Friday, 11 November 2011


"... we lugged our belongings along three miles of rough estate road..."

IT WAS, to say the least, a truly agonizing period, fleeing from one temporary abode to another. We had thought life would be peaceful and safe in our hut in the Karak Estate among newly-planted rubber trees, bananas and sweet potatoes. No possibility of starvation, at any rate. A few more dreadful months, perhaps. The British would soon recapture Malaya from the "Japs."

Alas, it wasn't to be!

The estate workers were at the end of their tether: gangsters were taking advantage of the chaotic conditions and robbing all and sundry. Former government servants such as my husband could consider themselves very well off, with the three-month bonus they had received just before the invasion. But, on the other hand, that made the likes of us fair game for the armed gangs. The gory heads on display in the marketplace were no deterrent to these desperate criminals.

Around three o'clock on a cold, eerie morning, with the help of three young men (nephews of the estate manager), we lugged our belongings along three miles of rough estate road to a concealed lorry parked near the trunk road. Estate workers had dug up the already rough estate road to deter the Japanese army trucks from entering. Little good this did, for the Japs later marched right in and ordered all the able-bodied men to serve as porters, hauling out the entire hoard of foodstuffs there (tinned food and rice from the kongsi) on foot!

We got our baggage and ourselves on the lorry and by dawn were approaching Kuala Lumpur. My brother-in-law had offered us shelter in his house, which was already packed to capacity. Safety in numbers, that was the general idea. A room had been prepared for our family of four. Unmarried members of the clan slept where they could in the sitting and dining rooms. My sarongs and gold jewellery were sold to feed the Lee family - about a dozen of us in all.

The Japs were conducting sporadic search-and-arrest operations. No one could feel safe in that atmosphere of uncertainty. One morning, my husband had a craving for something different in our daily menu, and insisted on going marketing. I pleaded with him - another few days of lime rice and ikan bilis (preserved anchovies) wouldn't kill anyone! But there was no stopping this die-hard gourmet.

He was gone for hours. Word reached us that the Japs were hauling up young men in house-to-house inspections along Bukit Bintang Road. Finally, my husband returned with some fresh provisions, and a hair-raising account. As he was leaving the market with one of our neighbours, the Japs had stopped them and ordered them to squat by the roadside. Just then, a cyclist appeared and, seeing the Japs, began peddling furiously away. While the Japs were in hot pursuit, my husband had the presence of mind to whisper to our neighbour, "Now or never!" They hastened down an alley and disappeared. That day itself, several hundred men were taken away and never seen again.

We decided that it was time to move again. It would not do to have too many men in one house. But, before we could arrange our departure, the Japs came knocking on our door. It was too early to get drunk and rape a few women - so the females in the Lee household were spared. The menfolk were scrutinised and found to be a respectable, well-fed lot - obviously no communists, secret agents, or gangsters in their midst - so they, too, were spared.

By now, it looked as if the Japs were here to stay. The soldiers must have been under orders to avoid antagonising the locals too much. After all, it is one thing to invade another country - but quite another to try and govern it smoothly.

My father, who had been posted to the Kuala Selangor District Court, decided to resign and move to Sepang, a Foochow stronghold. There, amongst his fellow countrymen, he would be much safer - or so he thought. But no sooner had he arrived in Sepang than he found himself robbed of all his money and clothes!

I was tired of being a refugee. I suggested that my husband apply, in person, for my father's former position as court interpreter. At least, in Kuala Selangor, we would have a house of our own and our children could lead a more normal life. They were now aged six and seven-and-a-half: they needed a proper home routine, some tuition to prepare them for school; and they needed milk and eggs.

Life in Kuala Selangor was idyllic by comparison to what we had left behind in Kuala Lumpur. We had a she-goat to provide milk - just one cup daily and a bit extra for my "face cream." Chickens provided eggs and fresh meat, and we had our own vegetable plot. Despite the constant water shortage, we had little cause for complaint, though we had to make our own oil (from coconuts) for lighting as well as cooking.

