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.