The last photographer in the settlement
In 1957, a whole new chapter began as the colonial rule in Malaya ended. For Leon Chee Kuang, who had just matured into a young adult, the year also heralded the biggest change in his life.
He was still in secondary school when a blood test confirmed that he has leprosy, taken after experiencing a sudden bending of fingers and muscle numbness.He was then forced to leave Seremban, his hometown, and move into the Sungai Buloh Settlement for treatment.
After being monitored for a month or two in the hospital, the doctor assigned him to a chalet in the settlement. He continued his second year of lower secondary education at Travers School, the English-medium school in the settlement, when he was 18. Having been transferred from a Chinese-medium school to an English-medium one, he struggled to fit in and only managed to pass the Overseas Cambridge School Certificate with a Grade 3, and only after his third attempt when he was in Form 5.
He said, “There was no point in scoring first place here. Jobs were limited here in the settlement and there were very few clerical positions available.” Immediately, his world shrank after contracting the disease. His remarks reflected a deep sense of helplessness, common amongst recovered leprosy patients.
After graduating from the school, an opportunity came when one of the teachers passed away and he was chosen to become a substitute teacher. A few months later, he was promoted to a regular teacher, teaching mathematics, history and geography to Form 1 and Form 2 students. The Sungai Buloh Settlement was a self-contained community and the teachers at Travers School were all recruited from the inmate population. Not many of the inmates were literate and so, an inmate who is well educated could easily become a teacher without any form of teacher training.
He said, the number of classrooms and teachers were limited and there were not many students either. Hence, the school combined Form 1 with Form 2, and Form 3 with Form 4. Each class only had about 12 students.
He received an allowance of 100-odd dollars per month and taught for three to four years until the school closed down in the 1980s, due to a sharp fall in the number of students.
After losing his job, Leon Chee Kuang worked as a typist at the settlement’s Welfare Department and also as a clerk at the Admission Room of the administration office.
In the 1970s, a nursing institute was established in the settlement. Most of the nursing trainees, 20-odd in total, came from out of state and they loved having their pictures taken as keepsakes. After learning about this from the nurses, he toyed with the idea of resuming his old hobby of photography, as Leon Chee Kuang has learnt photography and darkroom work before.
Coincidently, a photographer in the settlement was due to be discharged soon and leave the Valley of Hope. So, with his own savings and some money he obtained from his family, Leon Chee Kuang bought machines, chemicals, magnifiers and all the other gears the photographer had in his darkroom. He also bought his camera at 400 dollars; it was Leon Chee Kuang’s first camera.
At the beginning, all the pictures he made were in black and white. Every time the nursing institute has an event, like an award ceremony, a tea party, graduation ceremony and other activities, Leon Chee Kuang would be invited as the event photographer. The nursing trainees loved to be photographed in their uniforms after class and they would send their photos home to their family.
According to Leon Chee Kuang, inmates back then did not have a habit of getting their pictures taken as keepsakes, perhaps because of their low self-esteem or their reluctance to be photographed so that they might keep their patient status a secret. Even Leon Chee Kuang did not have any keepsake photographs of himself.
He did, however, photograph all of the inmates during a particular, rare occasion – when the government introduced a new identification card. And because of that, all inmates had to replace their current identification cards and along with that, their photograph. It was then that the settlement’s Welfare Department approached Leon Chee Kuang and placed him in charge of all the photo-shooting and developing, all expenses covered.
Thus, Leon Chee Kuang went to work. He set up a simple background with a piece of cloth in the hallway of the Decrepit Ward and let the inmates sit against it for the photo shoot. He laughed, “Some of them did not have a (formal) attire, so I found a used suit, a black one, and asked them to put it on beforehand.”
When the pictures were ready, he would pass them to the settlement’s Welfare Department and the Department’s staff would arrange for the mobile registration unit to come to the settlement and replace the inmates’ identification cards.
Soon, it became a common sight to see Leon Chee Kuang armed with his camera, going around taking pictures in the Valley of Hope. As he gained popularity, villagers from a nearby Malay kampong, which also happened to be populated by ex-patients, would invite him to take pictures whenever there was a wedding. Then, he would carry the camera on his back and cycle to the village for the assignment. When the authorities clamped down on illicit samsu distilling in 1978, a tight curfew was imposed in the settlement, but he managed to sneak out from the back door to go to work.
