When home no longer feels like home
The Valley of Hope currently has 138 residents, with their average age being 70. This last batch of ex-patients, particularly those who originate from Indonesia, has decided to call the settlement home and spend the rest of their lives here. Most of them have lost touch with their families since the day they were admitted. Having spent more than five decades in an isolated place such as this, each and every one of them has their own poignant story to be told, and Ng Cheong Heong is no exception.
“A lot of Indonesians do not hold a red IC (permanent resident card), how can they go back?” Ng Cheong Heong said. Just like many of the Indonesians here at the settlement, he left home at a young age because of the disease, without knowing if he is ever going to see his parents again.
Ng Cheong Heong, born in 1938, comes from an Indonesian city of Bagan Siapi-api. His ancestral home is in Kinmen, Fujian province, China. There are eight children in his family and he is the eldest. He has three younger sisters and four younger brothers. Ng Cheong Heong grew up in extreme poverty as there were quite a number of mouths to feed in the family.
“Do you know? Our school uniforms were patched up until they could no longer be mended. We would not throw away any clothes before making an attempt to patch them up first. Children nowadays are lucky, their pants are cast off when torn. When I was a child, all of the children in our village wore torn clothes!”
His parents fished for a living to support the family, however it was not enough.
“I only made it to Primary 5. We could not afford the tuition fee, so I stopped going to school. I started going fishing with my parents since I was in my teens. We went to sea twice a day for trawling. When the tide is high, we set the trawl. Our trawl could catch many species of fish and shrimps, for instance, the ‘stinky fish’ and ‘tshit-tshenn’ (Warming’s lantern fish), along with all kinds of big and small fishes at the same time. After that, we would sort our catches and take them to the pasar (market) to be sold. About half a kilogram of ‘stinky fish’ and rough fish were only 10 or 20 cents. Usually, ‘stinky fish’ are used for making salted fish. As for the tiny shrimps, the Indonesians would use them to make belacan.”
Belacan is one of the popular local condiments. Typically, the Indonesians would mix minced tiny shrimps with salt, sun-dry them and then pound the shrimps into a mash, before seasoning them for exports.
The family had been living a simple and ordinary life until Ng Cheong Heong turned 22, when he contracted the disease. He suddenly realised that he was just an illness away from misery.
“My mother took me to see many doctors. After visiting a number of western doctors and spending a lot of money, I was diagnosed with leprosy. I just cannot see why I am the only one, out of all my siblings, who got this disease. Then, there was no way to treat the disease in Indonesia, so my father paid an Indonesian boatman to take me here after hearing about the leprosarium in Malaysia. That was how I got separated with my family!”
He remembered the local agent even turned up at his doorstep to give him a lift to the Bagan Siapi-api’s jetty. Knowing that he was going to leave his family, Young Cheong Heong felt an ache of sadness. Malaya was all so foreign to him at that time and none of his family was going to accompany him on the trip. It was dusk by the time he arrived in the Port Klang. Feeling lost and helpless, he simply stared blankly into the crowd at the busy port. His future seemed uncertain, like a fire flickering aimlessly.
“After that, I was arranged to undergo a medical examination in Klang hospital. The doctor examined my symptoms and confirmed the diagnosis, then had me transferred to the Sungai Buloh settlement in an ambulance. At that point in time, I only had a few sets of clothes in my luggage and the 20 dollars that my parent gave me.”
The doctor in Sungai Buloh placed him in Ward No. 24 upon admission. It was there that he first saw so many others suffering from the same illness. The scene stirred up mixed feelings in him.
“There were 18 patients in a ward, who were mostly older than I was. I stayed there for more than four months until I was discharged from the hospital. After that, a foreign-born doctor assigned me to chalet No. 409, which could accommodate six bachelors, with three sharing a room. I had nothing at all when I left the hospital. I just went to the settlement’s store to collect the allocated firewood, pot, blanket, mosquito net, matches, a bowl, a straw mat, three pieces of board for the bed and a bed frame.”
At the time, The Central Section had 248 chalets and the East Section had 161 chalets, available for two, four or six sharing. Ward No. 409, to which Ng Cheong Heong was assigned, was located in the East Section. It was the earliest housing built during the British rule, which has a European design and chalets arranged in a cluster. Each chalet had a front yard so that the residents could do some gardening.
Ng Cheong Heong had two roommates but he had to cook and take care of himself just like everyone else. For this reason, he took quite some time to adjust to his new life when he first moved to the chalet. He missed his parents and wrote home whenever he had time. Ng Cheong Heong remains in close contact with his parents. Likewise, his heart is still close to his home, in spite of the distance.
