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- Romanus Miles
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- 18 October 2005
Jap.$100. Part of my hard earned "worthless" money at the Army boot factory.
Part 6 continued. He was such a tiny man, but made up for his lack of height by his aggression. Always in uniform; dark green jacket and breeches, white open collar shirt, immaculate black jackboots and a sword. It looked enormous dangling from his tubby waist. He also had a moustache to go with his stern face and everyone was scared of him, including myself. Whenever we passed each other I always gave him an exceptionally low bow. I once saw him pick up a boot in its shoe-last on one of was his regular spot checks, and finding something wrong he went berserk. Shouting at the top of his voice, he threw the heavy wooden last at the Chinese cobbler seated on a low stool, and then proceeded to lay into him with both fist and boot. We all watched in fear, busying ourselves with whatever we were doing, and ignored the beating. Fortunately he didn’t draw his sword. After his monthly speech we would file pass him on our way down the stairs to receive our rice ration in small bags. He made sure everyone had his or her badge visible. There were many more women employed than men, all young Chinese girls who couldn’t speak English. They sat on low stools in long rows facing each other across long tables, cutting crape rubber into bits to fit the wooden moulds, which formed the soles of the finished boots. Constant use of the large scissors made their hands raw and they developed nodules at the thumb, but they appeared to be quite happy chatting all day to each other whilst working. Occasionally they would say something to us and then all laugh, but for the rest of the time we were just ignored. Jacob a Jew boy worked with us for a while, but then he disappeared when they put the Jews into concentration camp. L, Jacob and I were the only boys employed there. The manager Mr. Zerad was
an Indian and his foreman Mr. Ah Kan was Chinese. Both spoke fluent English and were very fair to us boys. The machinist was a Chinese man and so were all the skilled cobblers. It was fascinating to watch the latter working at their low benches on small stools. They stitched the “Uppers” of the boots still in their wooden last to leather rims, which were then machine stitched to the soles made by the women. They worked swiftly with curved needles, waxed string and sharp wedge shaped knives, all kept in small wooden toolboxes. Being on piecework, they never seemed to stop, except for the lunch break when they ate at their benches from Tiffin carriers and then dozed off. I ate lunch at the “Miles” restaurant so there was a short walk home. The factory at the rear of the main building was single-storied with a corrugated tin roof. It was quite large, housing all the machinery and many workers so was very hot and noisy.The entrance was guarded by a huge Sikh with a sharp eye for anyone trying to steal. Occasionally he would do a body search with disastrous consequences for anyone caught stealing. The Japs had no mercy for thieves and always made an example of the criminal. Usually this was to tie the thief at the entrance as an example, after a sever beating. As we boys had no skills, we were given odd jobs like making the glue, sorting out the reject boots, pushing trolleys of completed boots to the main building and occasionally moving the scrap crepe rubber, piled high next to the latrines. Ah Kan supervised glue making. He put the crepe clippings into a large steel drum mounted on a frame, poured kerosene into it, and then tightened the lid down with a spanner. With a “joke-like” remark in Chinese which I didn’t understand, he would leave me to turn the handle all day, whilst seated on a small stool watching the world go by in the adjacent barred window. Actually the view was the rear entrance to the kitchens of the ex. Union Jack club, now a Japanese Naval club. I kept a sharp eye out for any food, like cucumbers or fruit, which fell to the ground from the delivery lorries. If I was lucky this was passed through the bars after a few pleas. Otherwise this job got quite boring by the end of the day and when my arm got weary I would use my foot to turn the handle. Sorting out the odd boots into pairs was much more interesting as it took some skill matching sizes and colours. I must have been good at it because there was always a huge pile for my attention. L. at a later stage got promotion, working at a grinding
