For relevance, I shall write about Blue Eyes. As our hair become grey and sparse, and our backs can no longer be held upright and straight, my many childhood friends increasingly remind one another we are being treated with irreverence more and more as we become irrelevant in our own space. “Don’t work so hard – we will end up bitter and forgotten anyway.” “We are old, there’s no need to teach anyone anything, even if you are sure you are right.” said another. “Don’t try and protect your loved ones from any misfortune in this world. You can’t. Just love them.” “Forget about hair-care treatments and anti-ageing creams, they are useless.” said one who is balding and wrinkled. Blue Eyes has been the only one to teach me how to remain relevant, but only to myself, as we accelerate to the final phases of life – the planned obsolescence of our own self which we call retirement and the inevitable ending that no longer scares me.
My eyes were glued to Blue Eyes when I first spotted him in Primary School. The mixed-bloods usually have stunning looks and Blue Eyes only reinforced that idea in my head, despite his denials that he’s Eurasian. Tall and swarthy are traits that beautiful or handsome people possess. Although he was just average in height and fair-skinned, that lovely boy still caught my attention. It wasn’t anything sexual of course, since we were only about seven years old. One could say a baboon or silverback can also be the star attraction in a zoo. Being attractive isn’t just about looking handsome; it’s also about charisma and having a special presence. There is an old saying that being tall does not mean you can see tomorrow. Yet, I suspect Blue Eyes saw what his future would be and planned to live it that way from very early on. His pinkish white skin was well complemented by the shiny mop of bouncy and soft curls. I was disappointed for him on days when he came to class well-groomed with Brylcreem. I am sure he loved his soft curls as much as I did. Faint freckles and a cherubic button nose vied for cuteness against a pair of deep dimples whenever he smiled. What attracted me of course, were his doll-like flirty eyes. They were decorated with the most luscious curly eyelashes that Shirley Temple would have been proud of. For some strange reason, his eyes appeared blue to me. His moniker has stuck with me ever since.
Blue Eyes has a tendency to misspell the four-letter-word that means fornicate. “Pharque,” “Pharquer,” “Pharqueing,” amongst a plethora of variations on the theme. This is mystifying especially in this day and age when the norm is to go for abbreviations and band-aid fixes. Why lengthen a four-letter-word? We were often in the same class at school, although I was too shy to mix with him on account of his superior background – being Eurasian, I mistakenly believed. In early post-Colonial days, the ‘Ang-moh’ (red-haired) still held sway over the plebs. One day in 1971, he simply vanished. That was the day after we stood side by side shooting a jet of pee into the urinal to see who lasted longer. He didn’t show up in school and after a week had passed, no one I asked knew why. In those days, students didn’t say goodbye when we left school. No hugs, no announcements, no handshakes, no goodbyes.That was the last time I saw Blue Eyes.
It would be 48 years later before we met again, in a WhatsApp chat group for our year’s alumni. “Blue Eyes!” I called out to him enthusiastically, possibly as excited as the Eureka moment was for Archimedes. But of course, no one knew who Blue Eyes was, least of all Blue Eyes himself. “None of us had blue eyes,” they chortled in harmony but I was adamant they did not look carefully. I had learned about the Third Eye from the fake Lobsang Rampa just before Blue Eyes vanished from school. It told me he was a free spirit, carefree and with boundless energy and absolute freedom. He did four years aircraft engineering in the Singapore Airforce. Maybe it was the Skyhawks he serviced that gave him his wings to quit the mundane routine of a “grease monkey tinkering with turbine blades” as he put it. He paid a hefty price to break the 12-year bond with the Air Force, so he could get as far away as possible from everyone and everything.
