A worker dedicated to a most noble profession
It was a scorching afternoon, some time after lunchtime. Lam Tow was sitting on a porch swing, shirtless, in a bid to escape the indoor heat.
Every time I visited him, I liked to walk up to him with a smile. He stared at me for a while, trying to place my face, but seconds later he remembered, “Miss Tan! It’s you again! You’ve found time to drop by today?”
In 2006, my partner, Joshua Wong, and I, first entered the Valley of Hope to film the documentary, Everlasting Valley of Hope. During the filming, Lam Tow and his wife, Lim Tak, were the residents we interacted with the most. We have previously frequented Lam Tow’s old home in the East Section when we documented the entire process of how the East Section chalets were demolished, and how the residents were forced to move out of the area. And we’re back here today for another story, grateful for the friendly welcome extended by the couple, and enjoying the hot drinks and omelettes they shared with us, while they recounted the story of how they came to live in the settlement.
Lam Tow was born in Ipoh in 1922. His ancestral home is in Guangdong, China. A tall and handsome young man, he was born to a big family – There were nine children in the family and Lam Tow was the eighth child. He had six elder brothers, one elder sister and a younger sister. When Lam Tow was in his twenties, he started working as a bus driver for his brother-in-law. However, after a couple of years, symptoms of leprosy began developing all over his body.
“Red patches appeared on my face and my limbs would go numb while driving the bus. I only realised that it was leprosy after seeing a doctor! A heath ministry official told me I must quit my job and go to Kuala Lumpur for medical treatment. I journeyed south to Kuala Lumpur in a big lorry, the trip sponsored by the ministry. The lorry also picked up other patients in Ipoh, Taiping, and other towns, making a total of eight leprosy patients with me in the lorry. I had mixed feelings as we were heading to Kuala Lumpur.”
He had never been to Kuala Lumpur before and did not have the faintest idea what would happen next. An unnamed panic suddenly started rising in his chest.
“My parents did not want them to take me away but they had no choice. It is hard to describe that feeling! We were a poor family living in a rural area. My parents were already very old when I left – my father was in his seventies and my mother in her sixties. They wished they could take care of me but their age would not allow it. I was worried about them, I never thought that I would get such a disease at a time when my parents were so old. I had no idea what Sungai Buloh is like. I heard that one can never come out again after being locked up inside. When you die, you just die in there! Some people even said that life in there is like being in a prison, they will dump us inside and let us sleep next to each other on the ground, row by row. I was really scared!”
Every minute on the way to Kuala Lumpur was agonising, a pounding sense of horror in his chest, and the rumours not helping one bit. Every time the lorry rolled over a bump or crack in the road, it’s as if Lam Tow and the other patients are being plunged deeper into the darkness. They did not speak much, everyone too engrossed with their own feelings as their hearts sank in the dead air.
Fortunately, things took a turn for the better when they reach the settlement. “It was a relief to see foreign doctors and nurses here, and there were beds, topped with blankets. I felt better and no longer terrified. However, I was very weak at that point of time, my limbs were numb and I had a terrible nerve pain in my arms!” Lam Tow was a paucibacillary (PB) leprosy patient, marked by an early symptom of either a single or more areas of dry skin that are clear-edged, and also red spots or patches that does not itch.
He remembered that in the late 1940s, there were more than 2,000 patients in Sungai Buloh and all of the wards were full, each housing 20-30 patients. He was 27 at the time of admission. In this valley, far away from the commotion of the world outside, he slowly regained his health.
“When I first came here, I stayed in Ward No. 31 for six months before I was discharged from the hospital. The medical treatment in the early years was not so advanced. Although the swelling and the pain in my nerves went away, my limbs have become stiff and bent, permanently impaired!” After being discharged from the hospital, he was housed in an 8-sharing chalet in the East Section, chalet No. 180. Lam Tow said his eldest brother only sent him money a long time after his admission, amounting to 10 dollars each time.
