Sunday, June 16, 2019

LWE Chapter 14: Sibling Birthdays - June

Francis at a Parang factory in Bidor, taking his time to choose something.

The Spawn of Satan?

So after a short break for my birthday in May, we arrive in June. And the birthday of my 'Spawn of Satan' brother… Francis was born on the 6th day of the 6th month of the 6th year in the decade. Not quite the 666 sequence mentioned in the horror story ‘Damien’, which was the 6th hour of the 6th day of the 6th month, but it certainly gave us something to think about when the book and movie came out.
Francis didn’t help us dispel the creepy idea he had a Satanic streak by being a quiet sort of bloke. Like Joe, he had a change of trajectory, swapping accountancy for law and eventually ending up in London with Tony, and getting his degree there. He sat for the Bar in London but the legendary difficulty of passing the English Bar Finals proved to be true so he returned and was eventually admitted to the Bar here.
At first glance, Law seems to have been a weird choice of careers. As I said, Francis was usually rather quiet, keeping his thoughts to himself. I recall an uncle once even telling me he worried about Francis blowing up at the world one day, seeing as how he bottled everything up within himself.
Well, Francis didn’t bottle things up so much as simply take his time to ponder and consider. And he wasn’t cut off from the world at all. He was knowledgeable and well-read, and more importantly, he had a conscience.
And it was that conscience that led him to do a bunch of legal aid work and to get himself involved in activities aimed at protecting democracy and the rule of law. In post-Operation-Lalang Malaysia, there was a lot that needed work, and fortunately there was no shortage of activists who were dedicated to that work.

Francis doing his best John Lennon impression.
And so in between taking on cases of battered wives or abandoned families, he was also one of scores who helped with the families of ISA detainees, offering advice and support for the spouses and children torn from their partners or parents. He was also there when Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM) was founded in 1989 to protect and promote human rights in a just, equal and democratic society. 
I remember Francis flogging cassettes as part of a fund-raiser by SUARAM. This was an album of music by local artists singing songs with a human-rights angle, and one of those songs was by someone who would later be my friend, Paul Ponnudorai, who had put music to a Cecil Rajendra poem. 
I had, by then, returned from Australia and when Francis found me to be quite sympathetic to the causes he was involved in, he roped me in to help out too and so I can now proudly say I did my little bit for democracy in late 80s Malaysia.
Not anywhere close to what Francis did though - to the extent he almost lost his life doing so.

You couldn't say much about his fashion sense, but Francis was very comfortable in the jungle.

The Hero of the Family

As part of efforts to ensure the Bakun Dam project did not unduly affect the natives of Sarawak, Francis took a trip to visit the Penan in the interior, a journey that involved a boat ride up one of Sarawak’s many rivers. The boat they were on had passed some rapids when a little while later, it suffered engine failure and was helplessly swept back to the rapids where it capsized. Everyone in it was flung into the water, including my dear unable-to-swim brother.
He managed to grab some empty plastic water containers and using them as makeshift floats, he began to paddle towards the river bank. He had almost made it when he heard the cries of a woman who had been on the same boat and so, despite not being able to swim, Francis turned back, away from the river bank and made his way towards her.
He reached her and the two clung to each other and the plastic floats, and tried to make it to the bank again but were swept instead by the current into a small whirlpool. He would later say they were fortunate it was not the rainy season for this whirlpool was neither very strong nor deep. They could not escape its clasp, however, and so they circled for hours.
By this time, wreckage of the boat had been swept back to a village downstream and the villagers quickly despatched another boat and so it was that Francis and the woman were eventually found, as were the rest of the crew and passengers. The lady whom Francis saved now heads the the organisation that's pursuing the case of the Scorpene Submarines with the French Government - a not insignificant person! 
The one person they could not find was the video cameraman whose body was only found 3 days later - the only fatality.
A small story appeared in the newspapers, though if I recall correctly, the purpose of their trip was never disclosed. In fact, the whole story wasn’t initially mentioned to the family either and we only found out in bits and pieces over time. 
About 10 years later, I was in a pub in SIngapore, listening to none other than Paul Ponnudorai. We had only recently become friends and at one point I casually mentioned that I liked the song he’d contributed to SUARAM’s album. He asked how I’d known about it and I mentioned that my brother was involved and dropped his name. Paul’s reaction was ‘I know your brother!’
A little surprised, I asked how and he said that Francis was on a boat in Sarawak which capsized. One of Paul’s relatives (I forget the exact relationship) was also on that boat and that is how I know the video guy drowned. He was Paul’s relative.

