I miss Murray today. I got up at the usual time before the pendulum clock struck seven times in my mind. The made-in-occupied-Japan clock stopped working years ago. The Mrs threw it into the green bin but I salvaged it for whatever emotional value it still gives me. I can still hear its loud ticking and metallic strikes, sounds that I mostly fondly remember, but that is because I was never an insomniac. Its six o’clock strikes in the evening, however, were the most dreaded sounds during my early teens. It meant I had to go upstairs to close the venetian windows in the haunted shop house. It was usual for me to feel the hair on the back of my neck stand whenever I rushed past my grandma’s huge photo above her altar. That photo seemed to grow bigger as I grew bigger. Grandma’s eyes followed me in whichever direction I ran. Even when I tip-toed. But, I digress, let me return to Murray. It didn’t feel usual this morning. Murray wasn’t downstairs wagging his tail with his precious teddy bear hanging from his teeth. He bites on it so that he doesn’t inadvertently bite my hand from his enthusiastic welcome. He was not here to greet me like I have just returned after an eternity from a faraway place. His teddy bear is his first toy but it is the only one that has survived intact. I reckon his first toy has a psychological hold on him, maybe he can relate to Linus’s security blanket in Peanuts. Almost all his other toys were consigned to the rubbish tip very early on. His monkey will follow soon – it has been completely gutted and has only one limb left. “Monkey” used to be chubby and happy but he lost his squeak ever since the white fluffy cotton inside him was devoured by the ruthless pup. The plastic part that squeaks when he tramples on it or shakes it violently like a wounded prey has long been bitten into small pieces. The family room was just quiet, stuffy and stale with a faint scent of sambal oelek, after yet another 40-degree day yesterday. Murray had gone home with First Son the night before. He didn’t even look back to say goodbye. There was no woeful look on his face to tell me he didn’t want to leave. There was no “thank you” licking, no tail behind his legs to show his sadness that he wasn’t asked for his opinion to stay or go. He just sat obediently to be leashed and led away. First Son turned the light off at the porch and locked the front door. At least he said “bye” to me. Murray gave me nothing, not even a nod.
Hooray for Murray. I read that the prices for pooches have almost doubled during the pandemic. Murray has turned out to be a fantastic investment! The lockdown had desperate people yearning for companionship, what better loyal friend than a pet dog, right? I love my gold fish but guppies aren’t puppies, not quite as cute and cuddly. I have always kept fish, right from primary school days. In fact, that was how I unfriended the boy who lived next door. He climbed over the back balcony wall and swapped my beautiful hand-selected goldfish with his inferior ones. His reaction when I challenged him? He swapped back what was his, the smartypants smirked and retorted. What an urghhling. He showed less grace and feelings than fish. When an old shubunkin I had was dying, its mates gathered around her and comforted her with their long tails. One old companion of hers curled its body close to hers for quite a long while, as if to hug her with palliative care. Yes, fish have feelings and a level of consciousness that seem to understand that death is upon them. Similarly, chooks also know when the stench of death is near. A few years ago, my chook run was penetrated by a fox. I used to accept that carnivorous animals kill but only for food. No matter how violently or bloody, death was seldom quick for the prey. I wrongly believed that in the animal kingdom, it is only human beings that kill for fun. Witness the gladiator, the matador, the safari hunter, the circus, the Melbourne Cup, the Royal Ascot, the Queen’s Cup steeplechase, etc, etc. I was shocked to learn that a fox kills for fun also. I lost three chooks that morning. I lost faith in animals. Dolly lost her head, but otherwise, their bodies were not eaten. All day, the surviving chooks were both very quiet, as if in deep mourning. That evening, I witnessed Brooke, my brown chook, extending a comforting wing around her companion as they perched together, fearful of the impending darkness. Poor Reddy, like me, has not been the same ever since that trauma.
I fell in love with a black puppy that I met at a rubber plantation. “I want it, Pa!” Pa said no, that was going to be someone’s dinner one day. They killed dogs by stringing them up on a tree and bashing them until they yelped no more. Those poor loyal dogs trusted the gangly balding bloke whom I called “Ah Song”. Tanned and hardened, he had hands as strong as a vice, and eyes as cold as steel in winter. “Why doesn’t he put his dog in a gunny sack and drown it in the river?” Pa didn’t answer me. But, that conversation changed his mind and he gave the black puppy to me instead. I called him Shiny on account of his black shiny hair. He was my only pal at home. Whenever I got my hair pulled by a couple of bigger sisters, I’d go to Shiny and tell him about those bullies. That was how I became a cynophile. Cynophile, a dog lover, not sinophile. The Mrs is Chinese, I suppose I can be described as a sinophile too. But she calls me a thu-fei. Unfairly, I should add. What is a thu-fei, you ask? It’s bandits in Mandarin. You know, in kungfu movies, they are rogues dressed in black desperately in need of a good bath and they predictably die in the first few seconds flailing against the hero in white. I got into trouble with The Mrs once for being a fool. She reminded me our wedding anniversary is in March. Every year. Last March, I said “No way! It’s either in February or October”. “Not funny!” she yelled. It’s actually a true story. My very close friend who is as dear to me as a close brother, related his story to me. Richard and Cindy were married in Sydney in October 1979 but his dad misheard they were going back to Penang for their wedding in February that year. In Shanghainese, “Ding huang” is an engagement whereas “Cheak huang” means a wedding. They went back to Penang for their engagement but it became clear to the bride she needed to have brought along her wedding gown! Everyone thought it was their wedding day, a tea ceremony was included too. Theirs is a beautiful love story. Last year, they renewed their wedding vows on a love boat. Pre-pandemic, love stories on love boats were enviable. Next March will be my Ruby anniversary with The Mrs. Surely, it will be safe to take the COVID vaccine and go on a love boat too?
My love for Murray is unlike Shiny’s. It was not love at first sight. I wanted his brother instead. Murray was previously known as Harley, his brother was nameless – the weaker one, but more adorable. I could have doubled my money too, had there been no objections to having a dog at home. You see, The Mrs is an airulophile, a cat lover. But, Murray has turned her around, she now loves dogs too. What’s the word for someone who is both a cat-lover and dog-lover? Fickle? The Mrs holds vetoing rights. Her “no” is louder than mine! She didn’t want a dog. She offered many weak excuses. “Our old carpet would be ruined with dog pee”. “Our old furniture would be scratched”. “Our tiled floor would be dirty with mud-caked paw prints”. But, The Mrs too has fallen in love with Murray. Love that grows over time is the stronger love. Those who fall in love at first sight can also fall out of love quickly. What we call puppy love, a brief fascination or crush for someone when we were very young. But let us not decry our first love, Sigmund Freud recognised the durability of first loves. Why do we refer our childhood crush for someone as puppy love? Could it be that we understand how a puppy loves? With utmost loyalty, unbridled admiration and unconditional respect for us? Maybe even as great as worshipping us? Can we love our puppies as much as they love us? Murray insists on sitting on my lap during office hours. It is a wonderfully warm and fuzzy feeling especially during the cold wintry days. But, it’s not so comfortable in summer. It is another 40-degree day today, I can’t imagine Murray would want to be enveloped by me at my desk but then again, why not? The puppy loves me! But I should teach him not to fart right into my arms as he has been prone to do lately. Murray, it stinks! But, he doesn’t give me the gelid look even as I try to push him away.
Murray loves me. I know. He is amazingly caring, sometimes I think he is a nurse. When he visits, he unfailingly checks on my wound. There is a bad gash on my knee, I don’t even know how it got there. I think I woke up with it a few days ago. Murray inspects it with his nose, and gives me that reassuring look that all is well. The other day, he prompted me to change the band-aid after refusing to stop sniffing at it. I can tell he cares a lot. But, Murray, I wish you won’t ever feel compelled to kneel for your favourite Arnott’s Scotch Finger biscuits. You know, I will treat you some anyway, right? Hooray for Murray! Just like my pet fish and chooks, the pup shows being human isn’t necessarily being a human being.
It was deathly quiet again this morning. Reminiscent of the COVID-19 lockdown in February, this morning was free of petrol fumes and free of snarling traffic noise. South Australia had been COVID-free for seven months prior to the weekend. Recently, I got so cocky I bragged about how normal life here was. I even chided my neighbours for their hesitance in returning to Adelaide when they had the chance during a long lull of zero cases in Kuala Lumpur. Now, they can’t return as they are experiencing another serious wave there. Correction. Now, they won’t return since we are also now in a major six-day “circuit-breaker” lockdown. Kudos to the South Australian government. They have imposed a hard lockdown. It was reported in some quarters that these measures are extreme. Considering that there have been just 23 cases linked to the “medi-hotel” cluster, of which 17 are within the family of the security guard employed in the state’s medi-hotel system, and considering that there are zero cases on the first day of lockdown from over 20,000 tests carried out near the clusters, it does feel like the state premier has over-reacted to the threat. But, most agree it is better to be safe than sorry – just look at the woeful American experience. It is inevitable for the virus to escape into the community and as long as the country welcomes back returnees from overseas into the CBDs, spending their 14-day quarantine in the cities’ hotels, then this cycle of wave-on, wave-off will continue. It seems we are as cavalier and ruthless as the 14th-century Mongol army that hurled plague-infected cadavers over the walls of the besieged Crimean city of Caffa. The city folk did not stand a chance – the Mongols captured Caffa without having to brandish their weapons. We know it is nigh impossible to contain the virus in the confines of a hotel – the frontline workers have to return home to their families, or work that second job after hours – thereby providing an avenue for the coronavirus to leave the hotels. How do we prevent aerosol transmissions through the hotel air-conditioning systems? How do we expect these workers to be 100% vigilant at all times? Allowing returnees to come to the cities gives me the feeling that we are just like the Mongol army.
Luckily, we decided we qualify as a business that provides “essential services”. So, we can remain open for business. The cops may disagree. They may say 99.999% of the things we sell are non-essentials but hey, we sell face masks! For the first time, they are mandatory in South Australia. Hooray! It was with Murray’s nod that I imported some from China when things looked dire in April. I remember asking Murray at the time, should we? 要吗？He nodded and bowed politely. Yes. No one looks to buy face masks from my shop, we were stuck with dead stock. Murray had not been in my good books until now. But, today he is our hero! We can continue to trade just because of this one product alone! Who is Murray, you may ask. Murray is First Son’s pup, born in Murray Bridge. The state premier went overboard by decreeing that we can’t engage in outdoor exercises and that means we can’t walk our dogs outside either. But hooray for Murray! The police this afternoon agreed that since we can travel to the shops to buy our groceries once a day, and since walking is a form of transport, there is nothing wrong with me walking Murray to the shops. One thing is obvious though. If you’re a coffee addict, then you’re stuffed. Coffee shops are not allowed to trade during the lockdown. Only bottle shops can remain open to look after the alcoholics – we cannot have them feeling down in the dumps; they are known to be “moody” without their regular liquor boost.
Murray has to spend his lockdown with me. He can’t take it being restricted to the office or First Son’s little apartment all day. In his home, I imagine all he has to entertain himself is to bark at the traffic below his third floor apartment that overlooks one of Adelaide’s finest parks. But here, he has much more to occupy his time and amuse himself. He loves chasing the chooks, but they have not taken much notice of him ever since they discovered he is just all noise. He may growl menacingly, he may scratch frantically at the fence but they behave as if he’s invisible. Even when he barks crazily like a mad dog, they don’t hear him at all. Poor Murray, he doesn’t know he is being ignored. He acts like he thinks they are all afraid of him, he genuinely believes he’s the king of the backyard. But the old hens, they just give a little shake of their ever-growing fat behind and slowly walk away.
