Rubbish collector too busy to care that he’s famous

GEORGE TOWN: Anyone who takes regular walks along George Town’s old streets would probably have seen Tan Kean Huah at work. He collects old cardboard boxes and other recyclable items on his tricycle cart.

He pedals around the streets barefoot and shirtless, and you can tell how much heavy lifting he has been doing from the muscles on his lean frame.

The 62-year-old Penang-born has been immortalised in a mural installation, but not in his home state. He is depicted on his tricycle in one of several murals at Ipoh’s Market Lane to celebrate the Perak capital’s heritage.

The mural by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic depicting Tan Kean Huah can be seen at the Market Lane in Ipoh.

The mural is the work of Ernest Zacharevic, a Lithuanian street artist who rose to fame from his series of murals in Penang.

Next to the mural is a sign that reads: “Uncle is hard at work collecting old recyclable items with an actual trishaw that has been cut into half and mounted onto the wall. The mural brings out the appreciation of how life has changed for the better in Old Town, Ipoh, from hardship to a calm and enjoyable livelihood.”

But nowhere does the board mention that the man in the picture is from Penang.

Tan cycling past a news vendor on China Street in George Town, Penang.

Not that Tan cares much about it.

An FMT reporter made repeated attempts to hail him down as he sped through narrow lanes. When he finally relented, he took 10 minutes to talk about his life while sorting out garbage on one of the back lanes of Penang Street.

He spoke in Hokkien and a smattering of Malay.

He said many had stopped him to ask if he was the “uncle” in the mural in Ipoh and he had often responded with “you are mistaken” until he was told by his sister that it was indeed him.

“I have never been to Ipoh to look at it. My sister and relatives think I am getting money out of the mural. I told them I don’t make money from that. I collect rubbish.”

Tan, 62, loading flattened boxes onto his tricycle.

When shown a picture of the Ipoh mural showing him with black garbage bags loaded onto his cart, Tan said he did start off collecting rubbish in bags but would now collect only recyclable items.

“I never stacked them that high though. How am I supposed to look where I am going?” he said.

According to Tan, he has been collecting recyclable items in George Town for 30 years or so and had no plans of quitting.

“I have nothing else to do,” he said as he loaded a stack of flattened cardboard boxes onto his cart.

He makes RM200 to RM300 a month from the discarded boxes. “I only make 20 sen a kilo now. It used to be 60 sen a kilo.”

He said he would sometimes find old metal bits dumped in garbage bins. “Those can fetch a bit more money.”

Tan speaks briefly with a reporter while carrying on with his work.

Tan was doing odd jobs before making the switch to recycling on a full-time basis.

He said he enjoyed good health and was not on any medication, thanks to his daily cycling.

Still single, he lives alone in a rented room at a Chinese clan house near Weld Quay.

Tan said he takes the weekends off for some much needed rest and relaxation.

By : Predeep Nambiar – FMT

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