During the occupation of Singapore, the Chinese and British suffered greatly. For us Indians, however, the Japanese had somewhat of a soft corner. This was partly due to the pro-Japanese attitude of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, who arrived in Singapore by submarine from Japan. He roused some segments of the Indian population to join the Indian National Army under his leadership and fight alongside the Japanese for the liberation of India from the British.
My father, having some experience with printing and no inclination for combat, was attached to the Indian National Army Press, which was known as Indo-Shimbunsha. This name had a connection to an old and venerated Japanese newspaper. I believe it was designed by the Japanese to confer some honor or respect to the Indian National Army Press.
Once they had secured the island, the Japanese begin to grab young men, forcing them onto trucks and sending them to places of no return. Nobody knows where they have gone. It is common for trucks to pull up at large gatherings, like weddings or birthday parties. Consequently, no one wants to have a wedding party or a birthday party or a peopled celebration of any kind whatsoever because your guests might be taken away. So all these events are reduced to the minimal number of persons, the immediate family only, and everything happens indoors.
Although I was ten at the time, I was even then rather tall for my age, and my height would have theoretically been enough for them to pull me onto one of these trucks. My father got me employed—I don’t know if you could use the word “employed,” for I was quite useless—but officially, I was employed by the Indo-Shimbunsha. What I would do there is climb up large, stacked bolts of newsprint and go to sleep. In the evening, I would return home. That was my first official “job.”
It was not the monetary benefit which was the primary concern. After all, I made only a few cents a week, and this “banana” money, as we called it, issued by the Japanese during the war, was almost worthless. The real value in my job was the badge. At the time, all employees were issued metal badges to identify that you were working for this or that company. For the Indo-Shimbunsha, it was a smart-looking Indian tricolor flag with the spinning wheel, for you see, well before Independence, the Swaraj flag was a symbol of the Indian desire to be free of the British. Now, the badge was of the utmost importance because only it could save your life. The badge and your skin. If you had dark skin, you were like a V.I.P., which was something of a reversal from normal life in Singapore. Still, there were many Indian prisoners of war who had fought alongside the British and refused the opportunity to join the I.N.A. Indians were safer than the Chinese, but no one was safe.
Our immediate neighbor was a gentleman from the postal service. The postmaster, in fact. He was a typical Chinese man in his forties. I remember him being very proud of his English, and not without cause. His vocabulary, grammar, and accent were all quite flawless. Every day, he would go to work with his postal hat cocked to the side, a very clean and sharp suit, and his moustache always neatly trimmed. He looked quite handsome. He had four children, two sons and two daughters. The boys were Chen Tseng Qi and Chen Tseng Yong. Tseng Yong was around my age. The girls, I don’t remember their names. We always called them Ji-Ji and Mei-Mei, which mean “big sister” and “little sister.” They were beautiful. I found myself constantly falling in and out of love with them, sometimes fantasizing about running away with Ji-Ji and other times fantasizing about running away with Mei-Mei. Always the common denominator in these daydreams was the running away.
After dinner, we would all sit out on the verandah and on occasion head down the street to a spot where hawkers sold salted fruits. There was a concoction that was quite delicious, and we would sometimes collect our money together and buy one plate of pineapple doused in Chinese black sauce and sprinkled with rock salt, to be split equally amongst ourselves. My goodness, it was wonderful. Of course, all this was before the occupation. After the Japanese arrived, no one dared to go out or let their children run around outside because they might not return home. Just like that, childhood was no more.
Now, the Japanese are going through the neighborhoods and, as I said, taking away able-bodied Chinese men. And pretty soon, we see them on our road, Towner Road, and Mai Street, which is behind us. Well, the postmaster, he somehow gets advance notice that the Japanese are coming for him. He is not sure when, but he knows that his name is on some list. It is simply a matter of time before they knock on his door. Before this happens, he and his wife want to take care of their young and beautiful daughters so that Ji-Ji and Mei-Mei do not fall into the hands of these Japanese fellows, who are real rogues. The family approaches my mother, and she consents to hiding the girls in our house.
We lived in a two-floor house, and we had a staircase of approximately three feet in width that went up to the first floor. Below the staircase was our storage area, where we kept our cooking coal and firewood. Ji-Ji and Mei-Mei were kept there as well, behind the gunnysacks of coal. Filthy black coal dust permeated every corner of the storage area, and rats and lizards could sometimes be heard scuttling around, but it was the only spot in the house that was a feasible hiding place. Being extremely fair, the girls needed assistance to camouflage them in this environment, so Mother crushed a little bit of the charcoal into dust and mixed it with water to make a paste, and then she applied the paste to the girls’ faces and necks, any parts of the body that were visible. Even then, anything more than a cursory search would have quickly uncovered the subterfuge.
Badge or no badge, to hide Chinese people in your house, this is a criminal offense, and the soldiers will definitely shoot you for it. Probably right there on the spot, not even bother to take you outside. I don’t know how my mother and father got the guts to do this. I was too young to understand exactly what was at stake, but they certainly knew that their lives hung in the balance.
Well, the girls found safety in our home, but their father, mother, and brothers were taken to a football stadium, where the Japanese collected all the Chinese from our area. It was there at the stadium that the secret police, the Kempeitai, staged their interrogations. These guys knew who was who, so they would ask their questions, and anyone they deemed suspicious would be put on a bus or a truck and driven to various locations, usually by a river, taken out, lined up, and shot. Some would die on the spot, others would be half dead. All were thrown into trenches, dead or alive, and covered with dirt by bulldozers.
Fortunately, the postmaster and his family returned from the football field. I don’t know how the Kempeitai made their calculations, since from our perspective, there was no discernable pattern between those who were returned and those who were put on the buses. Still, the girls stayed with us. There were immediate dangers to overcome and long-term dangers, and you could not allow your vigilance to drop, even for a moment, because that was when they would come for you.