When he is let out of my house, he soon disappears behind some shrubs. Murray hides when he does his poo, never in front of me. He is not shy to pee in front of me but poo? No. When I do mine, he understands why I close the toilet door too. We are polite with each other and know to allow ourselves some privacy during poop time. Once, I was too hasty and caught him smelling his own poop. I suppose that is how we can check on our own health sometimes.
Lately, he has been less inclined to run after tennis balls. He will play “fetch” a few times with me but there is never any hint from him when he does not want to play anymore. You’ll know when he is disinterested – he will simply not return with the ball. “Murray, Murray, where are you?” He makes the decision about which game to play. “给, give, Murray”. The ball will be precisely placed on my palm if he wants to play “fetch”. But, if he wants to play “goalie”, he will agitate side to side abruptly like a football goal-keeper who is about to face a penalty kick. Murray follows the EPL with me; it is not surprising that he can leap high and fast to stop a ball heading past him.
Often, he is just as keen to destroy the poor ball. To save it, you will need to ask him to give it back. He knows to drop it right at your foot. When I am engrossed at work, he will drop it on my foot repeatedly to remind me he is waiting for my turn to throw it. Sorry, Murray. I have quite often forgotten you are still there under my chair. It may be many minutes later before I realise I have left him tensed and poised, ready to pounce to block my next kick. He loves to accompany me at work. I do ask him for his opinion when there is a need to make an executive decision. More often than not, his input is not required when I am merely performing the menial tasks. So, he can be caught napping but hey, let us not blame him. Today, it is 37 degrees but the air-conditioning has not been turned on. We are an environmentally-friendly business. Some of my cynical Penang friends think I am just a scrooge, saving on my energy bill. Well, let us not entertain their idea for now.
Before I forget, let me show you Murray’s office. He has a nice chair to occupy when he wants to remind us he is the chairman of our company. Most times though, he would rather be at my desk supervising what I do. He has admonished me a few times for being curt and unfriendly with horrible customers who are horrors to deal with. Horace comes to mind. I am sure Murray prefers to work with me. First Son does not offer him any biscuits during morning tea breaks but I do! “Want some more, Murray? 还要吗?” Murray will nod his head unambiguously, of course.
Murray shows me the way to place The Mrs in a happy mood from the very first moment she comes downstairs in the morning. He makes her feel like she is the most important person in his life the way he greets her. No, much more than that – he treats her like she is the only person in the world. Yes, that is how he tells her she is precious. Cherished and loved, unconditionally. No matter how hard she tries to leave her bedroom silently to surprise him, his ears prick with the slightest creak of the timber floor and the small lift of his head from my arm informs me he is fully alert of her impending arrival. He will jump off the pillow from my work desk and race to his sofa chair to grab his security blanket. His tail will be wagging as frantically as the mee goreng seller fanning his charcoal fire, eager to greet her like a long-lost best friend. He forgets he was with her last night, lazing on her ample body like a cherub whilst watching Netflix’s Bloodline S3 E8. He will give her his most adorable look, with those big round doe eyes as he bites on his security blanket. He is clever enough to know that shielding his sharp teeth will avoid any inadvertent cuts to her hands during his uncontrolled and frenzied morning welcome. He makes her feel incredibly important and indispensable with his insatiable desire for her hand to pat him continuously. Any attempt by her to remove her hand from hugging him will see him clawing it back towards his body. I should try that tonight. Will it work for me? Will she feel the love from me? Will she reciprocate like the way she pats and hugs him?
Murray knows when it is knock-off time. I can’t explain it, but he knows when I call it a day. Before I even close my laptop, he will be up on his legs, doing the Adho mukha svanasana or downward dog pose. He is very good at it, and unlike me, he has never attended a yoga lesson. My only yoga lesson was a free one, an introductory session whilst I was holidaying in Singapore. OK, Murray, our work is done for the week! Let’s go out and have some fun! Fun for me is the necessary duties in my neighbour’s garden. Clean the pond, and check on the filter. Water the fruit trees with the pond wastes. Feed the fish. Murray knows these chores must be done first before we can play. I can see him gnawing at a sun-parched bone, holding it upright with his front paws. Very good dining etiquette, Murray! He enjoys it like it’s the best rib-eye steak.
Murray loves scratching himself on the lawn. He has a tendency to go berserk and start running round and round the teardrop shaped putting green, growling away like a broken lawnmower that won’t start. I find him most endearing when he smiles and exposes his ugly teeth as he rubs his whole body on the synthetic grass. Bless my good neighbours for insisting on the fake lawn. A tedious job prevented! I lost my argument that fake grass does nothing to invigorate a sense of freshness that cut grass gives us. But that was before I found out that the green leaf volatiles cut grass give is their way of screaming out their distress at the damage inflicted on them. The “green” scent is a distress signal!
When it is close to dinner time, Murray loses interest in the games we play. He doesn’t have a watch yet his sense of time is uncannily accurate. He just knows when to abandon our game and rush home. He knows to sit at the door to be picked up. He understands he is not allowed into our home with dirty feet. It is routine for me to wash his feet first in the laundry tub. Murray offers his leg, one at a time, for me to wash. Clever boy! No one told me how to wash his bum – I don’t even know if it needs to be washed. I hope I am doing it correctly, wipe with a sponge and hose off with running water. We have dinner together. Having said that, I should correct myself. We start our dinner together, I should say. It only takes a minute or two for him to finish his meal but I am a slow eater. A meal lasts me 30 minutes easily. He is patient though. Once he knows there aren’t any second helpings for him, he will hop up onto his sofa chair and wait for me to do the dishes.
The Mrs gets special attention at night. Murray simply knows how to please her. No one gets his attention at night bar her. Her lap belongs to Murray during Netflix time. The Mrs feels especially wanted and loved. Hooray for Murray. I have learned from him how to please The Mrs. It is so easy! Murray is always agreeable, he never argues with her. To him, she is always right! Completely right. Why didn’t I know that before? Before we say goodnight, Murray wants me to play chasey with him. I will run around the coffee table after him like how The Godfather chased his grandson around the tomato patch in the garden. Murray, I won’t collapse and fall down like The Godfather, right?
It is the first Saturday of November today. The morning brings me the peace and calm that eluded me during the week. Murray, First Son’s puppy, sprints about the garden like a mad dog unleashed in a new place. He does not disrupt my peace, but that is before I discover the poo he left inside the old music room last night. The chooks, startled by a mischievous Murray, celebrate their release from the coop but their squawks only temporarily break the tranquility of a morning that is touched by the occasional cool whiff of fresh hillside breeze. The nosy magpies and noisy parakeets add to the harmony that The Mrs and I have infused into this creation of ours, our garden. There will be those who say they are as raucous as an open-air Italian food market but for me, their chirps and tweets are as musical as the flute section in a Rossini overture. I walk through the open side gate and the alluring scent of my neighbour’s rose garden awakens my senses. Perfect.
But then it begins. Should I have brought a book with me? I should, at least once, use their nook designed to be a reading corner. But, what about the mozzies? It is still early and the bloodsuckers will be still hunting for victims. Talking about suckers, I think of losers. The way Trump describes the fallen US soldiers as suckers and losers. He may very well lose the election just because of that. John McCain’s widow decided to do something rather than just be angry with the President’s description of her hero.Yes, the late John McCain was a war hero. War heroes, we should honour them lest we forget. Instead, Trump dishonoured their fallen heroes. Will Cindy McCain have done enough to flip the traditionally red Arizona to the Democrats? One would think insulting the nation’s war heroes would be the ultimate act of treason by their Commander-in-Chief, right? Yet there we have it. Over 70 million of Americans just voted for Trump last Tuesday. Go figure! But who can? There is simply no ounce of logic that can describe it in words, let alone justify it. Trump’s loyal base is predominantly less educated, white and live in the sticks. But, many live in rich cities with thriving economies like Miami in Florida too. Yet, this time round, the landslide that many pundits predicted Trump will lose by, has been largely avoided with the help of Cubans and Latinos. Didn’t Trump make it clear he dislikes black immigrants? Don’t they come from shithole countries, he asked? Didn’t he say Nigerians will never “go back to their huts”, after visiting the United States? In May 2018, he said undocumented immigrants are animals. His failure to treat the pandemic as a serious health threat to the American people raises the spectre that here is a man who is only concerned about saving his own political career. He puts his re-election success ahead of the lives of his people by prioritising an open economy over the proven measures of social-distancing and washing hands when COVID cases were starting to increase. He politicised the simple and effective responsibility of wearing masks. Lockdowns and contact-tracing are tough choices to make but when governors adopted such policies when the science said there is no other choice, he tweeted his army of loyal supporters to LIBERATE those cities. He is playing with people’s lives with his political games, over 240,000 dead and almost 10 million infected in the country whilst he presides over his election campaign. Yeah, for him, that’s all that matters – four more years. Enough about him. The garden’s tranquility has been unnecessarily broken. There is no sign of the dreaded mozzie. So, I decide to head towards the reading nook where I can rest awhile to clear my head from the incomprehensible Americans, yes, all 70 million of them.
Murray is telling me he is hungry. He does not practise fasting and I should not impose my discipline on him. Let me pick a few cherries for Murray first.
Whilst Murray is exploring the garden and looking for a good spot to do his “early morning business”, I decided to sit by the creek and listen to the gentle sounds of running water. Now, that is relaxing and soothing, isn’t it, Murray? Murray? He’s nowhere to be seen. Murray used to stick close to me, a bit like my shadow. But of course, he is now two years old. He isn’t so “liam-liam”, (hokkien for clingy) anymore. Which is good. I never liked him standing at the toilet door, waiting for me to finish “my job”. I had to be as quiet as possible knowing he is within hearing distance. He is becoming lazier too. Or, maybe smarter. He doesn’t think a smart dog should be fetching the ball over and over again when all I do is throw it away every time he brings it to me. He is often seen lazing in the sun rather than running around chasing a tennis ball these days.
Murray, where did you go? He tells me he wants to explore the front garden. Maybe I should too. Just so I can genuinely praise The Mrs for the effort she has put in this week. Unlike her, I have neglected the front garden due to time constraints. The clock does not stop ticking when I occupy myself at work or watch the progress of the US election. The latter has seen me spend much time in front of the TV this week. The neighbours have not been back this year. The pandemic has snipped their wings – they haven’t been able to fly anywhere since Christmas. They could come back, of course, but they cannot imagine being stuck in a hotel room for 14 days. Plus, it would be risky to be stuck in a plane with the likelihood of being seated next to someone who may test positive. So, we have not seen them all year and being the good neighbours that we are, we have been looking after their garden whilst they are stuck overseas. Murray, don’t run out to the street, ok?
But, it didn’t take me long to ask myself what do 70 million Americans see in Donald Trump? I can understand the Taiwanese barracking for him; after all, they would look to him as their saviour against China’s President Xi who has repeatedly said Taiwan is part of China and will one day be reunited with the mainland. Somehow, Trump’s blatant lies and divisive tweets do not faze his supporters. They love him because they don’t see him as a politician even though he has been in politics for over five years now since he announced he was running for presidency in June 2015. Why are these 70 million Americans not turned off by Trump when he tells the world he will not accept the results of the election should he lose because it will mean it was rigged and stolen from him? And that he will not promise a peaceful handover? That’s just nuts that the leader of the supposedly greatest democracy of the world can risk a civil war in his country just because he will not accept the will of his people! In the US, more than 1,000 people are dying from the coronavirus every day in recent weeks. Yet, these voters believe him and his quackery about the pandemic. Downplaying the virus is of course self-serving for the President who believes he cannot lose the election, but it is costing misery and death in America. Donald, you’re a quack. Quack, quack. Why is Donald Trump so popular despite his many flaws? Or is it because of his thorough disagreeableness and his proclivity for malicious bullying that almost half of the American population flock to him? After all, he denigrates all and sundry – his opponents as well as his allies – but never once has he criticised his supporters. Stop! I should stop talking to myself. It is disturbing that I am so out of touch with reality. I cannot see what 70 million Americans see. What is so good about their President? By now, the tranquility the garden offered me is totally gone and I should also leave.
