Ways and Means

A New Year Story

By Datoh

On the twenty-third day of the twelfth Chinese moon in the twenty-sixth year of Kwang-Su’s reign there was a great rejoicing among the Chinese population of Singapore. It was a great festival day and one which was a gentle reminder of the approaching greater festival-the Chinese New Year.

All children and some older folks also began to look around and make preparations for the coming event, while those who had both time and money at their disposal entered upon their self-imposed task with a spirit worthy of all admiration and with a sense of complete satisfaction.

Their poorer and humbler brethren began to look serious and dejected, for custom has made it into an unwritten law that the New Year was to be a great day for rich and poor alike; and what more effectual means could there be of celebrating the great day than by sweeping away from every nook and corner the whole year’s dust, renovating all the old furniture, bringing in new ones, and last, but not least, replenishing both pantry and sideboard!

It is a good idea, to make the  New Year a great festival day for all sorts and conditions of men. It is really good to have all forget their whole year’s trials and troubles and make merry even for one brief day; but the ways and means which some people–nay, the majority of them–have to resort to in order to obtain that little time of respite and enjoyment, ah! it is worth sacrificing many such brief intervals of rest and recreation when one reflects upon the various artful devices which have been employed to meet that great day in a manner prescribed by custom as appropriate and right.

I was one of that majority which on the aforesaid 23rd of the 12th moon found myself suddenly reminded of the coming new year, and as time did not permit of making elaborate plans for the celebration of that great day far as I was concerned, I began to concentrate all my forces into one sole line of action–that of collecting money.

My experience had taught me to have a high esteem for the dollar and although I was not prepared to go to the length of calling it the “almighty dollar” yet I have ever set a very appreciable value on it.

By force of experience, therefore, my mind turned to the one thing which, in my opinion, would overcome all difficulties, and I also believed that with money in my pocket I could do things in one day which would take a year to accomplish without it.  More than other people perhaps, I was subject to monetary influences; but, albeit, all are one with me in the desire to accumulate wealth.

Whether the craze for the accumulation of wealth is a blessing or a curse entirely depends upon the light in which one looks upon the question; but whereas the desire to be rich seems to be universal the ways and means by which people seek to realise it are by no means general or common; indeed, there are hardly two men who have acquired wealth by identical ways and means.

With this one object of collecting money in view of the occasion already referred to, I took all necessary steps to call in some of my investments; but although some of them had already fallen due, I could not get the parties to square up. They were also making ready for the great day, and wanted keep my cash to help them to celebrate it in a becoming manner. No amount of entreaties or threats could avail, and nothing short of tedious and expensive litigation could enable me to recover the required money; but even if I had resorted to my legal remedy, I could not lay hands on the money before the great day, for the ‘law’s delay’ is quite proverbial.

Baulked in this most legitimate way of getting money, I was entirely thrown out of my calculations, and all I could do was to sit down and think, which, by the bye was the most foolish thing for me to have done, as subsequent events proved.  If I had been up and doing, I should not now be narrating the sad plight I was placed in by this want of foresight. I sat and thought for goodness knows how long, and when I came to, I found that I had sat in vain for I had not succeeded in thinking of a way out of my dilemma.

I rose abruptly from my chair, and kicked it off from me as a thing adverse to successful thought, and began pacing my room with downcast eyes and a heavy tread. But no; money was not to be got in that way either! I bathed my head with cold water, combed my hair and drew my chair again to sit but not to think. I took up my pen and wrote something which I thought would be paid for by the newspapers.  I was thus occupied for several hours, and if one could judge of one’s own work, I thought I had done something for which I expect to be paid.

I took it down with me the next morning, but on the way to the press, I met an old friend who had been writing for the papers for some considerable time and I therefore confided in him my mission and told him what I carried under my arm.  No one can understand or sufficiently realise the dismay depicted on my face when my friend told me plainly that my effort was in vain and that the local editors would not be bothered with manuscripts from any one who expected payment.  He recited his own experience with the press and assured me that the editors would not pay for anything that did not fall in entirely with their own views of men and things. He explained how his own articles concerning the arbitrary action of certain officials and other important public matters were consigned to the waste paper basket for the simple reason that he had written rather unfavourably regarding some personal friend of an editor, or the views expressed in those articles had not been in accordance with the editor’s own opinion which, after all, in these parts, constitutes the newspaper itself.

In the face of these revelations from my old friend, I had nothing else to do but to retrace my steps to my office; and no one was ever nearer the Slough of Despond than I was when I turned my back from the place where I had expected to get some sort of help to carry me through that great day.

