Ended With The Unintended

Consequences are the results of our actions or words, usually with negative or tragic connotations. But, sometimes, we may receive a pleasant surprise instead. Life is full of consequences and we will usually shrug our shoulders and say, well, we deserved it. The stockmarket has burned me twice, and there is no denying I deserved it. Everything is clearer with hindsight; it is always unfair to those who lived through the moment without it. I promised The Mrs there will not be a third time – otherwise I have to sign the divorce papers – and so I have missed out on the longest bull run in the history of the stock market. I will knowingly not invest in cryptocurrencies even though the rewards are incredibly high. That is only because the said documents are pushed in front of my nose whenever I quietly weigh up the risks and returns of Bitcoin and gold. The Mrs somehow has a knack of knowing what is on my mind. Yet, there it is. The unintended consequence of helping me to avoid another major haemorrhage in the stock market is I have been sidelined, and can only watch others celebrate their massive profits from the longest ever bull run – ten years of amazing double-digit annual returns instead of the pittance the bank has been paying into my savings account. An unintended consequence is that I now wear the title of The Lousiest Investor.

There is also the example of my neighbour’s experience of readying her newly built pond for her koi fish. Admittedly, hers are to die-for, koi fish is extremely difficult to find here. Her specimens are indeed stunning, when you see their metallic colours darting through the crystal clear water. What did she do with such a precious collection? To test the water quality before introducing her koi to their new home, she sacrificed some cheap comets into the pond first. “If they die, they die.” she was almost callous about it. Their sole purpose was to test the safety of the water. Well, they did not die and the koi clan rightly assumed permanent residential status. So clever, right? Except that now, the comets are thriving in the pond, and the koi cannot reproduce even though the conditions of their habitat are ideal for breeding. Why? Ask the growing school of hungry comets, they are the unintended consequence.

My parents were upset when I announced I was getting married to the girl I met in uni. I was twenty two at the time, and eighteen months later I became a father. My mother cried for me, I recall. “You haven’t lived your life yet!” she protested. It is true, I had not really lived, never ventured out on my own for a holiday, never had a honeymoon with The Mrs. At 26 years of age, I became the sole bread-winner for a family of five plus two elderly parents-in-law. There was the occasional dispute about what comprised the family of five. My version was The Mrs, me and our three kids. Her version? She and the four kids. Women mature faster, and The Mrs was quick to recognise the child in me. She still sometimes says I am childish. Why did I marry so young? Perhaps it was my stuffy upbringing. Growing up in a Christian Brothers school environment, we were caned for keeping “long” hair that touched our shirt collar no matter how much we extended our necks. We were caned for being late, yanked down from the top of the high metal gates we were scaling on. We were caned for talking on our way back to class after recess. Sometimes, Br Michael aka Lau Hor (the tiger), caned the wrong students. He caned any boy he thought was ill-disciplined. A fat boy was caned because he was standing at the entrance to the canteen, deliberating on what to buy for lunch. Jerry was unaware that he was blocking the passageway and caused a long queue to form. The only ones spared were Lau Hor’s school orchestral students. The oh-so-strict Victorian morality was the overarching principle in school, I thought, until I grew up and read about the sexual misconducts perpetrated by many priests and Christian Brothers world-wide. The home environment was also very strict, more a temple than a prison though. It is true that my wings were clipped when I was a young boy, but compared to kids today, I enjoyed a lot more freedom outdoors even though it felt like there was a lived-in sentinel in my mind that forbade me to join in the fun with school mates after school. Swimming was a definite no-no, as was fishing or anything to do with the sea. I lived like an island, on an island. I think my mother was afraid the hungry ghosts would devour me in the sea. A stuffy upbringing meant no sex, no drugs and no rock n roll during my teens. In university, I met a gorgeous girl whose eyes perpetually smiled at me. An unintended consequence of my strict upbringing meant the lived-in sentinel forbade me to have sex outside of marriage. The only way to enjoy the newfound sensation of boy meets girl and falls in love?

Marry her . An unintended consequence for my parents, they frowned at my early marriage.

There is also the case of the retired hobby farmer who lives alone. If one lives alone, why would one keep seven chooks? She was given four by a local school which bred them for a students’ project. Once the school experiment was over, the chooks became irrelevant and needed a foster home urgently. So, the kind hobby farmer took them in. Free eggs, why not? The unintended consequence of a kind heart was that her fridge is now jam-packed with eggs! The idea of rearing chooks is to enjoy freshly laid eggs. They taste supreme, especially those free range organic ones. But now, this kind farmer cannot keep up with her chooks and is desperately donating her eggs to family and friends. I got a dozen from her yesterday but hers are not fresh and therefore do not taste so good. She will be better off donating her excess hens instead.

Smart phones have been a wonderful invention together with the internet. Vast improvements in productivity, connectivity and easy infinite access to knowledge banks in every field we can think of have advanced our lives in unimaginable ways with entertainment, information, news and social media at our fingertips. With built-in cameras, the gadget even allows any of us to record newsworthy events including major historical events eg the Arab Spring revolution, the ongoing and escalating street debacles in Hong Kong. The unintended consequence however is the high incidence of automotive injuries and loss of lives due to the distractions that smartphones cause whilst we are on the road. Taking selfies with our smartphones were never meant to cause self-inflicted harm.

Unintended consequences can be horrific. Those who caused extreme havoc and misery to the world were Mao Zedong and Adolf Hitler. These two dictators were responsible for the deaths of many many millions. Mao was a lowly paid assistant to a librarian in Peking University. Had Mao been offered a post as the chief librarian, would the young man have turned into a dictator who some reports say was responsible for 45 million deaths due to his failed Great Leap Forward programs? Mao’s Four Pests Campaign was launched to ensure success in his agricultural reforms. Rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows were targeted for extinction. Especially sparrows, which ate the seeds of grain. What Mao didn’t understand was sparrows had a much bigger appetite for locusts. The sudden absence of their predators created the unintended consequence. The ecological imbalance resulted in a locust epidemic that wiped out the crops that Mao so wanted to protect. The other dictator was also responsible for millions of lives lost during WW2. He was an aspiring artist who was twice rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. Once in 1907, and again in 1908 when he was 18. The arts school said his paintings were “utterly devoid of rhythm, colour, feeling, or spiritual imagination.” His dreams crushed, the young Hitler hit the streets of Vienna and lived in abject poverty. The streets were at the time rife with anti-Semitism rumours which festered into hatred for the Jews on the impressionable young man. Instead of rejecting the young aspiring artist, would the world have seen the rise of the young murderous dictator, if the Academy had taken him in and made him into a successful artist instead? These unintended consequences could have been so easily avoided had the teachers been more caring towards the two young men. The world would have been a kinder place. Like anyone with a little ambition, all they needed was to be given a chance to pursue their dreams. They did not sought to become mankind’s worst mass murderers. Their unintended tyranny were simply consequences of seemingly inconsequential decisions by a university library and an arts school.

Comets outbreeding koi, an unintended consequence

He Bothers About The Others

“Chup ee khee si”, a common Hokkien remark. It means, do not be bothered. Let them die!

“Bu yao duo guan xian shi” is a typical advice in Mandarin. Do not meddle in other people’s business. Let them be.