Legal Eagle Becomes Jungle Man

In the mid to late 90s, Francis finally stopped practising law and made a career change that would alter the course of his life. He worked briefly for the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, then joined The Malayan Nature Society and worked under Heah Hock Heng who had been given the contract to build a visitors’ centre in the Endau Rompin National Park in Johor. Heah was coincidentally my best friend’s brother-in-law.
Francis was never one for extravagance. Working in Endau though, he brought this modesty to a whole new level, or should I say, depth. We visited once, in 1998, when it was still a worker’s campsite in the middle of the jungle. We had a fantastic time sleeping in makeshift campbeds, walking 20m to the toilets/showers and fighting off leeches and worse, the last remnants of an infestation of Furry Caterpillars whose delicate fur were highly toxic, the contact with which would result in scores of huge welts on the body, requiring a quick dose of anti histamines to deal with.
Eventually, the visitors’ Centre was completed and when the project was handed over to the Johor National Parks Board, Francis went along too and became a Park Manager. Over the next few years, the centre grew into the Nature Education and Research Centre and had chalets, a hall and more.

The workcamp when we visited in 1998. 
Here is where we fought leeches, furry caterpillars and the fear of shadows at night. 
Part of The NERC a few years later.
In those days, the NERC took a few hours to reach and had no mobile phone coverage. They did have a satellite phone and that was how we could contact him if needed.
One day though, he turned up at the PJ house complaining of a bad tummy. When it seemed to be more serious than just an upset stomach, he was carted off to the hospital and was immediately scheduled for an operation - he had appendicitis and it could very well have been much more serious considering how long he’d put up with it.
The next day, my brother-in-law Yap, who had had to send Francis to hospital the day before, also started complaining of stomach pains and lo and behold, when examined by a doctor was also immediately sent for an appendectomy! What are the chances of this?

The Gears in His Head go Round and Round...

Good thing the two of them acted swiftly. Talking of which, one thing about Francis which has become legendary is that despite his ability to do his work well, in his personal life he can be rather less than swift when making certain decisions. Case in point, he once visited SIngapore and I brought him and his girlfriend then, Yen, to a camping gear shop. The two were suitably matched, as I discovered… Among things they were both looking for were water bottles and they began to check out the display. Half an hour later, they were both still checking out the display. Francis had two in his hands. I could almost hear the gears in his head turning as he deliberated ‘One is larger, which is good. Or is that not good as it might be too heavy? And the other might be a better plastic but is smaller which is not good. Or maybe it is good as it would be lighter? Which one to get?’
I, meanwhile was just thinking ‘Let’s just choose already!’
There is a picture here of him looking at two fire extinguishers… I can almost hear the gears in his head turning…

Francis checking out two fire extinguishers. Guess how long he took?
In Endau in 1998, checkign out the size of an Elephant's footprints.
After Endau, Francis was posted to the Gunung Ledang National Park where he was Park Manager for some years. Gunung Ledang or Mt Ophir, is a popular camping and hiking spot and the climb can be challenging with a few people getting lost each year, and a few more needing assistance on their hikes.
One stormy period, the Forestry Department had done their checks on trees in the camp site when Francis decided to do his own inspection. Coming up to the campsite, he cast an eye over the location and, feeling uneasy despite the Forestry Department’s assurances, he instructed his staff to clear the area of campers.
Later that day, some climbers who were away when Francis did his checks, came back and pitched their tent in the campsite, probably wondering where everyone was. That night, in the middle of a storm, a huge tree right across the river, one that had escaped the Forestry Department’s checks simply because it was deemed too far away, became uprooted and fell across the river right onto the campsite, killing one person.
No one could have expected it and if the site had not been cleared earlier in the day, more people than the latecomers would have been hurt or would have lost their lives. There really had been no real reason to clear the camp, but Francis responded to his unease by being cautious. And again, like in Sarawak, he ended up saving lives.
By this time, Francis had mostly stopped using his legal background and experience and was instead gaining valuable exposure and cementing his reputation in things flora and fauna. And despite his calm and quiet manner, he was tapping into the Cheong gene, that intrinsic quality we all share of being mischievously funny. As family we see this part of his character every now and then. We’d not realised that he exhibited it for others as well.
It was Heah’s sis-in-law who told me. The family was very much still involved with MNS and one day she mentioned that she’d been around when Francis was explaining something to some guests at one of the parks. With great seriousness but a twinkle in his eye, he cleverly worked some fibs in amongst the facts and figures and the guests were none the wiser for some time. I can well imagine park visitors being amazed that anacondas not only roamed these jungles but could fling themselves form tree to tree in pursuit of their prey… until Francis admitted they actually did not.