This scheme therefore, like its predecessor, had to be abandoned for obvious reasons; and, as there was nothing worth picking up in the streets of Singapore, I hastened my steps toward my office and when once within its walls I abandoned all thoughts of editors and newspapers, my work being always more than enough even for a man with a lighter heart and more genial spirits than my own.

Amidst all sorts and conditions of men that had to transact business with me that day, were those black human bloodsuckers–commonly known as chitties.  These human pests were frequent visitors in my office, but on no occasion had I seen them so large numerically and doing so extensive a business in enticing young men and squeezing old hands as on that eventful day.  The thought struck me suddenly that in view of the fast approaching festive day, these venomous creatures were driving a roaring trade, and their prototype, the serpent, tempted me to deal financially with them and thus ensure happiness and pleasure for that great day. The thought no sooner entered my mind than I repulsed it as vigorously as I would have shaken a real living reptile from me! No, no, it were better to die, or to speak more correctly, to have no jollification for that day than to place myself in the merciless and contaminating clutches of those black devils in human form! I always abhorred them, and when I thought of all the crimes of which they were guilty, in their greed for gold, I felt like a saint justified in his righteous indignation.

As a side thought, it seemed strange that the Chinese who have taken to so many professions outside their own national occupations should never have entered the ring as a competitor in this chitty business.  Indeed, besides these chitties, there seemed to be no other people on earth sufficiently cursed to carry on successfully their bloodsucking profession; and to them therefore must be given the uncontested palm for the cleverest feats of fraud and treachery!

My self-justified wrath against these chitties however did not solve for me the great problem I had to face; and in avoiding these particular fellow-creatures of mine, I had to feel very strongly against them and very lightly of the festivities of the eventful day.

It has been most truly said that hope deferred maketh the heart sick; in my own case, however, it was no question of heart-sickness,–it was mad desperation!

The days were stealing steadily on me, and if the Fates did not turn out to be exceptionally favourable as they had proved to be unfavourable to me during the preceding few days, I began to think that I would be compelled into doing something exceedingly rash and deplorable.

Indeed, I began to conjure up before my eyes all sorts of gloomy scenes, and among other dark visions in my mind, I fancied throwing myself out of a window, hundreds of feet high from the road and thus ridding myself of all thoughts of the great day.  But youth, and the love of life gained the upper hand and restrained me from indulging for long in suicidal tendencies These morbid reflections were not due to any wilful or voluntary effort from me; they were rather the natural outcome of my sorely disappointed mental condition.

The question of getting money now stared me in the face more cruelly than ever; and, whereas it had seemed difficult a few days before, it was now almost impossible to do anything to gain for me that which for the time was transformed into my one object in life!Money I must have, but I would not lay hands on it by foul or dishonest means.  I have heard it said that a man in straitened circumstances would do anything, but I cannot agree with such a slanderous proposition. At all events, I can conscientiously aver before God and man that nothing dishonest or dishonourable ever entered into the various ways and means by which I attempted to raise money; and if man ever were in straitened circumstances I think it safe to take for granted that my condition was the worst possible in the whole category of ‘hard-ups’! It was true that I had investments outstanding in my favour, but what could receipts, promissory notes and like documents do when real solid money was required?  It might be suggested that these papers could have been lodged with certain persons in return for which and for a certain consideration I could have got the money I wanted. But this idea was not wholesome to me, and in rejecting it, I only exhibited a trait of character not uncommon among my fellowmen, to wit, the reluctance to appear to be in want.  Thus my case was a veritable instance of starvation in the midst of plenty!

It wanted but three days more to bring me to that great day which had caused me so much mental anxiety and vexation of spirit, and I was beginning to think not of how I should enjoy that great day, but rather how I was to get out of its way and bear the discomfiture of not being able to put in my lawful share in the merry-making which that great day always demands.

I now contemplated the plan which would, as it were, take me out of myself, and drown my disappointment which would doubtless reach its climax on that terrible day,–and it had now ceased to be “great” with me. Indeed I was looking for a way to get out of Singapore and become an exile in a foreign land where kith and kin and above all where all thoughts of that day would be far away!

Johore was the most convenient place at such a time, and the gambling den would fall in pat with my desire to forget. Yes, that would be the consummation of my plan of mental escape, for who will doubt that the circling “poh[1]” takes away all thoughts of hearth, home and kindred and even the merriment of the terrible day cannot obtrude upon the all-engrossing attractions of the Johore gambling farm.

The thoughts crossed my mind one dry sultry evening just forty-eight hours before the great festival would reach me, and although I had in one sense succeeded in my endeavour to find a means by which I could take myself away, yet what a success it was when I thought of the sacrifices involved.

