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Last week something important happened to me. Well two things. One of them I can’t actually talk about, except to say it involves illness and someone I love. 

I mention it because my mind seems to associate the two memories closely, even though they’re completely unrelated. I was wondering why I couldn’t blog about this really cool thing. No matter how hard I tried, my brain just kept turning to mush. I suspect it’s because it happened at the same time as the traumatic event. To retrieve that memory, I can’t avoid going to the place of pain, as if they share the same room. 

And I wonder… does it work the other way? Could the awesome memory make the sorrowful one more bearable? And going even further, thinking about how pain and joy accommodate each other, and how avoiding one means cutting off access to the other…

Anyway, I sit here, my heart full of both, and I’m glad I can finally get words out. 

I’m glad I can finally tell you about Ah Gow the treecutter. 

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The garden was getting out of control. It was the decades-old durian tree that worried me most – an entire side was dying and hanging its huge, brittle branches over our roof. A storm had already blown down half the nangka tree in the front yard. It was a warning that we had better fucking deal with things, no matter how broke we were at the moment. 

We got Ah Gow’s number from our neighbours, who hire him when their super tall coconut trees need harvesting. Ah Gow doesn’t have a monkey. He is the monkey. He climbs the tree and chops the coconuts down. Apparently he’s famous in Port Dickson for being THE MAN to call about anything tree related. 

I was anxious. Even with Zedeck’s parents footing half the bill, we were spending money we didn’t really have. The last thing I wanted was a half-ass cowboy hacking away and leaving us a garden full of mutilated plants. I’ve seen city council workers pollarding trees along the road. It’s like shock treatment. The trees always look bald and terrible afterwards.

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But sometimes you can tell straight away when someone is going to do a good job. It’s a certain quality. I tried to put my finger on what it was when Ah Gow came to look at the garden. He checked out everything – the trees, the house, the ground – nodding silently to himself now and then. He shook his head at the 3-storey tall Durian, and the monster bougainvilla rising up like a mythical bramble hedge, and the termite infested rambutan trees at the back. He confined his comments to (in Chinese) ‘haven’t looked after garden for awhile, issit?’. And seeing my worried face, threw in a gruff ‘Don’t worry. I can do. No problem.’ before he left. 

First day. I expected him to roll up with a tractor, a cherry picker, a lorry … or SOMETHING. It was going to be a huge job. He showed up in his car carrying nothing but the following: two chainsaws (one big one small), a bunch of well-worn rope, machetes, a small hand axe and 3 helpers, one of them his son. He then proceeded to climb to the top of the first tree (a big Citrifolia, or pokok noni) and began to lope the branches off expertly with a chainsaw. In about 5 minutes, the whole thing was down to a stump. 

And then I watched as he straddled and tied rope to a huge branch in the durian tree. Let me remind you this is 3 stories off the ground and over our precious roof. He began cutting into it. At the precise moment, he shouted to his son below (who was holding the other end of the rope) to ‘PULL! PULL!!’. The thing landed to earth with a shuddering thud, missing the roof (and the son) by inches. 

I have never seen anything like it. It was fast, methodical and precise execution of dangerous and difficult work. The man knew exactly what he was doing and how to do it. It kind of took my breath away. Or maybe I just have a thing for elderly, mustachioed uncles who wear sneakers and have muscular forearms. 

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It was the skill that was dazzling. The rudimentary equipment made it clear as day what was getting the work done: timing, experience and knowledge – perfected and internalized to the point of instinct. By the second day, they had completely brought down 4 trees, and the Nangka and Durian (both huge) had been trimmed with a delicacy reserved for bonsais. They weren’t butchered or amputated. They looked… prettier. 

Ah Gow told me he’d been doing his job for 40 years. ‘Climbing trees since I was ten years old’. He’s 58 now. 

Maybe it’s nothing extraordinary, cutting a tree down, but something about the WAY he did it made you want to watch and pay attention. Why?

I think… it’s about TEXTURE. 

QUALITY. 

His work had both. 

What produces that? And why is it important, when all you need is to get a job done? 

I’m pretty sure about the answer to the first question. It’s time. Time and practice are what produce texture – because you find your own way of doing things. And quality? That comes from care and respect for your work, whether its fixing shoes, writing stories, building buildings, caring for sick people, raising kids, growing food, or painting pictures. 

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But I don’t know why it’s important. Maybe it’s far too romantic an approach to work in this capitalist industrial economy. All we care about is making sure people have a job, ANY job, even if it turns them into robots churning out STUFF that we don’t need. Somehow things like GDP and FDI matter so much more than the happiness and dignity of individual people. And that’s the thing isn’t it? Expanded markets don’t have texture. Key Performance Indexes don’t have texture. Produk Rakyat 1Malaysia (I saw this plastered on a bus today, I kid you not) doesn’t even know the meaning of texture. 

Even getting ‘success’ in your chosen ‘industry’ doesn’t have texture or quality. They’re abstractions. But I think… initiative and ambition can lead you there, to the place where you make something real. That is, if you’re brave enough to act on it, and not get distracted by the siren songs of money or fame. 

I don’t know why texture and quality and artfulness and beauty are important. I only know that I recognized it in Ah Gow and knew it was something I wanted for myself. I realize I’ve always been thirsty and searching for it, that quality. Finding it in the most unexpected places is reassuring, like a quiet message from the universe saying: This is the path. Keep going. 

You know, his work didn’t come cheap. I mean, it wasn’t exorbitant, but it wasn’t cheap. He knew his own value. I think that’s rare, and getting rarer everyday. 

On a whim, I drew Ah Gow’s portrait. Then I got REALLY shy and almost chickened out of giving it to him. Better just to put it on the internet. Get some likes. Safe. No risk.  But Zedeck said ‘you have to! you have to!’, so I did. 

He looked at it, puzzled and suspicious. ‘What’s this? Ha?’ 

My heart sank. 

Then all of a sudden, in a tone of complete surprise, he grinned and said, ‘That’s me!’

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