Social Life of the Residents
Previously, leprosy patients who were segregated by force were able to live in the Valley of Hope, a scenic land measuring 562-acres, encircled by mountains. You may think that, however large it may be, it is still a settlement with borders. However, those living there were accorded a life free of prejudice and discrimination.
Before dapsone – the modern anti-leprosy drug – was available, leprosy was thought to be an incurable disease that was so dreaded, that anyone infected with it would be spurned by society and even by their own family members. Even those who have managed to recover from the disease would rather stay in the settlement and continue living there, just so they could escape the stares and the discriminatory attitude of society, or what they would call, “the outside world”.
Patients from all parts of Malaysia, including those from India, Indonesia, Nepal, the United Kingdom, Japan, and other countries in Europe and Asia, have lived a full life in this settlement– receiving proper education, working and contributing to the community, and enjoying the camaraderie of kindred souls when they join the various social activities in the settlement. Living a life full of ease many patients who had been admitted to the settlement as a child enjoyed a bright childhood and happy teenage years despite the setbacks dealt by the disease.
Here in the Valley of Hope, it was customary then for all patients to be assigned to the hospital wards in the West Section. Every morning, children staying in the West Section would go to school in the East Section by ambulance. After some time when the patients’ condition had been brought under control, they would be transferred to the Children’s Ward or to a general ward in the East Section. All children must also attend Travers School, which was a school located within the settlement where they were taught by inmates who possessed higher qualifications. Upon graduation from secondary school they would then be arranged to move into chalets.
Law Seng Hoa was abandoned by her family at the entrance of the ward when she was only 12. She said when she was living in the Children’s Ward in the East Section, the nurses would always examine the children’s limbs and provide them with medicines that they would drink up every morning, as they lined up to enter the classrooms. They also had to receive injections on Mondays and Thursdays at 2pm before returning to school for classes. When the classes ended at 4pm, they would be given some milk and then at 6pm, queued in the Community Hall to receive their meals. After that, the students would usually take a stroll in the field or watch a movie, which would be screened on a nearby football pitch. The Travers School children learnt to be independent at a young age. In addition to washing and ironing their own clothes, they must also help ward assistants in cleaning the floor on weekends.
There used to be Boy and Girl Scouts activities at school. The 73 year old lady who is running a nursery in the Central Section was one of the Girl Scouts. She said, the troop would sing the Girl Scout songs and learn to tie knots in the Community Hall on a weekly basis. Sometimes they would even organise a picnic or a camping trip. School was a lot of fun for her except she had no money to buy her favourite foods.
Leon Chee Kuang, who was admitted at the age of 18 (in 1957), reminisced that there were about 200-odd students during his school days, and they would play football and other ball games on the field every day after school. The most exciting event of the year, as he recalled, used to be the annual Sports Day.
The game that impressed him the most on the Sports Day was the “pillow fight”. It goes like this: two players sit on the opposite ends of a buttered plank, set above a 3 or 4-feet tall pool. Then they’ll have to move to the centre slowly and fight using a long bolster. Whoever loses balance and falls into the water first is the loser.
A hot trend of practising kungfu
There was a period of time when Chinese martial arts became very popular in the settlement. Yap Thiam, an ex-patient admitted in 1954, said that various schools and styles of kungfu, such as the Snake and Dragon Style, Five-Family Style including the Tsoi and Fut Style, and the White Crane Style, used to be taught here. Many of the kungfu masters were “old chaps from China.” After the May 13 Incident broke out in 1969, inmates who had been practising kungfu formed a group to go on night watch for up to six months.
Another inmate named Wong Yoke Onn said that he once learnt Shaolin Kungfu from an old master at the Teochew Association when he was younger. He could get a bowl of sweet red bean soup for free after every practise.
Back then, there used to be a variety of activities open to all inmates in the settlement. Wong Yoke Onn joined the Rehabilitation Club’s harmonica band, the Council’s music band, a Chinese clan association’s singing group and the Buddhist temple’s lion dance troupe.
