8) My Grandpa I never knew: Surreal Occupation

Japanese guards

Night fall the night the bicycle infantry left town to give chase after the retreating British Army was the quietest and darkest as townsfolk cowered behind closed doors still in shock and wreaked in fear. The lives they had known were shattered and the future they had toiled to build turned uncertain. Everything was dark, the street was ink-black and even the nocturnal orchestra was silent. Kai Chang was no different. He could only stare ponderously at the ceiling wondering whatever future beheld. The atmosphere inside Lam Seng was hushed and depressed.

He heard soldierly footfalls on the corridor of shop houses. They stopped. They were staring at Lam Seng’s signboard in front of his shop. He heard muted mutterings. Raw cigarette smoke twirled and wafted into Lam Seng. His heart was throbbing into his throat. His anxious mind was conjuring fear. The wooden door panels which separated them suddenly felt unconvincingly thin and flimsy. He needed to know why they had stopped in front of Lam Seng and what were they up to. He treaded silently towards the door so as not to attract any attention and placed his ear against it. He could not make out their muted conversation outside. He needed to know. He took a cautious peek through the crack between the panels. He held his breath to calm his nerves. He could only hear his own galloping heartbeats.

Two stern faces in the shadow occasionally lit up from cigarette glows. On their shoulders silhouetted against the starlit night were Arisaka rifles fixed with the fearsome 15-inch steel type 30 bayonets. After what seemed to Kai Chang an eternity, one took a long pull of his cigarette, exhaled unhurriedly then carelessly flicking the butt away. The tip glowed when the butt somersaulted in the air before hitting the pavement. He cleared his throat and spat. He smacked his companion’s back, and they resumed their patrol and walked off nonchalantly toward the Police Station further down the road. Kai Chang finally exhaled in relief. Despite the anti climax, everyone slept fitfully that night.

One fateful morning after the fall of Singapore, early March 1942, townsfolk were awakened by violent banging on doors. Armed soldiers were summoning everyone to gather immediately in the town square beside the Clock Tower, everyone, men, women, adults, children and even infants. No one was exempted. There were soldiers stationed at the back lane in case anyone tried to escape, bayonets ready to direct them in the right direction.

They congregated at the town square surrounded by armed soldiers. Townsfolk stood in fearful silence. The soldiers stood in proud attention. Kimigayo crescendo-ed that morn instead of God saves the Queen as the Rising Sun flag (Kyokujitsu-ki) instead of the Union Jack was being raised in tandem, followed by three arrogant shouts of Banzai by the Japanese present.

Then the men were separated from the women and children. One by one, they were checked against a list of names and interrogated in what the Japanese called Daikensho or the Great Inspection but better known after the War as Sook Ching or the Purge. There were two hooded quislings beside the interrogators. A nod from either one, or if the victim’s name was listed on the list, they would be dragged away into a temporary holding barb-wired pen for further interrogation by the dreaded Kempetai, and most were not seen alive after that, only eye-less maggots infested heads did appear mysteriously impaled on the riverbank at Bakar Kapor, unrecognizable unless one was familiar with forensic facial reconstruction. Fortunate few survived the terror. Defiant ones recounted ruthless interrogations, inhuman degradation and bestial humiliations while most were just utterly broken, living dead. Their eyes opened unseeing, to look into them was to see darkness, hollowness and abysmal hopelessness.

For the rest who were not singled out had their names and some personal particulars recorded. They were then instructed to bow respectfully whenever they meet any Japanese soldiers. A few flippant youngsters were slapped for failing to bow properly. After which they were given a stamp of approval on their garments and issued ration cards. Many kept their garments unwashed to preserve the stamp for their lives depended on it. Quite a number regretted for being stamped on the dorsum of their hand as the stamps faded almost immediately from sweats.

Everyone acquiesced or attempted to do so, with the new situation, masters, anthem, flag, language and even new Banana money. Life was bearable with some semblance of normality of pre-invasion days. Food, at least staples, was still available though not abundant and the atmosphere or the temperament of the Japanese soldiers, administrators and even the Kempetai was not too fiendish neither were they very friendly, just barely tolerable.

The situation soon deteriorated rapidly with news of setbacks and losses on the various Pacific fronts. The sleeping giant had finally stirred from his slumber after the unprovoked bruising at Pearl Harbour to fight back. Fighting back hard the US did. Tokyo was fire-bombed with incendiaries in the Doolittle Raid in Apr 1942. The retaliatory Raid prompted Japanese planners to expand the sphere of control outward away from Japan to the Midway Atoll in hope to preventing future raids. The invasion of the Midway Atoll two months later ended in a disastrous crippling of the Imperial Japanese Navy, losing four of her main aircraft carriers, Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu. The Japanese began to turn more temperamental and short fused.