wheel removing excess crepe rubber around the boot heels and soles. Wearing an apron he still got covered in tiny bits of crepe all over his head. He enjoyed this job and if Ah Kan wasn’t around, he would shape small bits of soft wood into aircraft fuselages, which we made into model fighters with cardboard wings. We faithfully copied the planes flying above daily. Pigskin was used to make the boots and later on in the war when this material became short, green canvass was substituted, except for the toecaps and heels. Officer’s boots were always made from best quality leather. The sewing machines kept breaking down and there must have been a shortage of spares because the boss would be down like a shot on the shop floor and in a foul mood whenever this happened. The latrines were of the traditional bucket variety, located at the rear of the factory and next to the pile of scrap crepe rubber. The overflow soaked into this huge pile so when Ah Kan thought it too smelly, he would get us boys to remove it. Actually we didn’t mind this job because it meant a ride on an open lorry to the tip and a morning away from the noisy hot factory. We used garden forks to load the rubber onto the lorry but the smell was awful. Once when we were unloading at the tip which was near a lake, we heard rifle shots and then saw a Jap soldier firing at floating bales of rubber in the water. On closer inspection we could see the heads of the looters swimming for their lives but still pushing their booty. We left hurriedly. Life seemed so drab now; even the buildings occupied by the Japs were camouflaged black and grey. The bombed sites were left to the weeds and rats, peeling paintwork decorated every house. I even saw the beautiful lamps outside the Supreme Court filched for Tokyo. A semi blackout on the streets and low voltage bulbs at home added to the gloom. With no music or books at home there was nothing to stimulate our developing minds, so the only thing that kept us going was attendance at church and the company of the server boys there. As we had lost all hope no one talked about the British returning and we were resigned to our miserable fate. Everyone looked thin, hungry and nervous. Dad’s temper at home was unbearable except when he had clients, usually women, for horoscope readings. He always had an interest in astrology and now began making some money. I used to listen to him at times and must say he certainly could spin a convincing yarn. The women lapped it all up as he could be most charming. He and Auntie were always squabbling which led to her to begin an affair with one of our lunchtime customers, Mr. Stephan. He was a married businessman of white Russian descent from Hong Kong, trapped in Singapore for the duration of the war. Eventually when she couldn’t stand Dad’s temper any longer, with Stephan’s help she left without telling anyone where she had gone. Of course Dad hit the roof making things much worse for us all, especially poor E. I suppose the strain of the time was taking its toll of everyone. In one of his black moods he would threaten to stop us going to church, and when the parish priest came unannounced to mediate, he physically threw him out. The Japs too were beginning to show signs of strain but we were not to know why.
One day whilst walking innocently on the street, I was stopped by an officer of the Kempeitai and questioned. He noticed my “Bata Shoe Company” badge and seemed very curious. Aggressively questioning me as to where I got the badge as it showed I worked for the Army he eventually gave up. I knew he wasn’t satisfied with my explanation and was relieved to get away. The following day whilst sorting out the boots at the factory I was shocked to see him approaching me, accompanied by our boss. To my immense relief he seemed very pleased to see me, pulled up a small stool and we had a pleasant chat about my job. Then with a pat on my head he left. I never did find out why, just another mystery. The Japs were very suspicious of the Eurasians especially the Kempeitai. About this time we began to see many men women and children of Javanese or Sumatran nationality, now known as Indonesians today, appear on the city streets. It was known that they were forcefully brought over to work on various projects and then abandoned to fend for themselves. Naturally they starved. Apparently some were used as camouflage on the decks of Jap ships transporting troops to the various Islands. Allied aircraft were busy on reconnaissance missions at this time and would not bomb a boatload of civilians. It was a pitiable sight passing them on the streets, just skin and bone. I used to see a man lying under the flame-of-the-forest tree opposite the Cathedral and was distressed to see how long it took him to die. Eventually much to my relief I saw him dead, all covered in flies but strangely he had tried to climb up the tree trunk as a last gesture. Hearing the women and children whimpering from hunger, lying on filthy rice mats all covered in excreta is indelibly stamped in my mind. The favourite place for these miserable wretches was the Stamford canal bank where the waste pipe from the Jap barracks flowed out. There they gathered whatever came out of the pipe and one day I was upset to see a fight break out amongst them over a fish head. In the mornings a lorry went around the city collecting the dead corpses just like refuse. Then came the “Bahau Self-sufficiency” scheme. It was announced from the Cathedral pulpit with the full support of the Catholic Church and the blessing of Bishop Deval. Because of the worsening food shortage situation and the possibility that Singapore might become a war zone, the Military Authority ordered a mass evacuation of the civil population, but initially only voluntarily. Various Chinese leaders were coerced for their support and the Catholic Church