Log 2. 16-9-13 The strategic importance of respecting tradition in business

September 16, 2013

I may have very strong views against what I consider to be the world’s most useless game – golf. But in the company of golfers you would hardly ever register my contempt for the game.

On the contrary, whenever I find myself marinating in the company of golfers – it is not uncommon for me to speak about about golf in terms of endearment – that is because when one finds oneself in the company of people who believe the world’s most useless game is the most meaningful game – then they have successfully fashioned something from nothing – a sacred belief – and if enough people believe a useless and worthless thing is a matter of profound importance to their daily life – then they have successfully fashioned a god and one would do well to respect their beliefs, customs and traditions.

As tradition reassures, palliates fears, soothes nerves and even banishes anxieties and can even cure fainting spells – so please do not rock the boat.

If you want to be successful in business – just respect the tradition of others even if you believe they don’t add up to a hill of beans and if you do only just that, you will find that you will be able to turn the wheel of life grief free.

Not very long ago there was this chap who hails from Bukit Batok who ran into a spot of trouble – he runs a small enterprise to the North dealing in pumps for the agriculture market – this fellow was quite distraught when he came to see me – he sought my advice as to whether he should spend over $90,000 building an electrified fence around his warehouse or spending half that sum to purchase my breed of killer of Doberman guard dogs. Apparently his warehouse has been sacked by thieves.

Instead I told him to buy two boxes of moon cakes and suspend his plans to turn his warehouse into Fort Knox. I went on to tell this blur sotong this is not the way a wiseman goes about spending his hard earned money – that they’re easier ways to resolve this problem – he did not understand – when I visited this blur sotong – I told him to hop into my land cruiser and drove to the kopitiam. After playing two hands of mahjong with the elders. I intimidated to them that I have a problem – when one of the elders asked me, what was the nature of the problem. I placed my tea cup on a pair of chopsticks – they looked at each other and the one of them exclaimed, “that is a real problem.” And that was when I nudged this blur sotong to present the two boxes of moon cakes to them – one of the elders took the box on the left and presented it before the altar of the god of war, Kwang Kong. The other we all ate – mid way I took the duck yolk portion stood up and offered it to the God of war – when the elders saw this, their leader said, ” That is not necessary!” I insisted and this time I told them all in a very stern voice, “but it is, it seems.” One of the elders got up and exclaimed, “we did not know!”

The younger men seated outside stirred. I knew a sign had been given. I poured tea for all of them again, this time it was left to right. So very slowly I did this that it must have stirred the faint memory of the eldest of the elders, who turned to his colleagues and express, “they say the legendary swordsman Kwai Lung has relinquished the way of the sword and has retired to a monastery.” I placed a single chopstick upon the urn of Kwan Kong and clapped three times – when I finished, I turned by cup and slammed it face down on the table and smiled – they all drank and did the same. After that one of the elders brought me by the sleeves and whispered to me in cantonese, tonite the moon will be red, do you think the ships will anchor? – I replied, if that is the case, we must light lanterns, as my clansmen are far from their wifes and children. I went to tell these old men in whispering tones, we have all not seen our wifes and children for so long. One of them began to weep quite openly and lamented, “heaven is so cruel. There are not enough seats on the boat for the return trip.” That was when I took the second box of moon cakes and prepared it to be served to the elders, this time, I sang them a sad forgotten song all the while weeping as they too wept alongside me. A few of them tapped the bowls to keep me in tune while the womenfolk were hurried asked to leave the kopitiam. Red sorghum wine was poured into teacups, a roasted pork was served and fire crackers were prepared and lanterns were lit to greet the approaching night.

“Heaven is heartless,
I miss my wife and children,
There is not enough room in the boat,
This year I shall not return home to them,
Maybe next year if heaven smiles on me,
If not next year, then perhaps in my next life I will be reunited with them – heaven is heartless.”

Three times.

After that the rest nodded their heads in silence and the eldest of the elders, sang a song – I could tell he had forgotten the words, as his colleagues were prompting him,

“Heaven smiles, do not feel despair for you have no space on the boat to take you home to your wifes and children this year,
Heaven smiles, I will treat your clansmen as my own, tell your men their waters are free to flow with ours and our women will comfort them and banish their sorrow…heaven smiles.”

Three times.

Through it all my friend from Bukit Batok could only manage a blank stupid expression – after that we all played another round of mahjong, laughed and joked and before taking leave one of the elders whispered to me, “tell me, you are young, where did you learn the language of the old country?”*

I merely smiled. The following day all the stolen pumps were returned back to the blur sotong – he was so surprised that he called me. I told him it was not necessary to spend money on extra security, I went to tell him every year at exactly the same date before the south westerly monsoon winds changes around this time, he must remember to present moon cakes to all the elders – he asked me how can he can repay the debt. I told him to write a cheque to pathlight school for the autistic. He said he would do so. He did not understand. I did not care to explain.

Running across the street from the Apple Computer outlet to the Burger King fast food joint in Piccadilly Circus just off Old Crompton Street was an invisible line – this was the East Gate to Chinatown London. The gate which all in the underworld knew only as the “Pak Mein Mun.” – “8 faced gate.”

Though such a gate never once existed except in the realm of the imagination – the man who stood there that day in the dark Italian suit, slicked back hair and dark glasses could see this gate clearly in his mind’s eye – he knew it was there, invisible to all except him and those who walked the underworld. The man paused as he approached the invisible gate. In his mind’s eye, he could make out the line that separated this world from that other world that he had once walked so many years ago in the moment of his youth.