I was very much glued to Pa when I was a young lad. Pa was not just my father to me, he was also my hero who could do no wrong. I would have followed him everywhere, ardently like his shadow, but I was only a kid. You know the ones, keep silent and know your place, be invisible. But, Pa didn’t treat me like a kid all the time. Sometimes, he would invite me to follow him. Even day trips to faraway places. I would wake up no matter how early – it would always be dark before the sun rose – and follow him excitedly to catch the early morning ferry to Prai and from there the long drive to inspect rubber plantations in Selama and Sungei Petani. Most times, the “tao-yu-tiam towkay” (Soy sauce King) would meet us at the ferry terminal but when he didn’t show, I would be doubly happier. It meant I could sit in the front of the car. Every trip was a cherished memory. I would watch Pa do what he did best, and that was to manage the operations and audit the results of the business by casually chatting with the supervisors and workers. He would take me to Penang San Kiang Association not for ping-pong games and tai chi lessons but for mahjong sessions. You would see us there, every weekend and even on the occasional week night. San Kiang Association was a club for migrants from the three Jiang’s in China, Jiangsu, Jiangxi and Chejiang. Pa usually won at mahjong. More often than not, I would see him pocket the winnings into his baggy trousers. It did not annoy me that I was sucking in all that stale air and tar-filled nicotine from the players’ breaths in the enclosed room. Pa was there smoking as well, and therefore, it would be nothing wrong with that. Pa was always smartly dressed and suitably attired for any occasion. He was my dear father, my pal. Whilst he was alive, I could never dream of calling him a friend. My young eyes saw Pa as way above that – superior, a higher authority that demanded respect. The patriarch. I did not question or doubt our patriarch, ever. Of course, I was wrong. I was just a kid. Pa was not the enlightened one. He did not belong to the noble class, he was not knighted. If anything, he was benighted during his youthful years. Ignorant, uneducated, and by today’s standard, rather deprived. He never pretended to be anything but true to himself – he never forgot his roots and regularly sent money home to his mother. He just carried himself so well – I felt he was simply faultless, as a son anyway. It was only after Pa passed away that Ma told me he sent back enough money for his siblings to buy a shop-house in Shaoxing.
Pa left home when he was just nine years old. Home was in Shaoxing. In those days, it was more than four hours away from Shanghai, the place of his apprentice indenture. During his apprenticeship, he quickly learned one rule – gobble down his food quickly or go hungry. There was never enough to share. He never learned the luxury of enjoying his food slowly and chewing deliberately. The skinny lad that was Pa went home penniless after two unforgettable years of hard slog, sweat and tears. He never admitted to crying, but I imagine he did. His masters reneged on paying him his paltry wages for the two years. They explained to him that he broke the contract when he returned home for Chinese New Year. It was a bad time to be living in China during the 1920s and 30s. I suppose that would be true right up to the Cultural Revolution also. Survival was the only game in town. If you wanted more, if you had a bigger dream but you were penniless, then the only option was to leave. Not long after he returned home, the reality of desperate poverty forced him to accept the offer from his boss and move to Malaya where greener pastures were promised to him. He arrived in Malaya in the early 1930s, with just a few dongpan (copper coins) to his name. His travel bag was made of cloth and contained only a few personal items. Unlike me, throughout his life, he never saw the need to carry a leather bag. Pa did not see the need for unnecessary flouting of material goods. In Malaya, opportunities were aplenty. Pa even taught himself basic book-keeping and English. But, life wasn’t meant to be easy for a new immigrant. During the Japanese Occupation, he was arrested for spying against the occupiers. Unknowingly, all he shared was a chess game by the roadside with an alleged communist sympathiser. That was enough reason to capture and torture both men. My father shared a chess game with a man he hardly knew. His battle strategies were on the chess board, nothing as serious as a resistance fighter plotting against the invaders. In jail, his own survival was being challenged and his life was a day-by-day proposition. At any moment, he could have been summoned by the Kenpetai for a beach-side execution. He reckoned he only survived because a fellow cell-mate, a teacher, had given up the fight to live. The dying man spurned his plain rice porridge and pushed his rations to my father instead. By the time I was born, Pa had built a profitable laundry business which catered to the needs of European expats, wealthy tourists who flocked to the Pearl of the Orient and RAAF personnel based in Butterworth. By then he had a small share in a coconut plantation and he managed the consortium’s first rubber plantation in Sungei Petani. He invited many relatives and clansmen from the San Kiang community to join him in these ventures. Many made comfortable livelihoods from the laundry operations that serviced the hotel industry in Penang. Those who joined him in the plantations business made a tidy fortune from the land sold off after the rubber plantations and oil palm estates were no longer productive. But, we do not have perfect stories to tell. Pa sold his shares too early when he moved to Australia – he missed out on the real estate bonanza. Others had bad stories to share too. There will be those who regretted moving to Penang, a big city in those days. Some of their children became addicted to drugs, some got involved with crime, some died young. There were illicit sexual escapades, broken marriages and failed investments. There were success stories but there were many flops too.
One of the earliest regrets I have was that of getting Pa in trouble when I was at pre-school age. I was playing by myself on the five-foot way in front of our shop-house one evening. It must have been just before 7pm when the daylight was about to disappear. It was getting dark but not pitch black that I could not see. I looked up as a car sped by and I thought it was Pa’s sky-blue 2-door 1962 Opel Rekord. Maybe it was my enthusiasm to enjoy an evening ride – my mind was quick to tell me it was him in the car, as a rear passenger. Excitedly, I yelled out and waved my hands “Pa! Pa! Stop, I want to go with you!” Ma rushed out from the shop and asked me what the commotion was about – what I saw and who I saw. Later that night, I was awakened by a huge row. Ma was confronting Pa over the incident. To say that their exchange was deafening is to put it mildly. I was so scared by the intensity and aggression of their voices yet I was curious to see what was going on. Hesitatingly, I lifted the pillow ever so slightly from my face and peeped out from behind the shadows. My small movement did not escape Pa as he continued with his denials that it was his car that zoomed past the house. My eyes met his sad eyes, as he moved his index finger up and down at me, as if to say “Hey son, you have really got me into trouble with your big mouth.” To this day, I cannot understand why he was rebuked for that. Maybe, he forgot to buy a loaf of bread that he promised Ma? Big Sis later corrected me – Pa’s Opel was metallic blue in colour. I respect my father. A lot. It would not have been easy to live with a woman like Ma. She has always lived frugally. A Ningbonese, a Penangite. Both exceedingly infamous for their extreme thrift. They carry the reputation as the “Chinese Jew or the Chinese Scotsman”. By that, I do not mean their religion or faith or race but their natural inclination to be extremely wise with their money. Ma would haggle about one cent with anyone in the wet market. Some of the seafood vendors and grocers would visibly shudder to see Ma approach their stalls. With eight children at home, how did she share one apple? Ma would slice that apple into eight pieces, equally. If one piece was slightly thicker, a slither would be cut from it to compensate the child who was short-changed. She taught us to be fair and equitable at all times but I also had to unlearn that to stop myself from being annoyingly exact in later life. Ma has a lifelong propensity to lose things despite being a very careful and fastidious person. She kept her precious jewellery and collectible coins hidden in nooks and crannies that people would not find and/or under layers of linen and clothing. I suppose she hid them so well even she herself had trouble finding some of them. For the record, I do believe some of her things were stolen and perhaps that was the reason for her paranoia. Her detailed account of what she lost in the shop-house convinced me there would be some truth in the matter. Too many workers and tenants lived in that house with us. Her fridge and food larder were daily audited and inspected also. Today, we know to eat our food freshly cooked and prepared from fresh ingredients for maximum nutrition but Ma The Frugal insists on living the way she has always lived, i.e. choose the oldest food in the fridge to eat first or those closest to or past their use-by date. She cannot bear to throw away food, even if they show early signs of decay. Can you imagine how long it would take Ma to prepare a meal? Selection of the ingredients alone would take a good half an hour. How did Pa put up with her fussing around at her fridge? Her fussing and rummaging at the nooks and crannies? How did he cope with her remonstrations when her mind told her some precious item was missing? How did he keep his sanity from her insane suspicions? Ma was here at my home for lunch yesterday. She decided it was her prerogative to also inspect my larder and fridge. Maybe it was just her curious mind at work, checking price tags to see if I am a shrewd shopper. Relax, Ma. I am a Ningbonese. A Penangite too.
Pa settled in Australia in 1988. He was only 71 then. At the time, I thought he was a very old man with a bad limp, compliments of a stroke which struck him on his 60th birthday party. Pa fought the disease with every ounce of will he had. He was a fighter, the type who would just not stay down. It was inspiring to see him beat the disease with his tenacity and remarkable discipline. Pa spent a good chunk of his mornings going through his very thorough exercise routine which included long walks followed by the gentle yet strenuous Tai chi moves. Ma and my eldest sister, Big Sis arrived a couple of months later. They had to make sure all Ma’s precious belongings were packed properly in the container and more importantly, accounted for. Many of Ma’s boxes and bags of belongings remain unused or should I say, useless. Unused but not unpacked. Of course, she regularly unpacks them, inspects and checks before repacking them carefully. They are still precious to her – once upon a time, paid for with hard-earned money, prised from proud savings, with big plans to use them for so-and-so and for whatever occasion. They remain valuable to her, brand new but destined for the rubbish tip if Vinnies or The Salvos reject them one day.
Pa suffered two more strokes during his years in Adelaide. They were mini ones. The problem with mini strokes was that they were not alarming. Sure, we were more attentive to Pa’s diet but most of us did not heed the warning signs seriously. Some of us continued to take Pa to his favourite fish and chips joint. The fish is fine but the chips? They are deep-fried and contain high salt. Not recommended for a stroke patient. Pa came to stay with me for a few weeks when both Ma and Big Sis went back to Penang and Kuala Lumpur for a holiday. They were Pa’s carers, they needed more than a brief respite. A sister took Pa for a medical check-up after his stay with me. His blood pressure and cholesterol levels were high. A letter came soon after. From her, who else? In it, she accused me of providing Pa with unhealthy food. Did you take him to KFC all the time, perhaps insinuating that The Mrs was too lazy to cook? Nope. I did not. Pa ate what we ate and for the record, we have not consumed KFC food for many decades. But, I did not bother to reply to that unreasonable letter. After Ma and Big Sis returned from their holiday, it was decided Pa had to be moved to a nursing home permanently. He had fallen down whilst putting on his coat and broke his leg. After that, his health started to deteriorate slowly but surely. Although Pa fervently exercised every morning, he was diagnosed with Type-2 diabetes. If only back then the science existed to inform us that Type-2 diabetes is reversible simply by fasting. Our ignorance ultimately led to Pa losing his left leg. His foot was always freshly bandaged, professionally and properly. My eyes never went past the clean, bleached-white bandage. It made me assume the nursing home was doing everything right to treat his wound. They never told us it was so bad that there was a risk for gangrene. Pa, I am so sorry I did not do all I could to take better care of you. I trusted the professionals unreservedly. We all did. How foolish and ignorant of us. Despite my daily visits, despite the time spent with you, I did nothing to prevent the loss of your limb. I remember the subsequent years you suffered from the phantom pain. I remember your reluctance to lose your leg due to the old Chinese belief that we must enter the next world with our whole body intact to ensure a good next-life. I admire your consent to the amputation without a whimper. No complaints, no protests, no finger-pointing. I sensed your huge reluctance but thankfully, you kept it brief.
