The love that blossomed at a crossroad
Fifty years ago, Chia Eng was forced to leave her husband and two young sons when she contracted leprosy. Then, at a crossroad in life, she met another man who was to become the love of her life.
Born in 1939, Chia Eng married a man who was one year older when she was 25. The marriage was arranged by their parents and was not based on affection. Her husband had an affair soon after, and he had even brought his mistress home. Three months after she gave birth to her eldest son, Chia Eng contracted leprosy. There were red patches all over her body and she often suffered from chills and fever.
When she first visited a government hospital, the doctor told her that if she does not get better, she must be sent to the Sungai Buloh Settlement. Deeply saddened, she dared not see another doctor. It was not until three years later that she finally made up her mind to go to the settlement, and by then her condition had worsened, resulting in swollen legs. She was also the mother to two sons at that time.
Before she was admitted to the settlement, she returned to see her own family and informed them that she, “was going to Sungai Buloh and might never return.” Her father and elder sister gave her about 2 dollars each and insisted that she took the money. On the day she left for the Kuala Kubu Baru Hospital, she only had a few pieces of clothes and 9 dollars odd. The doctor called for a police car and she was sent to the Valley of Hope on the same day.
“When I was admitted here at the settlement, my husband did not say a word, nothing at all. The police car just sent me here and I’ve not been out of the settlement, except for that one time when my father passed away.”
She said, “I would be lying if I said I did not feel sad. Leaving home is definitely saddening. It was very miserable. I had no money and I could not work, so all I did was sleep.”
However, when she thought about the disrupted and broken family that she had left behind, she said, “We have more freedom here. I feel more at ease. Out of sight, out of mind, I am good if I do not see them.”
After taking medicines for a month since her admission, the swelling in Chia Eng’s legs went away but she still suffered from chills and fever from time to time. Fortunately, the disease did not affect her appearance – Her limbs remain well and her looks were not afflicted. When she got better, the doctor told her that she could be discharged but she declined, without any hesitation.
“I said no. What is the point in me going back? My husband married another woman. He’s got himself a mistress. What is the point of me returning?”
Starting her life anew, she began to work after her condition improved. She used to be a rubber tapper, so she worked in a nearby rubber estate. Sometimes, she would start tapping the rubber trees at midnight and then sleep on the ground until dawn, when she would then collect the latex. After that, she would dry the latex in the smoke house and then sell them. When she got home afterwards, she still had a lot of work in front of her – tended to the bananas she’s planted, collected firewood, prepared the pig feed and then fed the pigs.
However after two to three months, she decided to change her job as she could not work on rainy days, which results in an unstable income. So she started working as a grass-clearing worker at MaLRA’s oil palm estate, which was located nearby. She began at 7 am and finished at 1 pm every day. The income was stable, though it was only RM1.50 a day.
She said candidly, “Like it or not, you had to do it. If you don’t, you would not even get that RM1.50. My parents were poor. How could they afford to send me money?”
She remembered that there were more than 20 people working in the oil palm estate, half of them cleared grass and another half fetched water. Those who fetched water were mostly men, and they also had to spray pesticides.
After that, she applied for a “royal job” (government job) at the administration office. Her first choice was to be a laundry worker but she was given a job to dispose of rubbish instead, with an allowance of 136 dollars a month. She said, “I just took it up. I said I am okay with anything, as long as I have a job.”
For this job, she had to get a bicycle, which cost her several dozen dollars. Every day at 6:30 am, she would tie a big bucket to the back of her bicycle and ride to the hospital. Recounting this as she sat on a front porch swing during the interview, she pointed to one side of her house and said, “That is the bucket. I saved it as a keepsake.” The bucket was waist-high; it was obviously not easy to ride around that big a bucket, full of waste.
After a briefing at the hospital ward, she must go room by room to empty the rubbish bins. “There were a specific number of bins to clear, 11 a day for me, I think. Then, I had to send the rubbish to the incinerator. There used to be an incinerator used to burn the wastes. We took all the rubbish there for disposal and then some kepala (ward attendants) would be assigned to burn them. If you let it pile up instead of burning it, would it not stink like hell?”
