Gong Xi Fa Cai

Generally speaking, we Chinese do not wish one another happy new year for our lunar new year. We wish for prosperity, wealth and success. You, prosper! And you, prosper too! You, and you and you, prosper! In return, let me prosper too!

The Chinese observe the lunar calendar. Chinese New Year (CNY) never falls on January 1 of the Gregorian calendar. Congratulations! Prosperity! That is a literal translation for CNY wishes.

Gong Xi Fa Cai – in Mandarin

Keong Hee Huat Chai – in Hokkien

Gung Hei Fat Choy – in Cantonese

When we were young, that was how we were taught to wish one another on Chinese New Year’s Day. It was always about prosperity, never about happiness. Many of us Penangites cannot recall how to wish someone happy new year in hokkien. We never wished one another happiness. When we were kids, we did not hear the adults wish anyone happiness either. Maybe they connected the dots? Prosperity will lead to happiness anyway? I was young and naive when I pondered on that. At an age now when many friends have already become grandfathers many times over, I know such a connection is totally unrealistic. Stories about Princess Diana and current news from Harry and Meghan (who all were stripped of their HRH title) are testament to the fact that wealth and happiness are seldom found together. So why did the Chinese elders omit happiness and health in their new year wishes? The focus was always on prosperity and success. Was it the abject poverty and lifelong suffering they endured that prioritised their wish for prosperity above everything else? I would like to know what the great Chinese sage’s stance was on this. What did Confucius say about this? Were they not at all concerned that such singular emphasis on wealth and prosperity could cause the breakdown in the moral fabric of their societies? It may well be true that when one is suffering from extreme poverty, nothing else matters. Happiness? Peace? Tranquility? Sustainable consumption? Plastic and urghhling-induced climate change? No time and energy to worry about these when we cannot find food for our people!

“Ong! Ong! CNY will be hot! Briefly I thought they were predicting a hot day ahead. But they were hyping up the bullish sentiment of their economic status, raising hopes for a hot economy in the new year. Any hot tips for the sharemarket? They wish one another for a red-hot boom in the sharemarket and the real estate market. Ong in hokkien. Wang in mandarin. It means red-hot, raging success. Even the pineapple gets a guernsey during CNY. The fruit is called Ong Lai in hokkien. The boom is coming, the literal meaning. I know of a famous Malaysian artist, Yeo Eng Peng, who specialises in painting the pineapple. His subject, the Ong Lai, resonates well with the art collectors. Who amongst them do not want prosperity to enter their homes and offices with the painting of their pineapple prominently displayed?

Yeo’s Malaysian Pride sold for over RM30,000. Ong Lai! Huat!

Gong Xi Fa Cai. Hong Pao Na Lai! Keong Hee Huat Chai. Ang Pow Gia Lai! Congratulations on your prosperity, now give me the red packet! We Chinese are very direct – no beating around the bush! That’s the loud chorus you will hear around young kids during CNY festivities. Don’t be surprised the youthful ones will also echo that. Last year, my older cousin brother reminded me he is still entitled to the red packet. Ang Pao Gia Lai! His status as an unmarried still entitles him to claim a free packet that contains cash, never mind how old he is. Never mind the cashless societies we live in. When it’s CNY, cash is still king! The red packet is every child’s dream come true! On one good day when I was a kid, I managed to collect RM80. May the good times keep coming. Fortunately, the concept of collecting Ang Pao’s and accumulating wealth as a prerequisite for a good year was not adopted seriously by me. I took it as just another cultural tradition, the practice as interesting as eating moon cakes during Mid Autumn festival and eating tangyuan during Dongzhi (Winter solstice). Collecting Ang Pao’s did not teach me to become materialistic or money-minded to place the importance of money above all else. My point is it could have and maybe it can still inculcate a new generation to a culture of kowtowing to money and revering the prestige of wealth. The Taoists still pray to Caishen Yea, the God of Wealth. They believe in the supremacy of money – that there is a God to divvy it up to those who pray to Him. The Greeks also had such a God; their God of wealth was Plutus. Unlike Caishen Yea, Plutus has pretty much lost all His powers. Not many remember him.

Chinese traditions dictate that we would wake up to find red packets under our pillows. Those were the ones from our parents – containing the fattest wad of mint notes – slipped under our pillows with stealth whilst we tried our darndest to stay awake in our brand new pyjamas. The cash was so crisp I thought Pa had spent the night ironing the notes for us. CNY day was ushered in by wearing our brand new clothes – we would know the God of Prosperity was not so kind in the past year if there were no new clothes for us. The lack of new clothes did not matter, the excitement was really about how many Ang Pao’s we would collect. We went from house to house and “Pai Nien” – paid respects to all elders in our families and communities who in return handed us their pre-sealed red packets. Ang Pao’s, peanuts, sweet cakes and candy. Life was complete. Bottles of ice cold F&N Fanta and Sarsi were our all-time favourites except for one year when the new craze was some premixed lemon drink with beer called Shandy.

