It was just before the pendulum clock struck three times. Outside it was pitch-black, the angry wind was a welcome guest as it forced its way into their stuffy, sweltering room via the wooden slats of the window louvres. Ma changed her position, and now faced away from Pa. All passion spent over an hour ago, he snored especially loudly after having satisfied himself inside her. She was relieved that his fire had been quelled, otherwise his restlessness and sulking would have spoiled another good night’s sleep. Ma was never taught the joy of sex. Brought up to respect proper decorum and propriety, in today’s vernacular, she would be easily classified as a prude. Sex was for procreation, not for recreation. Besides, their circumstances were so unsettled. They had not yet moved into their new rented shop in Bishop Street when the Japanese dropped their bombs from the sky. The front of the shop was destroyed. The glass display window the glazier had sealed the day before was completely shattered; its replacement was a wooden hoarding to deter would-be thieves from helping themselves to their meagre belongings. They left Teluk Anson with just a small bag of clothes each. Their prized possession, a cheap Japanese bicycle, was chained inside the shop. It had been a while since their last outing at the movies. After they were married in Teluk Anson, Ma’s favourite pastime was her Saturday bicycle rides as a pillion rider to town for movies with her handsome husband. It was said the 1930’s was ‘the age of the bicycle’ for it brought unimagined freedom to the young girls. There was nothing else worth stealing, except for the annoying striking clock that chimed the hours loudly and once every half hourly. Ma stirred from the timber floor. Her bath towel served as the mattress. Pa’s was crumpled and almost completely hidden under his long legs. He was a messy sleeper, even the face towel to catch his drool was missing from his pillow. They had an endearment for each other. Ma called him by his name one day, but he did not respond. So, she called out again, “Hey! Ngeh-doh. Blockhead!” That time, Pa answered, “What is it? Ngeh-doh?” Ever since then, they never stopped calling each other that. After she had straightened Pa’s face towel back onto his pillow, Ma carefully closed her paper and wood hand fan, a parting gift from her mother when she visited to say her goodbyes. Beautifully hand painted in water-colour, the red and pink roses on a greenish paper seemed to throw a floral fragrance whenever she waved them to cool herself. His was a scented one, made of thin slats of dark-stained bamboo with intricate carvings, riveted together at the pivot point, and tied together at their far ends with cotton thread.
“You didn’t have a mattress?” I asked Ma incredulously. At least The Mrs and I were able to join our single bed mattresses together when we got married. “No, the only furniture we had was a square wooden dining table and four stools.” Ma, ever one to demonstrate frugality oneupmanship, laughed, happy to have reminded me of what “tough life” really means. Her facial expression then turned serious, maybe even sad. “And then, our lives were turned upside down.” she continued with her story. It was a Monday, March 23rd 1942. The two Kenpeitai men crashed through the venetian louvres, and were immediately on top of Pa. Pa did not even have time to rise to his feet as they pummelled his body like a punching bag. Ma could not describe much else. Before she froze like a stunned mullet, she had turned away from the violence, facing the wall. Too scared to look and maybe even more scared to be seen by the Japanese secret police; their reputation as notorious as the Nazi SS paramilitary. By the time she breathed again, they had hauled her Ngeh-doh away. Li Tong, the owner of the small oriental arts and souvenir shop next door, was also rounded up. He was sleeping in the second bedroom, a sub-tenant of the entrepreneurial Pa. The whole house became eerily quiet, even the angry wind had retreated, disappearing into the dark night. Every light in the house had been turned on by the Japanese as they hunted for men to catch. Each light was by today’s standard unbearably dim, no more than 15W. A less frequently used room such as the outside toilet was equipped with a 5W globe, so weak it threw a reddish glow. It was Pa’s instruction never to turn on the lights at night. “A brightly lit house will attract the attention of the Japanese”, he had advised Ma. He did not need to explain that it was also a good way to save money. Since the Imperial Army’s bicycle infantry replaced the fleeing British regiment in Penang, they had formed the habit of using candle for light.