Sometimes, she said, there was so much rubbish that she had to make two to three trips before she could clear them all. When I asked her if the rubbish smelled, she said, “Of course it was! It would not smell good, would it? It is a rubbish bin, how can it smell good? But I had to do it anyway so I could earn a living. One time, I think some people threw dead chickens in the bin and there were worms. I had no idea if it was a dead chicken or cat. What could I have done? We were poor, so like it or not, we had to suck it up!”
She proved to be hardworking and a quick hand. She usually started at 6 something and finished sometime after 7. After work, she would tend to the ornamental plants at the MaLRA-established chicken farm (now developed into MARA Technological University’s medical faculty) and then bring them back to her chalet in the East Section so that she could sell them.
On Thursdays, she had to sweep the road and remove the leaves around the crossroad in front of the Council Hall, after emptying the bins. It was there that she met her second husband, the meeting marking another crossroad in her life. He, too, has been assigned to empty the bins in the chalets and to clear the leaves around this very crossroad, and on Thursdays as well. It was while working alongside each other that they grew closer, day by day, and eventually getting together.
They became each other’s support and lived a simple and happy life after marriage. However, her happiness did not last. In December 2014, Chia Eng’s husband passed away abruptly, after being ill for two days. And so once again, she was left all alone. After losing him, she kept saying that she is has never been happy all her life and refused to talk about her marriage anymore. “I will say no more, it hurts,” she said.
“My husband had been very nice to me but I have never felt happy. I do not understand what I want either. Sometimes, I wonder why I am so unlucky for getting this kind of disease while everyone else do not. But the thought does not come all the time, just sometimes. Sometimes it does and sometimes it does not.” After having a second thought, however, she said, “I am much happier after moving here. There are many people in here, a lot of them, and I am not alone.”
“I am very lonely now, all by myself. It is too lonely here. You see, there is no one left, no one to chat with. When I am free, I just sit here. I seldom spend time with my friends.” After her husband died, Chia Eng would sit on a swing in her front yard whenever she is not watching the television, passing the days idly.
Chia Eng continued her work as a sanitation worker for a few decades, until the cleaning service in the settlement was outsourced to a private company in 1996. She was already in her sixties by the time she officially retired.
Chia Eng and her husband used to live in the Married Quarters in the East Section. In 2007, the East Section chalets were demolished and they were forced to move to the Central Section. Their horticultural business took a nosedive following the relocation but their hardship in the early years yielded something at last. Chia Eng even managed to save up for vacations to the United States and Japan, with a group of friends from the settlement. Her face lit up when she mentioned the vacations. “New York was a lot of fun!” she said.
Her second marriage had been childless, and she had never thought that she would one day be reunited with one of her sons, who were merely 3 years old and 9 months old respectively when she left. When her eldest son turned 15, his stepmother brought him here for a visit, unexpectedly. Chia Eng had not remarried yet at that point in time.
She said that she “was rejoiced and felt like crying” the moment she saw her son after 12 years of separation. “I had never thought that he would come and look for me. I had two sons but one died at the age of 18.”
Her son never explained why he came to look for her and she never asked. After getting married, he moved to Selayang, a town close to the settlement. After his eldest daughter was born, he even brought her here to see Chia Eng, and the broken family bond was rebuilt. Chia Eng’s son loves her very much; he has been bringing food for her every day since her husband passed away. Now, Chia Eng’s son is already 59 years old and her granddaughter is in her thirties.
As society gains a better understanding of leprosy, Chia Eng is now no longer concerned with how people look at her. She often goes home to see her younger sister, restoring their long broken family ties with each visit.
Narrated by Chia Eng
Interviewed by Chan Wei See & Wong San San
Written by Chan Wei See
Translated by Zoe Chan Yi En
Edited by Low Sue San