“Then, the government would distribute firewood and rice to us every month. The firewood was called, ‘red charcoal wood’ or ‘Kajang wood.’ We had to split the firewood on our own; each 28-inch-long wood must be axed into four pieces. Then, we would weigh the firewood before distributing them. Each person would get about 15kg of firewood and they would have to bring them back to their own chalets on the hill. We would then cook using the allocated firewood. I split firewood for a bit of pocket money and was paid 5 cents each time. Besides that, I also helped people carry their firewood, all the way to their homes, and placed it by their stoves. That gave me 1 cent per trip. Let’s say, if I delivered firewood to four families, I would earn 4 cents. It was a tough and exhausting job to carry the firewood uphill! When I have saved up enough, I would buy a 10-cent pack of ikan bilis (anchovies) from the grocery store and eat it with rice.”
In 1962, Lam Tow started working as a porter in the settlement, sweeping the streets, collecting and burning rubbish. He said he did that for 9 years before he became a janitor and cleaned the toilets, a job which he did for 41 years.
“Initially, I was handed odd jobs and had to clear wastes, earning me only 1 dollar a day. The job was tough because the rubbish was very heavy. Then, a vacancy came up after a janitor left the settlement so I applied for it and got the job – an easier job at last!”
Back then, he said, the toilet brushes provided by the government were of poor quality, so he bought the cleaning tools with his own money.
“The government did provide us with a long-handled, coconut broom, a hose and a pail. The toilets then were all squat toilets. The coconut broom provided by the government was only good for cleaning the drain but not so handy for scrubbing toilets, because it does not reach inside the toilet bowl for a thorough cleaning. So, I made the cleaning tools myself. I bought a 3-dollar floor scrubbing brush from the sundry shop, nailed it to a stick and converted it into a toilet brush. To fix it firmly, I stuffed a small piece of cloth in a hole in the middle of the brush before driving that round stick through the hole. Besides that, I also converted an empty oil container into a dustpan for drain cleaning. My DIY tools were more solid, durable and practical!”
Lam Tow reported to work at 6 am every day and was in charge of cleaning the toilets in five hospital wards. There were five janitors in the hospital, each assigned to clean toilets in different wards.
“Every morning at 6 something, I cleaned the toilets in Ward No. 30, 31, 32, 33, 34 and 35. The janitors had no specific working hours and we worked for 3-4 hours a day. You could go home as soon as the toilets are clean. However, the patients would complain if the toilets were not properly cleaned. The matron would also come every day to inspect our work. If the toilets were not clean enough, you would get a good lecture. After cleaning up the toilets, we must also clear the drains, remove all the rubbish from the drains and dispose it into the river, which by the way, used to have a lot of tong-sat (catfish).”
People tend to have an impression that sanitation work is exhausting, tough and dirty, thinking that “brain-workers” hold a more prestigious position while manual workers have humbler jobs. However, Lam Tow said casually, “Working as a sanitation worker may be exhausting, but you can choose to live your life happy, or live it the other way around. I do not care about what others think of me, or thinking that we are just the ones who collect rubbish and clean the toilets. The settlement would be a grimy place without us. And the toilets would be dirty if not for us, don’t you think so?” He never feels inferior because of his occupation. A hardworking and down-to-earth man, he accepted whatever position he had been assigned to and he took his work seriously. He did not mind working harder than the rest.
In 1965, Lam Tow married his wife, Lim Tak. The two of them began to grow flowers for sale. They used to plant more than 1,000 pots of “luck bamboo” around their chalet in the East Section. With the extra income, life became better for the couple.
“Unfortunately, my wife had womb cancer after we got married. Her womb was then removed and she cannot have a baby. So, that is why we do not have any children.”
In the 1960s, Lam Tow suddenly felt an urge to go home and see his family. So, he asked a neighbour to give him a lift to Ipoh. However, he encountered a lukewarm reception – his family made the two of them wait in a coffee shop in the neighbourhood and only entertained him half-heartedly. They did not even let him enter the house.
