The world is currently battling a war against an invisible enemy and we are living through unprecedented times. The Covid-19 crisis is said to be the worst crisis since WWII. The impact of this crisis have been and will be felt across all aspects of our lives, and it will certainly change the world we once know, for better or worse.
We have been incredibly privileged to live in a time of peace for the last 75 years and the memories of WWII seem to be fading away with its last survivors. The hardships and struggles our grandparents lived through should serve as a good reminder to remember the past and learn from it, especially during these challenging times. Our grandparents overcame the devastation caused by WWII with resilience, and resilience is what we need to adjust and adapt to the new world, the new normal.
We studied history in school but it's much more impactful hearing personal stories from someone you know. Growing up, I've heard stories from grandma about life during WWII but they are just bits and pieces. Inspired by Malaysia's "The Last Survivor" project, I decided to 'interview' grandma and grandaunt during my home trip 2 years ago to learn more about their lives pre, during, and post WWII. I've been sitting on the recordings for awhile and I figured it's now a good time to put them into words.
My maternal great grandparents were married in China. Together with my great-great grandfather, they migrated to Malaya during the British colonial era in search of better life and opportunities. They arrived in the state of Kedah with nothing and started their life in this new country from scratch.
They had 6 kids in total, 3 sons and 3 daughters.
- Eldest son, born 1928
- My grandma, born 1930
- 2nd son, born 1934
- 3rd son, born 1936
- My grandaunt, born 1941
- 3rd daughter, born 1946
My great-great grandfather earned a living as a Feng Shui master and wasted a lot of money smoking opium. However, he still helped support his son's family because my great-grandparents were dirt poor. My great-grandma breastfed all her kids because they had no money to buy food for the kids. According to my grandma, her father (my great-grandfather) was lazy and did not work much. Great-grandma washed clothes to earn some income for the family.
The family moved to Penang when my grandma was 5 and rented a house in George Town. Due to the patriarchal mentality, her brothers were educated at a Chinese school but my grandma did not have the same opportunity. As such, she started working and supported the family at a very young age (9). She would go around town to collect dirty clothes and bring them home for her mom to wash.
To give a little context on what I meant by poor, sometimes they ate only plain porridge for both lunch and dinner. An apple would be shared between everyone in the family.
Grandaunt was born on 7 Nov 1941, just a month before the Japanese started bombing and invaded Penang on 11 Dec 1941. Grandma was 11. The Japanese planes dropped bombs around George Town and a small bomb was dropped at the front of their neighbor's house, just 4 houses away. The bomb shattered glass and shook their house. With just a bundle of clothes packed, they fled their house, barefooted. Grandma carried her younger brother while great-grandma carried grandaunt who was only 1-month old. The whole family fled together. They saw dead bodies on the streets, some were burnt, as they ran through the streets and under ditches to escape the bombings. They sought shelter at a friend's house which was located in another part of town for 2 weeks. After the bombings stopped, they returned home. Fortunately, the whole family and their house survived the bombing.
The British left and Penang was occupied by the Japanese on 19 December 1941. The whole of Malaya was occupied by 31 Jan 1942, and that marked the beginning of the 3 years and 8 months of Japanese occupation era in Malaya. Both grandma and grandaunt remembered the exact duration of the Japanese occupation until this day.
Even though the bombings had stopped, they were constantly living in fear for their lives as the Japanese were known for their atrocities. Girls would dress and disguise as boys to avoid being abducted as 'comfort woman' or raped by the Japanese soldiers. The ethnic Chinese population was treated particularly harshly as they were perceived as anti-Japanese and supported China’s war against the Japanese. Many Chinese were arrested by the Japanese, including their neighbor's husband. Apparently, he got on the wrong side of an 'informant' who wanted to seek revenge and the informant ratted him out as anti-Japanese, which resulted in his arrest. He was imprisoned and given the water torture (i.e. he had a pipe stuck down his throat and they pumped water in, before stepping on his stomach and water would come out from every part of his body). He was later released and that's how grandma and grandaunt knew the story.
Grandma and grandaunt considered themselves very fortunate that no one in their family was arrested or killed by the Japanese soldiers. There was one occasion where they saw Japanese soldiers knocking on the doors around the neighborhood arresting people, so they quickly shut all the windows, locked the doors, turned off the lights, and hid in the house in darkness and silence. Fortunately, the Japanese soldiers thought nobody was in the house and left.
During the Japanese occupation, food was scarce. Most families survived on rations from the Japanese. Even if you had money, you may not be able to buy anything. Grandma and her elder brother had to hustle and traveled to different parts of the state by bus, bicycle or walk, stood in line to buy food for the family of 8. Grandma recalled going to the market at 1am to stand in line until early morning just to buy 1kg of fish. It was cheaper to do that and she was able to buy more, bring them back and sold them to their neighbors. This was how they made some money, just enough to survive.
As we all know, WWII ended with the Hiroshima bombing. Japanese forces surrendered in Penang on 4 Sept 1945. They found out through the newspaper that the Japanese have retreated and left the country. There was no celebration, but more a feeling of relieved after living in fear for years.