"Punchuri" was my immediate neighbour and closest friend. (She was quite a character; you can read about her in the next chapter!) In return for my helping her in various ways, she taught me a little Tamil and explained Hindu culture to me. Even in war-time, I was getting extra education!

In fact, we were all getting a lot of education, in the most unexpected fields. Kuala Selangor was rich in seafood, especially cockles, which the Japanese loved; they would soon can them and ship them back to Japan. My brother-in-law Kong Soon and his friends came to Kuala Selangor to gather shellfish for a living.

It wasn't at all difficult. They rented a small boat, paddled out along the muddy banks of the river, and simply scooped up the shellfish with two shallow buckets, mud and all. They sat at one end of the boat and kept scooping up their catch until the boat was full. Then they would sell the entire boatload to a middleman and call it a day.

We were rather fond of our peaceful lifestyle in scenic old Kuala Selangor, but, towards the end of the war, we were advised to move again. Word had arrived via the "underground network" that a British submarine was sailing into position for an offensive against the Japanese. Our little house was at the foot of the hill on which a Japanese fortress stood, overlooking the sea. It was directly in the line of fire, and certainly not likely to survive the heavy shelling.

And so, after nearly three years in Kuala Selangor, we were refugees once more - this time to a tiny village a few miles away named Parit Besar, literally, "Big Drain"! We had to dig a well for water and build a makeshift bath and toilet behind our new shanty home.

The other residents, mostly "Anchoon" Hookiens, were amused by our genteel touches. Why couldn't we do like them and use the nearby rubber estate as our toilet? And why didn't we bathe at the well like everybody else?

Nevertheless, they soon became very friendly when they discovered how versatile I was: I could teach their children the rudiments of English, sew for them when they managed to obtain some cloth, diagnose their ailments and dispense free medicine (which wasn't too complicated, since malaria was rampant in the village!) I even played midwife when their daughters had babies.

The villagers were generous with sweet potatoes and vegetables and sometimes even rice - so I never really had to slog in the fields under the hot sun.

We remained in "Big Drain" till the British returned. As we loaded our possessions onto the lorry, the entire village came to send us off. We had a live goat, bought with the last of our Japanese Occupation Government currency (a crisp one-thousand banana-dollar note donated by Uncle Ho on his last visit to Kuala Selangor!) I sat up front beside the lorry driver, and as we were about to begin our journey to Kuala Lumpur, a lady whom I knew only as Ah-Mmm ("aunty" in Hokkien) threw a red packet onto my lap. I thanked her and she waved us off, smiling and dabbing her eyes.

When I opened the red packet, I was overwhelmed. Ah-Mmm had put in $20 (British Malayan currency) - a whole month's salary for some people. It could well have been her life savings!

Some years later, when I revisited Kuala Selangor to enjoy a reunion with old friends, Ah-Mmm came with her granddaughter (whom I had delivered) to see me. The poor child had a squint. She must have been left alone all day in her rattan cradle with nothing to look at but the colourful wooden toy attached to a spring!

For some reason, this brings to mind an incident which occurred when we were part of the Parit Besar community. A woman had offered her six-year-old granddaughter as a child bride for my eight-year-old son. The woman added that, if my son didn't fancy her when he grew up, I could keep her as an extra daughter or maid to look after me in my old age. It was a great surprise for me to find such a custom being practised so far away from China, and in that day and age. Yet the practice was not as uncivilized as one might think. A village female didn't have much chance of personal fulfilment: she would be raised as a workhorse, a breeding machine for the family she married into (where, of course, the menfolk would eat first and the womenfolk were welcome to the leftovers). Indeed, it was because the woman loved her granddaughter that she had made me the offer.

My son, like most boys his age, hadn't acquired an interest in the opposite sex, and was visibly upset when he heard about the offer. (We turned it down, of course.) What a narrow escape! But thereafter the child-bride was put to effective use as a threat by our cook Ah Wong. Whenever he was less than obliging in helping her with her errands, she would say:

"Maybe your mother will change her mind and accept a child-bride for you - at least I'd have someone to help me once in a while!"