Back in February, we wrote about Pak Long, an inspiring man of mixed Asli-Chinese descent who is content living a simple life without basic needs like water and electricity despite being educated and having 28 years of working experience in Singapore in the construction field. We caught up with him almost every month whenever we visited the Orang Asli villages around Muadzam Shah and are happy to report that his wife’s health has improved since then and both husband and wife are back to work.
We spent an evening with Pak Long and his wife, Jasmee, and learned more about his family, Malaysia’s history, and his love for reading.
We were sitting in the main living area of Pak Long’s house, a wide space past the front doorway where the family would rest, eat, and cook. As always, the conversation began with the usual exchanges about the family’s health, the children’s studies, and general happenings before it swung to Pak Long’s experiences and stories from his life.
Pak Long is a walking encyclopaedia with an uncanny knack of recalling exact dates and numbers. His stories transport us to a time and place that we’ll never be able to experience, save through him and it’s a real treat to be able to listen to him.
“I remember a time when I was just a boy. My father had left our family to work at a coal plant off Pulau Tioman. We had barely enough money to survive on, let alone food. I followed my mother into the forest to gather fruits and plants, and we hunt for wild animals as well. My mother taught me as long as there is forest, we will survive and be provided for. We looked for wild durian with reddish skin and soft thorns. Its flesh is sweet and birds like to eat it too.”
“My father died around 77 years of age, in the 1980s. The people who worked in coal plants often had respiratory problems. His nostrils would be blackened and he would cough out black phlegm. He was a very business-minded and resourceful man, always looking for ways to make a living. He went into the rattan trade, travelled all the way to Kluang to sell monitor lizard skin, all sorts of things. My father wasn’t very educated but he could read Chinese characters. Every day, if he had the opportunity to, he would buy newspapers and read them.”
“This voracity for reading, maybe I got it from my father or maybe it’s from myself. I don’t know. What I know is that I love reading. The first book I ever held in my hands was my Primary One textbook. I still remember the smell of the pages.”
“The last book I read was Robert Kuok’s memoir. I really enjoyed it. He is 20 years my senior but we have a similar background and lived through the same turmoils in history. I admire his pragmatism and his savviness when it comes to business. He is an amazing businessman with a broad-mindedness that many can learn from. I want to re-read it again.”
At this point, I told Pak Long that I’ve never gotten around to reading Robert Kuok’s memoir, although it’s on my to-read list. Pak Long immediately got up, went to his bedroom, and came out moments later holding the book in his hands. “I lend it to you,” he said, pushing the book into my hands. That small gesture left such a big mark on me that I vowed to finish the book by the next time I meet him so that we can discuss it together.
“One time I was chopping firewood and a shard of wood hit me in the eye. I was in terrible pain and had blurry vision for a week. A week later, I was chopping firewood again and another piece hit my other eye. I thought I would go blind for sure and would never read again! Thank goodness my vision came back after a while.”
An interesting fact about Pak Long is that he can speak up to seven Chinese dialects and is fluent in Malay and English. However, he tends to revert to Malay even though we initiate the conversation in English.
“I only really started learning English in secondary school. Coming from a Chinese primary education, we had to enter one year of Remove Form before proceeding. They called me “Encik Sakai” (used to describe aborigines who are wild or uncouth). Thankfully, I had a very good teacher, Mr. Loo, who taught me and my group of friends English. After school, we would camp under a tree and practice speaking in English away from the ears of others so that we wouldn’t be made fun of. We felt like a bunch of monkeys chattering away at each other with the words and sentences that we learned for the day. At night, I would read a Chinese-English bilingual dictionary to learn new words. It really helped me pass my Senior Cambridge examinations.”
It was an evening well spent catching up with Pak Long and we look forward to seeing him again. On our last trip there, we brought Pak Long’s family a study desk and a rechargeable USB lamp for his school-going children to do their work. Jasmee told us Pak Long uses it sometimes to do his reading at night. Unfortunately, the lamp has broken down and we’ll need to replace it on our next trip there.
His eldest daughter, Ayuni, is preparing for her PT3 examinations and has also asked for help in studying for Mathematics. We plan to bring some reference books and mock examination questions to help her study. If you would like to contribute to Pak Long’s family, please reach out to us.
Yong Joy Anne, Storyteller