The happy-go-lucky seamstress with steely nerves
Heng Pak Nang contracted the disease at the age of 3. When she was 8, her nose collapsed and her facial features started to deform. She has been breathing through a hole made in her throat since 1952. She can only speak softly and can never talk and laugh out loud like the others. Still, she has always been an active, buoyant and happy-go-lucky person since childhood. She has never blamed anyone else or herself for the illness. Living in the hospital ward in her old age, Heng Pak Nang goes on a “ward round” every morning, walking with the aid of her crutches, to help bedridden old patients fill their teacups.
Heng Pak Nang comes from Sekinchan. Even though she contracted leprosy as a child, the disease did not affect her everyday life, but only made it difficult for her to breathe at night and therefore caused her to snore. This lively little girl helped her family to fish, work in the paddy field, including chasing away birds in the field. She had a happy childhood in this small fishing village, which also happens to be a major rice supplier in the country.
In her memory, her family was always on the run from the enemies during the Japanese occupation. She recounts a woman next door saying, “Don’t bring your daughter along, she will slow us down and get all of us killed.” And her mother said, “I only have a son and a daughter. How can I leave her behind? She would starve to death. Okay, how about this? We split up.”
There was a deep ditch in the village and it would be filled with water on rainy days. When it was not raining, they would walk in the ditch so as not to be seen. When Heng Pak Nang was 5, her mother happened to escape into a lush mangrove through the ditch, holding her hand and carrying her little brother on her back. Inside the mangrove forest were countless fireflies, gleaming and lighting up the whole place like a
Heng Pak Nang was always crying while on the run. One day, they bumped into a Japanese soldier. He saw her weeping and calmed her with a rattle drum. She played with the toy for a while and stopped crying.
“I said to my friends, ‘Oh, curse that vicious Japanese!’ ‘Why didn’t he just shoot me in the head there and then? And now I have to live in such a misery.’ I said.”
Once, at the age of 6, her mother took her to a doctor in the Japanese military when her toes were hurt badly. The doctor gave her a packet of powdered medicine and a dietary advice. The medicine, of course, did not work on her.
Heng Pak Nang’s home was right next to the primary school, SJK(C) Yoke Kuan, Sekinchan. She could always hear the children singing and reading aloud at school. However, her parents did not let her attend school because of her condition and just kept her at home. Despite the pain in her feet, she was very playful and was always up for a good game with the children.
“The kids really liked to play with me. When I turned 11 or 12, I had a serious outbreak – my legs were all ulcerating, and my feet and toes hurt so much that I could not walk. It was very, very painful. But my childhood playmates still came and asked me to play with them at the beach.”
“I was like the head of the pack, they all had to follow my lead. When I was 12 or 13, the mothers of the kids in our neighbourhood told my mum, ‘Keep your daughter at home and do not let her out and play with my kids.’ My mum said, ‘You should ground your own kids! They shouldn't have come to our doorstep, looking for my daughter. This has nothing to do with my girl.’ Then, she would hit me, saying, ‘This is all your fault!’ Then she scolded, ‘So many people died. Why won’t you join them! Let the water spirit take you away so you would die in place of the others.’ And whenever my friends’ mothers came to complain, I would get a good beating.”
She was not saddened by the treatment but felt that it was actually quite cool to be like that. She remembers playing hopscotch with her friends when she was 7 or 8. As she hopped from one square to another, the pus from her feet ran all over the ground. Her playmates’ parents would then rush over to disperse the crowd with sticks, screaming, “I told you not to play with Pak Nang!”
“Heng Pak Nang” is the Malay romanisation of her name. She said that she was initially given the name, “Shu Lian”, but her mother said that she “cannot use the name” because it was her grandmother’s name. After she contracted leprosy, her mother called her “Pak Nang”. Heng Pak Nang said, “She calls me ‘Pak Nang.’ It means (in Hokkien), ‘not mine, somebody else’s’, meaning, somebody else’s daughter, not mine.”
“When I was 14, I looked like an alien. My childhood friends were not afraid of me though. Oftentimes, they would come to look for me but my mother would chase them away and tell them that their mothers, ‘would come and complain later and Pak Nang would get beaten up for that,’ so as to make them stay away.”
Heng Pak Nang said the village had no water supply so the villagers would take their baths and do their washing in the quarry lake. One day, a policeman, who often bathes at the quarry lake, saw her and urged her parents to send her to the Pulau Jerejak Settlement as soon as they can, or else it will be a serious “salah” (offence) when people finds out.
