A freed bird in the Valley of Hope
Living in a chalet in the Central Section, Pook Kiang Thong grows fruit trees and seedlings in front of his house, waiting for customers to come by. This is despite Pook having an amputated left leg, a lump on his right leg, and fingers that are bent and deformed. Every day, he sits in a cushioned, four-wheeled cart that enables him to go outside the house to water and fertilise his plants. He leads a simple yet positive life with diligence.
78-year old Pook always has a smile on his ruddy face. He would giggle like an innocent child whenever he is involved in a pleasant conversation, suggesting that perhaps living in the isolated settlement has preserved his childhood innocence.
Throughout the interview, he repeatedly stressed that he would like “the world to be peaceful and safe” as if he is a United Nation’s Messenger of Peace. Being simple and content makes him a happy man. Despite difficulties due to physical disabilities, he is able to fully accept these impairments and consider himself well-to-do.
However, he is not a born optimist. Before his twenties, his world was nothing but darkness and loneliness. It was the Valley of Hope that has changed his life.
Born in 1938, Pook Kiang Thong used to live near the Sam Poh Tong cave temple in Ipoh. He contracted leprosy at the age of seven but his family never took him to a doctor as they had no knowledge of the disease. Slowly, after the symptoms appeared, his childhood playmates estranged him. As a result, growing up throughout the years, he had no such thing as “friends”. Also, due to the disease, he had never been to school and cannot even write his own name.
His father worked in a tin mine, while his mother grew vegetables, reared pigs, chickens and ducks at home. He could not tell precisely how many siblings he has, all he could remember was that there were three or four children and he was the youngest. Having no chance to receive a proper education, he only stayed at home and helped his family with growing vegetables and feeding the pigs, chicken and ducks. However, the villagers who despised Pook for his illness went as far as to boycott his family’s livestock. Even if the butchers in his village bought pigs from his family, they would sell the meat to other villages instead of trading locally.
Slowly, as his condition worsened, his left leg was seriously bent and even “festered to a stage that his bone was visible.” As the situation gradually chipped away at his self-esteem, he avoided everyone and hid himself every day under a banana tree in the backyard. He even missed the chance of applying for a citizenship because of the discriminating stares from the villagers. As a result, he has been holding a red identity card all these years despite being born and brought up in Malaysia.
He said, “The whole village was gossiping about me. When the registration of citizenship was open, I dared not go and apply, not even at night. People told me, ‘You do not own any property. Then what is the point of getting one?’ Now only do I know it is useful.”
The days of hiding at home lasted until his twenties, when a public service advertisement about an open day at the Sungai Buloh Settlement pulled him out of the shadow. In the advertisement, he remembered the Malaysian artists who voiced a radio drama, Empat Sekawan – Lai Meng, Hon Ying, Wong Hor and Hoi Yong – told the audience that the Valley of Hope was well-managed and beautifully landscaped and urged leprosy patients to seek treatment there. The advertisement sowed a seed in his heart and gave him hope despite his critical condition. He began to long for a relocation to the Valley of Hope.
After a year or so, he went to the Ipoh General Hospital without his family’s knowing and told a doctor straight away, “I would like to go to Sungai Buloh.” Pook did not inform his family of his plan to leave home and move into the Sungai Buloh Settlement, until a day when the hospital managed to gather a group of eight patients and notified him of the departure date, which was scheduled for a week later.
He said his mother asked him not to go as she was deeply worried and reluctant to part with him. Yet, he was determined to leave. “Well, I will come back when I am cured,” he reassured her.
On the day he left, he got on a train, with no one to send him off, and set out on the journey alone as he did not want to trouble his family. He smiled, “I just bade farewell to the sun.”
Usually, leprosy patients were compelled to come to the Valley of Hope and almost all of them suffered the pain of forced separation from their own family. Pook Kiang Thong’s case was an exception. He came here voluntarily with a dream to start all over again and the Valley of Hope has, indeed, given him a new life. Here, he no longer feels lonely and inferior for he has found others of his own kind.
“I was tired of being stuck at home but I have got out of it now,” he said. He described himself as 'a bird out of the cage' and said “That is a great relief! Everyone is happy. We are all like this – his limbs are in bad shape and so are mine. Everybody chats with each another whenever they are free. I was all by myself back then in Ipoh. Now that I have left the place, it all seems so joyful.”
“Some people cried but I wondered: What are you crying for? It is not like you are all alone here. There are so many people here. I am not sad,” said Pook Kiang Thong in Cantonese.
He was admitted to Ward 29 for treatment. The doctor straightened his fingers, amputated his left leg and gave him injections and medicines. Slowly, his condition improved and he moved into a chalet in the Central Section three years later. On top of earning six ringgit a month by helping to collect chicken eggs, rearing chickens and picking out chicken droppings, he also sold flowers planted in his front yard, increasing his income to a total of nine ringgit per month.
“Nine ringgit was a pretty big sum,” he said. “I was very happy because I made my own money. Money used to worth a lot more than it is now and I could buy something even with five cents. I could get dried tofu skin for 10 cents, two for 10 cents. Everything was so good back then.”
Previously, he also allowed an inmate who wanted more than one job to register for a position in the settlement under his name. The inmate earned 160 dollars and paid him a commission of 30 dollars in return. Thanks to that man, Pook now receives a monthly allowance of 100 dollars as a registered inmate worker.
Six years after settling in Sungai Buloh, he returned to his home in Ipoh for the first time. During a bus trip organised by the Sungai Buloh Settlement Council, he requested to be dropped off at his home for a little visit when the bus passed by Sam Poh Tong in Ipoh. That day, he reunited with his mother, as well as his brother and sister who rushed home to see him upon hearing the news of his homecoming. Later, he also visited his family every now and then. However, ever since the passing of his parents and the sale of their ancestral house, he’s not returned again.
It was rumoured in the village that he was the reason the next generation of his family are unable to marry. To avoid being a burden to the next generation, he fell out of touch with his family. Despite being scorned, he outlived the society’s expectations and even spent 5,000 dollars of his savings to build a headstone for his late mother.
Now, the greenery and flowers in his front yard mean the whole world to Pook Kiang Thong (not to mention, the neighbours who would pop by occasionally). Initially, he focused on growing orchids. Later, he began to plant ambarella (also known as “kedongdong”), tree and herbaceous peonies, as well as chrysanthemums. His garden, simply a riot of colour earlier, is now cloaked in green – what he grows are mostly fruit trees, chillies, ladies' fingers, turmeric and other edible plants.
After getting up in the morning, he would put on his artificial limb, freshen up, and have his breakfast. Then he would stay home and wait for customers to come and buy his plants. His adopted daughter who lives in Kepong prepares and delivers meals to him every day. Around 5pm when the sun is going to set, he would move about using his wooden cart, watering and fertilising his plants until 7:30pm. His business is not really making him big profits, just a turnaround of over 200 dollars a month at most. Basically, inmates here do not need to worry about how to make ends meet as they receive a meal allowance of 18 dollars per day from the settlement and a monthly relief of 300 dollars from the Malaysian Leprosy Relief Association (MaLRA). He could have just sat back and enjoyed his retirement. Still, he sticks to his everyday routine because he has been accustomed to labour.
Since he moved into the settlement in 1963, he has never been to Kuala Lumpur, which is only an hour’s drive away. He is content with living a carefree life in his own little world. This bird out of the cage can best appreciate the beauty of the Valley of Hope.
Narrated by Pook Kiang Thong
Interviewed by Chan Wei See & Wong San San
Written by Chan Wei See
Translated by Zoe Chan Yi En
Edited by Low Sue San