At that time, he said, the Council had a variety of musical instruments such as the violin, organ, trumpet, and saxophone and so on. A musically literate inmate, from whom Wong Yoke Onn learnt the harmonica and trumpet, served as the music teacher and conductor. Most of the inmates had to work during the day so the music classes were always held in the evening and they were free of charge. The harmonica classes he used to join had more than 10 students in total.
He also said the settlement used to have various Chinese clan-based associations and tea parties organised by churches, besides all of the other celebrations that were held all year round. The music band, kungfu club, singing group and lion dance troupe were often invited to perform at the events. In return the organiser would always treat them to a big meal after their performances.
These inmates grew up in an era of scarcity where they had no television at home; even a radio was a luxury. The club, Ng Fook Tong, as Leon Chee Kuang recalled, bought several radios and placed them in the Decrepit Ward, the Central Section, and at a few other places, then hired a hand to manage the devices. Every day at 5 o’clock in the evening the inmates would gather around the radios to listen to the Big Fool Lee Story Telling programme which was a hit show across Malaysia and Singapore.
He said many of the Indian inmates were illiterate. At 4 o’clock every afternoon, Krishnan Murugan, an Indian teacher, would sit under a tree and read Tamil newspapers to Indian inmates who would like to keep up with the current affairs in India, at a cost of 1 cent per person.
Open-air film screening
Watching movies was the greatest form of entertainment for the inmates. There used to be a movie screening twice a week at the football field. At dusk the inmates would gather on the field, waiting for the open-air movie to start.
Leon Chee Kuang said since nearly half of the patients would be at work at that hour, the same movie would be shown consecutively for two days so that inmates working on night shifts could also watch it. Screening began at 8pm but many inmates would already be there at about 6 or 7 o’clock in the evening to get a good spot. They would either bring a cane chair or a stool with them, along with an umbrella in case it rains. If it did, the moviegoers would scatter. However, if it was just a small drizzle they would put their umbrellas to good use and continue watching. Mobile hawkers would also be there to sell noodles and snacks. All in all it made for a truly lively scene.
Then in 1959, after the Community Hall was completed, the Council installed a new movie screen in the building. Since then, the movies were screened indoors and the whole place would be packed to the brim on screening days.
“There were a number of ethnic groups here – Chinese, Indians and Malays. We had movies in several dialects (languages) showing every week. For example, Chinese, Indian or Malay movies were screened mostly on Mondays… Thursdays were usually reserved for English movies.”
He said the Council usually rented the movies from movie distributors, movies that had already been released in the cinemas. What he remembers the most was Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss. As for the English ones, he recalls some cowboy movies and also the Sound of Music.
Inmate-organised fun fairs
“Apart from the movies, the hospital authorities also encouraged us to organise a fun fair twice a year. The fun fair had a wide range of games, such as ‘horse racing’, toss the ball and a special (game) called, ‘chap ji kee’,” said Leon Chee Kuang.
The fun fair, always filled with excited crowds, was the most anticipated annual event between the 1950s and the 1980s. The inmates would set up a lot of games on their own and “chap ji kee” was a unique one. This game, as Leon Chee Kuang described, had a 3 or 4-foot high platform, built by the inmates, where the host would to sit on. A wooden case with a little door would be placed in front of the host, and inside it were 12 Chinese characters such as the “general, advisor, elephant, chariot, horseman and cannon.” The inmates would then lay their bets on a wooden board below the case, on which were written the names of the 12 characters, and they’d try to guess which character was hidden behind the little door.”
“After they had placed their bets the host would then open the door to draw the winning character. If it was the ‘horseman’, then those who have placed their bets on the ‘horseman’ would win.”
Leon Chee Kuang pointed out that it was a game with an element of gamble. “We had no laws here. Even the Medical Superintendent played this game. We also had special privileges. Say, if we gambled, the police would not dare to interfere. And that was before. I mean, games such as these are not allowedat the fun fairs outside, are they?”
