I have never taken any sort of drugs in my life, discounting the epidural during Raeven’s birth, and then the GA that knocked me out for the C-section after because the epi didn’t work. Is nitrous oxide a drug?

Growing up, I was terrified of drugs. This is something I often share with other moms when the subject of How to Keep Your Child Drug-Free comes up, where they often ask me how my parents did such a good job of teaching my sis and I to be clean.

They didn’t. Malaysian television did the trick (remember all those DADAH MERBAHAYA! DADAH MEMBAWA HUKUMAN MATI! government ads? Translated, that means DRUGS ARE DANGEROUS! THE PUNISHMENT IS DEATH!). In case you didn’t know, anyone caught trafficking or selling drugs in the country, and if you carry as much as 100g of the stuff anywhere, you face a mandatory death sentence by hanging. See how that can be scary?

That, and a man named Hung Jai.

Hung Jai was a force to be reckoned with at the hair saloon my Koo Ma owned. He was the brother of the fruit sellers who rented the upstairs floor of the saloon, a painfully thin, scraggly, dirty man in his 30s who never shaved, or bathed, and smelled perpetually of grime and a strong metallic stench my seven-year old nose did not know was perhaps a layer an inch thick of post-high sweat and in-between-fix bodily secretions that oozed and flowed while shivering and thrashing about in the dark in a forgotten alley or in our smelly old outhouse.

As children, all of us who lived on Yau Tet Shin street, and perhaps even beyond, were told to stay away from Hung Jai. He was an outcast, a black sheep, a ‘tor sui kar’, Cantonese for someone who has brought unforgiveable shame and dishonour to the family. He was a drug addict, the lowest of the low. Even worse than a murderer and a Japanese soldier. Not a day went by where somebody would not say, that Hung Jai, curse his soul, should just do everyone a favour, overdose and die.

For whatever he was worth, Hung Jai never did a thing to my sis and me, or the kids in the neighbourhood. We’d heard that he robbed and stole and begged on the streets, and that the only person who would talk to him without screaming at him, was his 80-year old mother, whom we called Sang Kor Por, or Grandma Fruit, because she was the oldest in the family.

There was once, though, that I caught Hung Jai shooting up. I was walking to the back of the shop, on my way to my room which was next to the outhouse where he usually did his ‘business’, and he hadn’t latched the door properly, probably because he was high or wanting to get high. One of the Stricted Rules living with my Koo Ma, was that we NEVER, EVER go near the outhouse (which was why I still had to crap in a potty when I was eight, nine. We had no indoor plumbing then). Hung Jai, you see, was a heroin addict, and his paraphernalia were often found lying about in the outhouse. A spoon, a candle, used syringes. Plus my Koo Ma was convinced that smelling the sacharrine-sweet fumes would poison anyone within a five-foot radius, so whenever he was ‘doing it’, the shampoo girls and kids were often told never to go anywhere near the outhouse. But this time, I slipped through.

The memory is vivid. As the outhouse door swung open slowly, there he was, huddled in a corner of the filthy, putrid outhouse, gigantic bluebottles buzzing about the open hole in the floor that I knew hovered over a half-gallon black bucket used to contain human excrement. His eyes were closed in what seemed to be, in my adolescent mind, sleep and a good dream. His right hand held a syringe, which was still poking the other arm, limp and riddled with needle marks. Suddenly, he shifted, in a sharp, uncontrolled jerk, as though he was lying in wait for me and would jump out and grab me. I let out a stifled scream, my hand not moving fast enough to stop my mouth.

Hung Jai’s eyes opened midway. In a heroin-infused daze, he saw me, and smiled. And I was forgotten. Revelling his high, flies settled on various exposed parts of his filthy body, having a gala.

Without saying a word, I quietly climbed the cement steps leading to the outhouse, and closed the door. I could not latch it from the inside, and so I just pushed it firmly close, and sprinted away, back into the bright, colourful, hairspray-filled sanctuary of my aunt’s saloon. From that day onwards, I never ventured anywhere near the outhouse without my aunt or a grown-up.

That image has stayed with me all this time. Often, in discussing with the hubby how we should talk to the girls when the time comes, about all the vices of the world, particularly about drugs and sex (not a vice, but you know…), I tell him that shock therapy worked for me. Aside from the TV ads and Hung Jai, my mother often showed me pictures and TV programs talking about famine and poverty. When I was older, she brought me to orphanages and drug rehabilitation centers in her job as a girl guide teacher during field trips, to show me some of the realities of the world. I remember not feeling sad but strengthened by the things I saw, feeling lucky and sometimes even guilty for what I had. It may be a little harsh but you know what? It worked.

After all, look at me today. I am overweight and drug-free!

What happened to Hung Jai? He managed to kick the habit after 15 years of drug abuse, and married a mother of two. And for close to a decade, Hung Jai was sober. He got a job and even managed to put on weight, and looked almost fatherly, said my mother, who attended a wedding and sat at the same table with him.

But for some reason, Hung Jai never really cleaned up. Perhaps after 15 years, it was just impossible. In the end, he really did do everyone that ‘favour’. Hung Jai was found in one of Ipoh’s more infamous back alleys, half naked and in a fetal position, dead from an overdose.

He was 52 years old.