I was reading the book Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance a few weeks ago. It conjured up the image of Blue Eyes and his Mrs travelling the vast outback of Canada from the Prairies of Alberta in the Northern Rockies southwards to Montana, being wowed by the vastness of the plains and the rolling hills. He on his Suzuki Hayabusa, for decades the fastest production motorcycle on the road, and she on her BMW 650. She understood that riding two up was not as fun as riding solo. So, she decided on riding lessons and hopping on her own ride. That was when the philosophical questions came up in my mind about the life choices they made. At an early age, they chose to be childless rather than bring up another human being to contribute to the damage to Earth with consumables and what-not. Maybe he also meant that at the time they could ill-afford to feed another mouth, after paying off the bond indenture to the Singapore government. Robert Persig in Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance sought to explain the metaphysical concept of Quality whilst criss-crossing the back roads of country America heading northwest from Minneapolis to the Dakotas with his son on their motorcycle. Persig’s alter ego Phaedrus, a brilliant and tenacious scholar of Philosophy, as the story unfolded, illuminated the difference between rhetoric (the art of persuasion) and dialectic (logic) and his ultimate conclusion that we ought to care about quality. Phaedrus was another reason why the story, for me, connected to Blue Eyes and his childhood obsession with Morbius, an antihero, a living vampire in the Marvel world. Tattoos on his body are positioned in order of his favourites, Morbius, Namor and Dr. Strange. “Why Morbius? I asked. “Oh, that’s an easy one. I love his beautiful ugly mug, and he tries to kill the baddies for food….” Ah, kill the Urghhlings. I can relate to that.
I finally found out why Blue Eyes looked so sweet and adorable in school. He is more mixed-blood than a biracial! His mum, a half-Japanese, half-Peranakan was rather free spirited also. His dad, a streetwise Peranakan, “altered course” after surviving the Japanese firing squad during their reign of terror in Penang. They split up when Blue Eyes was nine, consigning him to a young life growing up without “family-ness”. When the angst and arguments simmered, he was allowed to visit his mum who had moved to Singapore. He loved the old Penang Airport, still holding fond memories of his jaunts to Singapore to visit his mum during school holidays. At an age when I was still playing marbles and flying kites, Blue Eyes was already eyeing “the gorgeous ground hostesses in their figure-hugging outfits with firm butts and curves and the smoothest hands….” He apologised for digressing. What truly caught his eyes were all the beautiful tall posters of holiday destinations, such as those of the Eiffel Tower, London’s Tower Bridge, Taj Mahal, and of beautiful women in conical straw hats and long dresses posing in lush-green Vietnamese paddy fields. He wanted to see all those places, like right then and there! Years later, his Mrs was also another influencer in his life who encouraged him to soar like an eagle and free his spirit. She too desired to see the world, be it organised or off the seat-of-the-pants, spartan or otherwise, aimlessly without a destination or with a luxury cruise. She loved it and lived it as much as he did.
His aircraft engineering credentials could not get him a job when they arrived in Vancouver on tourist visas. The sum of money they had left from selling their car was fast running out. He thanked his good friend, an ex-Airforce buddy for putting up with them for the two months, and headed as far east as they could with the pittance they had left. When they got to Edmonton, they decided it was serene and far enough to be their new home. A short stint as a pizza delivery guy was followed by two years as a cook for a pool hall. Every day, he did the lunch shift from 11-3pm, and after a short break in the arvo for “errands and shit”, he would get back to the joint for the 7pm-2am shift. That lasted two years before his manager, “a good bloke,” got arrested for drugs. “The pharquer,” he said after a long contemplative pause. There is an ancient Chinese saying: “Don’t pull the tiger’s whiskers,” but Blue Eyes wasn’t aware of it then. The next manager wasn’t so kind and didn’t appreciate his easy-going style, so Blue Eyes ripped off his apron and left. His timing was perfect. His HDB flat in Singapore had finally sold leaving them with some chump change (North American slang for loose change). The clear option for them to stay on permanently in Canada was to start a small business and hire some locals. His mother-in-law stepped in with a loan and with his chump change, it was enough for him to become a bona fide owner of a video rental store. Those VHS days were big money churners but there is an old saying that “money does not grow on trees”. He worked 12-15 hour days, 7 days a week for about 6 years. His bank manager saw fit to offer them generous loans so they could buy themselves a new house, a couple of rental properties near the university and two other video rental outlets in outer suburbs. They also opened a printing store called Campus Copy next to the university to cater to the students’ stationery and printing needs. It felt like they were printing money during those good times.