Pa stayed in a nursing home for four years. He would have hated it there, at St Basil’s nursing home in St Peters. But, being the wise and considerate man that he was, he understood the circumstances and never complained. Earlier on, he asked to go back home but Ma explained it very well to him – she and Big Sis were not able to take care of him anymore. Pa was susceptible to falling and they didn’t have the physical strength to move him let alone lift him off the ground. That was that. Pa just accepted it and never insisted on having it his way. He never made it ugly for us. He didn’t try to make us feel guilty. There were no tantrums, no whingeing, no ploys to manipulate any of us. He always greeted me with a smile whenever I visited him at St Basil’s and that was daily. Occasionally, twice daily if he wasn’t his usual chirpy self. It was habitual for me to stop in front of his room and wash my hands at the wash basin directly opposite his bed, before entering his room. If he was awake, he’d be sure to call out my name to welcome me. “Yung-gor, nung yu khung lei ah?“, he asked in his Shaoxing dialect how is it I had time to visit. Pa was always pleasant to be with, right to the end. His end didn’t come quick enough for him though. He told me to “help him go” if ever he was bed-ridden. That was about 18 months before he lost the ability to move by himself. I told him if it happened, hopefully by then it would be legal to do so. Pa didn’t agree it should be illegal to help a loved one die with dignity. But, the pro-life lobby is too powerful. It should not be a crime but it still is in South Australia. It should be seen as an act of love. The offender should not have to face the consequences of which there are many – legal, emotional and psychological. Pa lingered on and the last year of his life was pretty ordinary. He had trouble swallowing his food, and once he could no longer enjoy his meals, he lost interest in the meaning of life. One day, he told me he missed a good plate of Char Koay Teow, a famous Penang street food. I served it to him, blended and therefore gooey. He finished it without a sigh. And later on, he did not even want to go out anymore. It became too hard to move him from his bed, even with a mechanical lifter. The straps hurt him, maybe the nurses were too heavy-handed and bruised his bed sores but his dignity was likely bruised too. If you can picture cattle being lifted high for slaughter, then you can understand his feelings at the time. His last six months would have been tortuous for him. His eyesight was failing, he had become incontinent and he had even lost the enjoyment of an outing. Visits to his favourite restaurants ceased. I used to push him to the nearby Jade View Chinese Restaurant for the occasional lunch. He would be on his wheelchair, bright and attentive of the surroundings as I deftly manoeuvred his two-wheeler along the footpaths leading to the restaurant. I knew every root-damaged pavement and every bump on the footpaths in that section of the neighbourhood.
Pa loved life. I think he was thankful of the life that had been dished out to him. No matter that he had it tough at the beginning. The bitter days away from home at such a tender age. The nights he went to sleep hungry and cold. The loneliness and fear the young boy would have felt in a foreign place far from his mother’s bosom. And then to arrive as a teenager, on a foreign land with foreign smells and foreign-looking people, alone without family and friends, with just a few copper coins to get by? Scary. The sense of adventure may have been a thrill, the limitless potential for a new life exhilarating, even. But, the uncertainty and the unknown would have been equally daunting. I think Pa counted his blessings and appreciated what he had. He knew life could have been a whole lot worse than what he had carved out for himself. He was never one to complain about bad luck or to dwell on negatives. Two months after he turned 91, Pa left this world on 10 April 2007 but he hasn’t left me. I keep him in my heart, always. He calls out to me to be strong when times are challenging. He tells me to look at the positives when troubles direct my attention to the negatives. He reminds me of his wisdom when my impulses want me to be rash. He insists I walk on the right side to avoid the Urghhlings on the wrong side. Pa, you’re my pal and my beloved father. I thank you for everything you did for me. You were the stepping stone for me to build our next generation. The luxury of vocation, the opportunity to follow our dreams, is the legacy of your toil and sacrifice.
Throughout my life, I have declared I am my parents’ 7th child. Every legal document listing the names of my family members will reveal that; including the application forms to support my siblings’ applications to come over as Australian permanent residents, states that fact. But, the penny just dropped. I was Ma’s 11th pregnancy. In her mind, I would be her 11th child. It is not as if Ma never mentioned them. On the contrary. They are remembered by Ma on every anniversary of their demise. Some times, she would tell me he or she was born on a particular day. Ma reminisced about them recently. I paused ever so briefly, after she mentioned all of them to me. The weight of her emotions did not even cause a ripple on my conscience such was the impervious layer of my apathy. Maybe I did not detect her sadness. Maybe she said it matter-of-factly. Maybe I had heard it too often from her. Maybe, in my mind, they were not born and therefore were inconsequential to be mourned for and remembered. Life goes on? They did not even earn a little patch of ground to prove their existence in this world. No grave, no headstone, nameless forever. The truth is I would not exist, had they survived. There were four of them, in fact. Three were miscarriages, between 3 to 6 months old. Ma curled up her fingers and pointed to her palm. “He was just this big.” I think she was referring to the last one. Ma was only given a quick glimpse each time. The first was in June 1948, a 6-month-old foetus, a boy. The following year, there were three more casualties. Deaths, in fact. The second fatality was another 6-month-old, a girl, followed by the “beautiful boy who flashed Pa the sweetest smile”. He survived his slightly premature birth, but he did not hang around to enjoy a cuddle from Ma. He sneezed and died minutes later whilst Ma was being washed by the midwife. In December 1949, Ma lost another boy, a 3-month-old foetus. Ma does not know how they were disposed of. There is no record, no trace, no certification of their existence however temporary, no funeral, no evidence. They only exist in Ma’s memory. Even Big Sis cannot vouch for them. Big Sis was born in 1943. I arrived 15 years later. Penang was already a very different place. Big Sis was born during the Japanese occupation of Malaya. She experienced terror that I only read about or watch on the news with little emotion. Terror that does not haunt me despite the news anchor’s warning that they contain graphic scenes that viewers may find disturbing. Big Sis’ cries had to be stifled in the fields behind Anson Road on nights when the Japanese carried out joint operations from the air and on the ground. It did cross Ma’s mind that someone could have strangled her baby to death had she not stopped crying. They would not let one baby jeopardise the lives of many, right? Big Sis was a cry-baby, a noisy one, Ma’s neighbours often complained. It is easy to understand why. After all, we all know a hungry man is an angry man. A hungry baby is a cry-baby. During the war years, there was little time to rest or sleep and scarcely anything to eat. Not surprisingly, Ma produced insufficient breast milk to keep her baby contented. No one could afford powdered milk then, and even condensed milk diluted with water was beyond their budget. Condensed milk would become the cause of my elder siblings’ poor dental health later on in their lives. After the war, Ma fell pregnant almost every year for fifteen years except for 1949. That year, she was pregnant three times. Ma never suffered from tokophobia, despite the recurring pregnancies and multiple miscarriages. Prior to carrying me in her womb, she did not once try to abort a pregnancy. She did not try the pineapple solution either. Some of her peers suggested a heavy pineapple diet will minimise the chance of a pregnancy by increasing the acidity of her womb. But, today’s research suggests the enzyme in pineapple, bromelain, is conducive to help women with implantation issues. Maybe, Ma misunderstood her peers. Maybe they meant for her to rub pineapple on her private parts to kill off Pa’s sperm, but that is also another myth. Pa and Ma brought Big Sis to visit Ma’s mum, Ngabo, in Bagan Datoh for the first time in 1946. There, Ma’s youngest sister, Suleh Ahyi made a huge impression on Big Sis. She was so skilful in harvesting sugar cane and stripping the bark of the cane with a chopper. Suleh Ahyi was about 12 years-old then. What impressed Big Sis the most was the way the bare-footed Suleh Ahyi seemed to avoid stepping on any of the dung that littered her pet goats’ pen. That was the last interstate outing Big Sis enjoyed as the only child in the family. Big Sis was a good helper at home even though Ma had Ying Jie as a maid. Her job was to carry basins of warm water for Ying Jie to bathe Ko (my brother) and Neechee (my second sister). Ying Jie was tasked primarily to look after Ko. She resigned in 1951 after Pa showed his dissatisfaction with her sloppy effort in mopping the floor. 1951 was a good year, the start of a mini-boom in his laundry business. His shop underwent a refurbishment – new flooring and new fixtures and fittings. Pa voiced his annoyance at some wood chips and shavings on his new floor – Ying Jie obviously missed them during the first mop. Yung Jie joined our family in 1953. Before that, Neechee was looked after by Suleh Ahyi. Suleh Ahyi left her Bagan Datoh home when she was 16 to stay with Ma. So, in 1948, both Ma’s sisters, Balapai Ahyi and Suleh Ahyi, briefly lived with her. She was their eldest sister, their guardian. Suleh Ahyi was 19 when Neechee was born. That would have been a huge relief for the teenager after having witnessed her sister’s three miscarriages and one neonatal death. Suleh Ahyi and Neechee were inseparable. Suleh Ahyi looked after Neechee 24/7 as if she was her own, and even shared her bed with the baby. Big Sis, 7 at the time, looked up to Suleh Ahyi as her role model. Suleh Ahyi with her bright deep-set eyes and high cheekbones would surely have been a real stunner in her teens. Big Sis said the local boys would wolf-whistle Suleh Ahyi and call out “Champion! Champion!” as she walked past them on her way to the badminton court at the local church premises near the Cold Storage on Friday nights. Suleh Ahyi would glare and smirk at the boys with the haughtiness of a beauty queen. Big Sis’ love for music was sparked by her teenage aunty who sang her bedtime songs from her Zhou Xuan song book. Suleh Ahyi’s favourite evening pastime was sleeping on her back with legs crossed as she mimicked the Shanghainese songstress. Surrounded by music from the “Golden Voice”, Big Sis would grow up to be a classically-trained musician from Trinity College London and a hugely respected piano tutor of the highest calibre in Penang.
In 1953, Suleh Ahyi turned 21 and was married off to a tall, dark and handsome bloke. Her husband, a tough burly guy, reminded me of a young Jean-Claude Van Damme except my uncle was a lot smarter. He could speak Tamil fluently. Both Big Sis and Neechee felt a huge loss when Suleh Ahyi left, the house suddenly seemed quiet without her singing. The following year, my third sister Sehchee, was born. Sehchee suffered from bad bouts of diarrhoea for some four years. Yung Jie asked Ma to pray to the Monkey God as Ma grew desperate. A doctor blamed her for over-feeding Sehchee and another said the cause was irregular feeding. The Monkey God suggested Ma changed the baby girl’s diet from powdered milk to rice porridge and the problem miraculously disappeared. Two more daughters were born after Sehchee before I arrived in late 1958. But, my arrival was preceded by an attempt on my life by Ma. It felt like a mother’s smother.