Retire? Never!

Nearing retirement age, Johor National Parks gave Francis a desk job centred around compliance and legal issues so he once again had to fall back on his legal training. After years in the field, living in the jungle or a modest house in a small town, making friends with the Orang Asli, getting close to the villagers around the area, and even receiving free fruit and other gifts from local smallholders, being stuck in an air conditioned office can’t have been easy.
Retirement eventually arrived but it was not long before he was once again making trips into the jungles of Johor. The World Wildlife Fund employed him to help with the Tiger Project.
So once again, my brother got into the business of saving lives. Not humans this time, but the critically endangered Tigers that roamed the jungles of the Peninsula. He’s still working there now. 
If you took a step back and looked at his life, it’s often been about battles. He’s battled a legal system that was failing the poor and helpless. He’s battled the failings of a democratic system. He’s battled injustice and a law enforcement system that was made a tool of political leaders.
A little diversion here to relate a story about the founding of SUARAM and the fear that was inherent in society then. Francis had asked if I could design a logo for something or other and I was asked drop by at a meeting they were having one night, to show some sketches. That night happened to be the night after SUARAM was launched at the Chinese Assembly Hall. I had also been asked by Francis to take pictures of that event, which I did - armed with my Nikon and large flash, I roamed around snapping pictures of the event that day.
Late that night, I drove over to the house where their meeting was being held. Bear in mind that I didn’t know many of the activists and many, in turn, did not know me either. So when I knocked on the door in the dark of the night, the person who answered the door had never seen me before. Well, actually he had. Earlier that day. Armed with a Nikon and snapping pictures of them. In the same way the Special Branch always did.
He opened the door and his eyes were at first quizzical ‘Who could it be at this time?’ then the curiosity gave way to a flash of fear when he recognised my face as the one behind the camera that day, and wrongly assuming I was Special Branch, the expression on his face changed in an instant to ‘We’re being raided!’
In that little pause, I asked for Francis and said I was his brother and the man’s expression changed yet again and with a big laugh and a wipe of his brow he went ‘Bloody hell, you scared me there for a minute!’
This was how the times were then. And like how he would one day swim back to save a woman, or years later answer a gut instinct with a decision that saved tens of lives, my brother was fearless. Quiet, but fearless.

The battles continue to this day. Now it’s poachers and those in power who circumvent laws in order to line their own pockets. It seems that saving the Tigers is a noble but ultimately fruitless cause. The task seems too large, the odds too great. These have never really stopped Francis before, though. And though he would be the first to say he’s but a tiny cog in the whole apparatus, I would reply that it’s tiny cogs that keep the machinery going.
The personal battle that Francis continues to wage war against is Glaucoma. Diagnosed some years ago, he continues treatment of this and plugs on despite having lost 30% of his vision. We all worry. But we also figure this quiet and unassuming brother of ours is a hero and he will persevere and prevail. He always has.
Happy 63rd birthday, my hero brother.

[This blog post was updated to correct information about the person Francis saved in Sarawak.]

Friday, April 26, 2019

LWE Chapter 13: Sibling Birthdays - April

We Cheongs are a stubborn lot. My siblings and I exhibit this trait to varying degrees with there being no true ‘zero’. We are all a little set in our ways and can take enormous amounts of persuasion to push us off our chosen course.

If there was a joke about Cheongs it would go something like:
‘Q: How do you tell a Cheong?
A: You can’t. You can’t tell a Cheong anything. He’ll just do what he wants.’
In our family though, Gerard would be the apex. On a scale of 1 - 10, with 1 being a little certain of our course and 10 being immutable steadfastness, Gerard would rank somewhere between 12 and 13.

He would not get dressed.

Mum would speak of how stubborn Gerard could be as a child, often recounting the story of getting him ready for church on Sunday as an example of this. It seems that when he was young, Gerard would refuse to get changed to go to church for Sunday Mass. Cajoling, then scolding and the inevitable swish of the cane (this was the 70s, mind, so don’t judge) would be necessary before he’d change into Sunday best.
Then he’d refuse to get into the car. Repeat, scolding, cane, etc.
Then once we’d all arrived at church, he’d refuse to get out of the car…
I’m not sure, but I believe he has heard the sermon from the back seat of our family car more than once.

