How a self-taught historian learnt the past through headstones

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MALAYSIANS KINI Little would Lee Eng Kew have imagined that a chat with a frustrated elder would set him on a journey as a full-time field historian and folklorist.

Recalling the incident that took place when he was a teen, the Taiping-born said the elderly man boasted about his grandfather, who used to be the richest man in the area.

A suspicious Lee then did something extraordinary to dig out the truth, by searching for the headstone of the person’s late grandfather.

“It turned out he was telling the truth. His grandfather was a first class officer who secured his position through a donation during the Qing Dynasty in China. The Kwa (surname) family later migrated to Malaya and earned a lavish living in tin mining.

“According to the epitaphs, he donated a piece of land to an English school and in return the school gave free education for his offspring,” said Lee, who is fondly known as Ah Kew, in an interview with Malaysiakini.

The elder, who is now in his 70s, missed the schooling opportunity during the Japanese occupation and ended up as dish-washing worker.

The Kwa family later went bankrupt after the second generation became so passionate in helping China’s Kuomintang fight off Japan’s invasion and neglected the family business, while other siblings became addicted to money-sucking opium.

Since then, Lee, 52, has grown to love history and folk culture. He has explored the the past of the Chinese in Taiping, and piece by piece, he has compiled a history jigsaw through his 37 years of extensive field research.

There were times he travelled nationwide and abroad to record the folklore and cultural customs of local Chinese.

Here’s the story how a Form Three dropout grew to become a person recognised in his field, in his own words.

MY TEACHER USED TO LOOK AT THE LIKES OF ME, who together with my classmates had a poor command of Bahasa Malaysia and English, as bad students who would end up working at char kuey teow stalls one day.

The problem was, we were better in other subjects.

I later worked at a construction site for two years before helping my father at his kuih stall.

Those were busy days where I had to rest for days after long hours of work in preparing kuih for festival celebrations and worship purposes. I could barely squeeze out time for field research....

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