But no one goes through life unscathed and, like a tiger silently creeping through the jungle, adversity stalks Lai
Pek, striking swiftly.
Faced with a formidable business rival,
a horrifying tragedy at his rubber plantation and a shocking crime that threatens the lives of those dear to him,
Lai Pek must reassess his values and draw on an inner strength that he may not possess if he is to survive the crises that life has thrown at him.
Set in a small town in peninsular
Malaya in the 1930's, the story takes place against the colourful backdrop of the lives and customs of the
Chinese denizens and the inexorable encroachment of modern ideas and infl uences on their long-held values and ways of life.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.48(d)|
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Sauce of LifeA Novel
By Tan Kheng Yeang
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2012 Tan Kheng Yeang
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Shop
"These shoes," said the customer, sitting on a chair and endeavouring to insert his right foot into one of a pair of black shoes, "do not fit at all. Haven't you got another size?"
"Certainly we have," replied Lai Pek, and he ordered his assistant to take down from the top of a lofty case a particular pair of leather shoes, which he indicated with his finger. The counter was strewn with a motley array of footwear, for the customer was very critical in his choice—extremely trying, in fact, but Lai Pek remained as urbane and smiling as ever.
"This pair is about right," the customer graciously commented, after trying on first the right shoe and then the left for five minutes. "How much?"
"Only twelve dollars and fifty cents," was the answer.
"Ridiculous! Eight dollars would be the correct price."
"Ai-ya!" exclaimed Lai Pek. "If I do trade on such terms, it won't be long before I have to close up shop."
"Well, then, state the exact amount you want."
"What I have just quoted is the usual price. But in consideration of the fact that you have been here twice or thrice before, I will give them to you for eleven dollars. Not a cent less," he said, a decisive inflection in his voice.
"Come," said the customer, "nine dollars and a half."
"I am afraid that I cannot oblige you." He was prepared to give them for ten dollars, but there was no reason, he thought, why he should not angle for more. He could easily discern that the man was loath to part with the shoes. "The price I ask is fair."
The customer assumed a stout resolve he did not feel and slowly walked out the door. Lai Pek watched him depart with an equal exhibition of firmness but with an eye on his movements, ready to call the customer back before he reached the pillar at the side of the house and vanished from sight. This was not fated to happen, however, for the customer turned back and reluctantly counted out the sum required.
Bustling about, wearing an amiable expression upon his vigilant countenance, Lee Lai Pek was the very embodiment of prosperous fussiness. His heart sang, because business was good and the day had been exceptionally lucky. He smiled as he pondered over the morning's profits and beamed a more joyous smile as he remembered the stranger who had entered his shop just before noon. Daydreaming does not yield a good cash return, and he seldom indulged in this luxury, but a look of contemplation stole into his eyes as he speculated on the stranger's position—apparently a wealthy man, judging from his spontaneous order for a considerable stock of goods, without the customary amount of bargaining.
Lai Pek was plainly apparelled (he was by no means particular with regard to dress and personal appearance in general) in a long-sleeved shirt with brown and greenish stripes, closely buttoned at the neck and wrists, that hung over his loose gray trousers, which were not adorned with any pockets at all. His feet were encased in a pair of slippers that had seen long service but had not quite reached the end of their usefulness.
He was a man who had attained that period of life that is usually associated with the meridian of success, especially in commerce—to be more specific, he had reached the age of forty-five. He did not exceed ordinary stature or ordinary weight;this latter point was somewhat remarkable, as experience usually demonstrates that an increasing prosperity also begets an increasing abdomen. Lai Pek seemed to be surrounded by a soothing aura of indestructible prosperity, and his appearance was stamped with an indelible impression of a strenuous purpose successfully fulfilled. He did not assume any particular airs, but one could form that impression, especially by looking at his smiling countenance.
His eyes were the shrewdest imaginable, and he possessed a peculiar habit. When he spoke, he directed his gaze not straight at a person's face but towards his chest, as if he were lost in a profound study of the pattern and fabric of his coat. Although he did not look steadily at a person's face, nevertheless Lai Pek contrived to notice every expression on it. His politeness was of remarkable magnitude, and this was indicated by the bland smile he usually wore.
As he sat perched behind his counter that sultry afternoon, during a lull in the business, an individual entered.
"Greetings, Lai Pek," said the man in an appropriate tone, bowing pleasantly.
"Welcome, Hwey Pin," returned Lai Pek in a pleasingly cordial voice, at the same time rising up and bending his body just as elegantly. "How are you?"
"Please sit down. Have a cup of tea?"
"A thousand thanks. Don't inconvenience yourself."
Soh Hwey Pin seated himself and grasped the proffered cup with both hands. He was a short, heavy man of about Lai Pek's age, and he wore a dark suit. The coat, not too noteworthy for cleanliness, was totally unbuttoned, partly on account of the heat and partly because it was inconveniently tight, but no vestige of a shirt could be seen under it. His head was crowned with a quantity of tousled, dry hair, and his forehead bulged prominently. His unpleasing countenance suggested an unscrupulous disposition. As he mopped his cheeks with a handkerchief, he remarked, "Old Loh Hwai had another big loss today. He has failed so systematically for so long now that he is absolutely ruined."
