Living through hard times
In the second and final part of Revisiting WWII’s look at life in Penang during the Japanese Occupation, CHOONG KWEE KIM unearths more interesting tales about learning to say arigato and finding dead bodies in bizarre poses...
HE tried to warn them, but nobody listened. J.R. Ramajayam was, after all, only 10 years in 1941 when he saw Japanese military planes flying over his home at Jalan Sungai Dua on British-occupied Penang Island.
It was the school holidays but the Hutchings School pupil remembered enough of his lesson on military aircraft emblems to identify the single red dot on the wing as the sun emblem of Japan.
“It was Dec 8 and I saw three Japanese planes flying in formation southward. My parents didn’t believe me and no one knew war was coming, otherwise, we would have stocked up on food,” recalls the 73-year-old retired government servant now living in Gelugor, Penang.
In the evening of that historic day, he saw partly damaged British military lorries returning to the nearby Minden Barracks headquarters (now Universiti Sains Malaysia), little knowing that the Bayan Lepas military airfield had been crippled by Japanese warplanes.
In this rural part of Penang, there was still no sense of urgency among the civilian population until days later, when word spread that free food was available at Minden Barracks.
“After the food was all taken, people returned for furniture, mattresses, blankets, bed sheets and others,” Ramajayam says, recalling those early days of blissful plundering, far away from the chaos of heavily-bombed George Town – till Japanese soldiers in loincloths showed up about a week later in his peaceful neighbourhood.
“For the first few days, the Japanese soldiers acted ‘loosely’, each carrying a sword and wearing only a green cap with the red sun logo, no shirt and no pants on, wearing just a loincloth, a green military belt, and sandals like those that rickshaw pullers used to wear.
“The soldiers went from house to house shouting kura! and gesturing for drinks but when they saw girls, they went wild,” he says.
Within days, residents had swiftly dug secret burrows under their houses to hide the womenfolk from the marauding soldiers. Whenever the soldiers’ commanding officer – clad in green tunic, pants and armed with a revolver – arrived on his motorcycle, though, they behaved and wore their uniforms.
“When the chief was around, we felt protected and only in his absence did we feel afraid because the soldiers walked in whenever they liked,” says Ramajayam.
The people established an “early warning system” of sorts by banging on an empty kerosene tin whenever a soldier was spotted nearby. Hearing the signal, residents stopped digging their tunnels and hid the girls while those outside the house smeared cow dung on their bodies to keep the soldiers away.
In time, some locals became middlemen or interpreters, a role often viewed with suspicion by others who felt betrayed when information leaked to the enemy that loot from Minden Barracks was hidden in secret tunnels.
“Soldiers would knock the floor with sticks to check for hollowness.
“Once a tunnel was discovered, the house owner was whacked and asked to dig out the tunnel and return the loot to the barracks,” he says, adding that the tunnel in his home’s kitchen went undetected.
Food was scarce and rationed, with each family given a metal tag bearing Japanese script that probably indicated the size of the household; this had to be produced to buy items like oil, sugar and others using Japanese banana currency. Staples like rice and fish were available only once a week.
Villagers were made to plant vegetables, particularly the fast-growing tapioca, on every piece of vacant land to supplement the food supply.
One night, Ramajayam attended an Indian wedding at a small temple and was following a foot procession led by a man with a hurricane lamp on his head towards the bride’s house when they bumped into several soldiers.
“A soldier slapped the chap with the lamp causing it to fall and break. Everyone ran off into the darkness and that was the end of the wedding ceremony,” he says, feeling amused in retrospect.
Ramajayam ended up spending most of the Japanese Occupation digging tunnels – for what use, he never discovered – into a hill behind USM on Jalan Bukit Gambir. Early every morning, for over two years, he hacked the earth with a pickaxe and shovel, stopping only for a lunch of a ball of rice filled with salt in the middle and fried ikan bilis (anchovies) prepared by a local.
The ikan bilis was cooked on a piece of corrugated zinc propped on stones and set over a rubber wood fire.
“Everyone had to line up and receive the rice ball only with the left hand and ikan bilis with the right. We had this every day and there was no such thing as a change of menu,” he says, grimacing.
After the war ended in August 1945, Ramajayam rejoiced but also felt a little pity as vanquished Japanese soldiers were rounded up and made to squat down in submission just as the locals had been.
Once again, news was slow to spread and the Allied reoccupation of the island was not widely known in rural areas. This time, though, the lack of news was a godsend: Ramajayam’s grandfather hastily pressed a sum of Japanese money into his hand to dispose of at a sundry shop in rural Relau and, “I bought a kati of dried chillies before the notes became void,” the survivor says with a satisfied grin.