“My father went to the settlement to check out the place first. He rowed around the island and saw that the place was covered with forest and mountains, with no sign of human settlement. He thought, ‘How can I bring my daughter here? She may get chewed up by a tiger.’ My father said, ‘No, no way,’; he was not going to send me to Pulau Jerejak.”
When she was 15, another policeman once again adviced her parents to send her to the Sungai Buloh Settlement. Then one day in July 1951, they finally made the painful decision to send her off. The night before she left, her mother said to her, “Your father is going to take you to Sungai Buloh. You can go to school there. You are going away from us tomorrow and I won’t be able to beat you anymore. Happy? But you must listen to the adults there and must not run about like how you do at home. You must behave when we are not around.”
That day, all her playmates gathered at her house in the evening to bid her farewell. She told them that she was going away to study in Kuala Lumpur. They asked her when she would be back and she said she had “no idea”. She was so young at that time. How could she have known that she was leaving for good?
Heng Pak Nang’s father took her to Port Klang in a boat and sent her to the Sungai Buloh Settlement. “I only cried when my father was leaving. I don’t know why, I didn't feel much sadness. All my life I have just been muddling about.”
After the admission, her ulcerated limbs healed after just eight months of treatment. Initially, Heng Pak Nang stayed in the Children’s Ward, which had 21 beds, and the children always played together. Soon, she forgot about her homesickness. She did not really go to school either because of her condition but she always had fun playing with the other children there.
One day, she had trouble breathing while playing with the kids and needed an emergency throat surgery. She was 16 then and she thought that she was not going to survive, not able to see her father and siblings again. After the surgery, she was in a coma for two weeks. Even the doctor thought she would die and sent the police to inform her father.
When she woke up from her coma, somebody told her that her father came to see her and that he cried.” She said, “When I heard that my father cried, I cried too. He loves me very much.”
Heng Pak Nang was lucky to have narrowly escaped death, but ever since then, she has had a hole in her throat, fitted with a steel tube to help her breathe. She lost her voice completely after the surgery and could only speak again as she gradually recovered. Despite the near-death experience, she is still her old self, always carefree and energetic.
When she was 21, she stopped going to school and was assigned to live in a chalet. There was no hurry for her to find a job after graduating. Some westerners then offered them an opportunity to pick up a skill of their choice, and they would be paid 5 dollars a month during the apprenticeship. “All three of them were the doctors’ wives. They taught us handicrafts. You want to learn dressmaking, you learn dressmaking. You want to learn embroidery, you learn embroidery. That’s how it is. So, I picked up dressmaking. When I completed the training, I made clothes for 5 dollars a month and did it for a year.”
When asked about the reason she chose dressmaking, she laughed and said, “I enjoy dressing up decently, so I’d like to make my own clothes.”
A year later, her allowance was adjusted to 10 dollars. Then, her two-year apprenticeship ended. So, she went to the administration office and signed up to be a substitute worker, who relieves the formal workers when they are on sick leave. Later on, there happened to be a vacancy for a seamstress and she got the job. She remembers that the May 13 Incident broke out on the same year she got that job.
Heng Pak Nang recalls that the East, West and Central Section had four seamstresses each, two assistants in charge of the cutting and tailoring and another two operating the sewing machines. The seamstresses worked respectively in two sewing studios, starting from 8 to 12, and 2 to 4 after a lunch break.
Back then, bed sheets, blankets, pillowcases, mosquito nets and hooks for patients, surgical gowns, headwear, and masks for doctors, as well as the fabric sleeves for intravenous infusion bottles were all made by the seamstresses. She said that disposable masks were not available at the time, so they sewed all the masks for the doctors and nurses. Back then, the infusion containers were made of glass and they also had to sew a cylindrical sleeve with two straps to hold them up.
On top of these, the seamstresses must also make the curtains and sofa covers for the office. “We had to take the measurements. I was still young at that time, still fit enough to climb up and down to measure the height and the width, so that we know how much fabric we’ll need for each curtain rod. Then, I would pass the measurements to someone else who would then cut the fabrics.”
“We had to fill pillows with cottons too. We even had to mend clothes! Some clothes were torn and needed to be repaired. We patched up the rugs, blankets, pillowcases, mosquito nets, and straw mats for the Decrepit Ward.”
She retired only when she was 60. She said, “I had been working all the time, non-stop, either patching or sewing. I did not find it hard because I was used to it.”
She said the toughest part was collecting and cutting the fabric. It required a massive amount of fabric to make uniforms for the nurses. When the fabrics were delivered here on a lorry, they must go and measure the amount of cloth they need, and in the process pull the fabric tightly, before they could cut it. Because Heng Pak Nang had trouble breathing, she was always gasping for air when doing the job. After that, they must place the fabric back onto the lorry to have it delivered to the sewing studios. Then, they had to unload and carry the fabric back into the studios. The whole process was a really exhausting task for her.
