Nothing Iffy About Iggy (Part II)

Who you are in life is your own doing.

Daniel Louis Wong

Iggy began formal education at Mrs D’ranjo’s kindergarten, next to the Convent Primary School in College Lane. The little boy was a frightened child who needed a security blanket in the form of his elder sister to visit him during recess time. His most vivid memory in the kindergarten were the cats that were well- cared for by a person or persons unknown to him. Growing up in the dark shadows of his father’s strict discipline and towering personality, Iggy learned never to talk back or ask too many questions. His sisters went through this regime also. Their mother was their saviour if trouble brewed. The servants were all very nice to them and the kids played with their servants’ kids. There was no discrimination at all, status or skin colour did not rate a mention. Everyone was equal in that household. Iggy only learned about race and ethnicity when he went to church, his outside world. In Pulau Tikus, there was a social hierarchy of who was who and where you ranked in society. Iggy learned that the fairer Seranis belonged to the upper echelon and the darker skinned somehow congregated to the lower rungs. But, his dad taught him to ignore the discrimination, “work hard to get what you want in life,” was his advice.

Labor Omnia Vincit

School motto of St. Xavier’s Institution, Penang.

Iggy got his academic education in St Xavier’s Branch School but the school’s motto was actually strictly applied by his parents who taught him to work hard, “doing all the housework and school work promptly because, if you don’t do it, it will not get done,” Iggy said. “Scrubbing the floor, cleaning pots and pans, washing cars and sweeping the house became our duty,” Iggy elaborated. “Labor Omnia Vincit” was the school motto which the boys lived by. Iggy did not deviate from that, even after the pretty girls joined them in Form 6. By then, for many of the boys with raging uncontrollable testosterones, their motto became “Amor Omnia Vincit”. All were conquered by love except for Iggy.

If you don’t do it, it will not get done.

An aphorism by Ignatius Wong

“We mixed with Indians, Malays, Chinese and Seranis and had lots of fun,” Iggy said of his childhood. To this day, he still cherishes his friendships formed during primary school days, and hold fond memories of Urghhlings Marsh brothers such as Four Eyes, The Mayor, and The Cook, plus others such as Tan Ban Leong, Patrick Leong, Hong Meng, Deloke Charas, Howard Tan, Joe Tan, Mohd. Tahir, and Mustapha Kamal. They grew up together chasing peacock fish in the streams and climbing rambutan trees. “It was a good life,” Iggy reminisced. For Iggy, time has not effaced their footprints in the sand and their distant laughters, although soft and receding, still replay in his mind. School mates such as Colin Andrews, Benard Packiam, Terrance Tan, Charles Barnabas, Peter Aeria also attended the same church as Iggy. They were best of buddies in school, nothing dandiacal about that.

My friends make my life a mostly wonderful one.

Another aphorism by Ignatius Wong

Iggy’s mum, Cheah See Hoon, was born in 1922, in a rural town called Telok Anson. Her father, Francis Cheah, was the manager of the rubber estate owned by his relatives, members of the Cheah kongsi (Hokkien for clan or company). See Hoon learned to speak Hakka from her Hakka baby-sitter. She also spoke Tamil fluently, having grown up in the rubber estate where the majority of the labourers were Tamils. From them, she also learned to be frugal and independent. Her schooling ended during Standard 2 after her parents passed away due to beriberi and as orphans, she and her siblings went to live with their Aunt Sally who was married to a Serani man named John Boudville. Iggy’s mum had a hard life as a teenager, slaving away in Aunt Sally ‘s Fettes Road house, cooking, washing clothes and ironing from dawn to dusk. Her stories encouraged Iggy to be as tough later in life, but also kind and helpful.

After primary school, Iggy went to SXI at his father’s behest. Iggy’s dad used his close connections with the Christian brothers to make surprise visits to his son in school. “I had to do my best,” Iggy said, inventing warm water. The Spanish have a saying for that, someone who says something that is quite obvious is inventing warm water. It was a tough life getting up at 5.00 a.m. preparing his own breakfast and recess-time food. His pocket money was ten cents a day. The routine did not vary much, “Catch the bus at College Lane after early mass and be at school before 7.00 a.m. for catechism class,” he said. In the first week in Form One, he couldn’t read what was on the blackboard due to an undiagnosed short-sightedness and so he got kicked out of Form 1A2 and was sent to class 1B4 as a laggard. For reasons unknown, the teacher, Mrs. Nah Soo Leong, was the most popular teacher in that school. To be enrolled in her class was a cause of celebration usually met with whoops of delight and excitement, yet for Iggy, he felt out of place during those early days.

