The Will to Survive

Updated: Jul 12


| This is the 138th story of Our Life Logs |


I was born in 1913 on the island of Hainan, China, as the eldest child in my family. Soon after, we went on a long sea voyage to Malaya, a then-British colony in Southeast Asia. There, my parents settled in a small community near the sea called Kuantan.

I grew up in Kuantan, helping my mother care for my six younger siblings and playing with the neighborhood children. I remember the sweet air and how loud and chaotic our games were at the neighbor’s home. We would sleep and eat together, sometimes forgetting to go home for several days. We all lived so close together that our parents didn’t mind.

The simplicity of my childhood did not carry into my teenage years.

a3887-17y6fo3ifzj8hwkvb_g4g_a

My father worked many jobs when I was growing up. He was finally able to settle down running a convenience shop and overseeing a plantation on top of it. From the money he earned, Father bought a piece of land and built a home.

I got married at the age of 17 and the carefree life I led stopped. I was separated from my friends because I had to follow my husband who traveled often, producing coal. During this period, the influence of communism from China was growing. Although we lived far away from China, it was assumed that your loyalty was to the motherland. This created an atmosphere of fear. People were forced to join because the communist party wanted to grow in numbers. They bullied. They demanded. And, when opposed, they made life very unpleasant. Everyone was afraid, and many ran away.

Me in my late 20s.
Me in my late 20s.

Unfortunately, those who ran owed money to Father, and since he could not collect the debts, the shop shut down. Mother became very sick then. With no doctors nearby, she went to Kemaman. Around the same time, I gave birth to my first son. We found out that my mother wasn’t recovering from the medication and she could hardly sit up! My husband brought her to our home and not too long after, she passed away.

This was a difficult time in my life. Losing Mother was hard on me, especially when I was just beginning my marriage and being a new mother myself. Father was busy trying to make ends meet because my siblings were still young. I could not afford to grieve the loss of my mother for long; many people needed me. My husband and I decided to move home to help Father with the housekeeping. We lived there until we had Betty, my third child.

a3887-17y6fo3ifzj8hwkvb_g4g_a

When I was around 30 years old, the rumors of war came to us. Our family-owned shop was on the intersection that led to the main township. We began seeing British managers, over-seers, and other Western residents passing our doors. They were heading to the city where the main army was posted. I knew that was a bad sign. The workers stood at the door of the shop, joking that the Westerners were “running away.” I told the them, “This is not the time to watch the parade!” If the Westerners were leaving, it meant that the Japanese were coming. We had to prepare to run too.

It was 1941 when the Japanese invaded Malaya. As they came in batches on feet and bicycles, they grabbed anything they could get their hands on. Livestock, rice, sugar…anything they could eat. We sold all kinds of things including cloth. I remember packing the cloth into empty biscuit tins, so it wouldn’t get wet. We then loaded as many supplies as we could onto the boats and rowed into the jungles to hide them there. My husband didn’t know, but I had instructed the workers one night to hide the supplies among the thick foliage where tigers liked to make their home. No one would dare look there. We crawled in the dark, covering everything with planks and tarps.

We knew we could not fight against the Japanese soldiers when they came to our shop. They took away everything else we had left. My father and father-in-law kept an eye on the shop during that time. Can you imagine? Two old men keeping up with pretenses while we escaped. We were so scared. When the full force arrived in our village, we were about to have dinner. We heard them coming, and without thinking about our food, we ran to hide in the jungles. We forgot to bring torches; we were that afraid, losing all sense of thought!

We stepped into a lot of thorns that night, but we didn’t care! We stayed under the cover of the jungle for several months. We were lucky we had supplies, many other people had nothing. Our workers at the shop came with us, and by that point we had five children to take care of. In total, there were around twenty of us. When we needed meat, the men would hunt for cockles by the sea or sometimes they would catch a turtle, and we’d live off its meat for a long time.

a3887-17y6fo3ifzj8hwkvb_g4g_a

In time, the Japanese declared that the war was over, and we came out of hiding. The British returned and there was talk about independence for Malaya, but that was negotiated in the capital city Kuala Lumpur. Since we were far away with only a small patrol of police, we lived in fear of the Chinese communists. They fashioned themselves as guerrillas in the jungles, determined to win Malaya from the British. They claimed that the land belonged to China. To claim control, the British government sent Oversights and started jailing people for allegedly helping the communists.

My husband was nearly sent back to China because the police suspected that he was a part of the communist party. At the time, he was driving a truck to deliver food to his workers in the coal mines. But they suspected he was aiding the “guerrillas.” Our family had so many mouths to feed, and if they sent him away, what would have happened to us?

I was pregnant with my ninth child then and when they jailed my husband, I went to see the chief of police to explain the misunderstanding. After two days, they released him. Many other men weren’t so lucky and were sent back to Guangdong, China.

My husband might have been released, but our country still wasn’t safe. Our elderly neighbors faced danger after an old man bad-mouthed the “guerrillas” at the markets one day. He said that it was the communists’ fault that people in town were getting into trouble. That night, the communists came, strung him and his wife up in the trees and stabbed them to death.

At night, we were so afraid, we didn’t dare sleep. We were worried they would come to kill us just for talking about them! Even if you didn’t, anyone who accused you of saying the wrong thing could result in your whole family dying. We were so frightened that we finally moved to another town. It was slightly safer there. That was a fearful time; lots of people went missing, disappeared, or were killed.

a3887-17y6fo3ifzj8hwkvb_g4g_a

After a few years, things settled down. Malaya was on its way to independence when we rented a piece of land and built a house with a coffee shop below. We ran that business for many years and my children grew up, studied and lived a stable life there. Other people noticed where we had set up business and joined us, including a man who ran an ice cream business at the back of our coffee place.

I ran the coffee shop alone while my husband continued to travel to several towns for the coal mining business. Sadly, the landlord had a disagreement with my husband, so we were evicted. Luckily, we had bought some land a few years prior and were already building a new house. We sold the coffee business to the ice cream man and prepared to move there.

My friends asked me if I was afraid of the uncertainty, but I wasn’t afraid of anything anymore! I had 11 children and a husband to care for. During the construction of the new house, we needed more money, so I reluctantly sold my father’s land. In 1957, the year Malaya gained its independence and became Malaysia, we settled into our new home.