Oral History Excerpts

Lim Ah Hin
Singapore

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the Distant Past

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Have Had Leprosy

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This year I am 72.  English calendar 71 years old, Chinese calendar 72.  I was born in Indonesia. But when I was small, a few months old, my parents brought me to Singapore, in about 1934. 

I was the oldest. I had many brothers.  When we grew up, we went our separate ways. Our father died early – when I was10 plus years old, my father passed away.  My mother passed away about five years ago.  She was about 90 years old then.

During the 1930’s, the economy was not good and it was difficult to find a job.  As you know, people at that time were not educated and were also from China, what can they do?  So they grew vegetables, reared chickens.  Came to Singapore, my father sold some biscuits, bread and biscuits, something like that, my mother planted some vegetables, reared chickens, like that.  So that helped us to make a living.

I had this disease when I was 16 years old.  Earlier, my parents already knew but my family they all didn't know and so they made me take Chinese medicine.  When my father died and we had no money, we had no choice.  My brothers and sisters were all small, life was difficult for the family, you know, so because there was no choice, my mother brought me to Trafalgar Home to treat the illness.

At that time there was no cure, there was also no Western medicine, nothing at all.  There were many people inside, a thousand, or eight or nine hundred, you know.  Eight or nine hundred – there was no medicine that time.  Only have the Tai Fong Chee oil injections.  You can’t stand it – the whole body is swollen after that, you know. And also not everyone can use Tai Fong Chee injections – it was not suitable for some people.

After that, they discovered this leprosy drug, the name is called, let me try to remember, sulphone, right?  Big pills, to take.  When they came, it does not mean everyone could take it.  They chose a few people to try it.  Those who are suitable can take it.  After I tried it, the drug was suitable for my illness.  Some people can’t take it – their noses got blocked and bled.  They gave us half a tablet.  During that time, my condition was bad, you know, hands were all swollen, feet were all swollen, face was all swollen.  I had no choice.  I thought, you know, if I die from taking the tablets, never mind.  They taught me to take the tablets from the people who stayed next door who didn't want to take them. 

Then there was an even better drug called dapsone.  That was even more effective.  Let me try to remember.  In 1955, I was discharged.  I went in to Trafalger in 1949 – I can’t remember – about 8 June, I think, I went in.  In 1955, I came out already.  So I was undergoing treatment for about six years.  The Social Welfare Department told me to go home, you know.  Or they told me they would find a job for me.  I didn’t want that.  Never mind, you tell me to go home, I will just leave.  After I left, I had a younger sister staying at Jalan Kayu.  When she knew that I had been discharged, she asked me to help her rear some chickens.  I didn’t feel comfortable, you know.  I kept thinking, no use, it’s better to venture out myself.  In the beginning, I learned to do painting.  After staying for one month at her place, I went to Malaysia, went for 20-30 years before I came back.  I went everywhere in Malaysia to work, make a living, like that. 

[Why did you say you were not comfortable?]  Family, you know.  I myself was suffering from this disease and felt bad about my self-esteem, you know?   When we were eating together, I felt uncomfortable because I had this disease.  So I took my own initiative. 

I had lots of friends in Malaysia.  I knew them through work.  After that, I came back, came back to Singapore. Things were becoming more difficult then, when Singapore and Malaysia separated, I came back [Around 1965].  After I came back, after a while, I went back again.  Went to Kota Tinggi to chop wood.  Chop trees.  I worked there for quite a long time.  Like that only.  My illness is like that only, simple, simple.

[How was staying in Trafalgar?]  Not bad, it was good there at that time.  But the food was not so good.   There were many people, so the place was lively, like that.  Lots of young people, there were lots of young people, many children and young people in their teens.  They had a school to go to study.  I didn't study, I worked.  Working there, my salary was only $15 a month.  I cleared rubbish, threw out rubbish, this type of work. Washed the toilets.  At that time, can't do without money, you know.  When I first went in, they asked me to study.  I said, I did not want to study and asked them to give me work. They said, you want to work, OK, you can work.  Now I regret, that I didn't study. [Laughs]

When I came in 1949, I was 16, and I didn't have much to do.  How did I come to play the harmonica?  Because a few of us had a strong interest in playing the harmonica.  There was a coach, trainer, a patient – he passed away already – he was very good with the harmonica, you know.  He thought, you young people have nothing to do the whole day, and there were so many secret societies, different types then, this society and that society, always quarrelling.  A few of us didn’t want to join, we said OK, let’s come learn the harmonica.  So he taught us how to play the harmonica.  So I learned the harmonica for about two years.   We formed a harmonica troupe and we went to perform at the community centre.  The people from the xiong hui came, you know, and said they wanted to sponsor our harmonica troupe.  Xiong hui is like the Chinese Chambers of Commerce.  Their head came to visit us.  So we performed for them.  They came to see and later they sponsored the harmonica troupe.  When we were discharged, the troupe was disbanded, don't know where everyone went.

[Do you sing songs?]  Can, can.  I think I have, see if I still have it . . . . [Searches through his wallet and produces a small, laminated photograph.  It shows him singing with a female singer and another lady playing a guqin – zither]  

This photograph was when I went to Jurong Stadium last year for the Community Centre TrueHearts charity event.  Shown on TV last year 21st November.  We went to Jurong to perform for the Community Chest.  [Refers to photograph]  This is a famous Hong Kong artist, Chen Song Ling, ah, you know?  This is a graduate of Beijing, Beijing University’s Business School, a member of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra . . . .

Originally, when they asked me to go, I said, I can't.  They said, you definitely can. The TV producer came to see me, went to the studio to try my voice, he said, I can.  He said, don't be afraid, no need to have stage fright.  You know, people like me, my whole life I haven't been on the big stage, I will feel afraid, you know.  They brought me there.  Only me from here.  But lots of people sang there.  I also couldn't understand why they chose me, you know. I told the producer, I can't.  He said, you can, I see that you can, you can, just don't be afraid.  So no choice, I eat the food here, must listen to them.  Help out, this is also charity. Help others. Like that only.  One year ago already. Last year, 21st November.  I still remember the date.  When I heard I would be doing a duet with those famous Hong Kong singers, I was afraid.  Some people said they were really envious of me, we have no opportunity, you have the opportunity. 

My life is simple, simple only. Tens of years have passed.  I was 16 years old when I got this disease, until now, 70 plus.  We come here, the same. Come here, have a good life, had a bad life, right?  I said already, our life is bad, our luck is good.   Still not dead yet, many of my friends whom I used to know have died, many.  I still have not died.  I want to die.  It’s not that I don't want to die. [Laughs]  What do I have?  Eventually, we have to die.  You don't see, you are not afraid.  Those who don't die and suffer slowly, it’s very pitiful.  I get afraid when I think about that, you know.  I believe in Christianity, I hope to get a blessing to die soon, finish it. [Laughs]

--  Excerpts from an interview conducted by Loh Kah Seng, December, 2005, at SILRA Home in Singapore.  Translated from Hokkien by Loh Kah Seng.  Copyright 2005 by Lim Ah Hin and Loh Kah Seng.

[Note:  Mr. Lim lived in the community most of his life.  When his wife died, he decided to live at SILRA Home, where he has been for four years.  In the fall of 2005, SILRA Home was moved to a new location.

Loh Kah Seng is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University, Australia, working on a social history of an urban kampong in Singapore after World War Two.  His interviews with residents of SILRA Home have enabled him to write a social history of leprosy in Singapore, which is currently under review for publication.]

Lim Ah Hin, musicianPhoto by Loh Kah Seng