Born in 1932 in China, Yap Thiam migrated to what was then Malaya with his family and eventually settled down in Johor Bahru. As a child, he grew up in a rather well-off family. His father was a traditional Chinese doctor and owned a rubber estate, a pineapple farm and a pepper farm, and had seven employees to help run the business. Yap Thiam also had a childhood sweetheart from a family of equal social standing. She had been living with the Yap family from a young age, adopted with the intention of having her married to Yap Thiam in the future. However, after contracting leprosy when he was just a teenager, his life was turned upside-down.
His leprosy symptoms – discoloured patches, similar to tinea versicolor, developing all over his body and the loss of sensation in his fingers – appeared during the Japanese occupation (1941-1945). A clerk at the estate saw his condition and told his parents that he had probably contracted leprosy. Then, he was brought to the Johor Bahru General Hospital and was admitted to the Tampoi Leprosarium after being diagnosed with the disease.
Yap Thiam was only 16 when he left home. Initially, his mother would still visit him. After a few visits, his parents became concerned that this association would affect the future of his other siblings. So, they sold off their rubber estate and pineapple farm and sent their other eight children back to China.
“People were afraid of leprosy. Why shouldn’t they leave? In my case, my siblings would be worried because I had leprosy. How could the daughters even get to be married? How could your brothers get a wife?” said Yap Thiam, the 84-year-old patient, while seated on his bed.
At the beginning, his parents would write to him but he was still too young to reply to any of the letters. Eventually, he lost touch with his family. He said, “They are not here to take care of me. Writing letters to me would not have helped anyway.”
The Tampoi Leprosarium, a place of segregation in the early days, was neither humanely planned, nor well-equipped with adequate infrastructure and facilities. The children had no access to formal education. Yap Thiam recalled having a Sikh teacher, who taught the children English in a vacant space in front of the office, every day from 8:30 am to 10:30 am, and someone else teaching Mandarin in the afternoon. Every day, during tea time, which was at 10:30 am, a nearby church would offer milk and biscuits for the children. The place, in his memory, had “nothing at all” and was very dirty and unhygienic.
One day, the British “big doctor” (Medical Superintendent) of the Valley of Hope, Dr B. D. Molesworth, visited the Tampoi Leprosarium. He told the patients that the Sungai Buloh Settlement had a pleasant environment, good facilities and even a school for patients, and encouraged them to move to the Valley of Hope. Yap Thiam was convinced and soon applied to transfer to the well-planned Valley of Hope in 1954.
Yap Thiam completed primary school in the settlement’s Travers School. His life improved with the access to education and the ability to read. When he was younger, he enjoyed reading the history of China and the China Pictorial. After moving into the hospital ward in his old age, he has been devouring the periodicals. He would also read one or two copies of the Chinese newspapers every morning to keep track with the current affairs.
After graduating from primary school, Yap Thiam worked for a while at a chicken farm, established within the settlement by the Malaysian Leprosy Relief Association (MaLRA). Meanwhile, he applied to the administration office for a job. During the job interview, Dr Molesworth asked him why he wanted a job and he replied that he was now all alone here as his whole family had moved back to China. Yap Thiam got a job later and became a ward attendant. Since then, he had been pouring his heart into his career, serving the hospital for decades, his passion never waning since he started this career.
Each hospital ward had a total of four attendants, working in three shifts – morning, afternoon and night. Those working the morning shifts had to report to work at 5 o’clock in the morning, pick up beverages at the pantry and distribute breakfast to the patients. Since the patients’ conditions vary, he would bear in mind the dietary requirements of each patient and serve their meals accordingly. For patients who had just had a lower limb amputation, he would serve them meehoon with pork and liver soup.
“There was a table in the middle, set up with all their plates on it, and we just dished out the rice, vegetables, fish, and so on. There were three food buckets, one filled with vegetables, one with pork and the other one with rice. There were two long benches for the patients to sit on while they eat. When they finished, we would take everything away to be washed. We used to serve pork for the Chinese inmates during the British rule, and mutton for the Malays and Indians. They only stopped serving pork after the independence.”