But, on my way to work this morning, Yo-Yo Ma’s message sounded persuasive. Tantalising. Achievable. I have not been able to get it out of my head. Not that I have been trying to. But, his words have clung on to my grey cells. It is a message of inclusion, at a time when societies are focusing on the divisive and the negative. Yo-Yo Ma said ” Culture will turn ‘them’ into ‘us’.” When we recognise that the other person is just like us and is one of us, conflict will stop. When we realise we are all equal, discrimination will end. There will be no more recriminations, no more hatred, no more fights. He is in Sydney, on his world tour of thirty six concerts in six continents. He has brought Bach’s six suites for solo cello along. Through Bach, he wants to engage us in a series of conversations and collaborations to explore the ways culture and music can help bridge the world into a better place. He hopes that we will see the ‘us’ in the ‘others’. He is bothered about the others because he sees all of us in them.

As I settle comfortably on my recliner sofa after dinner, my mind drifts back to Yo-Yo Ma. He is much more than just a cellist. He is one of the greatest musicians the world has ever seen. Actually, he is even much more than that. He is a great human being. Pablo Casals too thought of himself as a human being first, as a musician second, and only then a cellist. To be human first. Humanists consider every action they take and every word they speak are in the service of their fellow human beings. Their common thread is their innate empathy and compassion for all. It is never ‘us’ and ‘them’. It is always about our obligations to one another, as human beings. They are above primal instincts. To them, it is not the survival of the fittest that ensures our survival, it is the survival of the planet that ensures our survival. For such great advocates of human dignity, it is an abuse of power if we were to remain silent when faced with confronting issues that threaten what is good in mankind. We all have the power to stand up to stop an injustice. From a small voice in the wilderness, a revolution can grow. It is through culture – the music, the story-telling – that inspires creativity and deep learning which helps us understand ourselves, understand one another and understand our environment. Above all, it is their choice to be human first. That was the message I got from Yo-Yo Ma.

I was lucky to have witnessed first-hand Yo-Yo Ma’s charitable, empathetic and caring side in Singapore. This was at a concert on November 11, 2016. The SSO concert opened with Sollima’s double cello concerto, titled Violoncello, Vibrez! with Yo-Yo Ma and Ng Pei Sian. When both cellists were on stage, Yo-Yo Ma asked Pei Sian’s parents to stand up from their seats. As the old couple reluctantly stood up, he told the audience of their struggles and perseverance to support not one but two sons’ ambition to be professional cellists. The living legend understood the selfless struggles the parents faced to help their twins pursue their love for music. The audience gave a rapturous applause to Pei Sian’s parents, but I was madly applauding Yo-Yo Ma for showing us his humanity. This is a great humanitarian. The maestro has an extra long list of achievements. The winner of 18 Grammys, he was the first to perform at Ground Zero on the first anniversary of the 911 tragedy. That solemn heart-pulling moment was served by Bach’s Sarabande from his Cello Suite no. 5, the most sombre, austere and profound of all. It is music for peace, for humanity. At the peak of his amazing career, Yo-Yo Ma whilst basking in the audience’s obvious love and adulation for him, revealed his humanity when he chose to divert the crowd’s applause to Pei Sian’s parents instead for their unwavering and unconditional support for their sons.

Ng Pei Sian and Yo-Yo Ma with maestro Shui Lan in concert

A day passed and the urghhling in me becomes less enthused about Yo-Yo Ma’s exuberance and trust in our propensity for empathy. Doubt creeps into my psyche about mankind’s readiness to accept our differences. After all, I have seen the ugliness of urghhlings for most of my adult life. Sure, there have been the odd few people of integrity and kindness whom I have had the good luck to meet along the way, but by and large, humans show their ugly side when they are able to hide behind anonymity. Strangers in public places who hurl abuse at us, those who sit behind their computer screens and vilify any race or religion they dislike, hideous customers on the opposite side of the shop counter, militants who will gladly blow anyone up including themselves, nasty soulless people who enjoy torturing animals, or bored, callous arsonists who light up thousands of hectares of gum trees and hundreds of homes and unfortunately, also animals including humans in their path. The world is littered with toxic folk with rancid prejudice, and devious minds with evil intent. Rather than it is never ‘us’ or ‘them’, it can never be ‘us’ with ‘them’. It is inconceivable that we can see the ‘them’ in ‘us’. At the other end of the spectrum, it is also sheer folly to think that the likes of me can even come close to understanding the minds of great men like Yo-Yo Ma. This may be the reason why I am finding this blog the most difficult to write. So, I cast my mind back to their Singapore concert. The magnanimous and generous Yo-Yo Ma gave two encores after the prolonged standing ovation from the audience. As he was already onstage, he borrowed Pei Sian’s cello instead of returning backstage for his ( Jacqueline du Pré’s) Davidov cello. Gasps of primordial orgasmic arousals could be heard when he began to play Bach’s Cello Suite no. 1 Prelude . It was followed by Bouree I and II and then da capo to I, from Suite no. 3. Amidst wild applause, Yo-Yo Ma then went over to Pei Sian onstage and gave him a big congratulatory hug. The younger cellist instinctively kowtowed and knelt before the cello maestro. What happened next took everyone’s breath away. Yo-Yo Ma, the universally respected great cellist of all time reciprocated with a bow and at one point, knelt down on both knees to Pei Sian as a gesture of mutual respect.

Recalling the last scene onstage instructs me that Yo-Yo Ma’s vision of the world in which human beings are treated equally and with dignity, where age-old issues such as religious fanaticism, white supremacy, slavery, bigotry, misandry and misogyny no longer fester, can be attained if we all see the ‘us’ in the ‘others’.

Mutual respect from a great human being

Mum About Mum III

It was just before the pendulum clock struck three times. Outside it was pitch-black, the angry wind was a welcome guest as it forced its way into their stuffy, sweltering room via the wooden slats of the window louvres. Ma changed her position, and now faced away from Pa.  All passion spent over an hour ago, he snored especially loudly after having satisfied himself inside her. She was relieved that his fire had been quelled, otherwise his restlessness and sulking would have spoiled another good night’s sleep. Ma was never taught the joy of sex. Brought up to respect proper decorum and propriety, in today’s vernacular, she would be easily classified as a prude. Sex was for procreation, not for recreation. Besides, their circumstances were so unsettled. They had not yet moved into their new rented shop in Bishop Street when the Japanese dropped their bombs from the sky. The front of the shop was destroyed. The glass display window the glazier had sealed the day before was completely shattered; its replacement was a wooden hoarding to deter would-be thieves from helping themselves to their meagre belongings. They left Teluk Anson with just a small bag of clothes each. Their prized possession, a cheap Japanese bicycle, was chained inside the shop. It had been a while since their last outing at the movies. After they were married in Teluk Anson, Ma’s favourite pastime was her Saturday bicycle rides as a pillion rider to town for movies with her handsome husband. It was said the 1930’s was ‘the age of the bicycle’ for it brought unimagined freedom to the young girls. There was nothing else worth stealing, except for the annoying striking clock that chimed the hours loudly and once every half hourly. Ma stirred from the timber floor. Her bath towel served as the mattress. Pa’s was crumpled and almost completely hidden under his long legs. He was a messy sleeper, even the face towel to catch his drool was missing from his pillow. They had an endearment for each other. Ma called him by his name one day, but he did not respond. So, she called out again, “Hey! Ngeh-doh. Blockhead!” That time, Pa answered, “What is it? Ngeh-doh?” Ever since then, they never stopped calling each other that. After she had straightened Pa’s face towel back onto his pillow, Ma carefully closed her paper and wood hand fan, a parting gift from her mother when she visited to say her goodbyes. Beautifully hand painted in water-colour, the red and pink roses on a greenish paper seemed to throw a floral fragrance whenever she waved them to cool herself. His was a scented one, made of thin slats of dark-stained bamboo with intricate carvings, riveted together at the pivot point, and tied together at their far ends with cotton thread.

