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I was born in Malaya and spent the formative years of my life there. It is surrounded bythe Philippines to the east, Indonesia to the west (and southwest), Thailand to the north and Singapore to the south, the Malay Peninsula—or Malaya—is strategically located in the heart of Southeast Asia. Ancient traders described it as “The land where the winds meet.” And down the centuries, strong winds had uprooted and swept many Portuguese, Dutch and English to the legendary, powerful trading kingdom of Malacca, first established in the late fourteenth century, located in the south-east corner of the Malay Peninsula. The Strait of Malacca is one of the most dangerous and controversial shipping lanes in the world.
The last to claim Malaya were the English in 1795. Eventually the tentacles of English intervention and protection permeated the length and breadth of the Malay Peninsula, flying the Union Jack by 1919. Soon thereafter Malaya became a British protectorate—not a colony—and remained in that status until the coming of the Japanese in early 1940s.
One could say I was born at the worst of times, on the eve of the Japanese assault on Malaya and Singapore. The Japanese air force was invincible over Malaya. Using bicycles, hordes of Japanese intruders swooped down the Malay Peninsula from Thailand. Unstoppable. Fiercely lusting for power. The British, in their omnipotence, thought the jungle north of Singapore would protect them from the advancing Japanese troops. Instead it became a perfect camouflage for them. The land magnanimously provided the enemy shelter and food. Singapore, once the towering, impregnable colonial center of British operations in the Far East, surrendered unconditionally within two weeks to the Japanese in 1942. For many, especially the Malays, behind closed doors, it was an auspicious time to celebrate the demise of the myth of the white man’s dominance and superiority in their part of the world. In fact, many ordinary Malays, those denied superior education because of their birth or without strong ties to the British administration, blamed the British policies for their backwardness and lack of opportunities because the British had brought many Chinese and Indians to Malaya, essentially taking away their jobs. The seeds of racial tension—especially between the Malays and the Chinese—were sown by the British. And slowly allowed to germinate and grow. And fester.
With the intrusion of the Japanese, our allegiance shifted radically from England to Japan. Down with, “God save the King”. Up with hail to Emperor Hirohito of Japan. Now we kowtowed reverently to the north, for the emperor, since ancient times, was believed to be descended from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Malaya was aggressively seeking a
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sense of autonomy, individuality, and full independence from England. There was a growing impetus among the Malays, even brewing visibly among the privileged few matriculating at prestigious schools in England, to free themselves from the yoke of the British rule, now that the British impotence was exposed. One wondered how long the Malays had resented the sight and smell of the British, their protection from alien marauders.
No matter what, the Japanese Occupation meant snuffing out the fire of hopes, dreams and aspirations of many young people like my brother, who was seventeen at the time. It meant the untimely termination of Chinese education, snatching away the key to their future and dreams. For my brother it was a fatal blow to his ambitions, like being struck by a sudden, irreversible terminal illness. Brother never fully recovered to pursue his education after the defeat and retreat of the Japanese at the end of World War II. Not lack of ambition, but dire poverty had crippled our family. And many other hard-working, innocent families around us. And brother, an innocent victim of a widespread economic collapse the Japanese left behind, like a havoc caused by a devastating storm. He rightly blamed the Japanese for his lack of education, which forever doomed him to a life of servitude. He never forgave the Japanese for his sudden descent into despair and meaninglessness. And hell.
Brother often said life under the Japanese was like living precariously on an egg shell, made worse by rampant rumors of rapacious Japanese out to rape, murder and plunder the very sources of our survival. They stole our chickens, pigs, fruits, rice, sweet potatoes, tapioca and garden vegetables. We were able to hide some, like rice in tin cans from ravenous rats. We hated and feared the fucking two-legged bastards. We cursed the Japanese invaders. And lived like helpless babies with meager milk from the shrinking breasts for succor. Desperation took over the lives of both the young and the old. Many in the village felt like God had forsaken us.