A Mother’s Smother. Ma told me she tried to kill me. She should have asked me, I would have let her, willingly. Unconditional love, that. But, I didn’t know that was her wish, and so I fought and repulsed the smothers, not knowing they were by her hands. She relinquished, I won. I was not even three months old. I could feel her despair, her remorse. Ma was 35 years old. By then, the scars from ten childbirths, four of which resulted in deaths, would have jarred her. In her mind, they barred her from further unwanted pregnancies. She did not want anymore, the burden of the heavy responsibility was too much for one woman. Six rowdy children already occupied the home plus one horny man who kept wanting the love-making. “Tsk tsk tsk, your Pa. He wanted it even when I was five months pregnant! Do you think he may have caused those fatalities?” Ma asked me. I am no medical professional but I firmly assured her. No, Pa didn’t risk their well-being. As if that too absolved any guilt I may have harboured about my own predilection. I think the amniotic fluid in her uterus would have protected the four siblings who didn’t make it. RIP, my three brothers and my sister. One of the boys was very handsome, your father was very pleased with him, Ma said. Fair skinned, with a constant grin. He beamed a huge smile at Pa when their eyes first met. The midwife inexplicably left the baby near an open window. One ominous sneeze was all he hinted to Ma of his impending demise. She went berserk at the midwife but it was too late to save him. He passed away a brief moment later. Mornings in 1950 Penang were cool and fresh. The sea breeze could send shivers even to young adults. My brother didn’t stand a chance. Whereas I was lucky. By 1958, the devastating effects from WW2 were waning. Food was becoming plentiful, less exorbitant.
In my third month of enjoying a warm safe refuge in Ma’s womb, I came under attack. My world was being destroyed by a vile brown chemical. What the?! Who’s there?! What do you want from me? I’m just a baby. Don’t harm me, I’ll tell my mom. I have six older siblings, you will not dare! Ma took three dosages of that brown liquid, prescribed by her gynaecologist. It was the doctor who gave her the murder weapon. They want to kill me? Oh mother! The Plan: Madam, take a spoonful every four hours during the day. Do not stop until you have the result you seek. This bottle gives you ten dosages. Ample, for what you want. Ma almost died from it. I almost died from it. The pain was so severe she left her chundering all over the bathroom. When she doubled over from one chronic bout of seizure, she almost fainted. The next day, her Second Yiyi (maternal aunt) came to visit. She had heard about The Plan. Silly woman, what if? What if it’s a boy? Ma did not divulge whether that changed her mind or the chundering did.
Ma knew before I was born that I would be a really stubborn child. If that horrible liquid could not kill me, it could only mean I was destined to disobey her in everything else. My will to live was so strong my parents named me Forever Strong. To complete my family, Little Sis was born three years later.
Why would they not be happy for me to write about mum? By they, I mean some of my siblings. Aren’t they proud of her? Ma’s grace, her tenacity to survive a war, her frugal ways to make ends meet and build a comfortable nest for us. Were there any insidious secrets that can’t be told? Perhaps, sexual misconduct and scandals so embarrassing they must be buried forever? Any unforgivable crimes that are not allowed to resurface? No, no and no. Then, why the frequent barrage of reminders of what not to write and criticisms about what I write? For a long while now, I have stopped sharing my stories with my siblings. Save the angst, avoid the anxiety. There was neither applause nor encouragement for me to continue. Only the opposite. As if what I have written about mum is repulsive, revolting or repugnant. Or, in one sister’s opinion, mum’s stories should simply remain private. Don’t let me mislead you, there is no ill-feeling between me and them. They just guard their privacy zealously whereas I view that we have nothing to hide and ought to be proud to tell our parents’ stories. Ma wants me to write. That is all that matters. I can tell. She can skip her afternoon naps when she reminisces about her past to me. She becomes talkative, alert and responsive. She becomes fully awake. They can tell. They will choose to leave us when Ma gets into the groove. They don’t want to know. Off they go, to Bunnings. To Burnside Village. Wherever. I don’t want to know, as long as they leave me alone. Don’t censor me, don’t tell me what I can write or can’t. And, don’t censure me after. Ma wants her stories told, and that is good enough for me.
After the Japanese surrendered in 1945, Pa and Ma took the opportunity to visit their elders in Teluk Anson. That was their happy hunting ground, where they met. Where they fell in love and married each other after being given the necessary nods from their elders. They had not returned since they left the town in early 1941. Five years had passed. The elders had all grown older and wearier. Wars do that to people, I suppose. Lives wrecked, livelihoods wrecked or worse, diseases and a painful death for the unlucky ones. The clan was lucky, almost all had been spared. It was a joyous occasion. When the Japanese left, it felt like a suffocating, dark and heavy cloud that was suppressing all traces of normality had lifted and a fresh sea breeze had suddenly blown in and dispersed the acrid air from the town. The wholesome spontaneity that everyone expressed with their smiles and laughter was unrestrained and genuine. The exuberance, the joy, unforgettable. Pa and Ma spent two weeks there. They even popped in to check on their Indian tailor friend, the one who made Ma’s wedding dress. He happened to be overstocked with bundles of fabric and clothes made for customers who had failed to collect their orders. The war made him desperate for cash. Pa, the ever-ready entrepreneur saw the opportunity to make a buck and helped his friend offload the unwanted stock. His mentor, my grand-uncle Ngagung also had lots of garments dry-cleaned for customers who had not returned to collect their very fine clothes. Perhaps his wealthy European customers, many of whom were plantation owners, had fled the country when news broke of the Japanese invasion. Pa got them at a bargain also. When Pa returned to Penang, he did not waste a day to set up a store at “Mor-lah” flea market adjacent to Chowrasta wet-market on Penang Road. It did not dawn on me until recently that “Mor-lah” was very likely derived from the Malay word “murah” or cheap. Pa did a roaring business with the used clothes and fabrics he got from Teluk Anson. Ma said he had his pocket picked when they went to celebrate their bonanza at the grand opening night of a new cinema called The Majestic straight after work. Most of their profit was lost that night, some $300. Pa soon quit his “Mor-lah” store. No, it was not because he was demoralised by the loss of his takings but he did it to avoid the taunts the fellow retailers dished out at him. Apparently, he was clumsy with the metal rule and lacked the finesse that his competitors had with their slick movements when measuring the length of the materials. No matter, the early success and resulting feelings of euphoria sparked Pa’s enthusiasm for identifying good business opportunities. In August 1946, they moved out of their bomb-damaged house in Bishop Street to the shop-house at 3-J Penang Road. Ma had just fallen pregnant but that was no justification for her to avoid the long hours for some two weeks in that 2-storey house cleaning it from top to bottom. The shop-house must have been strategically acquired, for within a month, Pa had negotiated a buy-out of the Eastern & Oriental (E&O) Hotel contract from his uncle, Li Fook, for $500. This was a contract to provide all the laundry services for the hotel which was situated only about 200 meters from the shop-house. During the war, Pa and Ma had hidden from the Japanese in uncle Li Fook’s Anson Road property; the elder clansman did not mind that his business was passed down to Pa. In April 1947, my brother, Ko, was born. He had a maid with a distinct harelip to look after him during the “Mua-Guek” (Zuo Yue) or full month. Traditionally, women had to spend the first 30 days as postpartum confinement. I suppose despite the myths, it should be taken advantage of as their maternity leave, a chance to simply lie in bed, rest and learn how to breast-feed. During those early years, there was no herbal chicken soup or pig’s trotters in ginger and black vinegar for Ma. No extra nutrition to help her recuperate. I should ask Ma how she coped without washing her hair or taking a cold shower or going out for an evening stroll during the 30-day lockdown, and did Pa “leave her alone” for all that time during her confinement? Big Sis was cared for by our mum’s younger sister, our Balapai Ahyi, so named after she settled in Bayan Lepas many years later. Balapai Ahyi moved into the Bishop Street house to stay with Ma in December 1943. She was only 13, but it was decided Ma would take better care of her than their mother who as a widow was struggling to fend for herself and her youngest daughter at home. The maid with the distinct harelip left after Ma’s “Mua-Guek” and was not seen again. Ma heard she went to work at the Thai-Burma railway, an idea that sounds preposterous unless she had absolutely no idea of its horrific history.
In January 1948, Pa returned to China to visit his mum. That would be the first of only three visits after he left his homeland in his teens. He had ‘not made it” when he returned to his village. Surely, he would have felt he had fallen well short of his ambition. Who amongst us did not harbour the dream to be a “self-made” person by the time we returned home after a long stint away? Pa had spent all his savings procuring the E&O contract – he was almost penniless at the time and it was by taking up a loan from a Hong Kong man who went by the name Ng-san that he could bring home a bottle of Ghee Hiang sesame oil and some clothes for his mum. I do not know why the Cantonese and the Japanese use the same honorific word “san” for Mr. The business from E&O had been disappointing – the Canadian sailors had left Penang, and the spate of rainy days made it very difficult to hang the linen out to dry. To be more brutal, the business had turned out to be a dud investment. Pa was away for almost 3 months, a one-way journey by cargo ship to China took 20 days. Ko was almost a year-old when Pa returned home to Penang. By then, Big Sis was already a fast eater – just like Pa – but it could be because all she had was rice and “Chay-thong”, Ningbonese for watery sauce from a vegetable dish. I checked, it meant no meat and no vegetables. Ko was a slow eater and wanted only mother’s milk. Obviously, he was born clever. Powdered milk was unaffordable and condensed milk with bread was not to his liking. Big Sis was sent to Bukit Tinggi to be cared for by a distant relative, Poddy Ahyi. Anyone from Zhejiang in those days was embraced as a distant relative. Big Sis remembers using a small umbrella as her security teddy bear. She can’t explain how she found an umbrella to be cuddly as a teddy bear but it must have been comforting for a 3-year-old in the home of a distant relative. Pa was the 4th son in his family of five sons and three daughters. He left his Shaoxing home when he was just 9-years-old to start his apprenticeship in a dhobi shop in Shanghai. He knew his family was too poor to afford all of them at home. So, he volunteered to leave. Their days were not always so desperate and miserable. Pa told Big Sis when he was a little boy, he watched from a distance his grand-father’s funeral. The vantage point from a hillside offered him a bird’s-eye view of a long funeral procession that snaked along the fields from the village to the local cemetery many miles away. The quite elaborate occasion would have been fitting for a feudal lord. That little snippet of a story raised more questions than it answered. Who was Pa’s yeh-yeh or Ahya, in our Shaoxing dialect? Why did it strike Pa that his grandpa was inexplicably so much wealthier than them as their circumstances at home clearly showed? Why was he not part of the procession? Why did he observe the funeral from a great distance? Did he not have the right to mourn publicly? Was he deliberately hidden from view? Was it really his yeh-yeh’s funeral or someone was just telling fibs to a young boy? Facts mis-remembered or truths from a little boy’s innocent but naive perspective? This next bit is undoubtedly true. Pa’s eldest sister committed suicide rather than accept the man who was match-made for her by their father, my Ahya. “Why?! Was the bridegroom so grotesque?” I asked. We never did find out why. The man, deprived of Pa’s eldest sister, married the 2nd sister instead in order for Ahya to honour his deal and avoid slighting the man. The couple could not produce a child and so they adopted one of Pa’s 2nd brother’s son. Haizhong, 海忠 whom I met in Shaoxing in October 2007 is their grandson. So legally, he does not bear my clan’s surname although he is still my first cousin once removed. The West does not differentiate between a progeny from an uncle or an aunt, but the Chinese can always tell. Due to his adoption, I am his “Jiu-Jiu”舅舅 from the maternal side rather than his ‘Ah-Song”, 叔叔 from the paternal branch of the family tree.
Balapai Ahyi married in August 1948. She was 18. She was pleased with the Shanghainese bloke Pa match-made her to. Ma said her sister left with a lingering broad smile. Two months earlier, Ma lost a 6-month-old baby. It wouldn’t be her only miscarriage. According to Ma, the boy didn’t make it because she was weak and malnourished. Ma had spent long days and nights making a cheongsam or Qipao and two sets of blouses and shorts for her sister’s wedding gift. The two sisters were as fragile as porcelain. Ma reckoned she got her ill-health from those long hours at the Singer sewing machine. My memory of Balapai Ahyi was of a sickly but beautiful and elegant lady with jade-like complexion who often behaved as if any strong gust of wind would blow her away. The newly-weds moved to Ipoh and bore a beautiful daughter in 1950. Not long after that, they settled in Bayan Lepas, when her eldest brother, my Do-Ahjiu, gave them his struggling laundry shop there to take over. Do-Ahjiu was a very active businessman, quick to seize opportunities to open shops. He would have been a fantastic creator of franchise businesses had he taken that next step to replicate the same business in different locations rather than start different businesses.