As he grew up though, Dad had another take on this streak and proclaimed that Gerard’s stubbornness was actually a strength he could make use of, to keep plodding on even when things got tough.

Gerard (with Mum in background) in SIngapore, visiting the kids and playing with Michael. c 2003.

Things did get tough sometimes and plod on Gerard always did. After graduation from University of New South Wales with a BSc in Botany, he returned to Malaysia and started a job with The Lion Group. He was posted to Lahad Datu in Sabah, supposedly to do research. He flew in to Lahad Datu on 24 September 1985. And if you don’t know that date, check it out.

The day before, a bunch of pirates had landed at the main jetty in town, set up a mortar, rained mortar shells on the police station a little down the road, then walked up the main street firing with their M16s and eventually held up the bank and tried to escape with some loot.

He arrived after the pirates had left.

The Marine Police gave chase as they tried to flee and there are reports the Air Force were called in too. All that was on the 23rd. On the 24th, one Gerard Cheong arrived in a town that was mostly shuttered and closed, still reeling in shock from the carnage and death of the day before.

Gerard was taken out of town to the estate he was to live in for the next year, and he plodded on. The double-storey estate home had problems with the water pump which sometimes worked and sometimes did not, so Gerard really had a rural experience which he dealt with comfortably.

When we were much younger, we didn’t get on. Well, I didn’t think much about it and had no problem with my older brothers and sisters but of course Gerard, in his late teens and with a girlfriend as well, found me, in my very early teens, to be a pesky kid, frequently in his way. So we didn’t do anything much together unlike when we were very much younger. In fact he was often moody and surly when I was around.

All that changed when he went to Australia though. We started corresponding and when I got into cycling, he even sent me a book on cycling from Australia. He’d been very much into cycling before he left Malaysia and continued to cycle around in his university days and so often encouraged me in my pursuit of this pastime.

When he was in Lahad Datu and I got my Australian PR and was readying myself to go, he contacted me and invited me over to stay with him for a couple of weeks so he could see me before I left. He paid for my trip and so it was that my very first time on an aeroplane was to fly to Kota Kinabalu and then to take a connecting flight 6 hours later to Lahad Datu.

We had a good time while in Lahad Datu and I got to see and do some amazing things including seeing whole mountains being cleared for agriculture, or Gerard’s boss driving around with a shotgun in the boot, or accompanying a few staff as they delivered payroll in the estates - all in cash and protected by armed soldiers. And one night when he was busy and had asked a colleague to take me out for a drink or something, we ended up being tailed by her ex boyfriend. Lahad Datu is a small town and so there was no point in trying to lose him so she just drove around pointing out sights (not many of them in that small place, to be honest) while her ex drove about 100 metres behind. Quite an adventure.

Talking of adventure, I also got my first experience of 4-wheel-drive off-roading and of us getting stuck in ankle deep mud and walking through that slippery stuff - one step forward and slide half a step back - to rouse the tractor driver in the middle of the night so he could come and pull our Nissan Patrol out. Even with diff locks and low range, we could not escape the clutches of that goo, but the tractor yanked us out with disdain.

It was on that night that Gerard got into one of his ‘I’m going quiet and just plodding along’ moods. It wasn’t a big deal but I could tell he was frustrated he’d gotten us stuck and preferred not to talk about it, while we plodded on sorting it all out.

With Mum and Theresa in Penang.

Stubborn. And Moody. That's a combination for you...

I was to see this mood off an on over the years. It was never alarming and we learnt to just ignore him until it passed. He was just plodding on and sorting things out. In his own way, in his own time.

A couple of years later, Gerard and his wife, Kitt, moved to Australia. He became a citizen and eventually began a masters programme in Uni of Sydney. He also worked part time at the Immigration Department and some years after I’d returned to Malaysia, he left Australia - now divorced and diving into research for his masters - and went to live in Indo China to continue researching his subject matter: Resource Management along the Mekong.

The good thing about this was that we saw more of him as he was much nearer our family home. On one of those trips back, we decided to take Mum and her very dear friend, Theresa Soh, up to Penang to visit their friends Johnny Cardosa and his wife Yee Hah. I’ve mentioned them before when talking about my father’s death.

Anyway, the two ladies had a great time as did Gerard and I. They stayed with Johnny and Yee Hah while Gerard and I stayed at a hotel in Gurney. We drove around Penang and explored and did stuff. On the trip back to KL a few days later, Theresa said this was one of the best holidays she’d ever had.
She passed away a few years later, and Mum said she had often spoken of that wonderful holiday she’d had in Penang with us.

