From Singapore to Sabah: The Plantation House

The following is part 2 of a series written from Sandakan, Yong Vui Kong’s hometown in Sabah, East Malaysia, by Second Chances co-founder Kirsten Han:

The 4WD lurches and jolts as Vui Kong’s oldest sister Nyuk Yin drives us down the muddy, pitted country road towards the family plantation home. His youngest sister Vui Fung, his aunt Mary and I stand in a row in the back, holding on tightly and ducking palm leaves.

The house and plantation used to belong to Vui Kong’s grandfather. Vui Kong’s father would go away for long periods of time, driving lorries, leaving his wife and the children behind.

The public had got a brief view of Vui Kong’s childhood home in the Al Jazeera documentary Yong’s Story, but when Shelley and I came to Sandakan we wanted to see the place for ourselves. I wanted to be in that space, to walk around and get a feel for the place.

When we finally pull into the empty square of gravel and sand in front of the house, the first thing that strikes me was how run down everything is. I hadn’t expected it to be fancy or luxurious, of course, and knew that everything would be a little worn – none of the family had lived there for a long time. But one look at the place and one can tell it has never been much more than sparse and functional.

Many of the rooms have been locked up, or converted into storerooms. The room in which Vui Kong had slept with his family (mother and siblings) is now being used to store odds and ends, everything covered in layers upon layers of dust and grime.

We follow Nyuk Yin and Vui Fung round the back of the house and down the muddy path winding between old oil palm trees, dodging trails of purposeful red ants, swatting at the persistent mosquitoes.

They stop by a murky-looking pool. “This is where we bathed as kids, at about 11pm or even midnight,” they say. “Our mother would pull us out of bed and drag us here to bathe. We didn’t think about the snakes or mosquitoes or anything. It was cold, but if we cried or complained we would get scolded and beaten.”

It’s also down this path that the children had to walk every day to get to the main road, where they would wait for the bus to take them to the town where they attended school. It would take them about an hour to get from home to school.

Nyuk Yin takes me upstairs, pointing out little spots connected to Vui Kong and his many accidents: he fell down the stairs here as a toddler, when he just learnt how to walk. He fell through the hole in these railings to the ground below while playing as a kid. He fell off that tree while trying to pick fruit.

We test various doors to see what rooms we can get into. Faded photographs of her grandfather and her father’s family stare down at us from their place on the walls. Suddenly she sits down on the sofa.

“Once my little brothers saw my grandfather beating my mum up,” she says quietly. “Yun Chong and Yun Leong saw it. Vui Kong too. They were just little. Vui Kong was very unhappy to see his mum get beat up. That’s why they all really wanted to get money to get out of here.”

And get out they did: out of all seven Yong siblings, only two finished primary school. Everyone else left school early and ventured out to work. Older siblings like Nyuk Yin came back for the younger ones, taking them away from the plantation as soon as they could.

“We’d just sleep a few nights here, a few nights there, with friends and relatives,” Nyuk Yin says.

It was only after all the children had grown and got jobs that they were able to save up and buy their mother – diagnosed with clinical depression – a small flat to call her own. But Vui Kong has never seen the flat; by the time the siblings had found a suitable place, he had already been arrested.

“It’s kind of funny,” the sisters say. “Vui Kong never really had a home before. Now he has a home. But we can’t get him back.”

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