Curious Pak Alam


For this passionate man, knowledge for obvious gain actually clouds the joy of learning for its own sake.

Pak Alam’s passion for repairing vintage bicycles started out as a hobby when he was 14, and like all of his other interests, this grew into something approaching obsession. “If it’s old, chances are I’d like it,” he said. “If it’s younger than me, not so much.

“Except for my wife,” he quickly added. “She is younger than I am and I love her!”

Pak Alam isn’t actually involved in the bicycle trade; a gardener by profession, he worked the gardens of places like the Penang Batik Factory and Mutiara Hotel before becoming Butterfly Farm’s senior gardener where he tends to the plants the butterflies feed on, as well as the host plants they lay their eggs in.

These host plants have to be carefully chosen in order to create a welcoming habitat for the butterflies to reproduce in. It’s a job that requires a great deal of knowledge and patience, yet he still has time to spare on his many passions.

The 54-year-old is purely into knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and this is evident from how he talks about the subjects he’s passionate about, from vintage bicycles to stones and minerals to plants. Walking into his house is like venturing into a treasure trove full of vintage bicycle parts and antiques like an old cangkul (hoe) and kapak (axe), not forgetting the massive collection of unique looking stones and minerals that adorn the room. In the garden nearby lie various lush green plants, each of which he says has a specific medicinal property. Pak Alam’s house is a curious sight full of things we may pass off as knickknacks and junk, but these are his most cherished items.

“If I have a passion for something,” he said, “it becomes an obsession of sorts. I am a very curious person! My favourite question is ‘Apa pasal itu (Why is that?)?’”

Thus far, Pak Alam owns eight or nine bicycles that can still be used, and more than two dozen others that he is in the process of fixing up. He has bicycles from the 1940s and 1950s, and some can fetch RM6,000-RM7,000 by his estimation.

Yet he has no intention of selling any of them. He’s a collector in the truest sense, someone who appreciates craftsmanship and freely admits to a nostalgic longing for an era gone by. “I really feel a connection to people from the olden days, like those from P. Ramlee’s time. I would love to live in those times, but since I can’t, fixing bicycles is my way of reliving that day and age.

“Money is something I can always earn, slowly, but some of these old bicycles are so rare. So I’d rather keep them.”

He sustains his hobby by earning money from selling some bicycles that he can bear to part with. Once he gets that money, he buys more spare parts for his other bicycles. He also maintains spare parts and sells them. (He says he does have plans to donate these antiques, but that isn’t going to happen for a good long while yet.)

Yet collecting bicycles alone isn’t enough to satisfy Pak Alam’s curious mind. His home boasts an impressive collection of stones and minerals that includes crystals that he cuts himself and fashions into rings to be sold. His favourites are jades and emeralds, with green being his preferred colour.

The leaves of the pokok Setawar Gunung has anti-bacterial properties.

Fruit from the pokok Mata Itik can cure diarrhoea.

Jade stones.

Agate stones.

Pak Alam’s passion for botany started out as a hobby as well. He has an extensive knowledge of plants that can be used for medicinal purposes – on the off chance he is ever stranded in a jungle.

Knowledge for knowledge’s sake can sometimes yield unexpected results. While learning these survival skills, Pak Alam would observe plants in the jungle, trying to figure out why they thrive in their natural habitat but struggle once outside it. He eventually realised that the compost that surrounded the plant in its natural habitat was the key, and he began to use the same compost on his own plants. It worked!

Pak Alam’s understanding and appreciation of plants have led him to forgo any vegetables that are sustained with pesticides. Instead he grows his own vegetables and mostly eats ulam that consists of a combination of leaves he finds in the jungle or ones he grows himself.

“People do not realise just how harmful these pesticides are and how long some of the chemicals remain in the vegetable’s system for, sometimes even up to three months after it has been treated. The chemicals that are ingested on a daily basis can be very poisonous. People need to be more aware of this.”

Pak Alam has shown no sign of slowing down anytime soon, and in fact continues to expand his knowledge on these hobbies. Everything he knows he freely credits to friends he’s met over the years who have been willing to teach.

“I will get to know people who know things I don’t. I will get to know a craftsman so that I can learn about crafts. I’ll get to know a mechanic so I can get to know about cars. Same for plants, stones and bicycles as well. That way I am constantly learning.”

The sharing of knowledge has been a vital part of Pak Alam’s life, and he is adamant that people should not selfishly hoard what they know. “We should instead be sharing knowledge and helping each other learn. Knowledge shouldn’t die with us,” he said.

For his part, Pak Alam says he is more than willing to teach people about vintage bicycles, botany, stones and minerals, but stresses that he will only teach those who really have an interest in learning.

“There are people who, when learning something, only think about how this can benefit them financially. I feel there is no real gain in teaching these people. They must have a genuine interest.”

Pak Alam is a man with a wealth of knowledge, knowledge that stems from a simple yet burning curiosity to know the “why” of everything. His methods may be unconventional, but it is undoubtedly a commendable way of learning.

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