To ease their pain from the miscarriage, Pa upgraded their car in late 1948. It was a Hillman Minx, a tortoise-shaped car made in England as most good things were back then. But, the pain quickly returned. In January 1949, Ma had another stillborn – a 6-month-old girl this time. That year, on the 5th August, my parents lost a newborn, a son. He managed to give Pa a sweet endearing smile before he passed away a few minutes later. Four months later, Ma had a miscarriage, a 3-month-old boy. 1949 would turn out to be the worst year of their lives – three babies lost before they could even embrace them in their arms or hear them give the happiest sound any mother would love – the first cry of a newborn. In October 1951, My Second Sis, Neechee, would be born. Ma attributes her successful birth to the Javanese medicines her neighbours from Medan gave her. They lived three doors away, on 3-G Penang Road. I only remember the name of their shop, Kam Sisters. In December that year, Pa went to Singapore either for a short holiday or to scope the port city for opportunities, leaving Ma to look after the business as well as their three kids. Neechee was their lucky baby. Business boomed for the next two years despite much turmoil during the Malayan Emergency which intensified after the assassination of the High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney in October. Penang, also known as the Pearl of the Orient, was a favourite holiday destination for the British and New Zealand troops (the Aussies arrived later) – the fighting against the Communist guerrillas took place in the jungles of Malaya but the R&R place of choice was Penang. Pa was a flamboyant man, so Ma jealously said. A tall handsome man, he was habitually well-groomed and well-spoken. He commanded attention when he spoke, aided by a confident and firm voice and of course, why wouldn’t he be confident? His cars turned heads. Who did not find him irresistible? He loved cars and loved Peking opera. His favourite role was playing Zhuge Liang, a war hero during the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history. I was brought up by Ma to believe that my family eked out a hand-to-mouth existence when we were little. But, now I realise Pa the car-lover acquired quite a few cars during those years. He started with a tortoise-shaped second-hand car before trading it for the Hillman, and later changed it to an Austin, then a Morris, and a Fiat after that. When we were in our early teens, he bought an Opel, followed by a Ford Capri in the 70s and a Corolla after I left for Australia in 1977. Ma never got her driving licence. Pa was her driving instructor in 1952-53. The three lessons over a 9-month period she had were too much for her weak heart. During those days, there was just the one set of traffic lights, at the Chulia Street and Penang Road junction opposite Odeon cinema. (It is likely Ma meant the Capitol cinema, Big Sis said) With hardly any cars on the road, it should have been a great time to own the road. Ma said she could not find the spare time to have lessons but I suspect she was reluctant to sit behind the steering wheel. She failed to reach Gurney Drive after starting her lesson at the Penang Road and Northam Road junction. The grand mansions which flanked Northam Road sat on acreage blocks that abutted a private stretch of Penang’s famed pristine golden sands. It was those magnificent manors which bore the heavy influence of British architecture that caught Pa’s attention and his mind was momentarily transported to a world of dreams which beckoned the likes of Yeap Chor Ee, Yeoh Wee Gark and Loh Boon Siew. Those were men of great stature, legends amongst Penang’s self-made tycoons. “Bilik! Bilik! Blaaake!!” Pa yelled when he suddenly saw his precious Hillman heading towards a ditch. Ma could not find where the brake pedal was. “It was a near-miss by a matter of inches” Ma said, but it was enough to bring Pa back from his dream and for Ma to forever quit learning to drive.
In all her previous seven pregnancies, Ma never went to visit a doctor once. In those days, people did not think they could afford a doctor’s opinion. During the 1950s and 60s, old wives tales were still relevant and therefore prevalent in Asian cultures. Mothers or grandmothers ruled the roost – we did not have doctors to look at our wounds, aches, fevers, or broken limbs or dentists to extract our rotten teeth, let alone ask them for the correct diagnosis. We never went to bed with wet hair as we were repeatedly told that it would make us sick. We only secretly cracked our knuckles and ribs to avoid our ears being pulled for not obeying their wise advice. Apparently, old wives believed knuckle cracking will give us arthritis. Every of Ma’s aunties seemed to have the God-given skill to predict the baby’s sex whenever Ma fell pregnant. In late 1953, Ma fell pregnant again. “You will have a boy this time!” Ma again trusted Mother Nature to grow a healthy baby in her tummy, no visits to midwives or doctors were warranted. The war may have ended eight years earlier and business may have delivered profits healthy enough for Pa to buy his favourite car, albeit second-hand, yet the accepted practice at home was that the informal (and therefore free) consultations with the herbalist on Campbell Street was enough to ensure a proper pregnancy. Third Sis or Sehchee was born in July 1954 when the British Empire was weakening and the colonial masters were starting to leave Malaya. Abdul Rahman had become president of UMNO in 1951 and a year after Sehchee was born, the alliance swept to power in the only general election before Malaya’s independence in 1957. The departure of the British meant that the laundry and dry-cleaning business had truly passed its heyday. Sehchee was a sickly child who suffered from frequent bouts of diarrhoea. Frequently rebuked for being a cry-baby, it ought to have been easy to understand why her discomfort made her cry. It was only in the 1970s that Ma fully understood why. Sehchee was fed powdered milk during her early childhood. The Swiss-based Nestlé was embroiled in a controversy in 1973 – their infant milk formula Lactogen was named “The Baby Killer” in a German magazine. Women all over the world were misled by their advertising that promoted the magical powdered formula offered more health benefits for infants than mother’s milk. A switch that was expensive not only in money terms but especially costly in increased malnutrition and infections, retarded development and often death.
Before the pandemic, I had always used my real name here. But, Australia changed after Trump called the virus the China virus or the Kung-Flu virus. Aussies have turned less multi-cultural, more xenophobic. I man the phones at work and pretend to be AI in running the live-chat responses. Trump is the master of the slow-drip treatment and eventually the leaking tap will cause the soil to turn muddy. Throw the mud around and some will eventually stick. Say the same lies over and over again, and eventually people will believe you. For the same reason, many of my friends think one of us has a rather long dong. But, name me and they will shame me. Back to manning the phones. Over the recent months, I detected a rising level of bias against China and all things Made-in-China. Most of the products I sell are from China. Even for the few products made locally here, the components or raw materials are processed in China. I did not want my business to suffer by what I call a triple-whammy effect. A bloke with a Chinese name and a Chinese accent selling China-made products. Who is going to buy from such a bloke, given the almost daily news about the growing friction between China and Australia? So, I turned down the accent of my mother tongue and put on a more international twang. “Are you a Kiwi?” “Are you from Scotland?” “Sorry to ask but are you South African?” “Can I ask if you’re an Islander?” As a filial son, I never dreamt that one day I would abandon the name given to me by my father. Sorry Pa but at work, I now go by a new name. A name I once associated with my childhood hero, Roger Moore. So, for the record, in my life, the first person named by me is I. Having lived here for forty years, I am suddenly calling myself by a Western name. It still feels weird and I must say I am not accustomed to be known by this Western name. In fact, I find it quite strange to see that name as the sender of my emails. And when I am called by my original name by friends and relatives, I somehow stand taller and feel stronger. After all, that is the meaning of my name in Chinese – forever strong.
No, I never got to give my sons their names. That privilege went to my father. Besides, I wasn’t qualified to perform that task. Firstly, one needs to know how to write the Chinese characters. Secondly, you will need to know how to write it in traditional characters. The simplified version will give the wrong results. I think it is to do with mathematics and maybe even astrology, yes, naming someone is all very scientific. For me, I find it strange that in Mainland China, the simplified version is now used, but outside China in say, Taiwan and Hong Kong, they stick to the old complex characters. My father would carefully count the number of strokes of the names he liked. Firstly, the names had to be meaningful, e.g. for my eldest son, his name means abundance of vigorous energy or magnificence – his first name means copious and his second name, energy from a waterfall. After Pa was happy with the name’s meaning, he then had to satisfy that the number of combined strokes of the chosen names when referenced not against the time and date of the birthday but the number 384 which gave the auspicious result he sought for from the Almanac of Names. Second son is named abundance of auspicious and good spiritual life. Baby Son’s name means abundance of imperial significance. All my sons are named by their paternal grandpa. Pa had the sole naming rights. Their surname was his and I doubt very much that he even paused to consider deferring that right to me or to their maternal grandparents. To be fair, he was the only one equipped with the Almanac. Naming a baby is a privilege, not an entitlement. It is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly as the baby’s future is totally dependent on the name given and the number of strokes of the Chinese characters will determine the characteristics and wellbeing of the child. Historically, sons were favoured over daughters. The girls when married off will merely be discarded water from a wash basin, they cannot return or be retrieved.
Jià chu qu de nǚ ér pō chu qu de shuĭ – shōu bù huí lái 嫁出去的女儿，泼出去的水 – 收不回来
In those days, should a young boy do poorly or was sickly, it was not uncommon for the adults to rename him a cow, pig or dog. The belief was evil spirits roamed about the village to ensnare boys with good names who therefore will have good health and a prosperous future. These evil spirits will obtain their sustenance by residing in the bodies of the boys they possessed. These boys can recover from their sickness only if their names are changed to depict inferiority. No evil spirits want to live inside a pig or a cow, right? If Ah Too or Ah Goo did not recover from his illness, the adults will change his name again, to that of a girl’s. It was believed that a girl was worth less than a pig, so for sure the evil spirit will abandon the boy renamed Ah Moi or Ah Mei. Names and meanings…hmmm, if I have got the historical aspects wrong, please don’t blame me.
It would be some ten years after my sons were born that we had search engines for us to surf the Internet. Netscape Navigator was born in 1994, but was soon destroyed by Windows 95 which came packed with Internet Explorer. I put a lot of my savings into LookSmart, a budding search engine in 1996 but was made to look dumb when the share price tanked and never resurfaced. It was well before Mozilla, Firefox, Safari, and definitely no Google Chrome then. It was my one-in-a-million-chance to tell how I made my millions from the Internet boom but look, I was not smart enough, OK? You can name me whatever but please don’t blame me. Without the Internet, I didn’t have a ready tool to anglicise my sons’ names. I didn’t possess a pinyin dictionary to work out the appropriate names from Pa’s choices. Back in the 80s, hyphenated names were exotic, why not go along with that trend? So, even today my sons sometimes still frown at their anglicised names, they are quite difficult for Westerners to announce over the PA system! It’s ok to blame me, I suppose.
A couple of weeks ago, a good friend asked for suggestions of a suitable name for his grand-niece. I knew he wasn’t serious about it, and no one offered any. He was just a proud grand-uncle sharing the joyful news of a newborn. Wilson belongs to a big family and like any hierarchical unit, I gathered there would be quite a few seniors ranked highly and deserving of the privilege to name the beautiful child. His grand-niece indeed is a creation of exquisite beauty. A natural beauty, I would say. After all, in the midst of the universe we live in, it would be hard to disagree that nature herself is the most beautiful. It is early spring here in Adelaide and I have to say, this is the season where nature is supremely beautiful and at its faultless best. In my native Penang Hokkien dialect, how would we describe a place as beautiful and serene as this? Two words will aptly apply. Jin Sui! Really beautiful.