A typical school recess time was running about with his friends and treating one another as a target with a tennis ball. They sweated like pigs. It didn’t matter since everyone in the classroom smelled the same. Iggy joined the school band and learned to march. He wanted to join the drums section but ended up in the bugle corps. Later on, he joined the bagpipes which the school was famous for. “I owe a lot to Peter Lee, Aloysius Low and Mr Michael Barbosa for allowing me to learn to play the flute, bugle and bagpipes,” Iggy said, before adding, “and of course, to Mr Koh Chin Seng and Mr Nicholas Ng who were instrumental in my love of music.” Blowing the pipes improved his lungs and “made it strong and powerful”, he said. Some of the students nicknamed him “The Gasbag”. From Form 2 onwards, he was transferred to the Industrial Arts stream where lessons learned in the woodwork classes were most beneficial to him in his adult life. For that, Iggy wishes to thank Mr Too Koo Sin, his woodwork teacher. Iggy met many friends like David Christopher who remains his best friend today and Kuppusamy, Tan Chuan Guan and many Catholic mates in the morning faith enhancement class by Brother Peter Papusamy. Iggy’s dad had by then relaxed his iron grip on discipline at home, and Iggy was allowed to join them on field trips to Penang Hill and Tanjong Bungah where the Christian Brothers had their bungalows. The LCE exams were a huge hurdle for Iggy as he suffered from Typhoid during the exams, but luckily the injections and medication he took helped to lower his fever.

In Shuihu Zhuan, Squire Chai, the hero who reminded me of Iggy’s father, owned a mansion in a large estate. The squire’s uncle similarly owned a beautiful mansion in a nearby prefecture. A distant relative of Grand Marshal Gao Qiu, Yin Tianxi, served in the imperial court in Dongjing. After a prolonged spell of harassment to force Uncle Chai to relinquish his property to Yin failed, the latter ordered a gang of thugs to beat him up so that he would surrender his mansion for free. Squire Chai arrived too late to save his elderly uncle who died of his injuries. This tragic story in The Water Margin about the dastardly deeds of seizing control of someone else’s property echoes that of the family disputes and attempts to gain coercive control of the family home during the latter part of Iggy’s teenage life.

Iggy’s dad, a good singer and a disciplinarian.

The family moved from their Burma Road house to a smaller house on Kelawai Terrace in 1964. Their new mansion on Gurney Drive was being constructed. That year, Iggy had a severe bout of bronchitis, so his mother kept a hen to provide fresh eggs for him. His health improved quickly. The hen, named Emily, became his pet. Emily lived in the house and being Iggy’s life saver, he cared for her diligently. All was well until July 17, 1975. Iggy’s dad passed away and the whole world collapsed. One day they had money and the next, absolutely nothing. All the money in the bank was frozen. Iggy became a pauper overnight. The night his dad was sent to the General Hospital was filled with trauma but it was also the most confusing time for the teenager. “It is during a crisis that you can truly see who your true friends are and who are out for a pound of flesh,” Iggy said. When news of his dad’s death broke, his step-sisters and step-brothers descended on them like vultures to a carcass whilst their dad’s body was still held in a morgue. The bank said Iggy’s dad was the sole signatory and all monies were in his name. It was at this juncture that Iggy was exposed to the rigidness of the law and the coldness of the courts. It was a nightmare for the 17-year-old who had to deal with lawyers and administrators to resolve the ownership of the house and the family’s finances. The house was divided into three shares. Iggy’s mother held one share. His step-sisters were hounding them to get out of their home so that they could sell the house and get their share of the money. Iggy’s mother refused and a ‘battle royal’ ensued. Their mother, a rotund Nonya woman with a typical oriental face, was a kind soul and welcomed everyone into her kitchen with a meal or at least a cup of coffee despite their desperate situation. Seeing the lawyers’ bill rising fast and copping the constant abuse from the older step-children, Iggy’s mother finally gave up and they moved to Seremban in 1983. After they sold the house and settled the court costs and other legal expenses, they had only $30,000 left.

1975 was also the year of the Malaysian Cambridge Exam (MCE). The life-changing exam was just another trial in Iggy’s life that year. It was then that Iggy realised he had better pass the MCE or else there would be no hope of any further education. Uncle Ah Leong gave them $40 a month to carry on. “It was a time when life taught us to appreciate friends,” Iggy said. He studied and got through the MCE and landed in Sixth Form in SXI, despite the tumultuous events a few months earlier. A Christian charity paid for his exam fees and school fees. Iggy gave tuition lessons to pay for the bus fares and bare necessities such as cheap veggies from the side streets to take home for his mother to cook. The neighbours helped out with their leftovers. “We were so grateful to them. We all made do with what we had,” Iggy said. 

