Don’t Be Harsh, It’s A Marsh

The biggest challenge I have in writing the Urghhlings Marsh Brotherhood is finding enough participants to compile their stories into a book. The idea that stories of my school friends born in mid-century Malaysia, a country that gained its independence in 1957, would be interesting to a reader in the distant future took hold and it excited me that the inclusion of their ancestors’ journey from other lands told in the theme of The Water Margin could allow a peep into the past for such a reader. Also known as Outlaws of the Marsh, the classic Chinese novel follows the adventures and fortunes or misfortunes of the outlaws of Liangshan Marsh. The outlaws preferred to think of themselves as ‘righteous bandits’ robbing the poor to help the rich, a concept that Robin Hood also practised in Sherwood Forest. Previously called Daye Marsh, the sprawling marshland actually exists today as Dongping Lake in Jining, but its size greatly diminished when the Yellow River changed its course in 1289 and subsequent land reclamation continued to reduce its size.

Having decided to write the stories of those willing to share their past, the other big challenge I had was to find a nexus to the marsh theme. The Water Margin had Mount Liang and its network of 72 rivers, the vast marshes and wasteland spanned some eight hundred li. They formed an impenetrable fort against the imperial government’s forces who were sent to quell the uprising. The outlaws had honour and virtue on their side and ultimately triumphed against the evil and corrupt officials. The first English translation of The Water Margin was by the American author, Pearl Buck, who titled her work “All Men Are Brothers”. My friends and I aren’t outlaws – rebels might be a more appropriate word for us – and we have always called ourselves brothers, having grown up in a culture inculcated by the Christian brotherhood that emphasised not only morality, chastity and honesty but also the idea that we are all brothers. Are we rebels though? I think it is fair to say that most of us have that streak in us, to resist stupid man-made rules that do not make sense or conform to our sense of fairness and righteousness. It was therefore easy enough to call ourselves Urghhling Brothers since I am the one who coined the word ‘urghhlings’ from urghhh, ugly earthlings. But, our school and its surrounds do not have a marsh; so it is harder for me to to call it Urghhling Marsh! Some of my friends started to call our group The Marsh Brotherhood, so by hook or by crook, I had to justify that name. Finally today, I am happy to run with it. We, the rebels of the marsh, are known as members of The Urghhlings Marsh Brotherhood.

So, what right have I got to call it a marsh?

This is Wu Yong’s story.

“I grew up at the quiet end of Penang Road,” he said. By that, he meant the E & O end. Wu Yong’s parents owned a laundry shop in 3-J, called Popular Dry-Cleaning. The end shop was 3-K and after that was a field that the kids met every afternoon to play. All twelve link shophouses along that stretch of road were owned by Yeap Chor Ee. Yeap was a penniless immigrant from Fujian, arriving in Penang in 1884. He worked as a travelling barber but made his money from the news he gathered as he moved around the island talking to his clients and friends. Today, we know that information is the new currency and knowledge makes us money. Yeap was well ahead of his time, making great investment decisions from the gossip and secrets he learned.

Wu Yong was born in 1958, just a year into Malaya’s independence from the Brits although in truth, they were not really dependent on their colonial masters who fled in a panic just before the Japanese slowly rode into the island on their creaky bicycles on 17 December 1941. It was the nature of their retreat – swift, ignominious and disorderly – that spelled the collapse of the British Empire. “The loss of prestige and sense of the invincibility of ‘white man’ woke up the locals and natives,” he said. So true. Why let the weak and unjust control us and rob us of our resources? We might as well do that to ourselves – apart from a handful of noble and righteous leaders, Malaysian politicians have been doing that ever since.

“The bunkers were still around when I was growing up, but at the time, I thought they were just strange looking homes for the homeless,” Wu Yong said. Dome-shaped with rectangular narrow windows, they were made of stone and concrete to accommodate maybe two to three soldiers, and protect them against bombs and enemy attacks, except that they were not bunkers. Those pillboxes were not common, adding further proof that the Brits were ill-prepared. Wu Yong saw just one near his home and a second one abandoned in Bayan Lepas in the middle of a paddy field not far from where his Balapai Ahyi lived. The one near his home was just a stone’s throw away, in the adjacent field a few yards closer to the Shell petrol station that was owned by Lim Hock Cheng’s dad (see the chapter Shell, It Shall Be). At the time, both schoolmates did not know each other. Wu Yong had stepped into the pillbox despite the many warnings from his mother not to do so. She did not frighten him with stories about live WW2 munitions and unexploded bombs that might sever a limb but instead she told him such places would be haunted with restless ghosts and he would not want to be disturbing their peace.