Jin Sui! I said to Wilson. “The newborn, the beautiful girl in the photo. Jin Sui.” Wilson thought that was my choice for his contest for us to come up with a name for the girl. One can easily come up with a beautiful name for a beautiful girl. Maybe even Sophia from Sophia Loren, or Artemis the Greek Goddess famous for her boobs and the natural environment. Another name we can’t dismiss is Aphrodite the daughter of Zeus, the Goddess of love from whom the word aphrodisiac comes from or even Hera, the wife of Zeus and by extension, the queen of all goddesses. All heavenly. All beautiful. But Wilson’s niece loves the name and has named her daughter Jin Sui! Suddenly, I was the one privileged with giving the beautiful newborn her name. Jin Sui, may you grow up to the most beautiful person you can be, a beautiful woman with a beautiful mind and the loveliest heart.
Jit Huat, who at times can be a rather vocal politically-incorrect friend, sent us a message claiming that it is OK for sexagenarians to be vain. Bravo, Jit Huat. I respect anyone who is honest and brave enough to stand on his soapbox and tell the world what his mind says. He doesn’t hide behind a thick curtain of political correctness, and it is that whiff of honesty that we should all appreciate. According to him, vanity keeps our sense of humour intact and helps revive the “aura of youth” that we all so desperately need. A vain one, I imagine he would often check his reflection on the kitchen window whilst his Mrs magically produces a magnificent meal. I can visualise him scritch and preen his unruly long hair using the kitchen window as a mirror whilst she slaves away on her own. Her calls to him to relieve her sprained wrist from the heavy cast iron wok fall on deaf ears, as he meticulously re-buns his hair at the most inappropriate moment. The vain man is also likely to preoccupy himself with his silhouette, favourably comparing his physique against the boutique store’s mannequin, whilst his Mrs tries out a new dress. That level of self-awareness is what reminds some of us to straighten our backs and improve our posture. Don’t worry, Jit Huat. This story isn’t about you, although Carly Simon’s words flooded my mind in an instant.
You’re so vain
You probably think this song is about you
You’re so vain (you’re so vain)
I’ll bet you think this song is about you
Don’t you? Don’t you?
In less than a week, I will turn 62. In truth, I have felt 62 for almost all of this year. Absent-mindedly, I have more often than not, selected my age as 62 when recording the settings of my exercise bike before each rigorous routine. At our age, the look to cultivate should be that of a kind and elderly gentleman, a very good friend recently reminded me. For the majority of my life, vanity has been a stranger to me. Very early on, I divulged to The Mrs that I once aspired to be an actor. That dream expired very quickly after she said I should really look into the mirror. She has, throughout my married life, cleverly drummed into me that at best, my “thoo-fei” or bandit looks will get me a 3-second role as an easy-beat thug. One kick by the hero in white and my role would end in the ditch. She is such a clever one. Snip off any buds that will sprout the natural tendency to be vain, and her man will never be. Vanity costs money. A vain person will want to always look good and that comes with a huge cost. Better grooming means more visits to the hair-dresser. Haircare, skincare and healthcare represent a real scare to a tight family budget. Looking good equates to many thousands of dollars during one’s marriage and that is before we even consider spending on high-street fashion shoes and clothes. Just a few years ago, on a holiday in New York City, I walked into Allen Edmonds on 44th Street. If you want a serious pair of dress shoes, go there! The shoe whisperer knew everything about my feet just from looking at the way I walked. The Mrs was not disappointed. She knew that her husband wasn’t vain enough to spend a dime in such a store. Instead, she bought it for me, splurging many hundreds of US dollars even though I lacked vanity. Last week, I finally had a haircut this year. Can you imagine how much she has saved from the shunned haircuts?! At $75 a visit to my hero, Hiro at Clip Joint, those five visits I skipped would be enough to justify a big plate of my favourite dish at our local restaurant, Australian rock lobster with yifu noodles. She said my birthday is coming up, time to get a haircut. Wow! Hooray! I assumed she meant she would flash me a Clip Joint gift card. Nope, it was a pair of scissors instead as she hollered for me to bring out the barber’s stool. Fair enough, I am not vain. I don’t care how I look. But, I am the boss of my business. Shouldn’t I look like the boss? The boss should have the body and haircut to execute proper authority, right? The Mrs is clearly a step ahead of me. She knows I work from home and I don’t use Zoom or Skype anyway. No one will know if I have had a bad haircut day. “It’s alright. Your hair will grow back after a week”, she reassured me with her soothing smile. Well, it has been a full week and I still can’t find my smile yet.
Is it wrong to be vain though? Is it not natural that we want to look good? Present the best we can be? Be that most attractive person that we can mould ourselves into? Vanity can be a great motivator for us. It can be the reason why we want to be the role model for our children. Who does not want their kids to look up to them? Be the star in their eyes? Be that person they aspire to be – one of vibrant vitality, shining with positivity and exuding great inner strength filled with self-respect and confidence. Those who want to look great will lose weight, quit smoking, start fasting and do everything right to radiate beauty for all to see. Without health there is no beauty, so for some, good health is the by-product of vanity. This surely must be the bright side of vanity, and it cannot be detrimental at all to our mental health and general well-being. After all, vanity is well short of narcissism. Vanity doesn’t require us to bully, lie through our teeth, or rely on misogynistic abuse to take advantage of women. Just think of Donald Trump if you need more traits of a narcissist.
Armed with such iron-clad logic, I decided to entertain the idea of being a vain person. Some ten years ago, after observing for a long time how well my three sons look after their health and their looks, it didn’t strike me that they were being vain at all. They were merely looking after themselves! There is absolutely nothing wrong to want to look good, present well, articulate clearly and carry oneself with aplomb. Be as sure-footed as a mountain goat, I told myself. Soon after, I started to dabble in skincare brands. Naturally I went for the best, SK-II and Khiels got the nod first. Even though I knew the blemishes on my face are subcutaneous, it didn’t stop me from splashing out on their flagship skin repair products. A Malaysian friend introduced me to Cocolab, her family’s skincare and healthcare empire founded on virgin coconut oil. I miss their soaps, they really smell the best. Since then I have tried a few other brands, and other wonderful products such as face masks, hair oils, exotic shampoos and hair conditioners, but alas, there is no magic wand.
I seldom look in the mirror and I must admit that the person looking back at me this morning shocked me. Despite the DKNY leather jacket that props up my body and the BOSS leather belt that holds up my jeans from dragging on the ground, or the well-cut Calibre tee shirt, (a gift to a son some Christmases ago) that can no longer hide the bulges in the wrong areas, the person staring back at me is almost unrecognisable. A soon-to-be 62-year-old sun-ravaged badly hunched man with a scrawny torso and a most out-of-place lump of belly fat in the midriff. An old Chinese bloke who still thinks he is an old Aussie cobber. I would like to tell him, “Mate, you’ve been vain, in vain”.
Last weekend seems such a long time ago now. It has been one friggin’ bad week for me. It is just not right that I failed to let the good vibes of one happy short holiday linger for longer. The laughter, the good food, the good wine and great company all have so quickly become a distant memory. What happened? Life got in the way. Nasty customers spewing their bile, remonstrating with their anger-laced impatience at me for the pandemic-caused delays – their severe remarks and demands for immediate refunds have anchored me at the bottom of what feels like a muddy, toad-infested well. But, they pale into insignificance when compared with the vicious people and their hurtful views about why I should stop writing. A few days ago, someone echoed that which was said to me last year. When a person says something hurtful, we can choose to ignore it. But, when the same criticisms are dished out by another person close to us, we have to pause and reflect. It is very likely there must be some truth for us to face up to and some honest deliberations should be endured in order for us to correct and improve ourselves. The whole process can be rather painful. Why must they think they need to be cruel in order to be kind?
“You should read more before you write! It is embarrassing to write about matters you know so little about! Why don’t you do some research?”
“You’re not a good story-teller! You don’t know how to make a story interesting.”
“You’re simply copying the words of historians and philosophers. Nothing original.”
all by one person
Alas, I am no colourful raconteur. No! I shall write this week off. Let me cast my mind back to the weekend that was filled with sun and fun. COVID-19 has erased our forthcoming 3-week cruise ship holiday to Rome and Barcelona. There was so much I had hoped to see and many giant footsteps to trace, like those of Alexander the Great’s and Leonardo Da Vinci’s. Barcelona was one great city I enjoyed on my own many years back and I was keen to share with The Mrs the many highlights that I know she will want to visit. The one highlight I knew I had to forgo was Camp Nou. The Mrs does not share my adoration for my football god, Barcelona Football Club’s number 10, who else but the greatest of all time, Lionel Messi. The other two couples who were meant to be travelling with us had confirmed a few months ago they had already got back their money from Regent Seven Seas Cruises. I merely nodded when asked by The Mrs if we also had received our refund. “Been too busy to check my credit card statement” would be an irresponsible and feeble excuse. That would have earned me a deservedly stern rebuke from her. But, how did I pay for it? With which credit card? With whose credit card?! Before I post this story, I must confirm the refund is received. Otherwise, there will be no peace of mind for many days to come.
Last weekend’s short holiday was organised by Little Sis. That is the kind of holiday I enjoy. Just pack a bag and turn up. Everything is arranged, paid and provided for. The destination was Victor Harbour, a mere 90 minutes from Adelaide CBD. The last time I visited that resort town was almost seven years ago. Then, the Southern Expressway was the world’s longest reversible one-way highway. In the mornings, only travellers heading north could use it and after 2 p.m., we could use it to travel south only. It was quite odd for the infrequent user, I never could remember when it was southbound or northbound. Today, it is an impressive (normal) seven-lane freeway, and we no longer have to think if it is opened or not for the direction we are travelling. Victor Harbour has become Victor Harbor. I was quite disturbed by that. When and why did they change it? Why Americanise an old Aussie town when our roots are most definitely English? I expected it would be a nice getaway, holidaying in a quaint small town. Instead, the gateway to Victor Harbour was flanked by the ubiquitous and very suburban stores such as Bunnings, Aldi, and Repco. So, it felt like we travelled 90 minutes to just another suburb. I suppose that’s nothing unusual in most parts of the world. But, the South Australia I fell in love with in the 90s was where the outback was just some twenty minutes out of the city! My spirits lifted a little when I saw a shopfront that had a faded and paint-peeled signage that read Victor Harbour Bakery. It was proof that my memory of the town’s original name was correct.
As soon we arrived at our destination, our mundane, routinely predictable world magically transformed into a paradise. There were traffic signs warning whale watchers to be careful but the only humpbacks we saw were two humpback islands. There were no mother and calf pairs, none were loafing about, or blowing fountains of seawater into the air. We were just a few weeks too late to witness the tail-slapping and flipper-waving antics that wow us humans. Nonetheless, it was a well-deserved holiday. The COVID months had dragged most of our mood down, and the very long hours of hectic work and incessant telephone enquiries from customers for the past six months have definitely drained me of energy and mental strength. A good dosage of the freshest, cleanest air from the Great Australian Bight did wonders to my system. The worn-out, grumpy old me vanished and was replaced by a chirpy and happy youngish larrikin. A hearty lunch at the local pub with a commanding view of the ocean was followed five hours later by Little Sis’ sumptuous roast beef paired with knife-cut Shanxi noodles for dinner. Magically served at the dining table, without fuss and seemingly without much effort, the Shanxi meal was a memorable one imbued with lots of local red wine, laughter and love. The night continued with much frivolity and fun. We all had a great laugh looking at ourselves masked with facial masks – the ones used for skincare, not healthcare.
