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Kreta Ayer


Singapore Chinatown’s
hidden scars
As seen from the eyes of a young Chinese immigrant

Andrew Yip

ISBN: 978-981-08-5245-0
Published by Ser viceWorld Centre, Singapore

Photography by Yip Cheong-Fun

About the Author

The Author is a psychologist, administrator, housing developer, army Major

and businessman. He was educated in Edinburgh, Malaysia, Singapore and in
Pennsylvania, USA. Holder of a Masters Degree in Education and Advanced
Psychology, Bachelor of Arts Honours Degree, and FRGS, he held various top
academic and professional appointments. He has worked as a psychologist in
a Scottish clinic and Director of a Chinese University and held top
management positions in the private sector in various countries. An
accomplished poet, Chinese calligrapher, and author of many publications, he
was well known in the art and literary circles overseas, particularly in China
where he spent his retirement years.

Andrew W.K. Yip began to write at an early age. In the 1950s, he joined the
Poetry Circle in Singapore and immersed in Anglo-American modernist
poetry, and writing poetry in both English and Chinese. His poetic corpus is
nourished by the belief that poetry constitutes “a quiet motivating force in
the modern age”. In 1964, he travelled to the USA and UK on a UNESCO
Fellowship where he became immersed in psychological studies,
psychotherapy and guidance techniques. He returned to Singapore to launch
various programmes related to guidance and counseling, psychological
testing and social rehabilitation. As editor of a number of publications, he
also launched various newspapers in the ASEAN region. Yip stopped writing
when he joined the private sector as a housing developer, but resumed
writing poetry and books in English and Chinese in the 1980s under various
pen-names, including “Andre W. Keye”, and “Zhou Tian, ” after he started
work in China’s Translation Bureau in Guangdong. Son of a world famous
photographer, Yip Cheong-Fun, who was elected by the Photographic Society
of New York as the 'Outstanding Photographer of the Century' in 1980 and
Recipient of the Cultural Medallion in 1984, he has written many poems to
depict the artistic images created by his late father, both in Chinese and
English. A Best-Seller entitled “Chinatown – Different Exposures” and an
anthology of his poems, entitled 'A poetic vision - the photography of Yip
Cheong-Fun', were published in 2007 and 2009 respectively by the
ServiceWorld Centre and distributed overseas.

About Kreta Ayer
Were you ever curious when you strolled along the narrow winding streets and lanes of
Kreta Ayer? Did you ever wonder how old immigrants from China lived in the slums
and coolie houses in the early years of Singapore? The opportunity to relive the past and
to feel the sights and sounds of the old Chinatown is in Kreta Ayer. Here at last is a
dramatic story of the early immigrants who lived in Chinatown in Singapore, as told by a
living witness. It is actually history, as seen from the sharp eyes of a little girl, Li Zhang,
who came from China in the 1930s and lived through the grey and grim years of the
Japanese Occupation. She returned to her homeland at the age of 14, and now at the age
of 80, tells a candid story of her life in Singapore. Her account of the things that
happened in Singapore and China is non-fiction and based on actual events that touched
her life and the lives of countless people in the Asian region.

Li Zhang lived in Chinatown. When Chinatown was hit by bombs, she screamed, she
cried. She experienced hardships, heartaches and disappointments like many early
immigrants. She felt the stinging thorns of pain and anxiety and knew fear and death.
Hers is not a tale of fiction. Hers is a true description of history as it unfolds based on
factual information. In a sense, the account is unique in that the information is presented
like a novel, but the observations made are fresh like steaming hot cakes from a burning

Kreta Ayer is about time. It’s about changes in Singapore and in China. It’s about
changes in ourselves. You and I, like, Li Zhang, are the variables. Kreta Ayer is the
drama of life. It’s about people living in the present and those in the past as well as
time remote.

Kreta Ayer is more than just drama; it is a symbol of the crucible of change. Time
past, time present and time future - all of us, like Li Zhang, are caught in this eternal
triangle of time. No one - whether kings or knaves - can escape from the tangled webs of
the triangulation of past, present and future. The story of life, like, Kreta Ayer is never
complete, nor is it ever a closed chapter. It always depends on something yet to
come in the future as well as itself, sometimes created by something already
depleted or dead in the past. The present is often tenuous and uncelebrated, as we
are preoccupied in our mind and hearts with the rigours of the passage of time.
What is important is to move on, recognize the larger consciousness or the light we
find here and there that shines too dimly between the cracks, and then realize that
time allows us to rebuild on the flat surface of our present life. We must not allow
whatever shadows in our present or the past, which is often cluttered with sad
memories, broken dreams or lost loves, to leave us in the deep, dark and deadly pit
of hopelessness and despair. That precisely is a moral lesson to be learnt from
Kreta Ayer.

Chapter One
The heavy rain pelted on the zinc roof of a dilapidated wooden house. Howling winds
played tricks on the timber shutters, flinging a few of them open and rattling others that
would not yield. It was dark and cold inside the house, but one could still see in the
dimness some dirty linens hung on bamboo sticks, something that looked like a cloth
strapped cradle held by a rusty spring device from the dirty ceiling, and moving up and
down in rhythm with the creaking, crackling sound from the doors and windows. Amidst
the din, a young child cried loudly, and intermittently, coughing sounds could be heard.
Some shadowy figures started to move around the tiny space inside. One of them was
carrying a long bamboo pipe, and wisps of white smokes could be seen rising towards the

A coarse voice interrupted the cacophony created by the wind and rain. “We have already
spent so much money on medicine treating He Qing's illness. His condition is still very

A woman's sigh was heard, followed by soft sobs. The atmosphere was tense.

The man with the coarse voice spoke again. “Hope he could get through the night. He is
having high fever and looked delirious.”

“Heaven will bless Uncle He Ming and keep him. He is a good man, and he has done
much for the kids in Che Kow village in the township of Wan Niu Dun. I have prayed
again and again to Kuan Yin, (the Goddess of Mercy),” she sobs as the few family
members watched He Qing writhing in pain. They knew that the end of this ailing school
teacher was near. It would be difficult to get a doctor from the next village in the stormy
rain. There was no doctor in Wan Niu Dun. There were road blocks, because of the social
disturbances around the village and almost everywhere in the province. The family
members just stood around, literally just wringing their hands.

At least, Hu Man Zhao seemed to know what to do. She lit some joss-sticks and knelt in
front of the altar, and prayed aloud, pleading for mercy and grace from all the deities she
knew. She then put on a rain-coat and a straw hat and left the house with a bicycle. As
she paddled, she cried. Her face was wet with tears and rain, but she rode on, ignoring the
sound of thunder and flashes of lightning that occasionally lit up the road. The village
roads were unpaved and full of puddles and pot-holes, but Man Zhao frantically pedalled
on. The cold blustery wind made her shiver. Her limbs became stiff, but she refused to
give up. She went through a few road-blocks after convincing the soldiers to let her
through. But in the dark, it was difficult to see the obstacles on the road, and she fell a
few times. Still, she climbed back on her bicycle and continued with her journey. But
Heaven was merciful to Man Zhao who showed grit and determination in braving the rain.
Man Zhao reached the town safely. She found the doctor in the house, and the rain had

stopped. By the time Man Zhao reached home with the doctor, it was early morning. The
doctor prescribed some medicine and left, shaking his head to indicate that the case
seemed hopeless.

Just before dawn two days later, the silence of the morning was broken by loud wails.
Someone shouted that Lee He Qing had passed away. Li Zhang, though just three years
old, knew what had happened. She also yelled and cried. Heaven's merciful hands were
placed on He Qing's forehead, ending the year-long torture and pain he was going
through, and gave him perpetual rest.

The undertakers from another village town, Zhu Ping Sha, were called. The family also
hired a Taoist priest from Cha Shan. For three days, they mourned the death of He Qing.
The rituals were followed through in the village setting. Even austere looking soldiers
respected death. Instead of hearing shots of village fighting, there were blaring sounds of
Chinese flute and the clang-clang beats of the brass gong, and the endless repetitive
chanting of prayers by priests. Mysterious shimmering lights could be seen as the
mourners burnt joss papers and lit up candles.

Li Zhang was three years old when this family tragedy occurred. What followed was
even more traumatic for the young girl. She was told about a week later that her mother
would take her to Singapore to join her grandmother and aunt there.

The names of Li Zhang's mother and her sister always fascinated the villagers in Wan
Niu Dun. Man Zhao in Chinese signifies the end of the Qing Dynasty. Man Hua signifies
the fulfillment of the Chinese dream. From these names, one could gather quite
accurately the year these sisters were born in China. But the end of the Qing Dynasty did
not spell peace and security. Instead there had been a great deal of internal conflicts and
social disturbances throughout the adult lives of these women. Even at that moment,
fierce fighting was going on all over the country. The Kuomintang forces were battling
the freedom fighters in many towns and villages. Planes flew over the sky and there were
sounds of heavy bombardments and gun fire, creating panic amongst the rural people in
this village town. It was this sense of panic that led Li Zhang's family to take the drastic
step of uprooting themselves from their homeland to leave for Nanyang. But first they
must go to Hong Kong to get to a Chinese junk that would take them to Nanyang.

The journey to Hong Kong was a difficult one. In a cold and blustery morning, Li Zhang
and her mother, Man Zhao, left Che Kow village with some belongings, and walked all
the way to Wan Niu Dun. They met a few people - some men and some women who took
them to a pier. They climbed up a fishing boat. The boat was already packed with a
number of people. They managed to get a place to sit at the rear of the boat. They waited
for a long time for the boatman who seemed to be pre-occupied with some chores and felt
relieved when the boat began to move. Slowly, the boatman rowed on. The boat tossed
around every time strong waves hit it. The sea water splashed into the boat again and
again. Li Zhang shivered when the sea water made her face wet and cold. She cried a few
times. Her mother comforted her. It was a long and lonely ride along the Pearl River and
its numerous interconnected tributaries and creeks. The boat drifted along the waterways.

Fortunately, a few men on the boat were experienced fishing folks. They seemed to know
what to do whenever the boat faced rapids or became stuck in shallow water. After a long
time, they reached the main rivers that would take them to the open sea. The boatman
peddled on. The ride became even more dreary and dull. In front, they could only see the
water courses, the river banks and the blue sky, as there were few fishing vessels in the
morning. Li Zhang felt drowsy, but she was still conscious of the movement of the boat
and the splashing sound of the oars as the boatman paddled on mechanically. There was a
sigh of relief when the boat reached Humen. Li Zhang and her family members and a
number of other passengers were then transferred to a sailing boat. This was a fishing
vessel that usually plied along the coastal waters of this small town, shaded by camphor,
pine and the Chinese banyan. For the group, travelling in the open sea was an experience
they would never forget. For them, they experienced the thrills of a lifetime as the boat
moved on in the open sea. Here the waves were stronger. The boat tossed around once in
a while. The ride became more and more bumpy. But still they inhaled the fresh wind
with deep satisfaction upon casting off, feeling as ancient Chinese seafaring men must
have felt as they faced the unknown seas. However, they also knew the risks. They might
get caught in a sudden storm. They might be attacked by pirates. They felt the thrills of
sailing, but deep down there was anxiety and fear in their hearts.

The fishing boat looked like a typical schooner. It was a two-masted boat. The shorter of
the two masts - the foremost - was forward of the mainmast. As the boat moved on, when
the winds were strong and the seas rough, the crew worked frantically to reduce the
amount of sail. There was a great deal of yelling and shouting and some commotion, but
as the seas became calmer, Li Zhang found herself being lulled to sleep.

It took them a full day to reach the coastal waters of Hong Kong. The boatman took the
group straight to the harbor area. As they landed, they found a huge throng waiting for
their turns to embark the fishing vessels and Chinese junks. Someone directed them to a
registration centre for departure to Singapore. The procedure took a long time, but finally
they were taken on board one of the Chinese junks, already jam-packed with men and

Like many early emigrants from China, Li Zhang and her mother were herded into one of
the junks which carried cargoes to distant ports. Li Zhang gazed at the magnificence of
the tall masts and wide sails of the Chinese junks which dominated world trade a
thousand years before the European nations have mastered the art of ocean voyaging.
The deck was full of people. Hundreds of men, women and children packed every square
inch of the deck space. Li Zhang's mother, Man Zhao, led the way, jostling through the
unyielding crowd of passengers, comprising a heterogeneous mob of sinkhehs, coolies,
majies, traders, samsui women, village folks and children. Everyone carried some basic
belongings with them; filling up space and making the whole deck looked like a junk
yard full of discarded household items. Amidst the deafening noise of people talking
were the tormented screams and cries of little children, terrified by the strangers around
them and frightened by the ugly sights of scuffling and grappling to get places on the
deck. The foul smell of sweat of human bodies and the dirt strewn all over the place

created a mood of despair and gloom. This was just the beginning of a long voyage on
board of a crowded Chinese coolie junk often referred to as 'a living hell.'

A Chinese junk in Singapore

Man Zhao began to feel the misery of this hellish ocean experience. Exhausted as a result
of standing up for hours, and the effort of jostling, pushing and pulling among a foul
smelling mob of rough and tough people, she sat down with Li Zhang on her lap. Even in
a sitting position, there was no relief from discomfort and sometimes pain. Perhaps,
someone savagely kicked her body and limbs. Perhaps, someone stepped on her feet or
shoved her around. This woman with a resolve of steel just grimaced and let out a groan
as she held on to Li Zhang tightly and protectively and staring at her lovely face in a daze.

A long voyage with passengers packed like sardines naturally created inhuman conditions
for survival. To make matters worse, the curious mix of large numbers of rough country
folks and women and children, the gloomy looking coolies and their yelling ketous, the
samsui women and majies - all added imponderable logistical and health problems to this
voyage of misery. Soon, brutality and sickness began to cast looming shadows of death
over the Chinese junk and its miserable passengers. Fear began to creep in. It became real
and gripping as people found to be infected by diseases or become seriously ill were
thrown over-board. Man Zhao, like many women folks, felt a sense of panic and
hopelessness, even as the Chinese junk bravely ploughed through the raging waves and
storms in the Pacific Ocean.

Man Zhao and Li Zhang had been on the Chinese junk for two weeks. From the ship deck,
they were waiting to see some signs of land. They were afraid of the sea, afraid to be
swallowed up by some sea monsters that they heard so much about in their country home
in China. Man Zhao looked pale. She wondered whether she would ever come out alive

in this dreadful voyage. She wondered whether she would ever see land and buildings
again. A sense of panic and fear began to build up in her heart, but she did not express it,
because she did not want Li Zhang to be alarmed. She looked around her. Everybody
seemed to have sad faces. She thought she would faint, and hoped that someone would
catch her if she fell. She started to pray to the Goddess of Mercy. She prayed quietly. She
knew that the Goddess was a Goddess of infinite compassion, and felt confident that she,
her sister and the small child would get help and would be safe, despite the adverse
conditions on the Chinese junk, and the terrible things that happened on deck. It was
getting dark. There was a black wave on the horizon, a tidal wave that reached high into a
black sky. There were no stars, no sun or moon. The air seemed stuffy and foul-smelling,
with the smell of the crowded humanity on board. The smell entered her nose. Smelly
vapors entered her lungs. She began to cough. The wheeze in her cheek hissed in her ears
like the sound of approaching death.

Man Zhao was wide awake when she heard loud noises from the passengers on the deck.
There was excitement in the air. Li Zhang stirred and woke up as the noises from the
deck became more intense. Somebody shouted, 'See the red lanterns there. That's the
Singapore harbor. - the Red Lantern Harbor.' Groups of people began to talk
enthusiastically about the Harbor, referring to the place now known as Clifford Pier. Man
Zhao looked dazed, but still mustered enough composure to say a prayer of thanks to the
Goddess of Mercy, and Ma Jo Por, the Goddess of the Sea for bringing them safely to Si
Lat Por, the old name for Singapore. At the harbor, Man Zhao and Li Zhang were greeted
by Li Zhang's grandmother and a young couple. Li Zhang later came to know them as her
auntie, Man Hua and her husband. These relatives had been waiting there for many hours.
It was a happy re-union. Three-year old Li Zhang was the focus of attention. Grandma
was the first to speak.

“Aiyoh, Man Zhao, look at the little girl - how she had grown.” There were smiles on
everyone's faces. Grandma Lee took Li Zhang's arms. She stooped down and hugged her.
Turning to Man Zhao and Man Hua, and bravely fighting back her tears mingled with joy
and sadness, she added “You'll be fine in Singapore. This is a place of law and order.”
Grandma was thinking about the death of her son, He Qing and the people still left
behind in Guangdong. Then, holding Li Zhang tightly, she said, “Be a good girl in
Singapore now.” There were a thousand things she wanted to say, but she just hugged her
grand-daughter and her two daughters to express her love for them. She pressed Li Zhang
close to her then, and the warmth of her heart and her body said it all, as Li Zhang
hugged her back just as tightly.

Li Zhang peered at the thin tall middle-aged man who stood near her. She remembered
his name, as her mother had told her about him. She gave him a sweet smile and
mustered some courage to call him, 'Uncle Kim Chua.' Her mother had told him about
this uncle from Qing Men in Taiwan. He came to Singapore to work as a steersman,
manning bum boats along Clifford Pier, but had earned enough to own a few bum boats
carrying cargoes from ships to the warehouses along the Singapore River. For a long time
in Singapore, only people from Qing Men were allowed to work as steersmen. Qing Men
people monopolized this trade both at Clifford Pier and along the Singapore River. One

must be a member of the Qing Men Hui Guan before one could become a steersman. Kim
Chua was one of the lucky Chinese immigrants, earning a tidy sum and living a
comfortable life in early Singapore.

It was a Saturday in the month of May in 1935. There were the usual huge crowds at
Clifford Pier. People gathered there out of curiosity. During the evening, crowds of
people moved in every direction in a jam-packed fashion. Into these crowds, Kim Chua
led his wife and his mother-in-law and the relatives who just arrived from China. Kim
Chua was not well-clothed, but he behaved like an important person. He strolled along
the cobbled paths leading to the Commercial Square (now known as Raffles Place), deep
in thoughts. He was a thrifty man - this man from Qing Men, and already he felt that he
had carried a heavy burden, looking after his aged mother-in-law in his little house at
Boat Quay. To shoulder some more responsibilities by taking in his sister-in-laws and her
child, would be a bit too much for him. He knew his wife well. She would love to have
them staying with her. Kim Chua was not a man who would do things just to please his

Kim Chua came to Singapore alone, like many filial sons and faithful husbands, to seek a
fortune and become a success. True, there was no gold rush in Singapore. Sometimes, he
regretted not having gone to San Francisco, Australia or New Zealand to look for the
golden fortune. But here in Nanyang, he could sense the lure of the tin mines, rubber,
pepper and gambier plantations. He had not forgotten his past - the agonizing days when
he came to Singapore to work as a coolie, an indentured laborer, and he was treated
almost like a slave. Often the bosses known as 'ketous' abused and ill-treated him in an
inhuman manner. He had to stay in a coolie house at 37, Kwong Hup Yuen Street (now
known as Pagoda Street). Fortunately, someone rescued him from this bondage and gave
him work at the wharves of the Singapore River because he came from Qing Men. After
many years, he gained his freedom and began to work decently as a steersman. So, he had
arrived, and doing quite well. But then, he was still a poor man at heart - a man of
absolute frugality. He despised women and their idle chatter. He felt he was a man of

The women and the child followed him, walking slowly behind him, along some short-
cuts leading from Commercial Square to Niu Che Sui. A few rickshaws passed by. The
rickshaw pullers solicited for patronage. Kim Chua rejected them with a wave of his hand.
Kim Chua explained that there was a Jin Rickshaw Station in Niu Che Siu, and that was
the reason why so many rickshaws powered by human strength could be found around
there. Though rickshaw pullers only charged a few copper coins per trip, Kim Chua
would prefer to walk all the way to Niu Che Siu, where Li Zhang, her mother and aunt
could stay very cheaply.

Chapter Two
Sago Street in Chinatown looked like a typical Cantonese settlement in the 1930s.
Everything looked like the streets of Guangzhou. As they walked along the street, they
noticed lots of clothes hung out to dry on bamboo poles, sticking out from open windows
from the three-storied shop houses that lined both sides of the street. A street with 'flags'
sticking out from so many windows added a peculiar air of festivity in over-crowded

Sago Lane 1940s

There were a few houses that looked unusual. A band was playing rather loud music
outside one of these houses. Nearby was a lorry decorated with flowers. Some men,
women and children were seen weeping openly on the street. Li Zhang's curiosity was

“Mum, what's going on there?” she asked innocently.

“It's a funeral, girl, “was the crispy reply.

A funeral procession at Sago Lane 1950s

Grandma Lee then explained that Sago Lane was known as 'The Street of Death'. It was a
street with a number of death houses and funeral parlours. The death houses were
actually a sort of hospice to accommodate those who were critically ill, and they were left
in the death houses literally waiting to die. Many of them were discharged from hospitals
after being found to be terminally ill. Li Zhang was perplexed. In a child's mind, life and
death appeared to be rather abstract ideas. A child of three like Li Zhang does not
understand death as permanent, universal and inevitable. She may be very curious about
the physical process of death and what happens after a person dies. She will have
difficulty understanding the concept of death, and sometimes view death as temporary or
reversible. Still Li Zhang saw death as separation or abandonment. She had grieved
when her father died. She remembered her mother and other relatives standing around the
death bed of her father, weeping with anguishing cries. She was then told that father had
gone to 'Sai Tin' (the Western Skies) permanently. She understood then that she would
never be able to see him again. Her infant heart was cruelly stabbed by those words of the
adults who could not understand that an infant could really feel the anguish and despair
of those dying moments. She cried intermittently, but it would be a mistake to think that
there was no hurt, no wounds in her infant heart.

Inside a death house at Sago Lane 1940s.

Standing there with her grand-mother holding her hand tightly on the 'Street of Death',
she experienced once again the pulsating anger, frustration and pain of death that had
tortured her before in China as she recalled the dying moments of her father. For a
moment, she hoped to see him again on this strange street. But she was afraid and
anxious. Fear of the unknown, the impact of the death rituals, being alone in this
emotional struggle - all created a sense of despair in her.

Kim Chua wasted little time getting the women and Li Zhang into a shop house, and
introduced the chief tenant to Man Zhao. Grandma Lee was astonished to find Kim Chua
placing her loved ones in such a dilapidated and overcrowded house. But fear of
antagonizing Kim Chua led her to keep quiet, while the man started bargaining with the
lady about rentals. She looked at Man Zhao and shook her head briefly and sighed deeply.
But she still kept her tongue.

Li Zhang, however, was quick to give her views. “Mum, I can't breathe in here,” she

But the adults ignored her. Soon, they were shown their new accommodation in this 'Kuli
Fong' (house for coolies). The sleeping accommodation was a wooden structure,
comprising a three-tier platform. Each platform was large enough for 20 people to sleep
on. Already, there were a few dozen women inside the small hall. Li Zhang's family was
allotted some space on the second platform. Some of the women started to crowd around
Li Zhang. They were curious about the little girl, and started asking Man Zhao whether it
was her daughter, or was she adopted. Adoption of little girls appeared to be a popular
thing to do in those days. Many of the Majies (or domestic servants) liked to adopt girls,
and raise them to be Pipa girls or prostitutes.

“Choy,” Man Zhao cursed and added with a little annoyance, “I don't like to adopt girls.
Li Zhang is my own daughter. We just arrived from Dongguan.”

“Never mind,” an old lady, cragged and bent, spoke in a crackling voice, “we like little
children here, and we will help you to take care of this sweet child.”

The old woman squeezed her way out of the platform bed, and walked slowly towards the
back door. She stopped there and took a spittoon out from behind the door. She then spat
into it. Turning to face Man Zhao, she said, "They call me 'Bah Por' here. Let me know if
you need anything."

“Bah Por, thank you. You really have a kind heart,” replied Man Zhao who started to
place her few belongings on the place allotted to her on the platform.

Kim Chua stood and observed them for sometime; then he took out some money from his
purse and paid the Chief Tenant, Mui Chee.

"Aiyah, the rent here is low. Just don't switch on lights in the day and don't waste water.
And remember; don't spit on the floor and no smoking. Also, don't let the child disturb
the things on the altar.”

Mui Chee then lit some joss-sticks, muttered a few words of prayer and placed the joss-
sticks into an urn on the altar table. From the look of the mess on the altar, it was plain
that Mui Chee's ancestral altar had been neglected. Her usual excuse was "I am busy."
She was also firm in her belief about ancestral worship that "when a person dies, that is
the end - no more." She expressed this opinion to justify the mess on the altar table, but
added that every house should have an altar for the Gods and spirits to reside in.