The smell of putrid concentrated urine was what greeted Wu Yong as he approached the pillbox. The ground was uneven and unkempt with long lush lallang beckoning him to venture nearer. Littered with rubble around its perimeter, the boy had no idea they were evidence of the damage from the bombs that the Japanese fighter planes rained on the locals all those years ago. To the south just a hundred odd meters away, his school St Xavier’s Institution (SXI) and Old Xaverians’ Association (OXA) building were also bombed, signalling the beginning of the Japanese invasion. Wu Yong held his breath in vain. He didn’t breathe for what felt like an eternity yet the smell inside the pillbox overpowered his senses. He stumbled outside; his clothes and hair reeked of the vile putrescence. There was nothing of worth inside save some yellowed newspapers and a filthy mud-caked gunny sack. He had seen such a dirty gunny sack before but at that moment his mind was too clogged up with the filth and stench to think clearly. A gust of fresh air from the sea revived him and jolted his memory. Suddenly, he could picture in his mind the man with the gunny sack. He was a local beggar who roamed the streets muttering to himself and often was visibly annoyed with something or someone. The kids kept well away from him and would scamper inside their homes if they saw him approaching. Of Indian descent, it was clear he never bathed and never changed. Shirtless and with only a dirty once-white loincloth to cover his genitals, his malodorous hair was dishevelled and stiff, not from gel but from generous coatings of dirt and mud. One afternoon, the scraggly old man did the unthinkable and stepped inside the laundry shop. Wu Yong was reciting some Mandarin words from a text book for beginners to his mother when he smelled a terrible odour. The mad man’s stench preceded his voice and by the time Wu Yong heard his raspy iteration about something he could not fathom, the boy panicked and fell off his chair. The following day, a white van arrived and two men took the poor Indian man away. He didn’t protest; he didn’t struggle. It was the last time Wu Yong saw him.

“I do regret over-reacting the way I did when he came into the shop, but I was a kid.” Wu Yong confided to me.

Wu Yong on his Pa’s lap. His mum was 37 years old.

There was a big leadwood tree on the field next to the kopitiam adjacent to his parents’ shophouse. Its leaves were large, dark green, ovoid and leathery; they were quite shiny and broad. Easily over 30 foot tall with a wide span, the Indian almond tree provided people with ample reprieve from the fierce tropical sun. Under the canopy, it was cool and pleasant even when the sun was directly straight overhead. But it was often late in the afternoons when the place became awash with the neighbourhood kids. There was an unspoken understanding that they needed to have their afternoon siestas first before they come out to play marbles or tops (kandok) and when the season changed, there were always a myriad of games to choose from; No one knew who decided on the changes but once a game was picked, there was always universal acceptance and adoption; games such as smashing bees with rocks to cook them with grass and leaves in discarded condensed milk cans (masak-masak), hopscotch which was more popular with the girls and therefore often meant a short season whereas the kite season suited the boys more with the necessary tasks of grounding broken glass bottles into powder and then lacing kite strings using gum and glass powder – kites were won or lost often as a result of how sharp or blunt the strings were. Those kids had no premonition of death and did not entertain the idea that someone could have easily had his throat slit by such a string. The vigour and speed spent to chase down a kite was also frightening, yet no one broke a limb or a neck although Fatty Su aka Tua-pui Su had a slab of thigh flesh sliced from him as he jumped off a workbench and landed on the edge of a slab of glass in his father’s mirrors and glass shop at the other end of the twelve shops. Wu Yong’s dad, upon hearing the panicked cries of his son, rushed to the scene with a small iodine bottle but returned face ashen, saying that little bit of iodine was useless after seeing the slab of white fat opened up in his thigh.

