Mum About Mum IV

The war was over! The Japanese surrendered on September 2, 1945. Although the Royal Marine commandos returned to a hero’s welcome the following morning, their landing on Weld Quay did not lend confidence to Pa to stay put in his rented shop on Bishop Street, just a stone’s throw from the quay. The unfurling of the Union Jack at the front of The Eastern and Oriental Hotel with much fanfare did nothing to soothe Pa’s anxiety either. The Japanese POW’s were marched along Penang Road and shipped out of Penang Island in ferry boats that would take them to the mainland in Prai. Pa and Ma gathered their few precious belongings plus about $40 in cash and one leather briefcase heaving with “Japanese paper” and hurried off to a relative’s property at Ser Dio Lu, Fourth Street in the countryside. There, they and their first child, a daughter who had been born in October 1943, would hide quietly with a few other families in a timber house on stilts. At the time, Ma had just turned 20. Childbirth was not frightening for her. Bringing up a baby was also not daunting for the first time mother. It never crossed her mind to be worried. There was no one to turn to for support. No advice from anyone to reassure her. Ma’s mother lived in Bagan Datoh, a distance as far as a distant memory. The wife of Pa’s blood brother came with two home-made nappies. A Chinese style shorts that open from the front without buttons or zippers. Those were pre-singlets and pre-undies days. Every garment was made at home. At the Ser Dio Lu house, they used palm leaves to separate their living quarters from one another. The Koo family had fled Singapore two years earlier but they were no better off in Penang with the Japanese embarking on the same Sook Ching that spread from Singapore. The Koo’s would eventually establish Penang’s first piano shop, called World Piano. There were two brothers who owned Penang’s soya sauce factory. Those men did not experience starvation during the war years; they were dog eaters. They also hunted wild rabbits and bats to make curries. I have always known Ser Dio Lu as Fourth Street in the Shanghainese dialect. Everyone else knows it as Anson Road – today, it is just a short distance from the city centre, part of Georgetown’s Inner Ring road. Pa’s assessment of the security vacuum after the Japanese left was prescient. The returning British presence did not have the muscle to police the town effectively. They failed to quell the hunger riots which would claim a few lives and destroy a few more properties. Pa was also worried about vendettas. Those suspected of being Japanese lap dogs were hauled away never to be seen again. Pa’s shop on Bishop Street was inconveniently close to the Japanese headquarters at Fort Cornwallis. The fort was built with bricks by the British after the Sultan of Kedah fell for Francis Light’s treachery and ceded Penang to the British East India Company. Completed in 1810, two years before the ignominious defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in the Napoleonic War by the Russians, the fort’s purpose was to protect Penang from pirates and perhaps as a deterrence to Kedah. Who would have imagined that 130 years later, it would become a strategic military location for the Japanese? Some of the Japanese officers were housed in the fort. One of them happened to walk past Pa’s recently bombed dry-cleaning shop just a few streets away. The shop banner withstood the devastation of the bomb that fell on the front of the shop house. Named “Standard Dry-Cleaning Co”, Pa intended it to set a new standard to dethrone the “World Dry-Cleaning Co” as the premier dry-cleaner in town. The Japanese officer made an offer that Pa could not refuse. Having been jailed and tortured by the invaders a few months earlier, he dared not refuse the request to look after their laundry needs. One could deduce that his decision was made easier also because his embryonic business was suffocating without the Europeans who fled just before the Japanese occupation. Pa’s business was started on the promise of expected arrivals of European expats who would dress well in the day and dress even better at night in lavish evening gowns that shimmer with glittering sequins and woollen suits and silk shirts for their hopefully frequent formal parties. That dream vanished when the British too readily surrendered, allowing the Japanese soldiers to leisurely cycle into the island.

Pa’s release from Wesley Church could be better argued as a daring escape. He was being transferred to Penang Gaol to join the thousands imprisoned there by the Japanese. When queuing up to the lorry that would transport the prisoners (presumably) to the Gaol, Pa decisively stepped sideways to his right and joined the shorter queue when guards were being distracted. April 20 1942 turned out to be his lucky day. The shorter queue was being released as part of an early celebration of Emperor Hirohito’s 41st birthday. The Tien Wang’s 天王 birthday was nine days later. Pa got home in a trishaw. He was already not lucid, feverish and nauseous from acute diarrhoea. Pa collapsed into the arms of the Indian tailor who was renting part of the front of his shop. Ma felt desperately useless that day. Apart from watching her husband writhe in agony, there was little she could do to help her husband who was by then oblivious to soiling his own pants. Someone sent Ma on an errand to buy opium ash. It wasn’t challenging as there was an opium den not far away. The small sachet cost twenty cents but it brought Pa immediate relief. A kati of samcham bak or belly pork fetched thirteen cents and a bunch of chaisim was two cents. Why was opium ash so expensive?! Many weren’t as lucky as Pa. Ma rattled off many names of those who perished. Many did not survive after their release from gaol. One died in a trishaw on his way home from gaol. His wife shrieked when his dead body arrived home. The nephew of the wealthy boss of Prai’s 三林 Motors did not make it either. Mr Yeoh was a PE teacher. Pa’s cell mate, a Malay by the name of Haji, visited Pa twice to check on his condition but on both occasions, Pa was “out gallivanting”, Ma’s version of 25 year-old Pa enjoying coffee with his mates in a nearby kopi tiam coffee shop. Ma was just 18. Bread was a luxury then, impossible to find. Even rice was difficult to afford – it was usual to cook it with lots of water. Rice porridge was more filling. The adventurous ones would join long queues for jagung or maize scraps to make bread, those swept from the grounds of Weld Quay, mo dei thung in Shanghai dialect, are more dirt than maize. Ma suspects it was the same people who punctured the sacks of grain at the mo dei thung who later swept them up after hours to sell them as scraps. Ma would be lucky only once to buy a loaf of bread, no butter or kaya coconut jam, just plain with sand. The partially bombed shop was rebuilt once Pa recovered from his ordeal. In a way, it was God-sent. A building damaged from war was free of rent. Business was almost non existent, so the rent-free status of the shop proved to be a lifeline for the young couple. The Japanese officer’s business offer could not be declined, such was the persuasive powers of authority with guns. The next day, Pa was escorted to the fort, briefed on the strict procedures and was handed a “ pass book” which allowed him entry to the Japanese quarters in the fort. The price for cleaning the officers’ coats was worth five cents each and their trousers two cents. But these were paid in Japanese banana notes, locally called that due to the banana motifs on the ten dollar notes. These were ridiculed as “Japanese paper”, currency that was not worth their weight in waste paper. Not long after the Japanese left, Pa brought his briefcase out of his hiding place and burned his savings of Japanese paper. He decided they weren’t even good enough as toilet paper.

Pa delivering dry-cleaned uniforms to a Japanese soldier