A lifetime of love and heartache
For the past 37 years, Cheang Toh Khoon would report for work at 8 every morning, come rain or shine, at the carpenter’s workshop in the settlement. If the hospital receives any orders, the supervisor of the workshop would assign tasks to Cheang and his colleagues and they would build tables, chairs, medicine cabinets, wooden shelves and so on. Otherwise, they would simply rest and relax, puff a few cigarettes and chat idly to while away the time.
Cheang grew up in Air Itam, Penang, before his family moved to Jalan Pintal Tali near Kimberley Street and later to Kha-Ku-Keng, which is located in the town. His ancestral home is Fengshun, a county in the city of Meizhou, Guangdong province, China. His father was a goldsmith and his mother was a housewife. He has four siblings, of which, only he and his youngest brother acquired goldsmithing skills from his father; The other younger brother died an early death.
“I studied until Primary 5 and picked up goldsmithing when I was 12 years old, making gold chains, amongst others. In the 1950s, the goldsmith industry fell into a slump so when I was 16, my brother and I learned carpentry work for 3 years from a Shanghai master.”
This was how Cheang started his career. In the beginning, he did simple work like sawing square blocks, planing boards, or sharpening axes and planes, and the general cleaning chores. After mastering the basics, he progressed to producing full pieces of furniture like chairs, racks, cupboard and other items on his own.
“I started my own business, receiving contracted works from furniture stores. I could make dressing tables, wardrobes, tables and chairs, as well as a 3-doored cupboard complete with mirrors. I hand-crafted all these furnitures myself. Upon noticing my excellent workmanship, a friend connected me with a military camp nearby Sungai Nibong, where I received outsourced work from the government. I was able to make huge cupboards, bookcases, tables and chairs, and perform repair work too.”
When Cheang was 20 years old, he fell in love with a pretty lady and started a courtship. In order to win her hand in marriage, he began to work harder. Besides working for the army camp, Cheang also worked at a furniture factory in Macalister Road in town. His love life and career seemed to be on track, he had plans for the future and things were going well.
Unfortunately for Cheang, fate dealt him a cruel blow and he contracted leprosy when he was 22 years old. He discovered large orange patches on his back, which were undefined in shape and produced no sensation upon touch. He went for a check-up in town and was confirmed to be having leprosy. To make things worse, his father died from cancer and his lover decided to leave him. He found it difficult to accept the unexpected turn of events and became depressed.
“The doctor advised me to seek treatment at Pulau Jerejak but I refused because I felt that I could still work. Another reason was because I did not want to leave my lover, even though she was very cold towards me. I believed that her coldness was because she was too shocked by the fact that I had leprosy. I had hopes that we would reconcile. Once, I went looking for her and saw her packing, so I tailed her to see where she was going. It turns out that she was on her way to a tryst with another man. From that moment on, I gave up on her. With this disease, what else could I do? "
Although Cheang gave up on his lover, he continued to stay in Penang for another 2 years. It was only when the reddish and discoloured patches appeared almost all over his body, along with a gradual loss of sensation, that he decided to leave Penang Island for Pulau Jerejak.
“My mum and my sister accompanied me to Pulau Jerejak on a government boat. The government had boats ferrying employees to Pulau Jerejak for work every day. The boats departed at 8 in the morning to Pulau Jerejak and left the island at 11 am. Again, after lunchtime, there were boats to Pulau Jerejak at 12 noon and the last trip was scheduled at 5 pm, this time to take workers off the island. The boat we took was the one the government made available for the workers.”
Before the boat reached the jetty, from afar Cheang could see a hospital attendant and a nurse waiting for him. Cheang was led to the administration office, a small wooden house, for registration. After the clerk read his recommendation letter, they took him to the ward.
The Leprosarium in Pulau Jerejak was established in 1871. It covered an area of 29 acres, surrounded by the sea and was only half an hour’s boat ride from Penang. Pulau Jerejak was divided into five zones – Zone 1 and 2 consisted of wards especially meant for tuberculosis patients. Zone 5 had 131 small, semi-detached houses for leprosy patients. Each house could accommodate 3 patients and only married couples were allowed to move to the marriage quarters. Zone 3 was a quarantine station where foreign crew members and new migrant workers from China received their health examination. If they were found to have infectious diseases, they would be quarantined. Cheang also remembers that there was a gravesite in Zone 4 for all the deceased leprosy patients. Most of the headstones were erected by charitable societies based in Pulau Jerejak.
The “ward” that Cheang was admitted to was actually a small, semi-detached house. Each house was considered a ward. Cheang’s housemate was a 50 year-old patient called, “Dog King” (狗王). Upon admission, Cheang was given a few cooking utensils and some firewood. Each day, the government would provide them with food rations so that they would cook on their own. Cheang and "Dog King" lived their own lives and would not even look at one another. Though living under one roof, they were like complete strangers to each other because Cheang was very conservative.