Yap Thiam said there were four ward attendants servicing each ward. The shift changed on a weekly basis and the ward attendants on night shift must work from 9 pm to 6 am in the next morning. Immobile patients would relieve themselves in chamber pots at night and the attendants must empty and clean the pots the following morning.
“We used hot soapy water to rinse the bedpans until they were clean and sparkling! They have Pampers (adult diapers) now but such things were not available then. We had to wash the soiled beddings. When someone passed away, the bed must be pushed away for cleaning and dried for a period of time in the sun.” On top of tending to the patients, he added, the ward attendants must also clean the floor, dust the ceiling and wipe the fans and doors too.
“If a patient has to be admitted to the hospital due to a fit of seizure during the night shift, we would need the nurse’s help to contact the doctor. If the doctor approved the stay, we must call an ambulance to fetch the patient, take the patient’s papan (medical record) for the purpose of in-patient registration, and prepare a bed and a bedpan for the just-admitted patient. The next morning, we must pass the patient’s urine sample, which has been collected by the nurse, to the doctor for examination. We took care of everything… ha-ha-ha!” he said with a huge grin.
Yap Thiam was responsible and conscientious at work, simply playing his part without expecting any gratitude in return. “It is our job to do all of these,” he said. “There is nothing to thank us for.”
The work was tough but he said, “I had got to do it. I had no money, so I had no choice.” At the beginning, his wages was RM18 a month. It was later adjusted to RM61 and eventually to RM141.50. After retirement, he receives a monthly allowance of RM100 like the rest of the inmate workers. He spent the money he earned in the early days on books and periodicals, as well as on the Council’s bus tours. He had been to places like Malacca, Teluk Intan and Port Dickson. On weekends, he would also join the group for a movie day out in Kuala Lumpur.
Yap Thiam was passionate about politics when he was younger. He used to be an enthusiastic supporter of Tan Chee Khoon, the former Member of Parliament for Batu from Gerakan (the Malaysian People's Movement Party) and the State Assemblyman for Kepong. He had even travelled to Kampung Baru Sungai Buloh, Jinjang and Ampang to canvass for Tan Chee Khoon. During the General Election in 1964, Yap Thiam said that Tan Chee Khoon ran for the State Assembly seat of Kepong and that the Valley of Hope was then part of the Kepong federal constituency. Tan Chee Khoon used to visit the Kong Peng Kopitiam while campaigning in the settlement and the residents would go to him and bring forth their appeals.
Yap Thiam lived quite an active life in those days but his body was in fact, severely affected by bacteria, leading to the impairment of fingers and ulceration in both legs. He also grew roses when he was living in a chalet in the 1960s. The roses required a massive amount of garden chemicals and pesticides, which he suspected to have damaged his body and caused the cancer that forced him to have his right leg amputated. In 1993, the settlement scheduled an amputation for Yap Thiam in a hospital in Setapak. After the surgery, he only took a short rest and returned to work with a prosthesis fitted. We can tell how just much he cares about his job.
He lost his family’s love because of leprosy. Even his supposed future bride, named Guo Xiaomei, who has lived with his family since childhood, had married another man. In the early 1970s, he met a girl called “Ah Lan” and they dated for some time. But then, Ah Lan was introduced to a married man residing in a village elsewhere and she so left the settlement for good.
“If I had not contracted this disease, I would have become a boss by now,” Yap Thiam said in retrospect. It turns out that his child fiancé, Guo Xiaomei, came from a family that runs a char-siu restaurant. Thus it is only natural for him to wonder what his life would have been had he not contracted leprosy – he would have most probably become the owner of the char-siu restaurant.
“This is our fate. We cannot blame anybody, can we?” he said. “We must be down-to-earth. The past is in the past and there is no way to change it. We need to understand this. This is just life, we have got to wise up and let go.”
Narrated by Yap Thiam
Interviewed by Chan Wei See & Wong San San
Written by Chan Wei See
Translated by Zoe Chan Yi En
Edited by Low Sue San