A Boon For Typhoon

Whilst reading The Water Margin, a dilemma developed in my mind about the loyal and noble heroes in the epic tale. On the one hand, we cannot deny that they held honour, virtue, loyalty and trust to the highest degree yet the judicious killings of anyone who crossed them were unpalatable for me, especially the wanton massacres of maids and servants to rid their murderous acts of witnesses. Their vicious and ruthless treatment of those they found contemptible was for me as repulsive. “Leave hair not leave heads” 留 发 不 留 头 often their modus operandi. We can easily overlook the rebels’ excessive drinking but the cannibalism of victims was too often portrayed as a normal practice. Yet, there was also the idea of the virtue of Zhixing which was often repeated in the stories, the Confucian virtues of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and trustworthiness. Similarly, when I was a kid, Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest appealed to my moral instincts in clear black and white terms. Their good over evil, helping the poor and down-trodden by robbing the rich and unjust was simple but effective story-telling that left me starry-eyed about the value of heroic virtues, outlaws they might had been. The one hundred and eight heroes in Liangshan Marsh showed a high standard of sincerity, respect, filial piety and loyalty – all virtuous qualities. These noble qualities and perhaps the style of writing that lent acceptance of these men as heroes made it less disturbing for me even though the outlaws were at times frighteningly violent. It was the noble hero, Chai Jin (or Nobleman Chai), also known as ‘Little Whirlwind’ who most impressed me with these virtues. Without Chai Jin, there would be no great stories about Lin Chong, Wu Song and Song Jiang, who all sought refuge in his residence from corrupt officials. Chai Jin’s generosity and virtuous qualities remind me of a childhood friend since schooldays. Instead of Little Whirlwind, I shall call him Typhoon.

Another incredible man of virtue was Liu Bei of Three Kingdoms fame. His legitimacy to the title of Son of Heaven was the most certain, his righteousness and his lineage was unquestionably that of Emperor Xian’s, the last emperor of the Han Dynasty. Also known as Liu Xuande, his compassion and honour for his people made him the most virtuous of the three kings who vied for succession to the Han throne. He was often seen weeping after hearing some bad news. Despite the counsel from his magnificent adviser, Zhuge Liang, the virtuous Liu Xuande was often conflicted between the obligations of his patriarchal (imperial) ambition and the loyalty and honour to his fraternal brothers which Zhuge Liang viewed no more than as a military pact. Liu Xuande’s eventual demise from a defeat at the battle of Xiaoting was avoidable, had he not sought to avenge the deaths of his blood brothers. Despite Zhuge Liang’s countenances, Liu Xuande ranked honour among equals higher than loyalty to authority. Liu Xuande, king of Shu-Han, also motivated me to write about Typhoon.

Typhoon was born and brought up in an idyllic fishing village at the northwest tip of Penang Island. Telok Bahang was predominantly a coastal bay enclave and flourished as the second largest fishing base for trawler boats and inshore fishermen. Away from the shoreline, agricultural farms and plantations dotted the landscape. He was the seventh child in a family of eight children of which three were daughters. Had he been a girl, he would have been given away. “Not sold?” I raised the question in my mind. “No, girls were ‘worthless’ then,” was my conclusion. Typhoon’s Papa was a hard-working rubber tapper in maternal father’s 30-acre estate. For extra income, he did odd jobs like gardening at neighbouring farms and sorting fish on the fishing boat jetties. His impoverished childhood meant his physical attributes were under-developed. Mama helped wherever possible; her children already more than a handful. Income was meagre and putting food on the table was tough. On May 13 1969, the country exploded with racial riots after the politicians played the race card to divide the people. But in their village, there was no racial tension. Malay families lived as squatters in maternal grandfather’s estate. Mama and her Malay soul sister, Mak Nan continued as if the world had not changed. A few months later, after an agonising three years of debilitating decline in health, Papa succumbed to cancer. Typhoon was a wee lad of eleven years of age, but even he knew the tough times were about to get tougher. Village life offered a little respite from the financial upheaval and vast emptiness for a quiet and shy boy without a father. The beaches were his popular stopover – walks on the sand, collecting seashells, digging for clams, netting shrimps, catching sea worms, and watching the sun disappear behind the hills over Muka Head were all cherished memories. By the plantation, the siblings bathed on the river, did the laundry, fished for catfish and fetched water for the vegetable plots.

Telok Bahang in the 70s.

Papa was a native of China who hailed from the Province of Guangdong. He was of the cantonese speaking Pan 潘 clan. Like many other provincial folks of his time, he journeyed to Malaya to seek a better life. Mama was a Loo 呂, her father was from Guangdong too. Papa arrived in Penang with a brother and a nephew, each with a small rattan basket of belongings. Unlike other arrivals who stayed in the town in search of prospects, they took a bus and headed for the furthest part of the island. Noticed in a coffee shop at the fishing village where they arrived, all three men were offered work and free accommodation by a local landowner who would become Papa’s father-in-law. Typhoon’s parents married in Telok Bahang when Mama was only 15. Papa’s actual age was unknown, “My guess is as good as anybody’s,” he said to Mama.

