Mah sei lok teh hang

December 22, 2016

Some time back ago. I heard of a man who had recently returned back from Singapore after being retrenched from a high paying job.

It seems this man is suffering from an intense sense of shame that comes from the failure of not being able to land another good job.

According to the old lady in the village who brings me fish from time to time – his family is very stressed. As even they don’t know how to manage his increasingly violent mood swings and they fear he might even be suicidal.

One afternoon when I saw this man wandering my lands with a bottle of buy one get another free double happiness whisky. I followed him from a distance. Eventually he came to stand before a promontory overlooking the lower section of my lands.

That was when I knew why he had come here. When I feigned a cough. It startled him and the man blurted out in trembling voice, don’t try to stop me. To which I replied calmly – it is my duty to inform you that place is no bloody good. You will only end up breaking your leg and inconvenience others. It’s after all the rainy season. The ground below is softer than frog porridge. I clucked my tongue and said again, no good. Thereafter I went on to recount to this man in a business like tone – follow me, I know of a better place where you can get the job done 100%. The man looked at me with a ‘you mean you’re not going to try to stop me?’ To which I responded in the authoritative tone of a landowner – this way please. We do not have much time. As it will be dark soon!

As we walked. I asked the man whether I could take a swig from his bottle. He obliged. That was when a conversations of sorts ensued – why are you helping me? I responded with a curt, ‘it’s win-win really.’ He stopped dead in the tracks and asked, ‘how so?’ I simply told him, ‘look here a lot of villagers already believe my land is haunted. Some even believe that devil himself stays here. Who will want to work here with you haunting this place. Besides look at it from a time management standpoint. What do I get from spending half a day filling up forms in the police station. Now please keep up and talk only when necessary.’

Thereafter we continued our trek which took us thru a thicket of bamboo groves up a steep hill – that was when the man told me, ‘I’ve changed my mind…I don’t want to end it.’ I looked back at him dejectedly to which he shouted out again – I don’t want to end it!

That was when I took off my shades narrowed my eyes and flared my nostrils and glared at him, ‘do you mean to say we have come all this way for nothing?’ To which the man shouted out angrily, I am not going to end it all just because I lost my job. I am certainly not going to that just because you want me too. No one can force me to do anything I don’t want to do! Besides I am still young and healthy as you can very well see for yourself…are you blind? (the man gestured some distance towards the direction of the promontory where we had begun the trek). Eventually as if exhausted by the effort. He sat down and muttered to himself – besides, I still have two hands and legs.

That was when I smiled knowingly.


‘There is a Cantonese idiom mah sei lok thei hang (when horse die, man continues the journey by foot) that is often used in half jest. Perhaps it is to make light of a dire situation. Could well even be a sort of crie de couer. A defiant snub in the face of crushing adversity. It is hard to say where this idiom came from as the author is unknown – harder still is it to capture the pathos and black humor of the mood this idiom conveys in English – something elementally of it’s spirit is definitely lost in the translation.

It’s spontaneous ease as it rolls off the tongue…even it’s sardonic nuances. As the horse to a Cantonese seldom features in their culture – the Cantonese unlike the rest of the other Chinese clans are coastal and river people who have always been traders in highly densely populated cities…hence the horse is often associated with prestige, high office and wealth.

In the Cantonese psyche the horse is not an auspices zodiac – it is often associated with false pride, prententions and poseurism. In the martial school of Hon Kuen – in the vermillion chapter there is even a stricture that specifically warns martial artist not to have the disposition of the horse mind if they are to win in combat.

But if I had to distill further into it’s very essence what this idiom tries so hard to convey – it is perhaps the Cantonese psyche of how good cannot exist without bad. Just as white would have no meaning in the absence of the color black – it seems to be a ying and yang contradiction that is quite unique to the Cantonese mind. And juxtaposed against this backdrop is black humor – the moral of the story is: when things don’t go your way, don’t ever take it personally…try if possible to stand back and look at how ridiculous the situation really is and if possible just laugh out loud at how seriously you seem to be reacting to the problem.

In a sense this humorous response to adversity is very unique and particular to only the Cantonese – as the Cantonese unlike the Hakka’s, Teo chews, Fook Chow, Hainanese have always been the mercantile class in China – since they were considered a crafty and belligerent lot by their Manchu rulers. They were never allowed to bear arms or own horses in ancient China. They were the only clan in the whole of China who were prohibited by imperial decree to own land beyond the pearl delta – hence the Cantonese have always had to improvise in the face of adversity.

They are like the Jews in Chinese society – no one in China has ever understood them. As till today – they continue to speak and write their own genre of Tang Chinese and reject everything that is Han….so defiance is very much an attitude of the Cantonese culture.

Harder still to convey to the western audience – is the idea there is no such thing as a total loss to the Cantonese mind…the very idea is anathema…it does not exist – as even when the horse dies, the main protagonist can still take comfort that the epic journey will continue by foot. We are not told what is the destination or even the motivation of the traveller – and that is because it is not important…I suspect. What is important to know like the man who is compelled to get off his high horse and walk – is providing one remains humble, grounded and free from all worldly affectations…the journey can still continue by foot.

So by the same logic if you happen to lose your job and fall on hard times – do not be consumed by the fog of despair. Do not allow your mind to play tricks on you by conjuring all sorts of reasons why it is you and not someone else….all these things are not important.

What is important is you are not in Interpol’s top ten wanted list. The execution arm of the state of Israel, the Kidon has not activated men with no necks to look high and low to double tap your dead. You don’t have stage two terminal cancer….the most important thing is you are still of sound mind and you have two capable hands….the journey will continue.

Pain at times may well be unavoidable, but with the wisdom of the man whose horse has passed on only to continue the journey by foot…suffering is certainly optional.’

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