Dong Dong Chiang. Dong Dongdong Chiang. Chiang, Chiang Chiang. Xin Nien Tao. Xin Nien Tao. New Year has arrived. The familiar traditional Chinese new year songs would be blaring in every household. What followed next after we got our Ang Pao’s? Gambling! Decks of cards would be handed to the older kids. They would decide which games to play. The adults would adjourn to their clubs or kongsi or in my case, the San Kiang Association on McAlister Lane. What were the adults thinking of?! Kids, first you go house to house and collect free money, then you try and multiply it by gambling! It is no wonder that the world’s casinos are swamped with Chinese clients. Gamblers, all of us! We started young, from our first Ang Pao! Ong Ah! Huat Ah! Gong Xi Fa Cai, urghhlings! Since I left my hometown of Penang in 1977, I have not experienced CNY in Malaysia. I have never been back in Asia during CNY celebrations. The Ang Pao’s I have missed! My last Sarsi was also in the 70’s. The sound of fire crackers exploding away in a billow of smoke is also a childhood memory. CNY is a non event in Adelaide apart from a family reunion dinner and a sub standard lion dance in a suburban Chinese restaurant. As luck would have it, this year I will enjoy for the first time a public holiday to celebrate CNY. Australia Day, also now known as Invasion Day by the aborigines is on January 26 which falls on a Sunday this year, making Monday a public holiday. Yes! Maybe I will find a fat Ang Pao under my pillow. Ong Ah! Huat Ah! Keong Hee, urghhlings.

The Mrs, bribing a Red Lion for good luck

Voice Of The Menace

“ Hey! Are you the boy from Scotland Road?” There was no hello, no G’day from the caller. The phone number did not reveal his identity. But his voice did. “Dennis the menace?!” I asked excitedly, not requiring an answer. Apart from Dennis Lee the pianist, Dan was the only other Dennis I knew during my school life in Penang. “Close, it was Scotland Close.” I replied. In all my years since leaving Penang, I have never come across a more beautiful road than my childhood Scotland Road. Not even the Jacaranda trees that line the blue-ribbon streets here can outdo the magnificent Angsana trees that flanked the road outside the house I grew up in. The Angsanas were majestic trees, easily over one hundred foot tall, that turn golden during the flowering season of February to April. In the early 70’s, Penang was quaint and exotic with more bikes than cars. Gridlock was not in my vocabulary. When the Angsanas dropped their flowers, the road would become carpeted with a thick layer of golden petals. It was pure joy to walk on the golden trail, and if the occasional car was to leave its tracks on the carpet, it wouldn’t take the trees long to cover them up. If only I had a camera then to capture what was my heaven. When I finally saw the yellow brick road in that famous Hollywood movie, The Wizard of Oz, my mind turned back to Scotland Road’s Angsana trees. The movie’s director, Victor Fleming, would have created a more beautiful yellow brick road had he been acquainted with my real golden road. I wanted to brag about the aphrodisiac fragrance of my youth that the Angsanas brought but I honestly cannot recall they produced any noticeable scent. Well, better that than being woken up by a strong belch of sinister bushfire smoke in the wee hours of the morning. I live in the foothills and that means I can wake up in a panic thinking the bushfires in the hills I read about daily and watch on telly have reached my personal frontier. In my household, we now sleep with closed windows to shutter out the filthy brown air from Kangaroo Island and nearby peaks. My bedroom smelt of barbecue the one night that I forgot to close the windows. Apocalyptic is a word frequently used to describe the carnage and destruction of Australia’s wildlife this summer. Apparently, over 500 million animals have perished in the bushfires.

We spoke for 27 minutes. All the while, the Dan I saw in my mind was the same 18 year-old dark-skinned boy with a thick curly tousled tuft, bright wide eyes and a prominent nose reminiscent of Gérard Depardieu’s. Tall, dark and handsome, I was convinced those three words were strung together to first describe him. “Send us a photo! Show us how our Dan the cool man looks like today!” I implored him to share his latest pic. He said he was balding, and confessed he envied the long-hair genes I have been blessed with. I suspect the tuft he has now is on his chin. He proudly announced his status as a “Datuk”, not the title conferred on the wealthy or super successful, not the one you can buy for RM500,000 ( a rough guess, based on the going rate of RM300,000 ten years ago) plus ongoing annual contributions, but the one that’s got the “kong” after it. My Indian friend still knows his hokkien. Kong means grandpa in the hokkien dialect. I could sense his happiness when he talked about his two grandsons, 4 and 6. “It’s hard to keep up with them but they keep me fit.” I imagine when he tries to put them to sleep, they put him to sleep first. Sixty year olds lack the energy to stay awake, I have come to learn. But, don’t ask me how I keep awake in my office please. The 27 minutes went by in a flash. I was sorry he had to go. As if he couldn’t talk in the toilet. He forgets we even shared a bed together when we were in our teens. That was how close we were as buddies. Back then, sharing a bed had no sexual connotations and was without any reviled intent. Yeah, I believe Michael Jackson was as innocent and pure with his young fans in his NeverLand.

Dan, my old buddy. As I listened intently and grabbed every single word of nostalgia from his amazing memory bank, the recollection of happy childhood memories was slowly tinged with a growing heaviness within. The realisation that all the carefree joviality and frolic he shared with me was long gone, shredded by the unrelenting twin demands of parenthood and filial piety. I always suspected Dan could have been a budding movie star. Opportunities were lacking, I suppose, during the 70’s in Penang. The only avenue to experience the joy and fun of acting was during our Boy Scout comedy sketches. It was serious business to be funny. There were prizes to win for our patrols. Together, we wrote our play scripts, plot the storylines, picked the casts, devised the musical instruments (pots and pans and empty glass bottles) and directed the sketches. The most memorable one for me was the play that had me as a nosy parker, middle-aged housewife. Hilarious. I secretly discovered my penchant for acting. Once we even performed as a musical duet – he on guitar and I, the lead violin. He was self taught but his natural talent put me to shame.

