It is well known that former Ming Pao owner and editor Louis Cha, better known as Jin Yong the celebrated writer of martial arts novels, co-founded the Shin Min Daily News in Singapore. Less well known is that he once offered to sell his Hong Kong paper to the Singapore media company that owned The Straits Times.
I know – because I was the person he sounded out through an intermediary. I had nearly forgotten about this little episode until news of his death on October 30 jolted my memory.
At that time, I was the de facto editor of Shin Min, a Chinese-language evening paper which The Straits Times acquired in 1983. I was on a three-year secondment. It was during those three years that I got to know Cha, whom I admired greatly as a novelist and journalist.
We talked, once or twice, over dinner – about China, Hong Kong, journalism and, of course, his novels. It was a great opportunity for a junior, still wet behind his ears, to learn as much as possible from a highly-respected senior in age, experience and knowledge.
Then one day, out of the blue, he asked, through an intermediary, if The Straits Times was interested in buying Ming Pao. He was planning to retire but did not want to sell his paper to just anyone with money. He thought the ST, with its financial and journalistic resources, would be in a position to take Ming Pao to a higher level.
I reported this to my bosses, and to cut a long story short, they decided, after some deliberation, not to follow up. I conveyed the answer. To this day, I have no idea how Cha felt about it. I did wonder, from time to time in the years after, how things would have turned out had a deal been struck. My guess now is that it would not have gone down very well in Hong Kong.
In my book, Jin Yong is the greatest of all writers of wuxia xiaoshuo (or Chinese martial arts novels). In a sense, he was my best-ever Chinese teacher and it was he who made me understand values like honour, courage, integrity and compassion towards all men that a thousand hours of ethics lessons would not have.
I first started reading him when I was about 11. I was then living in a one-room tenement above a coffee shop, which provided free Chinese newspapers for its patrons. Jin Yong’s novels appeared in serialised instalments in these papers.
So, each evening, before the coffee shop closed for business, I would be there, lapping up every word, courtesy of the owner who let me read the papers for free. With no disrespect to all the teachers who taught Chinese in the schools I attended, I learned the language this way. I was a lot more proficient in Chinese than English by the time I was in upper secondary.
As I found out later in life, a good number of the very effectively bilingual Singaporeans of my vintage – perhaps even the majority – went down this same joyous route to proficiency. And virtually every lover of wuxia xiaoshuo I know or know of, in and out of Singapore, would hail Jin Yong as their all-time favourite.
I have read every one of Jin Yong’s 15 novels, most of them at least twice. One in particular, Tian Long Ba Bu, I have re-read five times over the past 40 years. So what is it about his novels that I find so captivating?
I am no literary critic and not at all qualified to delve into the finer points of his writing. All I can say is that I remain ever so enraptured to this day by the silky smooth flow of his prose, the twists and turns of complex but never convoluted plots, the exquisite way in which he brought each character to life, and his infusion of Chinese culture, from poetry to music, and the essence of Buddhism into his works.
But topping all that is his masterly depiction of values that all should imbibe and uphold. Let me try to explain it this way. Wuxia consists of two parts, wu and xia. Wu means martial but xia is much harder to translate into English. A xia is someone who is chivalrous, stands up fearlessly for what is right and just, and cares more about humanity than personal glory.
True fans of Jin Yong are moved by the xia elements he wove into his stories rather than his description of the might of Shaolin martial arts or Wutang sparring skills. Xiao Feng, one of the key characters in Tian Long Ba Bu, the novel I like best, is the very embodiment of xia.
Xiao’s defining act was to force the king of Liao, of which he was a subject, to withdraw from an attack against Song China and so spare both sides horrific bloodshed and destruction. Upon securing the king’s pledge, he killed himself in front of both armies because he could not live with himself for turning against his leader even if it was for the larger cause of averting war and saving lives.
Much is lost in my quick translation and distillation of these concluding passages of the novel but when read in the evocative language in which they are penned, they can be profoundly moving. Tears still well in my eyes each time I re-visit the heroic moment when Xiao has to choose between loyalty to his king and keeping faith with humanity.
I would like to end this tribute to Cha by recounting the story of a piece of calligraphy that used to be displayed in his office. It featured just two Chinese words, fang xia (let go or lay down the burden). Jin Yong made monumental contributions to modern Chinese literature but chose to let go when he stopped writing years ago. Now, he has finally laid down all his earthly cares.
May he rest in peace.
Leslie Fong is the former editor of The Straits Times