Chua Lam Looking Back

蔡澜与倪匡--老友讲老友

Q: You were born in 1941. What can you say about life?

Chua Lam: Time flies. It really does. When I was 30, I watched a movie 2001 Space Odyssey based on Arthur C Clarke’s novel. Back then, I was already trying to imagine what I would be like at age 60. I have the answer when I look into the mirror now – old.

Q: But you still feel young, no?

CL: Many old folks say that. Actually, if you’re old, you’re old. It doesn’t matter how young you pretend to be. Conversely, if a young person is not living happily, he will look old no matter how young he actually is. As for the experts who give me advice all the time, I see them as my grandfathers.

Q: So what were you like when you were young?

CL: When I was 15, I wished I could grow up faster. I tried to grow a beard. Sir Run Run Shaw has been seeing me grow up. At one of his birthday parties, clean-shaven Sir Run Run said he was surprised that even though he was 30 years my senior, my beard grew faster than his.

Q: Did you look old for your age then?

CL: Not really, Ni Kuang and Wong Jim were both older than me, but I was already in my 40s when we did Off Guard Tonight. Most viewers thought I looked younger than that. Then, my father passed away. I was really distraught. My hair turned white virtually overnight. I aged rapidly. At 60, I looked just like any other 60-year-old man.

Q: You cried when your father passed away?

CL: Yes. I seldom cried after I grew up, but when my father passed away, I cried. When my calligraphy teacher Feng Kang Hou passed away, I cried too.

Q: How many girlfriends have you had?

CL: When I led tour groups, many people asked me that question. After dinner, when we gathered together to chat, I would give my reply. 50.

Q: How do you know for sure?

CL: I started from my teens. Until now, it has been 50 odd years. One a year is a fair estimation.

china girls but different...

Q: Why are you never serious when you talk about relationships?

CL: Because if you understand relationships, you won’t take them seriously either.

Q: What have you learned from all these relationships?

CL: I learned to try my best not to hurt anyone. When I was young, I was curious and not careful. I’ve hurt some people and I’ve been hurt by some people too. It’s important to avoid hurting people. At least try your best.

Q: What about life and death issues?

CL: Wong Jim is only a few months my senior. I often joked with him. Birth, you’re born this way. You can’t do anything about it. Illness, your wife is a hospital director’s daughter. You may be able to do something about it. Death is a certainty regardless of who you are. So there is nothing really worth discussing when it comes to birth, sickness and death.

Q: You don’t take life too seriously either.

CL: If you understand the nature of life and death, you won’t take it seriously either.

Q: But you’re a writer. You should have your own philosophy on this.

CL: Of course, being Chinese-educated, many people are uncomfortable discussing life and death issues. But it doesn’t change the fact that death is a certainty. The more you encounter death, the more you’ll be nonchalant about it. Just treat death as a travel destination. The Mexicans have a Day of the Dead. Brazilians have their Carnival. They not only light firecrackers to celebrate, the children buy candy shaped like skeletons. The Chinese may pray to ghosts, but they will never celebrate death. That’s not a good thing.

Q: Will religion make one more able to accept death?

CL: Certainly. Catholics are very good at comforting terminally ill patients. The Chinese are afraid of being reborn as a lower form of life. What I hate most are the ugly and gruesome statues at Haw Paw Villa. Knives and cauldrons of boiling oil that torture the sinners in hell. It’s all very tacky and they try to pass it off as folk art.

Q: So what is a nice way to die?

CL: Dying with dignity. Just like aging with dignity.

Q: How does one age with dignity?

CL: Whether you clothes are branded or bought on the streets, you must look clean, neat and tidy. Spend time grooming yourself. Neat hair (if there’s any left), neat beard or clean-shaven. Maintain good posture as well.

Q: What about dying with dignity?

CL: Letting cancer gnaw away at your body for years is dying without dignity.

Q: But the victim can’t help it.

CL: Why not? If only euthanasia is allowed.

Q: You support euthanasia?

CL: Not only that. I think that only with euthanasia can a society be considered advanced. Holland has already legalised it. I’m not sure when our society will ever do the same. Not only do I feel that terminally ill patients should be given the choice, even old people who are tired of living should be given the option. You choose when you want to die. With this in mind, we can be more confident and positive people.

Q: It’s unlikely that any Chinese society will allow that.

CL: I’ll migrate to Holland if I need that service.

Q: But isn’t it a waste if you decide to kill yourself when you have many more years to go?

CL: Many more years to go? When you’re 60, you’ll know better.

Q: Have you had your fortune told?

CL: I told the fortune teller. About my past, I know better than you do. About my future, I don’t want to know. I’ve already lived to a ripe old age. I’ve had a good life. That I already know. Why do I still need to consult a fortune teller? If he tells me that I’ll live as long as my father who died at 90, then I’d better change to some boring and healthy living habits. If he tells me that my days are numbered, I’ll indulge to the fullest and burn myself at both ends.

Q: Are you a bad influence for young people?

CL: Ni Kuang used to say 好孩子教不坏,坏孩子教不好。If anyone would take drugs or engage in unsafe sex and other dangerous activities after listening to what I say, then I might as well declare myself a prophet and start a new religion.

Q: But indulgence is your religion.

CL: Oh yes, I forgot. Eating and drinking are the most pragmatic and satisfying things in life. You won’t regret indulging in them if health is a secondary issue.

Q: Have you thought of retiring from writing?

CL: Indeed, writing takes up a lot of my time. The pay is good, but I can still live without that source of income. But over the years, I’ve established a very close family-like relationship with my readers. A magazine editor once asked me whether I should change my style and theme since I’ve been writing the same way for 30 years. I asked him whether he felt like changing his father after having the same father for 30 years.

Q: But you will need to stop one day.

CL: Yes, death will stop me writing.

Q: Do you have a will?

CL: What for? I don’t care whether I have a nice funeral. If there’s ever a need to splurge on a funeral, I would splurge on a funeral party when I’m still alive. Order the tastiest, most unhealthy food. The ultimate indulgence. Make everyone very happy. Then I’ll go into hiding if I’m still alive.

Q: Where do you plan to hide?

CL: I have a place in Chiangmai, Thailand. I’ll set up my workshop there, sculpting Buddha images to pass time.

Q: What do your Buddha sculptures look like?

CL: Actually, they look more human than Buddha. Anyway, who has seen the Buddha? Who would know that my Buddha statues don’t look like the Buddha? I’ll make all my Buddha statues look happy and most importantly, I must be happy making them.

Q: Well, you’ve just divulged the location of your future hiding place. Aren’t you afraid people may find you?

CL: They won’t find Chua Lam. In his place is an old monk.

faces-108sm