With Dan, it is still hunky-dory to call him Indian. I never asked him what race he belongs to even though it is clear to me now that his surname does not sound Indian. When we were growing up, it never mattered what our race, creed or religion was. Not even rich or poor. Defenders of slavery were quick to promote the 19th century scientist Samuel Morgan who professed that white Caucasians were the smartest followed by East Asians (Mongolians), and black Africans importantly for them, were bottom of the food chain. But, no. Not us. We knew humans are all equal, decades before geneticists applied DNA sequencing to complete the human genome project. Race is just an invention to set us apart, a made-up label. In June 2000, Craig Venter, a pioneer of DNA sequencing, observed, “The concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis.” We may all be out of Africa, but it is the Africans who are the most diverse. Having existed the longest, they have the most genetic diversity and mutations. Along the way, the early migrants met another homo genus, the Neanderthals – that branch went to what is now Eurasia – and further east, they interbred with yet another, the Denisovans. Both Neanderthals and Denisovans became extinct after having co-existed and copulated with homo sapiens. There are many theories why this occurred – human violence and diseases, competitive advantages such as domestication of dogs helped humans with hunting and human adaptability to climate change. I suspect, without evidence, that it was the destructive nature of urghhlings that decimated their rivals.

Sarcastic About Plastic

Spastic. When my sons were growing up in the 80’s, it was a word they learned in school. School for a short while was Highbury Primary. A suburb north-east of Adelaide, it was predominantly blue collared, far from blue ribbon. Soon, it became a word frequently yelled out during arguments at home. “You’re spastic!” “No. You are spastic!” It was not taken as derogatory. Not by the adults, anyway. Whether the kids meant it to be, I do not know. Today, we do not use that word anymore. It has become offensive. The word is also taboo in the Spastic Society for the spastic cerebral palsy sufferers. They call themselves Scope. With the right support, every person has scope to achieve their goals in life. That is their catch-phrase.

Spastic. A word that was lost in my vocabulary since my sons left Highbury Primary and went to Burnside Primary instead. That was in 1996. So, it has been twenty four years since I last uttered the word. Twenty four years of being politically correct. But, suddenly today, the word sprung into my mind. Spastic. Idiots. Fools. I was a victim of cyber bullying. Some of my sexagenarian friends ganged up on me over a topic that is far from sexy. Plastic. Sarcastic friends. The discussion about plastic turned caustic when one of them accused me of being “what’s the word? It sounds like an oath doctors make.” Obviously, he wanted me to connect the Hippocratic oath with the unsaid word. Hypocrisy. Do I become a Pharisee for voicing my frustration when I see the ubiquitous usage of plastic in their photos? Why do they treat me with disdain and think it is a sham when I talk about the futility of our fight against plastic if urghhlings’ attitudes do not change about plastic? Especially single use plastic. “When in Rome, do what the Romans do”, one of them countered. In other words, they use plastic (proudly) in Penang; and if I do not like it, leave. During the course of our conversation, I became “you” rather than “us”. I was unprepared for this. How can plastic set me apart from these childhood friends? Suddenly, I am made to sound different, inferior, fake, a pariah. Fortunately for me, my father named me “forever strong”. Maybe not physically, but certainly, inwardly and resolutely. They displayed their sense of pride and confidence publicly, for all to see. “Why, do you want to go back to the days of banana leaves and eating with your hands?”, another mocked me. My Malaysian friends are openly happy to use plastic. They reckon I should try drinking piping hot soup with my bare hands if I didn’t want to drink from their plastic bowls. “You’re only environmentally friendly when it is not too inconvenient”, they chastised me. Nero fiddled whilst Rome burnt. Australia has been burning for over three months. These friends are still fiddling. They bragged about their antique collections of E & O Hotel tea cups from yesteryears. Of course, the era of elegance and class did not perpetuate the use of plastic. Fine porcelain, no less. These friends did not see the irony of their enthusiasm for pricey antiques. Such fine items are displayed in their glass cabinets – their practical use, never to be enjoyed. Instead, these friends eat from plastic plates and bowls, with plastic cutlery and chop sticks. Somehow, they see my fight against climate change, no matter how small this step, is a farce. “Are you going to blog about this? Here is a nice title. How about My Losing Battle Against Plastic?” “May we remind you, it makes little sense to antagonise us”. Another climate skeptic. Spastic. Sad. It is no wonder the world leaders are merely paying lip-service to combat climate change. Most people of voting age do not care! Despite global warming, the ever increasing retreat of glaciers, extreme weather patterns and rising sea levels, my friends’ complacency and total disregard of their environment was astounding. Baffling, in fact. Just like Donald Trump’s, who withdrew America from the Paris climate agreement in 2017. My many detractors in their shrill voices said I was being hysterical, echoing Greta Thunberg’s fanatical screams. Global warming or climate change, I suppose, by its very nature, is a long term shift in global climatic patterns. We are old buggers, unlikely to face major repercussions of what horror that may be ahead of mankind’s future. Maybe that is why they do not care. Inconsequential to us. They might as well joke about it and poke fun at my serious intent to reduce my carbon footprint. “Plasticware is good! They last and last and last” , one of them said. That is the strange thing about looking at things from a different perspective. It is precisely the long lasting nature of plastics that is the problem! Single-use plastic bags can last 1,000 years before they decompose. Plastic is made from fossil fuels, and when they are burnt or left to rot in land fills, they release almost a billion tonnes of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, every year. Discarded plastic also find their way into our oceans, even to the deepest place on earth, in the Mariana Trench. We cringe when we see images of dead whales, turtles and dolphins filled with colourful plastic in their stomachs. What is a looming major disaster is the microplastics that are being ingested by marine life, including plankton. It is plankton that play a vital role in capturing carbon dioxide and sequestering it in deep ocean sinks. Apart from this, plankton is of course what keeps the eco-system of the oceans alive. Without plankton, there would be no fish in the sea. Without fish, life as we know it will not be possible. A big chunk of the world’s population will die of starvation. Many today are wary of eating farmed fish; they are skeptical of the contaminants and antibiotics found in aquaculture. But, more and more, it is also the microplastics found in wild caught fish that are turning some of my friends off seafood altogether.

