A sorrowful laundress
Low Ah Fong remembered that it was during a time of the Dragon Boat Festival when the Taiping General Hospital escorted her to the Sungai Buloh Settlement, along with other leprosy patients. She was an apple of her mother’s eye. Her mother bought her some festive rice dumplings so that she could take them along to be eaten on the train. When she arrived in the settlement, she was still holding an uneaten dumpling in her hand. She recalled an inmate telling her, “Wow! You’ve brought a dumpling? Let us have some.”
At that time, she was just a girl of 17 or 18 in the best days of her youth and beauty, and now she is an 86-year-old, hunched back lady living in a ward. She still remembered that when her leprosy symptoms appeared, her widowed mother with whom she was living with could not believe that her daughter had contracted the disease. It was not until Low’s symptoms became more obvious did her mother send her to the Taiping General Hospital for treatment – her face and limbs were reddish and swollen and her ears, distended. After being diagnosed with the disease, she spent a whole month in the hospital in Taiping before she was sent off to the Valley of Hope.
Low’s story has been a sad one. She came from a poor family and her father passed away when she was very young. Since she was a child, she had been babysitting for others and cutting rubber sheets in the rubber factory for an income of 3 dollars a month, in order to support her family. As a result, she had never been to school and had no idea what going to school is all about. It was her first trip so far away from her home and mother, and she never returned but settled down in this fenced, desolate land. When she first came here, she wept everyday and lost all of her appetite.
She was admitted to the ward upon arrival and then assigned to a chalet a couple of weeks later, where she had to fetch firewood to cook. She wanted to get a job to earn a living but there were 2,000-3,000 people in the settlement. There was hardly any opportunity because there were just too few jobs to go around. Inmates had no need to worry about putting food on their tables and clothes on their backs because the hospital would provide a ration of rice, vegetables and daily necessities for them. Nevertheless, without an income, she would have no extra money to buy other things she needed.
“When I was admitted (to the hospital), my mum only gave me seven dollars…I did not even dare to buy a slice of pineapple.”
When she was staying in the chalet, she used to do the washing for inmates and “little doctors” (a doctor’s assistant who helps with bandaging wounds). She must also starch and iron the clothes after they have been cleaned, only to earn a paltry 3 dollars per month.
Then, in her thirties, she fell in love and married a fellow inmate who was a wireman. The couple built a cottage near the settlement for her mother who was living alone in Taiping and sent her groceries they bought every day after she moved in. After relocating her mother there, Low Ah Fong begged the authorities for a job so that she can take care of her mother. At that time, there was a vacancy for laundry worker. The authorities noticed her petite frame and asked, “Can you manage?” She nodded and told them she would like to give it a try.
“When your horse dies, you walk,” she said. Back then when there was no washing machine, handling laundry was a tremendous amount of work – simply a heavy and strenuous labour. Every day around 7am, she had to collect bed sheets, pillow cases and patient wear from the ward, strap the heavy linens to the back of a bicycle and send them to the laundry room for cleaning.
At that time, according to her account, each laundry worker was in charge of a ward. Each patient would change six or seven pieces of clothing a day and there would be around seventy or eighty articles from each ward. When collecting linens at the ward, laundry workers must count the number of each type of article and return the exact number of articles to the ward on the same day. If any article went missing, they would receive a warning of wage deduction from nurses.
She said nice ward attendants would rinse soiled or wet clothing before handing them to laundry workers, whereas the not so nice ones would simply give them to the laundry workers as is.
Low Ah Fong said the leprosarium only provided one large bar of soap per week for each laundry worker. If the soap was not enough, laundry workers had to buy soap using their own money to do the washing. Otherwise, they would be scolded by nurses if the clothes were not well cleaned.
Back then, a truck would deliver firewood to the leprosarium as scheduled. When the truck came, laundry workers had to carry the firewood to the laundry room and use it to boil three huge pots of water. After washing the clothes with soap, the workers would rinse them in a big pool of water, sanitise them in the boiling water and then remove the clothes from the pot with a long stick.
With three big pots of water boiling, the laundry room was unbearably hot. Dozens of laundry workers sweated as if they have been rain soaked as they washed and wrung the clothes out. Then, they would tie the wet and heavy washing on their bicycles, send them to the drying area and hang them out in the sun.
She remembered that a bed sheet was the heaviest among all. Laundry workers usually worked in pairs to wring bed sheets as hard as they can before drying them in the sun.
“Once, we were scolded by a nurse. She complained that we had ruined her bed sheets. Some of the bed sheets were new and we wrung them too hard. But if you don’t wring it hard enough, how can it dry out?”
Rainy days were the worst nightmare for laundry workers. Low Ah Fong recalled that she would rush to the drying area to fetch the linens back whenever she saw the sky grew dark, indicating that it could be raining soon. Even during lunch time, whenever she saw dark skies, she must put aside her bowl and dash to the drying area in order to retrieve the washing back and hang them in a big room. Sometimes, her heart ached when she rushed all the way to the drying area only to find the linens to be completely drenched.
A laundry worker’s job does not end after retrieiving the clothes, they have to also fold the clothes properly and return them to the ward on the same day itself.
Low Ah Fong worked as a laundress for over two decades. Her monthly allowance rose from the initial $30-plus to 60 dollars and then went up to more than 130 dollars. After her retirement, she receives an allowance of 100 dollars per month, just like other inmates.
When she was younger, she also gave birth to a son but she had never held him in her arms before. After her son’s birth, she only got a glimpse of him before he was whisked away to the Babies’ Home by the nurses. She said she could only visit him once a month and can merely look at him from a distance each time. According to the rules, babies born in the Valley of Hope must all be sent to the Babies’ Home to be cared for for a period of six months. After that, parents must try and find ways to send their babies off into foster care. Unfortunately, Low’s son could not make it to his sixth month.
On the day when her son died, Low Ah Fong received a phone call from a nurse who informed her that her son was having diarrhoea and asked her to rush to the Babies’ Home. However, by the time she got there, her son, covered with a cloth, had already stopped breathing.
She said sadly, “If he were still alive, he would have been in his forties by now.”
Low Ah Fong’s husband passed away more than three decades ago and she was left on her own. Ten years ago, the condition of her health started to go downhill, so she moved into the ward from the chalet. She has now lost vision in her left eye and is hard of hearing. Her fingers are stiff and bent. She is unable to walk and can only sit idly in her wheelchair or bed all day. Although she kept saying that “let the sky be my blanket should it fall down” and “when your horse dies, you walk”, the bad hand that life dealt her still gave her heart a heavy blow.
At the end of the interview, she let herself out. She said, “I hate myself so much. I’ve lived for so long and I am still here breathing. I can’t walk and I can’t do anything. What’s the point of living for so long?”
“It’s simply a waste of food. What’s the point of having others attend to me? All I do now is just eat and wait for death!”
She kept repeating that she hates herself and the fact that “she is still alive”. Her candid confession hovered in the air of the ward, like a warm gust of afternoon breeze.
Narrated by Low Ah Fong
Interviewed by Chan Wei See & Wong San San
Written by Chan Wei See
Translated by Zoe Chan Yi En
Edited by Low Sue San