Lian-Hwa-Ho was often mentioned in Wu Yong’s household. Their father’s laundry business had a branch on Leith Street, called Star Dry-Cleaning. It was right across the road from Shanghai Tailor, a shop owned by a man called Chee Ming who wore a perpetual smile that revealed a healthy set of the whitest teeth in an era when teeth whitener had not been invented. Both men came from the same province in China, so it was no surprise that they would reconnect many decades later in Adelaide. Wu Yong’s dad made a reciprocal visit to his friend in Melbourne sometime in the early 90s; it was their last meeting. Lian-Hwa-Ho means lotus river in Hokkien. Lian-hwa is lotus and Ho is river. The Shanghainese clan called it Li-Huo-Wu. A month ago, Wu Yong’s mother who will turn a hundred this year enquired about her cousin sisters who lived in the shophouse in Li-Huo-Wu. She wondered about the three sisters, Tze Lan, Yek Lan and Fong Lan; she hoped they were well forgetting that Tze Lan suffered a stroke whilst languishing in a nursing home and passed away last year. The youngest and most beautiful was Fong Lan. People were attracted to the shop and the business flourished, not only because the prices set by Wu Yong’s dad were lower for the locals but also it could be argued that it was her movie star beauty that did the promotion for the business.

“Why did we call that area Li-Huo-Wu, ma?” Wu Yong asked. He told his mother he was sure he never saw a river there and there were no lotus plants growing in that field they used to play in. That field was long gone; converted into a tarred road joining Farquhar Street which used to end in front of his school, St Xavier’s Institution, to Northam Road in the 70s. 3-K Penang Road, the kopitiam next door was demolished to widen the road, so 3-J became the corner shop. They chopped down the big tree too. The office building for Sin Ping Jit Poh, the local Chinese press, just behind 3-K also had to make way for progress. It was the end of an era for the kids in the neighbourhood who used to collect tin typeset letters strewn in their field to melt them down to make their own fishing weight sinkers.

Wu Yong’s mother said there was a lotus pond in front of Cheong Fatt Tze mansion, so she wasn’t at all surprised that the area was called Lotus River. Wu Yong told me it is believable that there was a stream back then. The field between his parents’ house and SXI was so often flooded they could catch tadpoles just about any time they wanted. For Feng Shui reasons, a river is far more auspicious than a stream, so Lotus River, it became! That massive house with a massive garden was out of bounds for young Wu Yong. It was just on the other side of the field in a south-westerly direction. From their rooftop balcony, the boy used to look across into the vast compound and wondered how it was possible for someone to be so wealthy. A huge chiku tree at the edge of the property provided some privacy for the residents from the prying eyes of the boy. The tree provided Wu Yong with free chiku fruit too. On lucky days, he would find some nice big ones on the ground, kindly blown down by the sea breeze. His mother taught him to store them in their rice urn to make them ripen quicker. The field was the best playground for the kids. Flat enough to run around playing chasey in the dry season and interesting enough to explore it after the rains leave. It did not need a good soaking before it turned swampy. A muddy field with fast disappearing paths was an insurmountable challenge for the kids wearing their compulsory white school shoes to school. Puddles and little streams were ideal homes for tadpoles and little fish. The sounds of crickets, frogs and cats on heat made a cacophony of sounds that caused sleepless nights for the boy.

Wu Yong at a temple enjoying a vegetarian lunch (above) and sitting atop the wall of their rooftop balcony, looking into the Blue Mansion compound across the field (below)

Not noted in school to be an achiever in any field, he harboured no ambition to be an exemplary student. Actually, he was not noticed at all. Wu Yong’s name is absent on the walls at the Hall of Gratitude in the school which recently celebrated its 170th anniversary. The names of some 35,000 students who attended SXI were displayed in the hall but not his. They didn’t notice he was there and therefore didn’t know he had left. There was no chance of him being a class monitor let alone a school prefect. Strangely, he was asked if he was interested in applying to be a school librarian. His interview went badly; he knew he had flopped even before the interview ended. After that, he thought he could be a school traffic warden.

“Easy job, right?” he asked. Late in his school life, he finally hoped to hold a responsible post as an office bearer.

“For P.E. lessons, we had to cross Farquhar Street to get to our school field,” Wu Yong said.

“I would have enjoyed skipping class and being out in the sun shepherding the younger kids to cross the road.”