Iggy’s mum had the natural inclination of inviting everyone who came to his house to sit and eat. It is like the Nyonya adage of “masuk, duduk dan makan.” Come in, sit down and eat. “There is always a meal for any visitor,” Iggy said whilst shrugging his shoulders as if to say he did not know why and how she could afford to. Iggy misses her famed helpings of Jiuhu Char, Asam fish, Bubur cha-cha, and her ‘must-haves’ such as Sugee cake and Nonya Kuehs – Kueh Kaput, Kueh Baulu,and Kueh Bangkit. Dressed in her typically dark coloured sarong and baju which highlighted her fair complexion, she worked in the house from morning to night and the centre of all activities was her kitchen. Food, of course, was the subject of her life. When Iggy was still a kid, her most-repeated sentence was “Wait till your father comes home.” She had a great way of reminding her kids who was boss by telling them the story of the Ten Commandments and putting the fear of God and their father’s cane in them. The turmoil caused by the stepsisters demanding money made life a living hell for Iggy’s mum. It was uncomfortable too for Iggy whose mind was always about his mother’s dire financial situation and how to survive another day. Memories of his Form 6 life were devoid of the pretty girls in class, even though he was the only boy there. All he cared about was to work hard and help support his family. He couldn’t afford to attend university after passing his Form 6 exams in SXI, and the only choice he had to consider was which jobs to apply for. Iggy found a job as a factory worker in Mostek Electronics in Bayan Lepas. “Venturing into the employment sector was what education was all about, right?” he asked. Opportunities to get into the government sector was slim with his P8 result for Malay. It was his worst subject amongst all the subjects he sat for at the MCE. His first pay cheque of RM90 was given to his mum. He never stopped giving her his wages after that. “She gave me life and made me what I am,” Iggy told me. His mum passed away at the age of 85, in May 2008. Iggy played Amazing Grace on his bagpipes as a goodbye tune for an amazing person.

In 2012, both Iggy’s stepsisters Ethel (Lily) and Theresa (Molly) passed away. He called them ‘Godma’ because when he was baptised, they stood in as godparents in a church ceremony. As such, it was their father’s rule that they should all care for one another. Lily was born in 1924 and Molly two years later. They attended the Catholic school at the Pulau Tikus Convent. It was very likely they too were taught to do housework and cooking just like their much younger siblings much later on. Sewing and needle work was also compulsory at home. Their father required the girls to be skilled in home duties as well. Lily and Molly were both good cooks and bakers. It was a tradition to be able to make cakes and jam tarts as well as to be able to cook Chinese, Indian and Serani food. The two sisters were spinsters who also lived in the Pulau Tikus Lane house. Lily worked as a seamstress, sewing and making dresses in various boutiques in Georgetown. Molly was a cook in the Uplands School in Penang Hill. It was mainly for the expatriate children and their teachers. Molly worked till her forties. Iggy remembers her as rather hot-tempered, and attributed that to her being often close to a hot stove and oven. 

In 2017, Iggy started to experience health problems. He survived a heart attack but hasn’t been able to recover from a bad knee which gives him constant pain. He also suffers from gout, describing the unbearable pain with a trembling voice. “Even a soft light breeze feels like a deep cut to my toes,” he said whilst signalling that this would end his story. He forced himself up and the loud creaking of his old knees almost drowned out his voice. “Got to go and teach now. Catch up with you later, bro,” Iggy said, forcing a sugared smile from his heavy lips which are often turned downwards, burdened by gravity. Despite his debilitating condition, Ignatius Wong does not display any bilious temperament but rather, he remains sanguine that every day will be a good day. He continues to teach English and Malay to the local Chinese children. There is nothing iffy about Iggy. He becomes the latest member of the Urghhling Marsh brotherhood.

Portrait of Ignatius Wong by Anne Koh.

Lord Guan, Go On

Reading an epic novel is a big challenge for me now. What is required is time (lots of it), attention to detail, good healthy eyes and most of all, an unfailing memory. Early in my life, I think I was too eager to acquaint with the few ‘epics’ that my brother left lying around. I was too young and naive to understand the concepts and politics, yet I soldiered on thinking I had the high brow to absorb everything I read. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Gogol’s Dead Souls and Diary of a Madman were read by the time I was seventeen or eighteen. Tolstoy’s War and Peace, crammed full of human suffering, l lost, unfinished, I think. There were hundreds of characters in those stories, that a brain such as mine simply could not store all their names and idiosyncrasies. The most vivid picture I got from them was the bitter cold Russian winters but even that, I am no longer sure. Maybe I got that in my head from watching Dr Zhivago. But, one thing is for sure; the rouble is the name of one currency I do not have trouble remembering.

Recently, I finished reading The Water Margin. It is a story of one hundred and eight heroes of Liangshan Marsh, and many more who did not join the brotherhood. Which means a lot of names and characters. During the past week, I have been weakened by the winter flu and so, it was easy to tell myself to neglect the garden. Neglect the rowing exercises. Neglect the early morning Qigong routine. Maybe I have been telling my body to delay its recovery, so that I have every excuse to shorten my working hours, and retire to my bedroom early. There, I have been squirrelling away my energy and waking hours to race through the novel. On the weekend, I started on Three Kingdoms, a not-to-be-missed classic wonderfully translated by Moss Roberts. Again, hundreds of heroes and villains, usurpers and wannabes. Russian names may be long, but Chinese names sound too similar! And each character will have a minimum of three names! A real name, style name, and sobriquet. My hero in the book is no other than Zhuge Liang. I have mentioned him a few times in the past. Having lived in Australia for over forty years, I forgot the name that appears first is not the first name. Zhuge (pronounced Chu-ger) a double surname, Liang his given name, and his style name Kongming. As if these were not enough to tell us who he was, he gave himself the nickname, Master Sleeping Dragon or Crouching Dragon, from a stretch of hills near where he lived, Sleeping Dragon Ridge in Xiangyang. A hero with four names! Whilst reading these two books, I urged myself to write about a childhood friend, whose life has been as turbulent as red sprites during thunderstorms. Yet, it is equally true to say his is a life that is fully lived, colourful and filled with a full spectrum of human experiences. Please allow me to laud Lord Guan. Go on, I hope he will invigorate you as much as he has inspired me.

