Fishing tale of the old man and the sea

Wee Keong couldn’t believe what he was seeing. A wave, like a small mountain, was moving slowly towards him. There was no fear, only shock and awe as he stood paralysed watching the monster growing bigger. Suddenly he heard someone screamed: “Wee Keong you idiot! Grab a life jacket!”

Wee Keong came alive. His head jerked to look about the deck as he tried to remember where they had placed the life jackets on this fishing boat which now seemed like a matchbox in the sea. Something slammed him from behind and he was covered in water, salt water that stung his eyes. Almost immediately he felt a giant hand pulling him out to sea. Frantically, he swung his arms out, trying to grab something, anything. A voice in his dazed brain told him he would be thrown into the sea and be quickly crushed by the water rushing into his nostrils and mouth.

Wee Keong wasn’t afraid to die, but he thought of his old mother who depended on what he earned as a fisherman’s helper. If he drowned, his mother who had accompanied him out of war-torn China, would soon be on the streets of Singapore begging for food and coins. No, he couldn’t afford to die, at least not yet.

His arms hit something hard and he grabbed it. It was the leg of a wooden stool that was nailed to the deck where the boat owner could sit comfortably, sorting out the fishes trapped in the net. Wee Keong held on to it with both hands as another torrent of water hit his face and chest. It felt worse than a boxer’s direct punch because the pain was not on one spot but on his entire head, neck and chest. Before migrating to Singapore, Wee Keong had been a street fighter back in Amoy port in China. He used to be part of a team of kungfu boxers punching and kicking on street corners. The crowd paid to watch but of course it was all carefully choreographed so nobody really got hurt. Occasionally, though, his sparring partner hit too hard and the blow was painful. But it was nothing compared with the pounding Wee Keong was now getting from the angry waves swarming over the boat.

The waves became smaller and Wee Keong could breathe again. The deck which was almost vertical, was now levelling. Then he heard someone shouting: “Ah Sim has fallen overboard! Ah Sim has fallen overboard!”

Wee Keong strained his eyes over the choppy sea and saw a black dot bobbing up and down. No, it couldn’t be Ah Sim, his close friend whom he quarrelled with, two days back on land. Both Wee Keong and Sim were good in street boxing but in the water they were more helpless than new-born kittens. Wee Keong was mentally praying: Please, somebody jump in to rescue him, please... Someone did. The first mate, a sinewy Malay fellow who lived all his life in a fishing village, tied one end of a rope around his waist, dived into the sea, and with powerful strokes, moved steadily towards the fallen man.

* * *

“So, was your friend Ah Sim saved?” I ask. Three of us from the Lions Befrienders charity programme, are gathered in Wee’s flat, listening to tales of his youth in Singapore more than half a century ago.

Wee Keong doesn’t say a word but I see a large tear coursing down his eye.

In many stories of sea rescue that I’ve read, there would be moments of uncertainty as the rescuer tried to swim closer and then being pushed away by the current. Usually, however, the human is portrayed as possessing superhuman strength, and the drama ends happily with both rescuer and victim finally pulled on board, and the reader sighing in relief.

In a real situation, things are often worse than they seemed. In a storm, any would-be rescuer faces several difficulties such as poor visibility because of the pouring rain and the giant waves hitting him. The currents are strong and it is difficult to know where the victim is at any time. No matter how strong a swimmer is, the sea is always stronger and the man’s strength is soon gone and he has to be hauled back empty-handed.

When he gets his voice back, Wee Keong says they never found Ah Sim’s body. Both were good friends from Amoy, both earned a living as professional fighters in their home town in the chaotic years during the Japanese invasion of China, and both took the same passage to Singapore to look for a better livelihood. Both shared a rented windowless cubicle in Telok Ayer Street in the heartland of Singapore’s Chinatown. Both worked the same fishing trawler anchored at nearby Telok Ayer Basin, a mini-harbour for lighters, sampans and fishing boats.

And both worshipped regularly at Thian Hock Keng Temple, on the same street where they lived. The temple, built in 1839, honours Ma Zu, Goddess of the Sea. She ensured migrants from China sail safely to Singapore, and fishermen return safely to land after each trip.

Two days ago, the two friends quarrelled over a trivial matter. Ah Sim asked Wee Keong for a sum of money to give to Sim’s girlfriend, working in a brothel in the nearby Keong Saik Road red light district. She needed the cash to pay protection money to some thugs who “owned” that district. Wee Keong refused to lend him because he himself needed it to buy herbal supplements for his sick mother. And both didn’t speak to each other even when they were in the boat. This regret for not patching up with a good friend has been gnawing Wee Keong’s heart ever since.

“You know what,” says Andy, one of the volunteers from the Lions Befrienders charity who came on weekends to keep company with Wee Keong, “I have also experienced such a terrible storm!”

We all turn to the Befriender in surprise. “Andy, you were in a fishing boat facing giant waves, like me?” asks Wee Keong incredulously. “When did it happen?”

“Just last month,” says Andy. “Actually it was in this 3D cinema in Sentosa’s maritime museum. The show was about the perfect storm, and as I was sitting on the front row, I got a bit wet when they sprayed water droplets at us to make the experience more real!” Everyone burst out in laughter and the tense spell is broken.

Wee Keong, now in his 80’s, has left his sailing days more than forty years ago when he realised his legs were no longer steady and firm on a rolling deck. He can still amble about in his neighbourhood, but he is alone and depressed, without relatives and other friends. He has never married and since his mother’s death three decades back, he has gradually lost contact with whatever few relations his mother knew in Singapore. And because he has not learnt to read and write, Wee Keong has few mental resources to occupy the long hours between sleep. He suffers immeasurably from ennui, the feeling of tediousness and lack of interest in anything.

It is difficult to pass time when your mind is unfocused and untrained, so unless a social worker or volunteer visits them, many of these seniors simply sit on the stone bench in the ground-floor void deck of their apartment block, and stare into hazy space. They don’t even join other more voluble old people in a nearby kopitiam to play a game of wei-chi or Chinese Chess.

* * *

The above story is purely fictional, partly inspired by the life of former fisherman, 84-year-old Wee Tee Kiah who was born in Singapore (not China) and went to sea in his father’s boat when he was only ten.

More on the real-life Mr Wee and his Befriender

The Lions Befrienders are a group of volunteers who serve more than 5,000 lonely but relatively healthy old folks or “seniors”, and keep them company. If you like to listen to engrossing tales of a bygone Singapore from people who have lived through it all, sign up with the Befrienders.


Monster wave coming down on fishing boat