Le Cares About le Carré

It is said that the young should not read the Water Margin. With the heady tales of heroism, sacrifice and gallantry, it can be to the chagrin of a government to have to suppress the rebellious youths who can become highly vocal and violent in their criticism of corrupt officials and do-nothing high-salaried bureaucrats. Laced with youthful enthusiasm and armed with Confucian ideals such as virtue, loyalty and brotherhood, this sense of inspiration and glory is viewed in certain quarters as a cocktail to upend peace and stability in a society if such rebellious sentiments are left unchecked. The right to rebellion, after all, is the most dangerous of all Confucian values.

The Water Margin is a 12th century epic based on righteous men who turned outlaws in the Song Dynasty. Despite its claim that “within the four seas, all men are brothers”, the setting of the stories is wholly located in China and Liangshan Marsh the epicentre of the outlaws’ domain. In the Urghhling Marsh stories however, there is no such geographical boundary. The brotherhood is indeed global. In this chapter, we have a hero whose origin is Hanoi in Vietnam. The Chinese called it, amongst many names, Thang Long or “Soaring Dragon” as far back as 1 A.D. when it was part of Han China. The Chinese didn’t turn Vietnam into a tributary state until the 10th century, some two hundred years before the Water Margin heroes’ final battle against the Fang La rebels. That the Liangshan outlaws, upon receiving their amnesty from the emperor would quell a peasant revolution for the emperor, worried Mao Zedong enough to criticise Song Jiang and the leaders of the brigands. He did not want the Cultural Revolution to be opposed during his rule by what he called “capitulationism”. Whether Song Jiang did capitulate is not clear but our Vietnamese hero evidently waved a white flag to his promises to his parents and banished himself from returning to his homeland.

Le Nguyen was born in a village in Hanoi, in 1917. His family was not destitute for they rented a piece of land big enough to rear pigs and subsist on vegetables from their own farm. Le was the second eldest in a family of seven but the only one to complete primary school education, a remarkable achievement then. His parents were proud of him and hoped he would focus on the land. But Le had his own dreams and ambitions. He wasn’t interested in toiling the land.

Vietnam was a colony of France from the 1800’s till 1954 when they suffered a shattering defeat by  the Viet Minh. The French were impressed with the abundant natural resources in the French Indochina territories, enjoying the economic boom at the expense of the local people. Le  was not hopeful of ever leaving the brutal rule of the French. “It would be nice to see the world,” he thought as he applied for the post in Paris that required a Vietnamese translator. As a Buddhist, he firmly believed in destiny and karma, and was not dismayed when he failed to get the overseas posting. In his late teens, he became an apprentice to learn the art of engraving in a reputable French-owned jewellery company in Hanoi. He worked hard and within two years, he earned a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel overseas when the company’s engraver in Penang passed away. His dreams of venturing abroad finally came true. He burst into tears as he accepted his boss’s offer, grabbing it like a lifeline. Le’s parents, on the other hand, were apprehensive and did not share his enthusiasm. But Le was in a state of euphoria. Nothing anybody said or did could change his mind. His parents had good reasons to be worried, they were reliant on his income to help with the family’s budget. But, they eventually acquiesced to him leaving after he steadfastly promised to send money home regularly and assured them he will return home as soon as he made his fortune.

On 15 September 1937, Le, a skinny 20-year-old lad, boarded the steamship in Hai Phong with the same exuberance as a wide-eyed kid in a toy shop. He was oblivious to his father’s discomfort and his mother’s red puffy eyes as he bade them farewell to them. “Will I ever see you again, my son?” his mother asked silently in between sobs.

Upon his arrival in Penang, Le was surprised to feel right at home. A big Teochew community welcomed him with open arms. The Teochew clans originated from the Chaoshan region in Guangdong and the familiarity of their food and customs further comforted him. But over time, the struggles of living alone made him homesick and he began to miss his family and friends in Hanoi much more than he imagined. He kept to his promise and sent money home regularly at first but once he succumbed to drowning his sorrows with alcohol, there wasn’t much cash left for anyone else. He became a regular patron of a bar near his home in Georgetown at the time.He enjoyed the company of a few fellow revellers who were particularly attracted by the skimpily dressed dancers who prowled the scene nightly. Le contemplated going back home to Hanoi, but  he decided not to let his parents see him as a failed adventurer.

Le’s life changed dramatically when he fell in love with a local woman named Emma whom he married very soon after. Emma was a petite woman, quite fair and very pretty. She liked to dress in the traditional kebaya, and sometimes in the cheongsam; those outfits showed off her ample hourglass figure. Her father died when she was young leaving her mother to live off his paltry pension.The lack of a bread-winner at home meant she never finished Primary School. She brought her only sister to live with them after her mother died a couple of years after their marriage. Le and Emma had two beautiful girls before the Japanese occupation.

In 1940, Le’s company closed down its operations in Penang due to the looming war. The firm was already bleeding financially as stiff competition from the local Chinese and Indian jewellers affected sales. All of a sudden, Le felt lost, confused and afraid. Losing his job meant losing his self-esteem and the ability to support his own family and a sister-in-law. Le’s employer had no pension plans or retrenchment benefits for its employees. The company hired and fired at will. Workers in those days there were not unionised; sycophancy and obedience did not guarantee an iron rice bowl. Le’s exquisite handicraft also didn’t deliver him guaranteed job security.

Le could not afford to return to his homeland with his young family because he did not have enough savings. He was neither thrifty nor spendthrift, and he was not a habitual saver. A fortune teller had already warned him years before. “Press them tightly! Together!” she almost shouted. Yet, his fingers won’t close tightly together. “I am sorry to say,” she concluded. “ but with these fingers, you will never keep money in your pockets.” In despair, he turned to the bottle even more but drinking only exacerbated his problems. The broken man often got home late at night, utterly drunk. It was not abnormal for Emma to find Le sleeping outside on the pavement. He would be so zoned out he could not find his way home, and even if he did, he would not be able to find the key to the house. Le never laid a finger on his wife or daughters when he was sober, but it was a different story when he was drunk. Emma’s ugly long scar on her thigh a permanent reminder of one especially violent night. A 9-day-old daughter given away to save her from certain harm was another direct result of his fury when totally inebriated. Emma never forgave Le for that. This period was incredibly turbulent and tumultuous for Emma and their daughters. She realised she had to find other means to supplement the family’s income or their family would break up. She teamed up with her sister and started making nasi lemak to sell to passers-by.

Eventually, Le sobered up and rented a small shop not far from the Indian quarter of Georgetown. The market may be small for a skilled engraver, but he had no other skill and therefore no other choice. The morning he opened his own shop was the moment he realised he was not going back to his homeland. Instead of celebrating his entrepreneurial ability to be his own boss at the young age of 23, he squatted on the floor of his shop and screeched like an animal being skinned alive. He knew he had broken both promises to his parents.

