My grandma’s stories: Japanese occupation, of horror and terror

(This is the fourth part of an ongoing series recounting my grandma’s stories about her life and the old days in Singapore. Click here for the first, second and third part)

December 7, 1941 – Pearl Harbor in Hawaii came under a surprise military strike by the Japanese, who officially declared their ambitions in the Pacific. The United States entered World War II for the first time.

Two months later, the Japanese conquered the whole of Malaya, including Singapore, putting an end to more than a century worth of British colonization.

“Compared to the British who left us to our own devices, the Japanese constantly harassed us,” grandma recounted the war years when she grew up as a young teenage girl. “They were merciless, brutal and always beating innocent people up.”

The new order of the day became terror and scarcity, and the number one item on everyone’s list of fear – bombs.

“The Japanese dropped a huge bomb after a plane flew past at the other end of my village and a lot of people died,” Ah Ma said. “Since then, we would never stay in our houses when we hear the sound of planes.”

Dodging bombs became a matter of survival and the main preoccupation in Ah Ma’s everyday life.
Once a plane is spotted or heard, Grandma and her neighbors would flee to a nearby rubber plantation to seek cover.

Amongst the thicket of rubber trees, they would hide in a long and deep trench secretly dug by numerous families, which could fit about five to six families. To camouflage their hiding place, wooden planks were placed across the hole before grass patches were laid above them.

On top of experiencing psychological trauma, the war also depleted supplies of resources in a country where natural resources are in the first place hard to come by.

As a tiny island, Singapore is never a self-sustainable nation, importing almost everything from critical food resources to petroleum. (According to the CIA, Singapore is about 3.5 times the size of Washington D.C.) During the warring years, staples such as rice and noodles came under tighter centralized controls and were rationed monthly.

“We had to carry our identification cards and wait in a long line to get our rations,” Ah Ma recalled. “Different items were distributed at different places, rice could be in the east and kerosene in the west, so we had to cover great distances before we could buy them.”

In spite of going to great lengths to obtain rations, they were barely enough for Ah Ma’s family of six to survive. Such limited supplies drove them to search for another way out, which sadly put an abrupt end to grandma’s childhood.

“I remembered blisters and calluses formed on my hands from digging the soil and carrying hoes,” Ah Ma said. “They were really painful but we didn’t have any money to buy gloves to protect my hands.”

Like most of her neighbors, grandma’s family planted cheap but nutritious sweet potatoes and tapioca plants in their backyard as alternatives to the much-preferred white rice to supplement their diets.

Days of terror reigned for the rest of the three years and eight months until 1945 where atomic bombs Little Man and Fat Boy brought the Japanese imperial army to their knees, which also drew an end to their occupation of Malaya.

Japan's Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signs the surrender document in 1945
The next part of the series would be about grandma’s teenage years and how she met grandpa, so do stay tuned!

If you like this post and have yet to read the rest from the series, do check them out:

Click here to read the third part about early years of Japanese occupation.
Click here to read the second part about Ah Ma’s family.
Click here to read the first part about Ah Ma’s early childhood.
Click here for the introduction of “My grandma’s stories”

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13 thoughts on “My grandma’s stories: Japanese occupation, of horror and terror

  1. My grandma is still alive. Thank god for that. I always have this dying desire in me to ask her about her life. And my great grandparents. How they met. How they moved from Negeri Sembilan to Singapore. How my great grand parents settled in Negeri Sembilan. For the benefit of my children too. -_-
    But there’s a part in me worried it’ll hurt her or bring sad memories. I decided to leave it just like that.

    Chanced upon your blog on Ah Ma stories. You’re really a brave person. Happy Chinese New Year to u & family.

  2. Hi, it is a nice story. May I know is it possible to have an interview with your grandma? I would love to do a documentary video that is related to World War II in Tanah Malaya. Please drop me a message if it is possible. =)

    Thank you,
    Ka vie

  3. You are so fortunate (and wise) to capture her story. My uncle joined the SAS when he was 16, lied about his age, but could tell a story or two about Monte Cassino. I never wrote it down. My father fought in an African war so I am going to pin him down as soon as I can.

    1. I am really glad to have made my grandma share her stories even though she was rather reluctant to do so, lamenting that they happened so long ago that there’s no use recounting them. There’s always something new and interesting to learn from her, so it would certainly be great if you could get your dad to tell you his experiences. Would love to hear them if you’re intending to pen them down on your blog.

  4. Very moving story…when I read of your grandma’s experiences, I’m reminded of my mother’s experiences in Italy during the war, especially the part about the bombs…even after all these years, the sound of a plane flying overhead affects my mother…

    1. Thank you for sharing your mother’s war experiences, which must have been very traumatising. Do check back for more from the series!

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