Red Sprite, lightning above turbulent thunderstorm clouds

When I read about Lu Da in The Water Margin, I thought amongst my friends, Lord Guan is the perfect hero that most resembles him. He was also known as The Fat Monk. A popular character, he first appeared in Chapter Two of the novel. Killing the butcher who forced a pretty girl to be his concubine and then tricking her of all her money, Lu Da went on to be a great hero of the marsh. Lord Guan bears many of Lu Da’s physical attributes. Both big with big strides and monstrous jumps. Lord Guan also possesses a towering frame, massive thighs, and a big face with a generous nose, bushy eyebrows and fat ears. A gentle giant, he has big smiles whereas Lu Da wore a fearsome military look. Lord Guan has the presence of a happy and contented monk, often helpful and caring but never mendicant. I chose the name Lord Guan for this friend because his namesake was also a hero in the Three Kingdoms, a historical novel attributed to Luo Guanzhong. There, he was also a giant of a man, with crimson-coloured phoenix eyes, and brows like nestling silkworms. With a rather imposing stature and breath-taking presence, he with Zhang Fei declared their absolute faith in Liu Bei and all three prostrated on the ground in a peach garden and became blood brothers. They annihilated the Yellow Scarves, a dominant rebel group which although defeated hastened the collapse of the Han dynasty some thirty odd years later. But having been reminded of my friend’s life story, I am convinced he is a man of much more depth and substance than Lu Da and therefore more suited as the leader of the band of brothers I am writing about. My Lord Guan has tasted the full gambit of what life has to offer, from the bitter fruits that he spits out instinctively to the sweetest and juiciest rewards that he enjoys in the privacy of his abode. Lord Guan should be compared more with Chao Gai, the leader of the brotherhood! Lord Guan, go on!

Guan Yu aka Guan Gong, is today revered as The God of War by Taoists and Buddhists.
Portrait of Beh Chooi Guan by Anne Koh.

Chao Gai was the obvious leader of the marsh, the votes for his leadership were unanimous without any abstention. What makes a good leader? I suppose, first and foremost, one ought to be born with leadership qualities. A leader is born but of course can be made too. Chao Gai was the village chief, generous and hospitable to everyone, including visitors to the village. He was particularly fond of making friends with heroes, people with like-minded virtue and ethics. He had great influence over his people. He was very fit and strong, disciplined and never neglected practising with his halberd. Lord Guan possesses such qualities too and he is also a long-time Qigong practitioner. His honesty is beyond reproach; his generosity always present, and his virtue unshakable. He believes in reincarnation and it would be the least startling if indeed Lord Guan turns out to be a reincarnated Chao Gai. “But there is no evidence of reincarnation,” I said. “Of course there is!” He swiftly replied. “Why does a newborn know how to suckle a breast?” “And why are some born blind or deformed? Karma! It’s their punishment for having lived a bad life in the previous one!” He answered his own question before I could even raise my hand to respond. Very rarely do I find a truer friend, and a more just man than him. He doesn’t resile from an agreement; neither does he renege on a promise. He will be the first to step up and apologise for any wrongdoing. Lord Guan, go on, show us your mettle.

Born from a Penang mother and an Ipoh father, Lord Guan possesses a towering personality. In school, he symbolises the horse – magnificent, handsome and fast. His sobriquet, however, is The Bear, some see him as the huggable and adorable one, but for me, I sense The Bear is also powerful and indefatigable. Decisive, intelligent and fair, his reasoning is never that of a pedant. Lord Guan, go on, show us you’re irresistible and irrepressible.

Lord Guan finds durians irresistible!

Lord Guan’s parents were match-made during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya. The maternal side, worried about the Japanese taking their daughter away for nefarious reasons, quickly pushed her to the arms of Lord Guan’s father. Lord Guan’s grandfather was from China who left his wife and family in Guangzhou to seek his fortune in Ipoh. He married a local woman and had seven sons and one daughter with her. During the Second World War, Grandpa Guan’s sundry shop business suffered from the frequent extortions and unpaid rations by the Kempeitei. The business collapsed and he died soon after the war was over. Lord Guan’s father was suddenly entrusted to maintain the whole family household, despite being ranked No. Four son. He started out as a daily rated census taker and subsequently joined the civil service a few years later because he could speak and write in English – a rare ability amongst his peers during those early years in Malaya. A family household does not mean one family – in today’s terminology, it is a household of many families. With his salary he sustained not only his own growing family but also had to support his younger siblings and their immediate close relatives. Lord Guan’s grandmother insisted that her fourth son should help all of them as they were her own sisters’ and brothers’ children. Lord Guan’s mother was the one responsible to make ends meet even when it seemed impossible. She had to keep a tight rein on the younger ones besides her own growing number of children. Money was tight but Lord Guan’s mother kept a tighter fist on household expenses. Those were difficult days in Ipoh, when even a grain of rice mattered. “Stop looking at the salted fish, your meal will be too salty,” I imagined she said. There was never enough on the dining table. Lord Guan’s grandma was a part time mahjong player and helped chipped in the household expenses when there were winnings. But, odds of her losing were always higher.