War came swiftly and took many by surprise despite the many whispers in the media. In December 1941, Japanese troops invaded Malaya. They conquered with a speed that shocked their staunchest critics, much like what the Taliban did recently in Afghanistan. Georgetown came under heavy aerial bombardment, albeit for just a short few days. Le’s whole family crammed together in the bathroom surrounded by buckets of water to douse flames if necessary. Everyone was scared out of their wits. The two girls sobbed and shrieked but the exploding bombshells drowned out their screams.Their mother prayed to every God she knew and even to those she did not. After a sustained silence, they rushed out of their hiding place when they heard people laughing and celebrating down on the streets. All prayers were answered, there was no unbearable pain and no deaths in the family. It was a blessing that the fighting ended quickly. A prolonged bombing would have been a terrible outcome; no one wanted the unnecessary loss of more wealth, property, and innocent lives.

Le’s business surprisingly was brisk during the Occupation. The majority of his customers were Japanese soldiers who wanted momentos of their swords, belt buckles, emblems, and other artefacts engraved. “How many heads were severed by the sword I am holding in my hands?” he asked himself. Haunted by the ghosts in his mind, he became fervently religious and frequently visited the temple. Le transformed into a serious person who prided in his workmanship and vowed never to go back to the bottle after finding a neighbour so drunk he drowned face down in a small puddle of rainwater. The dead man was a Hakka man. An intelligent herbalist who wrote the most exquisite calligraphy so beautiful that he was paid to write the shop banners for his local community. He was a drinking buddy who took to the bottle to drown his sorrows also.

The Japanese replaced the Straits Settlements currency with what the locals sarcastically called “banana notes” on account of the Banana tree on the ten dollar note. The new money prompted Le to improve his savings, believing in the permanent sovereignty of legal tender. But as the months rolled by, the Japanese administrators were secretly printing more and more notes as the Allied Forces disrupted the economy in Japan. Counterfeiting was rampant also. Most of the notes did not have serial numbers. Hyperinflation inevitably caused the massive devaluation of the currency, yet his Japanese customers objected to any price increases for his services. A Japanese corporal vented his wrath on him for attempting to increase his price. “You are disrespecting our currency, you traitor!” the soldier yelled. “I should cut off your head this instant. Baka-yarou!” Le was quite traumatised by the event.

In August 1945, Japan surrendered, but the Japanese did not leave until the arrival of Commonwealth troops. One day, a Japanese soldier who spoke good English brought a bottle of sake to Le’s shop and invited him to drink. The recently traumatised Le was too afraid to turn down the request. The soldier was in a down-trodden mood and shared his sad feelings with Le. “Oh, how I miss my family! I don’t even know if my parents are still alive,” he moaned. Gulping down more sake, he continued, “Will I ever see them again? I didn’t even write them a single letter!” he cried out. Le did not utter one word in the entire monologue but felt sorry for the soldier. The soldier was a victim of fate or from his own choices in life, much like Le and the Hakka buddy were. Le felt if the man weren’t an enemy soldier, they would have been close friends.

Le started to regret leaving his parents all those years ago. The “banana notes” Le accumulated were worthless although they were once part of the $120 million that was in circulation as legal tender. Le contemplated his bad luck. What had he done that was so wrong in his past reincarnations to deserve such karma? He was broke a few years earlier when he did not know how to save. Now that he had learned to save, he was still broke. He was firmly stuck in a rut no matter which choices he made. Le also faced a new crisis in his business. Most of his customers had left or were leaving Penang. The soldiers were being marched to E&O Hotel and shipped out of the island. He became a devotee of his religion, blaming his luckless soul on his previous lack of commitment to religious duties. Emma however believed it was God’s will. “God is constantly testing us,” she taught their daughters. “God loves us and all we need to do is believe in Him,” she added. She wasn’t pious but believed that God would somehow watch over those who do not steal, cheat, harm others, or make false accusations.

Between 1945 and 1957, Le fathered four children with Emma. His business did not grow, but the income was sufficient to feed his growing family. He worked seven days a week and had little time for anything else. Often he spent the night in his workshop and resumed work early the following day. Family picnics, outings or birthday parties for his children were alien to him. His wife maintained discipline in the family and managed the family budget. Le valued education and knowledge and despite his earlier waywardness with money, he saved enough to buy a set of Encyclopedia Britannica for his kids. His eldest daughter wanted to skip school to work, but Le insisted she complete her secondary education. The family lived a simple life; the only electrical appliances they owned was a rediffusion set and a ceiling fan. The ceiling lights consisted of 10W incandescent globes and therefore were not considered as appliances. Emma bought fish and vegetables from the wet market daily, circumventing the need for a refrigerator. Meat dishes were a luxury and were only served during religious festivals or on special occasions. On the rare Sunday that he did not have to work, his wife prepared his favourite dish – Vietnamese Pho noodles. “It’s good pho me,” he used to joke.

Le ceased talking about Hanoi, his parents, his family, or even his old friends there. He had stopped corresponding with his parents since he lost his job seventeen years earlier. It was as though the man wanted to erase that part of his life. Maybe he thought of himself as a failure, for he had broken the two promises he made to his parents. In his thirties, Le wondered how life would have been if he hadn’t gone to Penang. The company he worked for was still in business in Hanoi. If he had stayed home, he would have been in a senior position with an income sufficient enough to lift his entire family out of poverty. Yet, he went to Penang to make his fortune and failed. “But that’s water under the bridge,” he consoled himself. His immediate concern was providing his children with a good education and preparing them for the challenges of a rapidly changing world.

One day in December 1957, John was busily trying to finish a customer’s order when an ex-colleague appeared at his workshop. “Hey bro, I met a Vietnamese guy at a bar a couple of weeks back. He is the current tenant of the house you lived in,” he said. “He asked me if I know of a Le Nguyen, and when I said yes, he handed me this letter,” the ex-colleague continued. The letter was addressed to that house and bore a postage stamp from Vietnam. Le’s hand shook uncontrollably and turned icy cold as he took hold of the envelope. It was from his younger brother. Le’s heart sank into an abyss when he read the contents. His whole family was worried about him, the letter said. “We have never stopped praying for you and for years, baba and mama wondered why you stopped writing,” his brother’s words cried out. The news that hurt him most was learning both his parents had passed away. Le’s wife then was pregnant with their seventh and last child. The letter was dated 15 September 1957, exactly twenty years to the day he boarded the steamship at Hai Phong. Overwhelmed with emotions, Le did not know what to do. He felt deep remorse for being absent from his parents’ lives and tremendous guilt for failing to be the filial son that he promised to be. It suddenly dawned on him that his weakness and his quick surrender to his own plight had made his parents feel forsaken on their deathbeds. It may be incomparable in terms of importance and grandeur but his quick resignation from his oaths to his parents were similar to Song Jiang’s capitulation of his ideals by not continuing his brotherhood’s struggle for virtue and honour in a period of grinding poverty, societal disarray and moral collapse. Eventually, Le found the strength to reply, offered lame excuses for his long silence, and then begged for forgiveness.