He charged by the number of pictures he took, which is one-dollar-odd each, he said. When some clients wanted to have just a few pictures taken, he had to separate the shots from a 36-exposure roll in the darkroom. If colour photographs were requested, he would have to send the films to a photo developing shop in Kampung Baru Sungai Buloh.
“It is just one of my hobbies. I didn't make much of a profit, really. The population here is so small. We dare not charge more either. I only made RM1.20 for each picture back then.” Leon Chee Kuang, who is also the Sungai Buloh Settlement Council secretary, said this during our interview in the office.
Then, after an old photographer retired, Leon Chee Kuang became the only photographer in the settlement. He would be approached for every single event organised in the settlement.
“There used to be an old gentleman who offered photographic services. The pictures were still black and white at that time. Then, he retired and it all changed to colour photographs. When people wanted a colour photo taken, they would come to me instead because the old gentleman was immobile. At least, I could still cycle around and take freelance jobs.”
Apart from the pastor’s tea parties, Christmas performances, and song and dance shows by guest performers, his most vivid recollection was receiving Lee Heung Kam, a Hong Kong actress who visited the settlement about 20 to 30 years ago, accompanied by members of the Tzu Chi Foundation.
“We brought her to the temple for prayers and I took a few pictures of that occasion!”
He has also photographed strip dancers before! He laughed and said that Dr Amarjit Singh, who used to work in the settlement, was a member of the Hash House Harriers. The running club once organised a treasure hunt hash in the settlement and had a tent set up in the woods so they could watch a Thai strip dance show after the run. Leon Chee Kuang managed to snap a few shots when everyone was raptly enjoying the show. Unfortunately, the pictures had already gone missing now.
After his stint as a photographer, Leon Chee Kuang then became a postman in charge of gathering and sending out letters. Having started the job in the 1980s, he still serves as a postman in the settlement to this day and receives 240 dollars of allowance every month.
He said they usually buy and stock up on stamps in the office. A patient who wishes to send a letter would come to buy a stamp and then drop the letter into a post box. He collects the outgoing letters at 9’o clock every morning and passes them to a mobile post office, which is a van that comes once a week. Back then, patients could also deposit money via the mobile post office.
When letters arrive via the mailing van, Leon Chee Kuang would let the ration distributors at the market pass the letters to the receivers. Alternatively, he would ask Philip Yong, the typist, to hand the letters to Lee Chor Seng, the Section Steward at the Central Market, who would then have his subordinates deliver the letters to the recipients staying in the chalets. If the recipients were residents of the Decrepit Ward, he would deliver the letters himself.
“And that is teamwork. One task was carried out by a few people because there was no job,” he explained.
He recollected how things worked in the 1950s and 1960s. “Previously, all our letters must be sanitised before they were sent out. It’s true. They used to believe that our germs would infect those living outside the settlement, so before all correspondence went out, we must place all of them at the sanitisation area – we had one in our post office – to decontaminate the mails before forwarding them out.” However by the time he took over the job, this practice has been ended.
He married an Indonesian Chinese 25 years ago. Their daughter is already 24 years of age.
In the blink of an eye, Leon Chee Kuang, the photographer who has been recording the goings-on in the Valley of Hope with a camera for years, has grown into a silver haired, 77 year old gentleman with partial hearing loss.
“This disease was a very heavy blow,” he said, looking back on his life. “I had already made it to secondary school by the time I was admitted here abruptly, and then I had to study in an English-medium school. Before that, I was taught in Mandarin, you know. But it was not all bad because learning in English has broadened my horizon.”
“The life in here limits our horizon too much, while those living outside have a broader horizon. It is mostly the same for everybody – our ambitions have faded away ever since moving here and we just settled for a simple life here, as long as we can get by.”
“When we first arrived at the settlement, the doctor told everyone, ‘There is nothing to worry about and it will only take six months before you’re well.’ But, after six months, you would not even want to leave because by then you would have made so many friends here. Emotionally, you would be attached to this place. And there are also those who could not get a job elsewhere. Everyone goes through the same thing here so we could empathise with each other. We can go anywhere we wanted to in here because we are all friends.”
What was supposed to be a short, six month stay turned into another six months, and another six, and before they knew it, they are here for good. He said that his life here is comfortable and carefree, though not particularly happy, but that is good enough.
Narrated by Leon Chee Kuang
Interviewed by Chan Wei See & Wong San San
Written by Chan Wei See
Translated by Zoe Chan Yi En
Edited by Low Sue San