Monday 21 May 2012

A memorial at last for WWII volunteers

By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 20 May 2012

Somewhere in Pearl's Hill City Park near Chinatown, there may be a buried World War II pistol and sword.

The weapons belonged to Mr Pek Cheng Chuan, founder of Tai Hua Food Industries, who fought in the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945.

'My grandfather buried the weapons near his soya sauce factory at Pearl's Hill after he returned to Singapore, because it was illegal to own them,' said Mr Thomas Pek, grandson of the war veteran. The elder Pek never revealed the exact spot before he died in 2005, at age 96.

He was one of more than 3,200 volunteers from South-east Asia who went to their native China during the war to work as drivers and mechanics.

A memorial will be put up at Sun Yat Sen Villa in Singapore next year to remember this group. Some say it has been a long time coming: Similar monuments were erected in Penang in 1946, in Selangor in 1947, and in Yunnan, China, in 1989.

The Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI), which is spearheading the move, hopes to put up the marker by next February.

It will be a permanent reminder of the little-told journey of the volunteers which began in 1937 when Japan invaded China.

After the war erupted, Singapore philanthropist Tan Kah Kee led efforts in South-east Asia to raise funds to support China's resistance, using the Ee Hoe Hean Club, an exclusive club for wealthy towkays in Bukit Pasoh, as the headquarters.

That year, China started building a road from Burma (now Myanmar) to Kunming as an overland route for war supplies. The 1,146km-long Burma Road between the Burmese town of Lashio and the Chinese city of Kunming opened in January 1939.

It was China's only lifeline after all its coastal cities fell. War supplies were sent first to Rangoon, transported by rail to Lashio, and then into China by trucks making the overland drive through jungle and mountainous areas.

When China turned to its overseas compatriots to shore up the acute shortage of drivers and mechanics, it was Mr Tan Kah Kee who organised the enlistment drive here.

On Feb 7, 1939, a notice appeared in Chinese newspapers in Singapore seeking drivers and mechanics to 'serve in the motherland'. Applicants needed sponsors to vouch for their loyalty to China. Simultaneous calls were made in Malaya.

Thousands stepped forward and they became known as the nanqiao jigong, or drivers and mechanics from South-east Asia. Among them was Mr Pek Cheng Chuan.

Mr Thomas Pek said his China-born grandfather was moved to fight the invading Japanese. 'It was how that generation felt.'

Another recruit, Mr Ho Yang Hai, was born in Singapore. His daughter, Madam Lily Ho, now 61, knows little about why he volunteered, except for one thing: 'My father signed up without telling his mother.'

According to the Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao, 706 of the 3,226 volunteers were from Singapore. They included some Indian and Malay men, and four women.

The first batch of 80 volunteers led by Mr Pek left Singapore after a grand send-off on Feb 18, 1939. The rest followed to Kunming over the next six months. There, they went through military training. Mr Pek was commissioned a second lieutenant, and allowed to carry a pistol and sword.

For three years, the volunteers plied the Burma Road taking supplies into China.

Mr Pek recounted the harsh conditions in an oral history interview with the National Archives of Singapore in 1980: 'The journey from Kunming to North Burma and back again took us almost two weeks... We had our luggage with us and we slept in our vehicle... Frequently, the Japanese airplanes swooped down to machine-gun us.'

After Rangoon fell to the Japanese in 1942, the Chinese army bombed a key bridge on the Burma Road to stop the Japanese advance into Kunming, thus severing China's link to Burma.

With the road cut off, the drivers and mechanics were demobilised.

Mr Pek joined the Chinese army to continue the fight, while Mr Ho married a local Hunan woman. They were the fortunate ones. Many others could neither get jobs nor find their way home. Some died of starvation. Others became opium addicts.

After the war, a total of 1,203 survivors were registered and 1,144 were recorded as having returned to Singapore and Malaya in 1946. The rest remained in China.

Most of the 2,000 who could not be accounted for were presumed dead.

Mr Pek poured his energy into building up the Tai Hua soya sauce brand, while Mr Ho went on to raise five children with his wife from China. The two men remained close friends until Mr Ho died in 1969.

'Mr Pek looked after my father like a brother in China. Now, we are like sisters and brother,' said Madam Ho of Mr Thomas Pek and his sister, Mrs Tang Yuh Ping.

In an essay in Lianhe Zaobao in February, Mr Kek Boon Leong, chairman of the Nanyang Confucian Association, called for a memorial to be built. It sparked a flurry of letters.

A month later, Member of Parliament Baey Yam Keng raised the matter in Parliament and Senior Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts Grace Fu pledged the Government's support for civic efforts to build the memorial.

The SCCCI-led committee includes the National Heritage Board, which manages the Sun Yat Sen Villa, as well as the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, the Ee Hoe Hean Club and Tan Kah Kee Foundation.

Mr Baey said: 'It will acknowledge the contributions of volunteers, and educate the younger generations who may not know this part of history.'

For Madam Ho, the memorial means something more: 'It will be like the volunteers have finally come home.'

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