The correspondences between the two brothers became regular. Le’s older children found jobs and considerably eased his financial burden. His eldest daughter had married a RAAF officer and moved to Sydney. With the regular remittances from Australia, the family’s quality of life improved. They finally enjoyed a television, a radio and a refrigerator for the first time. Le moved his business to a new shop in Bishop Street, just off Pitt Street. He had some savings but refused to buy a house despite the numerous opportunities to buy one at a bargain. No one could understand his aversion to owning his own house. Maybe, Le was afraid his children would fight over it one day. After his brother’s death, the link with Hanoi was broken forever. The war in Vietnam offered him the excuse for his continued self-exile from his homeland. His various personal problems and relentless commitment to work eventually took a toll on him. He greyed at an earlier age. Le of average height, and of average build carried a beer belly since his forties due to habitual drinking and lack of exercise. His skin was yellowing and part of his face especially around his eyes had dark patches. The numbness in his feet and trembling hands revealed the damage to his body from the years of heavy drinking. Despite the telltale signs of yellow teeth and receding gums, he continued to smoke curut, a locally made cigar. Le wore the smell of curut like a perfume. People would know he was approaching before they could even see him. Le was a kind person known to everyone, a hero in his community. He had an easy-going personality and his readiness to help when called upon was legendary. Le loved John Le Carré’s novels. He absorbed himself in the espionage stories and would never be caught sitting in a coffee shop with his back to the entrance. “This is not what a spy would do,” he taught me. Similarly, he would never open a door by touching the door handle or leave his finger prints on a wine glass. In 1988, he and Emma gave away their business to a Teochew friend. Le, as he did as a 20-year-old, packed his belongings and left his home once more, this time for Sydney to join his daughter and her growing family. It would be the last time he set his eyes on Penang. Le passed away in 2007. Some ten years later, I watched the Night Manager, Le Carré’s post-Cold War novel which was made in to a miniseries. I could not help but hoped Le was watching it with me.

Le’s youngest son, Tranh visited me recently. He loved my rose garden and assumed I had anything to do with it. “No, it is all Mother Nature’s work. All I do is add poo to it,” I said. Le’s investment in education paid off handsomely as all his children born after the war received tertiary education, either in the UK, New Zealand or Australia. It is through Le’s tribulations that Tranh developed a strong and wise character for himself. As far as Tranh knows, his good life and success can be all attributed to his father’s immense sacrifice and his mother’s complete dedication to the family. Tranh Nguyen, representing his father Le, is a worthy addition to the Urghhlings Marsh brotherhood.

A rose for Le. Let’s not forget.

Bang Bang And A Gang. How Wang Became Ang.

Wang Lun in the Water Margin, was the first chief of Liangshan Marsh. His band of outlaws was small then. When assembled, they formed only two lines. Wang Lun, “The White Clothes Scholar”, was not the academic type. Having failed the government examination at the Eastern capital, he went to stay at Squire Chai Jin’s estate for a few days. He was somewhat beholden to the Squire who also gave him some silver for travelling expenses when he left to continue his journey. Drill Master of the Imperial Guards, Lin Chong by chance also met Squire Chai Jin after he escaped from jail following his troubles with Master Gao Yanei. Gao, the foster son of lecherous Marshall Gao Qiu, implicated Lin Chong of crimes he did not commit so that upon his banishment, he could marry Lin Chong’s beautiful wife. She hanged herself after being pressured to marry the despicable ugly young man. Lin Chong’s admirers, reviled by the injustices, lured Gao Yanei to a hut and cut off his penis but kept his testicles intact. This left the obnoxious character with intense sexual desires that were permanently unsatisfied. But, I shall not deviate from the story about Wang Lun, a chief of the stronghold on the hill with no special abilities. The squire handed his letter of introduction to Lin Chong recommending him to join the gang. “Present my letter to the chief, and he will welcome you like a brother,” he said. Although he was obligated to satisfy Squire Chai Jin’s request, Wang Lun still insisted on seeing Lin Chong’s ‘membership application’. “Ok, do you have paper and ink for me to write one?” Lin Chong asked, unaware that a membership required a man’s freshly severed head to be presented to the chief before he could be welcomed into the brotherhood.

The next hero, Ang-not-Wang, in The Urghhling Marsh story is a fourth generation Malaysian. His great grandparents on his paternal side fled Tang Aun village in Fujian during the decade-old Xinhai Revolution which ended over two thousand years of imperial rule in China. By the time Sun Yat Sen became ‘Father of the Nation’, Great Grandfather Wang had already settled in Penang, Malaya as a poultry seller. Due to a clerical error at the Registry of Birth, Death and Marriages and a lackadaisical attitude to incorrect spelling, Wang became Ang. The sixth of fourteen children, Ang Iok Hun (1904-1998), was famous as the first station master of the Penang Hill Railway. Iok, pronounced as ‘Yok’ is the Chinese translation for the biblical name ‘John’. He started his career as a “checker” in 1922, overseeing the construction of the railway after passing his Senior Cambridge at the Anglo-Chinese school. A year later, he was promoted to station master, a position he held till his retirement in 1961. Despite historical records stating that the construction workers were ‘mostly convict labourers’, Iok Hun said they were paid workers of Federated Malay States Railway, their hourly rate being 90-95 cents. The mandor or kepala earned twice as much. Iok Hun’s monthly salary was $75, a princely sum for the then 20-year-old. A dollar could buy him a roast duck, or thirty three eggs or thirty three durians! The workers lived on the bottom of the hill in a kongsi or community longhouse. In those days, malaria outbreaks were frequent, so every man was expected to take a small teacup of quinine daily for a month.

There were five gangs of workers; each gang consisted of thirty to forty fit and strong young men. Their jobs were to fell trees and chop up timber to feed the flames of the boiler. The steam from the boiler powered the winches that pulled a convoy of trucks up the hill supplying the cement, granite and sand for another gang of workers to work on the construction of the railway. The workers were mostly Indians and Hakka men, all noisy and jolly, tough and rough. They loved singing and joking whilst working in the cool and fresh surroundings of the lush tropical jungle. Iok Hun, a member of his church choir, was often heard singing with his men. There were reports of many sightings of tigers and other wild animals in those days. However, there was not a single report of any man who killed a tiger with his bare hands – simply said, the mythical story of Wu Song in Shuihuzhuan was unmatched in Penang. Otherwise, the scenes described are reminiscent of the hills above Liangshan Marsh in the Water Margin story, where the junior recruits had to build jetties, camps, guest quarters and assembly hall from trees they felled in the forest. The mud to make bricks, huts and stoves was in unlimited supply from the river below.

The railway was officially opened on January 1, 1924, by Sir Lawrence Nunns Guillemard, Governor of the Straits Settlements. Prior to this role, he had no previous experience representing the Queen of the British Empire. His governorship left behind many notable buildings which still stand today – the Cenotaph, the Causeway, Singapore Yacht Club, and Singapore General Hospital, to name a few. In the old days, most of the visitors to Penang Hill were Europeans and wealthy towkays. The ordinary folks were either too poor or too preoccupied with survival to holiday there. Life on the hill was slow, the funicular train operated only on the hour. The colonial mansions were a popular retreat for the European expats who frequented the lush green hill to relieve themselves from the stifling and humid conditions below. Once news came that the Japanese would arrive soon, the Europeans fled from their English-style resorts with their beautiful stonework stairs and quaint floor patterns and Italian wall tiles. The size of the mansions complemented the massive well-maintained English gardens. The romantic balconies that looked out to the calm waters of the Indian Ocean were soon to be occupied by foul-breathed and foul-mouthed Japanese officers whose every third word was ‘bakayaro’. “They farted like dogs most of the time,” Iok Hun said. During the early days of the war, the Japanese dropped bombs on Penang. The hill was not spared, a bomb from the sky destroyed the bus that ferried railway passengers to and from their bungalows. A section on the lower end of the railway was badly damaged. The Butterworth power station was also bombed, rendering the railway out of action without electricity. It was not until 1942 that it was repaired when the Japanese required a look-out post on the hill.