When Lord Guan’s grandma passed on and her siblings and extended family left after completing school, Lord Guan’s father transferred in 1961 to Penang for career prospects – the other reason, never mentioned, was the couple ached to leave the sad affair of their eldest daughter’s passing a few years earlier. Making a livelihood in a new place was like making a new life. Lord Guan enrolled in the same school as me. Basketball, football, camping, Cubs and then Scouting were his main focus when in school. We got on famously right through the first eleven years in school as I too enjoyed the same activities. He did not join me in Form six but stayed back to repeat his fifth Form. “Upper five” meant a year of watching his peers move ahead of him. He could only look forlornly from afar as some of his mates started courting the pretty girls in Lower six using puerile tactics. Envious of some of them leaving for overseas studies, he had the option of being a trainee SIA pilot or repeat the same subjects. “Mom decided for me against my father’s wishes,” he said. The following year, he left for the U.K. The rolling hippy scene there was such an amazing attraction for the teenager but the gloss was quickly dispelled by the cold reality that “the majority of the Brits was a poor lot.” He completed his degree from Polytechnic Manchester in 1982 and joined a Singapore semi-government company to work. There, he lasted two years before “better prospects” lured him to Kuantan.

In 1986, a near-death encounter at Karak Highway taught him some important things about life. His car was a total write-off in the rotational collision. “I was going round the bend when my car decided to spin around a few times. “I could clearly see what was happening and whilst trying to counter the centrifugal forces, I was screaming profanity in slow motion.” His car was spinning in the wrong direction and he could see his car catapulting towards the guard rails that hugged the cliff edge. When he regained consciousness, he thanked all his gods and lucky stars that he had crashed into the cliff face instead. Surprisingly, he had only sprained his wrists. That and a big bump on his head were bragging rights to prove his death-defying escapade. “Everything goes very painfully slow if you aren’t due to die,” he concluded. “So, what was the message you took away from that?” I asked. He smirked and said, ” As in Wall Street the movie, it told me one must enjoy life to the hilt, live life full of possibilities – you never know when it will be all over.”

A second death was predicted by fortune tellers in 1995. It was another crash, but this time it came in the form of the 1997 Asian financial crash took the wind out of his sails and wiped out his whole world. He sank into a financial abyss, so deep there was only darkness. “Bankrupt, you mean,” he corrected me. His honesty stunned me. If I were a bird, I would stop knowing how to fly, and if I were a fish, I would stop knowing how to swim. “Thankfully there were kind people like Ah Chuan and others who helped me in so many little ways,” Lord Guan said with a deep sense of gratitude. “The road to recovery is always tough and from all the spiritual teachings I encountered, I learned that the natural self shall be our beacon,” he said. Lord Guan had his glittering career swept away from under his feet. Through no fault of his, he lost everything when the financial crisis gripped much of Asia. Economic bubbles and crony capitalism from lax American money supply meant the whole thing was set for a major calamity. Countries with currencies pegged to the increasing US dollar saw their GDP plummet as their exports became uncompetitive. The crisis brought down the 30-year-rule of President Suharto. Asian sharemarkets crashed and unfortunately, Lord Guan was then a high-flying remisier with big-time clients. Some jumped from tall towers and others reneged on their contracts. Saying it in a way that would displease their ears, “they avoided him like he was a carrier of a deadly virus.” Lord Guan was left with massive unpaid contracts. During the few years before the crisis, his broking firm was setting profit records. Taxes on the previous years’ profit were outstanding and becoming payable by the time the financial tsunami swept away everything he owned. Lord Guan was so virtuous and honest he did not siphon out monies or squirrel away hard-earned savings for his young family prior to the crash. “My common trenching business in Penang was being owed monies which could never be recovered. Margin calls and rotating deals ensured I was buried totally in losses in the tens of millions,” he continued. There is an old saying, “No point killing a battered horse when the horse can still be useful,” – his stockbroking firm continued to use him to trade with his corporate clients until the Tax Office sued him for outstanding taxes. The tax officers did not care that he had massive losses to claim deductions against the prior years’ profits.

Lord Guan considered running away. Penniless and unemployable, he was useless to his family anyway. The couple could not support their family anymore. This is the worst nightmare scenario for any parent of little kids. His super loving wife who never considered abandoning him, decided to try her hands on direct marketing, and he on selling credit cards and later, insurance. Lord Guan’s name was black-listed everywhere, all he could really do was be her driver and gofer. His name was not only unusable, it was a barrier to a job. “To go out and seek job opportunities, I had to live on RM10 a day, an allowance from my mother – bless her soul – she still saw something in me,” he said. A great friend saw his predicament and offered him a sales job selling pottery. His sales was shitty and he couldn’t keep the job. Then one day, an ex-client offered him a sales job for commercial electronic door access and CCTV systems. From sales, he became a technical support staff and eventually he came out and worked for his wife in her own CCTV business.

