THE YAM GUIDE
(Roland Takeshi, May, 1997 Issue of Asia
Leong Tam Fook looks like the kind of guy you would want around
if your plane crashed into the jungle. His light but sinuous build gives
the impression that he could survive for days on just water and air, and
his quick movements suggest he must possess some animal instincts that would
help guide you back to civilization.
Leong is a nature guide; he takes groups of people into the
jungle on botanical trips. For the last eight years, he has been regularly
escorting the Yam Society, a US-based organization with 50,000 members worldwide,
into the jungles of Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo. So much so that he is now
referred to as the "Yam Guide."
"These people collect yams as a hobby," he says of
his regular clients. "They are not horticulturists or specialists, they
are yam-crazy. They collect tubers and write articles about them. When they
find a yam they have not seen before, they scream, shiver, even cry and go
into a trance. Naturally they are against eating yams as this is too painful."
Leong first became involved with the yam collectors after
he was Camp Manager of the Endau-Rompin Nature Expedition, a scientific mission
which set out to record the flora and fauna of the isolated Malaysian area,
in 1995 and 1996. Members of the Yam Society heard of him through some of
the scientists in the expedition and now groups of enthusiasts call on him
Leong is a walking encyclopedia on the different yam species
and may have soon have a yam named after him -- he discovered a new species
which is now being scrutinized by the experts.
The former Sales Executive is more at home in the jungle than
in the city. He lived a year in the wilderness during the Endau-Rompin expedition
and that has honed his love for nature. "In the city I get bored straight
away. In the jungle, the sounds are different every day."