A Royal Doulton set from E&O Hotel in the 1980’s

Surely, my friends can see that reducing plastic usage and increasing recycling is the key to saving the planet. It is satisfying to know that the Australian Open this year will introduce a world-first in the tennis Grand Slams. Their ball-boys and ball-girls will be wearing clothing made of recycled plastic. At present only around 10 per cent of plastic is recycled in Australia each year. One exciting development in this field was announced last year. Len Humphreys and Sydney University professor Thomas Maschmeyer, invented their Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor (Cat-HTR) which recycles plastic not from high heat but through a form of chemical recycling that changes the plastics at a molecular level using hot water at a high pressure to turn them back into oil. The oil can then be turned into bitumen, petrol or back into different kinds of plastics. Now, my friends may be right after all, and remain lackadaisical about the horrors of using plastic. These urghhlings do not exhibit any worries. They adopt the “she’s right, mate” attitude. It will be alright, just don’t worry. In the meanwhile, over 25.5 million acres of bushland have been burnt in Australia. Let us not fiddle while the country burns.

I Ran Away From Iran

Wars based on lies. Colonel Larry Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell during the presidency of George W. Bush, recently confessed that he was one of the architects of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by America. The war was based on the lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was poised to attack the West. Wilkerson added that when he was a young 21 year-old soldier, he fought in the Vietnam War which was based on a lie too. Then it was President Lyndon Johnson who fabricated the lie that two US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin had come under fire in international waters. Within three years after the “unprovoked” attack on American assets, there would be half a million US soldiers fighting in Vietnam. The same template for presidential war making was used on January 3 when Trump ordered the assassination of Iran’s revered major general, Qasem Suleimani. Many regarded him as the real James Bond of Iran – suave, sure and licensed to kill. The urghhling Trump announced that the killing of Suleimani, whilst he was in Baghdad, was to prevent an “imminent” attack on US assets, including the US embassy in Baghdad. Strangely, this important fact was never mentioned in any obligatory advice to Congress. To neutralise (a well disguised word for kill) a senior guy of a strong enemy nation in Iraq, a sovereign friendly country, without their prior knowledge or permission? That’s making more enemies in the Islamic world, and no matter how they sell the benefits of this kill to the American people, it surely cannot make them feel safer. As the head of Iran’s elite paramilitary Quds Force, Suleimani was “the vanguard of Iran’s alliance with armed groups in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and a coalition of militia in Iraq.” He was a powerful influence in the Middle East. The assassination of Suleimani twenty months after Trump tore up the nuclear agreement with Iran despite the opposition by all other partners – Germany, England, France, Russia and China – may be another attempt to prod the Iranians to retaliate disproportionately so that the US can have an excuse for war. The two nations were, once upon a time, friends. During the 19th century, it was the British Empire and Soviet Russia that had Iran (known as Persia until 1935) sandwiched. Blessed with oil in the ground and its location in the Persian Gulf, it could be said this was also their curse. During WW2, the two allies invaded Iran on the pretext of countering the Nazis sphere of influence. In 1953, the US, for the first time, undertook a covert action to overthrow an elected foreign government during peacetime. Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh had insisted on auditing the books of their 50/50 joint venture with the Brits, known then as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Today, it is simply named BP. Although promised 16% of “net profits”, Iran hardly received a cent for all the oil that flowed. When the Brits refused to have their books audited, Mosaddegh through his parliament, nationalised Iran’s oil industry. That was enough reason for Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower to plot the overthrow of the Iranian government. After the coup d’état, Mosaddegh was imprisoned for treason – a good example to show winners write the law, and losers lose everything. The CIA hired fierce mobsters to stage pro-Shah riots causing mayhem and death in the streets of Tehran. Is this also a template for creating civil unrests and riots to topple elected governments? I am reminded of the long suffering fiasco that is Hong Kong today. Mohamad Pahlavi was installed as the Shah of Iran after the coup. During his reign, the dictator was mostly a loyal “puppet” of the US until he was deposed by people power in the 1979 Iran Revolution. The “impossible” had become “inevitable” in a matter of months and brought to power an Islamic clergy armed with the Quran and “Divine Right”. It still seems incongruous that a cleric can bring down a monarchy that had lasted 2,500 years since the beginning of the Persian Empire. The Shah fled to the US for cancer treatment and to avoid trial for crimes against his country. This incensed the people who stormed the US embassy in Tehran and held 52 embassy staff hostage for 444 days. Ayatollah Khomeini viewed America as the “Great Satan” whereas he was undoubtedly treated by the Americans as an enemy of the state. The two countries have ceased diplomatic relations ever since – this, a far cry from the Shah era when the US provided Iran with their first nuclear reactor in 1957, and ten years later, armed them with weapons grade enriched uranium. Iran’s superior military might over its Middle East neighbours was also largely due to American help.

