Shhh Or Shoo

Shhh or shoo. Either word isn’t kind. This is the truth about how it feels when these words are used on us and when it comes from someone who frequently bears the brunt of such words, then maybe you would want to refrain from using them too often. Either word would amply describe me if I were limited to one word to portray the whole of myself. At work or business, what I say usually stands. No one would tell me to shut up or shoo me away like an annoying fly. But, socially or within the comfort of my own castle, the ugly truth is undeniable. Sure, it bugs me that I am in the wrong universe. I feel it. I often feel I am in a place that I don’t belong. People around me do not know the real me. Am I really who they think I am? Am I not more? Much more than the bumbling fool they often snigger at? Why am I only one they poke fun at? The joke is always on me, it seems.

As I sit here deep in my thoughts, I must emphasise that I am not one who likes to lift off drying scabs and relive old wounds. No! This is not who I am. This must not be who I am. It does not matter if they can’t appreciate me. It must not cut me down even if it is true that I am a lot less than the lies I tell myself. For a long time now, the castle in my mind has been carefully built to protect myself. The ego had been my hero. The arrows aimed at my direction had been mostly successfully thwarted. My defence had stood firm, the thick walls impenetrable. Rock-solid and stoic, I let my wit come to the fore and try to be the Perry Mason in my life. So silly is my conclusion, now that I take stock of who I am. We should never have the need to defend ourselves. Who cares what their impression is of us? Why bother if they can’t see our positives? Why feel hurt if they are often dismissive of our input? Does it really matter if they think less of us? Why should we feel we need to be appreciated? Why behave like the entitled? So what if we are misunderstood? Let it be. Let them be. Forgive and forget. Better still, just forget – there is nothing to forgive.

It is easier to go around anointing myself as the annoying one. When I re-connected with my school friends, I announced myself as the idiot in the group. It is self-deprecating. Why do I disparage myself? Without self-respect, why would anyone respect us. I think it was a poor attempt to be like a lotus – to tell them I could rise above the mud, the muck they think I belong to. My friends tell me to be quiet a lot, especially when we are barracking for our football team, the great Manchester United Football Club. “SHHHHH!” “GO TO BED AND LIVE YOUR NIGHTMARES BY YOURSELF!” “SHOO!” “LEAVE NOW!” There is one who is especially unkind. He thinks he is the referee on the field, frenetic with issuing red cards to me. A red card is much more than sending a player to the sin-bin. In Rugby, a yellow card offence means the player is sent off the field for 10 minutes. In soccer, however, a red card means the player is sent off for the remaining duration of the match. So, I know full well what a red card means when this friend flashes it at me. He intends for me to disappear for the rest of the match. How unkind. How unwelcoming. Friends are supposed to be inclusive amongst one another. He talks a lot about the need to avoid negative vibes, but to exclude a friend surely is the most negative act?

When I was a young boy, any man past his 50’s was an old man in my eyes. At 62, I am glad my eyesight is failing. The old man in the mirror looms large. I suspect he is decaying faster with each passing year. Last night was another Chap Goh Meh, the last night of another 15 days of Lunar New Year celebrations. It was a wonderful party although my bubbly mood was somewhat pricked by a casual observation an acquaintance from another table made about me. He pointed to my should-length hair and said I remind him of a person who zhoujianghu. In olden day China, those who “walk the rivers and lakes” travelled far and wide in search of a livelihood. It depicts a vagabond, a shady desperate con-artist whose survival requires street-smart deception. A quack, a charlatan? Did I remind him of Rasputin, I wonder? No, I said to the man. I prefer the word “Thu-fei”, a bandit. But, do you see what I mean? This encounter sums up my life pretty well. A happy occasion, a wonderful party with family and closest friends that ended with an unsought somewhat derogatory comment about me from someone at another table.

Playing with my heroes

11 April 2018 was a happy day for me. When in New York, the two places not to be missed are the Metropolitan Museum and Tarisio, a respectable auction house that deals in fine instruments and bows. I was turning 60 that year. The concept of retirement was already growing in my head. For much of my life, retirement meant one thing. The freedom and time to pick up my violin again. But, as I accelerate towards this inevitability, I decided I wanted to reward myself with a really good violin. Second Son was in New York at the time – he was my reason to be there. America is not my idea of a good holiday, if the truth be told. It was my second visit to the Big Apple, but those officers at the airport were as unwelcome and arrogant as the ones in LA. They did not treat visitors to their land as paying guests but rather saw us as potential enemies. Or, maybe it was just the way I looked. The hair and my scowl won’t hide the Rasputin image I sub-consciously project? “WHY ARE YOU HERE?” the officer bellowed whilst scrutinising my passport. “WHERE WILL YOU BE STAYING?” his cold eyes piercing. “HAVE YOU BROUGHT ENOUGH MONEY?” He behaved like a real prick, a bully in a bad mood. He knew I couldn’t retaliate, not even with acidic words to teach him some manners.