It was said that SXI’s present football field was a lotus pond a long time ago. Tucked away in the upper corner of the island, before WW1, the beachfront land was still undeveloped and swampy in the rainy season. It offered the perfect landing site for pirates in their perahu from the mainland to launch their late night robberies, the dark a dimension away from the bonds of civilised light. The smell of danger, the smell of the nocturnal, the smell of sweat and adrenaline. Apart from a handful of wealthy magnates living in the area, it was the Europeans that was their honey pot. The westerners had settled on the Weld Quay side, naming streets after themselves or reminding them of home, such as Light, Bishop, Pitt, Leith, Church, King, Queen, and so on. Leith Street was originally Nyior Chabang (coconut branches in Malay) – not surprising, since it was lined with coconut trees back then.

There we have it. Swampy land, ponds filled with lotus, a muddy field of lallang grass and water reeds, rows of coconut trees, beach landings by pirates, hiding in marshy land, robbing the rich to help the poor, bomb shelters and pillboxes, war, retreats and then peace. Not at all dis-similar to Shi Naian’s epic stories of the marsh.

The Venerable Sickly General

The epic novel, Water Margin, is known by a few different names. In Chinese, we call it shuihuzhuan. In the West, it is commonly known as Outlaws of the Marsh. Its translation is ‘All men are brothers’, perhaps the ancient vernacula stems from Confucius’ 四海之內皆兄弟也 or ‘Within the four seas, all men are brothers’. The idea to write a book about a brotherhood of schoolmates and their families’ journeys from the East excited me greatly as the notion that we are all brothers has long been drummed into our psyche from early Lasallian teachings. It is fantastic when brothers reunite after a great distance in time and space. However, the recruitment methods in the novel are often atrocious. I can understand why the author of the book, Shi Naian, found it necessary to resort to ‘unsavoury’ tactics to recruit some of the outlaws. Many of my friends also show strong reluctance to participate and some are strangely aggressive in their refusal to have their stories written. It is not surprising that occasionally, a devious idea foments in my head to persuade less inclined brothers to participate. The hero in this chapter, however, needed no twisting of his arm – he has come forward voluntarily and for that, I thank him from the bottom of my heart.

The only doctor I remember in The Water Margin made a rather late appearance. By then, their leader Chao Gai had already died. It was his spirit that warned Song Jiang of a propitious star ‘Di Ling Xing’ shooting across the sky above him, indicating that a calamity would befall him. Song Jiang was in all likelihood already delirious with a high fever from an ulcer on his back. One of his chieftains, Zhang Shun knew of a doctor who treated his mother with a similar illness and thus knowing it could be fatal, it was imperative that he recruited the doctor urgently to save Song Jiang. The doctor was, of course, reluctant to sacrifice his city lifestyle and jeopardise his livelihood for a rebel. How An Daoquan was recruited to become the Liangshan physician was a strategy often used in the novel. Zhang Shun murdered a prostitute by the name of Clever Pet, and then smeared a ‘confession’ by An Daoquan with her blood on the wall of her boudoir. When the poor doctor woke up the next morning, he realised he had no choice but to flee to Liangshan Marsh. At Liangshan, An Daoquan cured Song Jiang of his life-threatening illness. His reputation as a miracle doctor working with the barest equipment and drugs earned him the title of Divine Physician. Following an amnesty granted to the brotherhood by Emperor Huizong, he later saved the emperor from an illness which enabled him to stay in the palace as the imperial physician. 

The Sickly General with wife (middle) and brother (RHS) at Everest Base Camp, 5,300 m above sea level.

The vivid scenes described in the novel transported my mind to the stories a friend shared with me. He too described an important time of his life spent in the deepest jungles and riverine systems. But, he wasn’t fighting other outlaws or army forces; his endeavours were to snuff out illegal fishing and poaching of endangered species of wildlife such as the Johor rhinos and Bigfoot. Duobing Jiāngjūn, or Peng Kuan (in Cantonese), aka The Sickly General, hailed from the same school in Penang, but we were never classmates. He was a lot smarter. For me, apart from saving lives as a doctor, his major contribution to his country has been as a member of the Malaysian Nature Society. They helped protect the riverine systems and documented many varieties of freshwater fish. They also discovered many birds and butterflies in the virgin jungles that are now part of the Endau-Rompin National Park. As Sima Yi in The Three Kingdoms said, “Misfortune generates blessings and blessings breeds misfortune”. The opportunity came after one of the heaviest monsoon seasons with floodwaters over 40 meters destroyed much habitat and also all the illegal fishing nets. The Sickly General and his cohorts suggested to the authorities to grab the opportunity to ban fishing in one tributary and that gave birth to Kelah Sanctuary, a crystal-clear river now thriving with Mahseers. His entry into The Urghhling Brotherhood is well deserved and requires no invitation.

