War years quickened passage to
By: Dominic Nathan
marriage boom took place in Singapore, with anxious
parents scurrying to find husbands for their single
daughters as British forces retreated south from
Simple marriage vows
were exchanged on streets, recalls Mr Robert Chong,
now a 66-year-old retiree, because parents felt that
an unmarried daughter was more likely to be molested
or raped by invading Japanese soldiers.
It was a really sad
sight seeing them say goodbye to their daughters, he
"There was a
state of confusion and panic on the streets as
refugees from the countryside, in the Jurong,
Woodlands and Choa Chu Kang areas, were fleeing to
the city after the Japanese entered Singapore,"
Mr Chong was a 16-year
student of St Andrew's School then. Like many other
youths during that period, he volunteered to join the
Air Raid Precaution (ARP) force.
He was trained in
rescue and first aid skills and given the task of
ensuring that blackouts were observed at night.
He joined despite his
mother's strong objections because he felt that it
was better to be prepared.
"She did not want
me to get involved with the war as she was worried
that I would get injured or worse," he said.
In a matter of months,
he went from wearing his school uniform to the ARP's
brown "boiler suit", complete with gas mask
and steel helmet.
As retreating British
and Indian soldiers filed past his Bukit Timah police
station ARP post, the reality of war and imminent
invasion sank in.
Said Mr Chong:
"We had no specific orders, so we used our own
discretion and decided to abandon the post after the
retreating soldiers told us that the Japanese had
landed at Woodlands.
an abandoned lorry and headed for a students' union
headquarters building at Sophia Road," he added.
From spending his
leisure time climbing Bukit Timah Hill and having
picnics with friends near a small waterfall in the
area only months before this, he was now fleeing from
His parents and
younger brother had already left their Bukit Timah
Village home and were staying with relatives in Upper
Shelling by Japanese
artillery was now a daily feature.
"It was a
terrible time for us at the Sophia Road students'
union," he said. "We could not move because
stray shells were landing on the road just in front
"We could not go
outside, do the marketing or do anything."
But curiously, he
recalled that the nearby cinema was still operating.
"Nobody went in,
but the shows just kept running."
For the next few days,
he lived on canned sardines and some rice collected
before the shelling began. This lasted until the
A radio broadcast on
Feb 15, 1942, the first day of the Lunar New Year,
announced that Singapore had fallen, he said.
reprisals by the Japanese against any uniformed
personnel, he changed into his civilian clothes after
rejoining his parents and brother.
By this time, people
were being rounded up and taken to interrogation
centres where they were being screened.
"Many of them
were taken away and were never seen again. We
returned to a near empty house; it had been
looted," he said.
His family then moved
to Tanjong Katong where things were more stable and
he started to look for a job.
His first job was
dismantling and cleaning aeroplane engines at a
Japanese factory in Katong. This earned him 50 cents
a day in Japanese currency.
The confusion, fear
and panic experienced in the past few weeks had given
way to a somewhat more settled way of life.
"But the fear
that you could be picked up by soldiers at a sentry
point any time or turned in by spies for listening to
the radio never went away," he said.
By the following year,
after picking up a working knowledge of Japanese, he
decided to quit as he was not learning much else at
"But I had to
make up a story about how despite enjoying the work
at the factory, I had to move 10 miles away with the
rest of my family and would not be able to get any
transport," he said.
He returned to his
former home at Bukit Timah Village and got a job at a
nearby Japanese soya sauce manufacturer.
More than anything
else, his ability to speak Japanese - which he had
picked up at his previous job - qualified him to be a
"Life was a bit
easier at this factory and we received slightly
larger portions of rice rations," said Mr Chong.
His more settled
routine now revolved around home, getting rations and
work at the factory.
they saw the occasional movie at Capitol cinema.
"It was mostly
Japanese movies but there were some Chinese-language
shows as well. But English shows were banned,"
Soon, rumours started
circulating about Japanese losses on the warfront.
This was followed by
Allied air raids over Singapore.
By the end of the
Japanese Occupation, Mr Chong was no longer the
happy-go-lucky teenager of pre-war years.
He said that he came
through the war years more mature and serious - and
also more obedient and filial to his parents after
seeing the suffering they were put through.
He added: "The
war also made me more aware that we cannot take
things for granted. It should never be allowed to
published in The Straits Times, 1 March 1992
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