The lonely lumberjack
Every day around 8’o clock in the morning, strolling along the corridor of the male ward, one can always find Chew Poh Chang, wearing his prosthetic limb and working in the courtyard. He grew ambarella pineapple and banana trees in the vacant land situated between the wards. This little world of greenery is a result of Chew Poh Chang’s sheer diligence and tenacity. Although he lost one of his legs 30 years ago when he was forced to undergo amputation, he refused to bow to fate. Instead, he has been leading a self-contained lifestyle in the settlement, getting through life and its adversities with only one left leg.
Chew Poh Chang is a child of Teluk Intan, born in 1934 to a family of six, including his parents and four children. He moved to the Valley of Hope when he was 13 and never went back home. There were rashes on his skin when he contracted the disease, so his parents sent him to the Teluk Intan Hospital for treatment. Who would have known that Chew would be held by the hospital and transferred to Tapar Hospital for a couple of days before being sent off to the Sungai Buloh Settlement, along with another two or three leprosy patients.
Thus on his first day at the settlement, he had nothing with him, not even extra clothes to change into. His request to return home to get some clothes was declined by the hospital, and so he only got them later when his parents came for a visit.
At the beginning, his parents would still make the occasional visits. Yet as time passes, he gradually lost contact with his faraway family and grew up in the company of inmates in the settlement. Once, he was admitted to the hospital ward for treatment but still managed to attend primary school for a year or two, even though he was not feeling as well. At that time, an effective cure was not available yet and the leprosarium was treating the patients with injections of Hydnocarpus oil extracted from seeds of Hydnocarpus tree. He said this type of injection was extremely painful and ineffective, and his condition had even worsened after receiving the injections.
He began working even when he was in the Children Ward. His first job was to collect garbage from the hospital wards. The pay was only 5 dollars a year and it then doubled to 10 dollars. Two years later, the authority hoped to retain him for the job but he declined.
“After I quit, I worked under the “royal employment” (government employment). I was paid 18 dollars only under the royal employment. My job was to collect rubbish. At that time, I had to pull a cart to the hospital wards and move from one building to another to empty rubbish bins. I woke up around 5’o clock every day and went to work at the hospitals after freshening up and having my breakfast. I had free time to do what I wanted after clearing all the bins.”
When he was 18, he was assigned to a chalet in the East Section. He said goodbye to the Children’s Ward and gained unprecedented freedom, more than he had ever enjoyed since his admission to the settlement. At the age of 21, Chew joined a few of his friends who were logging woods in a nearby forest and sold timber to outsiders, who came to buy materials to build palong (sluice box), which was used in tin mining.
One day, he hurt his right leg when he was logging in the woods. The wound developed into a serious ulceration and he has quit lumbering ever since. He was given Sulphone injections twice a week until he fully recovered. In fact, the woodland that the inmates had been lumbering falls under the administration of the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM). Logging activities by inmates continued until FRIM stepped up its law enforcement efforts and banned the inmates from cutting down the trees.
In the 1960s, every household used firewood to cook. Back then, the government even distributed free firewood for all inmates living in the chalets. Chew Poh Chang worked as a woodcutter under the “royal employment” with a monthly allowance of 31 dollars only.
“The firewood was delivered by lorry to a place near the ingredient-storing room East Section, where it will then be unloaded in a vacant area by the road leading to the hilltop temple, Fuh Huey Kong. My job was to split the firewood with another two workers – Ah Beng and Ah Hoong (transliterated).”
According to Chew Poh Chang, they used to saw long logs into 2-foot long chunks under the scorching sun and then axe them into six to eight pieces. Then, loose piles of firewood were placed on the floor according to the amount specified by the government for each individual. After that, the section attendant will inform the chalet residents and they would come to collect their share.
“I cannot really tell how many hours a day or how many days a month we used to work. The three of us must cut all the firewood. It was simply a tough job!”
Aside from working for the government, Chew also grew flowers, lime trees, and Christmas trees in his yard. At that time, many people would come to buy lime trees before Chinese New Year and Christmas trees before Christmas. Each Christmas tree could be sold for about RM50, which was a pretty lucrative source of income for him.
We asked him what made him think of making money since he is given food and a place to live here. He thought for a moment and said, “I have a younger brother. At that time, he had not got a job yet… Sometimes, when he came to visit me, I would give him a bit of money as long as I had some in hand.”
“Kong Guan biscuit factory, I suppose it is closed down now? Isn’t it?” he asked. We lost our tongue for a minute when the question came out of the blue. It turns out that Chew’s younger brother used to work at the Kong Guan biscuit factory in Seremban but he had stopped visiting him for decades. Without the faintest idea if his younger brother is still alive today, his only wish now is to get in touch again with his long-lost brother.
For decades, Chew Poh Chang has been farming in the front yard of his chalet in the East Section, living a tranquil and carefree life. However, a redevelopment project of the Sungai Buloh Settlement in 2007 has ruined his home and livelihood.
He said, “There was nothing you can do about it even if your heart aches. Those are all government-owned lands and the authority wants to use them.” He was forced to relocate from the chalet that had been his home for several decades and give up the farm he had been cultivating for most of his life. It ripped his heart apart despite the compensation from the authorities.
After losing his right leg, Chew now relies on a prosthetic leg to walk. Hence, he has chosen to move into the ward when his home was demolished. Although he is provided with food and shelter in the ward, he sticks to his work to kill time and stay active.
At some point, the patients began to grow plants on the vacant lots between the hospital wards. As the owners passed away, their land was left lying idle. Chew “inherited” a lot where he then grew ambarella trees, ornamental plants, bananas and pineapples to earn some pocket money. He said that the hospital often serves deep-fried food, which he finds unpleasant to be consumed. So, with the extra money he makes, he could afford to cycle out of the settlement and buy his favourite food.
He has been staying in the Valley of Hope for almost seven decades. His father, as Chew recalled emotionally, asked for his son to be discharged during a visit when Chew was about 15 or 16 years old, but the doctor denied the request. Being a bachelor for all his life, he cannot imagine how different his life would have been had the request been approved.
“How nice it would have been if they had let me leave at that time…I would have had my own children by now,” he said flatly, with a lonely look on his face.
Narrated by Chew Poh Chang
Interviewed by Chan Wei See & Wong San San
Written by Chan Wei See
Translated by Zoe Chan Yi En
Edited by Low Sue San