The next day, Li Tong returned. He was almost unrecognisable with dirt-caked dishevelled hair, his singlet torn and bloodied, his face riddled with cigarette burns – all telltale signs that he was tortured. He was lucky. Released after only one night of interrogation, he was thankful to be alive. “Quick! Cook some rice porridge for your husband. Bring his pyjamas also. He is being held indefinitely.” Ma rushed to the back of the house and chundered a load into the drain, but so far, she had not shed a single tear.
After the meek withdrawal of the British on the 17th December 1941, the Japanese occupied Penang just three days later. In the early days of occupation, the Japanese used a soft, gloved approach to win over the civilians; the friendly and fair treatment of local businesses was to promote the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. This was an objective to bring South East Asian countries together as a new bloc, sharing peace and prosperity under the umbrella of a benevolent Japan. After the fall of Singapore thirty five days earlier, the Kenpeitai was sent to Penang, by then renamed as Tojo To. This show of force was a marked change from the earlier strategy of cooperation. The 2nd field Kenpeitai under Lt General Oishi Masayuki was especially brutal, and gained notoriety for their fierce and cruel methods of subjugating the local Chinese populace. They embarked on a number of Sook Ching massacres to instil fear amongst the ethnic Chinese. Before the Kenpeitai’s arrival, life under Japanese occupation was still almost normal for many. The earlier gloved treatment of the town folk saw the return of many who had run away to hide up in Penang Hill and in the countryside.
“We had $60 left when the first bomb fell. Ngeh-doh knew his business was finished before it even started.” Ma continued with her story.
“History books said the citizens suffered great upheaval, repression and massive food shortages. Is it true, Ma?” I asked.
“We were so poor, it made little difference then.” Ma said. Breakfast was plain rice porridge enhanced with a dab of Shanghainese fermented tofu. Lunch and dinner had the same set menu. Plain rice and a plate of green vegetables. The vegetables cost two cents. “A local farmer delivers them each morning, ringing his bicycle bell as he rides past the street before nine a.m.” With their brand new shopfront substantially damaged, Ma resorted to selling cigarettes from the ‘Goh-kha-ki’ or five-foot way, in front of their rented house. Two sticks of cigarettes sold in a morning represented a good day. The profit was the equivalent of the day’s supply of vegetables, i.e. two cents. She hardly saw the Imperial soldiers, they did not patrol that side of town. They were housed in Minden Barracks, in Gelugor, quite a distance south of Georgetown. On the rare occasion that she walked past a Japanese soldier on the street, she just had to remember to bow to him. Those who forgot to bow or refused to, would cop a beating, or were killed sometimes. Apart from rice, the other expensive item was firewood used for cooking. A bundle of a hundred sticks cost $1.10. To save on that, she would shave the wood into thin pieces to avoid unnecessary burning.
The Wesley Methodist Church on Burma Road was where the Japanese housed those rounded up by the Kenpeitai. The brutal military police used it as their head office initially, but soon converted it to a holding base for interrogation and torture. Ma got there in the late morning, the task of lighting a fire to cook the porridge took a bigger effort than usual. Raining tears and nasal mucus, her grief finally overwhelmed her. She arrived on her bicycle at the front garden of the church and was met by a Sikh guard.
“No, no food allowed!” the guard roared as he commandeered Pa’s lunch. He was kind though, advising Ma to make her way to the rear side of the boundary. A little rise on the land offered her a vantage point from which to catch the occasional glimpse of her man. For twelve days, she would be there on the same spot. Her heart would soar if he appeared in the compound. Hunched, filthy and weak, Pa trudged weakly in small steps. from one end to the other. It must be life-giving, to be out in the warmth of the sun. What she could not see, she heard in loud decibels. The distance could not hide the screams and cries for help from inside the church. A trishaw puller went up to Ma and consoled her. “Your husband is in there?” he surmised. “Do not worry. He will be alright. Colonel Watanabe is not like the rest of the Kenpeitais. He does not execute the prisoners for fun.” The Kenpeitais tortured and beheaded whomever they disliked; whomever suspected of being anti-Japanese or a communist and whomever they deemed as lacking subservience through failure to pay obeisance. Pa’s crime was that he was seen playing a game of Chinese chess at the roadside, with a Chinese bloke the day before his arrest. The man was suspected of being a communist sympathiser, and was duly rounded up with about fifty others. A hooded informant pointed him out to the Kenpeitai on the padang at Fort Cornwallis and he was immediately beheaded. That same night, they came for Pa.