The Sickly General’s paternal grandfather Ah Yeh left Chung San, Canton District, China for Selama, Perak in the 1920’s. He married a Hakka girl, a first generation Kedahan. She bore him many children. The Sickly General’s father was the third of four sons. When the war with the Japanese broke out, Ah Yeh burned down his own general store to prevent the invaders from getting hold of the provisions. Ah Yeh and his family went to Penang to live with his eldest daughter who was married to a dentist whose Wu Dental Clinic was in Chulia Street. Wu had a younger brother, a martial arts exponent who trained with sand bags tied to his legs. He purportedly was able to leap over walls just like Lin Chong did in The Water Margin, after he learned Marshall Gao Qui’s adopted son was harassing his beautiful wife in the Yue Temple. Younger Wu made sporadic guerrilla attacks on the Japanese but suddenly died of a heart attack when the enemy troops came to check the shophouse where he lived. Luckily for the whole household, the soldiers did not find his cache of spears and swords. All heads would have rolled and that would have been the end of The Sickly General’s story before he was even born.

The Sickly General’s maternal grandfather, Ah Kung was a first generation Penangite; Ah Kung’s mother was a second wife. In those days, bigamy was a privilege for men with wealth or status. “Ah Kung’s father passed away when he was still in conception,” The Sickly General told me. I did not want to pry and ask how he could be so precise – after all, conception occurs within hours to a matter of just a few days after sexual intercourse. After Ah Kung’s birth, mother and child were chased out from the family. He was taken care of by a well-to-do auntie and studied till Secondary School – it was quite a privilege in those days to be given an education. Ah Kung began work as a clerk in the American Automobile company as soon as he graduated from High School. When his wife died of asthma, he was devastated but didn’t remarry;  the eldest daughter and The Sickly General’s mum, the second oldest, had to stop school to take care of the household. His mum worked for a Baba family, and from the Nonya matriarch, she learned great recipes and followed the strict meticulous disciplines of Nonya cooking. A great cook to this day, his mum now 87-years-old, insists on generous portions of quality ingredients to make each dish superb. She supplemented her income twice a year by making Chinese New Year cookies and Nonya Bak Chang for the Dumpling Festival. “Mum was very generous to her seven siblings, and to my father’s fourteen siblings including two sisters who were given away,” The Sickly General said with a voice filled with love and pride. 

The Sickly General was born and raised in Chulia Street, next to Love Lane just behind our school, St Xavier’s Institution (SXI). His father’s eldest sister who married Dentist Wu was the chief tenant of one of the shop lots. Numerous rooms were sub-let to others. The Sickly General’s mother, a pretty single girl then, and her own family were amongst the other tenants. Naturally his parents fell in love in that house, and they married soon after. The Sickly General was the firstborn of four children. Chulia Street still brings him haunting memories of the stench of night soil as they were being collected from each household. “You don’t want to study hard? Then you’ll become a night-soil carrier,” his mum used to threaten him. He swears he can still smell them on his clothes sometimes. Another haunting memory of the Chulia Street house is its room upstairs next to the kids’ bedroom. It was locked most of the time, and whenever The Sickly General walked past it, he would get the chills and goosebumps, the eeriness accentuated by the dark wooden floor creaking and cracking in the dark. Stories of Japanese beheadings, ghost sightings, demonic possessions and exorcisms were related by the tenants in that room. When the boy was five years old, his family shifted to Glugor, after Ah Kung convinced his son-in-law to get the lot of land next to the half-wooden bungalow he managed to lease. The hauntings stopped as did the nightmares.

