Did I Mention A Mansion?

Thirty eight years ago today, my eldest son was born. Happy birthday, boy! Silly me, like most other Asians, we call our sons and daughters by their gender. If I had a daughter, I would surely have called her “Girl”. Yeah, I am as unimaginative and predictable as that! For many years now, I cannot find a solution to the problem I have. How to suddenly not call him “Boy” after calling him that all his life? I mean, he’s far from being a boy for almost two decades by now! How mean for The Mrs and me to keep calling him “Boy”, right? He is taller, stronger, faster than me. My ego prevents me from publicly admitting he is also smarter and better looking. Inwardly though, I am quietly proud he is a much better specimen than me. He turns heads whereas I turn smiles into frowns. He turns up the volume of my TV and I will turn it down just as quickly. Somehow, millennials like their music loud. Very loud. Correction. We all like the music we love loud, I suppose. When Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra Op 30, used by Stanley Kubrick in his widely acclaimed theme for his 2001: A Space Odyssey is played on radio, I must crank my sound system extra loud too. It just doesn’t feel right that we go to the silence of outer space quietly. We urghhlings are polluters everywhere we visit. Noise included.

In July 1981, The Mrs and I did a pregnancy test in the crammed kitchen of our Coogee flat. Many hours later, she jumped up from her bean bag and exclaimed “Oh! We forgot to check the test tube!” Fighting each other to get past the narrow kitchen doorway, she was first to discover the brown ring on the bottom of the tube. “What does the brown ring signify?” I asked myself. But her ashen-faced expression said it all. I hugged her and we both cried. It wasn’t that the brown ring was unwanted, it was unplanned. Her ambitious mind had planned for her a big career to conquer, instead it was a big fear of the unknown that she had to conquer. I made the expensive phone call home. Telecom Australia was the only telco in 1981 that provided ISSD calls, it was only sensible for a monopoly to slug their customers. Phone calls to my parents were rare. It was rarer to receive calls from home – thankfully, since calls from home only meant some beloved elder had died. The Mrs and I dreaded late night calls – rare they might have been – but to receive a late night call meant a long sleepless night of anxiety and trepidation about the health or wellbeing of a parent. Missed late night calls were much worse, of course – they never failed to transform into healthy seeds for ridiculously creative imaginations of the worst kind, the creator of many more sleepless nights and daytime anxiety. I called my parents to tell them the good news. “I’m going to be a father!” I said to Ma. “Ai yo wei! Chi So Kamaka?” How come like that? (in Ningbonese). Pa took it differently. He told me to go buy a house! The two-bedroom flat which The Mrs and I shared with my younger sister had suddenly reached “unliveable” status. Before December that year, I bought the fibro house in Little Bay that would eventually welcome the birth of my three sons.

The fibro house sat on top of a big rock at the highest point of Little Bay. Little Bay was the best kept secret that I happened to discover in Sydney. Just 14 km south east of the CBD, yet it felt like living in the wilderness with a pony wandering freely behind our back fence and open seas just a stone’s throw away. The discerning reader would quickly have gathered that the views of the water from the house would have been spectacular. Well, if I tip-toed and looked out from the windows on the southern side, I’d have been able to enjoy the vast blue expanse of the bay. Add a little imagination and one day, if we had the money to build a second storey on it, we would have seen the spectacular setting of a virginal nudist beach that lazed adjacent to the unspoilt blue waters of the Pacific Ocean on one side and the inviting greens of St Michael Golf Club on the other. Pa sent me $100,000 to buy a house. His instructions were clear. Buy a big house, have it ready before his grandchild is born. They planned to visit and be there for the “mua guek” or first month after birth. It was a white fibro single-fronted house, with two good sized bedrooms, a lounge and formal dining room, and a little rumpus room that joined the original house to the extension at the back. The fibro extension housed a small bedroom and a kitchen and dining area. Ample space for a young couple to start a family. Our first-born arrived a few weeks after we had moved in. The first toy that welcomed him to the house was a green frog that croaked when moved. A gift from a friend. Apart from a Smurf toy car and a matching wheel barrow, he had about three or four soft toys as his total toy collection. Everything else was made for him. His security blanket was a patchwork of scraps from discarded sarongs and well-worn clothes from uni days. We didn’t buy him any picture books. The Mrs made a picture wall for him instead. It was a collection of her paintings on sheets of thin cardboard paper glued on a wall. She also made him a toy house from the sheets of cardboard from work. Work was a corrugated box factory at nearby Matraville, owned by the Smorgon family. I used to drive the 5 minutes home for a quick lunch every day. Happy life, happy wife.