“You didn’t have a mattress?” I asked Ma incredulously. At least The Mrs and I were able to join our single bed mattresses together when we got married. “No, the only furniture we had was a square wooden dining table and four stools.” Ma, ever one to demonstrate frugality oneupmanship, laughed, happy to have reminded me of what “tough life” really means. Her facial expression then turned serious, maybe even sad. “And then, our lives were turned upside down.” she continued with her story. It was a Monday, March 23rd 1942. The two Kenpeitai men crashed through the venetian louvres, and were immediately on top of Pa. Pa did not even have time to rise to his feet as they pummelled his body like a punching bag. Ma could not describe much else. Before she froze like a stunned mullet, she had turned away from the violence, facing the wall. Too scared to look and maybe even more scared to be seen by the Japanese secret police; their reputation as notorious as the Nazi SS paramilitary. By the time she breathed again, they had hauled her Ngeh-doh away. Li Tong, the owner of the small oriental arts and souvenir shop next door, was also rounded up. He was sleeping in the second bedroom, a sub-tenant of the entrepreneurial Pa. The whole house became eerily quiet, even the angry wind had retreated, disappearing into the dark night. Every light in the house had been turned on by the Japanese as they hunted for men to catch. Each light was by today’s standard unbearably dim, no more than 15W. A less frequently used room such as the outside toilet was equipped with a 5W globe, so weak it threw a reddish glow. It was Pa’s instruction never to turn on the lights at night. “A brightly lit house will attract the attention of the Japanese”, he had advised Ma. He did not need to explain that it was also a good way to save money. Since the Imperial Army’s bicycle infantry replaced the fleeing British regiment in Penang, they had formed the habit of using candle for light.

The next day, Li Tong returned. He was almost unrecognisable with dirt-caked dishevelled hair, his singlet torn and bloodied, his face riddled with cigarette burns – all telltale signs that he was tortured. He was lucky. Released after only one night of interrogation, he was thankful to be alive. “Quick! Cook some rice porridge for your husband. Bring his pyjamas also. He is being held indefinitely.” Ma rushed to the back of the house and chundered a load into the drain, but so far, she had not shed a single tear.

After the meek withdrawal of the British on the 17th December 1941, the Japanese occupied Penang just three days later. In the early days of occupation, the Japanese used a soft, gloved approach to win over the civilians; the friendly and fair treatment of local businesses was to promote the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. This was an objective to bring South East Asian countries together as a new bloc, sharing peace and prosperity under the umbrella of a benevolent Japan. After the fall of Singapore thirty five days earlier, the Kenpeitai was sent to Penang, by then renamed as Tojo To. This show of force was a marked change from the earlier strategy of cooperation. The 2nd field Kenpeitai under Lt General Oishi Masayuki was especially brutal, and gained notoriety for their fierce and cruel methods of subjugating the local Chinese populace. They embarked on a number of Sook Ching massacres to instil fear amongst the ethnic Chinese. Before the Kenpeitai’s arrival, life under Japanese occupation was still almost normal for many. The earlier gloved treatment of the town folk saw the return of many who had run away to hide up in Penang Hill and in the countryside.

“We had $60 left when the first bomb fell. Ngeh-doh knew his business was finished before it even started.” Ma continued with her story.

“History books said the citizens suffered great upheaval, repression and massive food shortages. Is it true, Ma?” I asked.

“We were so poor, it made little difference then.” Ma said. Breakfast was plain rice porridge enhanced with a dab of Shanghainese fermented tofu. Lunch and dinner had the same set menu. Plain rice and a plate of green vegetables. The vegetables cost two cents. “A local farmer delivers them each morning, ringing his bicycle bell as he rides past the street before nine a.m.” With their brand new shopfront substantially damaged, Ma resorted to selling cigarettes from the ‘Goh-kha-ki’ or five-foot way, in front of their rented house. Two sticks of cigarettes sold in a morning represented a good day. The profit was the equivalent of the day’s supply of vegetables, i.e. two cents. She hardly saw the Imperial soldiers, they did not patrol that side of town. They were housed in Minden Barracks, in Gelugor, quite a distance south of Georgetown. On the rare occasion that she walked past a Japanese soldier on the street, she just had to remember to bow to him. Those who forgot to bow or refused to, would cop a beating, or were killed sometimes. Apart from rice, the other expensive item was firewood used for cooking. A bundle of a hundred sticks cost $1.10. To save on that, she would shave the wood into thin pieces to avoid unnecessary burning.

The Wesley Methodist Church on Burma Road was where the Japanese housed those rounded up by the Kenpeitai. The brutal military police used it as their head office initially, but soon converted it to a holding base for interrogation and torture. Ma got there in the late morning, the task of lighting a fire to cook the porridge took a bigger effort than usual. Raining tears and nasal mucus, her grief finally overwhelmed her. She arrived on her bicycle at the front garden of the church and was met by a Sikh guard.

“No, no food allowed!” the guard roared as he commandeered Pa’s lunch. He was kind though, advising Ma to make her way to the rear side of the boundary. A little rise on the land offered her a vantage point from which to catch the occasional glimpse of her man. For twelve days, she would be there on the same spot. Her heart would soar if he appeared in the compound. Hunched, filthy and weak, Pa trudged weakly in small steps. from one end to the other. It must be life-giving, to be out in the warmth of the sun. What she could not see, she heard in loud decibels. The distance could not hide the screams and cries for help from inside the church. A trishaw puller went up to Ma and consoled her. “Your husband is in there?” he surmised. “Do not worry. He will be alright. Colonel Watanabe is not like the rest of the Kenpeitais. He does not execute the prisoners for fun.” The Kenpeitais tortured and beheaded whomever they disliked; whomever suspected of being anti-Japanese or a communist and whomever they deemed as lacking subservience through failure to pay obeisance. Pa’s crime was that he was seen playing a game of Chinese chess at the roadside, with a Chinese bloke the day before his arrest. The man was suspected of being a communist sympathiser, and was duly rounded up with about fifty others. A hooded informant pointed him out to the Kenpeitai on the padang at Fort Cornwallis and he was immediately beheaded. That same night, they came for Pa.

On the thirteenth day, April 5th, Pa did not make his usual brief appearance. The few scrawny men sunning in the compound had returned to the dark recesses of the church building. After almost like an eternity, Ma’s ashen face broke into a contorted grimace of sorrow. Her shuddering bony frame collapsed into a sobbing heap at the feet of a stranger next to her. “He is gone. Oh no, he is gone.” she wailed. She rushed back to the front gates where the same Sikh guard who had enjoyed Pa’s porridge was standing motionless. “Abang, can you tell me where my husband is?” she pleaded desperately. “I do not know who your husband is, but try the Penang Gaol. A few prisoners were sent there today.” He failed to disclose there was also another truck that morning which took some men to either Air Itam or Batu Ferringhi, places where many Sook Ching massacres took place. According to Lee Kuan Yew, some 50,000 to 100,000 men were massacred during the Sook Ching. These “purge to cleanse” campaigns were carried out by the Kenpeitai units to indiscriminately torture and kill anyone guilty or suspected of anti-Japanese sentiments. Penang’s wartime records show that some 5,000 men, mostly Chinese, were incriminated by hooded informants in various collection spots and transported to Penang Gaol on April 5, 1942. That was the day that Pa was trucked to the same prison from Wesley Church. Very few of these men were released, most died from cholera or malnutrition in the over-crowded cells or from beheadings in the secluded locations. Those rounded up were either anti-Japanese, communists, students, educators (intellectuals) or the unlucky ones like Pa, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Whilst in prison, Pa befriended three men. Haji was a Malay fellow who was eventually released. The Japanese were a lot kinder to the Malays who they viewed as easier to win over with the promise of being freed from colonial rule. The second man, a P.E. teacher was a nephew of a rich car dealer in Prai. He did not survive, for he found the daily portions of half-cooked rice inedible, and gave them to Pa instead. The third was a boy student of Chung Ling High School, from Had Yai. Pa saved his life.