The Sickly General’s father wanted his son to continue as a next generation Saint. All alumni of SXI are called Saints. But because they had moved far away from the school, he was sent to La Salle into the last available class, Std 1E. His father was an English teacher in a Chinese Primary School. His mother, who dropped out of Std 2 after the sudden death of her mum, was a homemaker. The Sickly General’s maternal grandmother died of bronchial asthma at the young age of 32. The hereditary disease affected almost every male of the next generation. The Sickly General took the full brunt of the defective gene, earning him the title of Duobing Jiāngjūn. His episodes were as regular as the monthly curse that afflicts women. During the asthmatic attacks which frequently occurred at night, he would sound like a wheezing cat as he was being ferried on his father’s motorcycle to the local hospital. In those days, there were no puffers to depend on. Instead, he would be given an adrenaline jab which opened up his airways giving an instantaneous relief from gasping. “No outdoor games or ‘cooling’ foods,” his mother would theorise that if he could pass the age of 18 without any attacks, he would overcome this curse. For the next decade or so, The Sickly General would become a depository for every remedy and concoction that his mother could get her hands on. Some of the more unforgettable treatments include swallowing live day-old hairless mice, drinking mantis dung boiled in herbal soup, consuming raw egg yolk dipped in honey, followed by munching on home-bred beetles fed on herbs and a host of other concoctions and talismans. He grew up not knowing any games or extracurricular activities and enjoying cold drinks and ice-creams were as forbidden as teenage sex. While waiting for the bus, the primary school kids would patronise several hawker stalls. For five cents, many could aim at a dartboard for a prize, or get a bangkuang slice with rojak sauce or simply suck on a cold ice ball smeared with evaporated milk and rose syrup. To challenge his mother’s theory, he tried an ice ball which tasted like heaven but when the night came, hell arrived in the form of a blocked airway that felt like a strangulation.

His parents’ Silver Wedding Anniversary

The Sickly General had his father’s fair complexion but not his height, his mother’s genetic curse but not her Teresa Teng beauty. With a sallow face and a wan smile, a slim body and puny arms, he was laidback and not a ‘silverback’. “Somehow, I got all their bad genes,” he said with a tinge of self-pity. His friends called him ‘Pale Face’ which he rather liked, it being the era of John Wayne’s cowboys and ‘injuns’ on TV. His childhood playground was the surroundings of Bukit Glugor. In the valley, there was a large Hindu community where the cow is a sacred animal. The sanctity of the cow meant there was a glut of dried cow dung which the kids could freely collect for their family’s vegetable garden. Boiled fresh milk was sent daily to Ah Kung next door, but their mother made sure to leave them the milk skin which the kids enjoyed like a delicacy. The brothers collected labels in Milkmaid cans to complete the four booklets of Fish, Birds, Butterflies and Mammals. That led to their love for nature. They would collect, set and frame butterflies, rear caterpillars, hatch golden pupae until butterflies emerged. They salvaged glass and invested in a glass cutter to make their own frames and aquariums. They caught fish from rivers and streams near the hills, worms from drains and bred the fish to sell to the pet shops. The Sickly General would go to the book store each month and spend his earnings on Marvel comics. The Fantastic Four was his favourite “as they had the almost accurate and believable scientific theories” but his idol remains Peter Parker, the struggling hero.

The Sickly General finally got into SXI in Form 4. He was quick to sign up with the PKBM cadet corps. The free uniforms and the chance to hold and fire guns were too tempting. He loved everything about the cadet corps, the grind of marching in the sun or in the rain, shouting orders and being shouted at, and giving a mirror-shine to his boots and buckles. He remembers fondly the times when they were packed like sardines into army trucks to the rifle range at Sungei Dua. There they enjoyed the chance to use live bullets for target practice. Those two years quickly passed, and suddenly the MCE was over. It was a disaster unheard of in the school’s history when a good number of students, even those with a string of A’s failed, in the first year of compulsory passing of Bahasa Malaysia. You fail the Malay language, you fail everything. It was a tragedy to see so many smart students being undeservingly left behind.

