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Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Bag of Memories

Sunday February 3, 2009

A bag of memories By C.S. WAN

Some truths withstand the test of time. But, sometimes, it is simply time to let go and move on.

CHINESE New Year is just around the corner, and it is time again for the annual spring clean.
From underneath a ceiling-high pile of boxes in the storeroom, my wife drags out an old, battered bag.
It is bursting with children’s clothes. The sight rekindles memories of my mother and her words of wisdom.
“Siew Leng, remember to always keep some children’s clothes. They may come in handy in time of war.”

After decades of peace and prosperity, today's generation may find it hard to grasp Mother's concerns but she brought up five children through the turbulent years of the Japanese Occupation.

Mother with my sisters
Long after the suffering ended, the spectre of war continued to haunt her, and the hardship and misery she had to endure through those seemingly long years were indelibly etched in her memory. 
She remembered how her children had only a few pieces of rags which had been washed and scrubbed to tatters.
The slightest tear was quickly patched up with precious pieces of discarded cloth. When she ran out of sewing thread, she had to use fibres which she meticulously extracted from the pineapple leaves.
In a dilapidated kitchen, a pot of tapioca, balancing precariously on raised bricks, simmered over a slow fire. Mother would occasionally squat down to fan the fire.
Each time she got up from her squatting position, she felt an excruciating pain shoot up her legs, which had swollen to twice their normal size. She did not know the cause but Father said it could be due to vitamin deficiency as all we had were mostly tapioca and sweet potatoes.

As she hovered over the stove, Mother would recall how things had been so different during the pre-war years. 
Father at his office desk
Father was then a clerk in the Forest Department in Kuala Pilah, Negri Sembilan, and so had a steady income.
The children were well dressed, there was always plenty of food on the table and Amah was always there to help her with the household chores.
One morning, Father returned unexpectedly from work early and told Mother that Japanese soldiers had landed in Kota Baru.

Map showing the Japanese landing points
Hurriedly, we all squeezed into a waiting taxi, along with just one suitcase, and were driven to our maternal grandparent’s house in Malacca.
Father stayed behind to finish off some work. When news of the Japanese army's rapid advance down the Peninsula filtered to Kuala Pilah, he too decided to leave for Malacca. However, no car or taxi was available by then.

He had no choice but to make the long journey on foot. He joined the stream of evacuees pouring down the road to Singapore.

Stream of evacuees heading towards Singapore

Spurred on by the thought of his wife and five young children, he finally made it to Tampin, a trek of more than 60km (40 miles in those days). The soles of his feet were raw with burst blisters. From Tampin, he managed to hire a taxi to Malacca.
The next few months he began the laborious and unfamiliar task of converting a vacant lot into a vegetable garden. Father also scoured the nearby jungle for edible shoots and mushrooms. Mother then used her culinary skill to concoct delectable dishes out of these simple raw materials.
During the hasty evacuation, most of the cooking utensils and cookeries had been left behind. Mother had to make use of improvised cooking utensils. Coconut-shells were crafted into bowls and ladles. One day Father stumbled upon an alloy cup used for collecting latex at the foot of a rubber tree. It was cleaned and scrubbed and it became 
our favourite drinking cup.

A latex cup
One evening, at meal time, Mother prepared tapioca lempeng (pancake) for her family. Each of us was given our small share of the pancake. She was busy tidying up the kitchen when she felt a gentle tug at her sarung. She looked down and saw her eldest son holding an empty plate.
“Nya, can I have another piece?”
Gazing at the innocent and doleful eyes, she took the last remaining piece of lempeng and placed it carefully in the empty plate. That night she went to bed tired and hungry. But the sight of her son sleeping peacefully and soundly compensated for the gnawing pain in her stomach.
One of my earliest childhood memory of the Japanese Occupation is that of an elderly Japanese officer. At dusk, he would sometime stroll from his quarters behind our house and sit on a long wooden bench at the front porch.

One evening he sat stoically at his usual place and watched the barefooted children play with a toy car – a rusty milk can that was dragged along pebbles-strewn compound. He listened to the sound of their happy laughter that rang and reverberated through the still evening air.
Father noticed him taking out a faded family photo from a worn and tattered wallet. He gazed forlornly at the photo.

'He gazed forlornly at the photo
Tears started to well up in his eyes. The sight and sound had, perhaps, evoked fond memories of his loved ones back in Japan. 
It was 1946. The Second World War finally ended. Father returned to Kuala Pilah with his family and resumed work as a clerk in the Forest Department.
With a relatively good income again, he pampered his children with imported biscuits and chocolates and showered them with little luxuries. Perhaps the guilt of not being unable to provide the best for his wife and children during the war still haunted him.

As for the alloy cup, he brought it along with him to Kuala Pilah. He placed it among the more expensive ceramic cups. Perhaps, it was a memento to remind him of the the hardship during the Occupation.
Father passed away suddenly, and we moved back to Malacca. The alloy cup was left behind, unfortunately.
Otherwise, I am sure the much dented alloy cup would have a pride of place among the other souvenirs in our living room.

My wife looked at the old clothes spread out on the floor. All these years she had gone through the whole rigmarole of unpacking, packing and storing the bag in the same old place.  Now, as she held a dress against the light that filtered through the frosted glass window she noticed it was already stained yellow with age. They were stained and the children had long outgrown them. Perhaps the time had come to get rid of them. 

"The clothes were stained yellow with age
As she placed the clothes in the garbage bag she silently prayed that war would never rear its ugly head again.

You may also like to read about a young Japanese couple who was
our immediate neighbours.

Click below link.

Kolo the pup

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