Pa was released on April 20th. Actually, he escaped, with just his skin and bones. Very late on the previous night, his name was called out. “Goh Chan Chee! Goh Chan Chee!” the impatient voice bellowed in the prison corridor. That was Pa’s name in the Hokkien dialect. Whilst delirious with fever and mentally fatigued from the unending interrogations, he still had the presence of mind to decide his name would be Wu Zeng Zhi, in Mandarin. It was not a friendly roll call. The voice that hollered his name was impatient and stern, and it was very late at night, nothing good could be got from that. It was more likely a call to join those to be trucked out to an isolated beach somewhere. The next morning, two long queues were being organised by the prison guards. One was much longer than the other. The shorter one had men who looked less stressed, less beaten up. Pa decided he was in the wrong queue. When an important Japanese official arrived and the distracted guards stood to attention, Pa took a few steps to his right and joined the shorter queue. He gestured for the Hat Yai boy to copy him. The boy did not hesitate. To their delight, they soon found themselves lifted up to a lorry for immediate release. To Ma’s delight, the Indian tailor who was renting the front of their shop croaked out the happiest shriek. “He’s in the trishaw! He’s here!” Weakened by cholera and malnourished after 28 days, Pa stumbled into his home, in the safe arms of the Indian man. Pa refused to elaborate on that period of his life. He divulged little and never returned to visit Wesley Church or stepped near Penang Gaol. His story about those 28 days was consigned to the darkness of history. Pa, lest we forget. This is my contribution.

Ma, many years after the war.
Pa, in better times after the war.

Live Then Learn

Three simple words. But, they stopped me in my tracks. My son sends the message from London. Live first, then we learn from life. A concept worth revisiting. Quite the opposite of what I was taught from birth. Learn, then live.

“Crawl before you can walk. Only then you can run.”

“Don’t play with match sticks. Fire will burn.”

“Don’t touch that pot! The soup will scald you.”

“ Study hard in school unless you want a hard life.”

“Don’t take drugs in Australia. You’ll ruin your life!”

“Work hard. Work smart. Don’t fail in business.”

“一山還有一山高。Climb that peak or you won’t see what’s below.”

We learn about taking safety precautions before we venture out from our safe house. If stones are thrown at us, we build bridges with them, not walls. I learned from Pa that our credibility is one of our most important assets, if not the most important. His generation did not need lawyers, their word sealed with a handshake was worth much more than the small print and vague clauses in a legal document. It was a universal accepted truth that children should attend school, and then hope that preferential policies in favour of bumiputras will not close our path to a tertiary education. Mine was the first generation when education was becoming universally available to all children. It was unusual actually, in the long history of urghhlings. Before my generation, it was usually the brutality of wars and agony of poverty that rendered education as an impossible dream to achieve. They had to live first. Learning was a luxury. What they failed to learn will teach them life’s lessons. They did not agonise over petty worries. Survival was usually the top priority. Avoid dying in a war. Avoid dying from hunger. Avoid common diseases such as tuberculosis, typhoid, cholera. They lived. The more life they experienced, the more they learned. Longevity was out of their consideration, and so they lived for the now, and not for the future. For them, tomorrow may never come. Today, we try so hard to avoid failure to the extent that we miss out on grabbing opportunities that come our way. But, they knew failure was only a small price to pay to gather knowledge. Failure is part of the learning process, it is actually a very good teacher. They knew to live and experience life in order to learn the lessons. They knew to learn from others too; the village elders, tribal leaders, through stories, legends, music and dance.

Three years ago, I helped design and plan the next door’s house and garden. It was my second opportunity in a lifetime to design and plan a house and garden from scratch. The first opportunity, I spurned. I had not lived enough, I thought. That was in late 1994. I was 36 years old. The house design was left to my brother. Being eleven years older and an engineer, his credentials were superior to mine. Besides, I liked the Federation-style house plan he presented to me and made only one minor change. I had no inkling then but it was a very good change to the design of the family room. It opened up the views of the rear garden such that not only can one see its lush green and striking red roses from the front hallway, one can also appreciate the little waterfall and pond on the side garden from the living room. It was like a secret garden that was revealed spectacularly. But, generally speaking, the house plan was his, and the garden design was by The Mrs. I took no further part in the design and construct except to meet the progress payments. Three years ago, my in-laws bought the house adjacent to ours and knocked it down. It became my second opportunity to design a house and garden. I do not know why my in-laws trusted me with such a huge responsibility. I was ill-equipped to accept such a heavy task. Experience in design and construct, zilch. Training in landscaping, zilch. Tertiary qualifications in architecture or engineering, zilch. Skilled in the arts, zilch. Interest in interior decor, practically zilch. Yet, they appointed me. My fees, zilch. But, I have lived long enough; three years ago, I was 58. I had developed a keen interest in looking at house designs. I was secretly proud of my ability to not only pick at the design faults of homes I inspected, but to offer quick solutions to improve on them. But, being untrained and a novice in the field of design and architecture, my affinity for architectural design and landscape design remained a secret. But, the couple came with an open mind and later, with an open cheque book, well, not really. They heard me out, they listened intently to my ideas. They must have liked what I said because when they returned, they asked me to manage the project. Fees? still zilch.

Looking back, it was a fantastic experience. A rewarding one too, albeit not monetarily. I was always led to believe that I belong to the non-creative side of society. Trained as an accountant, I fit the mould of those who are deemed boring and colourless. Staid. Serious. Predictable. But, I have lived. I have loved. I have learned. I know what is classy, what is beautiful, what is interesting. I know what is aesthetically pleasing. I know about balance, contrast, harmony, textures, the efficient use of space, even basic feng shui. I know about creating beautiful views for every room, and how to bring the outside into the house. Maybe that was why they liked my ideas, or maybe it was merely my ability to put in words what I could visualise in my mind.

Today is the second day of November, it is still spring. It rained lightly all night, and then the sun rises and smiles gently in the early morning. The ideal time to take a few snapshots of the garden is now! The garden is awash with colour, with many shades of green overlapping the pinks, whites and reds of the rose garden. I share some photos with my family, to show them these are the living things that make me feel alive.

My son in London said, “The fragrance must be amazing!”.

“No! I too have to imagine the fragrance! Only the Mr Lincoln’s have a nice perfume. The others only look good. Beautiful but not scented.” “Should I rip them out and start again? Select ones that are beautiful and fragrant?”

“Yes. Live, then learn.” my son said.