As she rambled on and on, Li Zhang's thoughts were far away. Instinctively, she disliked
the horrid place. After her uncle Kim Chua and her grand-mother and auntie left, she
climbed up the platform on her own, and went to sleep.

A child within a death house 1940s

Chapter Three
Man Zhao and her daughter were shocked. On the street where they lived were houses for
the living dead, funeral parlors, gambling houses, opium dens, leisure clubs and brothels.
To a young child, "awesome" is she word. Li Zhang stared in stark horror the open
coffins placed on five-foot ways, exposing the dressed-up cadavers inside. Her senses
were numbed as her ears were bombarded by the endless repetitive chanting of prayers by
Taoist priests and Buddhist monks, in rhythm with "ticky-tacky" sounds and the "clang-
clang" beats of the brass gongs. She could also hear the sound of mourners sobbing and
crying amidst the music of a Chinese orchestra with the accompaniment of the blaring
sounds of a Chinese flute and the ear-piercing noises of loud kettle drums, creating a
cacophony which the street dwellers suffered long in silence. When they reached the end
of Sago Lane, they found themselves on Keong Saik Street. This part of Chinatown was
known as the "Blue Triangle". The row of old shop houses along Keong Saik Road was
dull and lifeless, if not for the flickering lights of red lanterns found here and there at a
distance. It was about eight o'clock in the evening. There were a few men, faces flushed
with liquor, walking unsteadily along the five-foot ways and disappeared into a narrow
ground floor staircase entrance that led to the upper floors of the shophouses.
Instinctively, Man Zhao knew that the men were customers of the notorious brothels
whose business activity was advertised through the use of red lanterns.

The lady with a Pipa

Li Zhang was fascinated by the sudden appearance of a few rickshaws. There were dark
looming shadows everywhere, but the glittering lamps of these rickshaws created an air

of festivity on the dark street. The little girl watched in rapt attention. She was fascinated
by the beautiful ladies who were sitting on the rickshaws. They wore cosmetics that made
their faces snow-white, and used red coloring papers to make their lips blood red. These
ladies wore tight fitting "cheong-sams", popular evening attire for ladies in those days. Li
Zhang learnt from her aunt that these ladies were "Pipa" girls. They played the "Pipa", a
Chinese lute musical instrument at clubs and brothels to entertain men.

Man Zhao and Li Zhang stopped in front of the Tamfa building which was a leisure club
for the middle class people along Keong Saik Road. Man Zhao spoke to a tough looking
man at the entrance. She told him that she was looking for her friend, Ah Ling who also
came from Wan Niu Dun in China. After waiting for a short while, Ah Ling, a woman in
her thirties came down from the 2nd storey house. The two women began to chat in their
native Dongguan dialect, which few people could comprehend in this area. Ah Ling
decided to show Man Zhao around. The fact that a little girl was around did not bother
her at all. “Come upstairs,” she said, “see how the men gamble here.”

Man Zhao quietly followed Ah Ling. There were lots of gambling tables. There were at
least ten gamblers around each table, including some pretty women who were keeping the
gamblers company. Man Hua later learnt that they were Pipa girls. They entertained the
men, and sometimes they slept with them for a fee. The atmosphere was tense. Some men
were smoking opium at a corner. Smokes filled the air. Nobody seemed to be bothered by
the presence of a little girl who watched everything in rapt attention.

Someone called Ah Ling from one corner of the gambling hall, “Give a cup of kopi for
Mr. Chan, Ah Ling.”

Ah Ling quickly walked towards a small table and poured out a cup of hot coffee from a
kettle. She served the steaming hot coffee to a fat man at a corner gambling table. The
man greeted her, gently massaging his bulging stomach, 'Hey, you look pretty, tonight.'
He then swigged his coffee and felt rejuvenated by its aroma and bitter taste. Then he
glanced sideways. His narrow eyes were riveted on Man Zhao's face. For a moment, he
forgot about his coffee, and started asking Ah Ling questions about Man Zhao, thinking
that this young lady with such a fresh innocent look might be a new Pipa girl. The man
had encountered countless Pipa girls at Tamfa and enjoyed their company. He liked
young ones, and always hoped to meet young virgins. Man Zhao with her long hair, fair
complexion, sweet face and slender body naturally attracted him. But Ah Ling was quick
to pour cold water on the fat man, to cool his sexual desires. After a great deal of
explanation given by Ah Ling that the good-looking lady was just a visitor, the fat man
then continued with his gambling.

From Keong Saik Road, Man Zhao and Li Zhang walked back towards Sago Lane. There
was a stretch of Keong Saik Road near the Dickenson Hill which was in total darkness.
Still they walked on, summoning all the courage they had to inch their way forward.
Even while they were enveloped in the dark shadows of the road without street lamps,
they could hear eerie sounds from the Hill. From that distance, they could also hear the
'clang-clang' beats and the 'tock-tock' sounds of death rituals from the street of death.

Suddenly, a group of mourners appeared before them, some of whom dressed in black,
and some in jute mourning clothes. One person shouted out the words, 'Mai Sui', that is,
to buy water to wipe the faces of the dead. A really strange ritual. In actual fact, there was
no transaction involved with anybody. The mourners just took some water from a public
tap, and threw some coins on the ground to conclude the death deal. Perhaps in this way,
it became a "done deal".

From a distance, Man Zhao and Li Zhang could see the mysterious shimmering lights
amidst the dark shadows of trees and buildings, and occasionally tongues of flames that
leaped up and down, springing out tiny dancing sparkles of light in different places. As
they walked further, they could see more sparkles and dancing flames as the mourners
burnt paper houses, cars and dollar notes as offerings to their departed ones. Several
Taoist priests were seen walking round and round in circles with some mourners, and
occasionally leaping over flames as part of the funeral rituals to seek protection for the

A death ritual

Man Hua shuddered at the thought of walking past the death houses along Sago Lane.
Instead she took a much longer route to reach home. The moment she and Li Zhang
turned into Sago Street, they were in a different world altogether. Myriads of brightly lit
roadside stalls greeted them. They lined both sides of the road at night. Street vendors
yelled and yapped to attract patronage to their stalls. There was an air of festivity in this
street, also known to the Cantonese residents as 'the Little Temple Street.'

This lively street was in sharp contrast to the dimly lit, sombre and depressing street of
death nearby. Man Zhao could not but reflect on Life and Death, the two things that
constantly pre-occupy the minds of mortals on earth. Right in front of her was a vibrant

Chinatown street, bustling with activities, where everyone struggled to eke out a living.
Behind her was another street where one could see the shadows of death in stark reality,
and where you could find dorms of death in gruesome horror. As one who came from a
war-torn country, Man Zhao knew death and pain well enough. They had followed her
for a long spell in China, and no moment was she free. Yes, death could be seen
everywhere there, and from death's stinging and stabbing swords flowed the blood of the
innocent, both young and old, leaving Man Zhao with pain and anguish residing deep
within her heart. A Chinese immigrant like this strong-willed woman knew pain and
anguish. They torture a person persistently. By staying, they refuse to be ignored. By
hurting, they reduce their victims to profound depths of sorrow. And it is at that
anguishing point that the sufferer submits and learns, developing maturity and character,
or resists and becomes embittered, swamped by self-pity, smothered by self-will.

Still one could find something at Sago Street associated with death. There were several
shops for making paper products such as paper houses, cars, dollar notes, radio sets and
other luxury items, which were sold as offerings to the dead. Li Zhang stood in front of
one of the shops and was thrilled to see the paper articles. Such articles were really
objects of art. They were beautifully crafted and painted in bright colors. Their designs
could be very complicated with intricate details. The skills of this trade were handed
down from generations to generations. Today, one of these shops still operates at Keong
Saik Road.

When Man Zhao and Li Zhang reached home, it was already nine o'clock, and it was time
for Li Zhang to go to bed.

Sago Street – 1950s

Chapter Four
Man Zhao got up early the next day. She remembered this would be the day to bring Li
Zhang to the Thian Hock Keng Temple to thank Ma Jo Por, the Goddess of the Sea for
granting a safe voyage to Singapore. Man Zhao expressed the view that it would be best
to get her mother to go with them, as she was not familiar with the way to Telok Ayer.
But before setting out, some preparations were necessary. Man Zhao and her sister, Man
Hua went to a nearby grocery shop to buy joss-sticks, joss papers, and some paper money.
Grandma Lee also brought along a bamboo basket filled with several pairs of chopsticks,
a few porcelain cups, a bottle of wine and a chicken. In the basket, there were paper gold
ingots and other paper items to be used as offerings to the deities in the temple.

A street scene – Cross Street 1940s

They travelled in two rickshaws. Two bald-headed men in their fifties pulled the
rickshaws along the road leading to Telok Ayer. Li Zhang sat with her mother in one
rickshaw, while Man Hua sat with her mother. The rickshaw pullers took a short cut
through Ang Siang Hill, but the roads there were very steep. The men had to exert
themselves to pull the rickshaws along. Li Zhang watched them sweat and was amused to
hear them yell as their heavy feet struck the uneven ground and pounded the macadam
paved streets. It took them more than half and hour to reach Telok Ayer Street. The
rickshaw pullers slowed down to allow the ladies to see some of the landmarks there. The
rickshaws stopped briefly at the Fuk Tat Chi Temple, one of the oldest Chinese temple
built by the Cantonese and Hakka communities. The group went in to the old temple.
They lit some joss-sticks and knelt before the altar of Tua Pek Kong, the deity of the
Earth with powers to bless the earthlings with peace and safety. The temple was packed
with "sinkhehs" (new guests from overseas). After the short prayer session, the group

returned to the rickshaws which moved along slowly along Telok Ayer Street. As the
rickshaws moved along, Li Zhang was quite thrilled to see the famous mosque, the
Nagore Durgha which was built by the Indian community as early as 1828-30. It was a
beautiful mosque with minarets and onion domes each of the minarets had 14 levels
which tapered gradually, culminating in miniature onion domes. . It was also the first
time that Li Zhang stared at Indian men. 'They looked so dark," she thought.

Li Zhang, however, did not ask about the complexion of the Indian men and women who
congregated in big numbers outside of the Hindu temple. Instead, she asked her mother,
"Mum, why do people worship in different places? We are going to another Chinese
temple, but these Indian people go into that strange looking temple to pray to God? A
really profound question from a small girl.

Her mother just gave her a matter of fact sort of answer. "Li Zhang, different people have
different ways of worship, and so they go to different places to pray." When she saw the
bewilderment in Li Zhang's eyes, she added something of deeper meanings. "Child, we
Chinese believe that everything that happens to us depends on three things - Heaven,
Earth and Man. Heaven is good and holy; so we have to pray to the Gods. Earth is a
mixture of good and bad; so sometimes we have to ward off the evil ones. Sometimes, we
ask them not to harm us. That's why we give them offerings."

"So, that's why we brought some chicken meat along," said Li Zhang. She appeared quite
pleased with her own words.

Just then, the rickshaws stopped in front of the Thian Hock Keng Temple. Mun Zhao had
never seen any temple building so beautiful in design and so solidly built. It exuded a
grandeur and majesty not only from its external facade and its impressive entrance, but in
the elegantly paved courtyard as well. Quite startling were the stylized dragons and the
imposing columns and the decorative roof tiles. Its pillars of iron wood and granite and
the carved stonework used for the temple were imported from China.

The chief deity in this temple, Ma Cho Po, goddess of seafarers, was brought from
Fukien Province and enshrined in Singapore in 1840. The temple, also known as the
Temple of Heavenly Happiness, was first built in 1939 - 42 at a time when the waterfront
was at its doorsteps. It attracted large numbers of Chinese immigrants who went there to
thank the Goddess, Ma Cho Po for a safe journey to Singapore. Li Zhang's family gazed
in awe and wonder at the temple. Grandma Lee led her family members into the main
hall. The place was filled with smoke from the burning of incense, joss-sticks and paper
offerings. Li Zhang was made to kneel at the altar to pray to the deities holding some
joss-sticks. Little did Li Zhang realize that this place of worship would feature
dramatically in her later life? The temple would become her refuge from harm during the
most terrifying days of her life.

This picture captures the atmosphere and mood
Of one of the oldest Chinese temples in Singapore –
The Thian Hock Keng Temple at Telok Ayer Street, 1966

Gold Medal – Singapore Tourism Board, May 1966

She walked in -
Into the holy place within.
Tears filled her cup as she wept, wailed and cried out
In agony over the wickedness and wretchedness of Man without.

She knelt down,

Her aching knees hit the ground.
Pray, Piety, pray - that wishes with wings be lifted up,
Then love, joy and righteousness will fill the cup.

Oh, Child of Light and Hope, here silence still remains,

Here, where the grandeur and glory of God reigns,
Sing, like an angel, sing, and not weep,
For God`s love is wondrous, abiding and deep.

But always seeing love`s way bitter and bare,

Hidden harvest of hideous sin, as men sow, men reap.
And jaundiced eyes not filled with seeing or care.
Pray, Piety, pray, for blessings and mercies or days to keep,
Then place at God`s great knees and feet -
Every wish, desire or dream, every song, sombre or sweet.

Andrew Yip, 2008

Chapter Five
Mnn Zhou's day started off on a wrong note. She had severe abdominal pains, and
needed to buy some Chinese medicine in Chinatown. She rushed out of the house. She
thought all neighbors were friendly, just like the neighbors she had in her village in China.
Boldly she knocked on the doors of the neighbor’s house. An elderly man holding an
opium pipe on the one hand stared at her, and barked at her, "What do you want? This is
an opium den." The man, bent and dirty looking, wore a nervous, emaciated and hungry
look. His thin trembling, dirty fingers were stained both black and yellow. He stepped
stiffly forward in a threatening way and gave Man Zhao a fierce look.

The old smoker

Cold sweat poured down her forehead, but Man Zhao still managed to muster enough
courage to ask for directions to a Chinese medicine shop. The opium smoker pointed to
the right. Man Zhao noticed that the man's hand was shaking violently, as he walked

unsteadily back into the opium den on the ground floor. She sped away after thanking the
old opium smoker, the first of many she would meet in Chinatown.

As Man Zhao walked along the five-foot way, she noticed several men sleeping there on
canvas beds. A few others could be seen smoking and chatting outside their coolie-
houses. Accustomed to waking up early in her village home, she was amazed to find
people still sleeping at eight in the morning, and in a public place. She was quite excited
to see the arrival of several bullock carts carrying water cans, and the Indian men were
distributing fresh water to the households. She later learnt that Kreta Ayer Road was the
central area for the distribution of water using these bullock carts manned by the Indian

After walking some distance to the corner of Smith Street and Trengganu Street, she
found the Chinese medicine shop. A fat man, wearing thick black rimmed glasses, was
sitting behind a long counter. He sat motionless reading a book and was unaware that
Man Zhao was standing in front of the counter for several minutes. She knocked on the
wooden counter to get his attention, and spoke loudly, "Can I get some medicine for
stomach pain?"

The man looked up and smiled. "Oh, you are a Dongguan woman. You have just arrived.
Just take these few bottles of ‘Boh Chai Yuen’, and you'll be fine.”

They chatted. The fat man began to tell her about the history of his shop. It used to be a
famous brothel, known as "Mon-Chuen-Lau", but it was gutted by fire in 1917, and nine
people died. The man laughed when he noticed the horror in the woman's eyes and added,
"Don't worry, this place is not haunted. We pray to the deity, ‘Toh-dei-kong’ every day.
Where do you live?"

When Man Zhao told him that she lived along Sago Lane, he was amused. "You know
Sago Lane is full of ghosts and spirits. It has so many funeral parlors and death houses.
You see the dead and the living dead here and there. It is also called ‘Mun Chai Kai’
named after the Kwok Mun Undertakers which operated the death houses and funeral
parlors there. Another funeral parlor is ‘ Fook Sau ‘operated by a Baba Chinese who used
to work in the Municipality. The noise made by these funeral parlors goes on day and
night. Some of the rituals go on until the next morning. People like us living here all our
lives have learnt to tolerate them."

The fat man's words made Man Zhao think. "Perhaps, Sago Lane is not such a good place
to live, especially since Li Zhang is so young and so impressionable."

After Man Zhao took some "Boh Chai Yuen" pills at the medicine shop and drank some
herb mixture offered by the fat man, she felt better. She paid for the medicine and started
walking home. As she walked, she began to reflect on the remarks made by the man at
the Medicine shop about Sago Lane. Her face took on a serious look. She wept as she
reflected on the good days at her village home in China. She forgot about her abdominal
pains. All she was aware was the pain in her heart as her mind was swamped by the tides
of deep emotions. Her heart was stabbed by the stinging thorns of anguish, and was filled
with a sense of hopelessness and sorrow.. In such an emotional state, she quietly prayed
to Heaven to have mercy on her and her family, even as she walked aimlessly along the
winding narrow lanes of Chinatown.

And Heavens answered her prayers quite promptly. The next day, she met a friendly
neighbor, residing at 41-A, Sago Lane, just a few doors away from her house. Man Zhao
found out that her neighbor, an old lady, was also from Dongguan. Her village, ‘Pu
Zhong’ was not far from her own village at ‘Wan Niu Dun’ Man Zhao liked the old lady,
Chan Chow Foon, instantly. She exuded a warmth and friendliness, devoid of any sham
or artificiality. She listened to Man Zhao's plight with a sympathetic ear, and told her that
should she need any help, she could always come to her.

To Man Zhao, the grand old lady was a remarkable woman. Single-handedly, she brought
up her children. Her husband was fond of the opium pipe and gambling, but was a good
carpenter. She earned a living through her needle-work, and was able to survive by being
absolutely frugal. The stories she told Man Zhao showed her to be a woman of grit and
determination, and of courage and perseverance. Twice she went back to China on a slow
boat as an open deck passenger.. Twice she was kidnapped and bound as hostage by
relatives, and she had to pay the ransom on her own. Those kidnappers or relatives had
fled to San Francisco later. Her son also turned out to be an opium addict operating an
opium den, but later redeemed himself to work first as a Cantonese opera music arranger
and later as a detective in Chinatown.

It was through Chan Chow Foon's introduction that Man Zhao came to meet Lin of 47
Kreta Ayer Road. Lin's family used to live along Sago Lane, but moved to Kreta Ayer
Road, a much quieter place at the fringe of Chinatown, near the Blue Triangle at Keong
Saik Road, a place full of leisure houses and Pipa girls. The old lady, in verity an angel

from Heaven to Man Zhao, was very close to Lin's family members. She was sure Man
Zhao would be happy residing in the "Kuli-Fong" operated by Lin at her three storied
house. A ‘Kuli-Fong’ was actually a place of accommodation for women, particularly
majies, samsui women and other women workers, paying just a few dollars for rental
each month. It was actually the same as a coolie house for men, but the ‘Kuli-Fong’ was
meant only for ladies and their children, if any.

The old lady, Chow Foon, was quite emphatic. "Man Zhao, I am sure you will be happier
living at Kreta Ayer Road there with your child, Li Zhang. “Lin is a very kind person.
You know, we are all going through difficult times. It is better to live with Lin's family
and many women I know there, than living at Sago Lane which is too noisy and too grim
a place to bring up such a bright young kid likes Li Zhang. If you wish, I will make an
appointment for you to see Lin's place first."

Man Zhao nodded and thanked Chow Foon profusely.

For Man Zhao, the talk with the old lady was the beginning of a new lease of life in
Singapore for her and her family. It was for her the dawn of a new day, a new hope and a
new beginning.

Life is full of turning points. It is a long, long road with many a winding turn. But at
every turning point or at the cross-roads where the path diverges, a decision has to be
made. One cannot drive along the road of life recklessly or blindly. One cannot always
apply the brakes suddenly in a fast and bumpy ride, hoping that the screeching brakes
will be effectual to bring us safely round the corners. Not all of us are skilful like the
racing drivers who have the skills and courage to turn every skid into a drift and still be
able to slide along and control the vehicle. In the journey of life, there are moments and
situations new to us and things that crop up could be imponderable, inconceivable or
unexpected. Man Zhao's decision to leave China was a decision made in desperation, but
it was nevertheless a major turning point. At the moment, she faced another turning point
- leaving Sago Lane - the ‘Street of death.’ But her decision this time was based on faith.
She had prayed, and God had answered.

But do not for a moment scoff at the idea of calling Chan Chow Foon, (born in 1882) ,
‘an angel of Heaven’. Believe it or not, the old lady, a person of low education or no
education, the daughter-in-law to the 6th concubine son of a corrupt village official in
China, whose feet were not bound , quite unlike those of the daughters of the first official
wife whose feet were bound as 3-inch lotus feet, rose to become the grand-mother of
several Senior government officials of the Singapore Government. Believe it or not, one
of her grand-children, born and bred in Chinatown, became a top civil servant and a
serving Local Preacher, and a pillar of the Methodist Church in Singapore. Her life story
is in fact a visible and sacred memorial of Heaven's enduring faithfulness and wisdom.
This grand old lady, head of the Ng family at Sago Lane, was truly blessed.

Chapter Six
From a distance, Kreta Ayer Road looked no different from other streets of Chinatown.
There were boys and girls playing along the pavements. Some old men and women sat on
stools along various stretches of the busy street to cool themselves, as most houses were
overcrowded and poorly ventilated. A few vendors pushed their carts from one spot to
another, yelling and yapping to attract patronage. Some men could be seen chopping
firewood along the side-lanes. However, the street named after the water carts that
distributed fresh water to households in Chinatown, did not have any of the infamous
activities of many Chinatown streets. There were no brothels, no opium dens, no death
houses and no coolie houses of the type that enslaved the Chinese indentured laborers.
Instead, there were schools, book-shops, Buddhist associations, grocery shops, coffee-
shops, and several boarding houses for rickshaw pullers, tradesmen and craftsmen and
some coolie-fongs for majiers, domestic servants and ‘samsui’ women.

Kreta Ayer Road 1950s

"That is the grocery shop I told you about," said the old lady, Chow Foon. She pointed at
the shophouse at 47, Kreta Ayer Road to Man Zhao, Man Hua and Li Zhang who
followed her, walking all the way from Sago Street to Lin's place.

"This is a nice neighborhood. Look at the street and the five footway - they are so clean
and tidy," exclaimed Man Hua.

"Let us meet Lin first. She always leaves the shop unattended, while she works in the
kitchen." Chow Foon's smile was radiating from her face. She started walking briskly
towards the grocery shop and marched straight into the middle of the house to look for

Lin. She was not at all surprised to find the shop left wide open and unattended. " Lin,
Lin," she called out as she marched further in.

Then a soft voice came from the kitchen. "Is that you, Auntie Foon?" Someone was in the
kitchen chopping something. There were ‘thud-thud’ sounds and the sounds of tin
utensils being placed on the table. More noises from the kitchen followed.

"Yes, it's me. I have brought some friends to meet you."

After a short while, a slim middle-aged woman, wearing a plain samfu dress, appeared
with a broad smile as she greeted Chow Foon.

"I have brought some oranges for your children," Chow Foon said cheerfully. " I like to
thank you for the advice you have given to my daughter-in-law last year - to get my
grandson, Ah Seng to apply for admission to an English school. Now everyone thinks it’s
a swell idea. We are indeed grateful to you, Lin. But first let me introduce these two
ladies who recently came from Dongguan. They need your help."

Lin smiled as Li Zhang walked towards her and bowed. She stared at the little girl for a
moment. Then she turned towards Mun Zhao and greeted her warmly. Lin liked Li
Zhang and Mun Zhao instantly. After listening to Chow Foon about their need for
accommodation, Lin spoke without hesitation, “Chow Foon, you’ve come at the right
time. I have a room on the third storey for Li Zhang and Mun Zhao. They could stay there
as long as they like. Let me show you the room.”

Lin led the group out of the shop to the five-foot way. She took them up a long staircase
at the side of the house. When they reached the top floor, Lin opened the wooden door
with her keys.

Mun Zhao was impressed when she entered the third storey flat. It looked clean and well
kept. It was well ventilated with windows both in front and at the rear. Lin showed Mun
Zhao a room with a rear window. It was a nice room with curtains. Both Mun Zhao and
Li Zhang liked the room.