During his “second death”, his friends brought him to see not one but a few monks, and Indian and Chinese fortune tellers who all separately concluded that he was supposed to be dead. “It was total darkness, there were no stars in my life chart and the total absent of light, according to their calculations and readings meant death. Strangely, they all had the same conclusion. They were dumbstruck to be reading the fortune of a dead man. Somebody up there must have done some horse-trading using whatever little merits Lord Guan had to help him live on during the total darkness.

The fallen suffers a life which is worse than death.

Beh Chooi Guan

With a feeling of absolute worthlessness, hope also abandoned him. Nothing to his name and nothing positive to look forward to. Almost daily, there was mud and shit hitting the fan for him to face and the innuendos and whispers continued for years. Ostracised by some of the so-called friends. Blacklisted by financial institutions and labeled a bankrupt with no bank account to his name and no credit card to depend on. Being bankrupt means you cannot own anything and you still have to make however small contributions to help settle some of the debts. For government debts, there can be no deals done. What is owed has to be fully paid. They won’t look at the following year’s losses to cancel what was owed – “they will extract blood even from stone,” he said matter-of-factly .

“I’m so sorry you went through all that darkness and stress,” I said. Life can be so unfair and unyielding. “You’re amazing to climb out of such a dark deep hole,” I revealed a new-found admiration. Lord Guan’s heart-wrenching story is the real story of great success at the echelon of corporate life being struck down by events too big to predict. A truly black swan day that would have brought anyone to their knees. That he climbed out of it after decades scraping in the bottom searching for scraps, without bitterness and recriminations, deserves utmost respect. That is the mark of a truly virtuous man. After the darkness which lasted what felt like an eternity, he began to look after his body like a temple and cultivate his mind and heart like a productive garden. “Live life to the fullest. Don’t assume you’ll get a second chance,” he advised. “Everything will run its course, and remind yourself of the old adage when you’re at your lowest, things will only get better,” he spoke with profundity. “Life should be kind to you by now,” I suggested. “When you see me fly to distant places, you will know I am free like a soaring eagle again. But for now, I am the old horse running free on the grasslands.” I liked the picture he painted for me. Either way, he is contented and uncomplaining. “What is the real story here?” I asked. With the briefest pause, he said, “There is always someone else who is worse off than you if you decide to turn your head behind to help.” Lord Guan, go on, we salute you. I think Lord Guan is a worthy man to join Blue Eyes, Wu Yong, Four Eyes and The Cook in their brotherhood. Lord Guan, go on, you are their natural leader.

From The Angle Of An Angel

When I read about Song Jiang in The Water Margin, I could not help but admire his filial piety and his big heart of gold. He is the hero who I must write about, I told myself. Song Jiang, as described in the book, was a most charitable man. He never refused to help anyone who asked him for money. He assisted those in distress and raised anyone who had been crushed by their circumstances. He was also known as Welcome Rain or Timely Rain, for his positive influence on people was akin to falling rain on parched lands. He was instrumental in saving Chao Gai, the eventual leader of the brotherhood, and three other leaders including Wu Yong, from certain arrest by Imperial soldiers. Later, he also saved Wu Song the barehanded tiger killer in Jinyang Ridge, from a gang who caught him when he fell into a stream so drunk that he couldn’t get out of it. Song Jiang had great leadership skills and it was no wonder that they appointed him Second Leader to replace Wu Yong after he refused the top post in deference to Chao Gai. One day, Song Jiang got into trouble when he reached out to help a medicine seller. A tenacious brigand who thought only with his fists and axe was offended by Song Jiang’s audacity to help the medicine vendor despite his warnings not to. After fleeing from his attacker, Song Jiang was rescued by a pirate, the elder brother of Zhang Shun. Zhang Shun was a muscular fellow who could swim as well as a fish and stay in the water for seven days at a time. Zhang Shun was fearless and unbeatable in the marsh. It was both Song Jiang and Zhang Shun who caught my imagination to write about my friend Four Eyes, a living angel, in this chapter.

Four Eyes is as dark-skinned and athletic as Song Jiang. He has all the virtuous qualities of the hero too – compassionate, charitable, accommodating and generous. A powerful swimmer just like Zhang Shun, the girls were attracted to him like octopus to coral. Why octopus, you may ask. With an inspiring physique like his, I imagine the girls would have used their arms and legs like tentacles to feel his powerful and perfectly-chiselled muscular body. On the weekend as I was watching My Octopus Teacher, it amazed me to see the female octopus clamouring all over the bloke’s body with her sensitive suckers. I could see that the snazzy hunk’s well-defined body would have had a similar effect on the English girls when he went over to the UK in 1979 for his ‘A’ Levels and then for a Polytechnic degree. “Ah, English girls,” he sighed. He did not have to remind me of the story of a housemate who, upon seeing other housemates had gone out shopping and left them alone in the house, asked him if he wanted to go to bed. Four Eyes innocently told the beautiful blonde honey with the alluring pony-tail he was contented to read his book as it wasn’t quite bedtime yet. Four Eyes was our school Sportsman of the Year in 1975. He represented his country in the Schools’ International Swimming Meet in Jakarta that same year, and waterpolo in the 1977 SEA Games in KL. In the UK, he became known as the Amorous One when his name tag at a fancy dress party had the first two letters, G and L, blotted by some spilt red wine. “How on earth did you splash red wine on yourself?” I asked inquisitively. He said he would tell me on the condition that I do not disclose it to anyone. All I will reveal is it has something to do with an amorous female octopus. No word of a lie!


