June 21, 2004
Digging up the past
By 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
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.
Lee Eng Kew, self-taught field researcher. Despite his lack of a higher education
and professional training in field research, Lee has managed to procure results that are credible enough to be used
by academics, editors and researchers.
He is also the subject of a documentary, Ah Kew the Digger, by independent
filmmaker Khoo Eng Yow. Khoo recently took Lee and the film on a roadshow tour of the country, during which Lee
gave a presentation and fielded questions from the audience after every screening.
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
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
“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 Eng Kew's research gathers information about the micro-history of Taiping,
which can ultimately become the building blocks to create a picture of the early Chinese community in this Perak
“In 1990, after reading books written by professional researchers in China, I
learned how to carry out research properly. Before that, I missed out on a lot of clues and important facts. After
I had learned how to do it right, I went back to the graves, temples and cultural associations, and caught up on
what I had missed previously. I took photographs, took notes and copied the engravings on tombstones and other
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
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
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
Source: The Star