At first, the Japanese soldiers were rough and rude, and ignored the signs limiting the maximum number of passengers in the chocolate-brown wooden railway coach. An active member of the Air Itam Methodist Church in his younger days, Iok Hun prayed hard before risking his neck the following day by complaining to the Japanese Governor about the unruly behaviour of the soldiers. The Governor ordered a senior officer to accompany Iok Hun back to the railway station. There was no misbehaviour by the soldiers after that visit. Iok Hun was later summonsed back to the Governor’s estate but the sweat beads on his forehead and his nervous eyes were ephemeral. He thought he would lose his head from a disgruntled officer’s complaint but he only lost his way home after having got tipsy at the Governor’s dinner party at the E&O Hotel for selected staff and guests.

John Ang Iok Hun’s family

Ang-not-Wang’s dad, Ang Sim Boo, born in 1933, was the sixth child and third son of fourteen siblings. His family photo taken after the war in 1945 shows only seven kids playing at the back of their house in Air Itam which was a jungle at that time. Two siblings died during the Japanese Occupation. A Police Volunteer Reservist in the mid-1950’s, he became the station master of Penang Hill after his father, Iok Hun, retired. Sim Boo and his eleven siblings grew up at the railway quarters provided for their father. A notable flautist and a table tennis champion, he was unlike many of the young men of his generation, lucky to be given a solid education. Sim Boo served as the station master for thirty three years. The Penang Governor awarded him the Pingat Bakti Setia medal for his loyalty and dedication to his work in 1987. He spent most of his life up in the hill of Penang. Before the cocks crowed and the evanescent dew clinging to the big palm leaves still whole and clear, the wispy captivating sounds of a sweet angelic flute was often heard wafting in the cool morning air. Occasionally, the melancholy notes of a harmonica would replace the classical contemplative tunes of the flute. Sim Boo was adept at both instruments. Under a stubborn and heavy cloud of mist that wouldn’t lift, Sim Boo called out to his men, “Be careful today, visibility is poor. Don’t use the signal flags when you move the trucks. Whistle once for stop, twice for forward, and three times for reverse”. His loyal men appreciated his care and concern for their welfare and safety.

Unlike Wang Lun of Liangshan Marsh, Sim Boo was an effective leader of the railway station on the hill. His men did not revolt against him. They did not strike. No one raised their hands against him. He was highly respected by everyone around him and his reputation as a tough but fair master attracted many to want to work for him. The mendacious Wang Lun, on the other hand, showed his ‘small heart’ and his ‘two hearts’ by presenting Chao Gai with a tray of silver and gems whilst refusing to accept him and his men into the brotherhood. Wang Lun understood that it was as good as sentencing them to their deaths by the pursuing imperial soldiers who numbered in the thousands. Lin Chong whom Wang Lun had just promoted as his second-in-charge to quell the unrest within his group, displayed his disdain for his chief with a strong body language. He despised such cowardice and lack of altruism and swiftly killed the hapless leader. Upon seeing their leader motionless in a pool of his own blood, the men all knelt or genuflected and made Chao Gai the new leader of the gang.

Ang-not-Wang’s maternal great grandparents were from Lam Aun Hakka State in Guangdong Province, China. His name was Ooi Thean Kua. Her name was Khoo Bon. In Malaya, he was known as ‘lawyer buruk’, i.e. a lawyer without proper qualifications. Be that as it may, a bloke in China born in the 19th century with knowledge of the many facets of law and the legal system is to be greatly admired. “My own great grandparents could not even write their own names. They were always addressed by their status in the family hierarchy and so, their names are forever lost,” Wu Yong, a less popular hero in the Urghhling Marsh said. Peasants in that era could not be expected to be literate; they were mostly impoverished, angry or dying from starvation. There were already large-scale uprisings against the Qing government. The corrupt Manchu officials were thin in numbers and could not govern properly. Foreign invasions added to the misery of the people who were already suffering from natural disasters, civil unrest and disease. The migration to South East Asia for safety and economic reasons continued and escalated after the heavy defeat in the Second Opium War and the capitulation to the perceived weaker Japanese army eventually led to the fall of the Qing.

Ooi Phaik Gee before she grew her pigtails

Ang-not-Wang’s mother, six years her husband’s junior, was the second child and the eldest daughter. Although her name was Ooi Phaik Gee, she was better known as “samseng po” or tom-boy in her childhood haunt in Rope Walk. Her father, Ooi Hock Seng (1916-1980), operated a hardware shop called Hock Hoe Trading near Standard Chartered Bank in Beach Street. He remarried after his wife, Loh Chin Neo died in 1953. In the war, a bullet wound permanently scarred her with a bad limp and left a mark of a crescent on her left leg. The family of four was at home in 78, Kimberley Street when a shop selling house coal across the street was hit by a bomb. The front wooden casement window of their house was in flames by the time the family fled outside. Hock Seng carried their son on his back and Chin Neo carried Phaik Gee in her arms as they joined the panic and fear of the crowds surging in the street. Bang, bang! Chin Neo suddenly felt her left thigh go numb before she tripped and fell. As she sat on the road in agony, she saw her wound gushing out blood. Only then did she realise she had been hit by a stray bullet from across the coal shop. A young man who was also running from the mayhem ahead of them turned back to help her. The quick-thinking hero saw an abandoned rickshaw from the corner of his eyes, and rushed to take ownership of it. “In that moment, I would have commandeered it if I had to.” Yap Seng told Chin Neo later, laying further claims of his heroism. He carried Chin Neo into the wooden carriage and pulled it hastily to the Dato Keramat Hospital. Hock Seng and Chin Neo were forever grateful to Yap Seng. They remained friends after the war. The couple had five children.”Her subsequent two stepmothers produced nine more children for Grandpa Ooi,” Ang-not-Wang said as he related his mother’s story to me. “All of them looked up to their sister as ‘Tai Ka Jie’ and their respect for her was unquestionable even though she was only fourteen when her biological mother died. She attended Convent Dato Keramat and was already a devout Catholic in school with Theresa as her Christian name”.

Sim Boo and Phaik Gee were engaged in 1954 “after six months of going to the movies together” and they married a year later. “There’s not much to say,” Ang Sim Boo said about their romance. He couldn’t explain why a Methodist boy would attend a Catholic congregation except to say that was where he first laid his eyes on her. Phaik Gee was a dazzling beauty, with a good sense of style and fashion. Her eyes were mesmerising, and her lips full with a sexy pout. She had a healthy mop of natural curls, and a nose with a prominent bridge that was not aquiline, made cute with a slight bulbous tip. On some occasions, she wore her hair with two pigtails which made her simply adorable in an age of innocence. In some of her photos, she showed a certain coyness and charm reminiscent of a young and innocent Princess Diana. Unlike Phaik Gee who had a knack of dressing well, Ang Sim Boo’s habiliment was predictably the same every day, that of a train station master’s uniform. A practising Methodist all his life, love, faith and hope are the three strengths that remain with him and the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13). The couple celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary on 18th November 2005. They produced four children and seven grandchildren.