I selected two more photos, to share with my friends; a risky thing that. Someone may accuse me of showing off. At what point does sharing what makes us happy become showing off? I cannot be bothered with such pettiness. I know I am not bragging about it. Many may not be garden lovers, they will be annoyed at the unsolicited photos. But, one important thing I have learned in life is to appreciate and value my friends. Friendships need to be nurtured, like a beautiful garden. Keep in touch with them. Share our likes and dislikes. Do not lose contact. I remember a report that came out in 2012 about the top regrets voiced by people in palliative care.

  1. The courage to live a life true to oneself, not the life expected of you.
  2. Worked too hard – missed out on loved one’s important moments.
  3. The courage to express one’s true feelings – they never became who they were capable of becoming.
  4. A wish to have stayed in touch with their old friends.
  5. A wish to have allowed themselves to be happier. They did not realise that happiness is a choice.

“Live, then learn.” my son said. He is so wise.

Live to learn, learn to live, then teach others. Douglas Horton

Looking into my garden

Looking into the neighbour’s side

A Flight To Sydney In 2016

An uneventful flight. And the urghhling is thankful for that. He has always feared the sea. It means he fears flying too, since planes do crash into oceans. He prefers the aisle seats, apart from the extra leg room, they are also further from the windows. But, his was a late booking and he ends up with a window seat instead. He avoids looking down at the vast expanse of bright blue water. The flight from Adelaide has been an hour and 45 minutes so far. As the plane descends from heaven, his sense of mortality becomes acute again. It is a known fact we are most vulnerable at take-offs and landings. 

“Right, I shan’t think about this, let my mind wander instead. Forget about my impending demise.”

“ Sydney, with its harbour and Opera House has much to gloat about.” He focuses on the iconic architectural wonder on the blue harbour instead, taking his mind away from his childhood fear.

His old hometown looks grey with its buildings, a lot less than glamorous. Tall glass towers cast long shadows on old but ornate structures. The night clouds have almost arrived, lopping off the top of Centrepoint Tower from the Westfield building. He left the city in ‘86, a young bloke with a young wife and three adorable sons. A rosy exciting future beckoned, a commercial world in which any success was possible, all that was required was hard work, talent and discipline. Or so he thought.

Young blokes don’t realise life isn’t like that. Sure, his new boss had said “you’re set like jelly” after the job interview. He was leaving the big smoke which had delivered him everything that any 27 year-old man would consider to be a good start to life.

He was thankful for the University of NSW. 

There, he got his degree. A bachelor degree in Commerce (Merit) which led to a secure well-paid job as the accountant of a paper box factory. In those days, any office job that came with a company car was a well paid job. The urghhling said to emphasise on the “merit” bit of his qualification. Only ten graduates out of that big faculty got that special mention, including his future wife. There, he found her. Her eyes smiled at him the first time they met. A beautiful woman. An intelligent woman. A strong woman. She said he was a good man. Reliable. Reliable, that’s all. The only criterion that mattered? She didn’t want him. They would mock her, laugh at her, she was years older, she said. 

“You’re too different, English educated, ignorant of Chinese literature, I’m too old for you”, she resisted.

“Let’s not care about how people think.” I persuaded her.

“I am not that much younger.” “So long as we are happy, we’re not here to please others” he appealed to her with gusto. He implored her to reconsider.

It was 11.30 pm, in her kitchen. Quite spartan, one that uni students were used to. The broken venetian blind hung lopsided, hiding the full moon. A well-used stove, ingrained with black burnt stains that Mr Sheen failed to get rid of, despite the claims on tv. A small Westinghouse fridge, another fallen Aussie icon. Quite a bare fridge, his eyes could only scan a glass bottle of milk that the milko delivered two days earlier, a tub of butter, some carrots and oranges but no left overs. His nostrils were fooled by the faint trace of fried garlic.

“Go home. It’s late” she said, not noticing that he was hungry.

“Please, give us a chance”. “Live our own lives, for ourselves. We can never please everybody.”

He hugged her, a long hug. But, it was not a goodbye hug. He willed his love for her to travel from his heart to hers. His arms enveloped her, transmitting his deep feelings for her. “Life will be good with me. You’ll see.” he promised her.

Eighteen months later, they were married. A simple wedding. A banquet for twelve, not for twelve tables.

On the morning of their wedding day, he sat on the toilet seat in their Coogee flat, feeling like a king whilst Eleanor, their best friend, fussed over the bride’s make-up. His younger sister, Sue, busily ticked the check-list as items were laid on the mattress. In those days, newlyweds fresh from university did not bother about bridal beds, they simply joined their single mattresses together.

Bridal gown, $350, off the rack from a bridal house in Singapore. No alterations required, she was skinny. All white, to prove her virginal status. A size so petite the mind cannot now fathom how it was possible to squeeze a voluptuous body into.

Bridal headpiece, made of white silk roses on a band embellished with iridescent rhinestones, a gift from the bridal house.

The hand bouquet was a last minute purchase, because the urghhling had forgotten that was a necessary accessory for a bride. Thank you, Sue. I think we forgot to express our appreciation.

A pair of three inch high silver shoes. They were not worn often; a case of fashion over function, they encouraged the growth of calluses on her big toes.

A gold ring, 24 carat. “Must be 24 carat.” Ma said.

A string of pearls. Not South Sea ones, of course. In the end, it got crossed out of the list; they decided against the pearls. If one cannot afford a bridal bed, one cannot afford non-necessities.
“Don’t forget the bridal bouquet!”, Sue shouted as he swept his bride off her feet. There were four flights of stairs to carry her down to their silver Mitsubishi Colt. The urghhling, tall and dark, looked quite smart in his black suit, blue tartan tie and brown shoes. “A colourless man with colourful taste” quipped a friend once. He was not due for a haircut for another month, so he turned up in an untidy “Bruce Lee” hairstyle. Quite a skinny man, his excuse was he came from a poor family and he abstained from meat for three years after their wonderful maid, Yung Jia, killed his pet hen.

The urghhling was skinny but strong. After all, his father named him “ forever strong”. As if he needed to prove it, he effortlessly carried his bride down those four flights of stairs. He plonked her on the front passenger seat of their car, with casual ease. He paused briefly to admire the showroom shine of his Colt, the effort of that morning’s elbow grease work. “Buckle up” he told the two bridesmaids at the back. “We are gonna get to our wedding on time!”

We arrived for our wedding on time.

Bridge Street, near Martin Place cannot be the right place for a wedding, it is the heart of banking in Sydney, therefore soulless. “Why on earth would a marriage celebrant conduct a wedding there?”  The Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages was situated there. “Never mind, at least it is within walking distance to Sydney’s Opera House, and the Botanical Gardens.”

Doreen and James were witnesses to the wedding. Doreen had not learned about make-up yet. So, she turned up with big blue patches of make-up around her bulging black eyes. With her long Farrah Fawcett permed hair, she looked lovely next to her husband, James, a young man with a thick frame and a wide white smile that was unspoilt by coffee. His stolid mannerism was always reassuring. Quite a short man, he looked like he belonged to a different wedding party in his brown suit and grey leather shoes. The men did not think about colour coordination, they were lucky enough to own a suit. The women did, though. All four turned up in white! Eleanor, with short, thick permed hair, wore the whitest dress. These minor details mattered not to the bridegroom. His bride was there.

“You may kiss the bride”, the marriage celebrant said with authority. It sounded strange to the urghhling but he wasn’t about to debate the right or wrong of a stranger allowing him to kiss his wife. His wife! Wow. Did he realise what he had signed up to? The responsibilities? Whether in sickness or in health? Forever, till death do they part? Mere words? A promise carved in the heart? Can you love someone forever? Unconditionally?

