Francis Chin at Hyde Park, London
Me in Hyde Park, London, photo shot by my son Fred, 1993

Life, with no quarrels

IN THIS little red dot called Singapore where I live, folks believe life can be sweet only when they study hard, work hard and achieve a positive cash flow.

Poverty is no disgrace but to most Singaporeans, it is downright inconvenient and hampers them from shopping, travel, eating out, dressing well, reading glossy magazines, chatting on the latest cell phone, attending rowdy ang moh (white man) concerts, gulping beer in noisy coffeeshops, driving gleaming cars, visiting massage parlours for happy endings (for the men), and sleeping on soft sheets at day’s end.

Well, I don’t follow the Singapore herd. I can’t breathe in crowded malls. I despise the slick, ad-laden magazines and consumerist lifestyle they advocate. I avoid Chinese restaurants with their pricey abalone, shark fin and bird nest soups of zero nutrition value. I don’t swallow Viagra pills (which turn your eyes blue, followed by splitting migraine and a heart attack). I don’t go to the cinema unless the movie is mindlessly entertaining.

I don’t waste good money on alcohol, hair scalp treatment or weight-loss regimes. Hair restoration is a myth. And the only effective technique to shed kilos is to run on the treadmill or the road where one hour of hard exercise can eliminate a half-kilo of body weight, as I have personally experienced.

I don’t care for those Cs that male Singaporeans crave — condos, credit cards, clubs, cars and chicks with perky breasts and stiff chocolate nipples in nearby Indonesian islands. But folks still measure worldly success by the number of Cs they have accumulated, including, of course, cholesterol.

But I don’t live Spartan, either. I lust after hardbound, quality books, and I’ve bought more than a roomful of them, mostly from and the Folio Society in England. At $30-$100 a tome, they are an indulgence. I once borrowed an exquisitely-printed 10-volume set of Tale of Genji from the local Kinokuniya bookstore for a photo-shoot to illustrate my newspaper article on seminal works of literature in Asia. When I  returned the books, the store offered to sell the set to me for $500 but as much as I was devoted to Genji I didn’t buy it because (a) I didn’t have that much ready cash, and (b) I couldn’t read the grassy Japanese script on the cream-smooth rice-fibre pages.

I enjoy a long run and I lift dumbbells to get rid of neck and shoulder aches. In secondary school and during military service, I was skinny and unfit. I used to suffer recurring headache and a runny nose.

Now, I have re-discovered the mental exuberance and physical euphoria of running. After a strenuous 5-8 km stretch along Singapore’s east coast park, I luxuriate in the feeling of being on top of the world as I drench my body in the park’s open-air shower while aeroplanes drone overhead towards the nearby Changi Airport. And I rarely have headache and runny nose now.

I have also learnt that rigorous training with dumbbells and barbells strengthen my muscles to the extent that joint pains are eliminated and I could bend and straighten my knees like a teenage gymnast.

I like scuba-diving and drifting underwater with arms folded, watching rainbow corals and lucent fishes (the ultimate bystander sport) although scuba equipment is expensive and travelling to remote dive resorts with 40kg of gear is physical and financial hardship. I am also a natural-born coward and occasionally get panic attacks when popping my head under a restless sea.

I have job-hopped through many demanding careers, starting with my first big one as Quartermaster in the Combat Engineers in end-1971. After military service, I worked in personnel management in a few factories (nowadays, the practice is called “human resource”, as if humans are just another commodity). 

Somewhere in 1977 the potbellied, hard-drinking editor-in-chief of the local morning paper, TS Khoo, invited me to tea and to join the company after I sent in a letter pointing out the foggy language of several articles in his paper.

So I switched from shop floor to news room. In the process, I picked up some skills in writing and line-editing (cutting and simplifying other people’s writing line by line), and interviewed countless individuals from both High Street and back alleys. As a result, I grew more relaxed about myself, and less critical towards people, things and life in general. 

I’ve ceased to agonise over my appearance (thin frame and thinning hair), financial status (just a notch above the bottom of the food chain) and background (peasant stock, like my China-born sinewy father, uncles and most Hakka émigrés, except the flabby, floppy ones who owned pawnshops).

Job-hopping is an effective means to career advancement for individuals like me who graduated from the school of hard knocks and didn’t have fancy academic qualifications, family wealth or good connections (the three slick paths to success in merits-pretentious Singapore). 

Here was how I job-hopped and advanced my career: After my army days in 1973, I worked in a waste-paper factory as a payroll and personnel administration clerk. The subsistence pay at $230 was just slightly more than twice what I got as an army recruit in 1970, but I learnt all I could, and in two years moved to a dredging company, also handling personnel work. The pay was almost double, but even more important, the duties and responsibilities were more diverse, intense and interesting (nowadays any job with these attributes are called “challenging”). With the experience, I managed to get a fairly senior job as administrative officer in a food-making factory in 1976.  So I moved on, job after job, factory after factory, until I moved to journalism.

Recently, I acquired a master degree in mass communication at a point in time when I was planning to jump out of life’s carousel. Since I won’t need this qualification which took two years of intensive study and writing, and over $20,000 in fees, I did not bother to collect the formal scroll at the Nanyang Technological University’s office for more than two years after graduation. My excuse was that the campus was 33km away in the boondocks, and the drive would cost me a small fortune in petrol.