Ang Sim Boo and Phaik Gee with their three daughters, Jenny, Florence and Anna. Ang-not-Wang on the far left.

Ang-not-Wang, the second born, is the only son. He is very much like his father. He is well-groomed and wears a perpetual smile, possesses a strong infectious personality, an unwavering Christian faith and is well-liked as a natural leader. Both were in the transport industry; he was a bus checker at one point in his life, and his father a train checker. Both are devout Methodists, great coaches for the younger generation and preach against idle gossip. Ang-not-Wang is not one to readily accept a ‘no’ for an answer when a ‘yes’ can help someone in need. A holder of a double diploma in Bible Study, he is a qualified counsellor in child transactional behaviour. He is a SXI alumni like all the other heroes in his brotherhood. I say that because there is absolutely no doubt that he has been accepted into the Marsh brotherhood even though I have not sought any confirmation. In school, he was like Wang Lun, in white school uniform and a lousy student who was neither good academically nor a sportsman. Whilst Four Eyes (one of the Marsh heroes) caught the school principal’s praise for his swimming prowess, Ang-not-Wang’s bad class report cards attracted the principal’s cane instead. He told me he found God when he turned fourteen. I reckon maybe it is truer to say God found him and converted him from that mischievous trouble-maker that he was in Sunday schools to save the teachers from a hellish time in class. After Form 5, God gave him a taste of his own medicine by making him become a kindergarten teacher. The young man did not enjoy a career as a teacher, so he tried other professions such as a bus checker, a printing operator before finding his element as a salesman in ladies’ and menswear, later switching to biscuits and detergents. He joined Nestle in the eighties, a fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) company that many salespeople aspired to join. Nestle recognised his managerial skills and eagerness to learn and invested in him, sending him to many international seminars and training camps. He moved up the corporate ladder over the next twenty five years and finished as the Senior Manager – Commercial Excellence Manager handling strategies, processes and projects.

Today, Ang-not-Wang occupies his time by looking after the needs of his congregation and sets himself up as a role model for the youths in his community. The pandemic has raged on in Malaysia with no end in sight. Sympathetic to the plight of the local people around him, he helped form the ‘Nuri Cares and Support Group’ in his residential community called Nuri Taman, whereby he organises the distribution of food and small necessities to those out of work and cannot support themselves. Ang-not-Wang is an unsung hero and a quiet achiever. He surely belongs to the Urghhling Marsh brotherhood.

Michael Ang and wife Dorius Ding

The past holds our fond memories, the present is a gift we enjoy and there is always hope for tomorrow.

Michael Ang Lay Beng

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

The Orphan, Often The One

The next hero of The Urghhling Marsh surely has to be The Orphan. The brotherhood of schoolmates and old friends does not lack tales of heroic battles and unforgettable scars, but in his quest to find a life of comfort and meaning, The Orphan adds extra intensity, dimension and depth. He is neither fat nor thin, tall nor short; the fellow is not sallow and not swarthy, not an extrovert yet he is not an introvert either. His head is not hoary and not black. He is often the one who sits back and observes everyone at a gathering, and speaks only when spoken to. When he does, he gets their attention as what he often says is illuminating. He is remarkable and big-hearted and his humility will embarrass any egregious loudmouth and purveyor of falsehoods. For these reasons alone, I do not hesitate to include him in our marsh brotherhood.

The Orphan is unlike many of the heroes of Liangshan Marsh. Unlike Lin Chong of Shuihuzhuan fame, The Orphan is not skilled in martial arts and has no military training. He is unlike Li Kui who had the privilege of carrying his mother on his back to the summit of a mountain in Yiling, only to find her devoured by tigers as he went looking for water to quench her thirst. Li Kui, also known as the ‘Iron Ox’ is a fearsome rebel, often drunk and when drunk is often vulgar and dangerous. He is hot-tempered and his many brushes with the law and the lawless is due to his brashness and uncontrollable anger at the smallest slight at him or his friends. The Orphan, on the other hand, is a stranger to anger and violence. He is also nothing like Gao Qiu who became Marshal of the Imperial Guard through his football skills impressing Prince Duan. The Orphan did not have the free time to play football like many of us did in school. It was Gao Qiu’s vengeful intent to court-martial drill master Wang Jin who failed to congratulate him on his promotion to high office that began the story of The Water Margin. The Orphan, on the other hand, is often the one to extend an apology even when he is not at fault.

The Orphan is unlike many of the heroes of Urghhling Marsh too. Unlike Lucky Outlaw, The Orphan did not have parents at all, let alone such highly credentialed parents as Lucky Outlaw’s to coax him to do his school work or coach him to be a better person. The Orphan had none of the opportunities that some of the other heroes enjoyed – no tertiary education meant no chance to be a doctor like Lucky Outlaw. He is unlike The Mayor also. A much less mischievous type in school, The Orphan was not involved with the truant Mayor in climbing school walls behind the bicycle park, smoking or picking up Convent Light Street girls at the bus stop. He is unlike Wu Yong who claims to have amazing powers of making winners become losers simply by supporting them. Wu Yong after the euphoria from the Aussie swimmers at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, rediscovered his zest for the Games and decided to watch the other Aussie girls in action this week. The Opals, The Hockeyroos and The Matildas all lost despite being hot favourites. Disbelieving his own awesome powers, Wu Yong gave himself another chance to prove he does not possess such a gift. Last night, he watched The Stingers lose their match. “Sigh, I still have the power to jinx those I support,” Wu Yong said forlornly. Someone should suggest to him to write to the various coaches and inform them not to over-analyse their defeats – it was not their strategies they got wrong or that the players didn’t execute the plans well. It was simply the case of the unusual powers of their fan, Wu Yong, who consigned them to defeat.

Unlike the others, The Orphan is often the one who is different from the crowd, disinterested in sports and other hobbies we share. Unlike Four Eyes, he is not a strong swimmer and unlike Blue Chip, he is not into gardening. Unlike Prez, he does not enjoy drinking beer and unlike Blue Eyes, he is not into tattoos and bike-riding. He is unlike Typhoon, without an alluring sobriquet such as The Amorous One and neither is he debonair like Pierce Brosnan. Unlike The Cook, he does not cook up a storm. But, what The Orphan has is a kind and forgiving heart which makes him forget about past injustices and maltreatments that would make even the RSPCA squirm. Unlike the great author Ernest Hemingway, he is big-hearted to care for people no matter what. The Orphan is often the one to lend a helping hand to those less fortunate. “His actions speak louder than words,” Prez said of him. This week, he was seen out on the streets of Penang with fellow heroes, Prez and The Cook, handing out one hundred packages of the most sumptuous Japanese food donated by Nagomi Restaurant to the needy and desperate, many of whom are suicidal due to the constricting pressure from one of the world’s longest Covid lockdowns.The band of heroes risks personal health and safety, and hefty fines for breaking the curfew.