Second Son met me and his mum in our hotel room the next day. America by then had become a nicer place to hang out. We were in the centre of the world. After all, isn’t that what the Americans believe? They are the most powerful nation on Earth, the wealthiest and New York, the city that never sleeps, that has a street named after a wall, in 2008 crushed all the economies of the world with pure greed and not grit. Second Son enthusiastically took me to the 55th Street where the famous Tarisio store is located. Tarisio featured regularly in The Strad, a magazine I subscribed to for over a decade. So, that feeling was special. To finally arrive at a place we only read about for a big part of our lives felt like a big achievement, ridiculous as it may sound. The chap at Tarisio made me feel special for I was able to tour their premises and even occupy a room for as long as I liked. He was ostensibly lively, switched on like a string of 10,000 light bulbs – clearly at work to shine and impress his clients. Ordinary people who walk in from the street aren’t accorded such special courtesy, of course. I felt special because Second Son was there with me. The chap obviously knew Second Son – they were on first names basis, even though Second Son was a Londoner. I felt so happy for my son. He was well-known, not in a small pond, but on the biggest stage too. The chap, after a chirpy conversation with Second Son, arranged for a few fine instruments to be brought into the room. No, no Strads, no Del Gesus of course. We settled for makers that were within my small budget. The chap was surprisingly nice, for an American. To accord us so much time, knowing my budget was minuscule was un-American, right? He couldn’t be a true New Yorker, I decided.

After admiring the instruments for a long time, I thought it best to start playing them. After all, what good is a beautiful violin if the sound is crap? I picked up the violin that had enthralled me with its beauty and brandished a modern-looking bow like it was a Samurai sword. I was horrified. The sound was dead ugly. I grimaced at the violin. “What a shit of a shovel” I thought – that’s an old Aussie parlance for something so shitty it should be immediately discarded. There I was sitting on a chair below a display of framed photographs. Legends in the business looked down at me, literally. Isaac Stern and Pablo Casals were both heroes of mine. I think I wiped off their smiles with just one swipe of the bow. The violin sounded crappy, not because it was made in some East European sweat-shop. It was me. I looked into the wall mirror across from me. I recoiled as if I had seen Joe Blake in the garden. Joe Blake, the snake – in case you do not understand this old Aussie slang. I looked the part, with my long hair. My bow hold looked perfect, the sound from it ought not to sound tight. But, it sounded awful. I thought I could simply put bow to strings and produce a flurry of notes from Vivaldi’s A Minor violin concerto. Vivaldi’s concerto is popular due to its vibrancy, it makes you eager to get up and dance. But, the first note I produced was cruel to Vivaldi – it was a delivery that was dead on arrival. “SHHH!” The Mrs was quick to caution me. I quickly handed the beautiful violin to Second Son. “Here, take it off my hands before they shoo me away” I said. For the record, I did not bid for the violin. Their estimate price was USD50,000. The chap never followed up with me about bidding. I think he knew the truth about me when he heard the “shhhh” and the “shoo” in the room. Or, maybe he was annoyed I broke the G string.

哎哟喂!Ai Yo Wei. It Is The Chinese Way

Chap Goh Meh. That’s Hokkien for the fifteenth night of Chinese New Year, the final night of new year celebrations. The Chinese way of celebrating is of course to eat! Another feast beckons, I reckon. It is also known as Yuan Xiao Jie(元宵节), which means Prime Night Festival. When I was a young boy growing up in Penang, chap goh meh also meant asking my parents’ workers who amongst the unattached ones would be throwing mandarins into the sea with their names and addresses written on the peel of the fruit. They did not have to tell me the following morning whether they were approached by singles of the opposite sex. Their uneraseable smiles told me they got lucky. Unlike today’s Tinder, they didn’t need to learn any pick up lines back then. Just throw a few mandarins from the Old Esplanade on chap goh meh. That seemed to work – all the workers got themselves married off before I left school.

I used to be able to rattle off a hokkien poem about chap goh meh. Thank goodness a friend was able to help me out. The poem still does not make any sense to me though. Ai yo wei. That’s the Chinese way. It doesn’t have to make sense.

Chap goh meh (15th night)
Hoay kim chneh (bright with fireflies)
Chnia lu a kuwa (invite your brother-in-law)
Lai lim teh (to drink tea)
Teh seo seo (tea is hot)
Kya lor bay kim cheo (walk to buy bananas)
Kim cheo bay kee peh (forgot to peel the banana)
Kya lor bay chek (walk to buy a book)

Chek bay kee t’ark (forgot to read the book)
Kya lor bay bark (walk to buy black ink stick)
Bark bay kee bwua (forgot to ground the black ink stick)
Kya lor bay chua (walk to buy a snake)

Chua bay kee liak (forgot to catch the snake)
Kya lor bay kah kiak (walk to buy clogs)
Kah kiak bay kee ch’eng (forgot to wear the clogs)
Kya lor bay kar leng (walk to buy Mynah bird)
Kar leng kong (male Mynah)
Kar leng boh (female Mynah)
Chnia lu a knia soon (invite your grandchildren)
Lai t’eet t’oh (come and play)