Too late to deliberate. The marriage document was unhesitatingly signed. Man and wife. It was time to celebrate, not hesitate. 

“Sue, what does our check list say after the ceremony?” the happy bridegroom asked.

No plans for the afternoon. No plans for the future. Just live, happily. Hopefully. 

It was a Saturday. Early autumn in Sydney meant blue sky days and cool nights. Perfect for a wedding posse to walk the short walk to the harbour. A nun in a brown habit went up to the newly weds and wished them a happy future together. She wore a genuine kind smile. A good omen for the bride and groom. Along the way, cars honked and passers-by waved, hooted and shouted blessings. No wedding plan could have delivered such happy spontaneity.

Have a happy life together, the kind nun blessed us .

The wedding dinner was held in a Double Bay restaurant. No prizes for guessing it was a Chinese restaurant. They could not afford a “western meal” in the early ‘80’s. They knew what a “western meal” meant, that it was unaffordable. The urghhling was a “chinaman” anyway, meaning he loved his rice and noodles.  Nine guests, a table for twelve. Sue is family, not considered a guest. The urghhling was strange like that. Doreen turned up with the same blue eyeshadow, hand in hand with James who was still in the brown suit. Behind them were Richard and Cindy. Coo, coo, the lovebirds, whose 60th birthday party was the reason why the urghhling and The Mrs are in the plane. “Flying. Oh, don’t think about the flight. Back to the past.” Originally, they could only fill a table for nine. But, an odd number would not make an auspicious occasion. And so, they stretched the guest list and added three more. None asked openly why it was such a small wedding party. 

“All our friends had to go back to their home countries after uni, they weren’t allowed to stay.” The Mrs reasoned out loudly in her mind.

“His parents and other siblings couldn’t come. Some lived too far away, for others, it’s their busy time of the year”.

“Her elderly parents couldn’t come, it’d be too daunting for them to travel on their own”. The urghhling reinforced with a good reason.

“She is adopted, no siblings.”

Anyway, no one asked. The excuses were not verbalised.

A strange thing happened after the wedding dinner. All the guests followed the newlyweds home. Home was a two bedroom flat on the high side of Rainbow Street, not far from Coogee Beach. A cream coloured apartment block, a popular colour in the 70’s. Off a steep road, into a steeper driveway. Not a friendly place for older folk with stiff, painful joints. A creamy box amongst hundreds of boxes, in fact when you look up at it from the street. But, it is all about the location. Location, location, location. To buy well in Sydney, one must have water views. The urghhling was sure he bought well. They could see a glimpse of Botany Bay in the distance if they perched on their toes on the edge of the bathtub. It didn’t matter that the lounge was too tiny to fit all twelve of them, some outstretched legs could rest on the mosaic tiles of the narrow balcony once the aluminium sliding door was opened. It didn’t matter that you could see a couple making love on their balcony opposite, or overhear a heated argument across the courtyard, or watch the busy actions of a young Asian woman cleaning herself behind a frosted window. Live and let live. It didn’t matter to the guests that the night was their first night as a married couple. It didn’t matter that they overstayed till way past midnight. When morning arrived, the parted mattresses was a telltale sign of frantic activities after the tired guests left.

Either with relief that they had landed safely, or perhaps that she was still by his side, he squeezed The Mrs’s arm as the plane glided down the runway with hardly a bump. Amazing. How we can bring a 200-tonne flying machine down from 30,000 feet and land it exactly when and where we want it. Yet, no one in the plane applauded the pilot for such an awesome feat.

Amazing. The urghhling and The Mrs, still together, after 35 tumultuous years. He casts a glance at her. She had her eyes shut, both palms resting on the page she was reading, forming an unusual bookmark. Eyes shut, resting. A usual pose for someone who is always tired. He is suddenly consumed by remorse. He failed her. She, the mirror of the tough journey they had endured since their franchise business folded. The same remorse he felt when he overheard her crying in bed one night. A victim of his failed business, she was disappointed, disillusioned, disoriented, dishevelled, destroyed by the test of time. Once a strong, proud woman, she was almost a shrivelled husk, empty of the promise and beauty that was hers to claim.  He hears his old promise ringing loudly in his head, “Life will be good with me. You’ll see.” The Mrs opens her eyes, awakened by the impatient jostling of fellow passengers leaving their seats. Someone, in a few rows behind, was speaking loudly into his phone in a foreign language. She glances at the urghhling but fails to notice he had been crying.

Mum About Mum II

They told me not to write Ma’s story. Keep mum about mum. Respect her privacy. Respect theirs! I wrote Mum About Mum I, but I did not tell them. On Sunday, they saw me jot down notes whilst having “dim sum” with Ma at her favourite Chinese restaurant in Norwood. From this, they will know Ma wants her story told. They have not said a cautionary word since. They need not worry, I shall not divulge their names; but, Ma’s name is important for me to record down. Her name is Xu Mei Lan aka Chee Moay Lan徐梅蘭, Mei is plum flower and Lan is grace and elegance. I have long realised the importance of choosing the right names; it is often that we become what our names mean. Ma is indeed a graceful and elegant woman, as beautiful as the plum flower. In February 1936, Ma’s father, Ngagung, died from typhoid. She was thirteen years old. In those days, when the head of the family dies, the family has to fend for itself or find another head. Ma’s mother, my Ngabo, was subjected to the unfathomably cruel and oppressive fashion for bound feet. She was also denied opportunity to gain an education due to poverty and her gender and failed to be independent. The fashion for bound feet in China persisted for a long time, in fact, over a thousand years, mainly due to the mistaken belief that it would give girls a chance to have a “better” life. The fashion waned only after the roaring twenties. Wealthy men were titillated by tiny little feet; sexual objects that their concubines must have. A small foot in China was as popular as a tiny waist in Victorian England. Women with bound feet walked, swayed in fact rather “alluringly”. It was believed that the resulting “sexy” gait would give the woman an unusually tight inner thigh and pelvic muscles – all that to mean that they hoped for tighter vaginal muscles. That trend spread to the villages, men of all persuasions followed the cruel practice and bound their own daughters’ feet also, in the hope they could be married off easily. Foot-binding was a symbol of status and wealth, the poor would not deprive themselves of that. Ngabo had her feet bound but unfortunately, she was not married off to a rich man. Hers was not the calibre of the sought-after “Golden Lotus” – three inch small, and not quite within the 4 inch “Silver Lotus”. The inferior ones were five inch or longer, the “Iron Lotus”. The two years of excruciating agony in having her toes and arches broken and then crunched flat against the soles were in vain. She did not catch a scholar, not even a shop keeper. Her husband, my Ngagung brought her to Malaya, and soon found work as the laundryman for an Englishman, a coconut plantation owner in Bagan Datoh. When Ngagung suddenly died, his family’s world came crashing down. The eldest child was Ma who by then barely had two and a half years of schooling. She had hoped to be a teacher. At the time, anyone with five years of education could become a teacher; she was halfway to reaching her ambition. But, all hopes of that died with Ngagung. The second eldest was a son, my Jiu-Jiu. He was eleven at the time. An ambitious boy, he fought tooth and nail, and screamed that he wanted to continue with his schooling. He had hardly any lessons before he was forcibly carried away by their eldest uncle, my 2nd Ngagung to Five Miles. Five Miles was a village that was five miles from Teluk Anson. Jiu-Jiu, like Ma, also lost his hope to receive a school education. Instead, he was forced to be an apprentice in the laundry business. An apprenticeship meant long days, hard labour and pittance for wages. For the next four years of her life, Ma kept herself useful in the family. Daughters were viewed as expenses to the family, of little or no value. The sooner they were got rid of, the better for the family. Her main task was to look after her siblings – wash their clothes, cook for them, feed them, keep them out of mischief, and put them to bed. Apart from that, she was also responsible for the well-being of the ducks and chooks; collect the eggs and ensure they were well-fed and all accounted for at the end of each day. The end of the day was seven pm, and to save on energy, that meant lights out and bedtime. On rare occasions, Ma had to use the toilet, which was located outside the house, after bedtime was announced. A visit to the toilet on such occasions meant baring her bum to a swarm of mosquitoes. The price paid for such poor discipline was an itchy backside, courtesy of the mozzies. Ngabo, as would any widow with four children at home to rear, eventually invited her dead husband’s head worker to her bedroom. The strong younger man would become the new head of her family. Ma hated the man for taking her dad’s place; fortunately for her, she never had to learn first-hand this fact of life that was not uncommon in those days. Even birds know this law of the jungle. Magpies will often mate for life. However, if a male is killed while there are hatchlings in their nest, the female will take a new partner. Ma’s future husband, my Pa, would be her sole and reliable provider. She is fortunate not to have her own magpie stories to tell.

