It is funny how some things stick in your mind. I recall many moments with my father when I was four or five, both happy and sad. I remember him carrying me about the house when my legs froze up after I received a polio vaccination. No one really knew how children would react to these truly horrendous shots and I was virtually crippled for days. My father would carry me from my bed to the recliner in the living room every morning before he left for work.
I remember him getting really annoyed with me when I wouldn’t leave him in peace to do his gardening; and I remember his innate love of all creatures, big and small. Anything that accidentally found its way into the house, be it vermin or reptile was captured and released back outside. Indeed, I recall that at one time or another we had cats, dogs, turtles and on one occasion, even a monkey that he had rescued from an abusive owner, as pets.
I have never forgotten his advice to me: It’s up to you to rescue an animal or leave it on the street. But, if you do decide to save its life you cannot change your mind later if it suddenly becomes too much trouble.
The only living thing that he ever wilfully destroyed at every opportunity was centipedes, and that was only because an adult had bitten him. The pain had been so intense he’d ended up in hospital.
In 1952 Dad was fortunate enough to obtain a plot of land on the Ngong Peng plateau on Lantau Island. In those days, as now, the only way you could purchase, what was then Crown Land, was through public auction. And then sometimes, but very infrequently, you might be fortunate enough to find a family that wanted to sell a plot of ancestral land. And this is how my father was able to obtain his land.
Dad was a highly qualified engineer. At one time he was the only Rolls Royce qualified engineer in the whole of Asia. He was also a frustrated farmer. He would plant field after field of vegetables and potatoes and at the right time of year we would enjoy the produce of his labours.
At that time we lived in Wanchai on Hong Kong Island and would travel up to Ngong Peng only once or twice a month. There were no buses in those days so we had to walk up from either Tai O or Tung Chung, both fishing villages. The hike would take us several hours and I must have been a real chore for my father as I hated walking and spent most of the journey complaining and begging to be carried.
As we could not visit the farm for several weeks at a time my father employed a recovering leper to work as a caretaker and gardener. One of the childhood memories I mentioned earlier was when this man, whose name I sadly don’t recall, came to my father with one of the biggest centipedes I had ever seen (at that time). He explained to Dad that this was a very special creature and rich in healing powers. (Centipedes are also rich in venom which causes excruciating pain in adults and even death in the very young or elderly. A few years ago I was bitten by a juvenile and the pain, while not severe, lasted for several days). He then went on to explain that what he had to do was drown the centipede in brandy in order to promote this healing quality.
Dad, being Scottish, had more faith in the healing powers of good brandy rather than six inch centipedes, but to keep this chap happy gave him the cheapest bottle he could find. Absolutely delighted, the man uncorked the bottle and dropped the still wriggling creature into the alcohol. I’m sure it died a peaceful, blissful death. Dad returned to his gardening and I completely forgot about the entire matter.
Incidentally, the biggest centipede I have ever personally seen was about 12 inches long. It was lying, dead, in the middle of King’s Road in North Point and had obviously been run over. I couldn’t examine it too carefully for fear of getting run over myself but the estimated 12 inches did not include the part that had been squashed.
It was some months later when the crops were ready to harvest that Dad invited his sales team for what they thought was going to be a pleasant relaxing weekend on the farm. Upon arrival they were each handed a fork or shovel and pointed in the direction of a fields. Things progressed happily and rattan baskets of vegetables and potatoes soon lined the verandah.
Then one of the salesmen was bitten by a snake.
He was carried into the house in a swoon and Dad was seriously concerned. The man had not seen the snake that had attacked him and therefore could not identify it. There were no medical facilities on the plateau at that time and if the snake was venomous, as many of them are, there was precious little time to treat him. In those days, snake serum was specific to the snake itself, and administering the wrong serum, even if it had been available, could have killed the victim as quickly as doing nothing at all.
In the confusion of the scene the gardener arrived with his bottle of brandy containing the centipede, which by this time had turned a lovely shade of emerald green. I watched, fascinated, as he brushed passed the worried salesmen and administered a shot glass of the ‘medicinal’ brandy to the victim and then rubbed a liberal amount on the bite itself. I do not know whether it was the shock of being bitten or the sight of the centipede floating in the brandy he had just swallowed, but the fellow promptly passed out.
He was tucked up in a blanket and two of his companions were tasked with watching over him. Solemnly, the rest of the team filed out onto the veranda where my father promptly got them drunk. And then we waited. Periodic reports came from the window of the living room where the patient was sleeping. He was still breathing and appeared to be asleep as opposed to unconscious. I did not know the difference then (I’m not sure I know it now).
And then after almost two hours he awoke.
There were cries of surprise and joy as he hobbled out onto the veranda shaking his head. There was a little pain from the bite but he showed no sign of fever. He sat down for a few moments and then accepted a glass of beer from one of his friends.
To this day I don’t know whether it was a venomous or non-venomous snake that bit him. One of the most common snakes in the area is the brown rat snake which gives a strong, painful bite, but is non-venomous. The rat snake of course, is accompanied by the bamboo snake and the many banded krait. Both snakes are vipers and extremely dangerous, not only because of their venom but because they are extremely lethargic and most attacks come from being trodden on. And, of course, the several varieties of the cobra which will kill you as soon as look at you. (Cobras are venomous as early as nine days after being hatched),
Of course, there is the possibility that the medicinal brandy was responsible for curing the chap of a potentially lethal bite. Remember that the next time you come across a centipede and happen to have a cheap bottle of brandy in the kitchen.
There is a great deal to be said for traditional Chinese medicine and sadly Westerners are still unwilling to entrust their health to it. However, it is well-worth looking into and a search of the internet will provide you with enough knowledge to begin a fascinating journey.
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