The iron lady of the last survivors of Japanese occupation in WWII Part 4


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The Last Survivors: Yap Chwee Lan
How Japan Forced Women Into Sexual Slavery

AT the age of 15, girls were pretending to be boys during the Japanese Occupation in Malaya, but Yap Chwee Lan was bravely rescuing the people of Kampung Baru, Johor, all because she could speak Japanese.

“Every night, about seven or eight young girls from the neighbourhood would come to my house to sleep because they felt safer there. They knew I could speak Japanese,” recalled Yap, now 90.

“The Japanese soldiers would come knocking on our door to ask for young girls and I’d respond in Japanese, ‘ Why do you need women? You need housekeepers?’. They were shocked I could speak Japanese.”

Yap learnt the language from her former Japanese employer, who was a hairdresser in Johor. The then 13- yearold picked up the language quickly, and was even treated well by his family.

Yap’s fluency in their language granted her favour in the eyes of the Japanese, and this ordinary girl found herself holding extraordinary power – the ability to save people.

She managed to save those who lived in her town, Kampung Baru, Johor, by identifying them – in Japanese – to the soldiers who would have killed them on suspicion of aiding the resistance.

And we were there to capture her experiences as the R. AGE crew brought her around Johor to film at locations that hold significant memories during the Occupation. This is for The Last Survivors, an interactive online documentary project that aims to raise awareness to youths about the importance of preserving Malaysian World War II stories.

Listening to her stories when he was growing up, one of Yap’s grandson Sebastian Chew, 18, is glad he didn’t have to experience WWII and the Occupation as he thinks it will haunt him throughout his life.

“I can’t imagine going through everything – from the bombings, hiding, living in fear and when the Japanese made the people dig their own graves in one of the fields and killed them. I don’t know how my grandma did it,” he said.

“That’s why I think it’s important for young people to know about these war stories so they can prevent anything of this sort from happening in the future. It’s cruel and heartbreaking.”

In her teenage years, Yap, whose father passed away when she was seven years old, had to work because her family was living in poverty.

She got married when she was 15, and lived with her husband Chiew Seng Leung at his laundry shop, Kedai Dobi Shanghai, in Johor Baru. Twenty days after their wedding, the Japanese started bombing Singapore.

Japanese fighter jets, based in Johor, would fly across to Singapore twice a day to bomb the neighbouring country. As the Japanese was attacking Singapore, lots of people walked over to Johor for safety. Yap and her family evacuated to Tampoi.

“We packed food and clothes, and placed them on my husband’s bicycle. As we were walking to Tampoi, we were stopped by a soldier because he wanted our bicycle. I told him in Japanese that it was ours and he let us through,” said Yap.

“The soldiers would leave you alone if they knew you could speak Japanese because it was like you were one of them. They’ll have more respect for you.”

Once they were in Tampoi, they sought refuge in a temple along with about 50 other refugees, but soldiers came looking for comfort women. Yap not only told them there were none, but also said she was part Japanese, hoping they wouldn’t come back.

But the next day, the Japanese returned. This time, they were with their general.

Yet, Yap wasn’t afraid. “Strangely enough, I wasn’t scared. He was impressed that I could speak Japanese and praised me, saying it was good because I could help the Japanese soldiers,” she said. He proceeded to ask Yap if they had enough food and made sure they did by sending them rice, sugar and flour so they could cook.

He also offered her a job in Singapore as a liaison officer between the Japanese and the locals. She took the job after the island was invaded, but later learned that the Singaporeans she had liaised with were all eventually killed.

The distance was too much for Yap to handle as well, as she didn’t know if her family was well and alive. She returned to Johor one week later, and things were unfortunately similar to what was happening in Singapore.

Chiew’s boss had been arrested, along with a bunch of other people.

“There were black flags all along the streets,” Yap recalled. “It meant everybody was to stay home, because the Japanese would arrest anyone on sight.”

Those who were arrested were taken to a house in Jalan Abdul Samad, behind what is now the Maktab Sultan Abu Bakar, to be held before being taken to Dataran Bandaraya, where they would be executed.