When Ma turned 16, she overheard serious discussions about her future.

“She is not young anymore. Time to let her go.”

“Find her a husband soon, the longer you wait, the harder it will be to find her a man.”

“You cannot have her at home forever. Have you considered the farmer’s son?”

The farmer’s son was a recommendation by the rice wholesaler in town. “He is a good man, he just turned 21.” Given ten acres of arable land, the young man was ready to start his own family. His parents, from Fujian province, advertised his fine credentials to all the match-makers around the villages. Healthy, hard-working, responsible, young and strong, and most importantly, a land-owner. One morning, Ngabo asked Ma to stand at the front window. “Stay there, and do not move away until I say so.” It was almost mid-morning when Ma noticed a young “boy” cycling past their wooden hut. The road was some ten meters away from the boundary of their front garden. He made a U-turn and cycled back to where he came from. Not a word, not a smile, their eyes did not even meet. ” He’s very dark skinned.” Ma summarised.

The other candidate for her hand was Pa. He was born Wu Yuan Quan, the fourth son of 文榮, grandson of 六山. His teacher – a man who occasionally turned up to teach the village boys – changed his name to Wu Zeng Zhi, 吳增智,but on his mother’s tombstone, his birth name 元泉 was used. Wu Zeng Zhi is a more intellectual name. When one receives education, one becomes learned. Zeng means to expand, Zhi is wisdom, resourcefulness, or wit. A handsome man, Pa left his home in Shaoxing for Shanghai when he was nine years old. His first stint away from home was an abject failure, in terms of money; he wasn’t paid a cent because he returned home to celebrate Chinese New Year with his family before the two year “contract” was up. But, he continued with his apprenticeship in the dry-cleaning trade. Later, he was sent to KL (Kuala Lumpur) by his entrepreneurial boss. The boss had a chain of dry-cleaning shops in Shanghai, and wanted to start another in Malaya. He sent his best apprentices abroad. Pa worked for him for two years in KL before deciding to be his own boss. The three pillars of Malaya’s economy then was tin, rubber and coconut. Teluk Anson was situated right at the hub of these industries. It made sense that Pa chose to set up his own business near Teluk Anson, at Five Miles. As fate would have it, his shop was located just two doors from 2nd Ngagung’s (Ma’s uncle) laundry shop, the one where Jiu-Jiu was forcibly taken to. Ma’s uncle was actually the husband of Ngabo’s younger sister, 2nd Ngabo. Whenever Ngabo visited her sister, Ma and her siblings ( another brother and two sisters) would tag along. Such visits were infrequent; (maybe once or twice a year) they were like an outing or a short holiday. 2nd Ngagung would send Ma to spy on the opposition’s dry-cleaning shop. “How many customers did they have that morning? How many garments? Did you see him? Was he busy?” Ma never spotted the man who would become her husband. She would have fallen head over heels for him. There would have been no uncertainty and angst when asked who she would marry when she returned to visit 2nd Ngagung during the mooncake festival in 1940. “The farmer boy with the ten acres or the dry-cleaner who now lives upstairs?” The dry-cleaner had by then closed his shop, having lost out to his competitor. He cut his losses and became 2nd Ngagung’s dry-cleaning expert instead. Inside information many decades later revealed that it was a strategic alliance that he forged with 2nd Ngagung. He wanted to get close to him and win his approval to marry Ma. 2nd Ngagung’s business grew. With both laundry and dry-cleaning businesses, he monopolised the trade. Impressed with the young man, 2nd Ngagung decided this man would be best candidate for Ma. His wife, 2nd Ngabo, however disagreed.

“He is a noisy tenant. His heavy footsteps annoy me when he is upstairs.”

” An inconsiderate man!”

“He drags his slippers!” “Flip flop, flip flop.”

Three months later, they were married. Ma decided against the farmer.

“Why?” I asked her.

“He is Hokkien, dark-skinned, a farmer. I saw myself slaving away in the field, rain or shine. Hard life.”

“The other is tall and handsome. Fair-skinned. Ambitious. Skilled in a good trade.”

Ma’s assessment of the two choices, I have to say, was superb. It did not mean she was happy to be married off though. Far from it, of course. But, at 17, she knew her time was up. She could not continue to be an expense to her family. She stood at that same window where weeks earlier, she was displayed like a shop window mannequin for viewing by the young farmer. She cried her heart out, bitterly disappointed that she could not have the education and the career that she had aspired to. She had to yield to the plan for her future which others had determined for her. Girls like her were mere chattels, to be disposed of as soon as practicable. Three months after the mooncake festival, Ma left her home at Bagan Datoh in a hired car. The next phase of her life was about to begin. Pa and Ma were married on 24 December 1940. On the same day, the warring nations, England and Germany began an unofficial two day truce to celebrate Christmas. It was a Tuesday, maybe the restaurant in Teluk Anson charged less on Tuesdays. The wedding party consisted of two tables, i.e. twenty people altogether, including bride and groom. No one from Ma’s side was invited, not even Jiu-Jiu, the brother who worked for 2nd Ngagung; he had to mind the shop. In those days, once a daughter is married off, she was “discarded water from a hand basin”. Even her own mother did not attend the wedding. In her white wedding gown, Ma was a classic beauty, before that term was made famous by the Hollywood sirens from the Golden Age. The tailor was from Shanghai, a friend of Pa’s who charged him mate’s rates for the silk dress. He ran out of fabric before the wedding dress was finished; Ma remembers clearly it barely touched the ground, there was no train for her bridesmaid to hold. Her beautiful lacy headwear lacked a veil for the same reason. To help mask the missing veil and train, the Indian florist made her an extra big bouquet. It was so big she struggled with the weight; a hand-tied bouquet would have been classier. Her wedding dress later became stock for hire in 2nd Ngagung’s shop.