“Gin nair Nippon-yan”—many Japanese sons, in our Hokchia dialect—mother would whisper, a warning to all of us to be on the constant lookout for the bastards. Young women especially, were not safe from the marauding hands of the Japanese soldiers. Many were raped in front of families or taken away and kept for “military purposes”. Young women wished they could remove their breasts and dirtied their faces to look unappetizing. Robust young men could be conscripted for military service or labor, or simply carried off for suspected communist sympathies. Decapitated heads of criminals were on public display. Fear descended mercilessly like the monsoon rain, never knowing what utter annihilation it might bring to those it touched. Many were vulnerable to the onslaught of hopelessness, despair, and starvation. Living for the moment. Like zombies. Searching for a silver lining in the dark clouds. God had forsaken us to die in the hands of the fucking bastards.
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In the city, Ipoh, where I was born, many fled to the surrounding towns and villages because the Japanese were bombing and machine-gunning positions supposedly defended by the British forces. Mobility was possible at the inception of the Japanese attacks.
During the Occupation, the entire population was registered and every movement controlled, the Japanese way to cut off civilian contacts with the communist insurgents or guerrillas now growing and infesting the jungles all around us.
Anyone suspected or found with pictures of Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek (the leader of the republican movement in mainland China) or the British royal family, or listening to radio news, or associating with people known to have anti-Axis sentiments could lead to torture and death in the hands of the Japanese bastards.
“Did you know they beheaded the headmaster of the English school in Kampong Koh?” A whisper spread faster than a rising tide. The headmaster was the first local Chinese promoted to head an English school, his distinguished promotion ended abruptly. Later it was rumored he and a few other local dignitaries were ordered to dig their own graves. Some were buried alive. The bodies of the headmaster and several other people were never found. A relative bicycled all the way from Kampong Koh to warn us of the impending doom. “Savage short beasts on the go”, the words spread from mouth to mouth like germs in the air we breathe. It sent chills down our spines. Our weakened and vulnerable bodies shuddered. Who next? What next? Where? When? Everybody felt vulnerable to random searches. Unsafe at any place.
“They hung a few men upside down”. A neighbor quietly spread the danger. We did that to some game animals we caught and slaughtered for food, supplementing our plain rice-vegetable diet. The Japanese did that to our men. And for what? Anger surfaced like spring water sprouting from the ground. But restrained. Suffered quietly like a constipated child.
Those suspected of fraternizing with the British and certain community leaders had to flee to the mountain tops or the depths of the ocean, hiding like earthworms from hungry ducks, or face excruciating death from the swords and infamous tortures of the Japanese. In “Operation Clean-up”, thousands of Chinese were reported to have been massacred by the Japanese military because they were suspected or accused of anti-Japanese activities after Japan attacked China in 1937. Another said, eyes rolling side to side like a trapped animal, “They filled his stomach with water until it could stretch no more, then placed a plank on his inflated belly. Sat on it like a seesaw.” Japanese ingenuity of torture. Villagers breathed heavily in a subdued ambiance. Funereal. Like mourning the death of a beloved family member. Like wells gone dry, tears came hard. Where was God in all the sufferings of friends, relatives and neighbors.
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The Kempeitai, the secret Japanese military police, committed many unspeakable crimes against innocent men and women—more males than females, prisoners of war, enemies of its imperialism—their brutalities are well documented and no less heinous and diabolical than those inflicted on thousands of innocent Jews in Nazi Germany. Hundreds of Chinese and Korean women were forced into sexual servitude to amuse and relieve the insane Japanese bastards. The records of their atrocities against humanity are miles long on paper.
Rumors spread like a forest fire after months of severe drought.