Chapter Seven
Lin was a second generation Chinese immigrant in Singapore. Her parents came from a
village called 'Mui Sar' in the Dongguan province of Southern China. Her parents and a
son, Ah Kow, migrated to Singapore during the Qing Dynasty at a time when foreign
forces invaded China and the Taiping Rebellion created havoc over the entire countryside,
and there were floods, famines and starvation hitting the peasant population. Lin's father
was a skilled craftsman, but in those depression years in Singapore in the early 1900s, he
could not find work and had to eke out a living working as a coolie in the Harbor and
wharves. He worked side by side with a large number of indentured coolies from
Chinatown. In Singapore at that time, indentured contracts bound thousands of Chinese to
harsh labor, sometimes involving physical brutality. These indentured laborers were
placed in coolie houses which could be found all over Chinatown. The most notable one
was the ‘Kwong Hup Yuen’, located at No. 37, Pagoda Street. Pagoda Street used to be
known at ‘Kwong Hup Yuen Street’. The old road name and the two-storied old house
are a grim reminder of the use of the indentured 'slave' system in Singapore during the
colonial administration.

Lin's mother passed away due to ill-health a few years after the family settled down in
Chinatown. Her father's death came a few years after she was born in Singapore. As a
coolie, he had to work in the godowns and wharves of the New Harbor, built in 1850
which was renamed Keppel Harbor in 1900. On a misty morning, he went to work as
usual. He worked like a beast of burden carrying several sacks of rice on his broad
shoulders from the boats to the godowns. He had almost finished the last load and was
moving slowly and gingerly across a wooden plank placed between two boats. Suddenly,
a wooden crate came down upon him. He was immediately crushed to death. Lin and Ah
Kow then became orphans. Fortunately, relatives in Singapore looked after them during
the depression years.

One of these relatives brought Lin to Kreta Ayer Road to join her sworn sisters in
celebration of the Seven Sisters Festival. The Festival falls on the seventh day of the
seventh lunar month of each year, and was celebrated in Chinatown in grand style. The
Festival has its origin in Chinese folklore dating back more than 1,500 years. The legend
features a weaver maid (with six older sisters), who led a lonely life working at her loom
throughout the year. Her father, the Heavenly Emperor, felt sorry for her al\and allowed
her to marry a cow herder from across the Milky Way. After her wedding, she neglected
her weaving duties and the emperor ordered her to return home and only
allowed her to visit her husband once a year on the seventh day of the seventh moon. The
celebrations centre on religious rites and feature needlework competitions. As part of the
worship, young women make offerings to the night sky and the two stars that represent
the cow herder and the maid. They often pray to Heaven to grant their wish to meet the
men of their dreams. Lin and her relative stood at the entrance of the shophouse. They
had to squeeze their way in, as the place was packed with visitors. Inside, smoke from the
burning of incense and joss-sticks filled the air. Noises filled their ears. People were

chatting and laughing loudly. Some Taoist priests chanted away prayers quite
incomprehensible to anyone. And there were the clang-clang sounds of gongs and tock-
tock beats accompanying the prayers.

It was a cacophony orchestrated by the chief tenant of the shophouse, Mak to celebrate
the Seven Sisters Festival. Her son, Cheong Fun was there helping to usher in the guests.
As Lin entered the hall, Cheong Fun spotted her. For a few minutes, he just stood in front
of Lin. He was glued on the spot when his eyes riveted on the face of young Lin. No
words were spoken. They just stared at each other. His mother, Mak was quick to notice
Lin and her friend, and exchanged some pleasantries with them. Mak then asked her son,
Cheong Fun to help prepare the altar at the rear of the house. She also asked Lin to help
him. It was the first occasion for the two young people to do things together, but it was
the beginning of a partnership that stretched over seven decades.

The next year, Lin and Cheong-Fun were married in the traditional style. Dressed in
traditional wedding costumes, Cheong-Fun wore a long gown, red shoes and a red silk
sash with a silk ball on his chest. He also wore a cap decorated with cypress leaves on his
head to declare his adulthood and his family responsibility. Lin wore a red bridal gown
and a pair of red shoes. Her hair was combed in the style of a married woman. Her head
was covered with a red silk veil with tassels or bead strings that hung from the phoenix
crown. The young couple knelt at the ancestral altar where they bowed to Heaven, Earth,
the family ancestors and the bridegroom's mother in that order. After that, they bowed to
each other, and then they were led to the bridal chamber. From then on, the grocery shop
at 47 Kreta Ayer Road had a new shopkeeper and a shrewd business woman who kept a
steady hand over the various business ventures in which the family became involved.

Rowing At Dawn
A gold medal picture by
Yip Cheong Fun

Chapter Eight
Lin already had four children - three boys and a girl, when Li Zhang first visited the
shophouse at Kreta Ayer Road. Man Zhao was quiet, but her mind appeared to have been
made up. She thought this was sheer luck finding a place like this for her family to stay.
She liked Lin instantly. Lin's cheerful manners and sympathetic outlook gave her
confidence. Lin offered her a small room on the third storey for her family to live for a
small rental. Lin told her that Li Zhang could play with her children when Man Zhao was
not around. Her sister-in-law, Kum Yow would help to look after all the children and
feed them. The arrangement seemed beautiful. Man Zhao became less depressed, and
quite enthusiastic about finding work. .

Moving into a room at 47 Kreta Ayer Road was a new experience for Li Zhang. A young
girl of four naturally felt a sense of elation to find a place she could call home, after her
terrifying experience, living on the street of death. She could not articulate her dreadful
experience at Sago Lane. Surely, she could feel the dismal congestion and bad ventilation
in her house there. She had fixed her gaze upon the nameless corpses in open coffins
along the five footway. She glanced in silence; perhaps she did not know what she saw.
Or perhaps she did - whatever.

After so many long years, Li Zhang still regards Kreta Ayer as her home. Her heart is still
with Chinatown, despite its dreadful images of dinghy death houses and leisure clubs,
despite its filth and squalor in its distant past. Those, whose personal lives were sheltered
there from the winds of hardship and vicissitudes of life, will always remember
Chinatown as home, where people grew strong, where they found community support,
where they dared to dream the impossible dreams, notwithstanding the fact that
sometimes their dreams might have been outgrown and discarded and could turn into
nightmares. So, after more than three decades, the Septuagenarian, Li Zhang still
referred to her home as the Kreta Ayer shophouse.

Man Zhao's new burst of happy confidence remained with her throughout the day. Lin's
mother-in-law, Mak, encouraged her to set up a stall along the road to sell noodles, since
she was an excellent cook. So, she joined the ranks of some 18,000 street vendors,
selling food and other merchandise to earn a living. At that time, the World Depression
affected the lives of everyone in Singapore. Unable to cope, people in Chinatown turned
to street hawking to make a living. Everywhere, along streets in Chinatown, myriads of
street vendors filled both the streets and the five footways. Because of the strong noon
day sun and the occasional heavy rain, the street vendors used umbrellas to shield
themselves and protect their goods. The colors of these umbrellas gave Chinatown a
colorful look. The occasional rainbows in the sky seemed to be a reflection of these
colors. No wonder some people called Chinatown the Rainbow Place with rainbows
lighting up the sky in Chinatown giving fresh hopes to those sheltered there. However,
Man Zhao's work as a street vendor was not encouraging. For several weeks, she tried but
the roadside stall attracted few customers. Perhaps the location was not right, for there
were three coffee shops at Kreta Ayer Road, all with several food and drinks stalls.

A resourceful woman, Man Zhao decided to try something else. Everyone was surprised
one day to see Li Zhang playing with tobacco. One of the Majies in the house did not
minced words. "Heavens, this little girl is learning to smoke,” she said sarcastically. It
turned out that she was mistaken.

The Majies then watched more closely to what the little girl was doing. She was
practising what her grandmother had taught her - to make cigars. The women found out
that the girl in fact already mastered the art of making cigars. At least, a dozen cigars,
stuffed with the finest tobacco, had been wrapped with a certain degree of
professionalism. Soon, words got around that Man Zhao was manufacturing quality
cigars for sale. For a few weeks, the sale was good, but after some time, Man Zhao was
convinced that the cigar business was not at all viable. She had to think of something else
to make a living.

At two a.m. Man Zhao was still awake. For three hours she had paced back and forth. She
then stopped and clenched the iron bars of her room windows until her knuckles went

A woman, Ah Leng, who worked as a Samsui woman and living with the Yips at the Kuli
Fong at Kreta Ayer, encouraged Man Zhao to join her to do construction work.

“Man Zhao, the work is hard, but it pays well. There are lots of construction projects all
over Singapore. If you like, I'll take you tomorrow to meet a contractor at Upper Chin
Chew Street, and most probably he'll take you in." Ah Leng spoke with some conviction.

So, next day, Man Zhao followed Ah Leng to Upper Chin Chew Street. The street was
one of the most dilapidated parts of Chinatown. It was the home to many ‘Samsui’
women. Because of the black pants hung out to dry on bamboo poles, the street was
nicknamed ‘Black Cloth Street’. Man Zhao saw hundreds of the ‘Samsui’ Women there,
waiting for their assignment of work. They all clad in a loose blue blouse, blue or black
wide half-mast pants and the fashionable red headgear. Most of them stayed single and
independent. They took a vow of celibacy which was taken in earnest through the Hair
Combing ritual as a Golden Orchid Pledge. These women were noted for their
ruggedness and grit, working alongside the men in construction sites and fields. They
could be found in construction sites, digging ditches, scooping sand and cement, and
carrying stones and bricks. One would be amazed to see these young women workers
chiseling stones and bricks, carrying heavy things, and walking along gingerly along a
wooden plank high above the ground.

Man Zhao was introduced by Ah Leng to a tough looking man who spoke with a loud
and authoritative voice. "Man Zhao, the work is hard and the hours long. You have a girl.
This job may not suit you. Please think it over. If you want construction work, come back
and see me."

Man Zhao was not convinced that the job of a ‘Samsui’ Woman would suit her. She
sought the advice of a ‘Samsui’ woman, Loo Ah Gui. The woman came from Samsui at
the age of 19, soon after her husband died in China. To Ah Gui, her job as a ‘Samsui’
Woman in Singapore was hard. But her worst assignment was working as a laborer in
Kulai in the State of Johor. Everyday, she had to carry earth the whole day from seven to
five in the evening under the sweltering heat of the sun. On a rainy day, she would be
completely drenched. By the time she reached her home in Upper Chin Chew Street, she
was completely exhausted. She just managed to muster enough energy to cook a simple
meal and take a bath, and then she just went to bed. She had to get up the next morning at
3 a.m. She had to spend 3 cents to take a bus. After that, she had to walk for more than a
mile. All she could earn was just sixty cents a day.

Samsui Women (The lotus workers)

After listening to the tale of woe of Gui Jie, Man Zhao dropped the idea of becoming a
Samsui Woman. A few days later, Man Zhao was offered a job at ‘Mun Chai’, a death
house at Sago Lane. She was to work on the top floor meant for babies whose parents
were found to be terminally ill and were kept on the floors below. The thought of
working in a death house horrified her. But then what choice was there for her. She could
not get enough income as a street vendor, and she had to look after Li Zhang as well. She
must accept the job before someone else took it. In any case, she comforted herself that
this was a noble job - looking after these unfortunate babies.

Man Zhao’s sister, Man Hua, had an easier time in Chinatown. It was her first day at
work in the famous Chinese Opera House 'Lai Chuen Yuen' as an usher. Built in 1877,
the Chinese (its old name "Theatre Street") at that time was enjoying a flash of popularity.
Numerous performances were held in this 834 seat theatre, including two historic
performances in 1909 in aid of the Canton Flood Relief Fund and the anti-opium
movement. On this evening, the theatre was almost filled. Man Hua recognized some

important people arriving in motor cars and rickshaws. She saw a number of Pipa girls
accompanying the 'towkays" (rich bosses) into the Opera House. They wore heavy make-
up and bedecked with jewels. Most striking was their high-slit "Cheong-sums" (Chinese
style long dresses), making them a cynosure of all eyes. There was gaiety in the air, both
inside and outside the Opera House. Rich Chinese people from all over Singapore came
to Chinatown to see Chinese Opera. It was the "in-thing" to do. This was Chinese High
Society. Man Hua was glad she was part of it - at least for part of the action.

The old Chinese Opera House, “Lai Chuen Yuen”

This evening's performance appeared to be special. It was to raise funds for a good cause.
On 7th July 1937, Japan invaded China with plans to expand to East and Southeast Asia.
Patriotic feelings for China ran high. Overseas Chinese all rallied behind China. They
tried to raise as much funds as possible to send to China to boost her war effort against
the Japanese aggressors. The performance was indeed special. Even while performers
were singing and dancing on stage, the ushers like Man Hua, had to help the organizers to
record the donations to the Anti-Japanese fund. There was excitement in the air. Top
performers from Hong Kong, China and Taiwan were there to give the
performance of their lives for this noble patriotic effort. Excitement filled the air. So was
anger and hatred against the Japanese for invading Manchuria and then China. Little did
people in Singapore realize that this was just the prelude to the outbreak of the Second
World War in 1939.

Chapter Nine
Li Zhang and her mother followed the grand old lady of the house to school for the first
time. The old lady, Mak, was carrying her grandson, Wing on her back. She held a red
package in which she kept a strand of red onion, symbolizing "wisdom" and a stalk of
parsnips symbolizing "diligence." Man Zhao was holding Li Zhang's hand as they walked
closely together. The streets were dead quiet. In the cold and blustery pre-dawn darkness,
the old lady was shambling up the five footway with the two children and Man Zhao. As
she reached the junction of Banda Street and Kreta Ayer Road, she turned and took the
group down Banda Street to Sago Street. When they reached Smith Street, her weary eyes
were fixed on the signboards of several shop houses. She smiled when she found the Wai
Tuck School signboard. Then they took a long climb up the steps leading to the third
storey. When she reached the top, she knocked at the school door. An old lady teacher
greeted her. Few words were spoken. Then the teacher led the two children to a portrait
of Confucius and made them kneel in front of the portrait to pray for scholastic
excellence. For Li Zhang, this episode was most memorable for it marked the start of
education for her and for her little friend, Wing.

Then an elderly man with a long beard emerged. He was introduced as the Headmaster of
the School. He took the children to a small table. Holding Wing's small hand, he handed
him a pen-brush dipped in black ink. He guided him to trace two strokes to form the
Chinese word for "man". Li Zhang was also guided to write the same word. The girl
noticed the elderly man's long yellowish finger nails. He was obviously an opium smoker.
He coughed loudly a few times and then said, "Lesson is over for the day. Both of you
can go home now." That was Cantonese education for the first day for the children.

It had been fun time for Li Zhang in the afternoon. It was close to 1.30 in the afternoon.
when the other children at the house returned from school. First to return home were
Cheong and Seng. Li Zhang admired their school uniform. They looked so neat in their

white shirts and shorts. Both of them wore a Topi hat which was in fashion in those days.
Chee returned home last. She studied in a girls' school. Her uniform comprised a yellow
blouse and a blue skirt. Li Zhang waited for her. She wanted to learn how to play the
game of five stones from her. Once the children returned, Kum Yow would have a tough
time keeping discipline. She always complained that the children were making too much
noise on the third floor.

For Li Zhang in such a congenial social environment, the seasons just melted into one
another for her. She had grown older and could run errands for the house. She liked to
skip school. It was always so dull studying in a Cantonese private school. She had to
learn by rote lots of Chinese words. Sometimes, she had to do recitation of verses to the
teacher. She preferred to stay in the house to talk to the people there. She enjoyed talking
to the Samsui Women and the Majies. She learnt how to do housework from these
women folks. Sometimes, she would help Lin look after the grocery shop. Sometimes,
she watched Lin's husband, Cheong-Fun doing his photographic work. She had great
admiration for the man - the way he tried so hard to get the pictures right, his
monumental patience in touching up the negatives with a Chinese pen-brush, and the long
hours he spent in the darkroom at the rear of the house to develop his prints. She never
realized that she was watching a world famous photographer at work. With so many
people around her and so many interesting things she could involve herself in, time
passed quickly for her. She never felt bored.

From her backroom window, Li Zhang had a good view of the houses around. She could
see women with heavy make-up walking along Keong Saik Road. She was told by one of
the Majies in the "kuli-fong" that they were bad women. Her mother had taught her the
meaning of good and bad, right and wrong. "Li Zhang, we may be poor, but we are good
people. Take out your "Three Word Chant" book," she instructed the little girl.

"Yes, mum. I can recite several pages of the "Three Word Chant."
"Li Zhang, you must know what the words mean, because the book teaches you right and
wrong. Look at the first lines. It says, "In the beginning, man is kind and good, but
overtime individual differences appear. One must try hard to keep this natural goodness."
She then relates the story about the mother of one of the greatest thinkers in China, ‘Man
Zhi.’ She moved to different neighborhoods several times to ensure that her son
developed intellectually. She was in the midst of weaving, but when she found ‘Man Zhi’
neglecting his studies, she tearfully cut off her woven material after spending many days
of patient weaving. She wanted to show ‘Man Zhi’ his fault.

"Mum, I will study the Chinese classics diligently. Don't worry."

The mother became so enthused that she quoted a few more lines from the "Three Word
Chant,” "First seek the filial piety in your heart and the love for your parents and siblings.
Then be aware that the frontiers of human knowledge are expanding. But understand first
the three realms of life - Heaven, Earth and Man, and their interrelationships."

Li Zhang learnt much more from her mother than from the Opium smoker with the dirty
yellow finger nails at her school at Smith Street.

Man Zhao's emphasis on Chinese education sometimes made Li Zhang a little confused.
She realized that Auntie's Lin's children were all having their formal education in English.
She thought perhaps Auntie Lin was wrong to send her children to English schools. She
did not understand the issues involved. At that time, she did not know that her mother's
heart was with China. Man Zhao wanted to return to China to her own farm, own home
someday, somehow. That's the difference between Man Zhao and Lin. Their aspirations
and hopes were different.

Li Zhang found Lin's nephew and nieces good study companions. They studied in
different Chinese schools in Chinatown, but they studied Chinese classics seriously. In
the evening, they would study together in Mum’s room. Mun shared a room with his
father, Ah Kow, but Ah Kow seldom stayed at home. Ah Kow worked as a tailor in a
Chinatown fashion shop, but he spent most of his time in opium dens. "I take opium to
relieve pain in my legs. I can't help it," Ah Kow would give this excuse to anyone who
questioned him about his opium addiction.

One day, Mun had to look for his father to get some money. He brought Li Zhang along
to No. 51-A, Pagoda Street which was an opium den. The place was dimly lit. There were
several men lying on wooden beds puffing away. Smoke filled the air. The pungent smell
of opium was suffocating to Li Zhang. Mun went straight into the rear of the third floor
and found Ah Kow in the company of a woman attendant at the Opium den. He was lying
down smoking opium and she was massaging his shoulders. The opium den doubled up
as an illegal gambling house. Scores of men and women were gambling pai-kow and fan-
tan. Several rickshaw pullers could be seen enjoying their seven heavenly opium smoking
sessions. At that time, Pagoda Street was notorious for its 12 coolie houses and half a
dozen opium dens and gambling houses. Mun intended to get some money from Ah Kow,
before he squandered away his meagre pay packet for the month in opium smoking or
gambling there. Mun needed the money to pay for his school fees.

Ah Kow was reluctant to give money to his son. He cleared his throat with a loud graak
and expelled his sputum into a spittoon. He sniffed loudly and said, "Why don't you get
money from Auntie Lin.?" He stood up, slapped his buttocks and yawned loudly,
showing his set of yellow teeth. Then he poked his tainted yellow index finger at Li
Zhang and added, "You should never bring children here. Too many children come here.
All these children - their parents never teach them!"

All remained silent for a while, each engrossed in his own thoughts. Mun was annoyed,
but after Ah Kow finished rubbing his crew-cut head and handed over a few dollars to
him, he dragged Li Zhang away from the place. Mun told Li Zhang, "The sooner we
leave this hell-hole the better." Mun and Li Zhang rushed down the steep and narrow
stairs. Their clothes became smelly. They seemed to feel the opium fumes following
them as they ran on the streets. Far away, they heard the sound of music from a funeral
procession passing by, and the piercing sound of car horns. Li Zhang, however, looked

strangely calm. She had a good laugh when she reached home. She took some paper and
rolled it into a hollow tube. She lay on her bed, putting the hollow tube into her mouth
and pretended to be an opium smoker.

Inside an opium den

An Early Start

Chapter Ten
The crowd at People's Park was growing. It was so noisy that Li Zhang could not hear
the words spoken by Auntie Lin and her mother. Vaguely, she gathered that they were
talking about Mun's sister, Sai Mui and her work at a tea house in the market there.

It was seven in the evening. They were standing in front of a shop at the main entrance
near the Majestic Hotel. The shop called Dao Ji was well known for its Cantonese roasts,
braised meat and fish-head noodles. It belonged to the Ng family. Lin chatted with an old
lady, exchanging information about the children in their respective families. Lin's eldest
son, Cheong, was tutoring one of the Ng's children in English.

"Lin, why are you so free this evening?"

"Ng-soh, meet Man Zhao and her daughter, Li Zhang. They are staying in our kuli-fong.
You know, I seldom come here. But now, my niece, Sai Mui is working here as a ‘Mai-
Cha-Mui’ in one of the tea houses. I just come to see how she is doing."

"Aiyah, that is not a good job. Girls working as ‘Mai-Cha-Mui’ have to entertain men.
Men are wolves; young girls like Sai Mui, will be swallowed up."

"That's why, I got a little worried about her and you know, my brother, Ah Kow, spends
all day at the opium dens, and he doesn't care about the children."

Lin's doubts about Sai Mui's work disappeared when she actually saw her at work. Sai
Mui was a drinks waitress at a tea house in the People's Park market. In the old days,
such drink stalls or shops were common. They were usually patronized by male
customers. But the tea houses were not clip joints. There was no hanky-panky - none of
the sexual liberties typical of sleazy bars of today that operate in dim lights. The tea
houses operated in bright lights and in the open. Sai Mui was just a poor girl who had to
earn a living in those difficult days. Lin could see that it was a decent job serving decent
people in an open drinks shop.

Sai Mui greeted her aunt cheerfully.

"Auntie Lin, Auntie Man Zhao, do come in to have some tea. Don't worry, you don't have
to pay. We have lots of customers, but my friends and relatives are always welcomed to
our tea appreciation or tea testing sessions."

With those remarks, she ushered Lin, Man Zhao and Li Zhang into the tea house. The
conversation that followed was about Sai Mui's work. Lin felt relieved after listening to
her niece. At work, Sai Mui dressed well in the traditional oriental attire of blouse and
long pants of silk or satin materials. Her Chinese blouse was unusual in that the buttons
were placed on one side of the blouse from the neck down. She wore very colorful
wooden clogs, bought from one of the many clog shops found along New Bridge Road.

At that time, low cost rubber slippers had yet to be manufactured. No doubt, the girls
looked alluring and very attractive even without much make-up.

For Li Zhang, the highlight of the evening was the show by a Chinese medicine man. He
was obviously a gonfu master. The man came from Shanghai and he spoke in Mandarin.
After uttering a few sentences in Mandarin, his assistant would repeat what he said in
Cantonese. Someone beat the gong as he pranced around, doing a few summersaults and
a few flying kicks in the air. He dazzled the crowd with his sword fighting skills.
Whenever he displayed some stunts, the crowd applauded and yelled "Hao" (meaning
'excellent") to show their appreciation and to give some encouragement.

Altogether for Li Zhang, it was an unforgettable evening of thrills. She felt like Alice in
Wonderland. Indeed, the People's Park was a wonderland for the poor Chinese residents
in those days. Unfortunately, the People's Park was gutted by fire on the eve of Christmas
in 1966. On its site and completely rebuilt is the People's Park Complex and some
government flats and a school.

People’s Park in Chinatown - 1955

Chapter Eleven
Li Zhang looked forward to the weekends when Uncle Cheong-Fun would take the
children out. She found the outings exciting. Usually, the children were given a motor-car
ride to remote areas where they could play and sometimes wander around, but they were
always under the watchful eyes of some adults, either Kum Yow or his two older boys,
Seng or Chong. The younger kids like Li Zhang, Wing, Chee and Kong were found to be
natural subjects for certain photographic sessions. Wing was particularly good as a
subject, since his actions, gestures and expressions were natural and not posed, and he
had good poise. Usually, he won praise from his father and other photographers who
often came along to learn from the master photographer.

Wing was younger than Li Zhang by several years. He was good looking and his boyish
charm was captivating.

Twice a week, the children would attend Chinese tuition classes to learn Chinese classics
from a well known but very old Chinese scholar. They were joined by two boys, Seng
and Fook Kah from the Ng family at Sago Lane.

The children would assemble first at Kreta Ayer Road; then they moved in a group from
there to Bukit Pasoh Road. Marching along and singing songs as they strolled along
Keong Saik Road or sometimes, New Bridge Road, was fun-time. Each of them was
clutching some books, writing materials and Chinese brushes and ink. They had to do a
lot of Chinese calligraphy in these tuition sessions. All the children, with the exception of
Li Zhang, were studying in English schools. So naturally, Li Zhang had a stronger
foundation in Chinese than all of them and was able to shine in the eyes of the old
Chinatown teacher.