Basic essentials soon became scarce. Even rice, the staple, was not spared in the rice bowl state of Kedah either. Many went hungry as had to resort to the less nourishing more abundant wild tapioca. Prices of essentials skyrocketed, if available, and the value of Japanese Banana money plummeted. A sackful could only buy a “cupak” of rice. People resorted to barter trade. The Banana money was good only as fire starter, and may be toilet paper. Life was no longer just tolerable but fast becoming difficult even to survive, and many did die from starvation and disease.

To Kai Chang, the welfare and wellbeing of his family took priority over all else. No doubt, he hated the Japanese for causing the death of his parents. However, he knew he had to suppress his hatred for his family’s sake. Somehow, he managed to keep his peace and allow his love for his family to prevail over his hatred of the Japanese, and kept his family safe throughout the 3 years and 8 months of Occupation. If he had the choice, he would have preferred to join up with Spencer Chapman.

Fortunately, he did not have to go into constant hiding like one of his fellow Foochow, Ooi Kim Chin, in the neighbouring town, Guar Chempedak. Kim Chin had to constantly hide amongst the locals in the surrounding kampongs each time the Kempetai went out rounding up suspects. Clothed in sarong and songkok, tanned Kim Chin blended easily with the local Malay community. He was even nicknamed “Awang” to avoid suspicion and arrest. Unbeknownst then, Awang’s eldest son would be take the hands of Kai Chang’s adopted daughter in marriage after the Occupation. By another twist of fate, divine appointment no less, the familial tie was further strengthened when his eldest son married Awang’s youngest daughter, the author’s parents.

Kai Chang did however do what he could in passive resistance. He heard of hardships on certain trains bound for Thailand. He was told that they were Commonwealth prisoners of war and deceived volunteers destined for a railway construction from Thailand into Burma. He and a few of his close friends wanted to help. They would put aside and gather whatever ration they could afford, hide them in the store at the back of Lam Seng and wait patiently for the distance train whistle.

They would collect the ration and sneak into the bushes beside the railway tracks, always in darkness, till the train come to a total halt. The train’s steam engine needed to be replenished with water. They would quickly shove the ration through whatever openings on the freight wagons, ignoring the human stench and stealthily disappear into the night. And yes, the prisoners and volunteers were being transported in bare rudimentary freight wagons. Only after the War did they learn that thousands perished in the construction of the infamous Death Railway.

Spencer Chapman formed and spearheaded the Anti-Japanese resistance Force 136. Force 136 was mainly active in the vicinity of Ipoh. It collaborated with the left leaning Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA). A key figure in the MPAJA was Ong Boon Hua, a fellow Foochow and most probably a distant relative who later gained notoriety as Chin Peng post-Occupation as the leader of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). Instead of being disbanded when the Japanese surrendered unconditionally after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 16 Aug 1945, the MPAJA continued their arms struggle under CPM right through Malayan Independence in 1957 and Formation of Malaysia in 1963. CPM finally gave up their struggle, laid down arms and disbanded in 1989, and was filed away in the footnote of history when Chin Peng passed away in 2013.

Prior to the return of the British forces in Sep 1945 after the Japanese sudden capitulation in Aug 1945, MPAJA did attempt to stamp their presence throughout Malaya. During those uncertain days, Kai Chang once again feared for his life and the lives of his family. He was a card carrying member of the Kuomintang, a Nationalist, arch nemesis of the Communists. In China, but for a short cooperative lull to resist the Japanese, their common enemy, both had been each other’s throats for supremacy since the fall the Qing Dynasty in 1911. The Communists prevailed and was victorious, and by 1949 gained full control over Mainland China. The defeated Nationalists was pushed onto an island stronghold of Formosa, renamed Taiwan.

Kai Chang’s fear of reprisal was short-lived for the MPAJA did not attempt to establish their presence in Sungai Petani as the Japanese garrison continued to guard the town till the British returned. Probably, they could not muster a force large enough to take over and garrison the town, and probably, most of the local Chinese populace was Nationalists.

Life quickly went back to pre-War normalcy. When the British soldiers marched through Jalan Ibrahim back to their barracks and Aerodrome at Jalan Pegawai, Kai Chang was amongst the exuberant townsfolk enthusiastically welcoming their return, cheering vociferously. He was so elated and grateful, and most importantly so relieved. He smiled for tomorrow he would have the pleasure of burning the sacks of Banana money to cleanse his soul and rid his memory of the wretched days of Occupation, so surreal.

 

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