Thursday, 8 August 2013

Anecdotes from the Japanese Occupation years

I was born about a decade after the end of the dark period in Penang's history known as the Japanese Occupation.

When they were still alive, my grandparents and parents never talked much to me about the Occupation years but I could gather from their brief comments that those were brutal years indeed. Family fortunes were lost in the process when people headed to the hills to escape the bombardments from Japanese aircraft.  I suspect so too were my ancestors' fortunes because by the Second World War's end, my grandparents ended up renting a double-storey house in Seang Tek Road. Still, I reckon that they were luckier than most other people.

On my maternal grandmother's side, her siblings originally numbered seven in all, including herself. Every time when they visited us or we visited them, I had to call them (apart from my grandmother, of course) as my Ku Kongs and Ee Poh. However, there was always one of them missing: my second Ku Kong. His name never came up for mention and nobody ever wanted to say how he died except that he died young. Even today, I wonder whether he was a victim of ill health or the Second World War.

As I write this, it struck me that there were many people who preferred not to bring up memories of the war years again; as if the lesser said, the lesser the pain. But it is important to document all these verbal memories for the sake of the present generation and the future.

Therefore, it was with some joy that I came across a thread on facebook recently where someone had posted up a picture of a group of Japanese soldiers relaxing by a ditch and...smiling into the camera! It was as if these soldiers actually knew who it was that was holding the camera and approving of their picture being taken.

The comments below were taken from the thread. Not everything is reproduced here except the very pertinent ones. I have to thank deeply the people mentioned in the parentheses for sharing their anecdotes with me without their knowledge.

(Azman Shaari) I lost an uncle in WW2 who was captured by the Japs and forced to build the "Bridge over the River Kwai" railway. That's where he died. My grandma (father's mom) also died during the Japanese occupation. At that time grandpa was a clerk with KTM in Gemas, Negeri Sembilan. According to dad, tapioca was the staple during those difficult times. It happened while grandma was digging for ubi kayu that she accidentally struck her foot with the changkul. With no hospital or medical facilities available, grandma succumbed to tetanus (lock jaw) and passed away.

(Goh Kek Seng) Azman Shaari, I lost an uncle too in similar circumstances - my mum's brother was conscripted to build the railway link from Thailand to S. Myanmar.. Apparently he escaped from his prison camp, wandered back towards Malaya but died somewhere along the way back. Someone related the news to my mum after the war.

(Goh Kek Seng) My parent grew up with foster family during the war because my grandparents died early. But the foster family had Thai blood in them, were Buddhists and had the house adorned with pix of King Bhumipol. The Japanese respected that King because Thailand was considered a friend then. So when the Japs came into our family home they did our folks no harm and instead bowed to the pix of the Thai King.

(Willis Teoh) My maternal grandfather was killed by Japs but we moved on. My father saw what happened and told me first-hand what actually happened. In war you are either a man or a sell out.

(Potent Flower) My aunties and dad had to run into the jungle to hide. Some hid in chicken coops. Some were quickly got married off by my grandpa (he had 10 girls and two boys). Grandpa gave away his watches so that they didn't throw my dad into the air and stab him with the knife at the edge of their guns. I always see and feel the fear in him whenever he tells us about the war.

(Avan Khoo) My dad had a first-hand encounter with Japanese. He was still a little kid when the Japanese invaded. He saw them marching into the village but didn't know what happened, so he watched. A Japanese soldier saw him, picked him up and gave him a few kisses on his two cheeks, and then put him down. Probably that's why he didn't hate Japanese so much...

(Muttaqin Othman) My late grandma told us many stories about the Japanese occupation and a police constable called Latif. He was a Japanese collaborator and yes, a sellout. He lived easy during those days, and not through his pay or other stipends. He preyed on the villagers who was afraid he'd tell on them to the Kempeitai. He never did pay anything when he went to the market. Let's say he met a fitting end when the war ended during the transition period.

(Azman Shaari) My dad was still a young boy during the Jap Occupation. He told me that he befriended the Jap soldiers so that they wouldn't harass his father and sisters. They taught him basic Jap words, phrases and also some Japanese songs. Whenever he sang to them they would reward him with army ration chocolate bars that he'd take home to share with the family. In those tough times you had to learn to adapt for survival.

(Ba Asp) I recalled my late granny telling me tales of those gatai Japanese soldiers who'd go from house to house to look for young girls.When her house was searched, she and her sisters ashen their face with ash and pretended to be maids.

(Avan Khoo) Ba Asp, yeah, I heard that too. And saw it in many reports. They just satisfied their lust, and then blamed it that these were filthy animals worthy of humiliation. I can imagine it happening during wars when laws and rules are sitting on a thread. But to hear it in our current society that some officers misuse their power to threaten foreigners who came illegally to "pay by body" if they don't want to be arrested is really heart wrenching.