The Chinese teacher, Uncle Yong, used to be an imperial scholar of the Qing Dynasty.
He had sat for the imperial examination and did well in the scholastic examinations. He
left China because of the oppressiveness of the Qing regime and the corruption of its
officials. At the moment, he lived in poverty and earned a living by giving tuition to
children in Chinese classics. Age had taken a toll on him. Most of the time, even during
tuition, he would doze off, much to the merriment of the students. But he would spring to

life when he talked glibly about his past and about politics in his beloved country - that
was China. Unlike Wing and the other children, Li Zhang shared the emotions and
passions of he old scholar. She listened in rapt attention. She asked questions. Though
young, she could empathize with the old man, as he related about his pain in leaving his
home in China, the sufferings felt as foreign troops occupied certain provinces in China,
and his outrage and indignity of finding rulers who were wicked, shameful, weak, effete
and corrupt. Again, she shared with him the pride and joy of knowing Dr. Sun Yat-Sen's
revolutionary work and his efforts in trying to unite the people against foreign aggression.
Truly, Li Zhang was a proud daughter of China. She had imbibed much of the values,
motivations and aspirations as well as the nationalistic sentiments from her mother, Man

Wing, and the other children, appeared to be somewhat indifferent to the fate and fortune
of China. Intelligent though they were, as children, they could not understand the
sufferings of the people of China. Up to that moment of time, they had not tasted real
hardships, nor had they experienced the deep trauma and tribulations of filial sons, loving
husbands, and faithful daughters who were forced to leave their beloved homeland. These
feelings were subconsciously transmitted through parental influence and emotional
outbursts and the dynamic implosions of deep-seated resentment, hatred and excruciating
pain, sufferings and despair. The generation of young people growing up in peaceful
Singapore knew only a certain degree of indignity under British colonial rule. Wing and
the other boys studying English felt even less. They had learnt the greatness of the British
Empire. They studied History of the Commonwealth. They sang ‘God save the Queen.’

On the other hand, Li Zhang was bombarded by a different set of values and different
pangs of emotions in a private Chinese school where she learnt to recite Dr Sun Yat-Sen's
democratic principles and sang "Arise, arise, don't be slaves to foreign aggressors,"
China's national anthem. In school, any word she uttered in English would result in
ridicule and scorn, laced with hatred and contempt. If she spoke any word in English, her
classmates would tell her, "Do not pass foreign gas here.". If she permed her hair or put
on make-up, or even dolled up in anyway, she would be told, "Don't ape the ways of
foreign devils.".

Wing and Li Zhang, both of equal intelligence, both residing in the same house, were in
fact stimulated by two opposing social and political environments. The differences
became more marked as they grew up and became more mature. Wing was fortunate that
he was not completely alienated from the roots of his Chinese ancestry, because his
parents were wise enough to get him to be immersed in Chinese language and culture in
his formative years. But for other children, schooled only in English, Malay or Tamil or
even Chinese alone, their visions became myopic or distorted as young minds were
molded in a singular stream of culture, alienated from broad multiracial views and
outlooks, and intolerant of others whose upbringing was different.

One of the children from the Ng family of Sago Lane, who rose from the mud of
Chinatown, wrote in his memoirs as a Septuagenarian and as a top civil servant in
independent Singapore, expressed profound gratitude to Lin for first convincing his

parents to let him study in English schools, and at the same time to learn Chinese classics
with her children, and pursued an effective bilingual education through studying in both
English and Chinese medium schools. He openly acknowledged Lin as "an Angel"
because of her intervention in his life.

But on a more serious note, any shrewd observer of the social scene in old Singapore
should be able to discern the dangers inherent in a society where Chinese children came
from two different streams of education, each with its own value orientation and of
unequal economic opportunity and disparate in social and political aspirations. It was
indeed fortunate that independent Singapore quickly adopted new reforms in education to
create a united multiracial, multilingual and multi-cultural community, sharing the same
love for the homeland, that is, Singapore.

Cheong-Fun brought the children out one day and related the Kreta Ayer Incident of 12
March 1927 to them. He reminded them that people must always live harmoniously
together. He took the children out by car, and showed them the site of the former Kreta
Ayer Police Station near the junction of Kreta Ayer Road and Neil Road. On that fateful
day in 1927, people stormed the Police Station. The Police responded by firing some
warning shots. The crowd did not yield and started to get into the Station. The Police then
fired for real. The clash between the crowd and the Police left 2 Chinese dead, 4 lay
mortally wounded and 11 others injured.

Why did this happen and how? To put it in a nutshell, it was a blunder by the British
colonial government which underrated the sensitivities of the issue surrounding the death
of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. At that time, students in Chinese schools were taught to revere Dr
Sun Yat-Sen whose portrait hung in all Chinese schools. Sun Yat Sen's death in 1925
sparked off a great deal of anti-imperialism and Chinese nationalistic feelings. Dr Sun's
death evoked mixed feelings between the Kuomintang party members and leftist
unionists. Everybody expected an imminent clash between them. But the British
Administration allowed on that fateful day a meeting of mainly respectable Hokkien
organizers to hold a meeting to commemorate the second anniversary of the death of Dr
Sun Yat-Sen at the Happy Valley Amusement Park. The conditions: no speeches, no
Chinese flags and no processions. But on that day, things went out of control. There were
groups of activists at the meeting. They started making speeches, and turned the meeting
into a procession. Large crowds joined the procession, and when the procession reached
Kreta Ayer, troubled started. It started off with a trolley bus trying to force its way
through the crowd. The Police tried to make an arrest. The crowd comprising mainly
young people, including students, then decided to storm the Police Station at Kreta Ayer.
This incident left a festering wound in the social fabric at that time. It had fanned the
rising flames of anti-imperialism and nationalist sentiments and allowed the cinder of
incipient communist sentiments to burst into flames among a section of the people.

Chapter Twelve
The street was deserted. After a downpour, there were puddles everywhere. The man
wearing a dark rain-coat was walking briskly down the street. He avoided the puddles
and a few heaps of rubbish at the road-side. He did not know that he was being followed,
that a pair of eyes watched his every move. He suddenly stopped and walked towards a
young stallholder who stood behind some tables placed outside a shop house. He took
out a crisp white handkerchief and held it to his nose. The man following him noticed his
move. The stallholder leaned forward and handed a parcel to the man in the rain-coat. No
words were exchanged. Unexpectedly, the firm line of his mouth dipped into the hint of a
smile and the man dashed out of the five-foot way and trotted down the street. The man
who followed him, took out a notebook, scribbled something into it and walked away in
the opposite direction.

The man in the dark rain-coat and carrying an umbrella was Mun. He walked briskly but
he was trailed by a secret agent of the dreaded Special Branch which was a top security
unit set up by the colonial government to crack down on communist elements in
Singapore. Mun was suspected to be a communist sympathizer by the Special Branch.
Mun, never forgot the Kreta Ayer Incident. His hatred for the British colonial
government was strong. After he completed his Secondary School education in a Chinese
school, he could only find work in the Keppel Harbor as a coolie. With a heavy load on
his shoulders all day, his mind became warped. Disgruntled and frustrated, he joined the
ranks of large groups of young Chinese-educated intellectuals in communist-linked

Mun was alone in his room in Chinatown. The room was Spartan. The wooden shutters,
which covered the windows, made the room quite dark within. The only electric lamp

hung from the ceiling appeared dim. There were several loaded and untidy shelves, from
floor to ceiling, running round two walls. Several tables and chairs were stacked at one
corner. Beyond a small space near the room entrance, every corner appeared chaotic.
Mun's favorite spot was a wooden bed covered with a piece of old and torn linen used as
a bed sheet. Mun also had a bookshelf at the corner near the windows. It had a dictionary
and a few books and some writing materials. His collection of books comprised mainly
political literature - Karl Marx, Lenin, Chairman Mao Zedong and the like. Stacks of
posters and handwritten leaflets were strewn all over the floor.

At midnight, Mun stealthily left the house with a few posters. Nervously, he looked
around as he walked briskly to another road. It was pitch dark as a walked in the quiet of
the night. The streets were still slippery and wet due to the continuous drizzle in the
evening. There were pools of water reflecting flickers of light. It was a quiet night. The
only sounds he heard were those of passing vehicles and the noise of dogs barking.
Shadows were everywhere. Here and there he noticed lights shimmering from the
windowpanes of some houses. Finally, he reached the Hilltop at Banda Street.

The Hilltop of today is a built-up area for community activities, such as the Kreta Ayer
Community Club and the People’s Theatre. In the Fifties, it was really a low hill, a hill
that inspired fear and sometimes terror, and definitely, a place to be avoided for those
with faint hearts. Not only was the hill dark and sombre; the surrounding back lanes were
unlit and deserted even in the day. Tall trees lined the perimeter of the hill, casting
mysterious moving shadows on the barren ground. In the still of the night, this deserted
plot of land resembled a dark lonely graveyard. And it was an actual graveyard for some
Javanese workers stranded in Singapore and starved to death during the Japanese
Occupation. Some of their remains had been dug out by people who tried to stave off
hunger by cultivating some crops there. Even on a moonlit night, the hill looked
terrifying, with looming dark shadows, and eerie lights shimmering through the branches
and leaves of the tall trees, and with birds and bats flying around, injecting strange shrills
and shrieks that pierced the stillness of the night. Worse still, one part of the hill faced
Sago Lane, which was noted for several funeral parlors and dark
dinghy death houses. The chanting of prayers, the sound of bells and drums
accompanying such prayers, and the cries, the moans and groans of mourners - all these
sent shivers down the spines of even the bravest among us.

Mun then must be commended for his guts. Not only was he brave enough to conquer
fear by climbing up the ghostly hill, he was also daring enough to risk his life for his
cause. Whatever his cause, whatever his campaign - only Mun knew and understood what
he was doing, including the studying of Karl Marx and the learning of a lingua franca for
world domination. What he did not realize was the fact that he had been brainwashed by
a number of communist subversive elements in Chinatown. Perhaps he was just like Don
Quixote. Perhaps he was not, but quite clearly he had become a political activist due to
his frustrations and disappointments. He had joined the ranks of numerous political
activists from Chinese schools and the Chinese University. They were hunted down one
by one by the Special Branch, the Internal Security Department, and placed under arrest.
Yet, they struggled on, creating unrest and fermenting hatred in the community.

Mun stretched out in his single bed after a night's work on Hilltop. His face took on a wry
smile and a glassy stare as he heard the sound of his sick father coughing from the next
room. He felt relieved that he could place so many posters and cover some street walls
with them and was able to return home safely the night before. The next day was Sunday
and a few friends had promised to work with him to distribute some pamphlets to
condemn the British Government. The fear he had been living with ever since he had
been selected as a cell leader was the fear of being captured by the authorities, and he was
terrified about the consequences of being caught and the effects on his father and sister
and his friends.

Sunday came. His friends contacted him through a street hawker who sold noodles at
night. He met his friends at midnight at the foot of the hill along a lane behind Kreta Ayer
Road. One of them was De Li who also resided in an apartment along Kreta Ayer Road.
The other was Chiang. Both were ardent students of the communist ideology and they
hated the British. All three stealthily started pasting dozens of posters on the walls of the
Oriental Cinema and on the pillars of some shop houses. After the work was done, Mun
started walking home. When he reached home safely, he felt relieved; feeling quite
satisfied that he had done a good job as a cell leader for the underground. He did not say
grace before he slept. A firm believer in Karl Marx, he shared his communist teachers'
views that religion was the opiate of the people. Just before he dozed off, he could still
hear the loud coughs of his father, Ah Kow.

A fishmonger in Chinatown

Chapter Thirteen
Man Hua and her mother were at home when someone knocked on the front door of their
apartment on the third storey of a shop house at Boat Quay. Man Hua opened the door,
and found Li Zhang and Man Zhao standing outside. She was overjoyed to see both of

"Oh, Man Zhao, how is it you are so free to visit us?" The grand-mother asked, smiling
broadly and showing a row of gold teeth. "Come in and sit down," she offered.

"Mum, it's my day off today. I thought it would be a good idea to get Li Zhang to see
Boat Quay, and perhaps take a ride along the Singapore River," Mun Zhao replied.

Man Hua then suggested that they would get her husband, Kim Chua, the Jinmen
steersman to make the arrangement. Man Zhao nodded in agreement.

Kim Chua was quick to arrange for two rickshaws to take the women folk to Pulau
Saigon, a little island along the Singapore River, near the present Merchant Street area.
The women were excited to take the boat ride from there. Kim Chua carried the seven
year old Li Zhang into the sampan. Then he helped Man Zhao and her mother to get on
board. Man Hua, who appeared to be experienced, got on board the sampan by herself.

A heavy load – coolies at work

Li Zhang's gaze was fixed on the coolies carrying boxes and bags from the bum boats to
the warehouses. There were a few dozens of the coolies at work at the time. They placed
the boxes and bags on their shoulders and walked gingerly along the planks linking the
boats to the shore. Though she was young, she understood the fact that the men were

carrying heavy loads, and walking along with some difficulty. She heard too the nasty
words uttered by the kepalas or supervisors when they reprimanded the coolies for being
slow in their work.

Boat Quay, Singapore – 1940s

Li Zhang was amazed to see boats of all shapes and sizes along the Singapore River. As
Kim Chua steered the sampan to the lower reaches of the River, there were even more
boats to be seen. Near Boat Quay and Clarke Quay, Li Zhang could see not only activities
along the river but along the banks as well. Towering cranes could be seen lifting heavy
crates and bags from the boats to the warehouses or to Lorries. The sights and sounds, the
landscape and the scenery seemed to change at every turn. The river appeared eager to
impress the onlookers as it kept on unfolding something dramatic or dazzling along every
stretch of its course. Even the swamps or the foliage had stories to tell, and kampong
villages, attap houses, shop houses and tall buildings stared and peeked. The river itself
seemed to be orchestrating a symphony of its own, a combination of flapping, thrashing
sounds and soothing melodious music. There were noises and human voices everywhere.
The smell of the river water and the cool air around created sensations and thrills that
were pulsating. Li Zhang even imagined that the sampan that carried her along the river
had magical powers to transform the sights and sounds at will, and she even let out a
scream as the sampan glided into gaps between bigger and taller ships along the
exciting waterway.

But much more significant was not the dramatic sights and sounds of the river, but the
human drama behind it. The Singapore River is a historic river. At the time when Li
Zhang and her mother went on the river cruise, the human drama revolved around the
people who lived and worked there. Kim Chua was a good example of the spirit of
Endeavour behind this drama. He came from Jinmen as a coolie, and kept as an
indentured laborer in a shoddy coolie house in Chinatown. After he got his freedom, he

managed to find a job as a steersman. He was indeed fortunate because at that time, the
bum boat trade along the Singapore River and at Clifford Pier was dominated by the
Hokkien people, particularly the seafaring Jinmen migrants.

Kim Chua sighed when he talked about his work. "I have to work hard to help my father
in Taiwan. He has to support ten children. He had to be very thrifty and would not even
spend a few cents on a bowl of bitter-gourd bee hoon. I try very hard to save, so that I can
remit money to him. Sometimes when business is good, I don't even have time for a meal.
Very often I have to work at night too and sometimes I have to work far away at Ang
Teng (Clifford Pier)." Kim Chua really exemplified the Chinese spirit of hard work, thrift
and frugality. His sense of filial piety was also most admirable.

Kim Chua turned around and faced Man Zhao as he smiled broadly showing his gold
teeth which gave off a dull shine in the rapidly fading light. He added, "Cheong-Fun's
nephew suffered even more working as a coolie at Boat Quay and at Keppel Harbor. He
carried a heavy load every day and earned very little.' As the boat stopped at Boat Quay,
pitching and swaying violently on an easterly swell running in to the shore, Kim Chua
stopped talking and anchored the boat close to the river bank. Kim Chua then led the
women to his house to take a rest before taking them out to a nearby eating house for a
meal. To Li Zhang, it was a most memorable and enjoyable day in her life.

Clarke Quay – 1950s

Chapter Fourteen
The Hilltop (Dickenson Hill) at Banda Street was filled with people. They came to listen
to Li Dasha, a neighbor of Cheong-Fun at Kreta Ayer Road. Li Dasha earned his living
telling stories over the Redifusion. Usually, he would tell stories from the Chinese
classics and Chinese novels to entertain the crowd at the Hilltop, and doing it as a form of
social service. . Most people in Chinatown liked to listen to his stories about the heroic
exploits of Chinese sword fighters. A good number of the stories featured invincible
heroes who defended the weak and helped the poor. Some of them have scores of
beautiful ladies who loved the heroes and often surrendered their virtues to them
sometimes for love, but often in gratitude to the heroic swordsmen.

But Li Zhang noticed something different on this occasion. Instead of the usual clapping
and cheering by the crowd, the audience comprising mostly men, was strangely silent.
The hush was a little disturbing; so Li Zhang listened intently to what the story teller had
to say. Certain words caught her attention - something about the outbreak of the World
War, about the rise in power of the evil man of Germany, Adolf Hitler, about European
countries that surrendered to Germany, and most alarming of all, about the Japanese
invasion of Manchuria in China. Little Li Zhang knew what Li Dasha said, had caused
alarm and fear among the crowd that gathered on the Hilltop on that memorable day.
Though she was young, she knew war - she had experienced war and fierce fighting. She
knew the dangers and the death and destruction that ensued. She knew fear.

Not everyone in Chinatown showed alarm or worry about the outbreak of wars in Europe
and China. But definitely all Chinese people expressed anger or hatred against Japan,
because almost everybody had relatives in China, and patriotic feelings for their
homeland were quite strong. Still, despite the beating of war drums in distant shores,
there was an air of complacency. People believed in the propaganda of the British
controlled press and radio. Singapore was so safe; its newly built naval base was an
impregnable fortress. British troops were so strong and they could count on strong
support from Australian and Indian forces. People in Chinatown were more concerned
about the Japanese invasions of China. News of the eruption of war between China and
Japan were heard in coffee shops and over the radios. Many started sending money to
support the Chinese campaign against the Japanese invaders.

There was uneasiness in the air as people in Chinatown talked about

Germany's role in the First World War and the shaky peace that was brokered to end the
War. Li Zhang, Man Zhao and two boys from Cheong-Fun’s family, Cheong and Wing,
listened attentively. They heard what the storyteller told them - so many million people
died in the First World War. The marveled at the rapid rise of power of Adolf Hitler and
his Nazi Party in Germany. Even those humble folks that gathered at the Hilltop knew
that Germany could disrupt the fragile peace in Europe. What they did not expect was
that war soon engulfed them in Singapore.

Mankind never learnt the lessons of war in the past. Wars are very devastating, not just
from the point of view of the massive destruction of the infrastructures of civilized living,
but also from the fact that wars often result in the wanton loss of human lives. During
World War Two, more than 55 million individuals were killed, most of them were
civilians (Chirot 1986: 165-167). In the more than 125 wars since World War Two,
combatants have killed about one half million people and have injured more than one
million people on the average each year (Sivard, 1989).

Just look at the statistics of war deaths. During the First World War (1914 - 18), some 15
million people were killed. In the Russian civil war (1917 - 22), 9 million people were
killed. Under Stalin's regime in the Soviet Union (1923 - 53), more than 20 million were

But the crowd on the Hilltop was more concerned about China. Japan invaded China in
July 1937. In the Nanking Massacre that followed (13 December 1937 to February 1938),
more than 200,000 Chinese, many of them were civilians, were slaughtered by the
Japanese. These are hard facts. No amount of rewriting of their history books could fool
the educated Japanese in the modern era, and certainly they could not fool the rest of the
world. Japanese politicians who tried to do this are tarnishing their own reputation and
prostituting their integrity.

On 22nd September 2002, in view of the Iraqi threat, the United States made official its
Security Doctrine. America would now make pre-emptive strikes against any rogue
nations or sub-national groups, which pose a threat. This doctrine places the world in a
tinderbox situation, which might cause a global conflagration.

As the year starts in 2007, the world situation was still grim with the threat of a few
irresponsible nations carrying on with their sabre rattling political antics, which could
trigger off global nuclear catastrophe.

Mankind is always being threatened by wars, especially wars on a global scale. But with
modern weaponry and the stockpiling of nuclear bombs and warheads, we need to ask the
question whether the world can survive another world war, one that involves the use of
nuclear weapons on both sides. Lest we forget or become complacent, let us be reminded
of the position all of us, the homo sapiens, have been placed.

"With the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the machinery of destruction is complete, poised on a
hair trigger waiting for some misguided or deranged human being or some faulty computer chip
to send out the instructions to fire."
(Jonathan Schell, "The Fate of the Earth.")

Chapter Fifteen
Li Zhang was sound asleep, so peacefully in her room at Kreta Ayer Road. Suddenly, she
was awakened by loud noises. It was four in early morning on 8th December 1941. She
heard screams as the sirens were heard. A long anguished wail pierced the air like an
arrow shot from a great distance. A thundering of footsteps and the roaring sound of
planes flying in the sky and people shouting, calling and talking - all these created fear
and distress on the faces of everyone. Li Zhang knew something dreadful had happened.
Later, her mother told her that Japan started to attack Singapore.

Someone shouted, "Bombs are hitting the houses." Later on, it was learnt that Upper
Nankin Street was bombed badly.

Li Zhang was terrified. She ran towards her mother and hugged her when the sounds of
planes came over. She could hear sporadic gunfire, and there were thunderous explosions
as bombs from Japanese planes blasted some houses nearby. Someone shouted that he
could see Japanese planes. The braved ones took a peek and saw a few Japanese war
planes shrieking across the sombre sky.

That dark day was the beginning of a long nightmare for Singaporeans. The little girl then
entered a world of darkness and bloodshed. She began to see undisposed dead bodies
everywhere in Chinatown.

“Mad people are starting a war”, she muttered. “They don't care about little children.”
With her eyes streaming with tears, she rushed towards Lin and sought comfort in her
arms. Lin then led her to the altar. They knelt down and prayed to the Goddess of Mercy
for protection.

By this time, fear and pandemonium gripped every household, and fleeing
refugees from Malaya caused panic with their stories of torture and massacre. As the
Japanese bombardment continued, there were heavy casualties in Singapore. For
Chinatown, the situation was worse, because there were no air-raid shelters, as the British
decided not to build them thinking that Chinatown streets were already too dangerously
overcrowded. So naturally as Japanese planes dropped their bombs in Chinatown, there
were plentiful deaths and destruction. There were no vital installations in Chinatown. Yet
several buildings in Chinatown were bombed including Lei Chuen Yuen along Smith
Street and some houses along Upper Nankin Street and Upper Cross Street. Man Zhao,
Cheong-Fun, Seng and Wing went to Upper Cross Street to see the bomb site, and found
the laundry shop there completely destroyed. There were two deaths in that incident. The
house of the Ng family at 41, Sago Lane was slightly damaged by artillery shells.

The British colonial government also did very little to organize civil defence. It was the
people's initiative, with the help of the Chinese National Council (Chung Kuo Council)

and the approval of the Governor that led to the organization of volunteers for civil

At Kreta Ayer, Cheong-Fun was appointed as a leader of the ARPs (Air Raid
Personnel). Many in Chinatown volunteered to join medical support and fire fighting
groups. The community spirit was high at the crucial time.

There was not much news over the radio in Singapore. Most people listened to the All
India Radio for news about the war situation. But people still listened to the radio to
listen to stories told by Li Dasha and his friends from Kreta Ayer Road, notably Choy
Weng Seong. These brave people continued to tell stories to calm the people over the air
and on cable broadcasts even during the Japanese Occupation. It appeared that each one
in his own time bravely played a part.

The Japanese invasion of Malaya continued with little opposition as Commonwealth

forces defending Malaya were expecting invasion by sea, not by land. Hoping to intercept
further landings by the Japanese fleet, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse headed north,
unaware that all British airbases in Malaya were already in Japanese hands. They moved
without any air cover or support and were easy targets for the Japanese air force which
sunk them both on 10th December, 1941.As air bombardment continued, Cheong-Fun
decided to send his children to stay in an apartment at Yong Saik Street in the Tiong
Bahru estate. He believed that the buildings of reinforced concrete in the Tiong Bahru
Estate would provide better protection against the air raids. Li Zhang and her mother
joined her uncle and aunt and her grandmother to take refuge at the Thian Hock Keng
Temple at Telok Ayer Street.

