Youth of yesterday and today

  • People
  • Sunday, 10 Jan 2016

Roberto Herrera lived in Singapore when the Japanese army seized the island in February 1942. Photo: The Star/Sia Hong Kiau

My parents would always talk about old times and how time has quickly flown by. Mum always commented how simple life was back then, when people lived in harmony and how affordable necessities like food and property were.

She also related stories about the struggles that her family had to endure during the Japanese Occupation in the 1940s. Most stories remain etched in my memory, especially how Mum and her older brother – at 10 and 12 years old respectively – had to walk for an hour to a neighbouring village to look for water from wells.

In the span of 58 years, Malaysia has seen positive economic, social and political growth where citizens are reaping the benefits, especially with better healthcare, good schools and efficient public transportation. speaks to people from different generations to compare the evolution of years gone by.

Growing up during the Japanese Occupation

Roberto Herrera lived in Singapore when the Japanese army seized the island in February 1942.

“I was fast asleep when I heard air raid sirens. Then, I heard the sound of bombs being dropped down the city. It left Singapore in a chaotic state, with buildings destroyed and innocent civilians killed,” recalled Herrera, who was 11 years old when the British colony fell to the Empire of Japan during World War II.

It was a harsh life where people endured food shortage, forced labour and lack of job opportunities. As rice was hard to come by, people planted tapioca and sweet potatoes to avoid starvation.

“People queued up for hours to obtain ration cards for bread and rice. Children were susceptible to nutritional deficiencies such as beri-beri and scurvy. We couldn’t afford to see a doctor and relied on whatever medicine was on hand,” said Herrera, who lived on a staple diet comprising tapioca with sambal belacan and porridge with salted fish.

The following year, Herrera moved to Seremban after his father opened a barbershop there. To supplement the family income, his father took on a side job as a part-time musician. While his father was at gigs, Herrera was left in charge of managing the shop.

“I was only 12 years old but had heavy responsibilities on my shoulders. After school, I had to rush home for lunch and thereafter, to the barbershop to keep tabs on accounts,” recalled the 85-year-old who now resides in Kuala Lumpur.

Despite such circumstances, Herrera and his friends still made it the best of times. They spent hours outdoors, playing traditional games such as kaunda kaundi, sepak takraw and marbles.

“We made do with whatever we had. My father could only afford a transistor radio and that became our only form of entertainment. When we had extra money, we opted for outdoor movie screenings and Chinese opera shows, priced at 25 sen per ticket,” said the grandfather-of-six.

Teenager in the 1940s

Choo Thye was only 11 years old when the Japanese in Malaya surrendered to British troops in 1945. As money and food were scarce, Choo and her family – who lived in Seri Kembangan – had to move in with relatives in Kuala Lumpur.

“The house comprised only four rooms with a common toilet and kitchen, which was shared between four families. We lived with rationed electricity and water supply,” said Choo, 80.

Choo remembers gathering firewood to cook with. — SHEELA CHANDRAN/The Star
Choo Thye was only 11 years old when the Japanese in Malaya surrendered to British troops in 1945. Photo: The Star/Sheela Chandran

Modern appliances such as microwave ovens, electric kettles and induction stoves were unheard of, forcing Choo and her siblings to scavenge for firewood.

As the eldest sibling, she was tasked with chopping large pieces of logs and collecting wood shavings.

“At 13 years old, I had to help my mother bake bread, wash and iron clothes. My younger brothers took over other duties like washing dishes and sweeping the house. In school, my parents could only afford to give us five sen pocket money. The money was saved to buy a bowl of noodles in the canteen, which cost 20 sen,” recalled the retired teacher from Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

As basic necessities such as clothing, footwear and undergarments were hard to come by, Choo had only three sets of clothing.

“My clothes were washed and worn daily. We only received new outfits during Chinese New Year. At nine years old, I learnt how to stitch my own clothes, including undergarments,” recalled Choo, who also owned a couple of hand-me-down clothing from her cousins.

Disposable sanitary napkins were unheard of too. Choo made menstrual pads, using crushed paper, which served as the absorbent liner. For her skincare regime, Choo turned to her trusty bar of bath soap and bedak sejuk.

“Those days, bedak sejuk was the only form of make-up. To make it, rice is soaked for months, rinsed, shaped into tiny droplets and dried out in the sun. While it may seem old-school now, it was the cheapest alternative to skincare products,” said the grandmother-of-six.

‘Computers and smartphones didn’t exist in the 1960s so we had to type carefully to avoid re-typing documents,’ says Siti Fatimah, who worked as a typist in the 1960s.’ — SHEELA CHANDRAN/The Star
Siti Fatimah Yatin hails from Ulu Beranang, Negri Sembilan. Photo: The Star/Sheela Chandran

Young working adult in the 1960s

In the 1960s, more women began to join the work force. For Form Five school leaver Siti Fatimah Yatin, who had completed her secondary education in 1967, it was essential to secure a job and help out with the family’s expenses.

“As one of the older siblings, it was my responsibility to help with my family’s finances. Although I would have loved to further my studies, my parents just couldn’t afford it. I could have opted to settle down, but I felt I was too young for marriage,” said Siti, who hails from Ulu Beranang, Negri Sembilan.

To equip herself with necessary skills, she moved to Kuala Lumpur the following year and signed up for typing, shorthand and sewing classes. In 1969, she secured a job as a telephone operator at MARA in Petaling Jaya. Subsequently, she was promoted to a typist at ITM in Petaling Jaya.

