The lone stall keeper
Low Sek San, now 87 years of age, runs a small business of his own – a mini sundry stall in the hospital ward. In a corner by his bed, he makes use of the 30-square-meter space to display a selection of snacks, instant noodles, washing powder and other daily necessities for his neighbours (the inpatients). In the middle of our interview, an old man at the opposite bed came over twice in a wheelchair to make some purchases. After picking up what he wanted, he opened a drawer to pay and helped himself to his change. It was all done in a way that keeps Low trouble-free given his impaired fingers.
He was sitting in a wheelchair, with a screwdriver attached to his waistband. Initially, I thought that screwdriver worked as a can opener for him, but then I figured out that it was something he used to apply medicine with. I saw him clutching the screwdriver with his impaired thumb to scoop up some cream into his left palm and apply it on his ulcerated left leg. In spite of his physical impairment, he applies medicine every day on his own without assistance from a nurse.
Leprosy made horrendous marks on his body. His right leg was amputated, his right eye blind and his nose, collapsed. What is left of his palms is a mass of flesh. Still, with a sense of optimism, he is able to accept his disability and live a contented life in the ward. He was in good spirits the day we had our interview and his voice carried well. As our conversation unfolds, he recounts his old stories straight off the reel.
Low Sek San was born in Kedah in 1929. When he was a child, he had psoriasis on his body which later spread to his ears. When he visited the Alor Setar General Hospital for medical consultation, he was held immediately and taken to the Sungai Petani Hospital in an ambulance. He was then transferred to Bukit Mertajam to catch a night train to Kuala Lumpur together with other patients. He remembers that it was 1939 and he was admitted to Ward 89.
After his admission to the settlement, he attended school for two years until he was forced to leave school when the war broke out. Low’s deepest memory of his limited school days was the magic shows and kungfu performances frequently held in the settlement. More than seven decades have passed but he could still recall the performances very well. His eyes were beaming when he described the details.
When the Japanese troops invaded Malaya in 1941, the settlement had a shortage of food. The patients starved due to poverty and lived in terror. Based on Low’s account, they must hide in the woods whenever the siren went off. Sometimes, when the siren went off during mealtimes, they had to take their bowls along and finish their meals while hiding in the cogon grass.
Japan surrendered in 1945 and the British returned to Malaya the following year. In 1948, Low Sek San moved to the Pulau Jerejak leprosarium which was closer to his hometown. He wanted to go home at that time but had to abandon his plan because of a flare-up.
“I wanted to but I could not,” he sighed. He had a vague memory of his mother visiting him once or twice in Pulau Jerejak. There are eight children in his family and he is the eldest. Besides Low Sek San, three of his siblings contracted leprosy too. They moved into the Valley of Hope after the Japanese troops surrendered, but he was already in Pulau Jerejak by then.
Low Sek San helped people to rear chickens on this little island near Penang Island. He also learned to steer a motorboat and take “good people” out to the sea to fish, making a paltry 6 dollars a month. He also helped to ship timbers from the island in his motorboat, for 5 cents a bundle and 5 dollars for 100 bundles.
His most memorable time in Pulau Jerejak was the nights when they sailed to Penang Island for movies. He said that sometimes, the patients would row across the sea for half an hour to Penang Island to catch a midnight movie. The tickets they bought were the ones that cost 6 cents for the most expensive seats in the last row because they could better afford them. Most of the “good people” would buy the 4-cent tickets and sit in the front rows. After the movies, they would always buy some Ee-Fu noodles to take back to the settlement.
When Low first mentioned “good people”, we initially thought it refers to kind-hearted people in a general sense. As our conversation progressed, we realised that by “good people” he actually meant those who had not contracted leprosy. It pains us to hear them differentiating themselves from the healthy ones with such a common term of their own.
In 1969, the Pulau Jerejak Settlement was converted into a rehabilitation centre for hardcore criminals. All patients were relocated en masse to the Valley of Hope. Once again, Low Sek San returned to this place. He remembers that on the day of the mass relocation, the ambulances carrying 300-400 inmates boarded the ferry straight away. When the ferry arrived in Butterworth, the ambulances headed for the train station where the inmates took a night train to Kuala Lumpur.
When he returned to the Valley of Hope, he grew tapiocas and harvested sugarcane and let the “good people” ship the produce out of the settlement for sale. Then, in the 1970s, he became a ward attendant who took care of nearly everything in the hospital wards. At the beginning, he received a wage of RM4.75 per day. By the time he retired, he was paid RM144.75 a month.
According to Low Sek San, his job included sweeping the floor, distributing hot water, meals and beverages to patients, letting down mosquito nets for patients before they went to bed at night and rolling up the mosquito nets in the morning. Bed sheets and pillow cases were changed once a week. If patients soiled or wet their beds, he had to rinse the bed sheets before handing them to the laundry workers. If patients are less mobile, he would clean their dishes for them. In the event of a visit by an important figure such as the minister of health, ward attendants must clean up the entire building. Even the doors and drains must be spick and span.
Back then, work at the hospital wards was divided into three shifts. For morning shifts, he must boil water at 6am in the morning and go one by one to a patient’s bedside and fill their thermos with hot water. He remembers particularly that he had to boil more water when he was working at the Female Ward because the female patients would ask him to fill hot water into a big mug in addition to their thermos.
In 2007, the sore of Low’s right leg festered severely. According to the doctor, if he kept that leg, he would die when “the poison reaches his heart”. He thought to himself, China was hosting the Olympic Games in the following year, and so if he dies, he would not be able to watch the Games. So he steeled himself and asked the doctor to amputate his limb.
His smile narrowed his eyes. “I wanted to watch the Olympic Games. I was addicted to the Olympics, completely addicted! If I had not had it amputated, I would not have been able to watch the Games,” he said in Cantonese.
Before his amputation, Low Sek San enjoyed travelling and used to take a getaway every year by the Council’s bus in his early years. He had been to Malacca, Port Dickson and Morib. Today, he could go nowhere but stay here, running the mini sundry stall that has been handed down to him by a patient who has passed on. He said there used to be four to five stalls in the hospital wards, run by not just ethnic Chinese but Indians and Malays too. Now, he is the only one left running a stall in the ward.
Narrated by Low Sek San
Interviewed by Chan Wei See & Wong San San
Written by Chan Wei See
Translated by Zoe Chan Yi En
Edited by Low Sue San