Talking without thinking is like shooting without aiming.

Marcel Gan Mah Seang

“It is too late to say sorry to someone you have hurt unintentionally with your words,” Four Eyes’ dad drummed into him. “Words,” as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said in Le Petit Prince, “are the source of misunderstandings.” Four Eyes learned that long before I read it in that charming little book. His dad, Four Eyes Papa, bought two sets of Encyclopaedia for him and his five sisters and a brother to use. He would make sure they looked up the words for themselves rather than be spoon-fed. “If you take the trouble yourself, you won’t ever forget,” he taught them. Four Eyes Papa was a Thai national, born in 1921; his father was the District Officer of Kantang in Southern Thailand. Well-to-do, their meals were served on gold-rimmed porcelain plates and they drank from pure silver cups. Their mansion was a shining example of opulence and their private verdant garden was quite exotic, with Chinese weeping willow and Japanese maple adorning the path to a rotunda that was furnished with intricately-carved teak outdoor furniture. Four Eyes Papa was smuggled out to Penang at his mother’s insistence to avoid him being conscripted to the Thai National Service. His mother, originally from Penang, still had a sister there. It was arranged that the sister would adopt Four Eyes Senior as her own. That was how his name changed from a Thai name, Pratip, (surname unknown) to a Chinese name. Four Eyes Papa was a smart man, blessed with an abundance of wisdom and common sense. He was a qualified accountant at age 15, a time when many of his peers were equipped with low literacy skills. “He must have read Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet,” a friend gathered from the way he serenaded the girl living on Kedah Road and climbed up the rainwater pipe to whisper love-words in her ears. “His jaunts were as romantic as Romeo’s,” the friend exclaimed. The girl next door, who was adopted by her parents, was irresistibly beautiful and equally intelligent. It became quite obvious soon after that she would become Four Eyes Papa’s wife. A few months after they were married, they heard of the plight of a young girl who was about to be sold as a future Ahmah Jie (maid servant). The married couple was quick to adopt her as their first child, such was their compassion and kindness for the girl. Their union, made in heaven, brought them much happiness and love. “This bountiful God has thought of everything,” thought Four Eyes’ Mama, as she looked lovingly at her litter of seven children. Four Eyes Papa, an altruist who would give you the shirt off his back, was respected in his community as a selfless man. He had no qualms about wearing ink-stained shirts to work, skin-deep matters mattered not. Whenever frowned upon by busybodies, all he said was “old shirts are more comfortable.” Theirs was a big family to support, but the struggling couple still generously donated to battlers and beggars who frequently knocked at their door for alms and food. That is compassion from the angle of angels.

Four Eyes’ Mama worked as a seamstress at home to help make ends meet. In a family of seven children, life was not meant to be easy. Every weeknight, after checking their school bags for homework, she would then scan their exercise books and report cards for any red marks. Four Eyes, despite my best efforts, would not reveal if he was ever caned by his mum. After their school work had passed her scrutiny, she would then start on her own work. Work meant burning the midnight oil till two to three in the morning. The kids helped by sewing buttons and hemming dresses. It is no wonder Four Eyes still has that lift in his little finger and deft wrist movement whenever he shakes hands with friends. When they got too tired, the two brothers would sleep in the lounge near their mother’s sewing machine. The rhythmic chugging and whirring of the machine was like a lullaby for the boys. Some nights, Four Eyes’ Mama slept at her old Singer machine to avoid disturbing her husband’s sleep. She would be up at 5.30 a.m. to prepare breakfast for everyone. Four Eyes Papa bought weekly social welfare lottery tickets but never checked them for the winning ticket – his way of contributing to the welfare of the needy. That is thoughtfulness from the angle of an angel.

Four Eyes, on the far left

When Four Eyes was four years old, Second Sis had a bad bike accident that required their mum’s full attention. Distraught and struggling to cope, Four Eyes’ Mama moved him to a care-giver’s home so he could be properly attended to. A month passed and he came home a very sick boy due to terrible neglect at the care-giver’s. Second Sis felt immense guilt about this and she vowed to forever look after her siblings. She worked as a nurse at the Charing Cross Hospital and channeled her earnings to help support them. Their school fees and petty expenses were covered by her, right through to their tertiary education. She took up a loan and bought a house in Kenton, Middlesex for Four Eyes and his brother to stay during their time in the UK. Every Christmas the two brothers were given two suits each. “You are what you wear,” Second Sis said to them as she insisted they picked better quality garments. She and her husband have not stopped caring and looking after everyone in both their families. It is quite natural for a devoted daughter to look after her family, but it is equally important for her to also care for his family – they are a beacon of love and understanding. The monthly remittances home were always prompt and generous. That is undying love from the angle of an angel.