In recent months, The Mrs and I have been discussing a holiday to Iran and maybe Jordan. Sorry, for her, definitely Jordan. For me, definitely Iran. Since news broke about the possibility of war between the US and Iran, these holiday plans are now put on hold, indefinitely. As soon as there was talk of war in Iran, I ran through my bucket list for alternative “must do” holidays instead. Suddenly, Iran is no longer in my plans for next year. Even though there is so much to see and learn about the old Persian Empire. I shall have to forgo a visit to the ancient capital, Persepolis – it is one of the world’s greatest archaeological sites. The long rock relief carvings of servants bearing gifts in front of the Palace of Darius was one place I told myself not to miss. I was not game enough to tell The Mrs Jordan’s Al-Maghtas or Baptism Site “Bethany Beyond the Jordan” pales into insignificance compared to Persepolis. The Persian Empire’s first King, Cyrus the Great, freed the Jews from the Babylonian Empire and returned them to Jerusalem. You would think this single fact alone would make Iran and Israel friendly states forever. Yet, today they are openly hostile to each other. I had wanted to trace Cyrus’ footsteps and also look for Zoroastrian artefacts. I have read a little about the religion Zoroaster started – it being one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religion. That today, a Japanese carmaker, Mazda, is named after this deity is quite remarkable and intriguing to me. Also on my bucket list was to follow the tracks of Alexander the Great in his victory over Darius the 3rd and therefore, the fall of the Persian Empire. In fact, it was only last year that I decided I must visit Tehran, after having watched Septembers of Shiraz. Although the story was nerve wrecking and showed the ugliness of the revolutionary guards, it did not convince me that the revolution itself was ugly. Not when 98% of the country supported the removal of the Shah and the Americans. Damn Trump. The urghhling has spoilt my holiday plan. As much as that’s annoying, it is nothing compared to potential lives lost. Iran’s first retaliatory measure for the drone attack that killed their General was to bomb American military bases in Iraq. Thankfully, no lives were lost. The threat of war is, despite this, very real. The threat of terrorist attacks at home and abroad is even more likely. Let’s hope he has not started another cycle of killings and revenge from this idiotic decision to assassinate a hero of Iran. It now seems near-certain that the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 with 176 lives lost was a case of Iranian authorities mistaking the passenger plane as a US warplane. For me, the blame can be attributed to Trump. After all, he started it. He broke the three year-old nuclear agreement brokered by Obama. His sanctions and travel bans have made life miserable for the Iranian people. They, like any other people in the world, just want to live a peaceful and happy life. With threat of war over their heads and further sanctions imposed, their misery is being ratchet up. Why, urghhling Trump?

Long rock relief carvings

PS 16 hours after I wrote this, Iran admitted their mistake in downing the Ukrainian jetliner – the plane was mistaken for a “hostile target” after it turned toward a “sensitive military centre” of the Revolutionary Guard. Days earlier, Trump had threatened to hit “ very hard and very fast” 52 Iranian targets including cultural sites of historical value.

Stan’s The Man

Stan loves to hog the limelight. On stage, he luxuriates in the spotlight and disco lights. He is as attractive as a live lobster in the aquarium of my local Chinese restaurant. Big and big-headed, its movement emperor-like, and terribly expensive. Unaffordable, he’s the exact opposite of the slippery eel squirming around in the adjacent smelly, mud-filled aquarium. His movement on stage is as smooth as the eel’s though, not that the stage is his mud. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with mud, for that is where the water lilies and lotus spring out from to dazzle us with their colour and beauty. From where I sit, the microphone appears to be a bionic extension of his hand. It does not leave his hand all night. A slick performer, natural and totally at home on stage. Some people are like that, some are born to lead, and some just love to talk and talk, and talk some more. Stan is both, he exudes leadership and loves talking, all night. He commands full attention from the stage. He is not short but appears to be due to the girth of his frame. Solidly built, the tenacity and steeliness in his eyes deter many from disagreeing with him; it is safer to defer to his command. The party of over one hundred revellers adored his performance earlier in the evening, but he could never be a good stand up comedian unless he borrows some punch lines from somewhere. A very poor imitation of Dave Allen with a perpetually replenished glass of whisky in his hand, I got to witness first-hand the rumours of his tendency to be inebriated whilst reading his script on stage. But, he has my full respect, not everyone can speak publicly so well and with such clarity. The confident man speaks the loudest. As the evening progresses, it becomes obvious it is time for Stan to leave his stage; his grip on the restless crowd is slackening, they begin to talk over his lengthy speech. So, he raises his voice to be heard, and the microphone begins to screech in protest at the increasing decibels. Luckily, the microphone is often held against his mouth, the smoker’s melanosis that he suffers from is mostly hidden from view. Likewise, it offers us partial relief from his nicotine-stained teeth. Stan loves anything and everything blue. He is often seen in mid-blue shirts, or dark blue ones with white polka dots. The tight short sleeves reveal a pair of solid full biceps which show the brute strength that Stan obviously possesses. His body-hugging shirt does not hide the man’s solid physique, but with his shirt tucked into his executive style trousers, and his ample waist decorated with a Pierre Cardin black leather belt, he appears corpulent and bulky rather than fit and strong. His demeanour is exaggerated and his swagger deliberate, accentuating his portrayal of success and prosperity. His 18 carat gold ring harbours a huge piece of green jade, enhancing the subliminal message he teleports to his audience. Stan’s the man. No one is allowed to outshine him, not that anyone wants to or can, as he will have you believe. Any perceived threat to his dominance in the sphere he resides in, will be stomped into oblivion. That is the nature of the man. Some describe him as arrogant, bombastic, unforgiving, a fake. He owns a patch of rather sparse hair. Combed meticulously, the crop on his head is thin and balding. The follicles are still unusually black despite his age, it is fair to suspect they were dyed only a few days earlier. The strands of hair are so sparse they appear to form thin black lines that barely cover his scalp. A receding hairline exacerbates his impending baldness. To be fair, the one positive about his hair is that there is only a faint trace of dandruff. Beads of sweat grow and swell from his forehead and cheeks, his constant action to wipe them off with his damp blue handkerchief seemingly unproductive. His brows are a small replica of MacDonald’s famous logo, the arches grey instead of golden and less tidy. The brows caress his once bright shining happiness-laden eyes. Now they appear as droopy as his heavy jowls. His prominent chin so proud it has grown another, a sign of abundance in his life.