Other than dart games, toss the ball and other games that can be found at the usual fun fairs, they also came out with a game called “fish the beer.” Each player was given a long bamboo pole that had a metal ring, slightly bigger than the mouth of a beer bottle, attached to the end of the pole with a string. When the whistle blew the game began and whoever managed to be the first to slip the metal ring over the neck of a beer bottle would win, the prize being the bottle of beer itself.
The “horse racing” game, on the other hand, was not exactly a real horse race but a horse racing machine instead. As the machine came alive, little horses of different colours would start “galloping” and players may bet on either of the horses.
Back then, Leon Chee Kuang said an inmate who was an assistant nurse would always perform magic tricks at the fun fairs. Backed by a British doctor’s recommendation and funds from the MaLRA, he even bought some custom-made, magic trick equipment from the United Kingdom to perform sophisticated and advanced magic tricks, even like the one performed by David Copperfield where a person is sawed in half, Leon Chee Kuang said.
Grand Wesak Day Celebration Every Year
Given that a majority of the inmates are ethnically Chinese and Buddhists, Wesak Day is the biggest annual celebration in the settlement. On Wesak Day, the Buddhist Temple would organise a float procession in the settlement and every single member of the Chinese clan-based associations would join in on the celebration.
In the old photographs from the 1960s, we can find Teochew Opera Association members impersonating Sun Wukong the Monkey King, his master Tang Sanzang and other characters from Journey to the West, and also members of the Hokkien Association and Fuh Huey Kong dressing up as the Ba Xian (Eight Immortals), Guan Yin and other legendary figures. All these associations would go all out to design outfits for the characters and take part in the grand parade where they would perform to the band’s music. Every year an inmate who worked as a carpenter would build a massive dragon boat, beautifully and solidly made of wood, to carry the Ba Xian during the float procession.
Law Seng Hoa recalled: “There was a ‘sister’, who taught a few middle-aged ladies how to sew costumes for us and the sisters from the Buddhist temple also taught us to do our makeup.”
The ‘sister’ which Law Seng Hoa mentioned was Tham Yoke Si and everyone called her ‘Si Chieh’. She used to be part of a Cantonese opera troupe as a child and had toured across Southeast Asia, Mainland China and Hong Kong. Unfortunately, Si Chieh contracted leprosy at the peak of her career and was admitted to the settlement in the 1930s. There was no effective cure available at that point of time and leprosy was still incurable. With a disfigured face and bent limbs resulting from the disease, she was forced to stay in the settlement and leave her glamorous days behind. Fortunately, both the Buddhist Temple and the Rehabilitation Club had opera troupes where her skills could still be put to good use. Every year before Wesak Day, Si Chieh would pour all her efforts into the casting and designing of costumes, hairstyles and makeups for various characters. She would also teach the children and youngsters the right postures and gestures so that they could perform convincingly on stage.
Law Seng Hoa still has a vivid memory of her, dressed up as a fairy that sprinkles flower petals along the path. “She taught us how to do it – how to dance on the day of the parade and what costumes and hairstyles to wear – and got people to help us put on our makeup. Then we would go out for the parade, chanting prayers as we walked from the Buddhist temple to the Indian temple, and then back to where we departed from. When the parade has ended, we would remove our makeup and go for supper. We had bee hoon (rice vermicelli) that was prepared by the temple and afterwards we would return to the Children’s Ward.”
The Sungai Buloh Settlement is a community where several ethnic groups and religions coexist harmoniously, with plenty of celebrations during all kinds of festivals. For instance, the churches in the settlement would hold parties during Christmas day and let children dress up as biblical characters and little angels to perform on stage. For quite a few years, Law Seng Hoa said that she and a few other girls were selected to dress up as angels or to perform a dance on Christmas Eve. The girls would always get “big pau’s” and snacks after the performance and Santa would give out presents to the children too. For them it was the happiest festival of all.
In addition, the 13 Chinese clan-based associations in the settlement would also invite the inmates every year to their anniversary parties. So, there were all kinds of events, big and small, for them to join in all
Organising Bus Excursions
In the late 1950s, the Council was given a bus. Since then the inmates have organised many excursions, either to another state or to visit their children who have been placed under the care of churches or children’s homes. For a time, the inmates used to journey to the heart of Kuala Lumpur every week to feast and have some fun. When they were younger, they had even travelled to Morib and Port Dickson to enjoy some time by the beach. This is a memory that many inmates share and still miss to this day.
