My mother’s third elder brother, whom we called Sa Gu (三舅) in Teochew, was born in 1941, just before the Japanese Occupation in Singapore. When Sa Gu was still a baby, my maternal grandmother, Ah Ma, brought him to work with her. She was carrying him when he started crying, just as two Japanese soldiers began to walk in their direction.
Plenty of horror stories abound about the cruelty and horror the Japanese occupiers inflicted on local people during WWII. One history book I read had a graphic picture of a baby being tossed into the air and then being spliced alive by a fierce Japanese soldier with his bayonet.
Ah Ma thought to herself, “This baby is finished.” As the Japanese soldiers came even closer, Ah Ma must have gone cold and asked herself how she could escape the situation, but there was no way a woman with a baby was going to outrun two young soldiers. I imagine that Ah Ma might have bowed to them as they came face-to-face with her and hoped her baby son would not be taken away by them. She probably feared for her own life.
Then one of the soldiers lifted his arms and curled them in the air, like he was carrying a baby himself. He moved his arms up and down, and said something in Japanese that Ah Ma could not understand. Yet his message was perfectly clear: “You must rock the baby. Rock the baby so he won’t cry.”
Ah Ma probably bowed some more to thank him, and then the two soldiers continued on their way. She recounted this incident to my mother many years ago - the thought of losing one of her sons that day must have shaken her deeply. We will never know the names of those two Japanese soldiers, if they survived the war themselves or why they acted the way they did that day. Perhaps the one who advised Ah Ma what to do had a baby himself back home. I would like to think that not all soldiers in wartime are necessarily cruel and violent.
Sa Gu grew up to become a jolly man. He used to crack silly jokes, especially on the second day of Chinese New Year at Ah Ma’s flat where we used to gather with our uncles, aunts and cousins. We did this yearly when she was still around. Sa Gu would look very stern but tell a joke so unexpected that we sometimes laughed till we cried when we got it. During our annual gatherings, Ah Ma would cook a huge feast and we had to eat our dinner in two batches because there was only space for that many at the table. Sa Gu also liked to drink coffee with my father at a nearby coffee shop where they continued their banter. He zipped around on a motorbike, often to buy food for his family.
When I think about it, I am grateful to those two Japanese soldiers for sparing his life that fateful day in 1942. If either of them had chosen to be cruel that day, I would never have experienced the joy Sa Gu brought to our family. He lived to the age of 80 and passed away last year at the nursing home where he spent the last few years of his life. During my last visit to him in 2020, my mother broke the news to him that my father had passed away. He did not say much, but pain flashed briefly in his eyes as he looked at the newspaper obituary we had cut out. His shoulders drooped slightly. Subsequently, strict Covid measures kicked in at nursing homes and my mother managed to see him only one more time last year.
After Sa Gu himself departed from this world, we burnt him a paper motorbike and hope that he has found his place with Ah Ma and my father, and relatives long departed. Perhaps Sa Gu and my father are zipping around looking for a good coffee shop on the other side.
- Contributed by Sophia Tan