We've been on adventures.

Thinking back now, I realise I’ve actually gone away on trips with Gerard quite a few times. We went to Endau Rompin in 1999 when older brother Francis was starting on his job with the Malaysian Nature Society, building what was to become the Nature Education and Research Centre in Endau Rompin National Park.

We also went on a drive around northern Malaysia in 2003. We borrowed Francis’ Suzuki Jeep and drove up north, staying a night in Fraser’s Hill, then across and spent a couple of days in Gua Musang before coming back via a new highway that went from Gua Musang to Camerons. We went elsewhere as well but these 3 places are significant because each location had a special event.

We had decided to take turns at driving and I’d driven up Fraser’s so Gerard drove down. Traffic then was one way, at alternating hours and you are warned not to stop along the way. We stopped along the way.

We had to… As we set off, Gerard had slid the seat back to accommodate the 5-inch difference in our heights. A few minutes on and he still felt it was too cramped, not like when he had previously driven that same car. So he leant down, pulled up on the seat lever and with his long legs pushed hard against the seat in an attempt to force it back.

We heard this strange whooshing noise then suddenly the inside of the car filled with a white cloud. I thought at first that something had caught on fire then just as quickly realised that wasn’t it. It took us both 3 seconds then we both blurted out ‘Fire Extinguisher!’

The fire extinguisher had slipped down behind the driver’s seat and when Gerard pushed hard back against it, the rail of the seat punctured the canister and sent a kilogram of fine white dust swooshing into the cabin.

We pulled over and examined the car. The interior was coated in fine white powder, as were our bags and clothes, and as we resumed our journey with windows down, some blew out, leaving a trail of white dust in our wake. Someone following us would have thought we were in serious trouble. We weren’t really, of course, and we both had a good laugh about it. We eventually found a car wash with a makeshift vacuum cleaner and they sucked out most of the stuff.

In Gua Musang, we took a walk to the edge of town and climbed up a limestone hill, looking for a cave we’d heard about. A Malay gentleman and two young Orang Asli boys caught up with us then said we could follow them on up as they were going there too. And so we clambered up, me with my heavy camera backpack. At one point we strugg… no wait, make that ‘I’ struggled up and over a huge slippery rock. The Orang Asli boys had no trouble in their slippers while I slid and hung on to the rope with much difficulty. We even squeezed between two large rock faces so close together I had to take my back pack off. Eventually though, we arrived in a huge cavern which, to this day, I rate as one of the coolest things I’ve seen and done on my trips.

From Gua Musang, we set off on a highway we’d heard about. We found the highway alright and then realised two things - we didn’t know if it was the right one, and it had better be the right one as we only had fuel enough for about 120kms…

It was the right one. But it wasn’t completed and while cruising at about 100 km/h for some time, I spied the first speed limit sign along this road - 50 km/h! - and then had to slam on the brakes as the road ended. For the next few kms we struggled on bumpy gravel and traversed 3 or 4 streams/rivers as the bridges that would eventually ford them were gradually taking shape above us.

The highway traversed some beautiful scenery but this was sobering as we realised it was cutting through Orang Asli land and also maybe the pathways of wild animals.

On a trip to Singapore with Mum some time later, Gerard arrived looking a bit under the weather. Mum was OK and the trip down by bus had done her no harm but Gerard reckoned (after some persuasion and prodding) he’d eaten too much watermelon.

I tried asking if he wanted anything, doctor, medicine, water, hot tea… but he’d gone into that space and merely smiled softly. A smile that said ‘leave me alone’ so I did. And amazingly, by the next morning he was right as rain.

A Government man. A family man.

Gerard returned to Australia after his stint in Indo China then got involved with the United Nations and did some work for them back in Indo China and East Timor before accepting a job with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, handling their development fund in Jakarta then East Timor. On his first stint in Timor, he met Leoniza and they eventually got married in 2004, around the time of the Asian Tsunami… He certainly has a knack for picking dates of life changing events.

After Mum passed away in 2016, we’ve seen much less of Gerard and don’t chat with him on WhatsApp much either. At first I thought he had simply gone into one of his ‘leave me alone’ moods but this one persisted. He’d moved back to Canberra after some years in Jakarta then East Timor with Leoniza and their son David.

I met Gerard again in February when we were in Australia for our niece’s wedding. He looked much the same though now with a bit more grey hair. And despite the longer ‘leave me alone’ phase, he was reasonably chatty and funny like he always had been.

