Prominent Malayian historian Prof Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim released his memoir, I, KKK, on April 12. He shares an exclusive excerpt from the book.
By PROF EMERITUS TAN SRI DR KHOO KAY KIM
When I think of my earliest memories, they are shaped in the form of pictures: the maternal ancestral home, for example, on the main Kampar road where I was born on March 28, 1937. It was a double-storey shophouse with a long hallway, a wooden staircase that led to the rooms above and barred windows which refracted the afternoon light.
Like many of my generation, my earliest memories were forged by conflict – the War and the Japanese Occupation.
Soon after my birth, Father, who was a civil servant in the British administration of Malaya was posted to Batu Gajah, Perak. After a brief period in my maternal ancestral home, I was taken along to Batu Gajah and we eventually moved as a family to Teluk Anson, a town by the banks of the Perak River.
It was here that my younger brother, Kay Hock, was born and where, soon after our arrival, Father received word of the imminent Japanese assault on Malaya. Concerned for the uncertainties that would surely follow, he moved the family to my maternal grandfather’s home in Kampar. Grandfather was well-known in the town and had a reputation for being a generous and kind person. Father was sure that Grandfather could protect the family.
The Japanese advance, however, was relentless. Soon after we moved to Kampar we were warned that a major clash was to take place and Father thought it would be safer if we hid in the jungle. So we made our way there, my younger brother carried on the back of my paternal Grandmother, and took refuge in a temple – a small single-storey sanctuary.
Unfortunately for us, the Japanese-British clash did not take place in the town as anticipated but in the very jungle where we had taken refuge. It was frightening. During the battles there was the constant sound of gunfire, bullets would fly over the temple roof and there was always the danger that someone would get caught in the crossfire.
The battle did not last long and the British soldiers who were putting up resistance eventually surrendered. Once it was quiet and things appeared to settle, Father went out of the temple to survey the situation, and came face to face with a group of Japanese soldiers. One of the officers in the group drew his sword and was about to strike Father, but for some reason changed his mind.
I look back on that now and think how fortunate it was, for had the Japanese soldier hurt or killed my father, who was only thirty then, I would never have been able to forgive them.
We stayed in the jungle for a few weeks. It was a desperate few weeks since Father had ceased working; we had to look for food and had to depend on people in the temple to buy basic necessities for us. After those few weeks, Father received news that the British had retreated and the Japanese takeover of the country was complete. Father then moved us all back to the house in Kampar town and awaited the arrival of the Japanese soldiers.
On the day the Japanese soldiers arrived, we gathered on the top floor of our home and saw them march into town, halting along the main road. I was very curious and sneaked downstairs, went to the back of the house and entered the back street. A Japanese soldier was passing by on his bicycle, saw me, picked me up onto his bicycle and we cycled around town. For all that was said of the horrors of the Occupation – and there were indeed unspeakable horrors – my family and I never encountered such an experience. The Japanese soldiers seemed to be kind to children and I discovered later that it was a part of their plan to recruit young Malayans to join the Japanese Army.
During the Japanese Occupation, I would watch the soldiers train and as it would be with an innocent child, I was full of admiration for them. I remember the National Anthem and the Japanese flag, how each morning the soldiers would stand at attention in front of the flag and bow. They seemed to me impressive in their discipline and attire. I was especially attracted to the neck flaps, which were called Bou-Tare. Their uniforms, I later learnt, were specially designed for the tropical climate.
The Japanese placed sentries at various parts of the town and the townspeople, when passing them, were expected to turn, face the sentries and bow. I found that practice amusing and would often ask Grandmother to take me to the post just so I could do that.
Father was a typical civil servant: very law abiding and disciplined. He had gone to a Catholic Mission School – the St. Michael’s Institution in Ipoh – and was greatly shaped by his experience there. He was aware of the intense antipathy between the Chinese and the Japanese and remained very cautious in his movements and associations. Yet he was able to obtain information about developments that were taking place.
Soon after the British surrendered, Father was eager to work again. He was informed that the Japanese had no intention of altering the administration completely, and wanted to make use of the very people in the British administrative and clerical service to run the Japanese administration. Father was soon recalled back into service by the Japanese and returned to Teluk Anson. The Japanese administration was still largely conducted in the English language since few in the service knew any Japanese. Once Father was provided government quarters we returned as a family to Teluk Anson.
Father was very apolitical. The Japanese Occupation was a very restive period. I am sure he was aware of the largely Chinese anti-Japanese movement, the stirrings of Malay nationalism and would most certainly have knowledge of the Indian Nationalist Movement led by the charismatic Subhas Chandra Bose, which was now centred in Singapore. Yet, he never openly demonstrated any sympathy for these movements.
As a result, life was relatively normal for us. Nothing drastic or tragic happened to us personally and though life was difficult, we never really suffered. The basics of life, however, were scarce. There was a shortage of rice and tapioca was used as a substitute for our staple diet. The Japanese forced all the men in our neighbourhood to plant tapioca. The playing field in front of our quarters was transformed into a collective tapioca patch and I used to follow Father each day to dig and plant. Helping Father plant tapioca is one of the fondest memories I have of him.
Throughout the Japanese Occupation I was not sent to school and spent a lot of time playing in my neighbour’s house. We would trap birds, and one of my favourite pastimes was chasing grass snakes with a stick. In the afternoon I would play games, including football and badminton till Mother called for me to attend to my chores. I felt a great sense of freedom then.
One of the interesting aspects of the Japanese Occupation was that the administration sought to portray a degree of normalcy, especially in social life. Many of the leading towns in Malaya at that time had amusement parks. The Japanese never shut them down. In Teluk Anson visits to the amusement park were an almost nightly occurrence for us. Father and Mother liked to play games – darts and lotto, in particular. I would wander the park with Grandmother and we would stop by the stage where Chinese Opera and Bangsawan were performed. I liked Chinese Opera but found it shrill and cacophonous at times. But I fell very much in love with the Bangsawan. It was through the Bangsawan that I also developed my love for the Malay language. Even though we were Peranakan and Malay-speaking, there was something about the Malay language in performance that I found captivating. Later, as I developed a fondness for Malay cinema I discovered that many of the actors on screen, such as Mahmud Jun, had started out as Bangsawan actors. I often wondered if I had seen them in any one of the Bangsawan stages at our local amusement park.
I, KKK – The Autobiography Of A Historian, published by Kala Publications, is available at all major bookstores nationwide.