THE YAM GUIDE
(Roland Takeshi, May, 1997 Issue of Asia Magazine)

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 regularly.

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."