Lin's friends at Sago Lane in the meantime, decided to leave Chinatown to seek shelter in
the MacPherson area. Clutching some personal belongings, the Ng brothers walked all
the way from Chinatown along Serangoon Road. As they walked past the Bidadari
Cemetery, they saw some Chinese coolies carrying the dead bodies of British naval men
in canvas bags into the cemetery. There was grave silence in the air. There were sad faces,
and many in the milling crowds had tears in their eyes. These were the British naval men
who were killed when the ill-fated Prince of Wales and Repulse battleships were bombed
by Japanese planes from the Vietnam airfields off the coast of Kemanan (Johor).

The main Japanese force moved quickly to the western side of the Malay Peninsula and
began sweeping down the single north-south road. The Japanese divisions were equipped
with about 18,000 bicycles. Whenever the invaders encountered resistance, they detoured
through the forests on bicycles or took to the sea in collapsible boats to outflank the
British troops, encircle them, and cut their supply lines. Penang fell on December 18,
Kuala Lumper on January 11, 1942, and Malacca on January 15. Yamashita's forces
occupied Johore Bahru on January 31. With only 30,000 troops against a British force of
130,000, the Imperial Japanese forces were closing in for the final assault of Singapore
with heavy artillery and air bombardment. The Japanese also cut off the water supply
from the Gunong Pulai Waterworks in Johore to Singapore. Unable to cope and with poor
morale, the last of the British troops crossed to Singapore, blowing a fifty-meter gap in

the causeway behind them. On the night of February 8, using collapsible boats, the
Japanese landed under cover of darkness on the northwest coast of Singapore. By dawn,
despite determined fighting by Australian troops, the Japanese had two
divisions with their artillery established on the island. By the next day the
Japanese had seized Tengah Airfield and gained control of the causeway, which they
repaired in four days. Singapore was ill prepared for this rapid invasion as all of their
guns and cannons had been permanently mounted pointing out towards the ocean. By
February 20 the Japanese had seized Bukit Timah, the highest point on the island
providing a good view of the island and access to other parts of Singapore. Some 19,000
young Australian troopers, apparently fresh from school, arrived in battleships as late
reinforcements, surrendered meekly to the Japanese without firing a single shot. Today,
many Australian tourists visited the Changi Prisons Chapel to witness the brutality and
suffering of their kin in prisons during the Japanese Occupation.

Before long, General Percival surrendered Singapore unconditionally to the Japanese at

the Humes Ford Motor Factory at Upper Bukit Timah Road on 15th February, 1942. The
British surrender marked the beginning of a new chapter of life in Singapore and a long
nightmare for people living in Chinatown.

Sago Street c. 1950s.

Water rationing during the Japanese Occupation

Chapter Sixteen

When Singapore became Shonan, the Light of the South, there was no light in the life of
everyone in Chinatown. The Chinese were to bear the brunt of the Japanese Occupation,
in retribution for support given by the Singapore Chinese to China in its struggle against

In Chinatown, there was much looting of godowns and shops immediately after the
British surrender. The Japanese were quick in dealing with the looters by beheading them,
and displaying their heads along the bridges of New Bridge Road and South Bridge Road.
This was just a sample of how the Japanese ruled with an iron fist. The main purpose was
to generate fear. What followed was not just the generation of fears, but inhuman
brutality and wanton excesses.

From the start of the Occupation, a Sook Ching Exercise or Operation

Clean-up was launched to eliminate anyone suspected of being anti-Japanese. Sook
Ching was the brain-child of Lt. Col. Masanobu Tsuji, General Yamashita's head of
Operation Staff. One of its operation aims was to prevent the disruption of the supply
lines of the Japanese 25th Army, while it concentrated its efforts to conquer Java and
Sumatra. The Second Field Kempetai under Col. Oishi Masayuki was ordered to deliver
'severe punishment of hostile Chinese.' Its success could be seen from the fact that there
was marked absence of urban guerilla warfare conducted by secret society gangsters and
the resistance groups in Singapore during the Japanese Occupation. In fact, thousands of
secret society members who were suspected of being involved in patriotic activities were
executed by the Japanese during the Occupation.

Jiang Shungyi who came to Singapore from the Guangdong Province in Southern China
at the age of nine in 1930 and lived in a farm at Potong Pasir, related that “Every three
days, the Japanese wanted a number of people to be present. If they picked you, you
would have to pack up the next day to go to Jalan Besar, near the Siang Lim Timber
Mill.” Those who were sent to the Sook Ching Centres never returned. Other than
Chinatown, there were centres at Jalan Besar, River Valley Road, Tanjong Pagar Police
Station and Kallang Road. According to some reports, there were other centres at Java
Road, Arab Street, Telok Kurau English School and St. Joseph's Institution. Jiang was
fortunate. He escaped death. “When the queue reached my batch,” he remembered, “it
was called off.” One explanation given was the fact that the Japanese officer-in-charge
was Lt. Onishi Satoro. This civilian administrator already caught several 'big fishes' like
Wong Kim Geok alias Lai Teck, leader of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and a
Chungking spy, and he was inclined to let off the small fishes. According to Jiang, his
brother-in-law's wife, her mother and her mother-in-law were all raped and killed by the
Japanese in South Johore. He painfully narrated this incident and added that the Japanese
soldiers from the 25th Army used their bayonets to pierce into their groins and slashed

It was clear from some accounts that the Japanese singled out the Chinese for punishment
during the Japanese Occupation. One Chinese girl, Tan Ah Eng, aged sixteen in 1942,
escaped death in a house raided by Japanese soldiers. The girl was staying with an Indian
family in the house at Bukit Timah when it happened. An Indian man, Krishnanchand,
saw the Japanese soldiers coming. He quickly put a red dot on the forehead of Ah Eng.
Members of the Indian family also helped to dress the girl up in an Indian saree. A
Japanese soldier pointed a rifle with bayonet at the Chinese girl. He stared at the red dot
on her forehead, and then turned away. Everyone in the neighbourhood later talked about
the power of the red dot, and said that she was probably spared because it resembled the
red dot on the Japanese flag; some said the red dot had spiritual powers. Whatever it is, to
Krishnanchand, the placing of a red dot on a lady meant marriage. He took what he had
done very seriously from the religious point of view. So, after the war, Krishnanchand
and Tan Ah Eng were married. Today, they have many grand children. This is probably
one of the few stories from the Japanese Occupation that had a happy ending. At the time
this story was recorded by the writer, the couple's daughter who worked in Potong Pasir
for a Member of Parliament, was buying some photographs from the writer to hang in her
new house.

As a Sook Ching centre, Chinatown was cordoned off with barbed wires and barricades
at the start of the Operation Clean-up. Japanese soldiers turned up to force Chinese males
between the ages of 18 and 55 into the cordoned area for detention, interrogation and
torture. Some of them were detained for days without food, until they were released after
clearance by the Kempetai interrogators. Those who were released, were given a
clearance card certified with a red rubber seal. Some were not given cards but were
released after the Japanese stamped on their shirts or arms. Japanese soldiers with bren
guns mounted on tripods and rifles guarded the bridges at New Bridge Road and South
Bridge Road to make sure only those with cards or had been cleared would be allowed to
pass through..

Not so lucky was a youngster from Tong Pek, Kreta Ayer Road's only book-shop. His
father, a Chinese author of many books never saw him returned. Today, his younger
brother, traumatized by the loss of his brother, still wandered around Chinatown like a
lost soul and could be seen in a coffee shop at Pagoda Street. Another man, a relative of
the Yip family, was forcibly taken away from his house at No. 30, Kreta Ayer Road,
suspected of being a demobbed soldier from Force 136 which fought against the Japanese.
So were a number of civil servants, teachers and some young men with spectacles,
wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants, identified by cloaked informers working for
the Japanese. They never returned. No wonder so many informers and spies for the
Japanese were hung on the trees at the Hilltop at Banda Street immediately after the

Wing's friend, Charlie Chan, a community leader with the Prime Minister's Constituency
lost his uncle during the Sook Ching exercise. The man was taken away from Hong Lim
Green by the Japanese Kempetei. He was made to dig his own grave at Telok Kurau
before he was shot by the firing squad.

Mankind unfortunately invented wars and fights to resolve conflicts, and they ennobled
the concept 'My country - right or wrong'. Soldiers are taught to kill, and inculcated with
the killer instinct. In the heat of a battle, soldiers no longer think of what's right or what's
wrong. They only know the rule 'Kill or be killed' and they are taught to hate their

But not all Japanese soldiers during the Japanese Occupation were inhuman. Some did
have a heart.

Lin was sitting on the bed in her room, working on a patchwork blanket when she heard a
neighbor’s excited voice.

"Tai-Lin Soh," Kuan Soh yelled.

"Come to my room," Lin said. She stood up, walked to the doorway and opened the
curtains covering it.

"Ai-yo," Kuan Soh spoke nervously, "there is a Japanese soldier next door to my house.
He brought back the little boy, Ah Fook. You remember, the boy was one of the few
Chinatown boys who were taken to the Naval Base at Sembawang to be trained as
apprentices and to study Japanese. Would there be any trouble?"

Lin nodded, but she was not nervous. Wing was safe in the Tiong Bahru apartment. But
she was curious. She followed Kuan Soh and walked to the next door house to have a
peek at Ah Fook and the Japanese soldier.

Ah Fook's mother saw the women. She smiled and waved her hand, signaling that
everything was alright. The tall thin woman sensed the reluctance of the two neighbors to
walk towards her because of their fear of the Japanese soldier. She pointed at a packet of
rice and then at the Japanese soldier who gave the rice to her. Kuan Soh and Lin both
understood what she was trying to convey. They also knew about her difficult
circumstances. The woman and her husband were almost starving. Sending Ah Fook to
the Naval Base School was an attempt to ensure that the boy would not starve. So, when
the boy came back after a few months and had put on weight, his mother was overjoyed.
In her simplistic mind, learning Japanese was a form of education; learning Japanese was
just another form of learning. No one would expect her to know what Japanisation meant.

"Tai Lin Soh, look at Ah Fook. He has put on a lot of weight," the thin woman blurted

The Japanese soldier turned his head and smiled at Kuan Soh and Lin. He then waved his
hand in a friendly way. Cheong-Fun tried to pull Lin back into the house, but she resisted,
continuing to stare at the soldier. The middle-aged soldier took out a packet of sweets
from his pocket. He gave two round candy wrapped in gold paper and gently placed them
into Ah Fook's palm. In broken Mandarin, he explained that he was the boy's teacher, and

that he loved children. He told the women not to be afraid, offering a few candies to them
and telling them to give them to their children. This was Lin's first encounter with a
Japanese soldier with a kind heart. Ah Fook eventually joined the Police Force after the
war. He also became a bodyguard cum driver to one of the most distinguished politicians
in Singapore.

Wing's friend, Charlie Chan also encountered a kind-hearted Japanese officer, Shino Saki
who worked as a medical officer in the General Hospital at Outram Road. The man had
been an epitome of compassion in the way he treated patients and visitors to the Hospital
during the Japanese Occupation. Certainly, one should not jump to the conclusion that all
Japanese soldiers during the Japanese Occupation were cruel or inhuman. Indeed, there
were kind souls among the Japanese military during the Japanese Occupation of

In the meantime, Li Zhang noticed that her mother, Man Zhao, had become more
nervous as more and more stories of Japanese atrocities were told in Chinatown. No
offence, but some people don't have any business reading this story today. They are
people who still believe that any conquering nation has a right to rule people of a
defeated country with any iron hand. Man Zhao heard of the Nanking massacre involving
the death of 200,000 Chinese, mostly civilians. She knew what Japanese invaders could
do to the Chinese. In desperation, she took Li Zhang, her mother and her sister's family
to hide in the Thian Hock Keng Temple at Telok Ayer Street. Man Zhao and Man Hua
disguised themselves as old ladies for fear of meeting any Japanese soldiers. They
sometimes hid behind the altar of one of the deities there. Sometimes, they hid in the attic.
It was a harrowing time. The shadows of death haunted the family every hour of the day.
The mantle of fear covered the little girl while she slept. The fear in everyone's heart was
grim and gripping. A knock on the temple door would bring tremens and cold sweat. Any
sharp noise from the outside would send temperatures soaring. Fortunately for Li Zhang,
a Nonya lady, the caretaker of the temple was extremely kind. Li Zhang was always
fascinated by the bed-time stories she told her. The temple housed the Goddess of Mercy.
There was no doubt mercy and compassion resided there during the Japanese Occupation.

Meanwhile, hunger and malnutrition began to cast their looming shadows of death over
Chinatown. Li Zhang remembered joining Wing, Mei Rong and Seng to queue up for
rations at the People's Park market. The rations were just tapioca and palm oil noodles
and some rice. The queues were long, but the children lined up patiently to get these
items. Fortunately, Lin who operated the grocery store at Kreta Ayer Road, had kept a
good stockpile of canned food items. These food items helped to give nourishment to the
children including Li Zhang. It was also fortunate that the Yip family was
allocated some land on the Hilltop to grow tapioca and vegetables. Despite the presence
of Japanese soldiers, the children including those from the Ng family at Sago Lane, all
had some fun tilling the ground, developing it into furrows and watering the plants at the
Hilltop. Sometimes they were horrified to find dead bodies as they dug the ground deeper

Later on, food became scarce as rations were cut when the Japanese fortune faded. Food
scarcity became more rampant with corrupt businessmen and Japanese officials
manipulating prices of food and other necessities, and establishing a flourishing black
market for most items, which were sold at outrageous prices. Inflation grew to such an
extent that the Japanese notes became almost useless and commonly referred to as
'banana notes.' Shonan became a miserable pit for despairing souls, a place where
speculation, profiteering and corruption became the order of the day.

At this point, more and more Javanese men were seen on Chinatown streets - some lying
on pavements and apparently suffering from malnutrition and hunger. These Javanese
were taken to Malaya to work on the Siamese railway, but abandoned by the Japanese
when their own supply lines were cut. The Javanese had no one to turn to for help, and
were left on the streets. Many of them died of hunger and sickness, and their bodies could
be found on the Hilltop and on the roadsides In Chinatown and along Bras Basah Road.
It was indeed a ghastly sight, and more ghastly as the smell of death hits one's
sensitive nose.

Li Zhang and the other children liked to play in the courtyard of the Hindu Temple at the
junction of Kreta Ayer Road and Keong Saik Road. The children would watch in rapt
attention the way the Hindu worshippers prayed to the Elephant God in this temple. The
Indian worshippers and the Hindu Priests welcomed the Chinese children and used to
give them food and drinks to make them feel welcomed. Li Zhang remembered vividly
how the two Hindu temples in Chinatown helped the Chinese people during bad times.
No doubt the two Hindu temples and a few Indian shops in Chinatown represented just a
sprinkling of Indian culture in this place, but they had great significance for Singapore
which was growing as a multi-racial and multi-religious society. In essence, it became
part of the story of these children growing up through intermingling with another culture
in Chinatown. Young minds were moulded in the process of multiracial community
living. The impact was there for them, whether it was through a friendly gesture or smile
or through watching the distribution of food or alms to Chinese people. The two temples
had made it a tradition to distribute rice and essential food items and some alms in
difficult times. They also did this on special occasions, such as the celebration of
Thaipusam. It was such social impact that cemented the bonds of Chinese and Indian
cultures in Chinatown.

During Thaipusam, the Hindu Temple of the Elephant God was transformed into an
enchanted castle of bright lights. The children became highly excited watching the Indian
dancers, some of whom were on stilts. They also liked to see the Hindu procession of
worshippers and Kavadi carriers.

The Hindu devotees offered the kavadi to Lord Muruga as their penance and devotion.
The kavadi was carried on the shoulder. It consisted of a semicircular structure, decorated
with flowers, peacock feathers and palm leaves. Some devotees endured pain by having a
number of hooks pierced into their bodies as an act of devotion, and they chanted "Vel-
Vel" repeatedly, an emotionally charged cry to Lord Muruga for his blessings. Others
yelled in anguish the word "Anohara" to ask for Lord Shiva's blessings.

The Chariot from the Chettiaar Temple at Tank Road would arrive early in the evening
and parked outside the Elephant God temple at Kreta Ayer Road.. Worshippers from the
two temples would join a huge procession for the celebration of Thaipusam. This was an
exciting time for the kids in Chinatown.

Celebration of Thaipusam

But during the Japanese Occupation, the Elephant God temple looked grim and deserted.
The Elephant God must have looked with disdain and dismay at the atrocities of the
Japanese military police from Kempetei headquarters which was just a stone's throw
away at the Golden Dragon Building at the junction of Smith Street and New Bridge
Road. It was a good thing for the Golden Dragon Building to be demolished in the
Eighties to give way to the building of part of the Chinatown Complex. The hellish things
like water torture of thousands of Chinese there by the Kempetei will always remain an
ugly and shameful chapter of Japanese barbarism in world history .

To the women folks in Chinatown, their greatest fear was rape by Japanese soldiers. It
was natural that Man Zhao became worried when she heard that the Japanese had set up a
recreation club at Bukit Pasoh Road. Japanese officers amused themselves there. Some of
these officers went around the Chinatown at Kreta Ayer Road, Keong Saik Road and
even Telok Ayer / China Street areas looking for girls to entertain them at the club. Man
Zhao decided to get her family out of Chinatown altogether. The women at the Thian
Hock Keng Temple told her about the Chinese temple on Kusu Island.
According to them, there were no Japanese soldiers there because it was such a lonely

Another bold step. Another place to hide. But Man Zhao was determined. To keep herself
and her family safe, she must leave the Chinatown she loved to take refuge in Kusu
Island. She muttered to herself, 'If we continue to live in Chinatown, one day some
Japanese soldiers would come along and take not only me away, but Man Hua and

possibly, Li Zhang away as well. Even, mother and Kim Chua will not be spared. Yes,
I've suffered enough. There is too much risk, too much fear. Heaven, yes.'

Kusu Island – c. 1940s

Day Break – Bukit Timah 1940s.

Chapter Seventeen

Man Zhao and her family managed to get a boat ride from a Jinmen steersman who was a
close friend of Kim Chua. They crept into a bum boat moored at Boat Quay in the middle
of the night. They took very little of their belongings with them. It was pitching dark. The
bum boat carrying cargoes soon moved along the Singapore River. There were a few
sampans and other vessels crossing to and fro, ferrying passengers and carrying supplies
to the bigger ships anchored in the sea. A sigh of relief was heard when they reached the
open sea. Heaven was on their side, for there were no Japanese coastal crafts following
them. Had they moved further away from shore, they would have been intercepted by
Japanese vessels guarding the Straits and the waterways to Malaya or Indonesia.

Kusu Island - a tropical paradise and a place of tranquility away from the turmoil, chaos,
fear, despondency and death during the Japanese Occupation in Singapore. There was a
coral reef, and one could just walk along the reef to find much different kind of corals.
The beach was pristine white and clean. This was unexpected. Man Zhao merely thought
the island was safer. She had no idea at all that on this island she could find a little peace
and some rest from the frightful nightmares and the dreadful shadows of death and
destruction that tortured her every moment of the day in Singapore. Here she got away
from the yells and roar of a tortured humanity in Chinatown. Here she would not be
cowed by the sight of a motor-car or motor-bike travelling up or down Kreta Ayer Road
or Telok Ayer Street. Here, she could seek solace from the natural serenity of Nature,
while still left untouched and unspoilt by Man's abuse and the aggressors' menace and
their wanton excesses and unspeakable brutality and cruelty. This was Kusu in those dark
days in Singapore. Despite the Japanese, heavenly forces still ruled supreme on this
island, shaped like a turtle's back, and whose very name, meaning 'tortoise', evokes a
legend of hope. It is a legend about a turtle transforming itself into an island to save two
fishermen, a Chinese and Malay, from being drowned as their boats were capsized. This
is an island with a sacred Chinese 'Tua Pek Kong' noted as a divine protector. It is also an
island with a holy Kramat. Muslims believe it is infused with supernatural powers. No
doubt the island is a symbol of harmony and peace for Singapore - a little quiet place
where Chinese worshippers and Muslims could come together to seek divine help and
protection. Why can't Mankind steer away from the paths of conflict and strife to build
little Kusu islands in their hearts and nations that could put away jingoism, expansionist
ambitions, aggression, hatred, as well as bigotry, intolerance and discrimination in
whatever forms, but be infused with the ideals of harmony and peaceful co-existence, of
mutual respect and co-operation, of compassion, equality and justice, and of establishing
a world order based on universal brotherhood, international understanding, and a sense of
common destiny as world citizens?

Man Zhao and Li Zhang felt relaxed and comfortable staying in the Malay Kramat on
Kusu Island. They were ever grateful to the Muslim folks there for providing them with
accommodation and sometimes food. Li Zhang could never forget the kind face of an

elderly Malay woman who treated her with so much love and kindness. But more
importantly, the family was with nature in all its glory and beauty. They could take time
to look at the beautiful trees and flowers and enjoy each moment with nature to the fullest.
Here they could take the winding paths that lead through graceful meadows, along
rippling streams lined with colorful flowers and plants. Twilight found them sitting on a
bench by the sea, and watched the shimmering lights reflecting from the ripples of the
water. Here they could breathe in the aroma of plants and flowers, listen to the bubbling
brook or watch the birds, the swans and the ducks in their habitats. To Li Zhang, life each
day was a learning experience. To Man Zhao, her heart felt a new sense of peace, being
far away from the ugly sights and sounds of the Japanese Occupation in Singapore. Her
minds wandered. Images of her home in the village of Che Kou in the old days swamped
her mind. Tears streamed from her eyes.

Kusu Island – c 1960s

Chapter Eighteen
Li Zhang's heart was still in Chinatown. She could not help but think about her friends
there. She thought of the little boy, Wing and another friend, Seng and a few other boys
who were taken away by the Japanese to the Naval Base in Sembawang. She recalled
Auntie Lin's tears and her mother’s desperation during the Japanese Occupation. Her own
heart was broken, thinking that her friends would be killed by the Japanese. However,
things turned out differently. A few months later, two very friendly Japanese officers
came to Kreta Ayer and brought some children back. The officers were polite and they
seemed to like children. One of them explained his role in the education of children in the
Naval Base education centre. Li Zhang was extremely relieved to see some of her friends
returning home safely. Incredible but true - there were Japanese officers infused with the
milk of human kindness for children. .

Li Zhang remembered too the festivities at the Kreta Ayer house. The place was packed
with visitors - the majies who always bought toys for her and gave her things to eat, and
the old ladies who lived nearby and friends of the Yip family. The Kuli-fong Li Zhang
called home already housed forty other persons. Some old ladies lay on the bottom
platform, while the younger women slept on top. With so many people in the little house,
one could imagine how noisy the occasion was. Still everybody enjoyed the celebration
of the Mid Autumn Festival, which is celebrated on the 15th Night of the First Lunar
Month. Most of the women gathered there were sworn sisters to one another. There was a
lot of gossip and exchange of information and gifts. Lin would organize the distribution
of moon-cakes, pomelos and lanterns. Li Zhang and the other children enjoyed playing
with the lanterns. At night, they would join other children to parade around the dark lanes
with the lanterns lit, and they formed a procession of lanterns of all shapes, sizes and
descriptions. There was so much fun. Then the children roamed the streets and the
backlines of Chinatown. They sang crazy Cantonese songs and played those games on the
narrow lanes behind the house, jumping from one square to another. Then they laughed
their way back to reality at the little house they called home at 47 Kreta Ayer Road.

Young though she was, she worried too. She knew her uncle, Kim Chua, had contacts
with his friends in Chinatown. Almost every other day, she pestered him, plying him with
questions about the Yip family and her friends, the Majies and the old neighbors, to find
out whether they were still alive and well. She laughed when her uncle told her that little
Wing was selling things on the roadside at the Tiong Bahru market, and that they were
safe, although the neighbor’s apartment at Yong Saik Street was hit by a bomb. Yes, the
little girl cared. Li Zhang stayed on the Kusu Island for about six months. Kim Chua
somehow knew that the Japanese would be coming to Kusu Island. He heard about this
from his friends at Boat Quay, most of whom were steersmen and people who worked in
the godowns along the Singapore River. So once more, Li Zhang's family returned to
Chinatown, to the safety of 47, Kreta Ayer Road.

Li Zhang found little changes in the house at Kreta Ayer. However, she found some
changes in the back portion of the house which had been converted to an engineering
workshop. Cheong-Fun who worked as a technical supervisor at the United Engineers
during the Japanese Occupation, resigned when he learnt that the United Engineers was
manufacturing arms for the Japanese. In the workshop, Cheong-Fun employed a few
experienced lathe operators and machinists as well as some apprentices. His own boys -
all four of them became his apprentices on a part-time basis. He also employed Mun and
Chiang to be apprentices.