"Poor fellow!" said Lai Pek sympathetically. "But the trouble with him is he has no sound practical sense." He added, in a tone implying a consciousness of his own superiority in that regard, "As it is aptly said, 'if you plant gourds, you obtain gourds; beans, you obtain beans.' He is not careful in what he does."
"Quite right," stated Hwey Pin.
"How has this new disaster come upon him?"
"He has been giving a great deal of credit indiscriminately. One of his debtors, Pa See, has secretly sold his shop and absconded this morning—where? Only Heaven knows."
"I remember the person, although I haven't had any business dealings with him. A great rogue he is—so he has gone off? I am not surprised. I was sure when I first met him some years ago—he approached me on some matter I have forgotten now—that he would be up to mischief one of these days," observed Lai Pek, with the air of a soothsayer whose predictions have duly come to pass.
"Yes, he is a bad man. It is strange how Loh Hwai could trust him—quite surprising."
"As for me," smiled Lai Pek, "I judge whether a person is trustworthy first, before I allow him to owe anything. Besides, debts must be kept within reasonable bounds." He paused for some time to look at a stranger who had entered the shop and then immediately went out again to inspect the ditch. "I am curious to know how Loh Hwai contrived to earn his money. I should have thought he was quite incapable of it."
"Well, money is not necessarily obtained only by brains. Chance can do the trick just as well. When he first came to Lanta some fifteen years ago, business happened to be very brisk, and due to undeserved fortune, he managed to be prosperous. It was a miracle that he was not plunged into ruin long ago, but luck is luck," concluded Hwey Pin sagely.
He rose and poured out another cup of tawny tea; after imbibing the soothing beverage in measured gulps, he again sat and said, "By the way, Lai Pek, I have called to settle your account for last month."
"Yes; what is the amount?" He was extremely averse to giving away money for any reason.
Receiving the reply, Lai Pek unwillingly approached the safe and took out the necessary sum to pay Hwey Pin, who kept a grocery from which Lai Pek's household was daily supplied with provisions. Hwey Pin was also a sort of broker, acting as intermediary between two persons, usually strangers, who desired to purchase or sell a rubber estate or house. Whenever a transaction was fortunate enough to reach a successful conclusion, he obtained an estimable commission for his services, thereby substantially aiding both his bank account and his satisfaction.
After inserting the money in a large brown purse, which was then deposited in his coat pocket, Hwey Pin casually observed, "I remember, Lai Pek, you told me last month that you had some spare money and would like to buy a rubber estate."
"True. I see no way of employing it in my business, and as rubber, I understand, is yielding such a handsome profit, I am thinking of making a venture into it." A keen and bold look crept into his eyes, the look of speculation, and he basked in the luxurious feelings of a traveller about to behold the wonders of a strange country. "Have you come across a good estate lately?"
"Yes, I have found just the thing for you. It is a very excellent one, about thirty acres."
"Where is it situated?"
"At Chola, hardly twenty-five miles from here."
"What is the price?"
"Just six hundred dollars per acre."
"That is rather high."
"Not at all, considering the fine income obtainable at present. As a matter of fact, it is quite cheap. It is a very, very good estate indeed. The owner is forced to sell it because of money troubles. Most persons would try to retain it," said Hwey Pin, with a tongue profusely lubricated with oil.
"Who is the owner?" inquired Lai Pek with deep interest.
"I don't think you know him. His name is Pang Tit, and he lives in Lomai. He used to be prosperous, but he was so extravagant that he is now involved in a financial maze. He recently told a friend of mine that he wished to sell the piece of land, if he could obtain a reasonable price. That's how I came to hear of it. I have since seen him, and I can say he will not prove hard to deal with," replied Hwey Pin with a benevolent expression.
Lai Pek was very much gratified to learn that the proprietor was a soft person in trouble, for he scented a good bargain.
"I think," he said after a pause, "that we had better go and examine it first. If it is to my liking, then we can proceed to discuss terms with him."
"Quite right. We must fix a day when we are both free. What day will be convenient for you?"
"Let me see. Today is Tuesday—we'll go on Friday, if it suits you."
"Very good. Shall I call for you at nine o'clock in the morning? It is better not to go too late, or it will be unpleasantly hot."
"I must go now. Don't escort me."
"When you have leisure, come and have another chat."
After they had executed a ceremonious bow and expressed the hope of seeing each other again, Hwey Pin departed in the best of spirits.
Comfortably installed behind the counter, Lai Pek cast long, appraising stares at the commodities, assessing those that needed replenishing. The offerings were of various sorts and were arrayed with exemplary care in glass cases. Luxuriant assortments of magnificent silk and cotton cloth, small cardboard boxes of buttons and ribbons, books and writing materials, crockery, culinary utensils, and a generous collection of tins of diverse shapes and sizes, exhibiting on their labels such tempting items as biscuits, lichees, and sardines, formed the stock.