“When I got to the house, the people were kneeling on the ground, their hands tied behind their backs with thick wire as the Japanese soldiers pointed bayonets at them,” said Yap.

“A lot of them called out my name, begging me to save them. Then the Japanese asked if I knew these people.”

“I said, ‘ Yes, I do’. A lot of them lived in my neighbourhood. When I identi- fied them, they were freed.”

The rest, whom she couldn’t identify, weren’t so lucky. Her mother’s friend’s son was one of the unlucky ones.

“I didn’t see him there, I was devastated when I found out. His mother was crying in the street,” said Yap, recalling the horrors of wartime Malaya.

Those remained were brought to the field. They were asked to dig holes in the ground, sit at the edge of the holes and were shot with machine guns. As the bodies fell in, those who were merely injured were kicked into those holes they had dug themselves and buried alive together with the dead.

While a great number of people died during the Occupation, many more owe their lives to Yap.

Her family, though, remained safe, thanks to Yap.

“Before I went to Singapore, the Japanese general gave me a permit for my family,” she said. “He told me, ‘ If anybody disturbs your family, ask them to report to one of my officers’.”

Today, Yap and her family still live in Johor, where some of the survivors’ descendants still recognise her.

“I was walking around town and suddenly someone called out, ‘ Ah Ma!’. They told their kids that I saved their grandfather or grandmother,” Yap said with a laugh.

By VIVIENNE WONG The Star

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Last man standing in Penang under the Kempeitai during WWII Part 3


Working under the Kempeitai in Penang during WWII haunts James Jeremiah to this day.

While filming an episode of Jeremiah brought the crew back to the Wesley Methodist Church in Penang, where he would hear the screams of those torutured there by the Japanese. He had not been back to the church in over 70 years. — HAFrIZ IQBAL/ r. AGE

STARING out to sea on Fort Cornwallis, James Jeremiah cuts a lonely figure.

“Before the fighting started, we were so excited to shoot the Japanese. We had never seen war; we had only seen it in the movies,” said Jeremiah. “But the first time I heard a real bomb, I was scared to death.”

That was at the old Bayan Lepas Airport, where Jeremiah witnessed the beginning of the Japanese invasion of Penang. He was 18 at the time, and a member of the Eurasian “E” company of Penang, a volunteer force similar to the British Home Guard.

“We thought the Japanese would fly in from Batu Maung in the south, but they came in through Tanjung Bungah and Batu Ferringhi. I think they knew we were focused on the south.”

The tactic worked. The volunteers mistook the Japanese planes for British fighters, a mistake that almost cost them their lives.

“They turned out to be Japanese Zero fighters. They starting bombing and machine gunning us. Shrapnel was flying everywhere. I cannot even describe the fear we had in our hearts.”

Although they were trained to some extent, the Volunteer Forces ( VF) were not hardened military men.

After the bombing, it was only a matter of time before Japanese ground troops arrived.

Even then, the volunteer forces regrouped at their headquarters on Peel Avenue, and did their best to maintain order.

With the British gone and the Japanese at their doorstep, people were looting ruined houses and bodies were strewn everywhere from the bombing.

“We carried the dead bodies away, assisted the wounded and stopped all looters.

“It’s no joke when you’re in that situation – we just didn’t know what to do,” said Jeremiah.

Things quickly got worse when the Japanese arrived. The Volunteer Forces were rounded up, and the Europeans and fairskinned Eurasians were sent to Singapore to be held as prisoners of war.

“My father had rather dark skin, which I inherited. I think it saved my life!” said Jeremiah.

The remaining VF members were used by the Japanese as guides. Jeremiah’s work ethic as a guide caught the eye of a member of the Kempeitai, the feared Japanese military police.

“Colonel Watanabe took me to his office and asked what work I could do, so I said anything. He asked me to make tea, coffee, polish his boots – things like that.”

The Kempeitai office was located in the Wesley Methodist Church on Jalan Burma. Although he was a mere office boy, the experience was terrifying.

He still lives on Penang island today, a mere 20 minutes from the church – but he has never gone back to the church in over 70 years, until he brought R. AGE there last month to shoot an episode of The Last Survivors ( rage. com. my/ lastsurvivors).

