JOHOR BARU: Thanks to her fluency in the Japanese language, Yap Chwee Lan is one of several unsung heroes who saved hundreds of lives during the Japanese Occupation in then Malaya.
Now 93, Yap said she picked up the language from her Japanese employer when she was just 13 years old.
“My father died when I was seven. And to help my mother support the family, I had to work when I was just nine years old,” she said.
Her first job was as a babysitter.
“I worked from 7am until 9pm every day with no days off,” she said, adding she was paid RM3 a month.
She later got a job with a Japanese hairdresser for about two years before she got married at the age of 15. She lived with her husband at his laundry shop, Kedai Dobi Shanghai.
“Just 20 days after I got married, the Japanese started bombing Singapore and Japanese fighter planes would fly around above us.
“To avoid being caught in the middle of the battle, my family and I, along with other people in the neighbourhood, evacuated our homes in Johor Baru and found refuge at a temple in Tampoi,” she said.
She recalled putting food and clothes on her husband’s bicycle while the rest of their belongings were carried on their backs to the shelter in Tampoi.
“We were headed towards Tampoi when we were stopped by a Japanese soldier who wanted the bicycle.
“I asked him in Japanese why was he taking away my husband’s bicycle. That shocked him,” she said.
The soldier apologised and let them through.
Yap said there were about 50 other people seeking refuge at the temple and they only had the little food that were brought in.
“The soldiers would come knocking on our doors at night and calling out gu niang (which means maiden in Chinese).
“Women would cut their hair short and hide in drains to avoid being taken in as comfort women for the Japanese army,” she said.
Yap told the soldiers in Japanese that there were no women for them there. Her fluency in the language earned her the soldiers’ respect.
“They were very impressed. They would ask me if I had enough to eat, besides giving me rice, sugar and flour.
“I shared the food with all of the people there,” she said.
Yap said they were able to go back to her husband’s laundry shop after Singapore was invaded and the bombing stopped.
Impressed by her language ability, one of the Japanese generals offered her a job as a liaison officer between the Japanese and the locals in Singapore.
“I was there with my husband for only a week before I requested to be sent home as I missed my mother and brother who were left alone at the laundry shop,” she said.
Her request was granted.
When she was back in Johor, she said the Japanese had put up black flags on the street indicating that no one were allowed to be out of their homes. Those who did were killed.
“They (those who were captured by the Japanese army) would call out my name, begging me to save them. And when the Japanese soldiers asked, I told them they were my friends and the soldiers would let them go.
“Those who survived were very thankful. They would send all kinds of food to our laundry shop as a sign of gratitude,” she said, estimating that at least 300 people avoided execution.
Yap also opened the doors of the laundry shop for women to hide.
She said seven to eight women would live in their shop every day because they knew Yap’s ability to speak the language would mean they would not be harmed.