“On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the doctor would come and give us an injection of Sulphone. Every time I receive the injection, the red patches on my body would diminish. Yet, even after a year of treatment, I was still not fully recovered. I was jobless because there were not enough jobs to go around. Actually, I had filled in my profession as a carpenter during my admission but the clerk told me that in Pulau Jerejak, there was no carpentry work required and he recommended me to go to Sungai Buloh because there was a workshop there. However, I refused because it would be more convenient for my sister and my mother to visit me if I were to stay in Pulau Jerejak. "
Later, Cheang found out that all the furniture in Pulau Jerejak was shipped in from Penang Island, so there was no demand for his excellent skills. Jobless, he would just sit by the shore and gaze at the sea each day. Although there were gambling and social activities on Pulau Jerejak, Cheang rarely joined in because he did not have much money. Coming from a Cantonese-speaking background, he was a minority there, and he found it difficult to communicate with the Hokkiens and Teochews. Cheang also did not have many friends because he was reserved by nature, and so he filled his time by fishing.
"My mother would visit me every month and she would give me some money. However, I would refuse to take it because there was nothing I could spend the money on in Pulau Jerejak. There was a community hall and I would go there occasionally to watch television. For our meals, the government would provide fish, alternating with pork. Vegetables were available daily. Sometimes I would crave chicken and eggs for a change, but I did not tell my mother because I did not want to trouble her. "
A few years later, Cheang suffered from severe leprosy reactions with extensive skin inflammation and nerve damage. He and another four patients with similar conditions were transferred to Sungai Buloh Settlement for further treatment.
The five of them left the island on a boat and arrived at a hospital in Sungai Nibong, where they were transferred to the train station by an ambulance. That was the first time that he came to Kuala Lumpur by train. As the train carriages rumbled forward, he felt that he was starting on a new journey in life. The Sungai Buloh leprosarium, also known as “the Valley of Hope”, raised his hopes of recovery.
“At that time, Dr Bhojawni, the Medical Superintendent gave us two pills, one red (Rafampicin) and the other black (Lamprene). After taking the pills for one year, I recovered. I was discharged and transferred to chalet No. 168, which accommodated seven other bachelors like me. Even though the eight of us had to share everything, I found it easier to get along with them.”
Cheang managed to find work as a substitute worker. As a prison guard, he worked 16 hours a day and received RM1.50 for it. Then, he replaced a kepala (ward attendant) in the hospital and worked at Ward No. 17 for some time for the same amount of pay. In 1970, he substituted a policeman for a year before a vacancy for a policeman came up and he was formally employed with a monthly salary of 60 dollars. The police force in the settlement, of course, did not receive any formal training. Their job was just to patrol the settlement, and guard the gates and the living quarters of the foreign-born doctors. The policemen did not carry guns and were only equipped with a wood baton and a whistle. Many people called us “the mata kayu” (wooden police).
Two years later, he had the opportunity to resume his work as a carpenter. After leaving the carpentry job for 37 years, he was happy to finally return to his favourite profession.
"I worked at this job for 30 years. Initially my pay was $60 per month but it later increased to $150. Honestly speaking, the work that we did here was too easy for me. We were instructed to make book shelves, tables, stools and chairs. That was a piece of cake for me and I could do all that with my eyes closed! The most they would ask us to make was a medicine cabinet which is one metres in height and 8 metres in length. There was no difficulty at all, and I could do it all by myself! When I was younger, I could make a dressing table, and a wardrobe with three mirrors, now those were really a challenge! "
In Cheang’s chalet, some of the furniture he has made during his leisure time were still in use, but he stressed that what we see now is nothing compared to the furnitures he produced during his younger days.
When he was asked what his greatest regret was, Cheang said that it was that he did not attend his mother’s funeral because his siblings did not inform him. All these while, he felt grateful for his mother’s care and love, and had sent 300-400 ringgit home to repay his mother for all that she had done for him, but he has never told his mother he loved her.
“From what I’ve heard, my mother had been ill for some time. She was hospitalised and passed away the next day. My elder sister asked my younger brother to inform me about her passing but somehow, I don’t know why he did not do so…” Then he paused for a very long time.
From the look in his eyes, I can sense the depth of his grief, though it is hard to imagine how he had suffered for not being able to attend his mother’s funeral. The cruel twist of fate and the disease that eats away at his soul has been disheartening.
“All this while, I could not figure out why I contracted leprosy when none of my ancestors or family members had it. People said that one would contract the disease if they visited prostitutes, but I never did that. Each time I think about this, I would feel very sad. But who can understand my feelings? Now that I am old, I’ve learned to let go. Since there will never be an answer, I just stopped mulling over it.”
When asked what was the happiest and most memorable time for him, he said without hesitation, “The time I spent with my lover when I was 20 something! We went out together for movies and that is the sweetest memory in my life. I stopped contacting her after moving to Pulau Jerejak. My brother told me that she only got married in her thirties. If you were to ask for her name, I am not going to mention it. I don’t know whether she is still alive or not. I don’t want to hurt her! When I was with her, it was the happiest time in my life. It hurts the most to separate from her. I don’t blame her though, it’s all because I contracted leprosy.”
When Cheang mentioned the woman who had betrayed their relationship, he still wished to protect her and would do anything he can for her. As this 76-year-old man reflects on his life, he feels that he has experienced more sadness than happiness, because leprosy had consumed his soul and deprived him of a lifetime of happiness.
Narrated by Cheang Toh Khoon
Interviewed by Tan Ean Nee
Written by Tan Ean Nee
Translated by Khor Jiak Ling
Edited by Low Sue San