The surrender of the British Army
Food scarcity was part and parcel of the war, as well as the prospect of things turning worse. This is Part II in a three-part series.
BY: Tan Yoon Yin
After the surrender of the British Army in Singapore on February 15, 1942, our daily lives returned to slightly normal again. But the fear, anxiety and insecurity were on everyone’s minds.
Food rationing began with the scarcity of rice, vegetables, meat, fish, sugar and salt. My mother, sister and I started to plant a small paddy field (rice), vegetables, sweet potatoes and tapioca. It was really hard work under the burning sun, but we had to work as farmers if we were to survive.
Once a week, my second brother had to cycle from the rubber estate to the market in town to buy rationed meat. He used to leave the house in the morning and would be back in time for us to cook the meat and vegetables for lunch. This particular morning he did not return home at his usual time, and this kept us very worried.
In our minds, we knew that something might have gone wrong. The Japanese were accustomed to taking young men away without a trace, getting rid of them by massacre. Below is an account of the story by my brother when he came home safely to us:
Unexpectedly when he cycled to the town central, the Japanese soldiers rounded him and others into an open school field. There were many young men and seniors sitting on the grass under the hot blazing sun. All were very thirsty, without a drop of water to drink. No one dared to move or talk for hours. My brother excused himself to go to the toilet, which was quite some distance away from the crowd. The toilet was a temporary wooden structure like a small hut with a door. A platform was built to accommodate the night soil bucket at the bottom.
The only way to escape was to squeeze through the hole without attracting the attention of the Japanese guard who was on duty. By this ingenious idea, he was lucky to be able to escape, and came home to us very much alive but totally sunburnt and dehydrated. Later we heard that the crowd was taken away in army trucks and the men were never seen or heard of again. Most probably, they were sent to work to rebuild the railway line in Burma (now called Myanmar).
The Japanese soldiers were constantly searching for gu-niang in their spare time when they were passing through to Singapore on their bicycles. My father had to marry off my sister quickly to avoid any mishap. A matchmaker arranged for her marriage to a widower who was working as a clerk in the Seremban Police Station. I could not hold back my tears as I bade her goodbye in a taxi. There was no wedding ceremony or dinner to mark the occasion. Everything was done quietly, and quickly.
When the situation seemed to settle down, my two brothers left Semenyih and went back to their jobs. Only my mother and I remained in the rubber estate. I became increasingly lonely and restless, and longed to go back to school, but there was no English school in the small town. My father enrolled me in a small Chinese school, which was situated outside the town.
A Japanese sentry was posted just on the outskirts of town. Whenever I arrived at the sentry, I had to get down from my bicycle, park it on the side of the road, go in front of the Japanese soldier on duty, and bow myself down 90 percent to show my respect to him. If it were not done properly, he would pour out vulgar language, which I could not understand but could tell by his nasty tone of his voice. Some people were kicked, slapped and punched whenever their bow was not done properly and correctly.
At school, the medium instruction was in Mandarin, but the teachers were not interested or concerned for the students. They did not have the peace of mind to conduct proper lessons due to the fear of the unsettling situation and an unknown future.
A change in school
It was very frustrating not getting any benefit out of their teaching. I brought up this matter to my father and told him that I would like to enrol in a convent near Kajang, which was a half-hour drive from Semenyih. I would be willing to face any hardships if he would allow me to change schools, and he did.
Daily cycling to and fro along the six-mile journey was out of the question, as there were too many Japanese forces that were passing along the road. One of my mother’s friends, a widow, and her daughter agreed to accept me as a boarder. But, every evening she had to accompany her daughter who worked in the amusement park and they would only return home past midnight. As such, most of the evenings, I was left alone to study by myself with a small kerosene lamp or by candlelight. I was lonely and frightened, and could not concentrate on my lessons for fear of the appearance of Japanese soldiers at the door.
A few months later, I moved in to live with a family with four children. I thought I would be happy living with them but they only sneered, mocked, laughed and looked down on me, and called me the stooge of the Japanese as at the time, I was learning the Japanese language at the convent as it was a required subject. I missed my comfortable home with my mother. Life was lonely and miserable. The children also laughed, and made fun of me when I had to cook my own meals (most of the time, it was boiled sweet potatoes or boiled tapioca). I had to sleep on a mat laid on the floor with a pillow and a thin blanket.
As time went by, I became very thin, pale, tired and lacked my usual cheerful self and active personality. The English and Irish nuns at the convent who were teaching us noticed my listless behaviour and felt sorry for me. They invited me to stay in the convent with them during the weekdays. I knew there I could get all the protection, peace of mind and comfort, with three hot cooked meals a day. But I was apprehensive and shy, not knowing how to behave and react in a convent with four nuns!
Fortunately, a young Chinese teacher Miss Lee, who taught us maths and science also stayed there during the weekdays. She returned home to her parents in Kuala Lumpur during the weekends. We shared one big classroom as our bedroom, with a cupboard and two folding canvas beds. She was like a big sister to me. We shared each other’s thoughts, ideas, loves, cared for and supported each other. Once, we were curious and even decided to peep at the nuns in their classroom-converted-bedroom to see whether their heads were shaved like the Chinese nuns in the temple. But we gave up the idea through our respect for them.
