PETALING JAYA: Twelve years of mingling with residents of the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement has left Tan Ean Nee with a treasure trove of heartwarming – and sometimes heart-wrenching – tales.
The former newscaster and TV host recounted a visit by a leper couple’s daughter, who was put up for adoption at birth due to a policy enforced in the colony before.
“The neighbours of her late parents rushed out to meet her, telling her how she resembled her mother.
“Tears then rolled down her cheeks because she had never heard of such comments while growing up with her Australian adoptive parents,” Tan said in an interview.
Helping the descendants of former lepers to reconnect with their birth parents, or vice versa, is one of the many tasks Tan handled for the settlement, though not all searches ended with a “happy ending”.
While a lack of proper records could be a hindrance, sometimes the children also found it hard to face their past.
“We have to understand that they have gone through a lot of pain and hardship,” she said.
In 2006, Tan first stepped foot into the settlement, set up in 1930, as a journalist to report on an encroachment on the cemetery for an investigative news programme.
Through the story, she came to know of the disease and the residents with deformities, as well as their descendants, who were embarrassed to be associated with the leper colony.
Despite several job changes later – a stint as a lecturer and then a producer at another TV station – Tan was a regular visitor at the settlement and eventually became its councillor.
She developed a strong emotional attachment for the place and a deep admiration for the former lepers.
Their determination and courage in the face of the disease and discrimination moved her deeply.
Thanks to the efforts of activists and volunteers, the settlement, now rebranded as Valley of Hope, is now more than just a popular spot for plant nurseries.
Visitors drop by the settlement to hear the stories of its past in the guided walks, including carrying out activities such as sketching, painting and photography sessions.
“You see the genuine joy in the elders when these kids approach them and read them stories,” Tan said.
Working with sponsors and volunteers, Tan has also organised outings for the residents, who had been cooped up in the settlement for most of their lives.
Recently, she curated a story gallery at the settlement’s community hall, stocking it with photographs, videos and artefacts.
Prior to that, she wrote books, produced a documentary on the demolition of part of the settlement and launched an online museum.
Having brought settlement’s stories to symposiums in the Philippines and Japan, Tan was determined to preserve its heritage.
Other plans in the pipeline are to open a cafe and restore an old Mercedes-Benz 240D, used to ferry residents to the movies or visit their children in the past.
Tan said she hopes that the settlement would be maintained as a historical site to remind people not to discriminate against others.
“To me, this place has a very special aura.
“I’m inspired by the residents. I’ve learned and gained so much here, which gives me a huge sense of fulfilment,” she said.