They said time and the hour passed through the roughest day. Li Zhang remembered it
well. Uncle Kim Chua heard some news about Japanese defeats from his friends. People
anxiously awaited the return of the British. They heard British bombs dropping, but there
were few deaths among the civilians, as their targets were vital installations. The situation
was still tensed in November and December 1944 when the allied forces intensified
heavy bombing of Singapore. Then she heard about the dropping of atomic bombs on
Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and people were saying that the end was near. There was much
rejoicing as news of the Japanese surrender was heard on 15th August, 1945.

Though she did not understand much, Li Zhang joined others to listen to Emperor
Hirohito's worldwide broadcast on 15th August, 1945. The Japanese Emperor ordered the
Imperial Forces overseas to lay down arms in unconditional surrender to the allied forces,
because of the colossal loss of 700,000 (dead) and 26,000 (wounded) caused by the
bombings of Hiroshima on 7th August, 1945 and Nagasaki on 8th August, 1945. The
Pacific War (World War II) was brought to an abrupt end.

Sixty one years later, Emperor Akihito, son of Emperor Hirohito and Empress Michiko,
paid their first state visit to Singapore, in celebration of 40 years of diplomatic relations
between the two countries.

Coolies arriving in Singapore

Chapter Nineteen
After the Japanese surrender, the British did not arrive immediately to take control of the
situation. There was a state of anomie in Singapore. There were incidents of looting and
revenge-killing. Much of the infrastructure had been wrecked, including the harbor
facilities and electricity, water, and telephone services. It would take four or five years
for the economy to return to pre-war levels.

When British troops returned to Singapore in September 1945, thousands of

Singaporeans lined the streets to cheer them. People all over Chinatown
displayed the Kuomintang flag in celebration of victory over the Japanese. In the eyes of
some Chinese, the British had lost its credibility as infallible rulers, since they failed to
defend Singapore. The years that followed saw a political awakening amongst the local
populace and the rise of nationalist and anti-colonial sentiments.

With the return of the British, one would have thought that there would be an immediate
transformation of the Chinatown scene. Law and order would prevail. Peace and
quietness would reign supreme. It was not so. A combination of anger, hatred,
apprehension, fear, greed and envy reared its ugly head in a place which was known to be
relatively free of conflicts and friction amongst the people.

The signs were there - right from the beginning. People in Chinatown woke up one
morning and found a few bodies hung from the branches of trees on the Hilltop at Banda
Street. Slips of paper were pasted on the tree trunks. Scribbled on them were words
declaring the dead as spies, traitors, informers or collaborators. It was a sort of public
execution done in a dramatic style. Near the former Japanese recreation clubs at Bukit
Pasoh, others were shot and their bodies were left on the pavement. Elsewhere in
Chinatown, some soldiers from MPAJA (Malayan Anti-Japanese Army) emerged from
the jungle and paraded scores of collaborators tied in ropes along the streets. Gangsters
occasionally turned up like heroes, beating up people for whatever reasons, claiming that
they were meting out justice like self-appointed heroes. It was like the aftermath of the
French Revolution.

Li Zhang and her family returned to Kreta Ayer after the Liberation. Li Zhang rejoined
the Chinese tuition classes attended by the children of the Yip family and the Ng family.
They learnt Chinese classics and poetry.

Li Zhang suffered greatly, as she neglected her studies while her family lived in seclusion
on Kusu Island. If the Japanese Occupation had stretched even longer, she would have
become completely illiterate. On the other hand, the children of the Yip family and the
Ng family, continued with their formal education throughout the Japanese Occupation
period. Many Chinese schools in Chinatown like Yang Cheng, Cheng Fong, Kwong Hua,
Cheng Hua, Qian Hong and Wai Tuck continued to operate during the Occupation. For
the many brave children in Chinatown, it was schooling as usual, but nobody was
allowed to study English. They were required to learn some rudimentary
Japanese alphabets katakana and sang some Japanese songs. They were taught to bow at
attention to the East when the Japanese anthem, 'Kimigayo' was played. However,
supervision of the schools were poor. Most schools were left to their own devices. The
Chinese school curriculum continued to be used in these schools. The Ng brothers
enrolled as students of Wai Tuck School at Smith Street, while the children of the Yip
family studied in Yang Cheng School at Club Street and Qian Hong School at Kreta Ayer
Road. One of the Ng brothers eventually became the Chief Examinations Officer of the
Ministry of Education, and later the Registrar of the Regional English Language Centre.

Li Zhang was awakened one morning by the cracking sounds of gun shots. She thought at
first that Japanese soldiers had returned. She looked out of the window and saw
somebody lying on the road. It was a drama she did not like to see. Nothing like this had
happened before. Somebody had been shot. She could see a pool of blood near the dead
body. Man Zhao saw her daughter's face turning pale. She grabbed her and pulled her
away from the windows.

Chong, the eldest of Cheong-Fun's son was at the window. He turned, took one look at Li
Zhang and muttered, 'She shouldn't be seeing this sort of things. A Japanese informer had
been shot. This is revenge, vendetta.'

Then the police arrived. They noticed a sheet of paper left on the victim's body with the
person's name and the description that he was a 'running dog' working as an informer for
the Japanese. A report was filed. The body was removed and the case was deemed closed.

The next day, Li Zhang was up early in the morning. Man Zhao noticed the troubled look
on her daughter's face and asked, “you look kind of troubled?'

“Oh, I had a dream last night. In the dark, inside my dreams, I saw more. But I
understood less. In my dream, scores of Chinatown men, women and children were shot
or bayoneted by Japanese soldiers. Then some Chinese people with guns killed the
Japanese soldiers and they ran away. Mum, why do people fight? Why should innocent
people be killed?”

Man Zhao did not answer Li Zhang's questions directly and said, “In this world, there are
good people and bad people. The bad ones could influence their own country to go to war
for whatever reasons. This leads to fighting and killing. Sometimes, innocent people are
killed in the process. For this reason, as a people we must always be prepared to defend

In the evening, Li Zhang followed her grandmother to pray to the Gods for protection.
Grandma Lee brought along a bamboo basket filled with the things she needed for
prayers - a bottle of rice wine, some porcelain cups, a pair of scissors, joss-sticks, joss-
papers, red candles, 'silver and gold money', rectangular pieces of paper of red and white,
some meat and a pair of slippers. From Kreta Ayer Road to the Oriental Cinema, the walk
took only five minutes. Grandma Lee took Li Zhang to the back-wall of the Cinema.
While her grand-mother was lighting the joss-sticks and candles, Li Zhang stood guard to
prevent beggars and street urchins from snatching things from her basket. After the joss-
sticks and candles were lit, Grandma Lee uttered some prayers to the deities, facing east
as she did so. She then poured the rice wine into the porcelain cups, and offered the cups
of wine to the deities. After that, she started burning the joss-papers and the 'silver and
gold money.' What interested Li Zhang most was the ritual called 'Beating the small
spirits'. Grandma Lee wrote the names of good or saintly people she had met on sheets of
red paper, and pasted them on the wall. She then wrote the names of bad people,
including some Japanese generals onto the white rectangular sheets. She took out the pair
of slippers and started beating the white sheets on the ground.

Beating the small spirits

After the prayers, Grandma Lee then turned to Li Zhang who was full of curiosity, and
appeared eager to know more about the ritual and explained, 'In life, we must be able to
distinguish the good from the bad. We will meet good people who are nice to us or have
helped us. To these people, we ask for heaven's blessings on them. Inevitably, we will

meet some evil people. Avoid them like the plague. Close your doors to them. We write
their names down on these sheets of white paper, and beat the hell out of them.'

Li Zhang laughed. She then grinned. “I think maybe I should beat them too.” She
proceeded to take a slipper to beat the white papers lying on the ground.

Li Zhang had learnt from her grand-mother a simple rule on “discernment” - know the
righteous and shun evil. Life in Chinatown involves close contacts with people, and
discernment is important. One must be able to observe, think and notice things, and in
social situations, keep good company. Li Zhang recalled a youngster from the
neighbourhood trying to corrupt her by teaching her how to steal chickens. She got a
good scolding from her mother when she came to know about it.

As one walks along the long and difficult journey of life, one may not have encountered
ghosts or spirits, but it is certain that at every cross-road or turning point, one will
stumble upon someone or something that will have an impact on one's life. Deep into the
silence of he night, one may be able to ponder or reflect on those encounters with the
righteous or unrighteous, the big or small people. And some of the small people might
have brought harm or danger to one's life, because one failed to close the doors to them,
or heed the soft gentle warnings in one's head, in one's soul.

Chinatown, immediately after the Liberation, was chaotic. Some sort of upheaval had
taken place. Things were no longer black and white. One could not easily discern the
righteous from the unrighteous. Was it lawlessness when people suspected of being
collaborators were beaten up or killed, or was it justice? Gangsters turned up to protect
hawkers. They acted like heroes. They punished 'the running dogs'. They settled disputes.
But they also demanded protection money. Heroes or villains - people became confused;
they accepted their presence in Chinatown. Amazing! But this was a fact of life. When
the Japanese ruled Singapore with an iron fist, people only thought of life and death; their
minds were tuned only to hatred towards the Japanese. Once the Japanese were gone,
people turned to face one another in an open arena of struggle and strife. To make things
worse, one's senses were bombarded by all sorts of pseudo-intellectual arguments -
capitalism versus socialism, socialism versus communism, Kuomintang versus Chinese
communism, white supremacy versus Asian meekness, Chinese educated versus the
English educated, ad infinitum. A pretty confusing situation for young people who could
easily be influenced! But whatever the 'isms', whatever the political arguments, whatever
the motivations in disputes - people in Chinatown were indifferent. Earning a living was
top priority.

After life in Chinatown returned to normal, Man Zhao got back her old job in Mun Chai,
looking after children whose parents were ill. She liked children. She felt a sense of
fulfillment in doing such work. Li Zhang began to take studies more seriously by
attending a regular school like the other children in the Yip family. She also joined the
children to study Chinese classics under an old Chinese tutor at Bukit Pasoh Road. The
old tutor would doze off every now and then. When he was awake, the children would

ply him with many questions on the Chinese text that they had to recite. He would give a
stock-in-trade reply that they would understand its meanings when they grew up. But
seven months later, the old tutor passed away. Life was hard in those days. The poor man
died without a coffin. The children mourned deeply for him. With his death, the
children's education in Chinese classics and poetry also came to an end.

Students attending a Chinatown school

during the Japanese Occupation

Chapter Twenty
The Kreta Ayer shop house still stood proudly after the ravages of war. Inside, there were
some changes, because of its multiple uses. The front portion of the house was used by
Lin for her grocery business. In the middle, Lin's Kuli-fong was still occupied by dozens
of Majies, Samsui women, factory workers and unemployed old women. At the back of
the shop house was a small engineering workshop. Cheong-Fun employed a few
apprentices, fitters and lathe operators in his engineering workshop. He had also set up a
dark room to develop and process photographs. But there were changes. Lin had rented
out the entire second storey to a social club. She rented a one-room "SIT" (Singapore
Improvement Trust) flat on the opposite side of the road as accommodation for her
children. She used the five-foot-way and the portion of the road fronting the shop house
to operate a roadside food stall. Grandma Mak and the children took turns to look after
the food stall.

Just when Li Zhang thought that tough days were gone forever, bad things began to pile
up at the Kreta Ayer. Problems started coming down like hail, with no relief, rhyme or
reason. How could anybody cope when God did not seem to care. Li Zhang prayed and
she seemed to get some divine message asking her not to lose heart but let grace be with
her spirit.

You've heard them - those all too familiar cries that Li Zhang had heard during the
Japanese Occupation. But this time, the anguish and cries of exasperation came into her
house. To everyone at the shop house, it began as an ordinary Monday morning. Li
Zhang was reading a book in her room. Her mother and Lin were cooking something in
the kitchen. Ah Kow was in his room smoking opium. His son, Mun was in the
engineering workshop chatting with some of his mechanics. The first sign of trouble
came at 10 a.m. when Cheong-Fun dashed in to use the telephone. Something horrible
had happened. Mun heard some moaning noises. He rushed upstairs and found his sister,
Ah Mui, lying on her bed, foaming in the mouth. He yelled for help as he did not know
what to do. Ah Kow, the father later came in and cradled his daughter. Everyone was
standing there, watching the poor girl writhing and turning in pain, with tears streaming
down their faces. After a while, an ambulance came and took her to hospital.

Ah Mui was in the operation theatre for a long time. Ah Kow, Mun, Cheong-Fun, Lin and
Man Zhao were there. They were startled to learn that the girl had swallowed caustic soda.
They knew at once that there was little chance for her. She had left a suicide note that her
boy friend had forsaken her. She had chosen to die for unrequited love. It was in this note
that she recorded the specifics of her anguish, tears and fears. She spelt out details of her
desperation, loneliness, sleeplessness, and pangs of heartaches and pain and moments of
despair. No one, near and dear to her, had known her suffering, sorrows and affliction.
No one knew about her love affair, or the name of her boy friend. Ah Mui had been
reticent. She kept everything to herself.

A few hours later, she was pronounced dead. Both Mun and Ah Kow were emotionally
affected and brokenhearted. They cried for weeks over their sad loss.

Heartaches and disappointments - they come in different forms, and constitute part of the
life force that affects us. The bruising, crushing and melting process is part of life's
experiences that reshape us, making us stronger, and preparing us to meet future
challenges with greater resolve. It is pain and sorrow that can infuse the qualities of
greatness in a person, but to withstand them, there must be faith, hope and persistence in
our hearts.

In Ah Mui's case, it may be love lost or not reciprocated. But it is inane and useless to
treat love between individuals, as though it is the highest form of love. Agape love, or the
love reflected in biblical teachings is the supreme form of love. Human life is transient;
so is human love. It is futile to place romantic love on a pedestal of virtue and
righteousness, because human nature is unpredictable and weak and even close human
relationships are fragile and frail, when the chips are down.

Death is not the glorious way out for anyone, however helpless or useless he or she feels
and whatever the circumstances - unfulfilled romances, an unachieved goal in life, a
broken home or marriage, a lingering illness, an untimely death, a severed friendship, a
terrible mistake, a crippling depression, failures in studies, work or business - whatever.
These things are part of the groans and grinds of life. Ah Mui should have realized this,
and let God's hands be placed on her heartaches and pains, instead of resorting to suicide.

Both Li Zhang and Wing could not forget Ah Mui, the sweet young girl with a beautiful
smile and a gentle trusting nature. Her face was always radiant. She was as pretty as the
models printed on the covers of calendars and magazines. She was slender and tall. The
outline of her well-developed breasts protruded slightly through her blouse, even though
she wore the old fashioned Chinese "sam-fu". It was really sad. Everyone would miss her
soft and gentle voice. Li Zhang and the children in the Yip family were filled with
sadness over this bereavement in Mun's family. Being curious, they naturally questioned
the adults about the circumstances surrounding the suicide, but they received rude stares.
Could she have died because of her love for a customer? Could the man be a married man?
Could she be so deeply in love as to sacrifice her life in such a traumatic way? These
questions and more bugged them. It was really a mystery - and there was not enough
explanation in her suicide note.

The heartbreaking circumstances, the sudden loss of loved ones, the stinging thorns of
pain and anguish of being shunned, abandoned, abused or taunted for mistakes one makes,
the brutal verbal blows we receive from family and friends, the stupid decisions we make
in work and finance leading to failures - such is the groan and grind of life.

There is a broken heart in every street corner. Worries, miseries and sorrows can hide in
the best of homes. This is especially true for a place like Chinatown where people lived
difficult and harsh lives. Shelley, the English poet was right. He personified Sorrow as a
mother "with her family of sighs." And so she is. Stooped and weary of life, yet ever

bearing more children only to sigh and cry and die. Without God - end of message. Finis.
Termination of misery. Curtains. The only encore, for Ah Mui's curtain exit, to borrow
from Robert Ingersoll's dying words of horror, is: "the echo of a wailing cry."

But that need not be the end. Life and love, with all its pressures and inequities, tears and
tragedies, can be lived on a level above its miseries. Faith in God can help in overcoming
Sorrow and her grim family of sighs, who may visit you. But they will not stay long and
they will leave you victorious in life when faith, grace and hope through God's love are
there to help you sail calmly by the roughest seas.

Braving the Rain – picture of Kreta Ayer Road

I walk in the heavy rain

And search in vain in a narrow lane
The tender love I once knew
To start my life anew.

It was the same narrow lane -

Where I was caressed by wind and rain,
With You then by my side, we whispered and walked together -
The fury or roar of a downpour - it didn`t matter.

Are those rain-drops on my face

Or sadness and guilt that time won`t erase?
Take, oh take those tears away,
And say You`ll forgive and by my side stay.

I brave the wretched wind and relentless rain

To search for You in the narrow winding lane.
Here I`ll remain - lonely, lost and in pain,
And I will call out Your name - again and again.

Braving the Rain – “No greater love than thine” – Andrew Yip, 2006

Chapter Twenty One
Despite the bereavement in his family, Mun's daily routine each morning
remained the same. He would get up early in the morning. He would jog around the
Hilltop to tune up his muscles, and then he would have his breakfast, eating at the few
food stalls, which were allowed to operate along one side of the road where he lived. He
did not realize that he was too emotionally charged to expose himself publicly in this
manner. He liked the tit-bits being sold at one stall. He had patronized it for over a year.
He liked the young couple that always greeted him in a friendly way. The couple had to
prepare and sell food at the stall while looking after a baby. Yet they were able to cope
with the work, cheerfully greeting every customer that came along. They knew about his
sister's death and they kept on comforting and encouraging him, telling him not to be sad.
They knew the hardships he had suffered while working as a coolie in the harbor go-
downs. They made him feel that they could rely on them as friends, should he need
financial assistance. Mun felt grateful and talked to them freely and that was Mun's fatal

Mun was no longer the cool cell leader that he was before the tragedy at home. He
suffered severely. He could no longer sleep well. His mind was swamped with the
memories of Ah Mui. Anger and anguish pierced his heart, and at this anguishing point,
he relaxed his guard in the early morning. Why not? These were simple people, and they
had been there with him every morning like old friends chatting away about almost
everything under the sun, including life in China, the plight of the Chinese-educated in
Singapore, et cetera, et cetera.

A month later, at midnight on a Saturday, the sound of cars screeching to a halt and the
loud noise of people running and yelling were heard in the house where Mun lived. Five
patrol cars stopped at the house with their headlights on. People rushed out from their
homes to see the red rotating flickering lamps on top of the patrol cars and dozens of
uniformed police officers armed with guns surrounding the premises. Mun was arrested
and led handcuffed into a patrol car. Other Special Branch officers and the police also
arrested a number of his friends, including Ah Ming and De Li both from Kreta Ayer
Road, in a similar fashion. It was obvious that the Special Branch had been watching
these activists for a long time, and planned this operation very carefully. One of Mun's
friends, Chiang, escaped arrest.

Eventually, Mun was imprisoned in St. John's Island. It was the practice at that time to
banish and repatriate political detainees. A decision was made to repatriate Mun to China
as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, this was not the end of the story. In the political arena, struggles and
conflicts often result in chaos and bloodshed. The sequel to this story is a revelation of
the dangers to the society. It is an expose of the brutal nature of any political struggle for
whatever cause, by whatever groups.

No sooner was Mun arrested, another two tragic deaths took place at Kreta Ayer. The
man and his wife, who operated the food stall where Mun frequently patronized, was
found dead in a back lane. What happened to the baby? Nobody knew. Were they Special
Branch agents or officers in disguise? Who knows?

News of the death of the two Special Branch officers reached St. John's Island detention
centre. The prison wardens became merciless in their treatment of Mun, Ah Ming and De
Li, and a few other prisoners. The political detainees did not take things lying down.
Somehow, Mun became a ring leader amongst them and created a lot of problems in St.
John's Island. The British Administration realized at that time the problem of keeping
large numbers of political detainees in a detention centre. The historical lesson only came
later in 1963 when Singapore was part of Malaysia under an inexperienced
administration. It was a bitter lesson learnt at the Pulau Senang detention centre where
prison riots broke out, and four prison officers including the chief was brutally murdered
by the inmates, amongst whom were large numbers of leftist unionists. So, the British
Administration in retrospect chose a pragmatic system to deal with Chinese political
detainees by banishing them liberally to China. To the British, St. John's Island which
was already over-crowded could certainly do without Mun, Ah Ming and De Li. The trio
were handcuffed and taken by Special Branch officers to Guangzhou, and handed over to
the Chinese authorities. But at that time, China was pre-occupied with her own internal
problems including economic and social reforms. She had no time at all to attend to those
people banished from Singapore. In Singapore in the Fifties, one always had the
impression that communist subversion on the island was somehow linked to communism
in China. This appeared to be too simplistic a view. Not only were the trio and others
banished from Singapore treated like "Nobodies", they received a very cold reception.
Mun thought at first that he would be treated like "a returned hero", having sacrificed and
suffered so much against capitalism and imperialism in Singapore. Instead, he was
ridiculed for stirring up trouble in a place where so many overseas Chinese resided in
peace under the British, and China was grateful to them for their backing in her campaign
against Japan.

In Guangzhou, the trio - Mun, Ah Ming and De Li were interrogated. Mun's friend,
Chiang, who escaped arrest by the Special Branch in Singapore, also joined them. Each
was asked where they would like to live and work in China. Chiang, whose ancestors
were from Guangzhou, chose to stay in Guangzhou city. Ah Ming picked Xiamen and De
Li picked Wan Niu Dun for similar reasons. But Mun was ashamed to return to his
ancestor's village in Dongguan and asked for a place as far away from Southern China as
possible to make a clean start. He was sent to Zhenzhou to work as a lathe operator. Mun
was not allowed to leave the town. He was stuck there for two decades, until his uncle,
Cheong-Fun came to China to look for him in the late Seventies. In broken Cantonese,
Mun told his uncle then that his wasted life as a communist in Singapore was “like a

Like a dream

“An embittered soul, restive in repose,

A reverie or dream the restless mind composed;
That fugitive moment she clearly smiled.
But why was she carrying a small child?

I saw the sweet child of mine in tears,

But knew she was a child of yesteryears.
The vision and moment seemed unreal;
Then vanished as tides of emotions revealed.

Like a dream, I watched her come and go,

Dreams conjured, my longings ‘gan to grow.
In lamenting cries I bid her stay but pleaded in vain.
Only the wreckage of dreams remain’d and care is but pain.”

(Andrew Yip, 2003)

Like a dream

Chapter Twenty Two
Mun's father, Ah Kow, was depressed after his daughter, Ah Mui, committed suicide, He
became even more depressed after his son was repatriated to China. Both Cheong-Fun
and Lin noticed that his health had deteriorated. True he was getting old, but old age was
not the problem. He seemed to be suffering from depression, and became neurotic. He
could be seen talking to himself, muttering something about his daughter and son, and
sighing all the time. He had not been able to cope with the sorrows that affected his mind.
Trapped by pangs of pain that resided in his heart, and traumatized by a sense of
helplessness and rage, he fed on the filth of his imagination. He refused to eat and refused
to take medicine even when one of his legs started to bloat up.

In the evening, he left his house to meet some friends in an opium den at Pagoda Street.
As he shambled down Sago Street and Trengganu Street in his casual coolie attire, he
waved to a few people who knew him and grinned broadly to hide the pain in his heart
and in his legs. Ah Kow had a way about him and seemed to be able to get on with the
shady characters that lived in opium dens and gambling houses. He drank and gambled
with them quite frequently. Many of them heard him speak of his intense hatred for the
British. These people knew that it only took two glasses of whisky to make him start
talking about his pet hate.

Pagoda Street in the early evening had a sombre grey atmosphere. To those who knew the
district, it was the place for the coolies or indentured labourers and seafarers to reside. In
those days, the street was called "Kwong Hup Yuen Street", named after the biggest
coolie house in Chinatown at 37 Pagoda Street. The street was also noted for the large
number of tailor shops there. At least there were eighteen tailor shops catering to visitors
to Chinatown who patronized the Chinese Opera House along Trengganu Street or the
many opium dens and gambling houses nearby. Most of the opium smokers and gamblers
and patrons of brothels with foreign prostitutes gathered there. Tough looking hoodlums
also gathered in the area; many of them were Ah Kow's friends. Little wonder that almost
every week, Ah Kow could be seen shuffling his way up the same street. When he
reached the corner of Pagoda Street and Trengganu Street, he would stop and turn into
'the Club'. Its full name was The Smokers' Club. If you should ask one of the Chinatown
folks staying there why it was so called, he would answer you to the effect that it was
called 'the Smokers' Club ' because all the 'smokers hang out there.'