“I used to see people being arrested. I don’t know how, but they were ‘ interrogated’. I used to hear screams, cries… I couldn’t take it,” he said in the video, which is part of a series documenting the stories of Malaysia’s WWII survivors.

Although the brutality of the Kempeitai has haunted many, including Jeremiah, not all the Japanese were cruel overlords.

Watanabe was educated in the United States, and he saved Jeremiah’s life a few times.

The Japanese would hold “trials” at public spaces – including Padang Kota Lama next to Fort Cornwallis – where their local informants would expose other locals who were working against the Japanese.

“( The informants) wore hoods when they pointed people out. The minute they point at you, you’re finished, gone,” said Jeremiah. “The Japanese would round up the public so the informants could point people out.”

Jeremiah thanks Watanabe for saving him from attending the trials, where he believes he could easily have been singled out for execution. “Watanabe protected me. I was so lucky, he was very good to me.”

Some of the informants flaunted their special privilege with the Japanese, according to Jeremiah.

“They would say ‘ don’t mess with us’, so we kept quiet. I remember a famous Eurasian doctor, Doctor J. E. Smith, who was done in by them and, I think, beheaded.”

Even with Watanabe’s protection, the atrocities being committed at the Kempeitai office was too much for Jeremiah to bear, and he asked to be transfered to the railways. The colonel relunctantly agreed.

Watanabe continued showing kindness to Jeremiah even after he started work as a locomotive driver, putting in a good word to his new boss and General Yamashita himself, the mastermind behind the invasion of Malaya. Yamashita had defeated the combined Australian, British and Indian force of 130,000 soldiers with just 30,000 troops.

“Yamashita was riding the train along with Tadashi Suzuki ( an infamous samurai sword- wielding executioner), but I couldn’t understand what they were saying as it was in Japanese,” said Jeremiah. “They noticed that my new boss’ boots were shining, and Watanabe said I was the one who polished them.”

The general made a lasting impression on young Jeremiah, who said the very sight of him made everyone afraid.

“He was very fierce and very dynamic, though very big and chubby. Everyone was afraid. I didn’t dare look him in the eye.”

While many struggled for food during the Occupation, Jeremiah said he was lucky to be paid in both “banana money” – the Japanese currency – and food.

“I used to get about 30 dollars a week, sometimes more. I saved the bread for my parents and if I wanted an egg, I’d ask Watanabe.”

Had he been caught smuggling eggs, the colonel would have beheaded him.

The horrors of the Occupation were a far cry from his pre- war days.

Jeremiah was rotated around a few places, including Fort Auchry ( now a Malaysian army camp), Fort Cornwallis and Batu Maung.

He remembers watching the Europeans and Eurasians boarding ships at Swettenham Pier heading to Singapore, where they believed they would be safe. Winston Churchill had insisted Singapore would not fall.

He was also posted at Batu Maung, a British fort which the Japanese turned into a torture chamber.

He brought the Last Survivors crew there during filming. The original fort remains, but the land is now a privately owned museumcum- theme park, with plastic “ghosts” hanging everywhere and a paintball field attached.

“Everything has changed,” said Jeremiah with a laugh. “I don’t remember any of this being here!”

Jeremiah spent the rest of the war as a locomotive driver. After the war, he worked at the Batu Ferringhi reservoir, where he would retire as a superintendent.

While he experienced many horrors during the war, something beautiful did come out of it. He met his late wife, a former Miss Thailand, during his time on the railways.

“I travelled all the way to Bangkok after the war to find her,” said Jeremiah with a wide smile.

“All I had was her name, as her letters never had a return address.”

Though he lives on, happily surrounded by his children and grandchildren, Jeremiah said young Malaysians need to find out about their grandparents’ experiences.

“War is something that hurts everyone – it’s not like what you see in the movies. They should find out; they need to be told what happened.”

Today, he has outlived all 18 members of the “E” Company, all five of his siblings, and one of his children.

“All my friends and colleagues are now gone. I am the last survivor.”

By Natasha Venner-Pack, The Star

Related posts:

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