I can only care about people, a few at a time

Ernest Hemingway
The Orphan (left), with Prez (centre) and The Cook (right)

Be honest. Don’t be a nuisance to society

Ooi Choon Eng

Today, a medical condition deprives The Orphan from reading for pleasure. He suffered a left eye retinal detachment in December 2007, but thanks to a skilful eye specialist, he retains about 75% of his sight. He is thankful he was able to see his children grow up into successful professionals. His daughter and elder son are IT engineers, both having settled in Australia. The youngest is also an IT specialist, an applications developer in KL. All three of them did very well in school and secured international scholarships for their university courses. The Orphan and his wife are empty-nesters blessed with two gorgeous grand-children who often video-chat with them from Perth. The couple lives in their Penang home, a landed property they bought just before their third child was born. At the time, they were criticised for taking undue risks that were well beyond their means. Prior to the pandemic, The Orphan worked as a tour guide in the touristy island of Penang. In the good times, he supplemented his income as a part-time real estate agent during the property market boom. When he saw unemployed graduates join in the fray, he ‘retired’ to give them the opportunities they needed. The island has seen many hotels and many businesses shut down this year. Since there is no demand for a tour guide, he has occupied himself by helping to distribute bare necessities to struggling Malaysians in the ‘white flag campaign’. “That’s my way of not being a nuisance to society,” he said. He behaved as if he had already learned from the great statesman and scholar, Zhuge Liang of The Three Kingdoms fame who echoed Laozi’s famous words. ‘Misfortune leans on blessing and blessing is where misfortune lurks’. Both exist together and we must be alert to avoid pitfalls. If we fall into a deep hole, remind ourselves bad luck does not last forever. Get up and don’t lose hope.

Huo Si Fu Suo Yi

Hu Si Huo Suo Fu

Laozi

In 1971, The Orphan’s carers, a kindly old couple who had looked after him for almost two years, moved to KL to be with their adult children after they had all received job postings to the big city. They referred him to The Salvation Army (TSA) Boys Home (SABH) at 15 Hilir Sungei Pinang, but he was rejected due to his age – the thirteen-year-old was considered too old to be admitted. After endless persuasions by TSA, the old couple agreed to pay the minimum maintenance fee before the young teenager was finally admitted into the home. In his new secondary school at SXI, he was placed into the Industrial Arts class (Form One to Three) and Social Science (Form Four and Five). In school, he received stares and whispered remarks of ‘a naughty boy from an institution’ from students and teachers. TSA was not able to pay the $7.50 school fee and their appeals for exemption were ignored by the school office. As a non-fee paying student, The Orphan was not allowed into class to attend the first few morning lessons.The desperate boy would attempt to sneak into a class when there was a change in the teacher. Sometimes, he was hauled out by an unkind teacher, at huge distress and embarrassment to the boy. Recess time was similar to primary school days; he would be seen at the tap near the compound drinking to fill up his tummy as he eyed the other kids queueing at the outside gate to buy their snacks and toys. He was finally given exemption from paying the school fee after the school director came to know of his situation in Form Three. Having missed so many lessons, he was amazed to pass the Lower Certificate of Examination that year. If he had failed, he would have had to leave the SABH. Although life in the SABH was not a bed of roses, there was still a bed there for him to sleep at night. He knew enough of the hopelessness of being a homeless in the street. As in any institution for people who were forgotten or abandoned, discipline was strict in a daily regimented routine for the inmates. He declined to describe the Dickensian conditions of the home, except to say that the seniors would bully the juniors, especially the ‘newbies’, to take on more duties but less food. Saying grace was a prerequisite before a meal could be consumed. After grace, The Orphan would often find half of the rations on his plate ‘missing’. His tummy was forever growling amidst the gurgling water inside.

Donations to TSA declined in the mid to late 70’s. The orphans had to grow tapioca on an empty plot of land belonging to the JKR (Department of Roads) to supplement their food supply. They were expected to scavenge for cockles and shell meats on the Sungei Pinang mudflats near the home. They reared poultry but such feathered delicacies were luxurious items beyond their reach even though they looked after them daily. The chooks were products to be sold in the market to pay for more urgent needs for SABH. Upon ‘graduating’ to Form Four and Form Five, The Orphan had to work after school hours to help pay for the maintenance fees to TSA. There was never enough time and energy to think about school work. After-school activities and sports were never in his schedule. Still, he managed to attain a GCE certificate after Form Five but that meant he had to be discharged from TSA at seventeen years of age. From then on, he was on his own. “Where did you go?” I asked. The Orphan pursed his lips before saying he found ‘a place to sleep’, without elaborating further. “I scavenged for items to sell to the recyclers,” he said. He later toiled away in a shipyard in Singapore before making his way back to Penang after finding an apprenticeship at a components factory in Bayan Lepas. To meet the weekly rent payments, he survived on one meal a day with lots of water to fill his stomach. The Orphan was often the one to skip lunch whilst his colleagues tucked into their meals under the shady trees.

Being immune to unkind treatments, bleak surroundings and harsh realities, my focus was simply to see another new day

Ooi Choon Eng

From early childhood, he is immune to unkind treatments, bleak surroundings and harsh realities. Built into his inner being is the focus to “see another new day”. Once he left the orphanage, he realised he had to leave behind past traumas and psychological scars. It would have been impossible for him to face the challenges ahead had he carried with him that baggage. In 1978, a kind superintendent of TSA employed The Orphan to work in the orphanage. He was elated to be given the ‘hands on’ job as a social worker with no prior training. In many ways, he was the perfect choice for the role, having seen society’s harsh treatment of destitute and hardcore battlers – victims often through no fault of their own. He met his future wife at TSA – she was a volunteer at the various church activities and community work; their affinity and love for each other told them their marriage was clearly arranged in heaven. They led a nomadic life for the next five years, moving from place to place when cheaper lodgings were available. With their combined incomes, they managed to save enough deposit to buy a two-bedroom flat after a few more years. Finally, The Orphan at age 29, had a place he could call his own. On the first night in his flat, he hid inside the toilet and cried his heart out. “Why in the toilet, bro?” I asked him. He said he did not want his wife to witness his sobbing. It was the last time he let out all the raw emotions of misery, grief, loss, insecurity, loneliness, anguish and abuse collected since his early childhood.

The Orphan remembers his father was a Hokkien, named Ooi Cheng Yong aka Police Detective Sergeant 642. “When I was two or three, my father abandoned us,” The Orphan started his story. “Why did he?” I prodded. “Someone told me he had to, due to safety concerns for my mother and me,” The Orphan said. His earliest memory was seeing himself bawl his eyes out as he was being handed to a scarily old Malay woman in Tanjung Bungah, and a scene of him stark naked, running away from some village bullies and then bathing by a roadside water pump. Another ingrained memory was of him being sent to a distant relation somewhere on the mainland. A sawmill reminds him of the place. Standing by the roadside, he would sob loudly and scream for his mother to take him home. He longed for her, but she did not reappear for many months. Due to the little lad’s constant howling or perhaps due to his mum’s outstanding arrears, the relative packed up the boy’s belongings in a plastic bag and shooed both mother and son away when the mother finally came to visit. “Mum was always in arrears with the babysitters’ fees and so we were like nomads, being forced to move from place to place,” The Orphan said without a hint of self-pity. His illiterate mother struggled to find odd jobs and found it even harder to keep them. She rarely visited him to avoid the babysitters’ demands for payment. He never saw his father again – it was rumoured that he was gunned down by a communist sympathiser for being a fierce law enforcer.