too. This was our first inkling that the war was beginning to go against the Japs. Much publicity was given in the local press about it. A place called Endau in Johore State was selected for the Chinese and Bahau in Negri Sembilan State for the Eurasians and other Catholics. These virgin territories were to become self-sufficient in food cultivated from the cleared land, with seed provided. Very favourable offers were promised to the volunteers, medical supplies, building materials, tools, and live animals like chickens and pigs. Although I hadn’t read Robinson Crusoe then, both L and I fell for it. We dashed off home and asked Dad if we could be volunteers. How naive we were, we should have known better after all we had been through. But many did fall for the promise of a better life, including many Christian Brothers and Nuns. Perhaps they wanted to be leaders of the Catholic flock. Dad was no fool because he said “No” bluntly and said it was a trap. Besides he asked us “What did we know about farming”? ; Nothing. He was right but I had a sneaking feeling he didn’t fancy hard labour. Nevertheless we watched with envy the first group of volunteers leave from the grounds of the Cathedral after a speech from a Japanese official and the blessing of the Bishop. He had decided that only forty nuns and orphans would go from the convent. Strangely at about this time the convent was chosen by the Japs as a store for their rice as it was considered a safe place. The Chinese Endau settlement was called “New Soynan Model Farm”. It was a partial success because many volunteers were market gardeners experienced in farming and besides the Chinese were innovative and used to hard manual work. Johore state had good soil and little malaria. On the other hand the Bahau settlement known as “Fugi Village” a misnomer was an awful place. Riddled with infectious diseases especially malaria, it was virgin jungle and was no more than a self made concentration camp. Of course the Japs reneged on their promises of medicines tools etc, so many died there. After the war was over I met some of the Christian Brothers that survived the ordeal. They looked thin and ill, with yellow complexions caused by large doses of quinine for malaria. We also learned that the Japs had a plan to wipe out all the Eurasian there, had an invasion taken place. They never trusted the Eurasians and were right to do so. Now there were other developments to occupy our thoughts, the impending Allied invasion we had waited so long for was imminent. Leaflets appeared on the streets, usually early in the morning, telling us about the huge losses the Japs were suffering in battles both on land and at sea in the region.These leaflets scattered in the church compound were printed by the MPAJA, the Malayan Peoples Anti-Japanese Army. It was Communist led and supplied with arms from the allies by submarines off the Malayan coast. We were very careful when picking up these leaflets, because they could have been a Kempeitai ruse and to be caught with one of these, would have been certain torture. Back at the factory we were surprised and curious to see carpenters fitting racks at the entrance where the huge Sikh stood guard.We were baffled when metal tipped wooden spears were placed in the racks. Then after a talk from our Boss at assembly, all was made clear. We were to defend the factory against the invaders with Japanese support. Next came air-raid procedures we were to follow should the need arise. The first siren was a Blue flag warning, followed by the Red flag alert and then another Blue flag for the all clear. We could seek shelter between the Blue and Red alerts in the trenches we were asked to dig in the grounds of St. Andrew’s Cathedral nearby.L. and I volunteered to dig these trenches but were puzzled because they were just round holes camouflaged with sticks of tapioca, which soon grew up. Actually we were digging foxholes for the Japs to defend the area, just like the ones on the Padang facing the sea nearby. The Padang was the holy of holies when the British ruled, especially the cricket pitch there and now we had vandalised it. Still it was enjoyable to get out of the factory in the fresh air. Apprehension grew as to what the next battle would be like as we knew the Japs would fight to the death and embroil us too. The Japs organised all sorts of Corps, with armbands and badges. There were Air-Raid wardens, the Special Forward Corps, The Labour Service Corps and the Fire Fighting Corps. Fortunately I was too young to be enrolled, but Lincoln had to see the Street Committee about some duties. Yes! We were gearing up for war and the Japs were getting us involved in it.The first air raid began in 1945 on a lovely bright morning, after the Blue flag warning siren alert. There was great excitement in the factory as the Boss accompanied by the foreman walked briskly around. As we were not told to move we all carried on working normally. The Japanese zero fighters buzzed overhead and eventually we heard the anti-aircraft guns firing and the droning sound of the bombers. It was reminiscent of the days prior to our surrender so no one panicked.
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