My name is Tan Le Ying and in Chinese, it is written as 陈乐莹. 乐 symbolises happiness (快乐) and 莹 represents a precious gem. My parents hope that I would lead a life full of happiness and since I am the youngest in the family, I am very cherished and doted on, just like a gem.
My Great-Uncle’s Story
A chance to visit my great-uncle’s house was hard to come by and when I finally got the opportunity to do so, I gained a deeper understanding of my family history as well as my deceased great-grandparents.
As I stepped into my great-uncle’s bedroom, I spotted a frame hanging right in front of his bed from the corner of my eyes. Curious, I went up close for a clear glimpse. To my surprise, it contained a few banana notes. Questions of all sorts swamped my mind. What was so significant about those crinkled, yellowed and old notes that my great-uncle even went to the extent of framing them? Who did it belong to?
Summoning my courage, I went forward to satisfy my curiosities. The usually intimidating glint in his eyes softened to a melancholy, wistful look.
“Well, you see, it started when I was a child…” he said. He went on, talking about his life during the Japanese Occupation.
It was a dark period for Singaporeans. Once the Japanese took over, chaos reigned. Turmoil and destruction was everywhere. Everywhere he went, the ghastly sights challenged his sanity. “It was such a miracle that I didn’t die from insanity or the images that had scarred my life forever,” he chuckled humorlessly. Decapitated heads were strewn on the ground, limbs of once strong and fit soldiers and villagers were littered along the streets, while dirtied lifeless bodies were dumped into rivers without even being covered up.
Crime rates shot dangerously high, with even the most-wanted fugitives getting away scot-free. Looting was especially common as people burgled through abandoned stores or houses to hopefully find items of value to sell them in the black market. Many people were reduced to poverty and were left penniless with their families wrecked.
At this point in time, my great-uncle, sensing the solemn mood, tried to cheer me up with a side story of my grandmother. She was in the toilet when a bomb was dropped a few feet away. Scared out of her wits, she quickly rushed out of the toilet. It was lucky that she did not suffer any injuries. While my great-uncle had intended for me to laugh at the story, I could only force a weak smile as I could not imagine how difficult life must have been to constantly live in an environment of fear.
My great-uncle then continued with his story. Due to lack of money and basic necessities, his poor family had to survive on tapioca and even having a meal a day was difficult to get by. They were always afraid that the Japanese soldiers would knock on their doors take their family members away. They shuddered as they heard stories from their neighbours about their relatives being captured and tortured brutally. There was never a night where they slept peacefully as they would either been awakened by shots fired from a distance or from the sounds of propellers and engines as warplanes flew above them.
Their worst nightmare came true when my great-grandfather, a diligent worker who made a living working at rubber plantations, was captured by the merciless Japanese soldiers and was sent to build the Burma Railway, notoriously known as the Death Railway, leaving his distraught wife and 7 children to fend for themselves. They begged on their knees, wept and wept, but there was nothing they could change for his fate was sealed. They were distressed, despondent and simply desperate as they knew that once my great-grandfather was gone, he would never return.
If living before his father was sent away was hard, then life after that was utterly hopeless. With practically no money left, my great-grandmother had little choice but to put 2 of her sons up for adoption in order to make ends meet. The circumstances had drove my great-grandmother to the point of desperation such that she had to resort to such extreme measures. The family was devastated as bad news continued to pelt them mercilessly.
Months later, the family’s eldest son passed away due to malnutrition as they barely survived with their pathetic meals. My great-uncle, only barely holding back his tears, then told me about the story of his eldest brother’s death. On his deathbed, being a huge lover of milk and also a worker at Dairy Farm’s dairy factory, he begged his mother for some. Being the loving mother, she agreed even though the family barely had any money for it. As there was no other means of transport at that time, my great-grandmother set off for the factory, which was located at quite a far distance from their house, on foot. On her way, she was stopped by another son, who was panting breathlessly as he was chasing after her. He reported to her that her eldest son had died shortly after she left. It was certainly a heart-wrenching story and I restrained myself from bursting into tears.
My great-grandmother held on to a last, faint glimmer of hope that her husband would come back miraculously, but he never did. There is little information available on the exact numbers of deaths at the railway, but it is estimated that 90,000 people died building it, probably including my great-grandfather. They spent their days miserably, moping around the house at their pathetic and tragic luck.
“The end.” He whispered, his eyes glistening with tears. I could feel mine slipping down my cheeks as I wiped them away.
This visit has led me to discover a dark part of my family history that I did not know from before. Now, I respect my great-grandparents even more for their sacrifices that they had made as well as their determination and perseverance to play their roles in their family. I have gained a deeper understanding of how people lived during the Second World War in Singapore and I have learnt to cherish my family even more after learning of the hard times that my ancestors had went through for their families.