The “Taiko Boy” is not going back anymore
Every time I visited Chia Eng, she always complained to me that she was feeling unwell, aching here and there, all over, basically. Her husband, Chiam Kong Cheng, simply listened in silence, looking at me while shaking his head, then turned his gaze towards the rows of modern medicines his wife had got to take.
When I visited Chia Eng in 2011, I told her that I would like to know about her husband’s past.
“Hey,” Chia Eng called to her man, “this reporter wants to interview you!” Yet, Chiam Kong Cheng did not move an inch. He sat still, still reading the newspaper in the living area.
“He is old and deaf,” Chia Eng said. “You will need to speak loudly if you want to interview him.”
I explained to Chia Eng that I quit journalism a long time ago and I just wanted to collect the oral history from the residents in the settlement. Then, I followed her advice – I spoke in a louder voice and managed to interview Chiam Kong Cheng. As we talked, I learned that he was a coolie in the settlement when he was younger.
“We, the coolie, only made one dollar a day. We woke up at 5 to clear the rubbish bins for a dozen-odd chalets, in groups of two. Occasionally, when a tree has fallen onto the road after a heavy storm, our chief, Ah Kang, would get us to cut the trunk into pieces so that the lorry could send the debris to the incinerator. Sometimes, we have to take care of animal carcasses too, for example, when a chicken, cat or dog, has died, we had to remove the dead animals and bury them. Then around 8 o’clock, we must remove the leaves, clean the drains and sweep the streets and so on. We even had to go to Kuala Lumpur in a lorry to get rice and upon our return, carry all of the sacks of rice into the rice granary. We would also take the rice to the Central Section’s market to be distributed to all the residents, daily. It was simply a labour consuming job.”
Born in 1933, Chiam Kong Cheng hailed from Kampung Baru Salak South. He had an elder brother and two elder, foster sisters, making him the youngest in his family. When Chiam Kong Cheng was in Primary 6, his ears and nose began to swell and his classmates all laughed at him.
“I only studied until Primary 6. The news spread fast and my classmates all knew that I got sick. They talked about me and would run and hide whenever they saw me coming. So, I told my mother that I did not want to go to school anymore and that I wanted to work instead.”
As a result, Chiam Kong Cheng did not receive much of an education. After dropping out, he was offered an apprenticeship at an ironworks in Jalan Chan Sow Lin, Kuala Lumpur, where he picked up traditional blacksmithing. The 1920s was an era of great scarcity. Living in such a time, he was glad to be able to master a skill and keep himself fed without burdening his family. His parents then pinned all their hopes on his elder brother, who had completed high school with great results and has an excellent proficiency in the English language. Chiam Kong Cheng knew that the disease had blocked his access to education and he had no intention of comparing himself to his brother. All he wished for was a speedy recovery.
“I only made one dollar a day as a blacksmith. And I gave that to my mother for her to buy Chinese medicine for me. The traditional Chinese doctor said drinking it every day would heal me eventually. The medication cost about 100 dollars every month. I worked so hard for the medicines, but I just never got better! Instead, it got worse and worse. Then, a doctor from the government hospital referred me to the leprosarium. My mother did not want me to leave home, but there was no other way. The Chinese medicine did not work!”
Leprosy was so dreaded at the time that even his elder brother was afraid of him. “In the end, I left home voluntarily and came here for treatment. My brother sent me here and never came to see me again.”
He was assigned to Ward No. 31 upon admission. His ears were swollen and had started to deform, while rashes broke out on his limbs in various areas. The doctor examined the sensory function in his skin lesions and checked if the nerves around them had enlarged. Then, a bacterial test was conducted based on a skin smear.
“The Medical Superintendent took my skin sample for the test and gave me dapsone injections and some pills. After three months, my condition improved and I finally recovered three years later.”
After Chiam Kong Cheng was admitted, his mother sent him 10 dollars every month as living expenses, until one day when he wrote to her and asked her to stop the financial support as he had found a job by then..
“I earned 30 dollars a month as a coolie, which was enough to cover my own expenses, so I no longer needed the money from my mother. On Mondays, we would help to ferry sugar, shallots, garlic, cooking oil, soaps, floor cleaners and other stuff to the West Section’s kitchen from the East Section’s rice granary. We used handcarts to transport the kitchen necessities, labouring like an ox. The cart was pulled by two people from the front and pushed by another from the back. It had two big wheels and a huge, square, wooden cargo box, which was as big as our national car, Kancil.”
Chiam Kong Cheng gradually gained financial stability as he continued on in the job. Back then, educated people in the settlement would not work as a coolie. In his case, he had to make a living by labouring because he did not receive much of an education.
“With this job, you are doomed to be looked down upon. When people ask you what you do for a living and your answer is, ‘Oh, I clear the bins, working as a coolie’, they will think, ‘hmm, he is not really a good guy, isn’t he?’ Coolie is a dirty, menial job, with a pretty bad reputation. It is not an office job and people looked down upon it!” Chiam Kong Cheng’s self-esteem was so low that a sense of inferiority often creeped in, catching him off guard every now and then, to remind him that his life is just full of sweat and toil with nary a pleasant surprise in store.
“My brother did not even inform me when a few of our family members passed away. After contracting this disease, I feel like I have become a hardcore criminal. You thought I wanted this to happen? Since everyone is afraid of me, I thought, ‘I am just not going to go back anymore.’” Chiam Kong Cheng lived an extremely low-profile and humble life in the settlement because of such feelings of inferiority.
Until one day, when the all-male, coolie crew welcomed their first female member – Chia Eng – on board, he suddenly noticed that this new colleague was very special.
