Reminiscences of the Japanese Occupation of Malaya (1941 – 1945)
written by Madam Polly Wong Mei Lan
reposted with permission from the same.
When I first heard of the bombing of Pearl Harbour, 8th December, 1941, I was nine years old soon to be ten next January. In my young mind it did not seem to matter very much as the affected place seemed so far away but when I heard that the Japanese were going to be at our very doorstep I began to feel excited mixed with feelings of fear. If we were conquered, though the adults said that the island of Singapore was “invincible”, what would the Japanese be like as masters? I had heard very little about the Japanese except that they made and sold very cheap toys and at that age and being in a small town like Malacca I did not remember having seen any Japanese. Well, I was soon to see and know quite a lot about them.
To avoid any bombing of Malacca town we evacuated to Nibong Tebal, eighteen miles away, and which seemed a long, long way from home. I remember feeling very excited, and took with me my favourite things which I found did give me a sense of comfort every time I missed home. At that time to me it was great that when school was supposed to reopen I would still be on holiday, a holiday that I eventually found to be far too long, that I could feel myself panicking in case the British never came back to rescue us.
Life in the rubber estate where we had gone to stay with some very distant relatives of my paternal grandmother was a totally new world of opposites. We had not servants now and communication with our kind hosts was reduced to only nods and smiles as we spoke only English and Nonya Malay. Chinese was a foreign language to us then! However, we survived life in the countryside, running into the forest whenever news of the Japanese reaching us came. That was when I learnt of the atrocities of the Japanese soldiers, how cruel they were. Then, I really started to have feelings of fear, of what they could do to us.
Being able to return home in Tranquerah Road was indeed a great blessing for us. Never had I loved my home more than when I could finally sleep in my very own bed with a proper mattress and clean pillows. Also, we could now begin our “social” life again with people we could really talk to. By now my mother was very keen that both my sister, Lily, and I should learn to speak our own language, Chinese, and though the school selected was easily 2 miles away in town I found myself walking to Yoke Bin Chinese school every morning. Lily was still too young then to walk all that way. My three Chinese friends who could only speak Chinese found me strange and would laugh at the way I struggled at my Chinese, but I did learn then and could even scold the boys who tried to bully me in Chinese. There again I was in a totally different environment from what I was used to in an “English” school. However, it was my gain being sent there because I had learnt how to mix with those I tended to “look down” on previously. Before the war we always tended to think that those educated in the Chinese school were “inferior” to those of us who were English educated. I learnt early enough that that way of thinking was certainly wrong.
Because we had no servants we all had to do the necessary and till today I hate having to do housework for at that what we consider “tender” age I can say that I had done it all, cooking, washing, ironing, scrubbing. I even had the humiliating job of selling my cousin’s cakes. Imagine me carrying a basket of cakes and going around not only my but other areas. I was supposed to call out my wares and yell as loudly as I could to attract customers but must have done a poor job because after that I was never called again to sell cakes. What a big relief it was.
Time went by and one day the much dreaded thing happened. My father was detained by the Japanese soldiers for what they considered an offence, selling some merchandise without notifying the authorities. After all the horror stories of what they could do to you in their custody, like being given the “water treatment”, a form of horrible torture, I certainly prayed as I never did before, that my father would not be detained long, especially since he had a wound on his knee which needed cleaning everyday. To our great joy he was released after a few days and looked none the worse for it. We were grateful that he was spared from what we thought could have happened to him. At that time I felt that God was indeed great and was certainly looking after us.
Another incident that left an indelible imprint on my mind regarding the war was when my grown-up girl cousin and I were at our neighbour’s house, a bakery. We had gone there at night to look up some friends who were working there when there was a shout that some drunken Japanese soldiers were there. They must have gotten wind that there were some girls at the bakery. I, young as I was, could feel the fear as the girls all ran to the back of the building, helter-skelter, and started climbing onto the roof of the bakery. That was surely done in record time, and no sooner were they safe there when the Japanese soon came. As I did not join the others, I was with a young mother with her newborn baby in a room, hoping the Japanese would not find us. It was a miracle to me, that when I was expecting the worst, word came that some high-ranking Japanese officers had turned up and taken the drunken Japanese away. These two occasions (the other, my father’s detention under the Japanese), made me feel that war was indeed both horrible and sad. How I wished for the “good old days” to come again.
We were getting to be impatient for relief from our “masters” and it was strange that I was just yearning to get back to my old school. Then, without prior warning, we were given the news that the atomic bomb had hit Hiroshima and that quite instantly the Japanese war was over. How happy and relieved everybody felt in our beloved country cannot be adequately described. Of course, at that time who could have imagined the horrors of the aftermath of the bomb on the Japanese. Served them jolly well right? No, no human being should ever have that thought in his mind. We did suffer during the Occupation, some little and others more, but I think I learnt a lot from it and I always feel that I am a better person than what I would have been if not for the experiences I went through.
(Note from the blogger: Today, Madam Wong Mei Lan's current age is not for me to disclose, but she leads a very mild life in Taiping, Perak. She is surrounded by family and friends, and also has a servant of her own now, so she will never have to do the housework she hates again. She goes to church every Sunday, and on most afternoons she has a nice game of Mah Jong with some friends - a number of which also went through the Japanese Occupation. Occasionally, when she experiences problems with her computer [such as, for example, being unable to print out a certain story that she wrote about her personal experience during a certain historic event], she calls her young grandnephew, who lives next door, to come over and help her out with all this newfangled technology. Whether or not the Occupation left her as a better person, is for the judgement of those who know her personally. However, she has welcomed Japanese guests into her home before, so I am inclined to think that the Occupation brought her more benefit than harm, as she has clearly put the past behind her. As the saying goes, "let bygones be bygones.")