The next morning, we woke up early, eager for another fun-packed day at the beach. The rest of the family do not practise Intermittent Fasting. So, much of their morning was spent preparing and having breakfast. I didn’t have to eat till 1 p.m. due to the late dinner the night before. My spare time was spent studying the notes I prepared from ma’s stories related to me the day before. It was well past 11 a.m. by the time they were ready to leave. At the beach, we came across a massive pile of fresh kelp washed to shore earlier in the morning. “Help me, free kelp!” The Mrs yelped excitedly. We were totally unprepared for such an easy harvest. None of us had any empty bags with us to stash the kelp in. Seaweed is expensive, a popular ingredient in Japanese and Korean dishes. High in iodine and anti-oxidant, it is a natural multivitamin and is amazing for gut health and the thyroid. Kelp’s benefits are almost endless, used in skincare, cosmetics and animal feed, and can be used as an agricultural fertiliser. Perhaps, it can be one of our greatest tool to help us fight against global warming. Kelp absorbs carbon dioxide and nutrients from the water. This process helps de-acidify the water, enabling a healthy environment for shellfish farming. Scallops, oysters and mussels need clean water to thrive – kelp farming and bivalves farming would be great companion industries. In 2012, Dr Antoine De Ramon N’Yeurt reported that if 9% of the ocean were to be covered in seaweed farms, 12 giga-tonnes per year of bio-methane can be produced as a substitute for natural gas and at the same time capture 19 giga-tonnes of carbon dioxide. The cleaner water is estimated to potentially provide 200 kg of seafood, per person, for 10 billion people. It is a no-brainer for urghhlings to invest in kelp farms. Where is the help when we need it? In 2018, CGTN reported that China produced over 58% of the world’s seaweed. Why do the rest of the world lag behind so badly?
Thinking aloud is allowed. Unfortunately, the noisy chatter is annoying my neighbours. The Mrs had not sat down to watch a movie with me ever since the pandemic caused such a panic. Last Friday, she caught a glimpse of Line of Duty Season 4 Episode 5 with me, and promptly sat down to finish the episode with me. It was intense! Some of you may think it was the close proximity to the woman that I meant. Perhaps. I had planned to commence Season 5 this week, but she wanted to watch from the very beginning, from S1E1. So, dutifully I am re-visiting the stories. A most compelling story about AC-12, the anti-corruption unit of the U.K. police, Line of Duty. Is it my duty to accompany her though? So, it got me thinking about the concept of duty. I am known to be a filial son, yet the things I did for my parents were acts of love, not duty-bound. I think there is a big difference between an act of love and an act of duty. A duty is a moral or legal obligation, but sitting down with a spouse watching whatever she likes is an act of giving, willingly, happily and unconditionally. Definitely not a duty. I half-expected The Mrs to lose track of the little details or hints of who the baddies were or what they were up to, but no. She was superb and I think she exceeded my own ability to notice the little nuances of the story – especially the part about the DCI’s secret affair with a woman. She nailed it well before I did.
Mandatory or not, mask-wearing has seen loud and somewhat violent protests, especially in the U.S. and they aren’t even mandated there. There has been much kerfuffle even in some parts of Australia about the forced limitation of movement and the requirement to wear masks. The tussle between ruling for the greater good vs rules to protect individual freedom and rights has continued unabated in Victoria. I think in the not distant future, people will read with disbelief that mask-wearing during a pandemic to save ourselves was such a challenging proposition.
Two days ago, the Federal government announced a A$3.5 billion upgrade to the NBN (National Broadband network). We have spent some A$60 billion for what will surely become an archaic system once 5G is universally available. Even before the first dollar was spent and the first bucket of soil turned, we already said it was a farce to invest in cables in the ground for the future. Free Wi-Fi was already available in some cities around the world back then at speeds that were not much slower than the promised speed of the NBN. This latest upgrade will deliver “super fast” speed to those who want them, said the Minister for Communications. Both my office and home internet have recently changed over to the NBN, after some coercion and threat of losing internet altogether, if we did not. Since then, we see a lot of the spinning circle on our computer screens and iPads. Is the operating system busy suddenly or has the NBN broken down again? Nope, our productivity has not improved at all with the promised higher internet speed. The NBN is a broken system, which has seen my staff busily making coffee and tea to keep themselves busy. I read that by 2023, the A$3.5 billion will deliver us FTTP. Impressive, with the media parroting about the promised “super-fast speed” without questioning how fast fibre-to-the-premises actually will be. At the moment, our NBN is fibre-to-the-node and then copper to the building. It delivers 100Mbps, i.e. slow. With FTTP, it will become “super fast”, i.e. 1Gbps or ten times faster. Yippee! Until I read that 5G’s speed is 20Gps – that is right, today’s 5G is already 20 times faster than what our NBN will be in three years’ time. It is no wonder Malcolm Turnbull banned China’s 5G from coming, on the pretext of security concerns. I think he meant it was to secure our NBN’s lifeline, to prevent it from becoming a white elephant before the project is even completed.
A very good mate, Mak, sent me a video-clip about the Dhamma’s way to find happiness. He apologised for regularly sending me talks on Dhamma or Buddhist teachings as a way of life. Usually, unsolicited lengthy messages are frowned upon – especially when we are pre-occupied or disinterested in the subject matter. I told Mak, no worries. I enjoy these Dhamma clips, initially out of curiosity but now as a source of knowledge. I was brought up by my mother to pray with joss sticks but there were no deep teachings and philosophical ideas imparted by the adults to a young boy, e.g. why pray when there is no deity in Buddhism? Who was I praying to? Also, the opposite premise was as equally troublesome for me. If the all-knowing God exists, why do we need to pray? Are we not too presumptuous to think the all-knowing deity needs us to tell Him all our woes, wishes and wants? Why waste His time and tell Him what He already knows? Please correct me if I have used the wrong gender pronoun. (Why are there no gender-neutral pronouns for God?) Anyway, back to Mak’s Dhamma clip. I couldn’t get past the first two sentences that asserted we only find happiness when we stop thinking. Peace of mind brings calmness and this is the core of happiness. Sounds easy. Stop thinking and we find happiness? Luckily, with a free morning, I was able to prod Mak for more answers. That required thinking for both of us. I don’t know about Mak, but I think I got some happiness out of our discussion. Thinking about thinking. Why does the Dhamma teach us that thinking will lead us away from our goal of finding happiness? We did not cover the next subject of the video-clip which was about wisdom. The core of wisdom is in the Four Noble Truths. To enlighten ourselves, we need to understand what is suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering and the path to end the suffering. To end the suffering, we have to get to Nirvana and it is all paved for us very clearly in the Eightfold path. The path is all about goodness. Wholesomeness. Good viewpoints, good values, good speech and good action. Coupled with good livelihood and effort, we are well on our way once we also heed the teachings about good mindfulness and good meditation. We will reach Nirvana if we stay on this good path to truth. We didn’t discuss wisdom at all because I couldn’t get past the idea of the need to stop thinking. The message rings unabatedly in my mind. “When the mind stops thinking, that is when you find real happiness”. Mak added it is the proliferation of thoughts and the mindless chattering of the unwholesome types that crack our calmness. Unwholesome thoughts will lead to unwholesome actions and words. Eventually, that person’s life is unravelled and misfortune will strike. I suppose that is the theory behind it, and who can be happy after that? I suggested that “contentment” has to be a big part of the equation for happiness. If we are not contented with our lives, how can we be of calm mind and spirit? I honed in on Mak’s remark that it is “unwholesome” thoughts that lead us away from happiness. I reckon the evil ones can also be happy with their unwholesome thoughts, right? As long as they are contented, baddies can still find happiness, irrespective of what makes them contented. It cannot be true that bad people are all unhappy, surely? Can baddies have peace of mind? That, I don’t know. As long as people, good or bad, are contented with their actions and thoughts, they will still have a chance to find happiness. That’s what I think. Proliferation of thoughts is discouraged in the Dhamma. When the mind stops thinking is when we find happiness. I can’t understand that. Isn’t the opposite true? That we cannot be calm if we can’t think and discover the answer? Did the Buddha not have to think a lot to discover the Four Noble Truths? If we all choose not to think and our contentment leads us to complacency and inaction, what will humans become? Stupid and lazy? Unproductive? Unprofessional? Regressive in technology and medical knowledge? I suppose there is a counter argument that technology has not done humanity any favours with all the destruction and death that technology in the wrong hands brings. Medical knowledge has also been abused with the use of biological warfare and accidental releases of deadly pathogens. Is it the heedless, mindless and undisciplined thinking that the buddha discourages? There has to be a mindful way of thinking then. A conscious reflection on thought itself? Yet, in reality when we try to focus on a thought, that very attempt makes it elusive to capture it in a mindful way. Isaac Newton revealed that it was sitting under an apple tree that gave him that “AHA!” moment in defining the law of gravity. There is no evidence that an apple fell on his head but it was his observation of falling apples that helped to inspire him to eventually develop his law of universal gravitation. It was already said that the apple tree is the tree of knowledge – precisely why Eve ate the apple despite God’s command not to. The other important tree for us was of course, the Bodhi Fig tree for without it, we have to wonder where Siddartha Gautama would have got his enlightenment.
The Dhamma tells us to stop thinking, whereas Western philosophy is all about critical thinking. It was the ancient Greeks who laid the foundations of Western philosophy, from the search for personal happiness to issues for the greater good, a selfless sense of duty for society. There was also the concept of Stoicism – that we are part of nature, not above it, and should therefore live virtuously. First Son often reminds me we cannot control what others say or do to avoid being hurt. But, what we can control is how we react to them. Be stoic! The French promulgated the idea of freedom and personal rights. Voltaire and Rousseau were the poster-boys for the revolutions in France and America. “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chain”. By that, Rousseau meant that it is the government that takes away our personal freedom for the sake of a social contract with society. In Britain, Hobbes saw the dangers of natural rights for the individual and argued that it is the sovereign state that holds the power to exercise the rights for the good of society. He did not trust the selfish, evil and violent nature of urghhlings. John Locke, the Enlightenment thinker, went the opposite way. Under natural law, we all have the right to property, freedom and life. Under his social contract, the people have a right to rise up and bring down the government if it acted against its citizens. Locke asserts that we have the right of revolution. My favourite philosopher is René Descartes. I am forever grateful to him for proving my existence. We exist because we think. “I think and therefore I am”.
So, why is the Dhamma against “proliferation of thoughts”? Do they mean disorganised thinking leading to disorderly conduct? Mak said, “Proliferation of mind brings about more discontentment as the more you seek, the more desire and never-ending goals you will have. The mind gets agitated as our desire is not satisfied. Contentment breaks the desire for more.” Can desire for knowledge be bad though? So, humans should stop thinking? The ability to think, plan and execute our plan is the special trait of humans. The ability to verbalise our thoughts with language is what has placed us at the head of the food chain in the animal kingdom. It is our ability to think and communicate a detailed plan to our people that has us leading in the evolutionary race to unchallenged superiority. That is, until we created AI. Artificial Intelligence is far superior in the ability to think, research and remember everything, and execute their plans perfectly every time. Ok, the Dhamma is right. All this thinking isn’t very calming! It is clear that we control only a tiny part of our conscious thoughts. The vast majority of our mind is churning away subconsciously. Slips of the tongue, accidental body gestures, day-dreaming and unintentional actions are all examples of the cluttered mind.
Question: What is the core of happiness? What is the core of wisdom?
Ajahn: The core of happiness is calm, peace of mind. When the mind stops thinking, that’s when you find real happiness. And the core of wisdom is the Four Noble Truths. If you understand the Four Noble Truths, then you have the wisdom to overcome all of your suffering, to get rid of your suffering. So, this is what you need, two things. You need complete calm which is samādhi and you need the understanding of the Four Noble Truths. Dhamma in English, Nov 14, 2017. By Ajahn Suchart Abhijāto http://www.phrasuchart.com Latest Dhamma talks on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCi_BnRZmNgECsJGS31F495g