“I will assume mum enrolled me at the Saint Xavier’s Branch School in Pulau Tikus,” The Orphan said he has no memory of how he got there. I suspect he wiped out major segments of his memory bank. School life for The Orphan was a nightmare with painful memories. “I was frightened of school, my results were always poor.” The Orphan was often the one to beg for help from a classmate to copy homework answers. After the 1969 race riots, he missed one whole year of schooling. Yet, it was special for him as it was the last time he lived with his mother; both were holed up somewhere in Love Lane throughout the dark period of Malaysian history.

A vivid memory during primary school days was the vicious treatment he received from the class teacher. It did not matter to the teacher that the innocent child was late for class because of the trishaw man. The many canings the poor lad received did not make the trishaw man arrive any earlier. The child, traumatised by such unfair and unreasonable behaviour of unsympathetic adult teachers, became more timid and insecure. On another occasion, he was made to stand in front of the class with outstretched hands lifting his heavy school bag for a prolonged spell. The teacher then poured cold water into his shirt uniform. The loud guffaws from some supercilious classmates were hurtful to him. Walking home in a soaking wet shirt made him a laughing stock. Recess time was awkward for The Orphan who had to put up with the loud sniggers and cruel taunts from bigger kids whilst envying from a distant the students with their delicious food and lollies. The Orphan would simply gravitate to the solace of the tap as he filled up his stomach with water.

Standard Six was another painful year for The Orphan. He was turned into a child labourer to catch up arrears. Every day immediately after school, he languished in silence and obscurity till late into the night with house chores and menial work that were more suited to adults. He ran away a couple of times after copping severe beatings for slow or unsatisfactory work. His mother had not showed her face for over a year by then. The Orphan did not hold any grudges against her, fully understanding her predicament in her own inability to even care for her own needs. The twelve-year-old already had the wisdom to forgive and not harbour toxic emotions. He is often the one to simply accept whatever life dishes out, without complaint and without fuss. “Do our best with what we got,” he said. ‘Focus on seeing another day’. “For me, that’s the best quote I got from The Orphan,” Wu Yong said. “It has been too long since the last time I woke up to appreciate the numinous beauty of an early dawn”. There is a sense of spiritual quality or maybe even a presence of a divinity in seeing the birth of a new day. Witnessing the awe of sunrise gives us hope and rekindles the primal instinct of self-preservation in this age of shallow distractions.

The wise man attends to reality

The fool scrambles after empty glory

Sima Yi, military strategist to Cao Pi in the Three Kingdoms

The Very Best of Lak

The one hundred and eight outlaws in The Water Margin are a disparate group from every level of society, ranging from the downright trodden, poor peasants, innkeepers, and fishermen to highly ranked military officers and influential officials of the court. The brotherhood of school friends and people close to me are no different. We come from hugely diverse backgrounds, yet we are able to intermingle and bond as a close unit despite our many different views regarding politics, religion and any matter under the sun. The one thread that keeps us together, I think, is our common decency and high regard for virtue and kindness. Some of us are like spring water, others are like the harshest desert, yet together, we become an oasis. The outlaws of the Liangshan Marsh are no different – virtuous and benevolent yet rebellious against the State, robbing from the rich and the corrupt and redistributing to the needy or unfairly treated. Their belief was that they would be shielded from punishment by the government since their actions were always out of loyalty to the Song emperor.

The next hero I salute will be enthusiastically welcomed to the Urghhling Marsh. I am quite certain. He is highly deserving and I hope the next two thousand words will prove it. His parents arrived in Malaya from Canton, China as a young couple. They were from quite well-to-do families. But during the communist era in China, most of their properties and assets were seized and redistributed to the people, so there was no inheritance to pass on to their descendants. The hero’s name is Lak, pronounced as luck, but despite such an auspicious name, luck did not visit him during his childhood.


When Lak was three years-old, his father was killed in an accident due to a faulty car door that would not shut properly. He was thrown out of the taxi he was in when the speeding driver veered off-course round a bend on a coastal road in the island of Penang. There were no seat belts to buckle up in those days. He was in his forties when he left his seven children fatherless. Lak was the youngest of five boys and two girls. The three oldest kids, although still very young, had to stop schooling. A casual observer would have wrongly deduced that their mother remarried many times. They had different surnames. Amongst them, there was a Chee, Choo, Chu, and a rather unique Chhoo. Very few today would understand that babies’ names were often mis-spelt at the registrar in mid-20th century Malaya. Their mother could only speak her own Teochew dialect and was likely not even aware her children’s surnames were different, such unimportance was given to their anglicised names. Although she was not quite forty, she managed to keep the whole family together, “through thick and thin,” Lak emphasised. “To her, nothing was impossible,” he added. “You just have to put in the effort, and everything can be solved,” she often repeated to her kids. Despite the sudden loss of her husband and her limited resources, she continued to send gifts and money back to China for her folks there. Her parents were not informed of her husband’s passing – she did not want them to worry in vain. She worked long days and nights until her body felt like a dead branch on a tree, ready to fall to the ground. She wasn’t just independent, she had many dependants and friends to support. “She still helped others when she should be the one to receive help?” I asked. Lak remembers a villager from Nibong Tebal who frequently travelled to the island to sell medicated oil. A friend of Lak’s mother, she would ‘camp’ at their house for weeks each time. In return, she would give her generous host some of her unsold stock. “Mom believed that we should help if it is within our ability,” Lak said.

Work hard and make an honest living. Do not steal or harm others in your pursuit of wealth.

Mdm Low Hooi Kean


They learned to make do with what they had. A single kembong fish would be a main dish and had to be equally shared over a meal. On the odd occasion, they would treat themselves to a bowl of Assam Laksa. They would consume the noodles and keep the soup for later. They would add plain Hup Hoe marie pia (biscuits sold loose from big rusty-looking tins) to the leftover soup and enjoy it as a second meal. They were too busy with life’s constant challenges; their focus was to subsist and persist – no one had time to self-pity and no one had time for those who were inclined to self-pity. Being the youngest in the family had its advantages. Lak was very fortunate as all his siblings had started working by the time he was enrolled in Primary School. As a pre-school kid, he did not feel he was deprived or underprivileged. In his neighbourhood, everyone was just the same as everyone else; they were all as poor as one another. The kids along that stretch in Weld Quay enjoyed the same seasonal activities, marbles, spinning tops, kite-flying, or fishing in the drain. But, once he attended school, he knew the other boys were different. Unlike a private college where all the students are from above average income families or rich, our school was a mixing pot without any exclusions. Lak discovered he belonged to the poor category, insignificant like a blade of grass in a football field. In class, he was given a card which entitled him to a daily slice of bread with a tiny dollop of jam on top and a glass of icy syrup water. Realising that very few kids were handed that card made Lak sad. As the years went by in school, he dreaded donation days for the Sisters of the Poor, and Teachers’ Day when other kids brought nice gifts for their teachers. “Except me,” he said. After the school holidays, everyone had stories to tell about what they did during the holidays. “Except me,” he said. During recess or before school assembly, there would be a long serried rank of eager beavers in white school uniform queuing up at the Indian hawker’s cart parked outside the school gate to buy lollies, plastic toys and other knick-knacks, “except me,” Lak said. “Did you grow up with an inferior complex?” I asked. “Maybe a little. But we had our pride and self-respect; we weren’t allowed to walk like losers,” Lak confided.