He’s got a lot more on his shoulders now what with the pressures of work and of parenthood in his 50s. He just turned 59 on the 2nd of April, actually so I can understand how dealing with all that can be tough at this age. Still, like he always has, Gerard plods on, unwaveringly, steadfast and stubborn.

You remember what I said about the gap in our ages? Maybe it wasn’t that I was an accident, or that there was another in between. Maybe Mum just knew he would be a handful and thought they’d need a breather…

Whatever it was, when I look back at the adventures we’ve had, the trips we’ve taken and the drives we’ve enjoyed together, I know that despite all else, we could easily now just hop in a car and take off for a week away somewhere again. Together. And be perfectly happy doing that.

Cos we’re brothers, Gerard and I.
Happy 59th, Gerard. 

Monday, April 8, 2019

LWE Chapter 12: Sibling Birthdays - March

When Mum and Dad were still alive, the birthdays of my parents and my siblings spanned each month from February through October. Both Mum and Dad are gone now so we start the chain off a little later, in March, with eldest brother Joe’s birthday, and have a little gap in July when Dad’s is. I thought it would be nice to pay a little tribute to my 6 brothers and sisters so here’s the first in the series.

Two Snakes in the Family

Joseph Cheong is my eldest brother and the second in the family. He is exactly a Chinese zodiac cycle older than me and I guess as Snakes we should share some common characteristics but I would be hard pressed to pinpoint many.

Mum and Dad, despite their rather restricted budget, packed him off to Sydney in 1971, to do his HSC and then Uni. He managed the first well enough, but struggled through the second, eventually changing from a BSc to B Optom, and in this new field finally made progress and qualified as an Optometrist some years later.

He remains, in my experience and opinion, the best Optometrist I have ever visited. Joe is thorough and exacting and every single pair of glasses he’s ever made for me were perfect right out of the case.

Early in 1971, Mum and Dad decided I should attend the Methodist Kindergarten next door to the EPF where Dad worked. Have you ever seen kids who wail continuously at school, crying out for their parents?

Well, I was one of them it seems. Short bursts of calm punctuated a general cacophonous desire to be back at home. One of my few memories of my 3 or 4 days spent at that kindergarten was of Joe accompanying me. He must have been waiting to go to Australia then and got tasked by my parents to take care of the pesky, spoilt, youngest one. I remember playing with some blocks or something one day and making a nuisance of myself and when a teacher leaned over to help and asked me what I wanted, I pointed at the figure of my brother who was casually sitting with his back against the wall at the side of the building and said, in between sobs, that I wanted to go home with my brother.

The One who Hardly Wrote Back

Eventually Mum and Dad took me out of kindy, and Joe had some respite before he left for Sydney.

In those days international phone calls were very expensive and had to be booked through an operator. They were very rare occurrences and instead we communicated with our overseas family by letter, often those blue single-page aerogrammes. Margaret wrote regularly from London and eventually when Tony went in 1974, he did too. Joe was the exception and hardly wrote.

I was then in Primary school and I remember Mum and Dad sometimes complaining that they hadn’t heard from him. It’s not easy being a parent separated from your kids - I know this intimately. And so I have some inkling as to how they must have worried and fretted though they hardly showed it.

Joe graduated from the University of New South Wales with a B Optom and has practiced as a very good Optometrist since then.

In time though, Joe graduated, got a job then married Hong Kong-born Hilda Chan. Mum and Dad flew over for the wedding and my father was completely smitten by his first daughter in law. At the wedding, Dad was given a carafe of wine all to himself, and suitably lubricated, he became a star. As the groom gave his speech, someone in the crowd yelled out ‘Kiss the bride!’ and before Joe could even respond, Dad called out ‘Any time!’. All recorded on video and laughed at by all of us for years.

After my Form 5, we applied for me to go to Australia to do my 6th Form at the school that Joe had attended in Ashfield. I got in to the school, partly by virtue of having had a sibling there, but I did not have enough points to qualify for a student visa so we shelved those plans.

The Younger Snake Joins the Elder One

A few years later, my Mum had the bright idea to apply for me to go to Australia again, but this time as a migrant. I was then studying at the Malaysian Institute of Art and generally bumbling my way along as I did for about 40 of my earlier years…

Joe sponsored me under the family reunification programme and despite what I thought was a disastrous interview, I somehow qualified in double quick time and before I knew what was happening, I was in Sydney, being picked up by Joe in his gold Mazda 626, whizzing our way past unfamiliar red brick houses to 83 Thomson Street, Drummoyne where I was to live for the next year.