(Ba Asp) The Japanese Occupation caused so much fear among the Chinese. That fear caused my great grandpa's diabetes to worsen and he died a few months later. Coming from Toisan, China, he of course had a collection of old Chinese literature. He burned all that for fear that the Japanese would behead anyone owning Chinese literature. So sad.

(Saifol Shamlan) My late father was 20 when they invaded. His mother's big house on Chamberlain Road/Jalan Kampa had many girls due to the many relatives and foster children who lived there. He learned the language and was the one to face the "inquiring" soldiers that came to the house sniffing around for young women. My aunties told me that they'd hide and he would talk the soldiers out of a search.

(Lizzie Slothouber) I'll add my little bit here so all the info is in one place for reference. Re the WW2 bit ... my Mum was about seven or eight when WW2 broke out. Her Mother cut off her long hair and dressed her up as a boy. Later when her body started to develop, her chest was bound very tightly so that nothing showed. Fortunately her second brother's wife intervened and taught her to remove the bounds and Mum was always proud of her C cups (where the other two in the family were flat as pancakes). Mum told us that the raw rice that you HAD to buy from the Japanese - the price of it changed from day to day - had to be very carefully sorted through as the Japanese would add white cement powder and other stuff to make the rice heavier and you pay more. Had to use a DULANG to toss it into the wind. The powder flew away and rice came down. Then washed the rice between your hands with running water - sometimes six times - until the water ran clear.

(Lizzie Slothouber) They grew UBI KAYU and peanuts outside their family home in Pudu. Harvested the leaves of ubi kayu to fry to eat. And she loved eating steamed ubi kayu dipped in sugar but in her adult life - she NEVER touched/ate ubi kayu ever - because it reminded her of the hard war times. Her father died when she was four, died of burst appendicitis, and her mum died when she was 12 due to ill health and diabetes and lack of medical access during the Japanese occupation too.

(Lizzie Slothouber) Reposting the reply from Dato' Hj Mohd Nuri SaLatiff: Yes, the Japanese soldiers could never see girls; they just grabbed the girls for their own use. That's why at the house near Simpang Pulai, my mother's cousin sister, being desperate, jumped from upstairs to the ground to flee from the Japanese soldiers. She was lucky she didn't break a single bone - that was a miracle! We had our rice mixed with tapioca, sweet potatoes or unripe bananas to make up the volume/quantity.

(Saifol Shamlan) I was told by my mother that some of the "Japanese" soldiers were actually Manchurians and those were the ones you really should avoid.

(Muttaqin Othman) Many Manchurians were the ones tasked with occupying Malaysia and other nations conquered by the Japanese while the Japanese troops would fight on the front lines. An old Malay Regiment member (still alive) told me the "Japanese" soldiers his village had were actually Manchurians, not Japanese. Germany did the same during WW2. They used Hungarians, Romanians, etc, to occupy countries they had subjugated while their own soldiers went to the front lines. For them it was also a question of competence and loyalty!

(Raja Shah Idris) It was mostly the Officers who were the Japanese...

(Winter Soon Chak) A true story told by my late father. During the Japanese occupation, life was tough so most people had to find ways and means to earn a living. One day, my late uncle was taking fruits to the local pasar in his bicycle and he was carrying a load of mangosteen. Along the way, he was stopped by a Japanese soldier and he demanded to know what it was. Upon being told by my uncle that it was a fruit, the soldier snatched one, quickly placed it in his mouth and was just about to take a bite when my uncle immediately told him to stop, with good intentions of course. Taking this for a refusal to give him the ‘free’ fruit, he slapped my uncle and subsequently took a big bite of the mangosteen, skin and all!! As we all know, to eat this fruit, you’ll have to remove the hard, bitter outer ‘skin’. The end result… my uncle received two more slaps as gratuity from this soldier. At least it was not a bullet!

(Lean Siang Yew) Someone from my mother side of the family was killed by machine gun after the first few days of Japanese invasion of Penang because he went to check the condition of the shop. Family members tried to stop me but he would not listen. They went to the hills to hide from the Japs. My father's side of the family had to live on wild vegetables and shellfish (siput) collected from the seaside. I regularly heard the stories from my late father, late aunts and late grandma. All of them were very strict on food wastage because they went hungry during Japanese occupation - I could not understand them when I was a kid but now I understand why. My father actually smuggled rice from Thailand before during WW2 - he could get his head chopped off if he was caught. I still have a Japanese certificate issued to my dad - he worked in the railway station as a fireman (not fire brigade but the one that looked after the train's steam engine).

(Lean Siang Yew) My family members and former teachers used to tell us stories of how Japanese tortured the people by pulling their finger nails, fed them with water from a water hose followed by placing a plank on their stomach...then the Japs jumped on top of the stomach leading to water coming out from the nose, mouth, ears, eyes...etc. Very brutal!

(Leon Tan) My uncle was 12 in Kota Bharu when the Japanese landed in December 1941. He distinctly remembered that a large number of the invading force were actually Taiwanese conscripts, and could communicate with the locals in Hokkien and Mandarin.

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