When Stan is not on stage, he packs away his joviality and frivolity. He becomes assertive, less friendly but still loud. Unknowingly or purposely – I am not sure – he loves to celebrate his football team’s successes loudly and heartily even to the degree of “rubbing salt” on the supporters of the vanquished opposing teams. He loves blue. So it is easy to guess that he barracks for Chelsea Football Club, a great EPL club that calls Stamford Bridge their home. Every Chelsea win will be accompanied by loud hollers and ridiculously lengthy and rowdy celebrations from the man. It’s perfectly fine of course; we do not begrudge a man his fun and happiness. Stan lacks any inclination to comfort his subdued friends when their team loses. I suppose that is why the sports is a religion to many. There is no middle ground, either you’re a Chelsea believer or you are the anti-Christ. And since some of us are not Chelsea fans, we begin to bear the brunt of his taunts and torment the more our team, the Red Devils, lose.

Last weekend, my team did not lose to Liverpool. Another old friend, with the Greek name Stevros, had predicted we would be clobbered. Why Greek, you have to wonder. When asked for his prediction, he said 0-2. That is either the extent of Stevros’ understanding of the word “clobbered”, or a two nil defeat is a heavy defeat for him. “Hey Stevros, we didn’t get clobbered!” I invited him to pour scorn at my team. Sure enough, Stevros took my bait. “Aiyah..so eaten up by such nitty gritty..yes..they should have clobbered them.”

“Like sand, it’s the nitty gritty that makes us grit our teeth ” I replied.

“You can grit for all you want….your team should have been clobbered last night ..maybe the next return match..then you can GRIT YOUR TEETH even more.”

Uh oh, words in capital letters indicate Stevros is raising his voice. But in my moment of silly playfulness, I did not notice it. And then I made a mistake. “Yes, we supporters are the TRUE GRIT. Let’s hope your teeth have not receded from the grit.”

That’s fatal, Stan explained later. Too late! Stevros has begun his personal tirade at me.

“Why so personal ah..my teeth..? Why does it matter to you..you want to talk about your ASS..huh..?

And when you talk..talk in SIMPLE ENGLISH.. lah..many do not want to hear your gibberish talk..ok..??

If you want to be personal..I CAN be personal too..but I think it so CHILDISH to do so..

No need to SHOW OFF..keep it humble and simple..maybe that is all you have to show..?”

Quite taken aback, I meekly offered a quick apology. “Anyway, we are supposed to have light hearted banter here. If I somehow, somewhere offended anyone, let me be the first to apologise. I do not know when I showed off to you ….. anyway, life is short, bro. To some, sharing is showing off. I’m only sharing, there is nothing to show off from my side. I already publicly declared I was once almost bankrupt. Is that showing off ? Let’s refrain from judging others so readily. Friendly banter amongst brothers should be ok, right?”

Yes, we 61 year-olds call one another brothers, this is a legacy of the Lasallian and Xavierian education system. We all hail from the Irish connection of Lasalle Brothers but the supremo who began the schooling system in Penang was Br Charles Levin aka Br Karl Wolff, a grandson of Germany’s 19th century “sugar king”.

Stevros had not finished his bombardment. “…. you mentioned about my..receding teeth..that is not personal..? If you attack me personally..I WILL retaliate appropriately..yes..we can share and bant (sic) all we want but refrain from personal attacks…its ok..I hope we are good..just be mindful of our statements moving forward..I apologise too for any personal attacks..that’s something we should avoid..keep it simple and humble..thats my motto..”

Privately, Stan told me to shut up. “Don’t egg him on. He will want to have the last say. He always thinks he is right. Why did you attack his teeth anyway?!”

Sorry!! How was I to know someone will get upset over nothing. Such a tantrum over a set of teeth? Maybe he suffers from teeth erosion, but gosh, there is no such thing as receding teeth! He made it up but accused me of saying it. “Receding teeth” is more fake than dentures. I said I hope his teeth have not receded from the grit, i.e. TRUE GRIT guys do not shy away or retreat from the grit. We do not need reminders that at our age, it is common to experience features that recede. Gums, hairline, even self importance. In today’s society, the aged sadly recede into the background, they (sic) no longer command attention, they (sic) are hardly visible, often unnoticed and unheard. But teeth do not recede! So, why would anyone feel personally aggrieved over something that is fake, that doesn’t exist in their person? Urghhling!