Ah Kow enjoyed this particular session. The inhalation of opium eased the pain in his
legs. The drowsiness he felt in his head made him forget the pain in his heart. There were
women attendants - pretty girls from Shanghai. He could not understand what they
whispered into his ears, but he enjoyed their company. Little did he realize that this
would be his last visit to the Club. When he reached home at midnight, he died of a heart

Another tragedy at Kreta Ayer, another blow to the Yip family. But in the ensuing
months, tragedy struck again. It was ironical that just when everyone expected good years
and good fortune under British rule that the series of tragic events occurred. It began one
evening at dinner. Lin cooked a good meal. Members of the family were seated around
the dining table. So were the cats. But they were under the table. It was a mistake for
Grandma Mak to feed the cats under the table and give meat to them. The cats fought
with one another, and in the course of the melee, one of the cats scratched Grandma's leg.
Infections set in and soon she had to be hospitalized.

Li Zhang cried, as Grandma had looked after the children, and they all liked her. Li
Zhang, Man Zhao and members of the Yip family were all there at the Kwong Wai Siu
Hospital at Serangoon Road. Infections had set in from the festering wounds on
Grandma's leg, and she suffered from great pain. The grim faces and red eyes
surrounding the sick bed were telling. There were tears and sad faces that spoke of hearts
being stabbed by sharp anguish. Everyone felt the deep pangs of pain when being told
that nothing more could be done for Grandma in the hospital..

Grandma Mak was taken to Sago Lane, and placed in "Guo Wen", a sort of hospice or
death house for the terminally ill. The weeks that followed were depressing for the family,
seeing Grandma in a drowsy or semi-conscious state. Lin had preparations for this
moment of death. She had taken out a black wooden box where she had kept Grandma's
new clothing, shoes, a comb, gold plated ornaments and other paraphernalia needed for
the death rituals. Grandma passed away peacefully at night. God's merciful hands lifted
her up and relieved her of the never-ending toils and tribulations of earthly care.

Spare a thought for an unsung heroine. Years of toil and struggle had taken a toll on her.
Those fleeting years were a tapestry elegantly woven with fascinating patches of bold and
imaginative designs, a culmination of endurance and self-sacrifice. She epitomized the
spirit of the early Chinese immigrants, pioneers of new frontiers of hope. Leaving the
comfort of her home in Cha-Shan in Dongguan in Southern China, she ventured to start
life in Hong Kong. She started a family there. With the death of her husband, she made a
bold move and took the family to Singapore. Hers was a spirit of hope and faith, of
persistence and endurance, and of adaptability and tolerance. Never mind what the
challenges were, never mind the humiliation - she persisted with sweat, blood and tears to
raise her family and fulfill her dreams of securing a future for them.

Li Zhang recalled during the depression years, when the grocery business started by
Grandma Mak, failed to yield sufficient income for the family, she took either Li Zhang
or Wing to the side gates of the United Engineers. There under a tree whose branches and
leaves provided her with some shade from the sweltering heat of the noonday sun, she sat
there with the children to earn some money repairing torn garments or do other forms of

Occasionally, outside her grocery shop, she put a few tables and chairs on the roadside,
and prepared some food items for sale at a street stall. The children including Li Zhang

sometimes helped Grandma to look after the roadside stall. There was widespread
unemployment in Singapore at that time. People in Chinatown, unable to find work,
turned to street hawking. Street stalls filled the streets day and night. Grandma Mak was
taking a risk in operating the food stall on the roadside. She had to be on the alert all the
time for fear that the police might come to arrest her. Hard times - made harder when the
children had to be on the look-out for the Police or hawker inspectors whose duties were
to drive street hawkers off the streets. Police arrests were common in the Post-war years,
when successive governments, unable to tackle the root cause of this street phenomenon,
resorted to the confiscating of roadside stalls and arrests of street vendors to deal with the
hawker problem. In the twilight of her years, Grandma Mak joined the 18,000 hawkers in
Singapore at that time, playing a hide and seeks game with the police and the corrupt
hawker inspectors.

Despite their difficulties, Grandma and her son, Cheong-Fun, took in men with no names,
no identities and gave them accommodation, food and work in their shop and in the
makeshift farm on the Hilltop at Banda Street. What does this take? Bigness - being free
of prejudice, being compassionate, seeing another in need and reaching out in solid
human maturity. It is caring unconditionally and caring unassumingly, and seeing beyond
the labels. It was not done to impress others. Giving an outstretched hand of help to
someone unknown and bringing him or her into the home in those turbulent days could
pose trouble and considerable danger. Yet, they still lent a hand to others who were
unfortunate or deprived.

Even in old age, she struggled on to try other business venture. At one time, she turned
part of the kitchen area into a factory for the manufacture of joss-sticks. For a while, the
marketing of 'Zi-Zi-Xiang' was successful, but it was discontinued when the factory space
did not get government approval. Lin turned to the preparation of 'cha-chai', a crude form
of powder for hair wash for old ladies, this also failed. She then tried making tin toys for
sale, but this also failed. Such was her persistence and determination to survive in those
grim and grey years of despair.

A mother's love - people tend to take this for granted. In the hustle and bustle of modern
living with one's senses being bombarded by alluring sounds from popular music and
songs, noises from all directions and sources, and the sights and sounds of all sorts of
fads and fetishes of modern culture, the simple gesture and expression of love and
kindness is often unnoticed and easily forgotten. If tears were indelible ink in a
mother's eye, her face would have been completely stained and smeared for life as she
struggled through the twists and turns of life and the heartaches and broken dreams of
raising a family.

There may be a simple message for us.

It is a timely reminder to the new generations of young people who may be living within
gay bubbles of contemporary living and wallowing in carefree or hedonistic lifestyles.
True, there had been a few disasters and the SARs menace, but they still had not tasted
real hardship or learnt from the lessons of the past; nor had they really understood the
courage and sacrifices of the early immigrant pioneers. The simple message is never to
forget one's roots and never to turn away from those loving hands that once held us,
whatever the circumstances and irrespective of one's status, upbringing, social ties,
inclinations or persuasions.

At the break of grey dawn

Chapter Twenty Three
Grief often leads to soul searching and reflection. Li Zhang was not the only one who felt
grief and pain when Grandma Mak died. Man Zhao also felt the anguish of losing
someone who cared for her and her child. This was indeed the anguishing point in her life.
The poignancy hit home as she reflected on the good old days when her family lived in
peace in Wan Niu Dun and the long years of marriage with He Qing. There was a tinge of
sadness in her heart. Her work at "Mun Chai", the death house appeared to have little
meaning. Her thoughts were with her village and the field she tilled before. With the
Japanese defeat, life in China would give her more fulfillments. She wanted to bring
greenery back to fields, fields she knew were still there and they needed care and her
green fingers to restore them to life and beauty. .

Suddenly, Man Zhao felt a sense of loneliness, even in over-crowded Chinatown. The
years seemed to have fleeted by without her notice. Time is illusory. Those fleeting years
seemed to be a dream for her. Her mind was filled with memories of the days gone by.
She could not suppress the images that swarmed her soul. Images of past, present and
future seemed to dance around her eyes in a haphazard manner, making her slightly
confused and dazed. For a while, the past, that wretched part of her life during the
Japanese Occupation, seemed like figments of her imagination, and the future seemed
hazy and obscure. Only the present seemed real, as she gazed at a photograph of her
home in Dongguan in Southern China.

A few days later, she decided to discuss the idea of returning to China with her mother
and sister and her brother-in-law, Kim Chua. Kim Chua told Man Zhao that a good
number of Chinese people already left for China, and they were allowed to enter China
without let or hindrance.

Kim Chua spoke with conviction, "Man Zhao, better go while the going is good. One day,
the Chinese government may stop overseas Chinese from returning to China."

Man Hua chipped in and said, "Take mother with you. She longed to return to China. She
is getting old you know, and she always wanted to die in her homeland."

Man Zhao needed no more urging. Her patriotic feelings and her longing for her home
and fields in China were enough motivation for her to leave Singapore for Wan Niu Dun.
She spoke at length to Kim Chua and asked him to make arrangements for the voyage

The family waited for news about the arrival of ships from China to take them home. One
morning, Kim Chua came to convey the bad news.

"Man Zhao, some Chinese ships including the "Yuen Yang" came to take
Chinese people back to China, but the authorities in Singapore refused to allow them to

take people on board. What shall we do? One way out is to go to Indonesia first. But you
may be questioned by the Indonesian authorities, and that would be awkward. The other
alternative is to get a fishing boat and get away from Singapore waters."

The jaws on Man Zhao's face hardened. "Kim Chua, find a fishing boat and let us sneak
away from here, " she spoke with determination. There were tears in her eyes.

Once again at midnight, Kim Chua took the little family with some personal belongings
to the Boat Quay. They went on board a forty-foot fishing junk that belonged to one of
Kim Chua's friends, Kam Ho. As Li Zhang stepped into the fishing junk, she saw Kam
Ho squatting on the wide rising poop deck of the junk. The many gold fillings of his teeth
sparkling as he grinned in the moonlight, watching the family emerging from the
shadows of the river bank and returning to the freedom of the seas. Kam Ho's eldest son,
Ah Kiat then arrived, stripping off his shirt, slacks and shoes and changing into a pair of
light cotton shorts. His daughter also joined them, donning the cool, practical cotton
pyjamas of the "Boat People" - traditional baggy two-piece suits, worn with short, calf-
length rubber sea-boots.. The last to come aboard was Ah Chong, Kam Ho's brother-in-
law. He stripped off his street-clothes and changed into a pair of shorts and rubber flip-
flops. With Ah Chong on board, the junk was ready to leave. The whole shelter was
coming to life, the broad, high-sterner wooden vessel grumbling and lowing like herded
buffaloes as they were nosed away from their moorings, growling as they headed across
the bow toward the open water. Ah Chong and Ah Kiat did most of the driving and
delicate maneuvering of the junk, right from the moment they began the night's voyage,
as they headed into the clammy darkening mists that rolled over the smooth seas, heaving
gently out of Singapore waters.

Man Zhao woke up early at dawn. She saw Kam Ho on the deck. He squatted there,
hardly moving a muscle, at the forward port edge of the poop deck watching the seas
ahead . Even when Man Zhao walked closer to him, he did not move or make a sound as
the engine rumbled and snarled. Finally, he shifted on his heels. He turned back to face
Man Zhao and smiled, his gold teeth giving off a dull shine in the morning light. Man
Zhao moved closer and squatted near him. She casually asked, "Uncle Kam Ho, good
morning. How many days will it take to reach Hong Kong?"

"Much depends on the weather, Man Zhao. But we have to unload some rice and other
cargoes in Vietnam first. After that, we will proceed straight to Hong Kong. It may take a
few weeks at least," the man with the gold teeth spoke calmly, his eyes riveted on Man
Zhao's face searching for signs of uneasiness or fear. Abruptly he turned around and
faced the sea again, ending the conversation. Man Zhao was upset that Kim Chua never
told her about the fishing junk detouring to Vietnam. She sighed and walked away. She
knew that Vietnam was not a safe place to go. Political conflicts between the French that
used to rule Indo-china, the Vietminh forces that fought against the French. She also
knew that the United States might start a war there to crush the Vietminh guerrilla forces
which spearheaded a communist regime in the country.

When the fishing junk reached the Vietnamese shores, there was a brisk breeze blowing
in from the ocean. It was a chilly grey day in Saigon. Kam Ho looked serious. His son,
Ah Kiat, looked young and scared. Man Zhao and her mother wanted to know why both
of them looked so grim and nervous.

'Then why are you still bringing us here?' she asked quietly, and both Kam Ho and Ah
Kiat looked at each other and then away. She waited for what seemed like a long, long
time, and when they answered her, she almost understood it.

'We earned a lot of money bringing the cargoes to the Vietminh soldiers,' one explained,
'don't worry; they will protect us as we repair the engines. 'The man talking to Man Zhao
gritted his teeth as he spoke and was totally unaware of it.

'Yeah,' the other man nodded, 'there's still time to get the cargoes unloaded and get the
engines repaired. Just relax.'

Man Zhao and her mother responded by quickly leaving the deck, counting their prayers
as they rushed unsteadily away.

Kam Ho obviously had good connections with the Vietminh guerrillas. As soon as he
arrived in Saigon, the guerrillas were there to protect his fishing junk and the passengers.
They guarded the vessel, while Kam Ho, Ah Chong and Ah Kiat carried sacks of rice and
other cargoes, and placed them on military trucks parked near the pier. Hundreds of them
were on guard; their machine guns ready to fire at any intruders they remained on the
alert even after the cargoes were off-loaded from the vessel, while Kam Ho and Ah
Chong carried out several hours of repair to the engines of the junk. But even with such
protection from the soldiers, Man Zhao's family experienced a growing sense of panic.

No doubt they stayed on board, but now and then, they could hear gun shots from a
distance. Kam Ho realized that it was not safe to stay there at the mooring for too long.
He and his brother-in-law worked until near midnight to get the repair done. Soon, the
engines of the fishing junk started to make deep-throated growls and the junk began to
reverse and turn their square sterns into narrow gulleys in the walls of timber. The noise
from the rumbling engines was unbelievable. The junk then started to move out quickly
into the sea lanes, and before long, the fishing junk was once again in the open sea.

As the junk left Saigon, it was running under sail for most of the 8,000 miles, and using
its engines only for a patch of bad weather while chugging up the southeast coastline of
China. Then Kam Ho heard news of armed pirate junks in the vicinity. He panicked and
changed directions, still hoping to reach Hong Kong Island. In rough weather, the junk
wandered amidst other vessels, whirling through an intricate network of narrow sea lanes
and then sailed on following the coastlines. It was later that Kam Ho discovered that the
junk had wandered off to the Hainan Island instead. As the weather turned worse, Kam
Ho decided to moor the junk at a river mouth on Hainan Island. The next day when the
weather became clear, the junk then sailed to Hong Kong.

In Kowloon, Man Zhao took her mother and Li Zhang to the Tin Hao temple for
thanksgiving and worship. Tin Hao, the Goddess of the Sea is the ultimate protectors of
the Boat People. She is also known to be the Mother of Heaven. She watches over those
who travel by sea in the swells and storms, blesses them with good sea. For the fishermen,
she blesses them with abundant hauls of fish. .

The little family stayed a few more days in Hong Kong before taking a long lorry ride to
Wan Niu Dun and home.

Li Zhang’s farm at Wan Niu Dun

Chapter Twenty Four
Cheong-Fun sat on the plane and was reading the newspapers. His face broke into a broad
grin. Then he passed the papers to his son, Wing..

'What is it, Dad?' Wing asked.

'It's about the photographic exhibition held in Beijing last month. The Overseas Chinese
Association expected me to launch another photographic exhibition soon. I expect to see
some of the top museum officials during this visit to China. But most important of all, we
should make an attempt to see your cousin, Mun. Frankly, I am worried about him after
he had been banished to China, and we had so little news about him. ."

Cheong-Fun and his son, Wing arrived at the Bai Yuen Airport in Guangzhou. At this
time, China was a closed society, and was just opening up its doors to foreigners. After
waiting for a very long time, they managed to retrieve their luggage and made their way
to the Chinese immigration. The immigration officer checked their passports against a
huge book containing thousands of presumably blacklisted names in hand-writing.
Computer was not used, and the process of checking took a long time. They then spilt out
with their heavy luggage to the airport exits, where they were greeted by a sea of people,
all dressed in blue, as though they were wearing some sort of uniform.. Two Chinese
officials met them and invited them to board a minibus. They appeared to be high ranking
officials of the Chinese government.

On the streets, their minibus ran into a human tidal wave, and had to inch its way through
an enormous of cyclists.. There were few cars on the road, as only government officials
were allowed to use this mode of transport. The minibus traveled along slowly; its driver
kept on horning to get the cyclists and other light vehicles to give way. The air
reverberated with the noise of bicycle bells, and the sounds of car horns, and the yells and
yaps of pedestrians and street vendors.

The group checked into the Yu Yi Hotel, a five-storied building. The hotel rooms were
very Spartan. The double beds were covered with white bed sheets. Two large pillows
with matching white pillow cases were provided. Bath towels, hand towels, floor mats,
shower curtains were all white - sparkling white. But no room keys were provided. A
female attendant stationed outside the rooms along the corridor, would open the door,
every time a hotel guest needed to enter his room.

Early next morning, Cheong-Fun and Wing witnessed an unusual scene on the streets. At
eight sharp, all shop assistants as well as shop-keepers stood on the streets outside their
stalls, shops or departmental stores to participate in compulsory morning exercises. For

over ten minutes, they went through the exercise routine to the accompaniment of music
blaring out from loudspeakers hung on lamp-posts or on top of buildings.

The shops were not well decorated, and they looked a little austere. In fact, most of the
buildings looked dilapidated with squeaky ceiling fans. The shop assistants appeared to
be government employees. True, they were disciplined and courteous, but they showed
no drive and little enthusiasm in their work. Such was the drawback of a centralized
economic system in marketing and sales.

For a photographer like Cheong-Fun, sightseeing meant taking a lot of photographs.

Guangzhou, a city with a rich history and heritage, captured the imagination of any artist.
From streetscape to the scenic beauty of rural areas, from tall commercial buildings to
residential flats to the low-rise shop houses, with the inclusion of a few scenic spots, the
myriads of interesting pictures captured in a few days would give a lifetime of viewing
pleasure. He, however, found a China quite preoccupied with the past. The guides would
take the group to museums to show how the Communist Party fought the Japanese and
the Kuomintang forces. They took them to memorial sites and other places of historical
interest. After being taken around in the minibus for three days, he boldly asked one of
the guides whether it would be possible for him to see a relative in China. He was
thinking of Mun who was banished to China from Singapore by the British
administration. To his surprise, the answer was in the affirmative.

"Yes, he and his family will meet you in the hotel in Nanking," one of the guides spoke

It was a cold day when the group reached Nanking. A long ride from the Airport to the
town centre followed. Here the streets were also crowded with bicycles and trishaws. The
streets were noisy - noisy with bells and yells.

Cheong-Fun later left the hotel with a friend as he had an appointment with the
Managing Director of a shopping centre. He waited anxiously outside the
shopping centre for him. He was somewhat perplexed when this important guy arrived in
his bicycle and waved at him. Cheong-Fun was amazed at that time, because he had been
to America and the United Kingdom where formal attire and decorum ruled big business.

When Cheong-Fun and Wing returned to the hotel, they received a message from the
hotel reception that some relatives were waiting for him outside the hotel. At that time,
the locals could only enter the hotels meant for foreign visitors if permission either from
the hotel guests or from the management, had been obtained. Cheong-Fun rushed out of
the hotel. He found some people sitting around a marble table placed in the courtyard
outside the hotel. He peered at them as he walked inside the courtyard.

Cheong-Fun expected to see a young man with a handsome face, who was his nephew
and an apprentice in his engineering workshop, two decades ago. But instead he saw the
grim and gaunt face of a middle-aged man who looked twice his age. He looked haggard,
scraggy and hollow-eyed. He wore a blue shirt that looked too large for his thin body.

There were just a few strands of hair on his balding head, and only a few front teeth could
be seen in his mouth. By his side was a plump woman who spoke with a strong country
accent. Accompanying her was a pretty young girl, wearing a floral dress and carrying a

"Are you Mun?" Cheong-Fun blurted out in Bai Hua (Cantonese) afar a moment of
hesitation. He was glancing at the family for a while, as though he was about to their
portraits. "Yes, I am Mun, uncle" was the reply in Putonghua. It appeared that Mun at the
age of forty could no longer converse in Bai Hua (Cantonese). Just imagine, a young man
born and bred in Singapore's Chinatown where everybody spoke Cantonese, could not
speak the dialect after two decades. This is a phenomenon worthy of some study by
linguistic experts. Cheong-Fun found it unbelievable and unexpected. He also did not
expect to find Mun and his family waiting for him outside the hotel when he returned in
the evening. It seemed that Mun received a telegram from Guangzhou after Cheong-Fun
made a request to see his nephew, and the telegram authorized him to obtain
permission to leave his town in Zhen Cheng for the first time after twenty long years. So
Mun and his family managed to leave Zhen Chen and visit Nanjing on the strength of a
request from an overseas Chinese relative. To him, it was an important occasion, and he
told Cheong-Fun very clearly that he spent a fortune having to take a train ride with his
family to Nanjing.

Recounting from the day he was banished to China, Mun revealed that he expected that
he would return to communist China like a hero. But he did not get a hero's welcome;
neither did he get any privilege or recognition. From the day he arrived in China, he was
sent to Zhen Cheng were he worked as a lathe operator.

Mun introduced the plumb lady as his wife and the pretty young girl as his daughter who
was studying to be a photographer. The girl showed Cheong-Fun and Wing the camera
she was carrying, which appeared to be an ordinary camera with very little features.
Cheong-Fun was delighted to find someone related to him in China, who shared his
interest in photography. He gave the grandniece a camera and many tips on how to take a
good photograph.

After visiting Nanjing, Cheong-Fun and Wing took a train to Dongguan. They checked
into a room at the Dongguan Hotel, in the heart of town. There he met some relatives
who took Cheong-Fun and Wing to a small town called Cha Shan to see their grand-
parents' ancestral home as well as the family graveyard. For Cheong-Fun, the visit was an
emotional experience - to see the home of his parents and grand-parents and to see so
many relatives who flocked there to show their hospitality. But neither Cheong-Fun nor
Wing really knew anyone of them. For Cheong-Fun, he could not completely banish
certain bitter memories from his mind - memories of the days when he was sent back to
Dongguan from Hong Kong after his father died, and the parents of these relatives did not
take good care of him, leaving him in poor health and sometimes having to beg neighbors
for food. Cheong-Fun's heart was big. He did not bear any grudges against anyone, nor
did he mention anything about the past. On the other hand, Wing knew the family history
well, and he felt uncomfortable getting the hospitality from the relatives.

The next day, Cheong-Fun and Wing took a mini-bus to Wan Niu Dun . The journey took
only forty five minutes. To Wing, it seemed to be a very long journey because he was
anxious to see Li Zhang and her family. The mini-bus went past Wan Niu Dun, then it
turned into a maze of narrow roads, each of which was filled with people and bicycles.
The driver kept horning all the time to get the cyclists to give way to the vehicle. It was
really a hopeless task and the vehicle in fact had to follow behind some cyclists moving
forward ever so slowly. At long last, the vehicle turned into a small town with the name
of the town, "Wan Niu Dun" printed in bold Chinese letters close to a number of large
portraits of Chairman, Mao Zedong.

Cheong-Fun had no difficulty finding Li Zhang's house. The instructions given to him by
letter were very clear. Cheong-Fun gently knocked on the door of the house. A
middle-aged woman answered the door. Both Cheong-Fun and Wing recognized Li
Zhang straight away. Just a span of eighteen years, but Li Zhang had become a grown
woman. The transformation of Li Zhang seemed unreal. Images of a fourteen year old
girl disturbed Wing's mind. The same old elusive, irretrievable phantom of time winks at
Wing. "My, she has aged," Wing seemed to have said, but he didn't.

"I had two more kids since the last time I wrote to you," Li Zhang smiled and invited
Cheong-Fun and Wing to enter the house. She then introduced her husband and her three
sons and a daughter to the guests.

Wing, a part-time real estate man from Singapore naturally surveyed the house. He was
not surprised to find a dilapidated house, but the house was spacious and had half a dozen
rooms. The flooring, however, was of concrete. Like most houses in the town, the
sanitary system was still primitive. There was no running water and the toilets just
featured the bucket system. The electric lights were there, but they were dim. The only
luxury for the house was a bicycle. Sure, this was Spartan living, the Chinese style.

Li Zhang noticed Wing's eyes and his interest in the state of the house. She invited the
guests to see the backyard and the farm land adjacent to the house. "All these now belong
to the Government. We are allowed to carry on farming here and get some wages from
the State. You know, they have taken away our houses and our land. Everything now is
state-controlled, " she lowered her voice as she spoke.

Despite her unhappiness about the loss of several houses and some land to the
Government, Li Zhang and her family still led very comfortable lives. The
family was allowed to use the vast tracts of land for cultivation of vegetables, rice and
fruit trees. Nearby there was a big lake and some streams where Li Zhang's children
could earn a living through fishing.