T’eet t’oh nya (play only)
Bay karm chiak (buy sugar cane)
Karm chiak dni (sugar cane is sweet)

Bay leng chee (buy longans)

Leng chee phong (longans swollen)
Bay tom bong (buy winter melon)
Tom bong khaw (winter melon is bitter)
Bay lor kor (buy a drum)

The Chinese way. Their detractors are more vocal and their shrieks louder, the more successful and progressive modern China portrays herself to the world. Last October in Berlin to remember the end of the first Cold War, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was hell-bent in starting another one, warning against a China threat to Western freedoms. He said the Chinese Communist Party “uses tactics and methods to suppress its own people that would be horrifyingly familiar to former East Germans”. Without evidence, he called China “truly hostile” to the United States. After Boris Johnson called America’s bluff that the “Five Eyes alliance would be in jeopardy and signed up with Huawei 5G, Pompeo continued to attack the Chinese technology firm. He regarded the CCP as “the central threat of our times” and urged America’s allies to ensure they have the military and technological power to ensure that this century is governed by Western principle. China’s threat to the Americans may be to topple them as the world’s biggest economy, but they do not send soldiers to attack other nations. Granted that they do export engineers and construction workers for their One Road One Belt initiative, but that is not flexing their military might. The threat to China, however, is real – the US is garnering support to arm the West against China. When I flew to vibrant and bustling Hong Kong for a job interview in 1986, I learned that my prospective employer wanted to send me to Shenzhen to buy hay (yes, dried grass) and explore business opportunities. Back then, Shenzhen was a small farming and fishing village in the Pearl River Delta with a population of about 20,000. Shekou was not a port yet. Its wet market with a big variety of live animals and seafood was what attracted The Mrs. She was not interested in hay either. It was our first visit to China – we were more interested in how the locals lived, the many beggars devoid of limbs and self esteem that had their hands out, the holes on the floor of the train from Hong Kong to China which served as toilets, the starry eyed locals staring at my brand new Sony handycam video camera bought in Mongkok the day before. Shenzhen gained special economic zone status in 2000. Her GDP in 1986 was USD 0.5 billion whereas Hong Kong’s was USD 41 billion, i.e. Hong Kong’s economy was 82 times bigger than Shenzhen’s. Twenty years later, Shenzhen’s GDP was USD 83 billion, still less than half that of Hong Kong’s. Today, Shenzhen has surpassed Hong Kong’s economy both in terms of magnitude as well as technological superiority. Her GDP last year was USD 374 billion. With a population exceeding 12 million, it is now a modern metropolis and rivals Silicon Valley as the world’s mecca for Artificial Intelligence. Shenzhen is also known as the “Silicon Delta”. A stunning growth at a breathless and frenetic pace. Let me pause and digest this. In 34 years, the small fishing village has become the world’s premier hub for AI technology. AI is already developing at breakneck speed, being used in just about all facets of the economy, transforming banking and payments, retail, logistics, transportation, marketing, as well as medical, agricultural and industrial applications. Using 1986 GDP data from countryeconomy.com and 2017 GDP data from worldometers.info, I calculated that during that period, the US economy grew 4 times, Japan 2.3 times, Australia 7 times, India, Malaysia and Israel 10 times whereas China, an astounding 40 times. In 1986, the US economy was 15 times bigger than China’s. Per IMF projections for 2019, this size difference has shrunk to only 1.5 times on exchange rate basis. But, in terms of purchasing power parity, China is now 1.28 times bigger than the US. That is the Chinese way.

One other statistic that caught my attention is the number of millennials in China. There are a lot of them! In fact, there are more millennials in China than the whole population of the US; 400 million compared to 331 million. Over 90% of them own a smartphone, i.e. they are tech savvy. They are also cashless. I felt much less modern than the locals in Xiamen and Beijing on my visit there last July. Armed with credit cards and little cash, I felt uncomfortably and unnecessarily dependant on my millennial host. Businesses everywhere seem to accept only WeChat Pay or Alipay. The many young Chinese I met were highly educated and impressively entrepreneurial. They were also big consumers for luxury goods and consumer electronics. Last year’s Double 11 Day sold US$38.4 billion for Alibaba, a tidy sum for a single day’s sales for Singles. All clear pointers to a healthy economy being driven hard and fast by no-nonsense movers and shakers. That is the Chinese way!

Which country has ever built a 645,000 sq ft hospital in ten days? The two storey medical facility is equipped with 1,000 beds, several isolation wards and 30 intensive care units. Some 7,500 construction workers worked around the clock to complete the building. No union rules – they volunteered to help their fellow citizens during such difficult times. The hospital started accepting patients infected by the Wuhan virus this week. In a few days’ time, two more hospitals will be completed to house the many more patients expected. When disaster strikes, help comes from all sides. That is the Chinese way.


Chap Goh Meh, tradition vs modern technology.