This morning, I was woken up by the noisy birds in the park opposite. They must think it’s a market place to trade in worms. The furious tweeting and chirping are not conducive for non early risers. As I opened my eyes, it suddenly dawned on me that Stan the man could simply be a figment of my imagination. Maybe Stevros does not exist either, as fake as his “receding teeth”. But, I want to cling on to the romantic idea that all is true and well with the “Lasaints” brotherhood. A truly caring and friendly brotherhood of the boys from Penang’s Lasalle and St Xavier’s Institution. 

Stan, almost the standup comedian

I was advised to add the following disclaimer:

Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Monteperle, The Pearly Gates On God’s Hill

The name was perhaps inspired by the description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:21: “The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate being made from a single pearl.” Their logo indeed hints at the twelve gates making up the sun as the gateway to heaven. The winery is situated on Gods Hill Road, Lyndoch, in the Barossa Valley. My brother-in-law recently befriended Louis Liu who runs Monteperle Wines. I did not hesitate when asked if I wanted to join him on a visit to the 26 hectare winery in the Barossa. When we arrived at the gate, I was immediately enthralled by the heavenly beauty of the vineyard. It was as if we had veered off course and landed in paradise. Strikingly pretty, I suddenly realised there is no need for me to fulfil my dream to visit Tuscany. This place is certainly as magical and romantic. So different from the rest of Australia right at that moment. Much of the country has been scorched by a prolonged drought extending from Queensland right through to New South Wales and northern Victoria in the eastern seaboard. The bushfires have raged on for over two months, making it the most catastrophic the nation has ever experienced. Nine boutique wineries have burnt to the ground in the Adelaide Hills in recent weeks and Kangaroo Island in South Australia has seen some ferocious fires overnight also. Only the Northern Territory has been spared, with a national tally of 25 deaths and over 1500 homes lost so far. People are resigned to expect more severe fires as this is just the beginning of a long summer. Yet, there on God’s Hill, I was held breathless, captivated by the natural beauty and serenity as we passed through the gate. After a long spell of hot and dry days since Christmas, the sudden change to a cool 14 degree day was a welcome reprieve. From the grounds of the steel-clad fireproof building, it was the vast expanse of mocha-coloured hills in the distance that caught my eye. Immediately below the light bluish grey sky, the rolling hills seemed to be waving at me. In summer, they turned mocha in colour and the green of the gum leaves appeared more grey instead. Immediately below the hills were the straw-coloured valley of dry grass and remnants of summer crops. Closer to the property, the darkish green tops of gum trees broke up the vastness of the landscape which then transformed to shades of beautiful green vineyards closer to where I was standing. As we crunched on sun baked leaves and dead grass, I was impressed by the countless rows of vines with the healthiest green tops that seemed to extend as far as my eyes could see from left to right.

Grenache vines at Monteperle Winery

On their Gods Hill Road vineyards, four varieties of vines are cultivated by Monteperle. Grenache, Shiraz, Mataro and Cabernet Sauvignon. The GSM was their flagship for 2018. The nose is delightfully strong and intense, and its palate is round, full and complex. Being of a young vintage, it was surprisingly not astringent. Give it a few more years and it will become a really superb wine. It did not surprise me to learn it earned 96 points in the 2019 Cairn Show Wine Awards. Tony Carapetis, their wine maker, take a bow!

We enjoyed a barbeque which was personally prepared and cooked by Louis. If that was not special enough, the succulent lamb cutlets and Wagyu eye fillets from a local farmer certainly were. To top it all off, we had our first tasting of the 2018 GSM. The Shiraz in the GSM comes from the same Syrah grapevines that Penfolds used to procure for their Grange production prior to 2014. I am worried this secret will not be well kept for long. This was my first wine-tasting experience that polished off two full bottles of the same wine. Yes, that was how good their GSM was! On our way to Gods Hill Road, my brother-in-law received shocking news that his elder brother’s wife had suddenly passed away earlier in the morning. We made a toast to honour the memory of her life. Elton John was right. Life is like a candle in the wind. “To Stephanie”, we cried out amidst the clinking of Riedel glasses. The tradition of clinking glasses is about connections – establishing, honouring, celebrating and remembering them. May Stephanie be in a good place now; hopefully, somewhere as beautiful as Gods Hill Road. Whilst the glasses were clinking, I quietly made a toast to Ludwig van Beethoven in my heart. Coincidentally, both Stephanie and Beethoven died at age 56. Life is short. Life is uncertain.

She was a buddhist. May her rebirth or renewal be to a better place. The buddhists believe that unlike the pearls in a pearl necklace which are held together by a string – the ‘soul,’ which passes through all the pearls – successive existences in a series of rebirths are piled one on top of the other. Each rebirth is separate, but it supports the one above it, with which it is functionally connected. Life continues after death. And for those of us who are left behind, life goes on.

Beethoven’s life was short too but his memory lives on. His 250th birthday anniversary will be on December 16 2020, but the whole world will undoubtedly be celebrating his birth right throughout the year. I will remind myself to leave a bottle of the GSM for his birthday bash in December.

Celebrating rebirths and renewals, my visit to Monteperle Winery reminded me of the wisdom of looking at life as an ongoing cycle of renewals. Life goes on, let us make ourselves better human beings and in doing so, we will make life better.
In winter, it is the vines that will turn red and lose their leaves whereas in the distance, the straw coloured valley will become a lush green full of renewed life and promise of a great harvest. Thank you, Monteperle. Apart from experiencing their top tier wines, the “mountain of pearls” has been a worthwhile visit for my soul too. Pearls are a symbol of wisdom that is acquired through experience. Some believe that their calming influence balance our karma, strengthen relationships, and keep us safe. They also symbolise purity, generosity, integrity, and loyalty. As I raised my glass to thank our host for the wonderful afternoon, I became acutely aware that at Monteperle Vineyards on Gods Hill Road, what I experienced was much more than a glass of fine red wine. It was the revelation that wine symbolises transformation, from grapes into wine through fermentation. A symbol of divine grace and intimate love. A rebirth.