Lak’s mother

From the age of six, Lak followed his mother and a sister to work in a factory that repackaged junk food into small packets. Lak worked the morning shifts before attending school classes in the afternoon. He continued with this rigorous routine right through Primary School. The factory imported items such as sweet cured preserved plums and preserved olives in bulk from China and Thailand. They were paid on a piecemeal basis. The family worked as a team, and on a good day, they could earn about three dollars. After awhile, Lak’s mother showed her entrepreneurial mettle. Every two or so years, she made a trip to Canton couriering goods for people who wanted to send items to their families back ‘home’. With the fees she earned, she would purchase items that she knew would sell in China. Bicycles and sewing machines were among items that were in high demand. She was also a pioneer in the banking business, collecting monies from her clients before remitting them in person to their families in Canton for a fee. Success from these early ventures was replicated in Thailand every few months. It would not be an exaggeration to say she pioneered the import/export business between Thailand and Malaya. She brought from Penang what the Thais wanted and imported pots and pans, etc from Thailand. She did all that without any formal education and without any language and literacy skills. 

We will struggle but not bow down in defeat

Mdm Low Hooi Kean


In Form One when it was compulsory to join a uniform unit, the choice was simple for Lak. “Join the army cadet corp. No need to purchase uniform!” Lak chuckled. Life slowly improved. The family bought a black and white TV in the early seventies. Lak missed all the TV shows in the 1960’s as his mother forbade her children to watch from outside their neighbours’ front windows. “Toys? Comic books? Unheard of,” he said. The siblings shared a lantern for the moon cake festival. It was the one and only lantern throughout the many festivals they enjoyed as kids. The lantern was only used for a couple of nights before being neatly packed away for the following year.

Sometimes we are right, but don’t ever be dead right

Chhoo Lak Thiang

Early in his career, Lak learned that it is not always important that we are seen to be right. “Why not?!” asked Wu Yong, another outlaw in the Urghhlings Marsh, who believes we are wrong not to correct our wrongs. Lak then proceeded to ask Wu Yong a question that was only met with silence. “If you are driving on the right side of the road and a truck is roaring towards you on the wrong side of the road, is it important that you are right?” asked Lak.

My cost is one month of my life. My reward is the value my boss sees in me

Chhoo Lak Thiang

After obtaining Grade 4 results in the Form Five exams, the MCE, Lak decided to enrol in City & Guilds Electrical Courses. He discovered he was colour vision deficient, and quickly changed to a book-keeping course instead. “Working life wasn’t easy when all you had was just a GCE O level,” Lak said. “What’s the GCE?” Wu Yong asked. “You didn’t sit for Upper Form Five,” The Cook, another outlaw of the brotherhood replied. But Lak soon realised he excelled in accounting and was recruited by a licensed finance company as an Internal Audit clerk in 1977 earning a measly RM150 a month. In his wisdom, Lak saw it as an opportunity and a stepping stone. Without the paper qualifications, Lak knew that he had to prove his worth through his performance. He welcomed responsibilities above and beyond his position as a challenge to show he was ready for bigger and better things.”This was the most valuable lesson I learned from my mom,” he said. In 1991, due to the government’s policy on Bumiputra quotas, he was bypassed from a promised junior manager’s post. Fortunately, his boss recognised the injustice and rewarded him with the promised monetary promotion but without the position. Through the years, Lak gained his vast experience from working in various departments and subsequently he was elevated to head of a department. Eventually, he was promoted to the position of Branch Manager. I feel elated for Lak as I write this, even though this success happened decades ago. His achievement was not just a monthly fat pay cheque and a nice-sounding job title. It represents much much more. An accomplishment against huge odds. It brings relief and joy. A lightness of being, after a lifetime of struggle. Peace of mind. Certainty. Satisfaction. Opportunities. Dignity. Gratefulness. Success prompts us to be grateful, to appreciate what we have achieved and who we have around us – our loved ones who have supported us when we are at our lowest and encouraged us to carry on.

Lak met the love of his life in that branch; their romance soon turned into a wedding, but because the attendees were mostly bosses and colleagues, “it felt like a company annual dinner,” Lak joked. A fond memory Lak has was that after their nasi lemak breakfast, the groomsmen got ready to accompany the groom to fetch the bride from Malacca to KL, but none of them knew how to drive a Mercedes which Lak had managed to borrow from a colleague. The groom had to drive the beautifully decorated wedding car himself.

Through various mergers, Lak ended working in a bank. There by chance, he discovered Fraud Investigations and applied to be transferred there. Lak’s career found its second wind, as he found fraud investigations stimulating and challenging. There was a high-profile case of a highly respected Navy Admiral with some political muscle, an existing borrower with no known risks who applied for a bigger loan. Lak blacklisted him for attempted fraud despite a strong appeal from department heads and accusations by other bank managers of not knowing his job. In another case, a loan had been approved and was just pending disbursement. Fraudulent documents were detected and reported to the CEO who directed Lak to make his decision. Lak revoked the loan and directed the conveyance lawyer to recover all costs from the applicant. Such a bold step was unheard of in those days. The applicant attempted to litigate but his case fizzled out, proving Lak was correct to make that call. His judgement, integrity and tenacity was never again questioned by his peers. Equally, he trusted his staff, as if he had learned the wisdom from Liu Bei of The Three Kingdoms fame.

An astute lord does not employ those whom he suspects, nor suspects those he employs

Liu Bei, Prince of Shu

Lak, in recent years, has attracted my attention with his pearls of wisdom. It would not surprise me at all if he had gained his wisdom from the three blood brothers who made their oath in the peach garden to live and die together in The Three Kingdoms. Lak would know to seize his opportunities as they arise unlike Liu Bei who on numerous occasions missed to take control of new territories due to his pretences to uphold propriety and virtue. From Guan Yu, Lak would remind himself not to allow arrogance and over-confidence to lull him into complacency – as this was how Guan Yu lost Jingzhou, a fort vital for the Shu Kingdom’s grip on the Riverlands and central plains. From the third brother Zhang Fei, Lak would remember not to be hot-tempered and abuse his people as that was how two aggrieved generals decapitated Zhang Fei as he slept.

I have no hesitation to add Lak to the Urghhlings Brotherhood alongside Blue Eyes, Wu Yong The Cur, Four Eyes, The Cook, Lord Guan, Typhoon, Blue-Chip, Prez, The Mayor and Lucky Outlaw.