Smit­ten by snakes

Elec­tri­cal engi­neer P.H. Chew loves to steal a kiss – from noth­ing less than the deadly co­bra.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By MAJORIE CHIEW star2@thes­tar.com.my

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

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