The disappearing hills of Cameron Highlands


Farmers in Blue Valley, Cameron Highlands surveying the damage allegedly caused during the Operation Gading crackdown earlier this year. - Yeo Kai Wen

PETALING JAYA: In June 2014, Singaporean student Yeo Kai Wen went to Cameron Highlands as a tourist.

Disturbed by the rape of the land for its many farms, he returned as a photographer, spending three months with farmers, migrants and flood victims.

Today, Yeo has become close to a native and will be telling a story of the region's pain through a series of photos and videos in his exhibition in June, The Disappearing Hills.

"(Cameron Highlands) was supposed to be a retreat for me and my friends, but I saw a lot of land clearing going on. I got interested because a lot of the vegetables that come to Singapore is from Cameron Highlands.

"I asked myself, what is the price we had to pay to doing farming on such a large scale?" the 26-year-old Nanyang Technological University final-year student told The Star.

After making a few more trips there, he took up shop in a friend's place in the Highlands from Dec 2014, meeting farmers and gaining their trust.

Many locals he spoke to, Yeo said, were friendly and eager to tell their story.

One middle-aged lady distraught by the Government's bulldozing of her farm fainted in front of him.

Yeo said his trips and his work there led her to call him her "godson".

Not all farmers were as friendly, fearful of a Government crackdown on the illegal immigrants blamed for the mass clearing of the Highlands.

Vast areas of farmlands were cleared by the authorities there after mud floods swept through the Highlands, killing six in Nov 2014.

It is believed that runoff from rain mixed with earth displaced from unchecked farming methods led to the disaster

Happy to speak to him later, the farmers would lead him to their workers, many of whom were hiding in the jungles of Pahang.

Some of these workers even had children -their own- with them.

"I stayed with some of them in the jungle a few nights. The farmers told them they couldn't work for them anymore.

"The illegal workers living in the forest built makeshift huts while taking care of their babies," said Yeo, a former reporter himself.

It was there that he learned of their story. Many had come by boat to Malaysia.

Some said they were tortured by their traffickers; a tale he wasn't sure of until news of migrant graves in Wang Kelian broke out.

When asked who the exhibition was for, Yeo said he was keeping it neutral.

"I want people to feel differently with different sides of the story. Different chapters will impact different groups of people," he said.

The Disappearing Hills photo exhibition will be launched with a documentary screening of the same name at The Camera Museum in Georgetown, Penang at 4pm, May 31.

The exhibition will also be open at the same place from June 1 to 30. Admission is free.

Similar openings are expected in Cameron Highlands and Singapore in the near future.

For more information on the exhibition, visit www.facebook.com/thedisappearinghills

The Disappearing Hills: Trailer from Yeo Kai Wen on Vimeo.

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