“Computers and smartphones didn’t exist, so we had to type carefully to avoid re-typing documents. As photocopy machines and printers were not available, we had to rely on cyclostyle duplicating to produce additional copies of documents.

In the 1960s, women in high positions were far and few in between as a large number of them were homemakers,” said Siti, 65, who now works as a clerk at Senior Citizens Association, Selangor and Federal Territory in Petaling Jaya.

The grandmother-of-eight added that most working adults relied on public transportation as many couldn’t afford to purchase their own car.

“It was unheard of to turn to our parents for the downpayment for a car. We had to work hard and save (and even borrow) money to buy a car. A substantial amount of my pay cheque was sent home to my parents and the rest was saved to get married and buy a house,” said Siti, who married in her early 20s.

High-tech toys

Modern hectic lifestyles means many working parents turn to daycare centres to help look after their children while they are in the office.

With both parents employed, Zachery Sijun Krishnan, 10, goes to an educare centre after school. He stays at the centre till his father finishes work.

“At the centre, I have my lunch, shower, attend tuition, revise and get help with homework,” said the Year Four student at SJK (C) Puay Chai in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

 Zachery Sijun Krishnan attends Mandarin and Maths tuition twice a week. Besides academic work, he has extra- curricular activities such as music lessons, mental arithmetic classes, and swimming. He also enjoys playing with his toy sets. Photo:
Zachery Sijun Krishnan attends Mandarin and Maths tuition twice a week. Besides academic work, he has extra- curricular activities such as music lessons, mental arithmetic classes, and swimming. He also enjoys playing with his toy sets. Photo: Zachery Sijun Krishnan

To cope with the language demands at school, Zacher attends Mandarin tuition and Maths tuition twice a week. Besides academic work, he has extra-curricular activities such as music lessons, mental arithmetic classes and swimming.

Once the structured classes are over, the young boy gets to do what he loves – playing with toys such as Lego Hero Factory and Lego Bionicles sets.

“It’s really fun to construct them. On Youtube links, I have learnt how to create other toy sets from existing Lego parts,” said Zachery, who plays online games such as War Craft and Lego during weekends.

Despite his tight schedule, Zachery also enjoys reading storybooks, including Jeff Kinney’s Diary Of A Wimpy Kid series and Joseph Delaney’s The Wardstone Chronicles.

“I enjoy reading these books because they are funny and interesting. I usually spend about two and a half hours a week reading books.”

Reshnu Sunetra Narendran maybe only 16 but she has been honing her culinary skills, thanks to outlets such as YouTube, recipe books and cooking programmes on TV. Photo: Yuhalini Poopalasingam.

The budding baker

The advent of the Internet and reality TV cooking programmes such as MasterChef Junior and Matilda And The Ramsay Bunch has inspired many students to polish their cooking skills.

Reshnu Sunetra Narendran may only be 16, but she has been honing her culinary skills, thanks to outlets such as Youtube, recipe books and cooking programmes on TV.

“I watch many cooking shows on Food Network Channel. I like the way they present the food and how they make cooking and baking look so simple. Plus, there are a variety of programmes ranging from competitions, tips, to step-by-step recipes,” said the Form Four student from SMK Sultan Abdul Samad in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

Reshnu – who enjoys baking cookies and cakes – also hunts for new recipes on the Internet, mainly on cooking websites, blogsites and YouTube.

“YouTube is my guru because I can keep playing the videos repeatedly if I miss the steps. It is very easy as they show you every single step to make the recipe work,” explained Reshnu, who has developed an interest in cooking from her mother Pooja Singam.

Besides recipes, Reshnu also turns to YouTube to enhance her knowledge on beauty remedies. Be it tips on getting rid of eyebags, natural cures for dry skin to DIY face masks, all the information she needs is just a click away.

“I’m particular about my skincare regime. I like to test out home remedies from YouTube and purchase different skincare products from the pharmacy.”

Wafa juggles between studies and working as a part-time model. — Photo: Handout
Wafa Johanna De Korte juggles between studies and working as a part-time model. Photo: Wafa Johanna De Korte

Catwalk girls’ dreams

Mass communications undergraduate Wafa Johanna De Korte has big dreams to be a successful TV host.

“I’d like to host entertainment TV shows, and eventually, host a talk show. I’m interested in current issues, politics and want to highlight lay people’s concerns,” said the 21-year-old, citing Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres as her favourite TV hosts.

The leggy Dutch-Malay beauty, who clinched the title of Asia New Face Model in 2012, is a part time model too. To settle her college fees, she has taken a loan from Perbadanan Tabung Pendidikan Tinggi Nasional (PTPTN) and tops it up with money earned from her modelling stints.

“I don’t want to burden my widowed mother with college fees. Being able to pay my fees gives me a sense of independence and focus, and an appreciation of the value of money,” said Wafa, who has been modelling for six years.

Like most of her social-media savvy college mates, Wafa keeps up-to-date of trends, news and assignments with social media. According to her, social media serves as a vital platform to enable her to engage in conversations with her college mates, as well as look for job opportunities.

With the advancement of technology, Wafa obtains most of her lecture notes from Facebook. She also turns to Skype and Twitter to discuss group assignments with her course mates.

“Social media is also used as a platform to connect with people for job opportunities. ‘Social Media Influencers’ is a term used by people who have a large following on their social media channels.”

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