The cook and the oracle stick
Fun Ah Har was born in 1922 in Vietnam. When she was seven years old, she moved to Guangzhou, China, with her parents, before travelling south by boat at the age of 13 with her mother to settle down in Kampar, Perak, as tin ore dressers (i.e. processing tin ores). When her mother remarried, she did not want to be thought of as a burden in her mother’s newly formed family, so she moved away and lived with her best friend instead, making a living by dressing tin ores.
Having moved around a bit since she was a child, Fun never thought that she would one day end up in the Valley of Hope for good.
When Fun was 22, she married a man who was three decades older, and with whom she had three children with, before losing him to illness when she was in her forties. Hence, she was left with no choice but to accept her lot in life and raise her young children alone. Two years after losing her husband, she suddenly developed bumps all over her body. When she went to a local clinic, the doctor told her that she had contracted leprosy and referred her to the Sungai Buloh Settlement.
After asking a friend to take care of her children, she packed lightly, took a cab from Kampar, and left for the Valley of Hope with a referral letter from the doctor. She happily assumed that she could go home the same day of the consultation, but the doctor said, “If you are lucky, you’ll only be here for six months; otherwise, you’ll have to spend a couple of years here.”
Eventually, she ended up living for more than forty years here at the Valley of Hope.
When she left home in a hurry, her eldest daughter was just 12 years old and her youngest boy was only 9. All her children were still of schooling age, however her eldest daughter had to stop studying and work as a babysitter in order to support the family. Having been a considerate child even at a young age, she took over the responsibilities of caring and cooking for her younger siblings. Even Fun’s second daughter ended up leaving school after her departure to the Valley of Hope.
Fun worked hard in the Valley of Hope for the sake of her three children and sent her children every penny she could save. While receiving treatment, she began working as a substitute worker in the hospital wards, helping ward assistants to clean the floor and getting paid one ringgit each time.
“I stayed in the Decrepit Ward for 22 months without spending a single penny. My limbs were fine, so I did the dishes and everything I could for the nurses, and helped them to fetch bedpans to patients too. Then, the nurses would buy me snacks in the mornings.”
The nurses saw Fun’s desperation to make money for her family, so they referred her as a candidate for knitting jobs, making bags, soft toys, knitwear, and so on, by which she could potentially earn more than 10 dollars a month. After moving out of the ward, she also worked for a single nurse as a maid for eight years and merely got paid 15 dollars a month.
In the 1960s and 1970s, there were more than 2,000 patients in the settlement, and hence very little jobs available. Initially, Fun worked as a substitute in the “Masak Room” (the kitchen). When there was finally a vacancy after a cook passed away, she had the chance to work under “royal employment’ (government employment) as a cook, who was in charge of preparing the daily meals for patients.
According to her description, there were 10 stoves in the kitchen and the woks were all made of copper. With separate departments for ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians, the kitchen operated in day and night shifts with a team of six members each. The common ingredients used by the Chinese department were fish, pork, chicken, amaranth leaves (bayam), water spinach (kangkung), green beans, egg plants, tofu, pickled radish, potatoes, and so on.
“Chicken was cooked in the Masak Room because it was processed together with meals for ethnic Malays, while pork was cooked separately in another small hut,” she said. Speaking of catering, many of the ethnic Chinese inmates miss the days when pork was still served. Ever since the leprosarium stopped serving cooked-on-site meals and replaced it with outsourced food, dishes containing pork were removed from the hospital menu.
At that time, according to Fun, a big truck would send ingredients here every day. The cooks would then weigh the unloaded ingredients and distribute them for lunch and dinner. Lunch time was set at 12 noon, so they had to start cooking at 10’o clock in the morning to prepare lunch for a hundred or two patients in the hospital.
Recalling the busy days, she said, “Occasionally, the ingredients only arrived at 11 o’clock in the morning, so we were sometimes in one hell of a hurry.”