The principal furnishings of the spacious store included the counter; a round table on which conveniently reposed the inevitable pot of tea (most invaluable of beverages!) and a tray with some cups; half a dozen cane chairs; a desk appropriated to the clerk's use and littered with ledgers and papers, to say nothing of a slab with a stick of ink, an abacus and some brushes; a formidable iron safe; an eight-day clock with a circular dial disproportionate in size to the rest of its structure; and some ornamental prints on the walls.
After the final rush in the evening, business became slacker, and only a few stragglers crossed the threshold now and then. The shop would close at eight, but for the last three or four hours it did not necessarily require Lai Pek's personal attention, so he usually retired and returned only at closing time for a few minutes to see that everything was properly settled for the night. During this interval, his employees were left to work by themselves; they totalled eight, including a clerk, six salesmen, and a boy who officiated in the capacity of general servant. As he was now hungry after his restless exertions, he withdrew behind the partition separating the shop from the rest of the house and entered the parlour.
Chapter TwoThe Problem of Marriage
The large oblong chamber presented to his view a scene of merriment and confusion, for the family was gathered there to await the evening meal. His wife was holding an uproarious conversation with a friend, who then rose and took her departure by the back door. Mrs. Lee accompanied her to the doorstep, where they talked for another five enjoyable minutes. She was about four years younger than her husband and had been married to him when not quite seventeen. Since then she had borne him five children, although the couple wished that they had more—fertility and offspring increased a person's respectability and was an incontestable omen of Heaven's protection. They had, on the whole, lived a happy and comfortable life together, though their double career was chequered with some slight matrimonial squabbles, which happened long before the commencement of this story and need not be chronicled. She had been on a round of visits and had returned only about an hour ago.
Their eldest son, Sum Goh, a young man of some twenty-two years, a teacher in a school, had also just come back from performing some additional work outside the usual school hours. He was lying in a long chair near a window to recuperate his energies, which had been profusely expended. He was an ordinary youth, of ordinary tastes and ordinary thoughts—he would not deviate from his conventional way of life for any consideration in the world. He read comic papers and the local newspaper at his club, to which he directed his steps, or rather his bicycle, every night. He heartily enjoyed the cinema, was a frequenter of fields dedicated to sport, did his work well, and was absolutely contented with his lot in life. He was not yet married, as he was in no hurry to do so and had given little thought to it. Furthermore, his parents were hypercritical in their tastes and had been on the lookout for a suitable bride for him since he was eighteen; though matchmakers had presented themselves by the dozen to enthusiastically recommend the marriageable girls within their acquaintance, they were forced to retire, discouraged and chagrined.
Their second child was a girl of seventeen who had left school scarcely a year ago and who was naturally grave and unsophisticated, although not averse to gaiety at home. The other three children, who were shouting joyously in play, were aged respectively eleven, seven, and five. The youngest was a girl and the two others boys.
Dinner was piled on the table, and it steamed deliciously. Lai Pek and his eldest son sat down and were soon ardently exercising their powers of mastication. While the former was helping himself to a piece of fried fish, holding it on the end of his chopsticks and preparing to chew with it a mouthful of rice, his wife remarked, "During the course of the afternoon, I thought I would like to pay a visit to Mrs. Loh Hwai, whom I have not seen for some considerable time. I went and found her alone and—what do you think?—she had, shortly before my arrival, been having a bitter quarrel with her husband. I never heard that they had ever been on anything but the best of terms before. But among her many just causes for complaint, she informed me with anger that her husband was useless in trade and that he had permitted himself to be cheated of ..."
"Oh, yes," interrupted Lai Pek, "I heard the story from Hwey Pin just a short while ago. But what can you do?" he continued, waving his left hand as if to clinch the irrefutable argument. "Some men must be foolish and some must be wise, if trade is to be carried on." He directed his gaze to a bowl of pork soup, laid down his chopsticks, and drank three copious spoonfuls in rapid succession.
"I am sure," chimed in Sum Goh, "that I do not think the worse of him for it. He must be of a kindly, trustful disposition."
"What are you talking about?" retorted his father, with a look of disdain for his son's fantastic ignorance. "He possesses a trustful disposition? I should think he does! But there is nothing praiseworthy I know of in that." He coughed, as he was nearly choked by the ridiculous suggestion. "In trade, if success is to be more than a dream, the wisest maxim to put into practise is to be suspicious of everyone and trust a person only when the reasons are very good." He looked around to impress this profound philosophy on his unenlightened family.
Excerpted from Sauce of Life by Tan Kheng Yeang Copyright © 2012 by Tan Kheng Yeang. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Problem of Marriage....................9
Sin Beng Hu's Ménage....................31
The Rubber Estate....................43
The Launching of a Business Enterprise....................49
The New Year....................67
The Tiger's Attack....................115
A Legal Contest....................123
Gek Kim's Disappearance....................133
In the Cave....................140
The Wrong Target....................158
Between Life and Death....................198
The Completion of the Moon....................207