Old photos of Papa were destroyed by termites.

None of Typhoon’s siblings progressed beyond secondary school. The girls were the first to dropout. Education wasn’t important anymore once Papa died. Mama needed their help in managing the household. The elder boys got to complete senior school after which they had to find work to supplement the family’s income. Mama’s income from tapping rubber was never enough. Growing up in the rural countryside had its downsides. For one, it narrowed Typhoon’s perspective of life. There was little development and few opportunities around, nothing much beyond the green landscape of the kampong. It was foreign to harbour any ambition. Typhoon was the only one in his family to acquire a tertiary qualification but it wasn’t immediately after secondary school. There was a short stint selling batik and a shorter one manning a book store. He was lucky to gain a diploma under the sponsorship of the local authority he was working for and completed a degree course in Health Sciences years later through distance learning. He learned the lessons of resilience and self-reliance during those long years. “If you could turn back time, would you wish you were born in more vibrant and ambition-driven surroundings?” I asked. Without any hesitation, he gave me a resounding “No!” “Growing up in a village was blissful and unforgettable.” “Once a kampong boy, always a kampong boy,” he said.

The village boy together with three siblings rented a room on the upper floor of a communal home of ahmas or majie (妈姐), a sisterhood of retired maid-servants. The house at 83 Muntri Street was conveniently located right opposite our school’s side gate. “It was not home to me; there I was plagued with anxiety until the weekends when I would rush back to my village and feel instantly rejuvenated,” he confided. I was surprised to learn of his anxiety and home-sickness, both good enough reasons to consign a sufferer to mediocrity. Yet, Typhoon was one of the smartest in school. During our time in school, the system had no qualms about grading and ranking us. Sometimes, the teachers even caned us or twisted our nipples. The system of reward and punishment was practised by all; I was more aware of the punishment side – detention for any minor offence, a swift lash of a bamboo cane was the standard price should one’s hair touched the collar. We knew exactly where we sat in the hierarchy of intelligence. Typhoon resided in ‘A’ class throughout lower secondary school. In High School, he belonged to the elite ‘Science 1’ group. Typhoon was more versed in the rewards side of the system. He was highly respected both by peers and teachers, and enjoyed real status; he was rewarded with enviable positions such as the Secretary of the Board Of Librarians, the Vice-chairman of the Chess Club and  the Vice-chairman of Buddhist Students Society.

His sobriquet was The Amorous One, the villagers called him “Goh Paik Si.” He reckoned it was on account of his bike’s rego number 584, the number to the locals meant Chu Pak Kwai, the Amorous Pig. He sounded surprise when I told him it was more likely due to his irresistible good looks and his attractive kind-heartedness made him the village Romeo. Whilst thinking about stunning good looks and amazing attractiveness, I must mention Diaochan’s incredible feat in the Three Kingdoms where she used her beauty and charm to bring down the treasonous warlord Dong Zhuo and his foster son, commander Lü Bu, two warriors whom all the rebel leaders failed to defeat. That Diaochan could bring about the demise of powerful men without a dagger or sword spoke volumes to me. Equally, Typhoon has that same ingenuity and confidence to succeed where most others fail.

Diaochan sets her trap

We can’t stop the wheel of life from turning. But there’s a pause button we can use to reflect and review.

Phoon Choon Chee

It is mighty difficult to find another person as resolutely honest and noble as Typhoon. I had not seen him for over forty years prior to our last meeting at a school reunion two years ago. He had lost his chubbiness and soft pink lips. His once-sparkling innocent eyes looked tired but wiser and offered a window into his soul. Therein I sensed unselfish love, purity and moral quality. His steady and usual sangfroid nature is still very much appreciated by his friends; we know to count on him to break any awkward impasse by posting a funny photo to calm the group during frequent furious exchanges amongst some of us. The well-combed shiny black hair has been replaced by short swept-back silver-grey locks that closely resemble those of Pierce Brosnan’s. In fact, his whole demeanour, the wide smiles, the deep wrinkles on his forehead all reminded me of the actor. Quite charming, well-mannered, sophisticated, stylish and suave. Debonair, in one word. But, the essence of the man is course, his virtue and general moral goodness. There is no doubt in my mind Typhoon is a worthy man to join Blue Eyes, Wu Yong, Four Eyes, The Cook and Lord Guan in their brotherhood.

A boon for Typhoon meeting Junie, a true love story

Lord Guan, Go On

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

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

Red Sprite, lightning above turbulent thunderstorm clouds

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

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

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

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

Lord Guan finds durians irresistible!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fallen suffers a life which is worse than death.

Beh Chooi Guan

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

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