Ian Henderson was Four Eyes’ best friend at the Polytechnic. He brought Four Eyes to visit his parents and they tried to convert the home-sick boy to Christianity. “They proselytise; it is the right thing to do if you truly believe it is right,” Four Eyes said. But, he politely declined, “I am a free thinker, and here away from home, I am finally free to do whatever I like.” In February 1984, their last year at the Polytechnic, Ian Henderson suddenly passed away. At the funeral when all the mourners had left, Four Eyes whose thick glasses failed to hide his red swollen eyes, strode up to the open coffin and asked his best friend, “Why have you left me, brother?” At that moment, a white figure rose up from the coffin and said to him, “Now I appear before you, do you believe in me?” His legs gave way and he crumbled clumsily onto the nearest pew. A voice called out from the direction of the coffin, “Grief not, for he is with me now.” A few weeks later, the grieving mother invited Four Eyes to pray at her son’s burial spot. The newly engraved words on the marble tombstone said “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Four Eyes gasped softly. Those words struck a strange chord with him. Four Eyes worked as a duty manager in charge of Housekeeping after his graduation. His claim to fame was introducing a room checklist for staff to work with. A few years passed and Four Eyes had run out of options to renew his UK visa. His boss at The Cumberland Hotel in Harrow was an old Jewish woman in her 70s. She adored him and fussed on him incessantly. She suggested to him a local girl whom he could “marry” for convenience so that he could stay permanently in the country. But, Four Eyes could not bring himself to complicate the simple life that he lived, a problem-free and stress-free life that he valued. The old Jewish woman cried at his farewell party, her discomfort was clear for all to see. “Why didn’t you marry her instead?” I asked. “You would have inherited all her wealth!” Four Eyes was like a ray of sun to her, bringing her lunch or dinner to her penthouse every day. Her kids only went to her for money whereas he was her friend who stayed to chat and livened up her life with humour and zest. That was genuine companionship from the angle of an angel.

As his visa had expired, Four Eyes returned to Penang, his hometown. Life was quite lonely for him during those days. One day, whilst working at Lone Pine Hotel, he met Pastor Koe, a fellow schoolmate from his year whom he briefly failed to recognise. He related to the pastor his experience at Ian Henderson’s funeral. Pastor Koe asked Four Eyes to open his heart to God and ask for His guidance. “What am I to do?” he pleaded during his prayers. According to Four Eyes, God sent him to the local swimming club one afternoon. Whilst he was treading water in the middle of the pool, he saw a beautiful girl swimming towards him. The girl bumped into him and her arms splayed around his taut and suntanned body. He told me that was how their love story began on the spot where their hands and bodies entangled. He vowed to sweep her off her feet, make her swoon, ‘sing with rapture and dance like a dervish’. “I promised her we will be deliriously happy and live a full life together,” he confided. A Catholic girl, she invited Four Eyes to her church that very weekend, and it would be safe to assume Four Eyes has never missed a sermon since. He was “slain” in front of the congregation on that very first visit. His eyes were closed yet he saw a bright blue light flood in through his skull and soothed his mind. Soon after, he realised he was crying, his eyes were filled with tears of joy. He saw the light again when he witnessed an apparition at the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows on Macalister Road. The same bright blue light was shining on top of the statue of Our Lady. Four Eyes became calmer, more caring and considerate. His parents saw the transformation in their son, and they too converted to the new faith without wavering ever after. That is unshakeable faith from the angle of an angle.

We are all guilty of the good we did not do.


The above quote is least applicable to Four Eyes. He continues to help many charities and orphanages. But, he is acutely aware there are many more that fall through the cracks and are missed by the institutions. He makes it his mission to also help the needy who do not have a safety net to rely on. “They are equally deserving to be succoured in time of hardship and distress,” he said. Once upon a time, Four Eyes was in a coffee shop with a few mates. A stationery pedlar came to their table and asked to sell them a box of pens. Four Eyes, without hesitation paid $20 instead of the asking price of $10. The pedlar tried to give the $10 change to Four Eyes, but Four Eyes told the pedlar to keep it, the extra money was his bonus. The pedlar’s face lit up with a broad smile and his eyes sparkled. After he left their table, Four Eyes’ mates said he was crazy to give so much. “No one pays double the price for pens!” One of them became quite querulous and added, “You will spoil the market!” Four Eyes didn’t care to reply. In his heart, he understood $10 was not quite enough to buy a packet of cigarettes, but it was plenty to feed the bloke for a whole day. That is generosity from the angle of an angel.

I think Four Eyes is worthy to join Blue Eyes and Wu Yong in their Urghhling Marsh brotherhood – a brotherhood of old friends through thick and thin, to the bitter end or to a brighter future.

Portrait of Wilson Gan by Anne Koh.