“When my parents asked me how the treatment was going, I said I was not fully cured yet. There was no cure for me if I were to return to Indonesia, so I thought I should stay for a little longer. I planned to go home only when the recovery was complete. I really did not expect to stay here for as long as I did.”
When he was 30, he wanted to get a job in the settlement. Yet, without much of a formal education and a Malaysian citizenship, he could only work as a “ganti” (substitute worker) and not as a permanent worker.
“I just handled the least desirable tasks usually reserved for coolies, for example, cleaning the drains, trimming the grass and relieving the kepala (ward assistants) in the Decrepit Ward. I even cleaned toilets. All these were the jobs that registered inmate workers passed on to me, from which I earned 80 cents a day. I worked as a substitute in various positions every month in order to earn some pocket money. I was just happy to have the money so I could buy something to eat. If I worked harder, I could get up to 30 dollars a month.”
When Ng Cheong Heong was 37, he married Wong Moy, a female inmate who is 12 years younger than him. Together, they have a son and a daughter. After getting married, they started growing flowers for sale, gradually gaining financial stability.
In 1996, there was less competition for jobs due to inmates leaving the settlement, passing away or simply becoming too old for work. Then, the 58-year-old Ng Cheong Heong finally got his chance to be formally employed as an inmate worker – as a store attendant, with a pay of RM136.08 a month.
A store attendant was to help the store keeper take care of everything in the store, including sweeping the floor, cleaning the drains around the store, distributing shoes, fabric, soaps, rice cookers and other daily supplies to the inmates.
“We have stopped giving out a lot of things now, like laundry soaps, rubber shoes and matches. The government used to provide fabric for inmate workers to make their own uniforms but that too stopped after a decrease in the number of workers. But I still went to work at 8 every morning, just to sweep the floor and clean the drains there. If someone brought broken kitchenware here to be exchanged for new ones, I would help the storekeeper with stock-taking. By the time I took over the job, there are fewer people frequenting the store to exchange things and our job became easier. Sometimes, we would even close at 9 am. After that, I would go home to have breakfast with my wife and tend to my flowers in the yard.”
Given the recent sharp decline in the number of residents and the supplies sponsored by charitable organisations during festive seasons, their lives have improved significantly. Ng Cheong Heong eventually retired when the government closed down the store in 2012 and converted it into an Artefact Gallery. He and his wife continue to grow flowers in the front yard to make a living and they now live a quiet and comfortable life.
“We take care of ourselves and have nothing to worry. We sustain ourselves without having to borrow money from anyone. The government is also paying us meal allowance. What more can we ask for? We just want a happy life and for our children to do well!”
Nevertheless, he still misses his hometown and his family in Indonesia. However, without a legal identity, many Indonesians had long been prevented from fulfilling their dream to return home after a full recovery. Ng Cheong Heong had waited for more than four decades before he finally obtained a red IC (permanent resident card) – a pass for him to go home and visit his family.
Finally, in 2000, he returned home for the first time in forty years. As he reminisces about the trip, his eyes betray his emotions and a look of resignation appeared on his face. I have seen the same look on his face when he was telling the story of how he left home.
“I only went home after I’ve grown old. Both of my parents have passed away then, so it was the first time I went home to Indonesia and pay my respect to my late parents. I have also lost contact with some of my brothers and sisters. Even my third sister who is still living in my hometown now has her own children already. She did come out for a little reunion with me but how can we be as close as before? After all, I left home when I was in my twenties and only returned when I was 62.”
Returning to where he had come from, he could not feel even the slightest joy from the long-waited homecoming and reunion with his siblings. Going back as a tottering old man, it was a stark contrast to the young and charming self he was when he left home. The only thing that remained was the emotional pain and melancholy that never stopped haunting him, regardless of how hard he tried to shrug it off.
“Of all my siblings, only my younger sister, the eldest one, came to visit me in Sungai Buloh. I was not as close to my other brothers and sisters anymore. My third younger sister did call me ‘brother’ but we only had a meal together and there was not much to be said between us. How is it possible for us to be as close as we were?” Ng Cheong Heong’s voice was flat, but embedded within his words was a deep dismay at the irrevocable intimacy between siblings, lost to time. Our interview ended in silence, our words muted by the air of emotions in the room.
Narrated by Ng Cheong Heong
Interviewed by Tan Ean Nee
Written by Tan Ean Nee
Translated by Zoe Chan Yi En
Edited by Low Sue San