It can be safely conjectured that my mood just then was not of the brightest or happiest, and I was cursing my fate and the day I was born when a circumstance which I had not counted upon suddenly happened.

The unexpected generally happens when one least wishes it, and in the generality of cases it comes when it should not and vice versa. The unexpected in my case, however, was one of the most fortunate moments in my life, for what it brought was the very essence of pleasure and joy.

It dispelled my gloomy thoughts; it cheered me to a pitch of ecstasy; it gave me a brighter and more tolerable view of life; it helped me to look brave in the deepest hour of misery; it sent through me a thrill of hope and joy; it picked me out of the depths of despair; it saved me from moral deterioration, for Johore and the gambling den now found no harbour in my thoughts, and indeed it did more things and more good than are generally claimed for the steam-engine!

It came to me that warm grey evening in the shape of a cheque on the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation for the sum of one thousand dollars payable on demand; but it gave me no reason for its unexpected advent. I was at first inclined to look upon that cheque as a practical joke played on me by some friend who had divined my trouble from my haggard countenance and anxious mien, but a reference to the signature at the bottom of the cheque cleared up all doubts on the point, for it bore the name of a well-known and well-founded firm with which I had had dealings in various ways.

In an instant I had put on my coat, donned my hat and was otherwise ready to leave my room, and no speed was great enough to take me to the office of that firm which had sent me that blissful surprise.

I reached the firm in due course and walked straight into the private sanctum of the manager who was then dressing preparatory to going to the golf-links.

He caught sight of me from behind the pretty Japanese screen which stood between his office desk and the dressing table, and with one leap he was at my side and grasped my hands in a way which spoke of his cordial manner and kind disposition.

“Hurrah,” said he, “now you will be satisfied that the business is genuine. It is rather a big haul too!”

“Yes” I replied, “ but it is not the number of the figures in the cheque that is of any consequence; it is rather the nick of time in which it came. I was just on the point of skidaddling when your cheque came and oh, what a relief!”

Briefly I described to my friend all that I had experienced during those few days, and when I had concluded he heaved a sigh of sympathy and said “Well, I am glad it is over now, you deserve this money even if it is only for all the troubles you have undergone; make merry now, and receive this coming New Year in a way unparalleled in the annals of new year festivities.”

He then drew from a secret drawer in his desk a large piece of paper printed with long strings of numbers and prizes, and running down his finger along the numbers column he stopped when he reached number 9493, and showed it to me with a face beaming with unspeakable joy and delight.

I looked at the number and then at his face and watched for the further development of a scheme which had been arranged between us some weeks before this. He took down a letter-box from a side-counter and produced a sealed envelope addressed to me.

I tore it open, and drew out of it a long narrow sheet of paper printed in all sorts of colours and divided into ten parts by folds. I compared the number on this paper with that on my friend’s table and found them to agree thus proving that the ticket addressed to me had won for me a prize of one thousand dollars!

The scheme of which I speak was the result of an interview I had with my friend one afternoon about a month before.  He had been talking of a certain public lottery which offered exceptional advantages to those who held tickets in it and asked me to take a share.  I refused on the grounds that I did not believe the lottery to be carried on honestly and in good faith; he persisted in landing the qualities of the lottery and as a practical outcome of the discussion I was persuaded into giving the affair a trial.  I handed the price for it, and he took a ticket, enclosed it in an envelope, sealed it with his office seal and addressed it to me. I declined to take it and we arranged that he should keep it with him and that I should only be troubled again on the matter if my ticket brought me a prize.

Thus it happened that I was destined to be troubled a second time on the subject; but the trouble brought in its train a substantial compensation, for which I shall ever feel grateful.

My friend sent for a bottle of the finest champagne and we sat down to further discuss the merits of the lottery.

After a short interval, the thoughts of that great day again entered my mind, and with a warm and hearty handshake I bade my friend good-bye, not, however, without first exacting a promise from him to help me to celebrate the great day in a, manner worthy of all ancestral traditions, and in accordance with the obligations due to the lottery to spend every cent of the prize which it had brought me.

The cheque was duly cashed and my preparation for the new year began in right earnest. Cart-loads of things, eatable and drinkable, obtained and everything that money could procure was got in to do justice to the new year and to the good luck which had not only saved me from exile, but had also given me new hopes of life, fresh aspirations for the coming year and joyful expectations for a very enjoyable Great Day.

My friend called on me on the morning of that eventful day, and there was a special significance in our manner and tone when my friend and I shook hands and wished each other “A Happy New Year.”


[1] A game played with a die with faces of two contrasting colours. Bets were taken on which colour would come up on each throw.