Things certainly had changed for Li Zhang at home in Wan Niu Dun. Man Zhao had
passed away peacefully, due to old age. Li Zhang was the de facto head of the household.
Her husband looked tired and meek, and seldom opened his mouth. It was a sharp
contrast - a woman of fine intellect, somewhat talkative and extremely lively in her

mannerisms, and a man of few words, whose hallmark was his meekness and an
expressionless face. But still, they were a loving pair and apparently against the dictates
of law in the country, they produced many children who could help them in their
agricultural and fishing activities. Cheong-Fun and Wing were naturally happy for Li
Zhang - to see her happily settled down and leading a comfortable and fruitful life.

It was the first morning at Wan Niu Dun for Cheong-Fun and Wing. The sky was bright,
lighting up the trees and shrubs around the farm house. As Cheong-Fun walked along the
shady footpaths leading to Li Zhang's farm, he breathed in the cool air and felt relaxed.
Still his eyes were alert. His mind analyzed the juxtaposition of images in front of him,
and when he had some idea about composition and subject matter, he took out his
camera and tried to capture the beauty before him. Then he noticed the hillocks and the
streams and ducks swimming in the lake. He lost no time by taking a few more shots.
After enough shots had been taken, he started walking towards the house. As he turned
round, he was surprised to see Ah Ying, Li Zhang's daughter-in-law hauling a huge load
of sand and stones with a wooden cart. A straw hat on her head afforded some protection
from the sun. As she drew near, she greeted Cheong-Fun and smiled broadly, mopping
the sweat from her brow and wiping the dust from her body. Cheong-Fun was full of
admiration for the Li Zhang's sons and their wives who had to do onerous work in the

In the evening, Li Zhang hosted a grand dinner. She invited lots of people for the feast.
Her daughter and daughters-in-law were busy preparing food in the kitchen. One of them
helped Li Zhang to bring out a large basin of steaming rice porridge. Plates of meat,
salted eggs and vegetables were also brought out. Ah Wai, the youngest son took out
several bottles of beer and started serving the guests. Everyone ate ravenously, but still
lots of questions were asked about Singapore. Li Zhang was eating at a table placed near
the doorway of the house, but she still listened attentively to the conversations going on.
She did not want to miss anything. Now and then, she spoke loudly to give her own
opinion about life in Singapore and things that happened during the Japanese Occupation
of Singapore.

There were discussions too on life in China. Li Zhang pointed her finger at her son-in-law,
Ah Hong who had lost his job with the Government, the moment he breached the one-
child rule. Ah Hong was fortunate as he could still do farm work to make a living. Ah
Hong lit another of his homemade cigarettes and went on to explain that he had to admit
his wrong-doings before a committee. He was also severely admonished by his own Xue-
Xi or self-criticism group that met every Wednesday for self-improvement. A few older
guests also joined in the discussion. They spoke cautiously and advised Ah Hong to
follow party discipline. Ah Hong responded by picking up his chopsticks and ate a bowl
of porridge ferociously. The discussions ended the moment the plates of meat became
empty and the beer stopped flowing. Cheong-Fun and Wing both enjoyed the dinner but
not the loud discussions especially by groups of talkative men puffing away their
cigarettes as they spoke, and squatting on the chairs.

It was their last day at Wan Niu Dun. Cheong-Fun stood at the window of the house and
watched the sun rising. The view was magnificent. White clouds adorned the azure sky.
Strong winds transformed the clouds magically, creating outlines, shapes and patterns
that sometimes resembled animals and sometimes plants of brilliant colors. Cheong-Fun
was deeply touched by such beauty. He understood at once Li Zhang's love for her
homeland, for the countryside in Southern China was absolutely beautiful. Such beauty
had always resided in her heart since childhood.

They all had breakfast together that day. Everyone was perfectly dressed, wide awake,
their faces looked alert and they ate in silence for a while. It was Wing who spoke first, as
he slowly pushed his chair back from the table.

"Well, Li Zhang, I probably won't have a nice breakfast like that for a long time.
Certainly not able to have such nice farm eggs and fresh fish and vegetables, direct from
the farm. We are leaving today and we'll miss all of you."

Li Zhang was a little tearful when Cheong-Fun and Wing boarded the mini-bus that took
them to Guangzhou. From there, they boarded a plane at the Bai Yuen Airport to return
home to Singapore.

Cheong-Fun and Wing revisited China in early 1989. It was a different China.

It was dark and chilly when they arrived at the Macau Airport. They took a cab from
there to Zhuhai immigration checkpoint. Recalling his previous visit to China in the
Seventies when there was hardly any visitor at the immigration checkpoint, Cheong-Fun
was amazed to see a vast crowd. It was a stark contrast. Everything seemed different.

There were at least twenty long queues for people from China who were returning home
after visiting Hong Kong or Macau. Two other queues were reserved for foreign visitors
including those from Taiwan and Hong Kong. The crowds were terrifying. It took more
than an hour to be cleared through immigration, and on this occasion, clearance was done
with the aid of computers. The huge book with names of people who were blacklisted
had disappeared. Computer technology had arrived, and it had helped to propel China
forward into modernization at an incredible speed.

There was no longer a sea of blue, whether at the checkpoint or beyond. Men and women
dressed up fashionably. China's fashion garments had been marketed all over the world.
They produced quality blouses, T-shirts, gowns, sportswear and jeans, as well as men's
fashion wear. The world of fashion had entered into every city in China. People bought
what they wanted to wear; not what the government issued to them in the form of blue
shirts and pants.

These changes appeared unreal, but every aspect of life seemed to have undergone a
dramatic transformation, with the magic wand of capitalism.

There was no longer a picture of militarism. Gone were the men in green uniform, not
just the soldiers, but also the "comrades" who used to don the military garb to show their
patriotism. It would be foolishness to think that the soldiers just disappeared overnight.
They were just kept somewhere in barracks and training camps, or were in civilian dress.

The presence of security officers or policemen had become more pronounced. The
maintenance of law and order was given top priority in the city. The men in uniform in
whatever departments or authorities were there to impose authority. Any government
official, once he donned his uniform, whether he was in Macau, Hong Kong, Zhuhai or
Guangzhou or any part of China, immediately became a powerful figure; he became a
different person, disposing authority with curtness, even to the extent of being impolite.

Perhaps this was an attitude of superiority of the men in uniform and those in the
government service. One could see it every where - from the policeman who signaled or
yelled at the motorist, motorcyclists or cyclists to stop, to the health officer who took
action on the street hawkers. One could also notice that little concession was given to
ethnic Chinese foreigners by customs and immigration officers. They were treated with
the same curtness. Instructions were given to them in the form of yelling. This might not
be a form of rudeness; that was just how they behaved towards their own people.

As Cheong-Fun and Wing hopped into a taxicab, the meters were turned on. One
distracting feature was the radio communication between cab drivers. Immediately, one
would know that they were from another province in the north in the way they gossiped
with one another through the radio communication, while they were driving. They told
each other where they were heading, including what roads to avoid. It's almost like
children playing with their toy walkie-talkies.

There were frequent traffic jams, much the same as in any large city in the world. But the
traffic jam was more like those found in Bombay or Manila. The traffic snarls were
taxing anyone's patience and endurance. There were ample traffic lights and they were
modern gadgets that could make any modern city proud. But motorists liked to make
detours around them. There were traffic rules, but motorists ignored them. Some could
drive along the wrong side of the road, or make U-turns from any point.

No longer were roads filled with a swarm of cyclists or trishaw riders. The roads were
packed with cars of all descriptions - from huge tourist buses, minibuses, the latest
Mercedes, Honda, Citroen or Toyota to aged old Volkswagens and China manufactured

Unlike other countries, the roads were packed with motorcycles. Men and women
donned their helmets, often carrying two or even three pillion riders, and rode along the
busy roads. They travelled slowly but could be expected to zigzag along, switching lanes
or making unexpected turns. Fortunately, all motorcar drivers were cautious when they
got near to the motorbikes.

But large numbers of people from the north had invaded the cities in the south. Most of
them were from rural villages. They came to the south as close to Hong Kong as possible,
looking for jobs and a better livelihood. Some made it; others did not and there were
hordes of them sitting by the roadside to queue up for odd jobs everyday. They took over
almost all the hard, dirty or menial jobs, while many locals just relaxed to play mahjong
everyday while collecting rents as their means of financial support. This might be a little
exaggerated, as there were successful Chinese businessmen amongst residents of
Guangzhou and the migrants from villages in the North.

As the taxicab came to a halt in Guangzhou in front of the Liuhua Hotel, Cheong-Fun
paid the cabdriver twenty Yuan. Cheong-Fun and his son then checked into the hotel, and
took their luggage into their room. Cheong-Fun then made a few calls to friends and

The next day, they met a relative, Chad who took them to Cha Shan to see Cheong-Fun's
ancestral house. The house looked dilapidated and it had been unoccupied for a long time.
The Communist Government had returned the house to the Yip family, but since there
were no claimants, Chad had claimed the house and undoubtedly he held the title deeds.
However, nothing much was said about the house. Cheong-Fun was reticent. He seemed
only interested in taking photographs of the children in the small town and the scenery in
the villages nearby. In the evening, they attended a dinner hosted by Chad and attended
by a large number of his relatives. Only a few of the older relatives had any recollections
about the Yip family. Altogether, it was a disappointing re-union with these relatives.
There were recollections of Cheong-Fun's mother and his wife sending lots of money and
supplies to help Chad's family members including his father and mother to stave off
starvation and poverty, but little expression of gratitude. Moreover, the relatives appeared
insincere and greedy. Though they were cordial, they did not show any genuine concern
or warmth during the brief re-union. The middle-aged ones who held good positions in
the communist party and government agencies spent most of the time bragging about
their power and status and new found wealth. Wing who had lived for many years in
America, Europe and other countries, was somewhat amused to see a parvenu society
developing in a China that just started to open its doors to capitalism.

Cheong-Fun and Wing left early the following day by mini-bus to Wan Niu Dun to see
Li Zhang's family. Li Zhang was ecstatic seeing Cheong-Fun and Wing again. Those
fleeting years - Wing felt strange as he stared at Li Zhang. In his mind's eye there were
several different images, over-lapping and sometime inter-posing among the others -
images of a sweet girl in pig-tails in her teen years and those of an old lady with white
hair, bent with age and with deep wrinkles on her tired face.

She was in her fifties, but she looked much older. This was a woman who had struggled
to bring up her children. Backbreaking work and onerous duties had taken their toll on
her. But in recent years, things had turned around for her. Her daughter married a rich
and successful businessman from Hong Kong and they were living in a huge mansion.

Wing was full of admiration for these folks. They exuded a warmth and friendliness that
was devoid of sham and artificiality. In his eyes, these were good people, as they were
courageous, secure, productive, not afraid of hard work, and not intimidated by the odds
against them.

Like many local people, they were village folks before, but now their lives were touched
and changed by the relentless transformations around them - modernization, urbanization
and rapid industrialization. They still stood at the fringe, partly urbanized and partly
entrenched in their accustomed rural traditions and activities. Just look at their huge
mansion. The house was a picture of modernity, but the garden was at once a vegetable
plot, a poultry farm and an orchard. Look at the livelihood of her children. They drove
new Japanese cars, tapped on the keys of their mobile phones and they were dressed in
their tailor-made fashion splendor, but they still worked as farmers and fishermen, and
undertook various kinds of rural jobs.

In the early hours of the morning, as soon as the essential domestic chores were done, Li
Zhang asked Cheong-Fun and Wing to take a stroll with her to see the farm land she

"Come and see. We have a farm just about twenty minutes' walk from here." Li Zhang
smiled, pointing a finger at the back portion of the house.

Her husband who had been sitting in a chair all this while quietly fanning himself,
coughed a dry racking cough and spat into a spittoon. He folded a home-made cigarette
and pointed at a big box near the back-door with dozens of umbrellas, and asked the
guests to take one along.

Two of Li Zhang's grand-children who were about five years old, looked up from the
concrete floor, their hands still clutching computer games machines, and cried to be taken
along too. The taller boy began to howl. He stood up and kicked a wooden chair which
fell on the floor, when told that they would not be allowed to go.

"Stop it," their mother yelled, "there are scorpions, snakes, poisonous insects and red ants
out there in the wood.."

Li Zhang's husband added that the ants would bite his bird. This made the little boy
screamed and cupped his private parts. Everybody laughed. The boy then sat down and
resumed the game with his younger brother.

Li Zhang walked along a narrow dirt track behind her house. Wearing a straw hat and
carrying a stick, she walked briskly in front, giving a commentary about the plants that
lined the pathway. Cheong-Fun and Wing followed closely behind. The narrow winding
mud track looked neglected. It was strewn with large stones, leaves and twigs and some
wood. There were some pot-holes and puddles. Along certain portions near a stream, the
stench from discarded foul entrails flung into the stream was unpleasant. But once the
track diverged into the wood, it was a stark contrast. The air was filled with the sweet

fragrance of flowers and fruit trees. Bunches of bananas and other fruits glistened in
sheer beauty as the soft rays of the morning sun penetrated the leaves and branches of the
tall trees that lined the tracks.

"Just a few minutes' walk, and we are in Nature's paradise, "exclaimed Wing. He became
excited, seeing the pulsating images of beauty before him. Birds and butterflies fluttering
in the air, the sweet smell of flowers in bloom, the alluring fruits that hung in the
branches like lanterns on display in a row - all these dazzled him. His heart throbbing, he
drank deep the quintessence of Nature’s beauty, and nectar of life itself.

There was a maze of paths, sometimes obscured by thick bushes and undergrowth. Li
Zhang occasionally appeared lost and bewildered as she stared into the misty maze ahead
and the vast emptiness of the thick wood on the other side. Along the way, they watched
some farm workers. Li Zhang seemed to know them, and exchanged pleasantries with
them. One of them later led the way leading to Li Zhang's farm land. It seemed to Wing
that Li Zhang had left the farming to her children. They in turn hired some workers to till
the land, and they concentrated on making money doing business in the city. Cheong-Fun
and Wing were impressed by the vast stretches of land for cultivation. There were large
tracts of land for growing vegetables and fruits, some rice fields and a few ponds. But
there were only two workers to be seen there.

Cheong-Fun wasted no time to get his camera equipment ready. It was a photographic
session Cheong-Fun always remembered because of the many beautiful scenes of farm
life he managed to capture.

The following day, Cheong-Fun and Wing left China for Singapore.

Li Zhang’s family

The story of Li Zhang is a story of an ordinary person who lives through the groans and
grinds of life both in Singapore and in China. It is a story of human courage and
endeavour, with sharp focus on human choice and expectations in different circumstances
and at different times. Time is illusory. It is a flickering gesture of the mind, and
sometimes it leaves us limping along life's long and lonely road perplexed or even
disappointed. If Li Zhang is a heroine, the story line is very simple. All it takes is to focus
on her heroic deeds. If she is a person of means or with ability to create wealth, her
means or such ability will take centre-stage. But here we have a Chinese immigrant to
Singapore in flesh and blood, and she has returned to her homeland, after having gone
through harrowing times during the Japanese Occupation. Naturally, one is interested in
the ending of her story. But there is no ending, as Li Zhang is still living, and this makes
her story wonderful and real. For all of us who have gone through the twentieth century,
she is our living witness of the years gone by.

Li Zhang could have chosen to live in Singapore, learn English, get a tidy job in a tidy
office and be one of the many Singaporeans who made Singapore their homeland. But
she had chosen to live in China, learn Chinese, earn a living through farming, and be one
of the multitude of patriots whose hearts are with China, irrespective of ideology and
governance and irrespective of their own stature or well-being.

When Li Zhang lived in Singapore with her loved ones, she in fact had two roads to take.
But she had taken the road that led her back to her ancestral home in Wan Niu Dun, and
she was happy and contented. Providence changed the course of history in China. A
communist totalitarian government had opened its doors to the world. Red China with her
bamboo curtains had all of a sudden lifted her curtains of seclusion, secrecy and
militarism to allow her citizens to interact with foreigners, and the concomitant infusion
of cultural influences from near and far. Through judicious political and economic
reforms, China was able to leapfrog over many countries to gain a place in world politics
and economy. Li Zhang and her family, like so many Chinese people in Mainland China,
became beneficiaries to the vast social and economic changes that propel the country
forward to modernization and industrialization in the 21st Century.

Li Zhang may be far away in China, but she keeps tap on what goes on at Kreta Ayer.
She met Mun, De Li and Ah Ming when they returned to Guangzhou. Li Zhang at first
thought that they were be given recognition as revolutionary heroes in Communist China,
since they stirred up so much trouble serving the communist cause in Singapore. No,
China was indifferent to them. It was a China so pre-occupied with her own economic
problems that she had no time for the three of them. Li Zhang remembered vividly the
time when the government officials asked the trio from Singapore where they would like

to go from Guangzhou. De Li chose his ancestral home town which was Wan Niu Dun.
Today, our footballer from Kreta Ayer is still living at the age of 80. He has since retired
as a farmer. For many years, he lived a secluded life - his "heroic" deeds in Singapore

Mun, on the other hand, wanted to get as far away as possible from relatives and friends
in his ancestral home town in Dongguan. He chose to be sent to Zhen Cheng where he
married a local girl and had a family. Now, a small capitalist, he owned a number of
engineering shops in Northern China.

Ah Ming returned to Singapore several times, changing his names and passports where
necessary. In old age, he lived in China and drew an allowance in recent months.

Yip Cheong-Fun was honored by American, Britain, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, France
and Singapore, and was recognized internationally as one of the world's greatest
photographers ever lived. He was awarded the title as Associate of the Royal
Photographic Society of Great Britain in 1957, and Fellow of the Royal Photographic
Society of Great Britain in 1961, the Honorary Excellence Distinction by the Federation
Internationale de L'Art Photographique and the Honorary Fellowship by the Photographic
Society of Singapore in 1974. Austria awarded him the Diploma for "Outstanding
Achievement in Photography" in 1963. In 1980, the Photographic Society of New York
elected him as "the Honorary Outstanding Photographer of the Century" (the Century's
Seascape Specialist), and in 1984, the Government of the Republic of Singapore
conferred on him the Cultural Medallion, the highest National award given to an
individual for his or her achievement and contributions to art and culture. Cheong-Fun in
the Eighties, concentrated on building up his Engineering Workshop at Kreta Ayer, and
remained an amateur photographer throughout his life.

Cheong-Fun cherished his love for photography literally till his dying day. At 9 a.m. on
16th September 1989, he called up a friend in the Photographic Society of Singapore to
enquire about his print. Later that day, he went to the Chinese Garden at Jurong to take
photographs at the Lantern Festival. True to his nature, he still had a loaded camera with
him when he collapsed at a Jurong train station on that fateful day at midnight after
completing a long photographic session.

The year - 2000. Wing, a housing developer decided to invest in real estate in Southern
China. The investment involved the development of land in Gu-Shan in Fuzhou and in
the Fujian Province, but it failed as the Government at that time offered little protection
to overseas investors at that time.

Undaunted, Wing returned to China a year later. By then, the doors for investment were
wide open. But Wing was no longer interested in property development. He just wanted
to have a place in China close to his ancestral home in Dongguan to get away from the
fast pace of life in Singapore.

Wing bought a house in Dongguan City and stayed there with his wife, Li Chin. Both
Wing and Li Chin felt relaxed and comfortable in this small city. There was no mad rush,
no great need for time-management or clock-watching. They could take time to look at
the beauty of nature and enjoy the amenities of the parks which were superbly maintained.
Wing felt a new sense of peace, being far away from the maddening crowd in Singapore.

Wing and Li Chin took a cab to Wan Niu Dun. They found Li Zhang at home. She was
excited as she talked about her life in China and her past in Singapore's Chinatown. Her
mind was full of memories, and tears welled in her eyes when she talked about the death
of Cheong-Fun and his wife. Her mind was clear; she remembered almost everything.
She plied Wing with endless questions about the changes in Singapore.

Li Zhang's life had changed too. With rapid urbanization around her, she began to feel the
impact of changes in her physical environment as well as the social environment. Motor-
cars, mobile phones, television sets, computers and other luxuries had started to feature
prominently in her home. Her eldest son no longer lived with her. He married a Hong
Kong woman and migrated to Hong Kong where he worked as a building contractor.
Conflicts began to creep into Li Zhang's quiet rural home life. There were money
problems and family disputes. The stresses and strains of modern living began to rear
their ugly heads. There were bad times too when business failures hit two of her children.
She was afraid she might have to sell her two houses and some land to help them out.
One of her sons became discontented in his steady work with the government, and
ventured to sell insurance. Wing saw the changes affecting the family and recognized the
problems and conflicts at once. These problems were familiar enough. Singaporeans
come face to face with them often enough. To put it in a nutshell, Li Zhang escaped the
social impact of urbanization when she left Singapore. But in the 21st Century, with the
magic wand of capitalization and rapid urbanization, the negative effects of the
concomitant social changes began to creep into her home in Southern China..

For Li Zhang and her family, the year 2010 would be a year of challenge and change.
They will have to adapt to the vast changes sweeping across the whole of China.
Dongguan may be a small city, but it had become an important pillar of China's economy,
playing a pivotal role in the country's technological developments and modernization.
Inevitably, the farmers and fishermen in the town of Wan Niu Dun in the Dongguan
province will switch jobs. Possibly, they may vanish like those farmers, fishermen and
other rural folks in Singapore.

Time, like a river, flows relentlessly on. Its course could be meandering, leading us to
calm waters, or tortuous, setting us adrift in a sea of confusion. In this river of life, its
normal steady course stretches from a source with clean clear mountain water to its river
mouth, the alluvial delta and the sea beyond - going through as in life, the stages of youth
or torrent, maturity and senility. Its bedrock is our character. The degree of erosion or
attrition and other effects depend on our other attributes and relationships embedded in
the substance those riverbanks and embankments are made of. There will be gorges,
rapids, pollution, dilution and sedimentation during its course. There will be confluence

with other lives and tributaries may multiply as one's life is branched out. But then it is a
river of no return, and along its tortuous course, there are few guiding lights.

If time is the author of our lives, the story it unfolds is a masterpiece of plots, subplots,
characterization and details. Phrases are chosen and turned. Words are specially selected
to dovetail into the precise meaning or description the author requires. It is written in
synchronization of our every thought and action. And it writes on and on, even recording
our every pause for reflection and every impulsive turn that changes the plot. It is as if the
author in a single stroke of the pen, synchronizes observation, reflection and writing

For Li Zhang, life is never the same, after she has chosen the secluded path or lonely road
that took her back to China. True, she has a big family now, and plenty to do in her home
and in her farm land. Whatever the choice, there is a difference. Only through the passage
of time this difference can be seen in perspective. The term "perspective" literally
suggests "looking through and seeing clearly." With the right perspective, one sees things
in life in their true relations or relative importance. This story gives us one perspective;
there may be another perspective as time winks at you, and you, and YOU. For Wing and
his father, Cheong-Fun, the perspective is reflected in this poem “Children Under Trees”
written by the Author, and the photograph below by Yip Cheong-Fun who was named
“Outstanding Photographer of the Century” by the New York Photographic Society in
1980 and Recipient of the Cultural Medallion in 1984.

Children Under Trees

Children Under Trees
Like little children we walked along
Nature's way strewn with flowers, leaves and thorns,
Under tall trees and their dark looming shadows
Bright lights pierced through the mist like arrows,
As we watched mesmerized, but unafraid,
We gazed in awe but no word was said.
Nature's mood in mist mystifying and passion raw,
A fury unleashed - its deadly trails we saw,
Haunting us even when our leaves of life turned golden,
Burnt brown or black - blight or trodden;
Or bare branches crushing us like rusty rods,
And thorny twigs sting and stab like swords.

Then as our winding paths diverged,

Grim and grey in a misty wood,
Like children perplexed by a blurred vision,
Anxious, leaden and long we stood,
Paths led to paths; patches wedded to patches,
Obscured by thick bushes and undergrowth;
A jigsaw of puddles and puzzles of sand and pebbles,
Mingled with marshes of mud and mangrove.
The wind whirled in the wood and gathered the blossoms with glee
It stirred the silent streams and set the tree leaves flying free.

We looked as far as we could,

An oasis of emptiness in the wild yellow wood,
Poised high those bare boulders and huge rocks,
Perched on hill tops so perilously stood.
The granite gleamed emerald in the setting sun,
Could they be obstacles or Nature’s whims and fun?
Or are they an orchestration of the sensual soul?
For some, it could be high heaven or hell hole.

Yet with firm faith or reckless rush, we set forth -

Into a misty maze with mixed mood and emotions,
Under the mighty majestic trees and branches aloft.
Wary of any relative risks and with renewed vision,
Clutching life’s light and shadows still unknown,
Into the mist of the future on our own

Moving along this long lonely road,
To somewhere, nowhere - whatever the means or mode.

Poem by Andrew Yip