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 may have be. 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.
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.
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.
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.