Wednesday, February 15, 2012

His brother was massacred

The first day of Chinese New Year fell on Feb 15, 1942, but no one in Singapore was celebrating.

Mr Paul Cheah Thye Hong, 81, was then 11 years old. His English-speaking Hokkien family had learnt the night before that the defeated British army was going to surrender to the Japanese invaders the next day. They found out not through the radio, which few households could afford back then, but through his second brother, Thye Hean, then 22 and in the local volunteer forces. 'He came home and told us his Straits Settlement Volunteer Force was abandoning their uniforms because the British had lost. It was unthinkable,' recalls Mr Cheah.

Singapore had been part of the once-mighty British Empire for more than a century.

The Japanese takeover of the island seemed like terrible news, coming after two months of bombings that saw Mr Cheah, his parents and nine siblings scurrying to the nearest air-raid shelter, or lying flat under the longest table in their Tiong Bahru shophouse. (According to Mr Cheah, 'when a bomb explodes, you always lie flat - the killing is caused by shrapnel, not the bomb itself'.)

But the worst was yet to come. Several days after the fall of Singapore, Japanese troops rounded up all male Chinese above the age of 15 to be screened. Thye Hean was taken away and never came back.

That was how Mr Cheah's family got caught up in the infamous Sook Ching massacres (the term 'Sook Ching' comes from the Japanese word 'shukusei', meaning 'purging' or 'cleansing') which claimed up to 25,000 lives.

They were carried out by the Japanese to punish the local Chinese for ostensibly supporting China, with whom it had been at war since the 1930s.

Mr Cheah recalls: 'All my five brothers who were above 15 went for the screening. My second brother initially didn't want to go, he had a bad feeling about it. But we said, if you don't go and the neighbours squeal, the whole family will be in trouble.'

At the screening centre, a captain of the Straits Settlement Volunteer Force who was in cahoots with the Japanese identified Thye Hean. He was ordered to board a lorry with the other victims and taken to beaches and other remote areas to be bayoneted or shot.

His body was never found, but his name appears in the Kranji War Memorial honouring the war dead.

But the Cheah family had no time to grieve. Mr Cheah's father, a former businessman who was unemployed during the war, and his housewife mother had nine other children aged between eight and 24 to think about.

'We were very young then and I remember just living from day to day,' says Mr Cheah. Food and daily necessities were scarce. Apart from weekly rice rations, they grew sweet potatoes to eat.

They did what they could to earn a little money to survive. The younger children sold small quantities of cigarettes at the five-foot way in front of their shophouse. The cigarettes came from a shop in New Bridge Road that got cigarette supplies on the sly from the Japanese.

Mr Cheah became an office boy at the College of Medicine in College Road in the Outram area, which the Japanese had taken over for its bacteriology department. There he could eat beef as the Japanese were doing tests on the meat. 'But if you tried to smuggle it back for your family, you would be punished. The Japanese would string you to a tree and unleash ant nests on you,' he recalls.

After the war ended, he resumed his studies at Outram School and obtained his School Certificate, the equivalent of today's O levels.

A retired accountant, he now has three children aged between 51 and 44. His nursing officer wife of 51 years, Patricia, died 11/2 years ago.

The experience of the Japanese Occupation, he says, shaped his character and 'made me more resilient, patient, compassionate and humble'.

He adds: 'Hence, with good health, I was able to work non-stop for 50 years until I retired at the age of 68. Then I worked voluntarily for my church for eight years. In my own way, I lead a contented life.'