sometimes, I think we were worse than thrifty. It is probably more accurate to describe us as frugal back then. Thrifty people waste as little as possible – so they do not leave the tap running or leave the light on when they are the last to leave the room. They don’t ever turn on the air-conditioning whilst the windows are ajar. But, a frugal person is one who veers close to being stingy. You know, the one who never opens his wallet, and on the rare occasion that he did, a moth would fly out from it. Adrian Kibble was chuckling when he said that about me. The grossly obese man thought it was funny, but I took exception to him for saying that about a Penangite. I wasn’t the one who avoided spending on anything. Neither was I the one who avoided turning on the air-cond even during a long angry summer and justified to his family it was as therapeutic as a stint in a sauna. I screwed up much earlier, before we were even married. I taught The Mrs how to select the best fruits and the biggest cabbages. Every fruit had to be the biggest, freshest (with the stalks still green) and perfectly unblemished. Back then I did not understand those are the opposite features of organically grown produce. It was just recently that The Mrs told me her mum taught her differently. “We leave some good ones for the next person.” “If we picked all the best ones, what do we leave for those who arrive after us,” You see what I mean? It never dawned on me to leave some good ones for people we don’t even know. Whereas, The Mrs does not ever forget the next person – they deserve a share of the pie, no matter who they are.

The Mrs didn’t want to be my girlfriend. I thought she harboured an inferiority complex when she told me people would laugh at her. “Don’t worry about what people may say!” I was quick to dismiss her worries about being older than me. Her anxiety did not merit a review by me at the time. More and more, I am now convinced it was not as I assumed. It had nothing to do with her feeling inferior, but her knowing that I was inferior. She feared people would laugh at her because of me. I was the idiot. She could sense the sacrifices she had to make, I think. Sacrifices most women make when they marry but to sacrifice so much more when already alerted to my many faults? Many years after we married, she told me she won’t want to meet me again in the afterlife. She would rather be a pebble. I told her what I thought of pebbles. Pebbles do not laugh even in the most unspoilt turquoise-blue creek. It hurt me, of course to hear that she had had enough of me. Pebbles do not laugh – happiness is not what they seek. But, I could feel the peace and serenity that pebbles enjoy. So, I told The Mrs I will want to be a pebble also in my next life. She will find me right next to her, in the same pond. Happiness is elusive, even to the greatest sages in human history. Let us just settle for peace and harmony, I vowed. As pebbles, we will have peace together.

I suppose being married 40 years is a life sentence that is longer than most criminals have to endure. Mafia bosses and drug lords suffer little by comparison. Al Capone served less than 8 years for all his crimes. Pablo Escobar didn’t want to entertain the idea of just a 5-year jail sentence and escaped from his own purpose-built prison. John A. Gotti, the famous mobster from New York, spent a brief 6 years behind bars for all his crimes. Known as Teflon Junior, he was able to make a mockery of all 4 mistrials for racketeering and murder charges. But, for The Mrs, she has suffered 40 years of me (not with me). Wilson, a good friend, posted a short reminder of what a woman’s sacrifice entails when she marries her husband. I told Wilson not to be naive. Not so long ago, I was as callow, mistaking them as sacrifices made for me. The Mrs was blunt, but there was no other way to show her honesty. She advised me not to be so self-absorbed; not everything she did, she did for me.

It is true she changed her surname and she changed her address and left her family to live with me. It is also true she changed the shape of her body drastically during her pregnancies and suffered unimaginable pain during childbirth. She also sacrificed her lofty career ambitions. It cannot be said she did it for me even though I voiced my preference to her that it should be our responsibility to take care of our own children and not leave it to childcare. It is also true our children bear my surname and not hers. It is also true she did all the shopping, cooking and laundry for us and she took lovely care of both my parents during their stay with us. There is also no denying that she spent a lot more time looking after the needs of our children than I did. Her total dedication was always to others. Why did I fail to acknowledge it was palpable that she neglected her own needs – she sacrificed her time and energy for everyone else. Wilson’s post added that a woman is a great gift to men from God. He meant well, I am sure. A reminder that I ought to cherish my wife and not take her for granted. But, The Mrs is a strong, modern woman who will not suffer misogyny silently. She will resent being told she is a present to me.

40 years is a long time. Ours is not a romantic story anymore. We carry many scars, not only in our memories but also on my body. The Mrs has been known to lose her temper and therefore, her patience and control as well. I should hasten to qualify that. Everyone loses their patience with me. I do not know of anyone who has not found me annoying. I can be as irritating as an Aussie sheep blowfly at a picnic. No amount of swatting will deter me, but my foolishness in not knowing when to shut up usually ends with me shoving shit up someone’s nose. I have been guilty of causing my wife unbearable sorrow. It is a guilt that won’t wash away. That day, The Mrs squealed like a wounded animal in our car. It was all because I didn’t allow her to be right. Earlier, I confessed she was prone to walloping me. Her wallops may have been unintentional during sitcoms and romantic comedies, but her wallops during fights were definitely intentional. So what? One could say I thoroughly deserved my scars – people who think they are never wrong are pricks. Belatedly, I am awakened to accept that I do not have to be right, let alone prove to anyone that I can be right. The bane for men is that we cannot ever understand women. Whoever said women are from Venus was spot on. They speak a language so alien that their messages often confuse men. The Mrs often chastises me for not speaking up whenever a sibling treats us unfairly. She confuses my aversion to family feuds as pusillanimity. So, when I stood up for myself when hurt by her verbal missiles, it did not please her to observe that I had discarded my pusillanimous shell. You see, I failed to understand that there are certain times when I should be timid, just not all the time.

40 years may be a long time, but sometimes it feels like it was just yesterday. There are moments we shared that will not fade with the passage of time, such as the moment when we first met and her eyes smiled at me like there were no troubles in the world. Or, the moment when we walked down the bus and our hands accidentally touched three times. Or the moment when she said I could stay and she would cook me dinner. Especially vivid is the moment when we taught each other the joy of sex. Or, the moment when she said she would follow me to Singapore as my wife. We did leave for Singapore later that year but we quickly returned to Sydney and married in March 1981. Yeah, 40 years ago. The Mrs and I may have faced the many downs in our life together, or suffered the hard bumps that almost knocked us out but we also have our ups. Someone famously said life wasn’t meant to be easy. But, who wants the easy street when a rich life together is far more memorable? A rich life together has nothing to do with money but it has all to do with enriching our lives meaningfully and lovingly together and as a family. It is the trials and tribulations we faced and the mountains of compromise we made when creating and building a life together that endears us now. And, we created life out of our love. Three sons, in fact. Our sweat and tears (and some of my blood) bond the foundation blocks of our marriage, and the many memories of laughter and joy bear the fruits of our love. Ours is not the perfect union, but you know my views about perfection. It is predictable and therefore boring.

21st of March is a truly special day for me. It is significant that my wedding anniversary is on the day where the night is equal to the day on every place on Earth. How appropriate for my Libra traits – balance, equality, justice, peace. The United Nations celebrate it as the International Day of all forests – a day when we pause to reflect on how trees sustain and protect life. This day is also Harmony Day in Australia, a day to celebrate respect, cohesion, harmony, inclusiveness and belonging. To The Mrs, my beloved, may we continue to love, respect and cherish each other equally and harmoniously, and renew our vow to travel in this life together through all its grand peaks and dark valleys.