“She applied for a laundry position but failed. When a vacancy came up in the coolie crew, the Medical Superintendent offered her the job, placing her in charge of collecting rubbish. Previously, this kind of tough work was all handled by men and no women would want to take it, but she took it up anyway!”
At the beginning, Chia Eng was in charge of collecting rubbish in the East Section wards while Chiam Kong Cheng was in charge of emptying the bins for the dozen-odd chalets in the East Section. They crushed the rubbish with their feet before taking it to the incinerator in the East Section. Another team will then proceed to burn the rubbish. It was an exhausting and thankless job. Chiam Kong Cheng was surprised to see a woman willing to take up such a job and could not resist but to keep glancing at her. Soon, he began to offer Chia Eng a portion of the fruits and noodles he bought. Whenever they had some spare time, they even went to watch open-air movies together.
“We had western movies showing in the field here, several days a week. We worked during the day time, so we asked a friend to get good spots for us in advance. Each seat costs 3 cents and we went for a movie together at 7 something in the evening. Once, I also took her out for a meal in Sentul, Kuala Lumpur, by bus. Sometimes, we would go for noodles in Kepong Baru before coming back.”
After Chiam Kong Cheng met Chia Eng, he realised that she is a good-hearted woman, despite her tough voice. Then, fate brought them together and soon they were working alongside each other in the same designated area, free to talk to each other about their toil and moil at work. Slowly, they began to develop feelings for each other and decided to get married. They applied to move to the Marriage Quarters and the Medical Superintendent approved their request. The couple then registered their marriage at a marriage registrar, located outside of the settlement.
“I only married my wife in my sixties and she too, is a coolie. I just wanted a life partner. And since we have feelings for each other, we decided to get together. She would cook and we would have our meal together. We take care of each other.”
After getting married, Chiam Kong Cheng also made rattan chairs to earn a living, selling them at 10 dollars each, and earning an extra 10 dollars for larger ones. Sometimes he would also weave rattan flower baskets if he has an order for it. The smaller ones were 5 cents each and the bigger ones, a dollar-odd each.
In 1996, after the authorities outsourced all cleaning services in the settlement to a cleaning company called Radicare, Chiam Kong Cheng and his wife were reassigned to the Decrepit Ward in the West Section to weigh rice and carry fresh rations. After that, the couple grew flowers for sale and their life became more stable.
When I asked Chiam Kong Cheng about his most unforgettable moments in life, he sighed. “I contracted leprosy, so I cannot go home anymore. I hardly ever went home after being admitted at the age of 23 because my family is afraid of the disease. Even my elder sisters’ families and my sister-in-law are afraid of me. When I was home for dinner occasionally during important festivals, my sister-in-law dared not use the bowl I used because she was worried that she would get infected. Even the stool I sat on, I bet she cleaned it up right after I have left. My brother too, does not accept me. I know that. It hurts more every time I go home, so I am not going back anymore. My brother completed high school and his English is very good. They are all educated people, knowledgeable, but they do not understand the feelings of a person who is ill. I went home to see my mother when she had a stroke. Our neighbours talked about me behind my back when they knew that I was back in town. My mother was sad when she found out and she cried. She had no idea either why I contracted the disease…”
Then, Chiam Kong Cheng told me a heart-breaking story. In the late 1960s, his mother died of stroke. He rushed home immediately after receiving his brother’s phone call, informing him of his mother’s passing.
“My neighbours recognised me as soon as I got back. They said, ‘The Taiko boy is back! The Taiko boy is back!’ Everybody gave me a sidelong glance.” Chiam Kong Cheng was deeply disturbed and upset by the gossips. After offering incense as a mark of respect, he returned to the settlement on the same day.
“I did not want to stay for the night and bring my family troubles.” His family did not ask him to stay either.
Then, Chiam Kong Cheng rushed home again early in the morning to pay his final respects because it was, after all, his mother’s funeral procession. Yet, he realised that his mother’s memorial tablet only had his elder brother’s name on it. The friends and relatives noticed that too and wondered why another son’s name was left out. Chiam Kong Cheng was very sad, but he did not question his brother because he already knew why.
“The Taoist priest asked me who I am, and I said I am the youngest son. He called my brother over for verification and only then my brother added my name on the memorial tablet. It is just the two of us brothers, why is this happening? Ever since I contracted the disease, I am as good as dead to them…” Chiam Kong Cheng’s voice was so weak that it hurts to imagine how heavy the blow was for him. He never went home again after his mother died. He said that he did not have a home anymore, so Sungai Buloh was his home and where he would spend the rest of his life.
In the wee hours on 8 December 2014, Chiam Kong Cheng passed away abruptly due to an illness. He was 85 years old. I had never thought that he would die before Chia Eng because he had never complained about his health. At the funeral, I saw Chia Eng standing in front of her husband’s mourning hall, with all of her hair shaved off, pale and gaunt. Tears welled up in her eyes the moment her eyes met mine.
“I wanted to die but the time has not come. He was all well but he is gone now, leaving me all alone. I had nobody now…” Chia Eng could not finish her words because the grief was just too much for her.
“Take care and be strong.” I held Chia Eng’s hands, not uttering another word to make her feel better. I wondered if Chiam Kong Cheng’s elder brother was still alive. If he did, would he come and offer some incense for his own brother? But then again, I already knew the answer.
I can never forget the deep grief and despair in Chiam Kong Cheng’s eyes when he said that he was dead in the eyes of his family members, all because he was suffering from leprosy.
Narrated by Chiam Kong Cheng
Interviewed by Tan Ean Nee
Written by Tan Ean Nee
Translated by Zoe Chan Yi En
Edited by Low Sue San