Alas, I must also share another old Chinese saying: fu wu chong zhi, huo bu dan xing “Blessings come along alone; troubles often come together.” Their video rental business got hit by disruption innovations in the late 1990’s, the DVD and a few years later, online streaming. Did any of us expect a thin round disc could destroy a major global industry? His stores were finally brought to their knees in 2008 when the Global Financial Crisis hit. Blue Eyes and his Mrs got out their motorcycles and wiped off the thick layer of dust that had caked onto the leather seats. He meticulously serviced those beasts of the road before bringing them to life again. Now, I could take the time to describe how he carefully serviced every moving part of his motorcycles and how he replaced the engine oil with the best quality golden colour oil, or describe the amazing sceneries of the Canadian outback or fill you with details about the bone-shattering cold that comes with a white winter or how silence enfolded them once the stars studded the black sky above the plains, but I am not writing a novel. So, I will skip the thrill of a rare sighting of bald-headed eagles in the Yukon or the suspected sighting of the Eastern Elk – extant or extinct, out Woop Woop somewhere, or the bodacious ride even when the wind sock warned them of 180kph headwinds that would knock their boots off. Indeed, the couple were both airborne, blown off the road by a vicious tempest and landed on the other side of the road where an oncoming 4WD narrowly missed making meat patties out of them. After many days of riding somewhat aimlessly without a schedule, they felt released from life’s unyielding treadmill. Blue Eyes woke up one morning and said to his Mrs, “We have cars and motorcycles, yet we still walk to our bed.” They hugged each other tightly, and then both broke out in laughter. That moment of enlightenment has become the bedrock of their lives. Freed by the knowledge of the futility of possessing and accumulating many things we think are necessary when our needs are actually simple and few.
I haven’t yet retired from my business in which I have been at the helm for over 30 years. “It is time to pass the baton to your son,” Wilson, a good friend, said this week. It’s time to smell the roses, watch the durians drop, catch a free bus, varnish the timber doors, rest or do nothing. Read a book. Write a book. Trim the roses. A myriad things to do that await me as the sun in my life starts to set. That got me thinking about leaving my own “hamster wheel”. How does a hamster feel without its wheel? Does it die prematurely? I am still in my business not because I am a necessary cog. I am here because I am like a hamster who is afraid to be without its wheel.There can be no doubt that anyone is replaceable. What will become of me when I am “not required” anymore? If I peer into the mirror long enough, I would admit that I have been “surplus to requirements” many years ago. Will those around me treat me with irreverence as my relevance becomes questionable? Will I be made to feel like a waste of a bowl of rice? “Of course not!” I hear The Mrs shout. “Ba, don’t be silly!” my adult sons will chide me. Last Sunday, I lit a joss for Pa. He has been gone for 14 years already. I cried almost daily, mourning his passing for the first 2 years. After that, I cried for him during times when I was emotionally fragile. But, I have not shed a tear for Pa after his 10th anniversary. When I was a little boy, he was the air that I breathed, the water that nourished me, the meaning of my life. When I grew up and became a father myself, Pa was the rock that my foundation was founded on, the sage who I would go to for advice. He was the one who laid the stepping stones to secure a safe nest for my family, He was always relevant and I remain reverent. The next generation won’t be the same, I can’t expect. They tell me to be stoic. Be practical. Don’t be emotional. Don’t be foolish. Soon I will be irrelevant. Will they be reverent?
“Does it matter?” Blue Eyes asked. We ought to live for ourselves, not vicariously through others. “Be brave to live the life of your dreams. Don’t worry, you over-think.” “What’s your advice, Blue Eyes?” I asked. He came up with a beauty. “Live! Be carefree! There is always room in your life to “pharque” more shit up!……always!!” I am much soothed by a great line I read from the Water Margin (Sui Huchuan), 四海一家 , “Within the four seas, all men are brothers.” I will find some relevance there.