That day as the man paused before what seemed to be like an invisible line on the pavement just outside the China town London. He seemed almost to stand out like a solitary unmoving figure amid an ocean of men – those who passed by him were purposeful, either walking briskly or pausing before the many shop fronts to window shop. But for the lean man dressed in the dark Italian suit. He was perfectly still. So still that he looked almost like a solitary lotus on a calm lake – so still that he even radiated a familiarity the stirred the interest of the proprietor of the Kam Far (Golden flower) restaurant across the road – who was inexplicably drawn to the sight of this strange lone figure – he had seen this same man before. But it cannot be. It cannot! He blurted out. The man was slightly older now; but he was the same man the restauranteur reckoned – his mix of hardness and implacability came through in the way he narrowed his eyes; even in the very manner in which he who stood his ground abreast before this invisible gate that only gangsters could see – and very slowly and gradually, it dawned on the restauranter that this was the same man who had once carried the bag for the venerable four houses –

“The benefactor who used to carry the money for the four houses had returned to China town!” The restauranteur murmured to himself as his voice began to tremble uncontrollably.

That same afternoon as the sun crossed over to cast an eerie twilight over the lone figure standing before the gate that did not exist except in the man’s eye – the restauranteur steadied his nerves with a double shot of brandy. He was after the gate keeper of the Pak Mein Mun – the East Gate to China town. And so like his father and father before him; the third generation restauranteur keeper of the key to the PaK Mein Mun walked out into the pavement and bowed solemnly to the lone figure and said,

“You must be thirsty and hungry, please allow me to offer you some refreshments.”

The stranger did not speak. Neither did he look at the restauranteur. As he realized this was only the first quatrain of many to follow before the custom of seeking passage through this invisible gate was possible. 

That evening as the stranger sat in a discreet table hidden by a screen from the crowd with the rest of the elders all dressed in dark sombre suits in China town – tea was ceremoniously served.

One of the elders mentioned that the fish was unusually fresh this season and he should try some – soon a fish was served with a single chopstick inserted through the gills – the restauranteur who had served the fish was trembling so violently that he even stained the white linen table cloth – much to the irritation of the elders who waved him away.

Whereupon the elders looked on silently, stoically and sternly at the man seated in the seat facing the East – as this was an ancient custom which the laws of heaven and earth had dictated had to be played out with as much care as a Chinese opera – this was after all a part of their lives as it was a part of them – a language written in an alphabet that only those who had once walked the underworld knew how to read.

That evening as the stranger removed the chopstick from the fish and snapped it in half and placed it down gently by his side of the table. All the elders of China town turned to each other with a look of familiarity that suggested that words were truly unnecessary. As by now it was evident to all that the man who was wearing the dark Italian suit sporting dark glasses was none other than the benefactor who once carried the money for the venerable houses.

That same evening – a lion dance troupe assembled at the same spot where the man had paused and waited earlier in the day. Those who were oblivious of this ancient custom probably regarded it as just another cultural event staged to promote China town as a tourist hub – but that day as the man who sat in the chair facing East sipped tea with the elders. He knew that permission had been granted for him to enter the underworld once again. When the last of the firecrackers rented out leaving only a lingering silence – one of the elders leaned forward and in a grave voice whispered to the stranger,

“Do not be offended benefactor. No disrespect was intended. Through the years there had been rumors that you have passed on. We had to be sure that it was you benefactor. Now tell us please. As you have traveled so far through an ocean of time to come back here – tell us how can the venerable four houses be of assistance to the honorable benefactor?”

The man did not reply immediately. He realized that ritual was missing a vital piece. He knew that it was incomplete. He could make out the stout body guards who stood some distance away from the elders – he knew that they were all armed. And so he leaned back in his chair and sighed. And after what can only be considered as an eternity – one of the elders walked to the nearby altar of Kwang Kong lit three joss sticks and handed it to the man.

This was what the man was waiting for – this was why he had remain still and silent all this time. The ritual now only had one more quartrain before it all ended. 

And this was when the man spoke for the very first time, “I am not a monk. I am a swordsman.”

With these words the man could see that the rest of the elders had begun to really relax. Only a while ago they had just been pretending he reckoned. Some had even begun to smile openly now and even smoke their cigarettes. The scene had after played out to the very end in exactly the way that it was meant to be played out for generations – with hardly the slightest deviation, except for that long and unexpected pause which the man realized was designed to trap an imposter.The man realized had he even deviated even so much as one millimeter from this ancient custom of seeking permission to enter the pak mein mun – he would never be able to walk out of the restaurant alive – they would have certainly killed him there and then. This the man knew only too well was how politics was conducted in the underworld.

By now even the bodyguards had begun to loosen up as their eyes moved indolently to the leggy waitresses instead of peering menacingly at the stranger in the dark Italian suit. And when the man saw all this, he stood up, bowed to the elders and walked to the altar of Kwan Kong with joss sticks – that day as the ex-gangster, farmer and mortal enemy of Mr Big Bully knelt before the stern crimson face of the bearded God of War – he realized that he was simply an actor where the stage manager of life and destiny who choreographed ever turn and twist of his life ruled – and what can an actor really do? Except maybe utter the lines that he had been given – and so like those who once left only to return again – the farmer whose only wish in life was to plant row after row of oil palm realized that he had finally crossed into the underworld. Only this time, he had crossed the line of no return – the die was cast.”

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