My brother Abu was the first one who saw it. Look! he shouted. The sky is red! We rushed to the window and saw an amazing spectacle. The night sky had indeed taken on a deep red colour.
That was one of my earliest recollections of the Japanese Occupation. Several ships had been set on fire in the Penang harbour and the huge blaze had lighted up the night sky.
Another was the sound of shrieking planes overhead. After a lull of some seconds – BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! The bombs would explode, pounding the earth, making me shrink into myself with fear. The target was a military base but what if the bombs fell over our house?
We needed a bomb shelter. My father and four brothers dug an L-shaped, six foot deep trench in our back garden, covered it first with tarpaulin and then foliage. The slightest sound of approaching planes sent us scrambling in there. I once dashed from the bathroom with no clothes on.
Food was scarce but my mother saved every grain of rice and every scrap, so we never went to bed hungry. My father worked at the main Military Base. It was hard labour. He lugged heavy rocks and stones up several storeys. They were used to build the barracks. But every month he brought home a bag of rice. So while most people existed on tapioca, we had rice, vegetables from our garden and eggs from the chickens we reared.
One day we got an awful fright. Some soldiers raided our house. They searched every cupboard and drawer, turned over every piece of furniture, shoved beds aside to peer beneath them, ripped mattresses and pillows and grabbed a few chickens before they left. My father had earlier burnt his prized collection of English books.
Ah! The Chung Ling School Canteen! One of my best memories. My father was given a contract to operate the school canteen. Suddenly there was not only plenty of food but a great variety of it. My mother had a different menu every day. When the food was all packed we carried it and walked to the school which was near where we lived. My duty was to carry the big clock. The Canteen was a huge success.
And so the days passed peacefully by. We heard stories about people being arrested and tortured. My Uncle who lived in Singapore was one of them. They cut his eye-lids, strapped him to a chair and left him out in the sun. His body, when they found him, was full of burn marks. But nothing like that touched us.
When the British returned there was a huge welcome ceremony complete with cannon shots and loud marching band music. Everyone seemed happy. I looked at my mother and she had a beautiful glow on her face.
Soon after my father bought me a large doll with long hair and the prettiest eyes. I put her down next to me when I went to bed that night and it closed its eyes. I jumped out of bed not believing what I had seen. Yes, it could open and close its eyes. Like magic! And that was my best memory of all.