True to his mother’s prophecy, the asthma attacks disappeared when he turned 18 and in Form 6, another new great thing happened in his life – girls in his school class! His new motto was “I can do all things”. It took many years later for him to add the word ‘almost’ to that. The transformation in him was astonishing. He shed his bilious yellow hue and the young man even put on a slight tan. The two years in the corps helped strengthen his core muscles. With reticence and hesitance finally expunged in his late adolescence, the pretty girls in his class were no longer admired secretly. His father’s starting salary was $125 which meant he was just outside the minimum income to be eligible for book loans. Instead of buying the required textbooks, he borrowed them from the library and after learning typing from a secondhand book, he typed out the books during school holidays. Ms Tan Poh Gaik was, according to The Sickly General, the best Form 6 Biology teacher on the island. Wu Yong The Cur was quick to disagree. He had an altercation with the same teacher in Sixth Form. “There is simply no need for us to dissect a frog each,” he protested. He reckoned one frog was sufficient sacrifice for a class of thirty odd students. Ms Tan disagreed and banished Wu Yong from her class for that day. Her notes were very sought after, and being a representative in the Inter-Sixth Form Science Society, The Sickly General’s knowledge of who were the good teachers in other subjects enabled him to exchange quality notes with other well-informed students. With three other friends, he came up with the idea of producing a whole series of past-years model answers in Bahasa Malaysia to sell to the bookstores. After a week of scrutiny by relevant Examiners, they were given the go-ahead to produce the reference books. The publisher offered them a choice between annual royalty or a lump sum cash payment. These Biology- Maths students, without any Accounting knowledge, already knew that numbers could be manipulated. A bird in hand is worth more than two in the bush, so is cash in hand. The Sickly General went home with a number of crisp $1000 notes and gave them all to his father. 

The HSC results were the best ever for SXI, with five students eligible to enrol in a local Medical degree course. The Sickly General was offered places in India, Singapore and University of Malaya (MU). Singapore was the most enticing with a full scholarship but it came with a 12-year bond. In Year 3, he went up the roof of a rented room to fix the water tank but on his way down, he couldn’t reach the ladder that he went up from. Believing that previous PKBM training of overcoming 12-foot walls was true, he jumped down from the roof but it landed him in the University Hospital with a fractured spine. It took a cute hospital houseman to make him realise how serious his injury was. Fortunately, the houseman possessed small hands and was a female. She inserted her finger up his anus to check that the nerve to his future line of descendants was intact. But after two days of entertaining concerned course mates about the awkwardness of his discomfort, he signed the ‘Discharge At Own Risk’ form to attend an important test for his third year exams. There was never any possibility that he would fail any subjects. A crooked back was not going to be a good enough reason to fail. It was obvious that the young man had a great destiny to fulfill.

If you have a great destiny, even if the sky is falling down on you, treat it as a down quilt.

Lady Wu in The Three Kingdoms

Armed with his MBBS, a recognition to work anywhere in the Commonwealth, The Sickly General spent his early professional career in Singapore. After following the advice of many fellow Malaysians, he decided to return to his homeland to work “where you can do anything and still own a house and car, without slogging too hard”. Perlis was his next stop, the smallest State yet so flat “you can practically see everything from a coconut tree”. A year later, he was promoted as the ENT (ear, nose and throat) Registrar in General Hospital KL. The status and money meant nothing to him and his wife after their Filipino maid absconded, leaving their rented house with gates wide open and their two precious kids crawling and bawling away. They decided to leave the Big Smoke and moved to Pontian, a little fishing town on the southernmost part of the peninsula. Pontian in Mandarin sounds like “really stupid”. To the good doctor, it wasn’t really stupid to set up a general practice there. The Sickly General invested in Ultrasonography and Radiology, the first and only practice in the district to offer that service. Townsfolk had to go to the village for treatment. Isn’t that just so heroic? The Water Margin has heroes rebelling against tyranny and corruption, upholding the values of Confucian virtue, filial piety and benevolence. Similarly in The Sickly General, we have a hero rebelling against societal norms where the rich are catered for at the expense of the poor. A modern-day Robin Hood, he does not rob the rich, but he surely helps the poor. His green credentials from so early in his life – fighting for the environment, protecting natural habitat and promoting a sustainable economy and ecology – shows that the man is way ahead of our time. The brotherhood in the Urghhlings Marsh is proud to call The Sickly General one of their own.

I can do (almost) all things.

Lum Wei Wah
Portrait of Lum Wei Wah and Honglee by Anne koh.