Joe and Hilda were then expecting their first child, Ashley, who would come into the world in May 1986. Before that though, much was to happen.

I was too late for entry to Uni so Hilda somehow got me a job at the company she worked for, Charge Card Services Ltd which managed the Bankcard Credit Card system. That system was eventually to be taken over by the banks and CCSL was to be wound up but that was some time away yet so until the end of 1986 I worked first in the basement where I helped to shred computer printouts and microfilm and microfiche, then in the Computer-Output-to-Microfilm Department which generated all that stuff that I had been destroying in my first months there. The first was a tedious job with some mild drama every now and then. My colleagues were Norm, an old English bloke, Phil, a young Aussie and eventually also Theo, a Greek guy who never felt cold even as the rest of us shivered with our cups of hot chocolate in that bare basement in the middle of winter.

My pay was a little over A$200 per week - minimum wage - and Joe told me to save it all. I would stay with him free and need not worry about a roof over my head, nor the meals we had together. Instead I should save my money and put it towards Uni/College the following year.

Authority, Diplomacy and Firmness

During Easter of 1986, I went with Joe and Hilda to Bateman’s Bay. A holiday by the sea, this was cut short when Hilda’s grandmother had a stroke and eventually passed away. We rushed back to Sydney. And then shortly after that, Hilda’s father, who had been battling cancer, also passed on, leaving her mother to live alone in a large house in Day St a few minutes away.

It was a double whammy which would knock the sails out of anybody but that was when I first saw how Joe would calmly weather a storm and sort things out. Joe had been well liked by the old man who had seen the young Malaysian change from a long haired cigarette-smoking suitor weak in Cantonese, to a responsible business owner husband who could play Mahjong with the best of them. Joe had gained the old man’s respect and affection and during the family meetings that took place over the next few weeks, I saw my brother navigate potentially stormy waters with some authority, a little diplomacy and more than a smidgen of firmness.

He gained a lot of my respect then too.

Hilda and Joe moved to Day St to be with her Mum, something that Rosemary and Yap would mirror a few years later when my Dad passed away. I was left alone in Thomson St and managed, even trying my hand at cooking.

By this time I was working in a different department and working shift hours. My pay had gone up to around A$270 per week and I had thought that my relatively solitary life might be enhanced with a set of wheels to take me around and let me see more of the city I had adopted.

It was Joe and Hilda who sat me down one day, listened to my thoughts on the matter then casually suggested a Datsun 240Z might not be the best decision at that point. ‘Save your money’ they said. And so I did. They were wise words indeed.

Drama In My New Home and A Number That Saved My Gear

In February 1987 I entered the Graphic Design Certificate programme at Randwick College of TAFE. Joe had prodded me to check out courses and I eventually applied for Industrial Design at Sydney Uni and this one. Although just a certificate, it was a highly regarded institute and I was one of 75 successful applicants out of many hundreds who apply each year.

Joe rang around and found me a room with a friend who lived in Coogee, not far from Randwick. And so I moved in with Mark Jong and started college. I had, by then, begun receiving the Austudy grant which paid the $50 per week rent and my savings, now quite some thousands and spread out between cash accounts and fixed deposits, paid for my school bills, food and so on.

Design was hard work but I had a comfortable place at Mark's
The year of free accommodation at Joe and Hilda’s essentially gave me the resources to pay for college and I am proud of the fact my parents did not have to send me money for my tertiary education. I am grateful too of course to my brother who had made it possible for to save that money in the first place.
As for Mark, he was and remains a lovely man. Staying with him was not without incident though…
He had previously offered to let the room out to a troubled young lady who borrowed some cash then disappeared, so some time later the room was mine instead.

What was very nearly no longer mine though was all my camera gear. The young lady broke in on the first Saturday after I moved in. Joe had earlier helped by giving me some furniture and a radio. On my first Saturday living on my own, he’d invited me to lunch in Chinatown just to make sure I was OK then later gave me a ride home.

It was the radio that saved my stuff. I came back to broken glass on the balcony and all my gear - and that radio - stolen. Wandering around in a daze, I started cleaning up and wondering what to do next when the phone rang. It was Joe asking if everything was OK. It turned out that the thief had taken all the stuff to a pawn shop to dispose of. The radio had Joe’s driver’s licence number engraved on the back, and the suspicious pawn shop owner called the cops who traced the licence number to Joe and called him. He’d just gotten back and told the cops the radio was his, had been given to his brother and was likely stolen.