Pa and Ma on their wedding day

The newly-weds rented a room on the floor above the shop. Rental was $5 a month. They lived there for seven months. Pa’s work station, an ironing bench was upstairs, in the next room. The other workers worked downstairs, the laundry arm of the business was more laborious and less skilled. Ma was confined in the room to “keep out” of harm’s way. I suspect Pa did not want his beautiful wife to be ogled by his colleagues. One morning, Ma went to the temple to pray for good luck. Pa was not aware where she had gone. By the time she came home a few hours later, he was in tears. He refused to tell her why he cried that day, but I suspect he thought she had run away. Their marriage was match-made, but that was the early tell-tale sign that he had fallen in love with his wife. Those early months of their marriage were sweet. He worked in the adjacent room whilst she kept herself busy during the day. She only needed to cook for herself, Pa’s remuneration included breakfast, lunch and dinner. 2nd Ngagung said she need not have to cook; it was alright for her to eat the leftovers after the crew had finished their meal. Pa declined his kind offer; his bride would learn to be independent. Ma’s chores were light, apart from cooking for herself, she kept busy with washing, mending, and making a new set of pyjamas and boxer shorts for Pa. The shop’s customers were predominantly Europeans. It was normal to find old English newspapers and magazines left in the shop. Afternoons spent browsing through them was how she learned some basic English grammar. Five o’clock was knock off time for the workers. She was happiest then, with an evening walk with Pa to look forward to or a movie to enjoy!

From left: Jiu-Jiu, Ma, 2nd Ngabo, Ngabo, Ngagung and 2nd Ngagung

During those days, news were weeks’ old by the time they reach Five Miles. The radio and tv had not been introduced yet, it was also before the advent of reddifusion. Her English vocabulary was limited, comprehension of news from English newspapers therefore was also limited. There was one person who made an indelible impression on everyone in the village. “A truly great man. I hope the Singaporeans do not forget him.” Ma reminisced and her mind drifted away. His name was Tan Kah Kee aka Chen Jiageng. Even the rickshaw pullers contributed to his financial effort to support China in their war against the Japanese, the 2nd Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Before that, he raised funds for the Xinhai Revolution and the Kuomintang’s Northern Expedition. The philanthropist gave away most of his wealth to these campaigns and helped set up Jimei University in Xiamen and many schools in south-east Asia and Hong Kong. He was also from Fujian as was her first suitor, the rice farmer. Ma need not worry about the philanthropist being forgotten; he has an asteroid named after him.

The Commoner And The Common Friends

It is Sunday. A day of rest, I get to sleep in. But, at the back of my mind, I know the chooks will be restless. They will want to get out of their coop and stretch their legs. Flap their wings, sing to the neighbouring kookaburras and excitable parakeets. Instead, I remain in my bed, beneath layers of crumpled moth-loved blankets and decades-old thinning quilt. It may be Spring but the unseasonal heat wave conditions earlier in the week have retreated and surrendered to the cold Antarctic winds. The chooks will be more comfortable in their home, I reasoned with myself. My shadow self lost the debate, he too did not look forward to brave the cold. Moth ridden blankets still serve their purpose, there is no need to consign them to the bin, let us be kind to the environment. I did not have to wait for Greta Thunberg to evoke her thunder and lightning at us, the older folk. I have been using the “Save the environment” catchcry for all my life.

“Time to throw away your singlets and undies. They are full of holes.” The shadow self hollered. “ Nope, save the environment” I told him.

“Why don’t you update your wardrobe, ba? Sharp long collars are so out. Long before rounded collars were in.” “ Nope, save the environment, son.” I said with much conviction about saving the world.

“Heard of the latest QLED 8K big screen tv?!”, asked my shadow self. “You still spend your free time watching old movies on your old Panasonic Plasma tv!”, he mocked. ” Look at the depth and detail 8K offers. Look at the vivid colours. It’s QLED, you know!” My shadow self loves all things modern, high tech and expensive.

” It’s ok. Let’s save the environment.” That was all I said. I did not bother to learn what QLED means.

Three Christmases ago, my son from London suggested it was time to change the carpets downstairs. “How about changing to solid timber floor? The natural smell of Tassie Oak will be a welcome change.”

“ Nope, save the environment, son.” I was quietly thinking more about the money saved than the planet’s well-being.

He pointed out that my house was beginning to welcome visitors with the previously familiar “old person’s smell”. Previously, my parents-in-law lived with us for many years until they passed away. Poh-Poh’s last breath was drained away by the emphysema she got from a lifelong habit of smoking. Gung-gung was forever strong until he broke his hips from a nasty fall. Euthanasia was illegal then, in 2002, and still is in South Australia. He was transferred to a palliative care unit where he passed away peacefully in the wee hours of the next dawn. When one is at that junction of one’s life, the issues are no longer quality of life versus longevity or right to live. It is no longer weighing up the burden of medical treatment versus the benefits of gaining it. It is not even about God’ will or God’s words. I am so glad Gung-gung did not hang around at all. Why endure immense suffering and pain at end of life? He lived a dignified life, it is only right he retained his dignity at death. I will want that for myself also.

Oh, the chooks!! Sorry, girls. I forgot to let you out! It’s 8.35 a.m. now!! “C’mon me ladies. Time for your breakfast.” I am a strict adherent of IF ( Intermitten Fasting) but I do not impose it on my girls. They have a habit of lowering their body whenever I stroll by. Squatting low, Reddy’s underside almost touches the ground. She shivers momentarily as if expecting a sexual encounter. All she gets is a gentle pat on her back. “Good girl, Reddy. Did you sleep well, darling?” She has been stooping low at my feet ever since she lowered her guard about me. Always offering herself whenever I enter the chicken run, she wants to be straddled by a male. I should keep a cock for her, but the local council frowns at cockerels in the suburbs. My shadow self hopes she does not feel dejected by my rejection of her advances. I will only pat her back, that is the extent of our friendship. She knows I will never harm her. All my four ladies will never experience a black swan day. They should know this is always their home, till they die a natural death. Yes, with tender palliative care too.

Late in the morning, Chip, a good childhood friend, shared some food pics of his Nyonya dinner with some common friends in Adelaide. The Baba’s and Nyonya’s have a colourful history in Malaysia. The meeting and eventual merger of cultures between the early Chinese migrants and the local Malays enriched not only the cultural fabric of the society there but also impressively created a new type of cuisine. A Baba friend encourages us to keep using”Baba-Nyonya” for the Straits-born Chinese-Malays rather than adopt the more commonly used word for their culture, the Peranakans. Legend has it that in 1459, the emperor of China sent his daughter Hang Li Po to marry the Sultan of Malacca. The nobles and servants who accompanied her married the native Malays and they gave rise to the new class of Straits-born later known as baba-nyonya. Apparently, the term Peranakan is predominantly used by the Indonesians and later exported to Singapore. Last night’s party theme was to celebrate the baba-nyonyas. I imagine the women all went dressed in their best lacy see-through kebaya, with colourful batik sarong and manek slippers. The photo of the nyonya fish curry was mouth-watering but it did not affect my mood considering I was still on IF. But, when Chip sent me the photo of his wife’s Pulut Tai Tai, I couldn’t help but feel like a commoner. They were all our common friends yet I missed out on my favourite snack. Made of fluffy glutinous rice steamed in coconut milk, it is a heavenly dessert especially if you slather it with generous dollops of pandan-flavoured kaya (egg and coconut jam). Commoners miss out on all things exotic in life, including nyonya delicacies, that’s the hierarchical rule. What do ordinary folk without any significant social status get invited to such special parties? That is what I want to know, Chip. Urghhling.

Chip The Chairman