An extraordinary moment in Malayan history is recorded in a documentary film.
IT is not a piece of pre-World War II history that is familiar to most Malaysians today: In 1939, more than 3,000 young men from South-East Asia, most from Malaya, left their families and homes voluntarily to travel to China to work as drivers and mechanics during the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945.
They were known as Nanqiao ji gong or “overseas Chinese mechanics”. Though, as records eventually showed, there were actually Indians and Malays too among these adventurous men.
These volunteers’ task took them along the Burma Road, a more than 1,000km-long route that began at the railhead town of Lashio in north-east Burma (or Myanmar) and wound its way across mountainous terrain through the province of Yunnan in the south-west corner of China to end at the provincial capital, Kunming.
Legend has it that 14th century Italian explorer, Marco Polo, walked parts of this route – when it was probably just a path – on the way to his famous adventures in China.
Some scholars even claim that it was part of the great Silk Roads network (Between Winds and Clouds: The Making of Yunnan, Second Century BCE to Twentieth Century CE by Bin Yang at gutenberg-e.org/yang/index.html).
Hardship and sacrifice
When the Japanese began blockading China’s seaboard in 1937 to cut off access to overseas war materials, the Chinese Government turned to this inland route that crossed its border to maintain a tenuous link with the outside world.
By the middle of 1938, the Yunnan-Burma Road, laid along segments of that ancient trail, was completed and ready for heavy use. (The Yunnan-Burma Highway and Yunnan Economy During the Periods of Anti-Japanese War by Li Cheng, Journal of Asian Culture and History, Canadian Center of Science and Education, ccsenet.org.)
But when government officials began the process of shipping military supplies from Irrawaddy River ports to Lashio for transportation into China via the road, they realised there were not enough skilled drivers and mechanics in China to service this overland route.
They knew, however, that Malaya and Singapore had an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 skilled workers, according to research done for a documentary film made by a Chinese TV station and museum about the Nanqiao ji gong.
So in February 1939, a recruitment drive began in Singapore that called for drivers and mechanics aged between 20 to 40 years old to come to China’s aid. The drive was held under the aegis of the China Relief Fund that had initially been formed to raise funds from overseas Chinese to aid China during the Sino-Japanese War.
The response to the call was astonishing: within a matter of months more than 3,000 men – and not all of them Chinese either – from this part of the world volunteered, eventually joining tens of thousands of mainland Chinese in plying the 1,153km Yunnan-Burma Road.
According to the researchers, upon arriving in Kunming, the Nanqiao ji gong were sorted into Overseas Transportation Teams and given additional training.
It was these men’s job to ferry fuel, weapons, ammunition and soldiers to various parts of China. In return, the Chinese Government provided food, accommodation and medical support and a monthly salary of between 69 and 74 yuan, which was quite low compared to wages for such jobs in Malaya and Singapore at that time.
Certainly, the money could not compensate for the dangers. In Singapore last year, an exhibition about the Nanqiao ji gong that included more than 100 hours of oral histories powerfully showed how the Burma Road was not for the faint-hearted.
The route travelled over two mountain ranges, crossing three rivers and countless gorges over more than 400 bridges; it ran along the edges of cliffs and slopes and there were long stretches with sharp and precarious bends, as the road rose from about 600m to over 2,000m above sea level along its length. And then there were mosquito-infested jungles where deadly malaria was rampant.
Singapore’s Straits Times, in covering that exhibition, quoted some of the oral histories; one interviewee was Tan Chong Tee, 93 last year, who in 1942 joined Force 136, a branch of Britain’s Special Operations Executive, the organisation established to support and supply local resistance in South-East Asia.
Burma Road drivers ferried SOE and Force 136 operatives on their missions. Tan said: “We had a saying that if a truck flipped over on the highway on the first day of the month, it would reach the bottom only on the 15th. It was a very dangerous road. It was not paved and not wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other. The drivers needed to have very good skills.”
Another volunteer quoted, Captain Pek Cheng Chuan, who left Singapore in 1939 when he was 28, described the harsh conditions:
“In the three and a half years since we returned to China, we had never entered a room to sleep in quarters; only when we were ill did we sleep in a hospital bed. We had our luggage with us and we slept in our vehicles. There were munitions in the vehicle and we just spread our blankets and slept on them. Frequently, the Japanese airplanes swooped down to machine-gun us....”
But Pek was one of the fortunate ones who managed to return home after the war. He died in Singapore in 2005.
The reality was that by the time the war ended in 1945, about one-third of these volunteers had given their lives in the line of duty; some remained in China to find a living and got married and settled there. Only about 1,200 eventually returned to South-East Asia.
Remembering the Nanqiao ji gong
Last year marked the 70th anniversary of the first batch of volunteers leaving for China from South-East Asia.