The girl was arrested and I got all my gear back.

The second weekend was a repeat of the first. Lunch with Joe then back home to broken glass and worse - bloody hand prints on the stairwell and in the flat. The young lady had come back for revenge, smashed her arm through the thick balcony window and trashed the place. The cops had been called though, and she was arrested. Real drama… though thankfully, it all settled down soon enough.

Always Keeping An Eye On Me

Many months later, I was going through a bout of circumspection brought on by a case of unrequited love. Not especially depressed, I nevertheless began to contemplate life in general and my own life in particular. On a whim I called my cousin and casually asked if she knew anything about wills. Like I said, I wasn’t about to do anything drastic, but my cousin, in some alarm, immediately rang Joe and told him to check on me. Which he did and in his calm manner, he didn’t ask me directly but instead invited me to dinner that weekend.

And other meals and meetups thereafter where he could quietly and furtively determine my mental and emotional state. All this was oblivious to me - I have, and remain, often unaware of these secretive moves. I only realised it some time later but will always be grateful that the same calm, collected and diplomatic manner Joe had employed during the bereavements of the previous years had been his approach with me.

Although my financial situation was OK, Joe decided he would like to make sure I got a little pocket money so asked if I’d like to pop in to his shop once a week or so and do some cleaning. And so it came to pass that John Cheong, who at the time did have some resemblance to Joseph Cheong, would drop by Joseph Cheong Optometrists early on Monday morning, open up the shop and set about vacuuming the floor, wiping the counter and shelves and dusting the frames on display. I don’t think I did a fantastic job but this was Joe making sure I was OK again. I did manage to confuse the postman though, who popped in to drop mail off as I was cleaning and called out ‘G’day Joe!’ to my back as I busied myself. This happened two weeks in a row before he paused on the third week and said ‘You’re not Joe, are you?’ I still remember that quizzical look on his face as he asked me that. Hilarious!

We were in Malaysia at the end of 1987 for Rosemary and Yap’s wedding and in January of 1988 we discovered Dad had terminal cancer. I made plans to move back for a few months to spend time with him, but I was too late.

Our last family picture before Dad passed away. I'm on the far left next to Joe.

The Younger One Leaves

On the morning of 30 April 1988, Joe rang me and said we’d best go back home as Dad was not doing well. I told him I’d put some things together, get a haircut then come over. He said no problem and so a couple of hours later I arrived at Day St where they were still staying. I rang the bell, greeted them and walked in. Hilda discreetly left us alone and Joe sat me down and told me Dad had passed away that morning.

He said it calmly and quietly then gave me some space to gather my thoughts.

I sat there for a few minutes. Tears did not come. Just a sense of paralysis and a weird stillness. This moment was not unexpected but was still quite jarring on my being. The man I had wanted so much to be able to relate to as an adult had not waited for me.

We drove back to Coogee, got my things, went to the airport and spent the next few days among grieving family and friends in PJ.

I left Australia in August 1988, taking that deferment I had applied for. My mind and my heart were not on my course and I needed to be back in PJ. It was only supposed to be for 6 months and I moved my stuff to Joe’s for the time being.

I never returned to live in Sydney. One thing led to another and I found my heart was still very much in Malaysia so I stayed on, then made my way to Singapore. Joe did help me dispose of the stuff I told him to throw out but I just found out a few weeks ago, he still has my LPs and some other stuff in a garage.

So maybe there is something we share, after all. A propensity to keep some stuff. He’s not quite the pack rat I am but he definitely has that element in his makeup.

Joe a few days before his daughter's wedding in February of this year

He gave an amusing, witty and captivating speech at the wedding.

Yes, he's my brother alright...

In all other respects, the man I once had a passing resemblance to, the Snake 12 years older than me, the man who in many ways had taken on fatherly duties to me a few times in my life, we weren’t the same. And still aren’t. I’m flighty, reactionary and more than a little passionate about things.

Joe is steady, calming, and reassuring. He quietly goes about making things work, can cook pretty well and is a responsible and trustworthy man. In recent times he and Hilda have become successful real estate developers. Joe still goes in to his shop 3 days a week and to me he seems not to have changed much since that day in March 1986 when he picked me up at the airport.

And for that I am eternally grateful.

Thank you for being big brother, and in some ways, quite like a Dad, and happy 66th birthday, Joe.