Disclaimer: This edition of Picture Daze utilizes photos from other sources to facilitate the telling of the story. … which happens to be true
1967, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The first time I saw him, he was emerging out of a huge dumpster wearing a semi toothless grin delighted in his paperbags filled with empty bottles. I was all of 8 years old at the time and waiting at the parking lot behind the offices where my father worked.
This triangular parking area was nested behind the High Court, the Masjid (mosque) Jame and a block of shops. The unobservent eye would only see an open parking lot anchored to the north by a covered parking area where the cars of the High Court magistrates were kept. This little sliver of real estate however was a world unto itself. This was the original center of the city. 100 yards away, tin was discovered in the 1800’s at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers from which the vibrant city of Kuala Lumpur (Mud Junction) would emerge.
The parking lot was worked during the day by “the 4 abangs” (big brothers) who earned their living washing cars and providing valet parking due to the limited space the area provided. One of them was our one-handed driver, Mamat, but his is a story for another time.
A teh tarik stall was situated under the outer over-hang of the covered garage run by a good natured Indian Muslim man and was the hub of choice for the various office workers on their breaks.
At around 10 AM the Chinese chee cheong fun man would roll in on his trishaw cart followed soon after by the crusty old Malay nasi lemak lady. Over the next 3 hours the parking lot would evolve into a bustling dining hub with the best that street food could offer.
It was in this setting that I befriended Playboy – a Chinese man in his 60’s with a ragged bush jacket, a floppy jungle hat holding down long stringy hair, a wispy “fu manchu”and a twinkle in his eye. This street person kept his entire belongings in 3 bundles in one of the covered parking stalls where he slept at night. I would find out later that the magistrates knew him well and always left that stall vacant for him. He supported his survival by pulling out bottles and cardboard boxes from dumpsters and selling them at Central Market… practicing recycling before it ever became fashionable or a movement.
(The High Court)
As I usually had an hour wait in this area after physiotherapy sessions nearby, Playboy and I soon became fast friends. He would always take the time to tell me stories, jokes and share what little he had to help me while away the time. Understanding very well that a whole hour was an eternity to a little boy. Often he would offer me bruised fruit he found in the dumpsters… always washing them and cutting away the bruised part before handing me a piece. He knew I loved mango and often when I turned up there would be a mango peeled, cut and ready for my consumption. I found out from “the abangs” much later that these mangos were never found but bought. I should have caught a clue because he never ate mangos… in fact it was one of the few fruits he didn’t care much for. (Masjid Jame)
Whenever he told me a story he would make a clicking sound with his mouth… as if to punctuate important sections to his story. It may have just been a tick but to a little boy it was theatre. He also had a wonderful cackling laugh that was infectious. I saw him 3 times a week for 2 years. My parents never discouraged this friendship which taught me that a friend is a friend no matter who or what their social standing was. Besides, all our dealings were out in an open parking lot with lots of people around.
Over that span of time I had heard rumors from others. Some said he was once a high powered Oxford educated lawyer, others said he was an eccentric millionaire, yet others claimed that he had been institutionalized. To me he was a kooky and funny old man who happened to be my friend.
Early in 1969 he disappeared for a whole month. No one knew where he was. When he did reappear he had changed. He was more reserved and he just didn’t look well. We would still chat… but he was different. There was a spark missing. I would later discover a bit of his past from my father and the reason for his antic demeanor.
In May 1969 political race riots broke out in Malaysia. We were under curfew for several months. When things calmed down I went back with my father to find Playboy. He wasn’t there. The parking stall that used to be reserved for him housed a black Mercedes Benz. It was then Playboy’s story began to unfold.
(Here is a rendering of Playboy I did from memory.)
Apparently he had actually once been a millionaire Tin Baron in the state of Perak. Polygamy was not outlawed in the country and he had 2 wives. Through a gambit the 2 women had conspired to gain control of his holdings. They succeeded and the old man blew a fuse and had to be institutionalized. When he was released he skipped town to get lost in the big city of Kuala Lumpur. He had successfully stayed under the radar for close to 15 years. Then early in 1969 they found him again and re-institutionalized him in a bid to get the rest of the cash that they thought was squirreled away. They found nothing and he was released… broken by the whole experience.
After the riots social services picked him up and put him in again. He died there 3 months later. Years later I was convinced he died from a broken heart and the loss of his freedom.
1989, Fresno, California. I had been commissioned to adapt “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Anderson for the stage. (BTW, this was my first commissioned piece.) I only agreed to do it because I hated the original story – poor little girl hallucinates in the snow and dies! So, in adapting it I decided to “fix” the story but still maintain the spirit of it. I set it in 2 time periods – one being the turn of the century, both of which were set in Fresno. In the contemporary time period I decided to pay tribute to Playboy by creating a street character named Percy.
Anyway, the opening night premiere of the play was scheduled for the day after Thanksgiving at the Memorial Auditorium. We had had a rather iffy final dress rehearsal that afternoon. Two hours before showtime, my friend Zonthar (who was playing the Percy character) and I went down to a local store nearby to get some cigarettes. It has to be explained that Mugahlis was a grocery store where the local downtown winos came to get their “supplies” from. This usually occurred at 8 in the morning and 5 in the evening.
We are standing in line to pay for our purchases behind 6 or 7 other people… 5 of which are winos armed with their bottles of Night Train or Thunderbird. Earlier, Zonthar and I had a discussion about how to play the part of Percy… a result of jitters for opening night and a shakey final dress. As we stood in line… the man in front of us (a wino) turned around and beamed at us. He pointed to his sweater and said,
“Look at this. My daughter gave this to me yesterday. Can you believe that? She invited me over for Thanksgiving. We had dinner. Look at this. She gave it to me. I haven’t seen her in 10 years. I didn’t even know she was married. I have grandchildren now, you know? I don’t knw if I’ll see her again but she gave this to me. She may have bought it at a thrift store… but she gave it to me. She gave me something. She gave this to me… look at it.”
He then paid for his Thunderbird and as he walked out of the store he turned, smiled again and said, “Happy Thanksgiving.” As he left, I couldn’t help thinking about Playboy and how differently his family situation played out so many years ago.
Zonthar and I returned to the theater and opening night was wonderful! The cast was stellar and Zonthar performed the part of Percy with a quirky dignity and pathos. Years later I used our encounter with the man in the store for another play.
Each encounter took place 20 years apart… yet were somehow connected. These 2 gentlemen from different times in my life and different parts of the world provided me with material and inspiration for 2 different plays. One play is titled “Bundle Of Wishes” and the other “The Holiday Show.” My sincere thanks goes to both of them for the lessons in compassion they taught me. I hope I have honored them through my work.
And so ends another edition of Picture Daze.