Life is sometimes easy, oftentimes tough, but always interesting, reminding me of an old song that I would hum whenever the going gets hard: 

And the seasons they go ’round and ’round
And the painted ponies go up and down
Were captive on the carousel of time
We cant return, we can only look behind
From where we came
And go ’round and ’round and ’round
In the circle game  (Joni Mitchell)

I hate vacuous statements like, “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going”, which I first read in a Batman comic book in primary school days. Doubtless Batman is a tough guy, but what about individuals like me who don’t have steel ball-bearings pasted on our abdomens?

When I was growing up in Singapore in the 1950s, we lived under British colonial masters, studied in English-language schools, sang “God Save the Queen” (why QE2 needed saving I couldn’t figure out) and regarded white men (ang mohs or red-haired demons) as our cultural and ethnic superiors. 

During my stint at the dredging company (1975), I learnt an important lesson regarding white men. One afternoon, a newly-hired dredge engineer from Holland arrived at the airport, phoned the office and demanded to know why no one was present to drive him to the office. In panic, I asked him to hold the line while I consulted the managing director’s secretary, Jackie Leong, a pretty, icy Cantonese girl who ran the office when the boss was away. Jackie told me to tell the engineer to go fuck himself and make his own way to the office or be sacked. Accordingly, I repeated her message (minus the self-copulation instruction) over the phone. The ang moh got into a cab, rushed to the office, offered profuse apologies to everyone and kept his job.

Jackie told me later that “go fuck yourself” was the way to answer white men who didn’t know their station in life. Unfortunately, even today, many Singapore girls saturated in Western culture, still consider the white man divine. They live in the hope of being screwed by an ang moh and migrating with him to some frozen ghetto in New York or Chicago.

Two years ago (2003), while I was having lunch in a kopitiam (coffee shop that sells watered-down sugary coffee and greasy food) along Paya Lebar Road with some colleagues, we saw an ang moh man in the back of an open pickup truck, squeezed among a bunch of sweaty, swarthy labourers. It was an epiphany for us as we exclaimed in unison: “Ang moh in pickup! Ang moh in pickup!” Since that fateful day, we realised that white men were simply labourers of a different skin hue.

I’m now in very late middle age and I reckon there’s another quarter-century or less before King Yama summons me to the Underworld. Like a miser who knows his hoard of days is diminishing, I’ve got to ration life.

Life is Dharma

Buddha’s holy teaching, the Dharma (also spelt Dhamma in Pali) is the only authentic, workable guide to life, the afterlife and ultimate Nirvana. Any life not centred on Dharma practices is simply a life doomed to oblivion. 

I’ve wasted the best part of my youth, when my mind was at its most pliant, following the Christian evangelical faith. I memorised entire bible books such as the Epistle to the Romans and 2 Timothy, and even attempted to learn New Testament Greek, for crying out loud! 

Through the patient teaching of an American bible scholar and critic, Dr Andrew Way, who explained clearly why bible “truths” were to be taken allegorically and not literally, I saw the light and lost my convictions. I still enjoy reading the magisterial King James Old Testament though (God saves me from the modern insipid translations), particularly Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job, three wisdom books with an agnostic and a cynical attitude towards providence and the god-fearing life.

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs. (Ecclesiastes 12:8, 9).

And here is another even more shocking insight from the preacher:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

It doesn’t matter whether you are strong or smart or religious, good and bad things happen to you by chance. Life is random. God plays no role in your circumstances.

So I returned to my Buddhist devotion first taught me by my saintly Grandma when I was a child living in Amoy Street in the heart of Singapore's Chinatown. And today, through careful study and Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation, I am seeking to gain an understanding into the nature of reality — that life is suffering, that all things are impermanent, and there is no permanent self that I can call me.

Sitting down in meditation for an hour each session is painful on my knees and butt, and my mind wanders like the restless Monkey God.

The adventures of Monkey are found in the novel, Journey to the West, my father’s favourite reading matter. He told me Monkey and the four other pilgrim companions who headed west from China to India in search of the Sutras, represent the five aspects of man. The team leader, the monk Tripitaka represents pure spiritual nature; Monkey is the ever-active intellect; gluttony, sex-starved Piggy the carnal desires; Sandy who carries the luggage is steady character; and the dragon prince turned horse, the physical body. 

Throughout the journey, the pilgrims encounter and defeat numerous demons. My father said evil has many faces. Each time the pilgrims, working together as a team, overcome a demon, another one in a more subtle guise appears.

Life is short and my parents and grandparents whom I depended so much for guidance are long gone. Eventually, my physical frame too will wear out, no matter how much running and strength training I do. And when consciousness slips from my body like a worn blanket, I hope there may be kind friends by my side to whisper Dharma reminders and read the Tibetan Book of the Dead to encourage, guide and prod my consciousness on the right path through the awful transition state (the “bardo”) before the next rebirth.

As I can’t afford publishing my opinionated writings in a book, I’ve put them on this Web site as a convenient way to share them with like-minded people. (The Web, although cheap, is still not free as I’ve got to pay US$99 a year to to host these pages.)

— Francis Chin, Dec 5, 2002, updated Sept 7, 2005

Namo tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samma Sambuddhassa

An Egoist looks at Life  |  Growing up under the British crown  |  Contents 

Painted ponies go up and down in the carousel of time