Hyde Park, on a visit with my son Freddy, 1993
Life, with no quarrels
In this little red dot called Singapore where I live, most people believe life can be sweet only when they study hard, work hard and achieve a positive cash flow. Poverty is no disgrace but is downright inconvenient and hampers us from shopping, travel, eating out, dressing well, reading glossy magazines, chatting on the latest cell phone, attending noisy ang moh concerts, gulping beer and watching football on giant TV screens, driving gleaming cars, visiting prostitutes in nearby Indonesian islands, and sleeping on soft sheets at day’s end.
I don’t indulge in these comforts. I can’t breathe in a crowded shopping mall. As a middle-aging writer and journalist, I despise those make-believe contents in glossy magazines. I don't eat shark’s fin, drink bird’s nest soup or swallow Viagra pills (which turn your eyes blue and then blind, followed by 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 programmes. The only effective technique to shed kilos is to run on the treadmill where one hour of hard exercise can eliminate a 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. But most individuals still measure worldly success by the number of Cs they have accumulated, including, of course, cholesterol.
I don’t live Spartan, either. I have one or two not inexpensive tastes: I lust after hardbound, quality books, and I’ve bought more than a roomful, mostly from Amazon.com and the Folio Society in England. At $30-$100 a tome, they are an indulgence. I once borrowed a 10-volume exquisitely-printed set of Tale of Genji from the local Kinokuniya bookstore for a photo-shoot to illustrate my newspaper article on pivotal works of literature in Asia. On returning the books, the store offered to sell the set to me for $500 but I didn’t take it because (a) I didn’t have that much cash, and (b) I couldn’t read the grassy Japanese script on the cream-white rice-fibre pages.
I enjoy a long run and I lift dumbbells to get rid of neck and shoulder ache. When I was doing compulsory military service as a very young man in 1970-71, I hated exercises and was skinny and unfit. I used to suffer recurring headache and a runny nose. Now, I have re-discovered the psychological exuberance and physiological euphoria of running. After a strenuous 8-12km stretch along Singapore’s east coast, 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 lumber overhead towards the nearby airport. And I rarely have headache and runny nose now.
I have also learnt that rigorous strength 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 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 job as Quartermaster in the Combat Engineers. 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 for tea and to join the company after I wrote 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), and interviewed countless individuals from both High Street and back lanes. As a result, I grew more relaxed about myself, and my attitude towards people, things and life in general.
I’ve ceased to agonise over my appearance (thin frame and thinning hair), financial status (just above the bottom of the food chain) and background (peasant stock, like my China-born sinewy father, uncles and most Hakka emigres, except the flabby 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 academic qualification, family wealth or good connection (the three easy routes to success in merits-pretentious Singapore).
After my army days in the early 1970s, I worked in a waste-paper factory, did well and learnt all I could, usually in 18 months to two years, and then quietly scouted for another job in a related profession that offered better pay and more responsibilities.
I moved on, job after job, factory after factory, and then I went into journalism, publication after publication, again staying in one place for two, three, or at most, five years.
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 is 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
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return, we can only look behind
From where we came
And go ’round and ’round and ’round
In the circle game (Joni Mitchell)
But I hate vacuous statements like, “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going,” which I first read in a Batman comic book in my primary school days. Doubtless Batman is a tough guy, but what about individuals like me who don’t drive sci-fi Batmobiles or 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” (until today I still don’t understand why Q2 needed saving) and regarded white men (“ang mohs” or red-haired demons) as our cultural and ethnic superiors.
A decade after Singapore’s independence, I found myself working as personnel administrator (today, I would be known as an HR executive) in a dredging company. One afternoon, a newly-hired dredge engineer from Holland arrived at the airport, phoned the office and ordered me to send the company car pronto to pick him. In panic, I asked him to hold the line while I consulted with the managing director’s secretary, Jackie Leong, a pretty but hard-looking 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 repeat her message (minus the copulation instruction) over the phone. The ang moh got into a cab, rushed to the office, offered profuse apologies to everyone and saved his job.
Jackie told me later that “go fuck yourself” was the correct way to answer white men who didn’t know their station in life. Unfortunately, even today, many Singapore girls over-educated in English schools, 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) along Paya Lebar Road with some colleagues, we saw an ang moh man in the back of an open pickup truck, squeezed with a bunch of sweaty, swarthy labourers. We experienced a spiritual epiphany as we exclaimed in unison: “Ang moh in pickup! Ang moh in pickup!” Since that fateful day, we realised ang mohs, like the rest of us, were simply labourers of a different hue.
Before Yama summons me
I’m now in late middle age and I reckon there’re 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, practical, 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, I soon lost my convictions, although I still enjoy reading the language of the magisterial King James Old Testament (God saves me from the modern insipid translations), particularly Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job, three books with an agnostic and a cynical attitude towards providence and the god-based 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).
So I returned to my Buddhist devotion first taught me by my saintly grandmother when I was a child living in Chinatown. And today, through careful study and mindful meditation practice, I seek to gain insight and understanding into the nature of reality — that life is suffering, impermanent, and essentially empty of a self.
Sitting down in meditation for an hour each session is painful on my knees and butt, and my mind wanders like the ever-changing Monkey God. The adventures of Monkey are found in the novel, Journey to the West, my father's favourite reading matter. He told me that Monkey and his four other pilgrim companions who headed west from China to India in search of the sutras, represent the five aspects of man: the monk Tripitaka represents the pure spiritual nature, Monkey is the unreliable, restless intellect, sex-starved Piggy the carnal desires, Sandy who carries all the luggages, steady character, and the dragon 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 overcome a demon, another one in a cleverer guise appears.
Life is short and eventually my physical frame will wear out, no matter how much fitness exercises and strength training I do. And when consciousness slips from my body like a worn blanket, I hope there will be kind friends by my side to continually 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 likeminded people. (The Web, although cheap, is still not free as I’ve got to pay US$99 a year to Homestead to host these pages.)
— Francis Chin, Dec 5, 2002, updated Sept 7, 2005
Namo tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samma Sambuddhassa