Life continued as usual after the war. The first year after the war, grandma and her brothers continued buying veggies in bulk and sold them at the market to make money for the family. They made some profits that year. However, they were not as profitable after that. In 1946, the year after the war ended, their youngest sibling was born, when the parents were 41. Their parents were too busy 'surviving' during the Japanese occupancy and got 'productive' very quickly after the war was over. =P
For the next few years, the older siblings worked random jobs to make money, working any jobs they could find just to survive and put food on the table for the family. Grandma collected, washed, and ironed clothes for people, and started working as a babysitter at 23. As for grandaunt, she attended primary school, attended sewing school and learnt to be a seamstress. Her father gifted her a sewing machine that she still uses till this day.
Grandma got married at 25 through an arranged marriage by her father. My grandfather, whom I never met, was a truck driver and grandma was his 2nd wife. She moved to Kedah after getting married and gave birth to my mom one year later in 1956.
Malaysia got its independence from the British on 31 August 1957. According to grandma and grandaunt, life continued as usual after the independence. Grandma went back to Penang before giving birth to her 2nd daughter to work and make ends meet. I don't know much about my grandfather but what I heard was that he was not a good husband and father, and only wanted son. His first wife had 2 daughters and when grandma was pregnant with her 3rd daughter, he threatened to give away the 3rd daughter after she was born. As a result of this threat, grandma decided leave him silently and brought all 3 daughters back to Penang for good. She never returned and the last thing we heard about my grandfather was that he passed away in a car accident.
Back in Penang, the siblings continued staying at the same house after they got married and had kids. While grandma spent most of the day working as a babysitter for other families to make money, grandaunt helped to take care of all her nieces and nephews at home. As the family grew, the house went from 8 people to 18 people at one point. At the same time, they were also sharing half of the house with another family of 8. Can you imagine 26 people staying in one house with just one toilet and one bathroom? They were hardcore house-hacking back then! The rent was only about MYR 30.
For about a year, grandma and her daughters, together with grandaunt, moved to a bigger house with their brother's family. However, due to conflicts and bullying among the kids, grandma and grandaunt decided to move back to the old house. Since then, they continued staying in that house until all 3 daughters graduated from high school and got married. It was quite an accomplishment for grandma, who was illiterate, to single-handedly support all 3 daughters until they graduated high school. She is definitely a strong woman.
Grandma and grandaunt stayed at that same house for a total of 60 years until 2000. 3 generations, including myself were raised in that house. Grandma and grandaunt babysat me when I was young so I had some childhood memories in that house, including falling down the steep and dark stairs that left a permanent bump on my forehead, which serves as a good memory of that 'old house' ("Lao Chu" is how we call it in Hokkien).
Over the last 30 years, grandma and grandaunt's lives have changed for the better. Their struggles and sacrifices have finally paid off and should never be forgotten. Today, grandma and grandaunt lives together close to my parents and eldest brother. Grandma has 3 daughters, 7 grandchildren, and 3 great-grandchildren. Grandaunt never got married but she treats us like her own grandchildren.
My grandma turns 90 this year and it's sad to think that stories like these will soon disappear as that generation fades away. This is why I decided to spend the time and effort to memorialize these stories. Hearing first-hand account of these stories from people who lived through those difficult times made me realize how lucky our generation has been to live in peace and comfort throughout our lives. Unfortunately, it took only 2 generations to forget all the sufferings, struggles, and hardships our grandparents went through. The current generation don't know much about that part of our history and take the peace, freedom, and comfortable lives we have today for granted.
In a way, this Covid-19 crisis serves as a good wake up call for us to step back and appreciate the comfort and freedom that we've taken for granted. Let's not forget that our grandparents had to flee their homes to save their own lives, and all we are asked to do now is to stay at home to save our own and others' lives. For those who are lucky enough to still have a job and getting paid, instead of complaining about how boring and 'difficult' life is to stay at home and practice social distancing, take this opportunity to enjoy the comfort of our homes, spend time with our family, focus on our health, and be thankful for our financial stability. Think deeply about what's truly important in our lives and let's not take them for granted anymore. As much as we yearn for life to return to 'normal', let's be grateful for the moments that we have today. “People say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Truth is, you knew what you had, you just never thought you’d lose it.” - Clarissa Wild
Thankful for Ah Ma
Be thankful for the opportunity to go to school,
coz Ah Ma wished she had the opportunity to learn how to read and write.
Be thankful for the convenience of a supermarket,
coz Ah Ma had to travel to markets all around the state to buy food.
Be thankful for a simple meal,
coz Ah Ma had to survive on plain porridge.
Be thankful for the freedom to walk freely on the streets,
coz Ah Ma had to disguise as a boy to avoid being caught.
Be thankful for a stable job,
coz Ah Ma had to work whatever job she could find to make ends meet.
Be thankful for making enough money to spend on our 'wants',
coz Ah Ma worked her tail off and made just enough for their 'needs' to survive.
Be thankful for love marriage and cherish it,
coz Ah Ma was forced into an arranged marriage.
Be thankful for gender equality,
coz Ah Ma almost lost her daughter to patriarchal mindset.
Be thankful for a home and not a big house,
coz Ah Ma showed us that a small 'old' house can be a home for 5 generations.
Be thankful for Ah Ma,
because of the precious life and life lessons she has given us.