Digging up the pastBy ALLAN KOAY
Lee Eng Kew cuts a lone figure as he spends his days studying graves in Taiping, Perak, for stories of the past. Despite his humble academic background, Lee has emerged as a single-minded scholar whose writings, and passion for history and research work, have caught the attention of academics and researchers alike.
IF EVER you are in Taiping, and happen to see a lone man hanging around a cemetery, wading through the tall grass, deeply interested in the gravestones, do not be alarmed. He is not a grave-robber, nor a zombie, nor a black magician.
He is Lee Eng Kew, or Ah Kew, a field researcher who studies the history of Taiping by examining the stories of the dead.
What is most interesting about Lee is not just his fieldwork, but the fact that this man is completely self-taught. He does not hold a degree in history, nor does he have any professional training in field research. Yet, Lee, 39, has commanded the attention of academics, editors and researchers, with his fieldwork and writings.
Not bad for a guy who studied up to Form Three.
Having heard much about the man, I was struck by how unassuming and down-to-earth Lee is in person. In fact, Lee is a man driven by a singular passion for history and research.
The son of a petty trader, and the sixth of seven children, Lee has always been interested in history and was enchanted by the cultural tales that he heard as a child.
“When I was a boy, I helped my father with his hawker business,” said Lee, who spoke in Hokkien during an interview in Petaling Jaya recently. “I visited the marketplace and heard lots of tales about the history of Taiping, as told by the old folks. I was fascinated by them. These are stories that you cannot find in books or newspapers. So I thought I should make a record of them. Gradually I began to delve deeper into field research.”
Lee read newspaper stories about the history of Taiping, and learned how researchers went to cemeteries and studied the graves there. But it wasn’t until 1986, when he was 21, that Lee decided he would make it his vocation to carry out research on the past inhabitants of Taiping. Before that, he held various odd jobs, from plumbing to construction work. “In 1986, my father started a kuih business and I helped him with his business in between carrying out my field research.”
Lee seems to have found his true calling in life. Despite the many shortcomings and his lack of a higher education, he managed to teach himself all that it takes to become a field researcher.
“When I started out, I didn’t know how to carry out research properly,” he admitted. “However, I read up on how researchers carried out their work, how they studied graves and the artefacts in cultural associations. And I followed their methods.
Lee also interviewed surviving family members.
Getting into writing
Despite his humble beginnings, Lee’s work was so impressive that a Universiti Malaya lecturer commissioned a paper from him.
“In 1995, Prof Saw Keng Wah asked me to write a paper on the Chinese tombs in Taiping and the founding of Taiping,” Lee said.
Prior to meeting Prof Saw, Lee had had articles published in newspapers. But it was Lee’s article in a temple brochure that caught the eye of the professor, who promptly contacted Lee.
“The experience of writing an academic paper helped tremendously in improving my writing,” said Lee.
Lee was so encouraged that he wrote a book, in Chinese, depicting the history of the various characters he had researched. The book, which came out last year, is entitled Yi Guo (which literally means “to move country”), words derived from the inscriptions on the grave of Chung Keng Kwee, the first kapitan of Taiping.
Friends and acquaintances helped Lee to sell his book, and friends in the media helped to publicise it. A certain Datuk chipped in RM500.
Teoh Kian Hoon, a researcher at the KL-based Centre for Malaysian Chinese Studies, said Lee’s work is mostly concerned with the micro-history of Taiping. “It is about individual characters. Some are well-known and some are not. Not all had contributed to the development of Taiping,” said Teoh who became acquainted with Lee’s writings while working as an editor with the Chinese daily Nanyang Siang Pau, to which Lee used to contribute.
Lee admitted that he doesn’t discriminate when it comes to who to research. Rich or poor, famous or unknown, important figures or common folk, all are fair game in his research – from Taiping magnate Ng Boo Bee and the notorious Raja Laut Tan Huan Siea who was wanted by the authorities, to smaller characters such as Madam Chan Ah Nai, a member of the Anti-Japanese Occupation committee who allegedly committed suicide by jumping into Taiping Lake.
“The importance of Lee’s writings and fieldwork is in getting hold of the material and giving it a concrete form,” said Teoh. “Some of this material is dispersed all over the place; someone has to give it order and form. The information gathered by Lee gives one a rough idea of a section of the Chinese community, and the trades and professions they were in. Lee is assembling the building blocks that can be used to compose a coherent picture of the community.”
Among the things Lee has uncovered is that the earliest grave in Taiping is dated 1861 and not 1863 as stated by previous researchers. Lee pointed out that no one has disputed any of his works so far.
A simple life
“My parents don’t object to what I do. They leave me alone to my work. The most important thing to them is that I have to learn how to make kuih and help them with their business.”
On any day, Lee can be seen riding his trusty old bicycle through town, complete with cap and backpack, heading for the cemetery. Khoo said Lee has become a familiar figure in Taiping.
Antique collector Brian Coomber, whose wife Penny Ng is the great-granddaughter of entrepreneur Ng Boo Bee, said Lee is “a quiet chap who is very interested in what he does.”
Coomber added: “He puts everything aside to follow what he really wants to do. He has a dream and he dares to follow it. A lot of people put him down because of his lack of a higher education. But that is not fair. His enthusiasm is so much more (than what a formal education can offer him), and it is this enthusiasm that carries him through.”
Teoh commended Lee for his “unwavering dedication and perseverance in pursuing his chosen vocation. In doing so, he has put his own financial well-being at great risk and made considerable sacrifices,” added Teoh. “There are hardly any material rewards to be gained in historical fieldwork by independent scholars like Eng Kew.”
Khoo said Lee’s written language is impressive and that he has a good vocabulary. “Before we met him, we all thought he was probably a wise old man, because he uses very classical language in his writing. What’s more, his pen-name (“Baba Kew”) also means someone who has had many children!”
Asked about his ultimate objective, Lee replied: “To save all the historical information before it disappears or is forgotten.” Lee wants to write more books, and his next book will be about the Japanese Occupation in Taiping during World War II.
He has also traced his own lineage.
“I interviewed my parents and relatives,” he said. “My parents were born in Malaysia, but my grandparents came from China. My grandfather was a farmer. Later, he went into partnership with a friend to start a bicycle repair shop. He was also paid to light street lamps. Street lamps in the old days needed to be lit every evening. And my grandfather was the one who did that, lighting the lamps and hanging them up on the lampposts. He also rented out lamps for weddings and funerals.”
On how much is left for him to research, Lee said: “It can never be finished. But I have already recorded many of the important figures.”
Asked whether he is now famous in Taiping, he humbly replied, with a smile: ”Only a little.”
The documentary Ah Kew the Digger is available on VCD (in Hokkien and Mandarin with English subtitles) at RM9 each. The book, Yi Guo, is available at RM26 a copy. To order, or for more information, call 012-3979947.