Having lost my mother at such an early age I had to fend for myself in every way possible. I went to work carrying coals on my head. I cleaned locomotives in dangerous ways, such as creeping under these mighty steam engines to rake out ashes and debris. I became a fireman on locomotives, running along the railway tracks in the middle of the night. These were hard knocks I received very early in life. In hindsight, it was worth the experience for what I learned.
I became a trader in addition to working on the trains. Salt was scarce during the war. So was everything else. Salt was being produced in Port Dickson by boiling seawater. It was produced secretly. I bought a sackful each time I worked on a locomotive that went that way. Then I carried this all the way to Kuala Lumpur when I worked on other trains. There were buyers waiting at the railway stations. In exchange for salt I bought coconut oil. This was much in demand at the time for oil lamps, cooking, hairdressing and various other uses. I helped the chargeman’s wife in buying and selling the salt for her as her husband had passed away.
On one of these occasions when I went looking for the salt producers, who worked in hiding, I stumbled and fell several metres down a slippery slope. Some bushes prevented me from falling further. It was dark. I felt something was holding me back from slipping further. I looked up and was shocked to find a man was hanging with his feet on my chest. I trembled with fear and was unable to push the feet away. I turned this way and that but the feet of this hanging man were lodged firmly against my body. When I finally managed to get up, I ran away as fast as I could. I alerted my friends, who were also out looking for the salt producers!
In addition to trading salt and coconut oil, I dealt in many other things. I learned to buy and sell carpentry and mechanic tools as these were in much demand then. Old bicycles had a market too. I remember my father taking a bicycle from me and losing it at the market. Theft of bicycles was very common. Not just bicycles – for anything that had wheels, there was a thieves’ market for it.
Despite all the poverty we endured during the Japanese Occupation, we managed to keep in fairly good health. It could be because we were a young family and were very much used to doing hard work. I cut huge trees for firewood. I chopped them to fit into ovens. I pounded rice with a wooden pestle and I ground chillies for cooking. There was only one bathroom for the 14 of us and a single bucket toilet that I would never want to see again. We washed the floors of the house and painted the walls when necessary. My father would insist that we washed the drains of the house every day. We had a vegetable garden beside the house. That too needed watering and weeding every day. There was also a coconut tree and a mango tree that needed protection from unwelcome visitors. It was a hard life but we never complained.
I never thought the British would ever come back again. Then one day, when I was sitting on the railings of a bridge, I noticed a military truck come down the road. Then I saw another, and yet another. This time I looked very carefully at them. They were not Japanese soldiers but Indian army personnel. More people stopped by the bridge to look at them. They couldn’t believe their eyes. Yes, they were truly British army. They had landed in Port Dickson and were making their way into Seremban, my hometown. I ran home to tell the others what I saw. By then the whole town had got wind of the news.
Japan had surrendered. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 had put an end to the Japanese Occupation of Malaya. With that, the war came to an end.
The Japanese surrender did not mean that I could stop working, however. We were told to carry on whatever we were doing. But now our masters were British army officers. Our salaries were paid in Malayan dollars and cents. These became our treasure, as the King of England’s picture was now on our currency. The ‘banana money’ issued by the Japanese became valueless. Nobody wanted it any longer.