My parents were ecstatic too, although they didn’t say so. Their faces told me they were very happy The Mrs and I delivered them a grandson so quickly. It didn’t cross my mind that one day they would expect a great grandson from him. Pa left in 2007, sorry Pa. None delivered a great grandson for you to embrace. Lately, Ma has been anxious about her failure to embrace a great grandson also. Somehow she feels she has disappointed our ancestors. I am proud my parents were modern thinking for their generation. By and large, the distribution of assets would be considered fair. Would distributing assets equally be fair if some are more in need than others? If one son has a better career than the other? Or if one daughter is married to a vastly wealthier family than the other? Or if some of the children are struck by bad luck all through their lives – would they not need a bigger share of the pie? In olden days, the daughters were “water thrown out of the face basin”, they were not entitled to any inheritance. Married off to another family, the daughters no longer belonged to their birth family. At a time when some families still observed such traditions, my parents were outstanding. They did what they considered was fair. Pa sent me what he considered was a lot of money to buy the house, especially when converted from Malaysian ringgit – it was at least two and a half times the amount in ringgit. “Chao Chu!” “Chao Chu!” Chi So Kamaka“. Bad house. I could hear Pa complain to Ma about the bad house as he returned from his daily morning walk. A memorable sight to see him conquer the incredibly steep slope to Grose Street with nothing more than his walking stick and grit. With a fighter’s mentality, he fought off the debilitating effects of the stroke he suffered from a few years earlier. He hated the house. It was not a double brick house. It was not even single-brick veneer! “

Fibro? What’s that? Worse than timber!” Pa said he would not even use fibro to clad the garden shed. Fibro looked inferior. He would be the laughing stock amongst his peers. Your foolish son did what? He spent all your money on what?! A fibro house? What is that? These old men from China knew better. I should have known better. Mesothelioma has since killed over 10,000 Aussies. On December 31, 2003, Australia banned the use or re-use of fibro for any purpose. Fibro sheets were made of asbestos and cement. Since then, I have not stopped wondering if I did drill any holes on the walls of that house. Were the picture hooks already on the walls? Pa said buy a big house. Did I mention I’d buy a mansion? Urghhling. “Chao Chu” “Chao Chu!” The house could have been a reason to start an internecine sibling rivalry in my family but Pa sold it for $266,000 after we moved to Adelaide. Thanks, Pa. I was relieved your Chao Chu made a nice capital gain despite the initial disappointment.

Detritus, Do Try Us

Before I moved to Adelaide in 1986, detritus piled on my front yard overnight by strangers would have distressed me. But now, it’s gold to me. In my garden, the compost bins are my prized possessions. I have four working all the time, 24/7, so that with every change of season I will have a batch of wonderful sweet-smelling compost to nourish my garden. Aside from providing rich nutrients for my rose bushes, fruit trees and veggie patch, the detritus in my compost bins also help produce long, fat and unending supply of earthworms for the chooks. Detritus is dead organisms including leaf litter, kitchen scraps, faecal matter that colonies of microorganisms feed on for their own proliferation. These microorganisms in turn are devoured by other organisms such as worms, millipedes and other small animals. The combination of organisms, their wastes, and other dead matter is detritus. Pronounced as d-try-tus.