And this year, in conjunction with the 65th anniversary of the end of the Sino-Japanese War, Kunming City is financing a documentary to be made by Kunming Television and the Kunming Museum’s historical research committee on the Nanqiao ji gong.
“The documentary will feature live interviews with the Chinese volunteers as well as the overseas volunteers who served during the war,” says Tang Xiaomei, the executive vice president of the documentary’s research committee.
“We know most of the volunteers are no longer around today, but we also hope to get in touch with their family members and descendants.
“According to current file information, of the more than 3,000 overseas mechanics from this part of the world, we believe more than 80% of them lived in Malaya,” says Tang.
Tang actually became involved in this research when she discovered that her own father had been an overseas volunteer who had come from Penang. After the war, he settled down in Kunming and married.
Tang and a team comprising the documentary’s director and editor and members of the Kunming Museum’s research committee have, to date, made two trips to Malaysia, when this writer met them.
With the help of local Chinese press and associations, the team managed to actually locate several Burma Road volunteers.
In December, they interviewed a volunteer in Sungai Siput, Perak, another in Malacca and family members and descendents of volunteers from Ipoh and Taiping in Perak, and in Seremban, Penang and Muar in Johor.
In May, the team returned to film interviews with three more living volunteers in Kuching and the small towns of Lundu and Serian in Sarawak.
Tracing non-Chinese volunteers
“One of the purposes of our trips here was to find some of the non-Chinese volunteers from Malaya,” says Tang.
According to Yunnan Province archives, records of the second brigade of Overseas Transportation Teams dated June 30, 1941, showed there were 97 non-Chinese mechanics – among them 55 Indians, 18 Malays, 11 Burmese and two Indonesians.
But if finding overseas Chinese volunteers in Malaysia was difficult, tracing non-Chinese volunteers has been almost impossible, especially as many never registered their full names.
So far, the team has only been able to locate Dara Singh, who registered to serve in China as Wong Ah Leng. He was among the first batch of 20 who left Malaya in March, when he was 25 years old.
Dara Singh, a Sikh who hailed from Taiping, had been adopted by a Chinese family as a child and thus was fluent in Mandarin and Hokkien.
According to Kunming archives, he was appointed to the vanguard of the captain of the 2nd Battalion of the 6th Chinese Squadron and helped to set up its motor transport unit.
He led 134 drivers, of whom 94 were foreign volunteers. Due to his outstanding performance he was eventually awarded the rank of Colonel.
After the war ended, Dara married a Chinese girl and returned to Malaya; he was a teacher in Hua Lian School in Taiping, worked in the Forestry Department and later in the civil service in Seremban.
“We managed to interview his daughter, Dara Wong Yoke Kheng, in Taiping for the documentary last year,” says Tang, adding, “Dara Singh unfortunately had passed away some years back but his story had been published in a Malaysian newspaper a decade ago.”
Tang says that the team found in the archives a resume personally written by Dara Singh saying that he had worked in the Kamunting police station here – “Therefore, it is possible that he helped to recruit other local Indian drivers and mechanics to volunteer as drivers on the Burma Road.”
Records show one such volunteer of Malay origin known only as “Maya Sen”. At 35, he travelled to China in the same batch as Dara Singh and worked predominantly as a driver.
He reportedly worked in the town of Baoshan in Yunnan Province before being transferred back to Kunming for a while before returning to Malaya. The team is still trying to trace his whereabouts and his family.
Deserving of documentation
Meanwhile, Tang says, the documentary has been completed, though the team is continuing to compile historical documents and heritage information for the Kunming Museum.
The 250-minute documentary is divided into five episodes that will be aired over Kunming TV, with the first two episodes set to go next Sunday.
The documentary will cover, among other aspects, the historical background to the recruitment of the volunteers, how they bid farewell to their families and loved ones to answer the call of duty, the hardship of their lives and the sacrifices they made as mechanics and drivers on the Burma Road, their heroic contributions, and the tribute paid to them in retrospect by the people of China.
“As we looked back, we found that the history of the Nanqiao ji gong is not just the history of China or of the overseas Chinese, but of all people in South-East Asia,” says Tang.
“Yes, there may have been the ‘returning to their roots’ factor that moved the overseas Chinese to volunteer, but then we also had others such as Dara Singh and Maya Sen joining in the operations. It proves that at a critical juncture, people here were united by the spirit of comradeship to fight against a war of aggression and safeguard peace and justice.
“I hope that Malaysians of all walks of lives will continue to work together for peace despite being of different colour or race.”
If you have any information on ‘Maya Sen’ or any of the Burma Road volunteers or their families, contact Low Toh Nam at email@example.com or 012-521 7412.
The ‘Nanqiao Jigong: The Extraordinary Story of Nanyang Drivers and Mechanics Who Returned to China During the Sino-Japanese War’ exhibition opened in Yunnan, China, in 2009, travelled to Beijing and thence to Singapore in October. It will be available online at a later stage.
Related Story: Do you know them?