Year: 2003 SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)
Location: Singapore, Desker Road Coffee Shop
Yang: Hokkien Peranakan. Late 30s. Retrenched. Jobless. Estrangement. No kids.
Big brother: Triad chief of Desker neighbourhood
Pig face: A look-out
Susan: Coffeeshop drinks operator
Setbacks in life occur for many people. For one of my old clients, this story was narrated to me some 2 days ago.
In 2003, the SARS virus affected the world economy and people like Harry lost his sales job and could not find any for several months. His marriage was on the rocks and his mum sided with the daughter-in-law. He had to move out.
He decided to open a food stall in a corner two-storey coffeeshop at Desker Road selling mee-siam and mee-goreng. As to why he set up a stall in this notorious red-light district, I forgot to ask him but I made him show me the real place. Not that I don't trust him. His tale was too incredible to be true.
I met him for lunch two days ago. I wanted to keep in touch and learn some secrets of his success as a sales person for a corporation. Learn from the best. Lately, I had been meeting men and women in dire straits and so meeting Harry was so much positive for the spirits.
During lunch at Hans eating his favourite sweet and sour fish , Harry recalled the setback in his life in 2003.
"One day, a young man on a bicycle beckoned him with a finger to come out of his stall to extort money. "Brother, I can give you free food," Harry said. "I have no money to give you." The extortionist was not pleased.
"Why so depressed?" Susan, the coffeeshop lady asked me one day. "Susan is the wife of Tenant and controls the drinks stall," Harry elaborated. "She will barter free drinks for my food. But no beer."
"I don't want to cause trouble," Harry told Susan what happened and Susan told him that he would see some fireworks soon.
"So, what happened?" I asked.
"The gangster chief came for dinner and I served him. Two eggs for his mee-goreng." And I thought the triads and secret societies were wiped out by the number "999" in Singapore since 1990. Many secret societies had numbers but somebody told me that the only gang in Singapore is "999" nowadays. Even in the red-light district of Desker Road. For the benefit of readers, "999" refers to the Singapore police force.
Harry said, "The gangster chief asked his man to get Pig Face (the extortionist on the bicycle).
The gangster chief cursed Pig Face with all the swear words in the Hokkien vocabulary. "When my mother does not cook my dinner, I come here to eat. Why are you harassing Yuan?"
Seeing me perplexed, Harry explained that "Yuan" meant "Handsome" in Hokkien. More expletives. Then his men kicked Pig Face. Pig Face fell and he was kicked more times. Harry is a Hokkien Peranakan and understood the Hokkien foul words well. "Every word from the gangster's mouth is a foul word as he reprimanded Pig Face," Harry did not repeat those expletives as he was the type who does not do it in my presence.
Extortion and violence are part and parcel of secret societies but I did not associate with such elements and this was the first time I had heard of the culture of the gangsters at Desker Road.
"I presume the gangster chief and his men get free meals from you for protection," I said to Harry.
"He always pay for his meals," Harry said to my surprise. "Do you know what Pig Face does for a living?"
"No," I said.
"Pig Face's job was to cycle up and down the alley between Desker and Rowell Road. Whenever he sees the police, he will sound the alarm or ram his bicycle into them. This will alert the sellers of pirated CDs and pornographic material." Since Playboy magazine is prohibited in Singapore, there must be a demand for such items amongst the young national servicemen."
Harry said, "Pig Face is a runner." But runners can be ambitious too to rise up the corporate ladder. Only that he picked the wrong person to extort. All the characters of 2003 had disappeared although the coffee shop, now taken by a new management, still exists.
Harry is now a very successful sales person and earns at least $5,000 per month. He still works for various corporations. But legal ones. He is the type who is afraid of starting up but he has the network and supporters over the past 10 years to support him if he knows how to be an entrepreneur. He has the guaranteed salary at the end of the month. So, why bother getting out of his comfort zone and being at risk of no income. He never takes kick backs when he works for the corporation. Nor does he go for the wine and women.
So, his reputation remains good and there is a great demand for excellent sales person in his industry. Gangsters still exist in Singapore but they are emasculated and not so fearsome as before. They used to be identified with tattoos but many young Singapore females tattoo themselves and therefore, we can't be sure who is the real gangster.
When the chips are down, Harry started a food stall rather than borrowing money from friends and strangers and conning Singaporeans of their money. He is the sort of rare person who is an asset to any business and a role model for young men.