Hor­rors be­neath the sand

WWII sur­vivor Ethe­lin Teo tells R. AGE how she had to dress up as a boy to sur­vive the Ja­panese Oc­cu­pa­tion of Kuantan.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - R. AGE - By NATASHA VEN­NER- PACK allther­age@thes­tar.com.my

WALK­ING hand in hand with her hus­band on Teluk Ce­mepedak beach, Kuantan, Ethe­lin Teo’s smile re­veals none of the pain she has lived through.

When the Ja­panese at­tacked Kuantan dur­ing World War II, she was only 13.

“I looked up and saw a Ja­panese plane with the flag, the sun sym­bol,” she re­called. “My grand­mother was so fright­ened she lost her mind a bit. She was hold­ing a bot­tle of Tiger Balm, and she just started eat­ing it!”

Af­ter see­ing the planes, Teo’s fam­ily fled to the rel­a­tive safety of a rubber es­tate. “All we had were bun­dles of clothes when we ran.”

They took shel­ter for a while at a kind farmer’s house away from Kuantan town, where the fam­ily slept on the mud floor. Even then, the fam­ily de­cided it was safer to live in the jun­gle.

“The Ja­panese came out to the es­tates, so we hid in the jun­gle un­til some­one told us it was safe, then we re­turned to the farmer’s house,” she said.

Af­ter the ini­tial in­va­sion, Teo’s father cy­cled into town to see how things were and the sto­ries he brought back were hor­rific.

“The Bri­tish sol­diers were ly­ing dead all around town, the bod­ies scat­tered and bro­ken up.”

Teo was re­count­ing her story for an episode of The Last Sur­vivors, an on­line video se­ries on Malaysia’s WWII sur­vivors to com­mem­o­rate the 70th an­niver­sary of Ja­pan’s fi­nal sur­ren­der in Kuala Lumpur.

Though the mem­o­ries were painful, she hopes the se­ries can help re­mind young Malaysians of the hor­rors of war.

The re­tired nurse was born in Sin­ga­pore, but re­turned to Kuantan when war broke out. She was forced to dis­guise her­self as a boy, sell­ing ny­onya kuih or cook­ies her mother baked.

“My sis­ter stayed in­doors, hid­ing from the Ja­panese who were look­ing for gu niang ( young girls). I looked like a boy at the time, so I dressed in my brother’s cloth­ing so I could go out and run er­rands,” she said.

At night, she helped look af­ter bi­cy­cles with her older brother at the lo­cal fun fair. “We charged 10 cents per bi­cy­cle,” said Teo.

“But there was one time I was putting on my boy’s cloth­ing in the bush and a Ja­panese sol­dier stopped next to it to ask my brother for gu niang.”

For­tu­nately, the sol­dier lost pa­tience and moved on.

Other women were not as lucky. Many were taken as “wives”.

One of th­ese wives, who lived with a Ja­panese of­fi­cer at the Hokkien as­so­ci­a­tion build­ing on Jalan Bukit Ubi, sold rice to the towns­peo­ple. Most fam­i­lies were sur­viv­ing on ra­tions from the Ja­panese, which was just two milk tin’s worth of rice.

“She was very clever – she would burn the rice on pur­pose so she could sell it to us se­cretly be­hind her house.”

Teo said that the Ja­panese didn’t touch mar­ried women, so a lot of girls were mar­ried early.

“But there were some women, maybe pros­ti­tutes, who fol­lowed the Ja­panese willingly,” said Teo.

Down the road from the Hokkien As­so­ci­a­tion was the old Chung Hwa school, which the Ja­panese used as one of their of­fices.

The school has since been turned into a bank, with a fresh coat of paint but the orig­i­nal fa­cade in­tact.

“I re­mem­ber a farmer be­ing slapped re­peat­edly un­til he fell, be­cause he for­got to bow to the Ja­panese guard in front of the school,” she said.

Teo heard sto­ries from her father about the tor­ture that went on within the school, and in front of the old po­lice sta­tion.

“My father’s friend had a pipe stuck down his throat and they pumped wa­ter in, be­fore step­ping on him,” said Teo. “The wa­ter came out from ev­ery part of his body.”

Thieves, how­ever, were pun­ished even more mer­ci­lessly to send a mes­sage to the peo­ple.

Teo said thieves were hanged to death in pub­lic, on a row of trees at Padang Ma­jlis Per­ban­daran Kuantan ( MPK).

“There was one body per tree. They were kept there for five nights, and their tongues would pro­trude very long.”

Dur­ing the war, there were pub­lic tri­als at Padang MPK, where the crowd would point out who de­served to die.

“The trial re­ally de­pended on the pub­lic. I never took part. There was a lady I knew, I think she was a de­tec­tive. They said she de­served to die and that was it.”

The “traitors” would then be taken away in a truck to Teluk Cempedak, where they dug their own graves be­fore be­ing shot.

“Teluk Cempedak was sur­rounded by thick jun­gle back then, but the Kem­peitai made a small path to the beach. That’s where they shot the ‘ traitors’, be­neath where the McDon­ald’s is to­day.”

Look­ing back, Ethe­lin said she was too young to feel any­thing.

“I was only 13. I was fo­cused on help­ing ev­ery­body and sur­viv­ing.”

Most of her friends from that time have passed away, and Teo said it sad­dens her how young peo­ple have so lit­tle knowl­edge about this im­por­tant part of our his­tory.

“The cur­rent gen­er­a­tion never talk about the Ja­panese Oc­cu­pa­tion. They never ask; they never think about it.”

Watch episode three of The Last Sur­vivors, shot in Kuantan with Ethe­lin Teo, at rage.com.my/last­sur­vivors.


Teo says there is a dark se­cret buried be­neath the sands of Teluk Cempedak in Kuantan.

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