Lee Chor Seng said that the bus was managed by the Council, and was sponsored by the National Lotteries Board upon the request of the Council Secretary, A. Joshua-Raghavar.
“Our Medical Superintendent, Dr K. M. Reddy, also encouraged patients to go out of the settlement once in a while, instead of spending all of their time within the settlement. And so we would go to Kuala Lumpur every Saturday. It only cost us 5 cents per trip and there were 40-odd people on the bus at one time.”
At that time, inmates were not allowed to raise their new-born children themselves in the settlement and had to send them away, either to their relatives, the convents or the children’s homes, within six months from the day of birth. Besides the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, Pure Life Society in Kuala Lumpur and the children’s home in Rawang, their children had also been sent as far away as the Ipoh’s Salvation Army and a convent in Malacca. Lee Chor Seng said that the bus rental was free for “child-visiting groups” and the parents would organise a group trip every month to visit their children.
Leon Chee Kuang, who now serves as the Council secretary, often planned the outings. He said, “I planned group trips in those days, for example trips to sports games or the movies, whenever there were nice movies showing, like the Sound of Music or My Fair Lady.”
He said that anyone could rent the bus and organise a group outing. The organiser had to book the tickets and collect fees from those who wished to go on the trip, and the money that he earned was barely enough to cover his own travel expenses.
“A lot of patients also loved to attend sports-related games. Some of them even came to me in the middle of the night just to check if there were any seats left. China and Saudi Arabia once came to play the Asian Cup and they all enjoyed watching the match.”
Leon Chee Kuang also organised a visit to Trafalgar Home, a leprosarium in Singapore. However, the group was stopped by the Singaporean immigration officers, who thought that they would be staying in a hotel during the trip and might spread the germs to the general public. It was not until the Trafalgar Home clarified that the group would indeed be lodging at the leprosarium that the officers let the bus enter the country.
The Valley of Hope had a total of 2,440 inmates at its peak. It was, going by the inmates’ recollections, a crowded and bustling neighbourhood. Tan Hing said, “It was like… you could find people walking along the street every day, just walking around the settlement, unlike nowadays when there is hardly anyone on the street; Not a single one in sight. Everyone has aged now. By 6 or 7 in the evening, they just shut their doors and stay inside.”
Currently there are only 138 inmates left in the settlement. The usual hustle and bustle is gone, replaced by silent streets. Many Chinese associations that used to run mahjong rooms have also closed down a long time ago. Now, the clicking of mahjong tiles can only be heard from the Chinese Mutual Aid Association. The music bands, opera troupes, kungfu clubs, singing group and lion dance troupe have long been disbanded. Only major religious events like the traditional Wesak Day procession is still on going, but on a much smaller scale. Since the settlement has also stopped distributing fresh rations in 2011, the inmates barely even have the chance to meet and chat with one another.
The entire settlement, except for the hospital wards, is now open to public, thus blurring the line between the settlement and the outside world. The public also plays badminton at the Community Hall regularly now, for a fee, and people are starting to come in on the weekends to take a heritage tour, for parental outings or just to spend some time sketching. Besides that the nurseries and seedling businesses run by the inmates and tenants have grown so much that there are always cars pulled over to the side of the road, while they pick up some potted plants and seedlings. All in all, the inmates’ living condition has generally improved now. However, most of the inmates are now in their golden years and have already retired. They would usually drop in at the Kong Peng Kopitiam for a cup of tea, or play a few rounds of mahjong at the Chinese Mutual Aid Association. And just like every other Malaysian family, the most important thing to do when they get home is to switch on the television and watch a drama series or two, contented to leave their colourful days in the past and enjoy a life of ease and leisure in the beautiful Valley of Hope.
Interviewed by Chan Wei See & Wong San San
Written by Chan Wei See
Translated by Zoe Chan Yi En
Edited by Low Sue San