Countless Allied prisoners in Japanese hospitals were injected with deadly acid and bile. In a camp bunker in the Philippines, over one hundred Americans were doused with gasoline and set afire. During a long march to a prison camp in Thailand, over three thousands prisoners were beaten, starved, and many shot to death. And more rumors. Beyond human description and comprehension. All happened in our neighborhood, so to speak. Shockingly, Malaya did not become another Auschwitz or Buchenwald even though we industrious and entrepreneurial Chinese were pigeonholed as the Jews of the East. Obviously the Japanese did not share their German friends’ anti-Semitic sentiments. We were spared the gas chambers and death in cruel labor camps and starvation.
“In some strange ways,” brother said ironically, a voice strangely devoid of bitterness, “we were very lucky because we lived in a village. We had our land. A blessing. We grew our own vegetables, like long beans, squash, sweet potatoes and tapioca. We had fruits galore like soursop, pineapple, papaya, banana, jackfruit, guava, star fruit and mango. And sugar cane too. We lived near the ocean and so we had plenty of fish. We dug clams. We raised ducks, chickens and pigs.” The one commodity, a staple in the Malayan diet, was rice. And rice was in dire short supply, according to brother. Imports stopped abruptly. Family income almost evaporated faster than the morning dew. Still, village farmers survived better than many of those in urban areas up and down the Malay Peninsula.
“Remember the rice…pet owners used to feed their birds?” Someone laughingly in the family said years later. “The raw rice with shells? During the Japanese Occupation when we were faced with a terrible rice shortage, we had to use that pet rice to cultivate seedlings for rice farming. Unfortunately we were not very successful with growing rice. Can you imagine no rice to eat in Chinese homes throughout the country? Of course the poor birds suffered too.”
Did the Japanese achieve their goals during their occupation? The Japanese attempt to restore the country’s economy to its prewar level was slow. Its attempt to “replace” or “supplant” with everything Japanese—from teaching Nippon-Go (the Japanese language)
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to inculcating Japanese spirit, manners and morals—was anything but superficial and tentative. A Japanese bow might take the place of a western handshake but most things Japanese, like a plant, failed to grow on Malayan soil. The Japanese talk of a Greater Asia under a Japanese military leadership was a false promise. The reality was one of stark insensitivity and extreme harshness to the conquered, failing to win their hearts and souls and support, without which Japanese could not succeed in establishing a new order in Malaya or anywhere else in Southeast Asia.
For many, life was down in the pits, for at least forty-one long dreary months (February 1942 to August 1945). Like eternity. Until we heard what the Americans did to Japan.
We heard the good news that two atomic bombs, with unprecedented destructive power, were dropped, three days apart, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. President Harry Truman did not mince words when he warned the Japanese after the first bomb that America would drop more atomic bombs “until we completely destroy Japan’s ability to make war.” Japan offered surrender the day after the second bomb was dropped. August 10, 1945. About five days later, Japanese people heard the soft but resolute voice of their beloved emperor over the radio, a brave act unheard of in the annals of Japanese history. A real voice from a real emperor, for the first time in their lives. The voice of their emperor, a divine being?
We learned that the Japanese troops officially surrendered to Lord Mountbatten in Singapore on August 29. And General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Allied Commander, had this to say September 2, marking the unconditional surrender of Japan in a twenty-minute ceremony on the American battleship USS Missouri: “It is my earnest hope and indeed the hope of all mankind that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past.”
Some people raised this question: Did Emperor Hirohito try to appease the Americans, their conquerors and unwelcome occupiers lording over their land, when on January 1, 1946 (barely six months after the surrender) he issued an imperial decree, to the consternation of his own people, declaring his divinity a “false conception”? In essence saying to his people, I am just an ordinary man like you, not one descended from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu? Debunking his divine identity? Or did the emperor by his decree aim to usher in a new era of modern government in Japan, “based on democracy, peace and rationalism”? The world was eager to know.
Emperor Hirohito got his wish, an American woman to teach his son English, the present emperor of Japan.
With war finally over, our family sighed a great sense of relief. Like the first shower after a prolonged drought.