She said, “Sometimes, when I overworked, when there was too much dust and smoke, or when it was too stuffy, I would have runny nose, a fever or an allergic reaction because the fabrics were very dirty.”
When Heng Pak Nang was 30, she married an inmate in the settlement. The couple ran a horticultural business together after marriage. When her husband died in 2000, she moved to the Decrepit Ward from the chalet they lived in. There is, in fact, a story behind the marriage. Heng Pak Nang was born before the nation’s independence and she did not complete her citizenship registration when she was a child. As a result, she had been holding a red identity card (permanent resident card, known as a red IC). When she heard that Red IC holders could not get a “royal job” (government job), she decided to get married in order to obtain a blue IC (for citizens).
“I married this husband simply for the identity card,” she said frankly. “They told me, ‘Just get married. With a marriage certificate, you can get your identity card.’ So, I just got together with this man. It was not based on true love.”
The couple had a daughter but after six months in the settlement’s Babies Home, the baby was taken into the care of a relative, who lived in her husband’s hometown in Kuala Kurau. She said, “My daughter was afraid of me when she was a child; she was afraid of the two of us. She would cling tightly to her aunt, so tight. She was just a kid then.”
When I asked if it saddened her, she said ‘nope’ almost instantly. “No, I did not feel sad for that. It’s strange. Oh, I did feel sad, I did, when she found a boyfriend.”
“My daughter said, ‘Mum, I have a boyfriend’ and I said, ‘Oh, you have a boyfriend? Don’t let people know that your parents are here.’ She said, ‘I already did, I told him that my parents live here. I made it clear: They don’t look good. I’m going to take you there to see them. If you don’t like what you see, then that’s it. I’m okay with that.’”
“It was right on August 15 (the Mid-Autumn Festival) when she brought her boyfriend to our chalet. I was living in a chalet at that time. He saw us and did not say a word. I asked him, ‘Well, now that you have met the two of us, what do you think?’ He said, ‘I have no problem with this. It was not your fault. And you are alright now, so that’s fine!’
In 2000, her daughter was getting married and she invited her to the wedding in Kuala Kurau. It was sometime shortly after her husband’s death. She decided not to attend the wedding because her legs were too weak to travel far and she was worried that her presence would affect the wedding. Then, her daughter’s future mother-in-law made a trip all the way here to persuade her to be there for her daughter’s wedding.
“My daughter’s future mother-in-law came here for me. I was staying in the Decrepit Ward in the West Section at that time. When she saw me, she was not afraid of me. She sat on my bed and persuaded me to go back for my daughter’s wedding. She said, ‘She is your only daughter. Are you not going to go back for the wedding and the tea ceremony? It’s okay. Don’t worry, just come back.’”
Her words gave Pak Nang great assurance. So, she packed up and went home with her daughter to attend the wedding.
Heng Pak Nang’s filial daughter had asked Pak Nang to live with her but Pak Nang declined, feeling that she has more freedom living here in the settlement, where she has lots of old friends who would look after each another. Pak Nang has her own television and refrigerator in the hospital ward. Although her left eye is totally blind and her right eye has only 20 percent of vision left, besides the steel tube in her throat, she lives a rather comfortable life. Her legs are feeble but she insists on taking a “ward round” every morning to bring her bedridden fellow inmates something to drink.
She believes that she has done good to have Jesus’ blessings – the reason why she is still safe and sound and mobile after a few falls, and every person she met has been so nice to her. Once, something terrible happened to her in 1981. The tube she relied on for breathing broke and only rubber tubes were available in the hospital. Fortunately, an Indian nurse found a new steel tube for her. Later, she had the broken tube welded back in one piece, so that she has a spare tube in case of emergency. Once a month, she would remove the tube from her throat and disinfect it with boiling water, only putting it back when it has cooled.
Heng Pak Nang’s life has been harder than most people’s but she remains her happy-go-lucky self. She said, “I have no regrets. I have never blamed my mother for the way I look, or keep moaning and sighing, ‘Why does everyone else look so good while I look like this?’ Never. It is all pre-destined. This is my life. Who are you going to blame? Blame your parents for giving birth to you? But you are already here. What else can you do?”
Narrated by Heng Pak Nang
Interviewed by Chan Wei See & Wong San San
Written by Chan Wei See
Translated by Zoe Chan Yi En
Edited by Low Sue San