HIS name was Ah Sai or Lion, which is what sai means in Hokkien. But that was never what we primary school kids thought of when he zoomed into our lives in March the year I was in Primary Three, a week after we bade fond farewells to Uncle Ah Hock, who decided that 38 years of driving school buses was enough.
To all of us, sai was more poop than lion, more icky stinky brown than sandy safari gold. It was the familiar challenge of the tongue and ear for those speaking Chinese or its dialects—catching the tonal shifts in homonyms. Mispronounced with the harsher fourth tone, the majestic beast (articulated with the softer first tone) would mutate into excrement. And for us playful kids, we’d play it fast and loose whenever the name was bandied about: mishear it if we chose (which always sent us into wild titters), mispronounce it if we dared (which was rare, for Ah Sai was ferocious like a lion).
Which parent would give their kid such a name? It was like being named Duncan (“Hey, Dunkin’ Donuts!”) or Gabriel (shorten it, you’d get “gay”). Mean epithets for sure, and nasty name-calling, but kids are kids, and Ah Sai would still be Mr. Shit. Never mind the story behind his name, which didn’t quite gel with Mommy’s theory that all Ah Sai’s mother wanted was for her baby boy to grow up lionhearted.
Mommy’s idea may have made sense, but Auntie Lili’s story appealed more to my imagination: a scene of a bloody, bawling newborn spilling out from his mother’s loins with the doctor going, “Wow, so much hair!” before announcing, “Oh, it’s a boy!”
Not only did he have so much hair, he also had the most pronounced sideburns. And as he slept through his initial hours swaddled in his baby wraps, not even crying once, all that jet black hair began fluffing up around the crown and the sides, as if a miraculous wind had swept across his newborn fuzz, making his tiny face even tinier.
“So, you see,” said Auntie Lili one day when Ah Sai disappeared briefly to the boy’s room, “that’s how he got his name!”
Auntie Lili was Ah Sai’s assistant. She was the mandatory other in the bus, the conductor, if you will. She could count 36 heads at a single glance and was something of a “Safety First Auntie,” taking care that the younger ones would get down the steps safely, while coaxing the naughtier ones to keep their bottoms glued to their seats when the bus was in motion. But her brand of “safety first” was inherited from Uncle Ah Hock: it never worked with the boys who had ants in their pants or notoriously slippery derrières. This all changed with Ah Sai coming on board—literally.
During the Uncle Ah Hock days, the boys—who always strangely ran in the majority—would stake out something of an L-shape on the seating plan, with the base of the L formed by the spacious five-seater back row that stretched across the entire width of our Mercedes bus, and its height extending all the way to the driver’s seat. There had always been a natural split down the aisle given how the boys would never sit with the girls, and more so, vice versa.
When Ah Sai came along, he disbanded the L and made a U—not for the boys, but the girls—effectively banishing the boys from the luxurious back seat. And so, the boys occupied two parallel ‘I’s in closer proximity to Monsieur Lion, with the two brats of the bus, Tong Soon and Gerald, designated the front seat by the entrance under careful and close surveillance.
It was a great arrangement on many counts. The fist fights over unfair Pokemon card trades or whatever other nonsense boys fought over stopped. So too did the brazen acts of littering, especially by that coveted stretch of seats at the back. Our journeys suddenly felt like they had become shorter, and the bus cleaner. There was also a general sense of peace and quiet, including justice: the boys would never dream of bullying us girls.
All this thanks to Ah Sai, the stocky, quiet forty-something who sported a Hulk Hogan-styled bandana of a different design each day and Ray Ban shades, the classic black ones. He could well have been as tall as Hulk Hogan, though not as bulky. Oddly, Ah Sai was bald (contrary to the story we were told), which only made him look even meaner. But what made his look most formidable was something else altogether: a tattoo of a majestic jade-blue dragon slithering from the base of his left ear, past his bulging left bicep and hairless arm, right down to his hand where the ferocious dragon head sat, spouting a fire of amber-gold and red between the index finger and thumb.
It was this same finger and thumb that yanked the ears of both Tong Soon and Gerald at the height of their mischief one day, which had forced him to pull over five minutes into our journey home. Watching Ah Sai’s forearm muscle twitch at each pinch and imagining dragon fire spraying into the ears of both boys were terrifying and comic at the same time, particularly since they reminded me of greasy bulging burgers. Flame-broiled burgers and broiled boys—it was hard to make out the macabre from the slapstick, but the schadenfreude was keen and clear.
For all the terror he incited, particularly among the boys, Ah Sai soon became a gentle giant in our eyes. He never sat idly at his driver’s seat while the bus loaded up at dismissal. He would wait by the school porch ahead of the dismissal bell to gather his brood of Primary Ones and Twos whose school bags were totally disproportionate in weight and size to their tiny bodies.
Once, he fetched them all at one go and slung eight bags all about him—three on each arm, one on a shoulder and another looped round his forehead by the strap, as if he were a Sherpa guide. Freed of their burden and urged to stay close to him as they made their way across the car park filled with cars and buses all ready to inch their way out, the eight little kids bobbed and skipped about, trailing behind their giant porter like happy little chicks.
Even my form teacher, Mrs K.S. Ng was an occasional beneficiary to Ah Sai’s porter service because his bus was always parked next to her red Mercedes. The class-load of exercise books in Mrs. Ng’s oblong wicker basket always looked sturdier, less wobbly in Ah Sai’s hand than hers.
Indeed, there was a certain sturdiness that made Ah Sai such a fine driver and a fine person. How first impressions fool us! And how apt that cliché—the one we used to invoke so often to conclude our essays: Never judge a book by its cover. Why didn’t I ever think of featuring Ah Sai in one of those essays? It would have been so original, so real, so right. Alas, I always ended up with some dreary, banal narrative about the pride of a Tom or the prejudice of a Jack! Such dull and colorless characters, all imagined rather than real. They must have filled every single writing assignment of my entire primary school life.
And so today, I’ve decided to go along with good ol’ Ah Sai, that very book whose roaring and feisty cover belied the gentler, warmer pages within.
This essay was written in response to the ‘O’ Levels 2001 exam, Question 2b:
Write a story on the new bus driver.