Smitten by snakes
Electrical engineer P.H. Chew loves to steal a kiss – from nothing less than the deadly cobra.
APART-TIME manager at the Penang Snake Temple’s snake farm, P.H. Chew is very much a charmer. He charms snakes and visitors alike; he has no qualms kissing the venomous cobra and regaling visitors with numerous kiss-and-tell tales.
“Well, it’s just like kissing a fully armed lady,” Chew says of his death-defying stunts.
And he sure knows how to please his “leading lady”.
“If you please her, you’ll get your kisses. But if you upset her, you’ll have your last kiss,” quips Chew, who is in his mid-50s.
An electrical engineer by profession, Chew manages the snake farm during weekends. His deep fascination for snakes is obvious as he talks about his work at the farm.
“You learn about the snake’s behaviour and movements first, then approach it calmly and kiss it. You must do it with confidence and without fear. If you’ve confidence and courage, you’ll be successful. If you’re fearful, don’t even try it!”
Chew has been performing the kissing stunts since 2008 when a couple of snake handlers at the farm, left for greener pastures.
“I can’t recall how many times I’ve kissed cobras but I will never risk my life if the cobra is not ready for the kiss,” says Chew, who had no experience with snakes when he was first approached to help out at the snake farm in mid-2005.
His sister, Lilian, asked him to help a relative, Joe Teoh, to manage the snake farm.
“Teoh, an experienced snake breeder and collector, was approached by Hokkien Kongsi, the trustees of the Snake Temple, to set up the snake farm to attract tourists following complaints that there were too few snakes in the temple.
“However, Teoh was unable to manage the farm full-time because he was then working and staying in Sungai Petani, Kedah. So I agreed to help out,” says Chew.
Chew manages the snake farm on a part-time basis with Teoh as his business partner. Chew was initially fearful of dealing with snakes, but decided to give it a go.
His wife, daughter, sister and brother-in-law pitch in to handle the farm’s day-to-day operations. The heavier tasks are outsourced to contractors.
“Gradually, I began to learn and understand more about snakes, and grew to like them,” says Chew, adding that domesticated animals are also kept at the farm.
“This is to balance qi ( yin and yang energy) in the farm because snakes are considered evil and are regarded as yin creatures, while domesticated animals are tame and are considered yang creatures.”
When the farm was first set up, a couple of experienced snake handlers and a ticket collector were running it.
Chew was captivated by the way the couple played with various snakes such as the rattle snake, mangrove snake, cobra and king cobra. He decided to try his hand at handling snakes.
“As I played with the snakes, I began to understand their behaviours and movements. Soon, I fell under their spell. My fear of snakes vanished and my respect for them grew deeper by the day,” he recalls.
Chew is thankful that he has not been bitten by any venomous snake.
“However, I’ve been bitten countless times by non-venomous snakes. I tend to be more careless when handling these snakes,” he confesses.
Chew is happy to spend his weekends at the snake farm, proudly introducing the inhabitants to fascinated tourists.
One of the farm’s star attractions used to be an albino python named Goldie, which measured 4.2m long and weighed 60kg.
“The female python was 10 years old. One minute it was healthy and the next, it had collapsed and died. Goldie died on May 5 last year,” says Chew, who was among several people, including visitors, who witnessed the incident.
“We suspect it died of a heart attack as it suffered a seizure. The python was healthy and moving about that day. Moments before it died, it opened its mouth and vibrated. Then it closed its mouth and became lifeless. The snake was laid to rest at the temple grounds.”
Chew takes delight in sharing his love for snakes.
“Visitors to the farm get a chance to touch the snakes and hopefully, lose their fear of snakes,” shares Chew.
Some visitors believe that if they stroke the python from head to tail (while it was held by the handler), they will enjoy good luck for the whole year.
When asked about this, Chew laughs and explains: “When visitors touch the python, they may feel their confidence boosted and subsequently, they were able to reap success (in their endeavours).”
However, some people have a phobia of snakes, including Chew’s wife, Connie Lim.
“My wife used to scream when she saw snakes on television. In
2008, she helped out at the farm as we were short of workers. Today, she doesn’t scream when she sees a snake though she won’t touch it.”
Although Lim is afraid of snakes, she is an animal lover.
“We have four dogs at home and they were all raised by my wife. She and my daughter, Zhi Yun, also take care of other animals at the farm.”
After Goldie’s death, the farm found a replacement – a year-old albino python which is 1.2m-long.
Chew frequently jokes that snakes are BKU or Binatang Kurang Upaya (Malay for disabled creatures).
“These creatures have no hands or legs or ears (they can’t hear). We should respect them and not be afraid of them,” says Chew, adding that there is no reason to hate snakes because they generally do not harm humans. More often than not, it is humans who kill snakes.
The snake farm, Chew explains, is a nonprofit set-up. Entrance fees go towards expenses for running the farm.
Chew gets a token allowance for helping out at the farm, but what matters most to him is the joy and gratification he gets out of his services.
Chew is most at home in the company of his slithery pals.
Cosy pals: This Oriental whip snake and an albino python show just how comfortable they are with their handler, P.H. Chew. — CHiN CHeNG yeaNG/The Star