“Many people still have no idea what leprosy is. We had a very bad reputation and it has also affected our family’s name. So, we did not want to make our family feel distressed either.” He continued, telling us wistfully that he returned to his hometown only to find that the people whom he used to know were gone, and that many of his friends were not there anymore. Returning to the once familiar town after a long time being away, he could not help but lament its dramatic changes.
Fast-forward 30 odd years later, the cleaning service in the settlement was outsourced to a private company in 1996 and Lam Tow no longer had to clean the toilets. So, he was assigned to care for several inmates who had been diagnoses with mental disorders.
“I was assigned to work in the “Mental Ward” – Ward No. 35 in the West Section and take care of patients with mental disorders. I was in charge of giving them their daily shower – I would get them to squat in the bathroom, then pour the water over them and cleanse their bodies, and then give them a good wipe-down with a washcloth. After that, I would help them take their meals.”
In 2003, 81-year-old Lam Tow went to see the Medical Superintendent and asked to be retired from his position as he felt that he was getting old and less flexible.
“At first, the doctor suggested that I help rinse vegetables in the kitchen but then I showed him my hands and told him that my hands and legs are not so good now. I even have trouble taking care of myself, let alone those patients. I told him I really don’t want to work anymore.” So, the doctor agreed to let him retire and relocated the mentally ill patients he was caring for to Ward No. 82, where they are now under the care of full-time nurses.
Delighted with the outcome, Lam Tow went to the hospital ward and showed the matron a written approval of retirement issued by the doctor. She was happy for him too. “Even you yourself are getting old,” she said, “it will be terrible if you were to accidentally have a fall!” After retirement, Lam Tow continued to receive an allowance of RM136 a month.
Lam Tow reminisced that the government used to engage external tailors to make uniforms for all the workers. Every year, each inmate worker was provided with two sets of tailor-made uniforms at no charge.
“We were given two sets of outfits that were yellowish-brown in colour. Then, somehow, the government stopped doing that and only provided us with two bolts of fabric each year, then we had to get someone to make the uniforms for us. Later, I gave all the fabric I was entitled to to Cambodian refugees, by way of some charitable organisations. I just kept wearing the old uniforms until they could not be worn anymore.”
In 2007, the government developed the East Section and Lam Tow’s chalet was demolished to give way to Universiti Teknologi Mara's Faculty of Medicine. Lam Tow and his wife and 38 other affected families fought against the eviction plan and refused to move. However, the government was determined to bulldoze the plan through. The residents were forcefully relocated en masse to the Central Section, after the health ministry officials offered them some compensation. In 2008, Lam Tow’s wife died of a heart attack. Since then, he had been living in the Central Section all by himself. He was already 90 something then but his memory was still sharp. Every time he saw me, he could still recall and share some anecdotes about the other inmates with me.
“Miss Tan, why are you still so skinny? Why is Mr Wong not here with you?” His heartfelt love and concern for us had always been evident. We often relaxed on the swing and talked about the old days.
In July 2015, Lam Tow suddenly collapsed and passed away soon after he was rushed to the hospital. I remember an afternoon a few months prior to his death, when the two of us were sitting on the swing, chatting as usual, when he suddenly said, “I am 90 something now and have not been very well lately. When you come by at the end of the year, you will probably not see me around anymore.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“I am going to find my wife. She passed away on 30 September 2008. She has been gone for so long. If I don’t go and find her, she might not be able to recognise me anymore. So, when you come again at the end of the year, you will probably not see me here.” Lam Tow explained.
To his remark, I simply wished him a good health and a long life. I never really thought that it would actually happen, that I would not be able to see him anymore at the end of the year. I suppose he has, at last, joined his beloved wife up in heaven.
Narrated by Lam Tow
Interviewed by Tan Ean Nee
Written by Tan Ean Nee
Translated by Zoe Chan Yi En
Edited by Low Sue San