In response to the question whether the job was tough, she said, “Well, it was not really tough, but my hands and feet were always wet. So, they have become bad now. I often have pain in the bones of my limbs.”
Life takes and life gives. Despite the horrible disease and the bad card life dealt her, as an able-bodied, she could handle tasks that the less able-bodied inmates could not manage. She worked in the kitchen and retired only when she reached the age of 78. Her monthly allowance increased from the initial pay of more than 10 dollars to 140-plus dollars before her retirement.
Resting in a wooden chair in the hallway of the ward, 94-year-old Fun spoke calmly in her native language of Cantonese, telling the story of her bumpy life. Towards the end of our conversation, she talked about her previous attempts to commit suicide, so casually as if it was someone else’s story.
She said she once thought of killing herself when she first reported to the settlement, and asked around for a way to end her own life. Someone told her that eating sugar-dipped mangosteen could get one killed. So she bought a bunch of mangosteens and tried, only to find that nothing happened. Then, she heard that taking headache-relief powder in combination with Guinness beer could be fatal. So she bought some Guinness beer and painkillers in secret and planned to kill herself again. This time, however, she thought of her children before doing so.
“I just thought, if I died, would it not be miserable for my children? To have nobody taking care of them? So, I went to the temple to seek an answer. Based on what was written on the bamboo stick that I drew (from a lot of oracle sticks) – a stalk of straw and a drop of dew – the Buddha told me not to worry. He said I would be well again.”
“The miuzuk-gong (temple attendant in charge of keeping the temple clean), who happened to have the same surname as mine, scolded me too. He said, ‘How silly of you! I had the same disease too but I am now fully cured.’ Then, I gave up the thought of killing myself, pulled myself together and hang tough. And so, I managed to raise my kids. I was there with my children when each of them got married,” she said with a contented smile on her face.
After her admission to the leprosarium, Fun would always go home once or twice every year to give her children money for household expenditure. Her children had also visited her two to three times, however that was before they were discouraged by well meaning relatives to stop visiting Fun to prevent possible infections. At that time, the society would flinch at the mention of leprosy. Receiving sideway glances and frowns in Kampar, her children decided to move to Chenderiang, a small town in Perak populated with lakes that used to be mining sites, where they would fish for a living.
“Back then, people were really scared of leprosy. They would spit whenever they saw or walked past you on the street, which was very mean.” That was what happened to Fun herself. When she went back to her hometown, an old acquaintance spat at her but she pretended it did not happen and kept walking.
In actual fact, three years after her admission, the doctor had told Fun that she may be discharged because she had been cured. However, she had already gotten used to the life in the settlement by then. Besides, she also received cash assistance from MaLRA every month, on top of having stable employment. Knowing that there would be gossips about her if she returned home, she chose to stay and kept saving up in order to raise her kids.
Today, all of her three children have their own families and she is now a great grandmother of nine. She said all of her children have already moved to Kuala Lumpur and her son visits her every week. Her children would like her to stay with them, but she has decided to spend the rest of her life here because she has gotten used to the life here.
When we asked her whether or not she is happy in life, she smiled, “What is there to be happy or unhappy about?” she said, “But I am very content now. I feel grateful to the Buddha for being so merciful. Every time I turned to the oracle sticks for guidance, Buddha would tell me not to act or think recklessly.”
When we interviewed Fan on 15 July 2016, she was cheerful despite her poor hearing. A month later when we visited the ward again, she was either sitting lethargically in the wheelchair, staring blankly, or resting curled up in her bed. She said nothing in the beginning but then told us the sad news later that her son has just passed away. With a simple yet strong belief in Buddhism, Fun is struggling to get through the poignant days after losing a child for the first time. We hope that this time around, she too would find her way out of her grief and loss.
Narrated by Fun Ah Har
Interviewed by Chan Wei See & Wong San San
Written by Chan Wei See
Translated by Zoe Chan Yi En
Edited by Low Sue San