Our companionship with each other sadly only lasted six months. Miss Lee went home on medical leave and died of tuberculosis within a few months due to lack of medication. Many nights in that spacious but lonely room, lying on the canvas bed, I silently cried myself to sleep.
The teaching and learning atmosphere was so much better than at the Semenyih Chinese Primary School. My classmates were all girls and we were nearly the same age. The nuns were highly dedicated teachers who taught their students maths, English, art and scripture. Our Japanese language was taught by a high-ranking officer from the Japanese army, who was dressed in an army uniform and black shiny boots. He was a gentleman and was well-respected by the nuns. By his cheerful and encouraging demeanour, he was determined that we should master the Japanese language and learn the Japanese songs in the shortest time, as the soldiers never stayed in one place for a long period; they moved on to conquer new shores like Southeast Asia and South Asia.
As I was six months late in starting school, I had a lot of catching up to do. Though in the beginning I was shy and embarrassed for not knowing a single word of Japanese, I was determined to work hard and try my best to catch up with my classmates. By the end of my first year, I was able to speak fluent Japanese and write simple characters as well.
Every Friday afternoon, the nuns would go back to the main convent in Kuala Lumpur. They would stay there for the weekend and come back on Monday morning on time to begin classes in the Kajang Convent. I would cycle back home six miles southward to Semenyih to be with my parents. Every Monday morning, I would cycle back to Kajang Convent to be on time for school at 8am. The journey on the road was not enjoyable, easy or peaceful ride. When the road became hilly, I had to get down and push the bicycle, puffing and panting all the way. And, when going downhill, I had to use the brake until my fingers became red and numb. All the time I had to be alert, watching for oncoming Japanese military trucks. Whenever I heard the sound of heavy trucks, I would immediately abandon my bicycle by the side of the road, and run deep into the rubber estate to hide among the bushes. All the while, I was afraid that they would spot the bicycle and start looking for me.
I heard a lot of unpleasant stories about the cruel treatment of ladies and girls by the Japanese soldiers. While hiding in suspense in the rubber estate, a short prayer taught by the nuns gave me the courage to ward off fear and anxiety. I only came out of my hiding place when the sound of military trucks diminished into the far distance.
Living within the protection of the convent was supposed to be quiet and peaceful. However, one afternoon, I received a message from my father informing me that my two cousins were arrested and sent to the Kajang Police Station. They were caught while watching people saw the iron bars of a bombed-out bridge. A police patrol car passed by, and assumed that the two were involved in stealing government property. They pushed my two cousins into the patrol car and sped off to the station. I was instructed by my father to go over and find out how they were faring. Not realising the dangers and without informing the nuns, I went straight to the station. While I was walking and looking around, a Japanese soldier saw me and ordered a Malay policeman to put me into the lockup cell.
As I held the bars tightly with both hands, I was gripped by fear of the unknown, hopelessness, insecurity and uncertainty, having heard so many stories of cruelty committed by the Japanese soldiers. Many people were tortured and punished for crimes they did not commit.
I had no one to turn to but the Almighty God. With the little knowledge of religion I received from the nuns, I prayed with uncontrollable tears and poured out my sorrow to God. He was the only one who could save me.
A young woman was with me in the cell. She was lying on a makeshift platform staring up at the ceiling. She looked so miserable, helpless and dejected. It appeared as if the whole world had tumbled down with no hope of escape. I dared not talk to her for fear we might then get beaten up by the Japanese soldiers.
As night drew near, the place became quiet and deserted. Suddenly out of nowhere, an Indian teenage of about 18 years old passed our cell. I recognised him as Yoga who used to go to the convent to visit the nuns and ran errands for them. He knew I was the only Chinese girl who was a boarder at the convent. He was shocked to see me in this situation and inquired how I came to be there. As I explained, I cried my heart out to him to help me get out of this predicament. He was a Japanese language interpreter in the police station as well as associated with the Japanese. By his intervention, I was released, so were my two cousins.
During the weekends, my time was spent with my mother in the rubber estate and also to help her to plant paddy, sweet potatoes and tapioca, as rice was rationed. This was the only way to escape hunger. It was hard and tedious, working for hours under the hot blazing sun, and getting soaking wet under the tropical storms. We reared chickens and ducks for meat and eggs.
As my two brothers had already left, my mother had to live a lonely life during the weekdays while I had to study at the convent. My father and a cousin had to take care of the shop for fear of looting, which was quite common as there was a lack of police on patrol.
In mid-1943, my sister-in-law was expecting her second child and needed my mother’s help with the household chores. We had to uproot ourselves again to live with my brother and his family in Taiping, a town in Perak. Again it was heartbreaking to bid farewell to all the nuns and my classmates. Would I see them again? It was a big question. One consolation was that I didn’t need to cycle six miles to and fro again for the sake of education.
Tan Yoon Yin, 87, is grandmother of three who keeps busy gardening, tidying the house, cooking and meeting friends, and regularly attends all kinds of talks. In the past, she was the founder and president of the Women’s Netball Association and the Women’s Hockey Association.