On the thirteenth day, April 5th, Pa did not make his usual brief appearance. The few scrawny men sunning in the compound had returned to the dark recesses of the church building. After almost like an eternity, Ma’s ashen face broke into a contorted grimace of sorrow. Her shuddering bony frame collapsed into a sobbing heap at the feet of a stranger next to her. “He is gone. Oh no, he is gone.” she wailed. She rushed back to the front gates where the same Sikh guard who had enjoyed Pa’s porridge was standing motionless. “Abang, can you tell me where my husband is?” she pleaded desperately. “I do not know who your husband is, but try the Penang Gaol. A few prisoners were sent there today.” He failed to disclose there was also another truck that morning which took some men to either Air Itam or Batu Ferringhi, places where many Sook Ching massacres took place. According to Lee Kuan Yew, some 50,000 to 100,000 men were massacred during the Sook Ching. These “purge to cleanse” campaigns were carried out by the Kenpeitai units to indiscriminately torture and kill anyone guilty or suspected of anti-Japanese sentiments. Penang’s wartime records show that some 5,000 men, mostly Chinese, were incriminated by hooded informants in various collection spots and transported to Penang Gaol on April 5, 1942. That was the day that Pa was trucked to the same prison from Wesley Church. Very few of these men were released, most died from cholera or malnutrition in the over-crowded cells or from beheadings in the secluded locations. Those rounded up were either anti-Japanese, communists, students, educators (intellectuals) or the unlucky ones like Pa, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Whilst in prison, Pa befriended three men. Haji was a Malay fellow who was eventually released. The Japanese were a lot kinder to the Malays who they viewed as easier to win over with the promise of being freed from colonial rule. The second man, a P.E. teacher was a nephew of a rich car dealer in Prai. He did not survive, for he found the daily portions of half-cooked rice inedible, and gave them to Pa instead. The third was a boy student of Chung Ling High School, from Hat Yai. Pa saved his life.
Pa was released on April 20th. Actually, he escaped, with just his skin and bones. Very late on the previous night, his name was called out. “Goh Chan Chee! Goh Chan Chee!” the impatient voice bellowed in the prison corridor. That was Pa’s name in the Hokkien dialect. Whilst delirious with fever and mentally fatigued from the unending interrogations, he still had the presence of mind to decide his name would be Wu Zeng Zhi, in Mandarin. It was not a friendly roll call. The voice that hollered his name was impatient and stern, and it was very late at night, nothing good could be got from that. It was more likely a call to join those to be trucked out to an isolated beach somewhere. The next morning, two long queues were being organised by the prison guards. One was much longer than the other. The shorter one had men who looked less stressed, less beaten up. Pa decided he was in the wrong queue. When an important Japanese official arrived and the distracted guards stood to attention, Pa took a few steps to his right and joined the shorter queue. He gestured for the Hat Yai boy to copy him. The boy did not hesitate. To their delight, they soon found themselves lifted up to a lorry for immediate release. To Ma’s delight, the Indian tailor who was renting the front of their shop croaked out the happiest shriek. “He’s in the trishaw! He’s here!” Weakened by cholera and malnourished after 28 days, Pa stumbled into his home, in the safe arms of the Indian man. Pa refused to elaborate on that period of his life. He divulged little and never returned to visit Wesley Church or stepped near Penang Gaol. His story about those 28 days was consigned to the darkness of history. Pa, lest we forget. This is my contribution.