My dad was an opium smoker. In the early 70s, we lived in this shophouse behind me… where the TCC is now. Back then it was a coffee shop downstairs and upstairs there were 10-12 families living in one big space, each small dwelling separated by only a curtain. There was an open area between the two floors and in the morning we would lower a basket on a rope with money, and they would put kopi and toast in to pull back up.
The quay was really filthy back then. The water was black and the area was rough. My dad and his brother had a bum boat and they both took opium. Sometimes I would sit with them in the bottom of the boat under a canvas while they smoked. I was about 4 at the time. I suppose I must have got a bit stoned from the fumes too! Well a few years later my dad died of lung cancer. Then later that same uncle died of lung cancer too.
I started smoking when I was 8 and I soon became a really heavy smoker. I suppose partly cus of my mother. My mom was a bit different – she was not an educated women – she could not even read numbers. And she never really disciplined me. So if I wanted cigarettes, she would give them to me.
By the time I was 12, I ended up joining a gang. I was always getting into trouble. I would steal, beat people up, extort protection money… Luckily I was never caught by the police so I never got a record. But I got caught so many times at school I should have been expelled.
At the end of Sec 1 when I was 14, I got called into the principal’s office for my 6th major offense. By this point, all my friends had been expelled. I was the only one left. Usually you get three chances and you are out. Besides, I had flunked out of every subject except English and Art.
The principal told me that there was only one reason all my friends had been expelled and I was left: I had a champion. One of my teachers, Mrs. Steve, kept sticking up for me. He said I should speak with her.
So I did. And what she told me lives with me to this day. She said, “I see a spark in you. I don’t want you to lose that – to throw it away. I believe in you.” A nice pep talk for sure. But before I left she said,
“I love you like a son.”
I love you like a son.
I had never heard those words before in my life. I was 14 and nobody had ever told me that they loved me. It really hit me. Here was someone who cared for me, who believed in me. If I carried down the path I was on, I would end up in prison. Did I really want to throw my life away? I needed to change.
So I quit smoking and returned to school the next year. Despite my grades, they put me in the top class. Amazing. It took me a while to adjust and to not fall into old habits of behaving badly. But eventually I started to really work. And by the end of the year, I was 12th in class and 15th overall in school… from being almost dead last. I was an instant hero and became really popular.
Normally that’s where the story would end. “Happily ever after” as they say. But during this period I had been living with my step-brother because my mother wasn’t able to take care of me. But problems with his new wife forced me to move back with her. And it forced me to become a parent to my own mother. Having been moved around from home to home over the years, subject to emotional abuse, and then being a young guy responsible for a troubled adult was too much for me. I became angry, depressed. Life was unfair. I thought of suicide many times.
I carried on doing well in school but had this darkness inside of me. I sought comfort in lots of different religions but nothing I read resonated. Then in my first year of poly, a friend handed me the New Testament. He wasn’t preaching or anything. He just gave it to me. And when I read that book, I knew this was what I was looking for. I asked Jesus into my heart. I was 17. The darkness lifted.
If anyone could see a change in my character it was my mother. For years I had been very harsh with her: I was angry and resentful. Honestly I broke her heart many times. But this changed how I treated her. She was so amazed that I could transform so much that a month and a half later, she converted too.
It was then I realised that there might be many people like us who have suffered but could find happiness if they only learned what I had learned. From that point on, I dedicated my life to spreading the word.
I spent more time talking to my mother after that, and that’s when I found out about her own troubled past. She had been forced into marriage when she was very young; no chance to go to school; abused – raped. I never realised the hardships my mother faced until I took the time.
She’s gone now – died a few years back. And I’m now 42, married and have two kids of my own. I am a very lucky person. It could have gone another way. But I had many angels along the road. Angels like my friend that handed me that book. And angels like Mrs. Steve.