Detritus, to me are also those foul, disgraceful people who discriminate against others simply because of race, colour or looks. It was bad for me in the early 80’s. At work, as the factory accountant of two major corrugated cardboard box factories in Sydney, life was top notch. My office was no more than five minutes from home, which meant no brain-numbing peak hour traffic jams. Home was in Little Bay, friends insisted on calling it La Perouse, maybe as an Aboriginal enclave, it would be a brunt of ridicule if word got back to my parents in Penang. Your son lives amongst the blacks, aren’t they the lowlifes of Sydney? But, I like to think it was because it sounded more French. Although I was fresh from university, the office workers didn’t make the workplace miserable for me. The internal control systems and procedures I introduced in many facets of the business were implemented without fuss, no one subjected them to criticisms. Except on one occasion when I challenged the gung-ho attitudes of the second factory’s supervisor – also a trade union representative, towards his unabashed reimbursements for what I deemed were personal expenses. By the time I arrived back at my office, news had spread about the showdown between the novice accountant and the union boss. The General Manager summonsed me to his office and proceeded to vacate his executive chair for me. Sarcasm and poisonous venom seethed through his clenched teeth. I hear you want my chair! Here, take it, as he lifted his bum off his chair. No sir, I am not after your job, I am only doing my job. I don’t aspire to be the top dog, but I am your watch dog. Your job is to let me do my job. He was fine after I explained what the problems were, although I couldn’t wipe the scowl off his face. A wog, with the name Buliani, he changed his name to Bulian, sounded like gold. Could I have made my life easier if I changed mine to gold too, but I figured Kim would still be Asian to the white guys. At work, I gained a reputation of being a tenacious bulldog. I think for the first time they didn’t see accountants as boring bean counters anymore, historical data when properly used become the building blocks of a successfully managed business. Successfully managed doesn’t translate to successful, of course. But once I stepped beyond the factory’s premises, my status reverted to that of a puny bespectacled chink, a derogatory word for a slit-eyed Chinaman- also derogatory. Sydney in the early 80’s was still a white society. The pubs were smoke filled, with bronzed Aussie cobbers in their blue singlets and King Gee hard yakkas saying hooroo for goodbye, Sheila’s for women- usually thick bodied, thick-haired with thick makeup, and arvo was short for afternoon. You’d hardly see a Chinese unless you went to Chinatown for your favourite chicken chow mein, sweet and sour pork or stir-fried beef in black bean sauce. Being a minority means trouble, especially if you’re puny in size, bespectacled and Chinese. I was one of them, and outside of work, I came across piles of racist detritus. Sydney in the 80’s was clearly delineated with the Greeks in Hurstville and Marrickville, Italians in Glebe and Leichhardt whereas Redfern and Surry Hills were Lebanese territories after they pushed out the native aborigines. The Vietnam War was responsible for pushing the Vietnamese into Cabramatta and Fairfield. Big troubles in Little Vietnam, was the story of Once Upon A Time In Cabramatta. Illicit gambling, drugs and prostitution were the main game in town. Scrawny bespectacled Chinese didn’t belong there either, a rare visit there for their rare beef pho was never comfortable, gang fights were common, and those wartime scars the gang members wore were badges of honour. They held daggers and thought the cops with guns should be afraid of them. It was common to be tooted in the streets, va fangul, fa’an culo, the wogs had a primal need to dish out profanities and show the Italian Salute at anyone they disliked. It did not take me long to differentiate them from the Greeks, poutsa, malaka! Their salute resembled that of the Italians, the Iberian slap was universal to all detritus, a raised arm and a heavy slap on the biceps for a good sound effect.

Looking back at life then, those harmless taunts were mostly from testosterone-laden fun-seeking youths bored with life that was without internet and social media. Fast forward to 2005, the pile of detritus had turned decidedly toxic. The Cronulla riots were Sydney’s first major race riots, the outbreak of mob violence mainly between Lebanese youths and Anglo-Celtic youths spread from Cronulla beach to the suburbs. The next big pile of detritus will surely present itself one day in Australia, in the form of white supremacists. When they do, do try us. After all, we are no longer the minority, not in Sydney anyway. We would treat them like detritus, as compost and let the slimy worms do their magic on them.