 

Dramas, Cinemas And Aromas At Christmas

It is always a long wait for Christmas to arrive. The reason to have a short stretch of happy public holidays comes only once a year and it is therefore the only time of the year when my family is complete again. A really long wait but no sooner had my sons arrived home than the goodbye hugs and bon voyage wishes begin – a mere few days later. The Mrs and I have been empty nesters for two decades. When our boys left home, it took me a long while to accept the emptiness that enveloped my life. It seemed like I lost the purpose for my existence – it only dawned on me recently how grossly unfair I was to The Mrs to have felt this way. When they were growing up, the home was a busy and noisy place. A hive of happy activities. Sounds of their music dominated the air be it of their making or from the CD receiver. That was how I gathered my repertoire of cello music. They listened to all sorts of music too, of course. The standout for me was John Williams’ Star Wars – even today, his drum march in the Main Theme never fails to arouse the fighting spirit in my once young body. His Binary Sunset will live forever – whenever the french horn makes its entrance in the music, you just know John Williams will never disappear into the sunset. Also known as the Force Theme, it has left a lasting imprint on my memory – the music gave me so much hope during the scene when Luke Skywalker gazes out to the twin suns of Tatooine. The music stopped for many years when our boys left home. The sadness, the silence and the solitude were strangers and unwelcome. Spurned in fact. It took years to reset my life. For me, the purpose The Mrs and I had in our lives had suddenly evaporated. We built a house and made it a home. Filled it with love, hope and laughter. And purpose. We were always the adults in the room. They were the kids, dependent on the adults for almost everything. Food and clothing, yes. Shelter and sanctuary, yes. Money, tick. Transport – more reliable and punctual than even Uber today, tick. As the head of the family – that is debatable if you ask The Mrs – I must confess there is a sense of self importance. Every major decision had my mark of approval. Every investment, good or bad, had my nod. Every path they took had my blessing. Skip years eleven and twelve of high school and go straight to uni? The headmistress of Maryatville High cautioned us but I said yes. The sudden offer had come from The Queensland Conservatoire – we would be foolish to reject it, especially with the full scholarships. What knowledge they sacrificed from missing those two years of school can be gained from the Internet these days. But the two years achieved early in the conservatoire would be of greater benefit to the twins, I reasoned. I foresaw that they would be competing against the world’s best in their chosen field of music performance – the earlier they start their postgraduate courses, the better equipped they would be against the rest of the world, especially the Europeans and Americans. But that false feeling of self importance, being the “god” who is needed, disappeared once they left our nest. Now as I sit and observe them partying or relaxing at home, they give me this great sense of pride that The Mrs and I did our job well. All three boys have turned out fine. Excelling in their careers, they are educated, smart and worldly. Their conversations amongst ourselves or with their cousins, and other relatives are fast flowing and intellectual, topics are vast and varied, and their voices louder than mine. I am rendered a mere observer at the best of times when they are around, and if I did speak, I struggle to hold their attention. Have I always been this slow and quiet conversationalist? As an observer, I see the inevitability of bruised egos and hurt feelings when I listen to their staccato of extensive and quick exchange of ideas, opinions and prejudices, and their no holds barred honesty with everyone. We are brutally honest with one another which means that in every family reunion, there will be a drama or dramas to cope with. As Nicole Kidman once said, even she had to humbly take the rubbish to the outside bin whenever she is home. When my sons return home, they too leave their “stardom” outside my house. After many reunions, these dramas are replayed in my mind with constant reminders from the same culprits and recently they have begun to haunt me; whenever these dramas are retold, they make me feel inferior, defective, and bad. But, I am good at expelling such thoughts; it would be silly to let such toxicity linger within. Go away, for these dramas are usually not real, a figment of someone’s imagination. What is real is the goodness of my family, the good sons who grew up in the nest The Mrs and I built and the hope they bring forward to the future. Maybe that is why we love Star Wars. When they come home, we will watch the latest instalment together, or some other movie if there is no new screening of it – a visit to the cinemas has become an annual pilgrimage just prior to Christmas. This year’s story about the last Skywalker was not as captivating. But let us not blame Disney for that – the Mandalorian is superb – all eight episodes are fantastic and the ideas are refreshingly different yet bear some link to early stories.

The aromas during this Christmas holiday have broken the longest Intermittent Fasting streak I had achieved. For the past ten days, every dinner has been sumptuous, every lunch unforgettable. There have been some wonderful meals cooked at home too. Life is good when one is surrounded by generous people who can cook. Their meals are always so delicious you cannot say no to an extra helping. My waistline is definite proof IF works. Just five days without the usual 16 hour fast was enough to make me look podgy. I no longer possess a flat tummy! The pendulum clock has just begun to strike twelve times! Happy New Year! Let’s usher in 2020 with a new resolution. I have not made a new year’s resolution for many decades but tonight I want to make one. The inspiration comes from the eight fold path. Think no bad thoughts, speak no bad words and do no bad deeds. In Mandalorian speak, that is the way, for me. Maybe I can be a lesser urghhling in the year ahead.