Heritage society looks forward to gazettement of Brooke-era leprosy hospital

Some of the artefacts on display at the RCBM Hospital museum.

Kenyalang Portraits

By Wilfred Pilo

IT WOULD be a dream come true for the Heritage Society of Rajah Charles Brooke Memorial (RCBM) Hospital at Mile 13 Jalan Puncak Borneo here when the present hospital site is gazetted as a heritage site.

In 2017, the path to achieve this was made possible by the state government, when RCBM Hospital was awarded with the Notification of Preservation for Historical Buildings under the Sarawak Cultural Heritage Ordinance 1993.

As a heritage site, RCBM Hospital which was set up as a centre for leper rehabilitation in 1925, will be called RCBM Leprosarium.

For the hospital’s heritage society president, Angelina Jong, the award was good news and she is hopeful that once gazetted, it will chalk another milestone in the hospital’s rich history which also includes a melancholic past.

“People who live here before suffered from leprosy or Hansen’s disease (HD) which is named after Norwegian physician Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen who identified the bacteria — mycobacterium leprae — in 1873 as the causative agent of leprosy.

Some of the medicines used to treat HD on display at the hospital’s museum.

“These people (residents) were human but people made them to be and considered them as outcasts, probably because their features appeared abnormal. There was no cure at that time, but not now with the discovery of modern medicines.

“This (prejudice) was wrong. Leprosy sufferers have been stigmatised since biblical times. We must change all this so that we don’t encounter such social issues and degradation of fellow human beings,” she told DayakDaily when met at her office recently, during an interview about future plans for the heritage site.

“We must let people know now that leprosy is just a disease and it is curable, unlike before. I am also sad that when I told the descendants of these leprosy sufferers what we intend to do with the place and bring them to be part of the heritage, they were resistant to the idea.

“I was surprised that they too are still very reserved towards the idea of their involvement in being part of the heritage. They believe that people still look down on them (for their family history with leprosy) and this is wrong.

“The stigma and the social degradation among themselves should stop and we must help them to believe in themselves that they are normal people and have right to live like everybody else,” she said.

The entrance to RCBM Hospital.

Jong believes that in this present day, there must be more awareness created about people with HD. This awareness must be cultivated in schools and institutions, and government and non-governmental organisations must help so that the public as a whole especially the young people won’t have this stigma about HD sufferers and the disease.

“We thank the government and are very hopeful that the place will be made into a heritage site — we have more than enough artefacts from the past — and also a living museum to show visitors what happened here in the time when patients were rehabilitated and how they lived and performed their daily activities. I believe that would create more interest among the public.”

Jong revealed that the whole idea of gazetting the hospital as a heritage site and leprosarium came during the launching of the hospital logo in 2015 when the state director of the state medical department suggested that the management of the hospital write a book, as well as make the place a heritage site and leprosarium.

“We brought the matter to the then Chief Minister, the late Pehin Sri Adenan Satem, who approved and asked the matter to be looked into by the state government. We really thank him for that and the state government for the support,” she disclosed.

“It was later, together with our elected representative for the area that we brought up and pursued the matter further with the Tourism Ministry. It also caught the attention of the minister and the present chief minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg. Finally, the whole idea to make this place into a heritage site was given the green light.”

Jong explained that the heritage society has two main goals, which are to see the leprosarium gazetted and to also look into the welfare of the patients’ descendants who are now staying at Kampung Sinar Baru in Padawan. The village has 65 families and 300 residents.

A wooden carving of the mythical Iban God, “Sengalang Burong” that was made by a HD patient who is still alive and living at the hospital.

“When the leprosarium is up, there will be a living museum and that is where we plan to bring in the descendants of these patients to participate. We hope that this will further boost their well being and encourage them to be part of our society and community without still having fears of being outcasts. On top of that, we hope they would be independent and self-sustained economically and also feel proud of their forefathers,”she said.

“There will be many attractions for visitors as we have many artefacts, dating back to when the place was built in 1925. Other attractions include relics, places of worship that cater to the many races and beliefs, graves, museum, buildings, and photos. We will narrate the history of the place to visitors.”

Jong also highlighted an interesting feature about RCBM Hospital — a Chaulmoogra tree growing on site which has unique links to the hospital’s past.

In the time before the advent of modern medicine, the Chaulmoogra tree (Hydnocarpus Wightiana) was used to treat leprosy in China. The tree is not indigenous and Jong believes the first tree at the hospital was brought from China.

“We call it the “mother” tree and it is still here. We intend to make the area where the tree is located into food and beverage spot. I think it will be great,” she revealed.

Fruits of the Chaulmoogra tree growing in the compund of RCBM Hospital.

RCBM Hospital patients also built their own homes to start their families, just a few kilometres away from the present hospital. This location also holds a wealth of artefacts like plates, mugs, jars, old radios and television sets.

“The area where these homes used to be is now covered by secondary forest but there is a trail to these dwellings and as there are many artefacts there, it too will be another interesting heritage (feature). I believe this will add another layer of realism and storytelling for visitors who come to the living museum and leprosarium in the future,” said Jong.

Among plans for the living museum is an area where patients’ descendants may carry out craft-making and the end products sold.

“At the same time, we will portray how people and their families used to live here and we will reveal who they are and their family history. These will create a great living museum product.”

Jong hopes that the heritage society will in some way, be able to help the government not only develop Padawan area but also bring economic and social development for the people living here.

“There are plenty of ways to develop the area and one of them is through tourism which has a lot of potential. Padawan has not only unique flora and fauna but also culture, tradition and a rich history.

“Our part, in a way, is if we can help to make the tourism products here more holistic and also share with people what happened here and about the residents during the Brooke era.

“We believe we can create a lot for the people here and business synergy that will very much boost the overall local social-economic wellbeing and revenue for tourism players.”

A panoramic view of the RCBM Hospital grounds.

Jong also revealed that leprosy was first discovered in Sarawak in 1901. The first colony in Kuching was located at 5th Mile and had about 70 patients.

The patients were later moved to Pulau Satang Besar in 1924 before they moved to the present site in 1925 due to a fatal disease outbreak.

“At one time, when fully occupied, there were 500 leprosy sufferers at RCBM Hospital but now there are only five male individuals left who are cured of the disease and are in their eighties.

“These days, the number of new cases diagnosed are 300,000 in the whole world, with India having the largest number. In Malaysia we have it in the hundreds. But the disease is curable and under control.

“The other leprosarium in Malaysia is in Sungai Buluh, Selangor. It has less artefacts and was built in 1931.”

Jong said she is glad that she is able to help these people and society in general. Spiritually she feels at peace with those who had passed on there. She also believes that former patients and present residents would be pleased that the hospital is going to be a heritage site and that their stories will be told and remembered.

“By 2025, the site will be a century old, and we have many things we want to do here and we have already achieved some. If only the walls could speak, there will be many more stories to tell,” she said. — DayakDaily