He never much wanted to speak about it though one would have thought that living more than three years under brutal Japanese occupation would have been a life-changing experience. Not even of the day, soon after the British capitulated (15 February 1942), when he was made to file past Japanese soldiers and hidden informants, his very life hanging in the balance. It was the Sook Ching (cleansing operation). The new conquerors were out to identify and kill anyone suspected to have helped China resist the Japanese war machine’s encroachment since 1937.
Perhaps he was confident. English-speaking Anglophile that he was, he had never identified with China at all.
Still, he could not be sure if he might be singled out and shot before the afternoon was over. Informants had all sorts of reasons that went far beyond sincere certainty for pointing out “enemy collaborators” to the Japanese. Personal grudge would have been motive enough. Tens of thousands of Singaporeans were massacred in the days and weeks of the terror; there is a memorial to them downtown.
But my father lived.
He even tried his hand at looting. In the chaotic days after the British surrender, food was in desperately short supply. It was every man (or family) for himself. When the family heard that Cold Storage had its doors wide open, he went with his older brother to see what they could get. They were a bit too late. “There was nothing left except rabbit,” he would recall years later in one of the few rare conversations we had about the war years. “We didn’t know how to cook rabbit.”
And still the brothers would take risks, hiding a shortwave radio under the stairs, listening nightly to BBC and the Voice of America. “If the Japanese had ever found out about our radio we would have been taken away and shot.”
He would have a radio with him every day for the rest of his life. It was his connection to the wider world — of politics, social commentary and music. To him, the outside world mattered; it makes a difference to our lives. Current affairs engaged and excited him — he’d cheer every time a woman made it to be prime minister or president — while music provided the calm. And rooted him.
In 1935, then a 14-year old in secondary school, he learnt to sing Land of Hope and Glory for the Silver Jubilee of King George V. He would love (and still be moved) by this anthem for the rest of his life, breaking out in effortlessly recalled words, each time he heard Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1:
The crowd sings at 1:52, 4:52 and 8:08.
In his own way, he was also a gadget groupie. From twiddling the dials of shortwave radio, he moved on to spooling audio tapes. My mother once told me that when she was in the maternity ward giving birth to her second child (my sister), my father went out and, instead of buying baby things, spent hard-earned money buying a state-of-the-art open-reel tape recorder. “What was the man thinking? I don’t understand your father at all.” I can still hear her exasperated voice today.
The march of technology fascinated him. Change was an abundantly good thing. When he went to Japan — I think it was the late 1960s — he was shown an integrated circuit. He was so excited by what it meant, he bought a tie pin for me that had one such chip embedded inside a tiny acrylic tile. The integrated circuit was no larger than 5 millimetres square, but if soldered into one of several kinds of gadgets, it could perform intelligent calculations, he explained. We didn’t say “cool!” in those days, but if we did, he would have said it a dozen times. However, he forgot to buy me a tie.
Ah, but he bought me my first two cameras and taught me (then a teenager) how to insert film into a camera body with my hands under a blanket. I got really good at it.
And when the internet came along in his white-haired seventies and eighties, he took to it with little hesitation.
* * * * *
After the Second World War, he took a job teaching at Gan Eng Seng Secondary School where he was also the scoutmaster. That’s where he met my mother; she was teaching there and helped lead the scouts too. But after marrying her, he moved to Bartley Secondary School while she went back to her alma mater St Anthony’s Convent School. In 1963, he was given the principalship of the newly-founded Dunman Secondary School — which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The school remembered him and sent us two wreaths and a delegation of students.
Just prior to his Dunman years, there was another nail-biting episode. Awarded a short scholarship to Harvard, he arrived in Boston just in time to see the Cuban Missile Crisis break out (Fall, 1962). Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had placed missiles on Cuba, and US President John F Kennedy issued an ultimatum to the Soviet Union to remove them, or else. . . . My mother was worried sick that Soviet nuclear missiles would rain down on the US incinerating her husband along with millions of others. I was not quite ten years old, but it was my turn to listen to the radio every night, trying to understand what was going on in the big wide world. I looked up maps, and have loved maps every since.
* * * * *
Through most of his adult life, he stayed connected with his friends from his time in Raffles College. In their younger days, they called themselves the Topsy Turvy Club, though by the time I came along, they were rather embarrassed to use such a juvenile name. There were about ten to twelve of them, mostly male, who brought their families to meet regularly one or two Sundays a month, taking turns to host the gathering. Loud discussion ensued with strongly-held views about politics and current affairs. My father wasn’t the most leftist of the lot — at least he didn’t name his son after the then-Chinese prime minister Zhou En-lai, as one among them did — but he was sympathetic.
There was a certain Anita Fang who existed only by remote reference. I don’t know if she was ever part of the Topsy Turvy Club, but her name came up from time to time among the group. He would later explain her mysterious absence: she had been deported to China for allegedly being a communist underground agent. Even so, my father continued a correspondence with her; last I heard, she was teaching English in a college in Zhengzhou.
It turned out that several of these men’s children were musically-inclined and in between passionate discussion about the politics of the day, the men would quieten down to devote some quality attention to their kids as we took turns to play music, sing and ( a few of the daughters) dance. And then there’d be food, usually a considerable spread organised by the wives.
* * * * *
At first, his only son’s interests were a little bewildering to him. He himself had grown up with sports: football, cricket and hockey. He even had a chipped incisor from being hit in the mouth by a hockey ball flying at lethal speed. But his son wanted to play the piano and absolutely hated anything that involved muddy fields. He had loved his scouting but Sonny could never see the point of sitting around campfires or threading one’s way on a rope tautly stretched between treetops.
Yet, his openness to the world stood him in good stead. He could appreciate change and difference without ideological blinkers, preferring to see bright progress where others might not. He observed events without preconceptions whilst his lifelong engagement with news from afar equipped him with interpretations more broadminded than many other fathers. When I eventually told him I was gay, he said, “Don’t worry about it; I figured it out long ago.” This at a time when virtually nothing was said about homosexuality in Singapore except the occasional report of police sweeps of cross-dressing sex workers.
Liberated from keeping a secret for me, he set to it with gusto. He made mental notes of gay-related news he heard on the radio and repeated them to me at dinner. He cut out articles about gay rights from magazines and kept them in a folder. Later on, “Hey Sonny, did you know the first gay weddings took place in Amsterdam last week?” I can still hear him say.
“Yes, Dad. The gay grapevine relays information rather faster than even BBC. But thanks anyway.”
* * * * *
He retired at fifty-five, which was the usual retirement age then. I’m not sure that he would have wanted to stay longer in the civil service anyway. He had loved being in Education, but with the last part of his career spent in the ministry itself, he must have missed the autonomy that he so enjoyed as a school principal. He chose to be a house husband while my mother continued working, and learned to be a pretty respectable cook. Later, he would become her chief care-giver as Parkinson’s Disease slowly crippled her, all the while resisting suggestions that he have a domestic helper. He saw it as an intrusion into his independence.
But he himself was getting on, and in August 2006, he phoned me while I was in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Bangkok, two minutes away from being introduced as the next speaker. He was almost in tears. My mother had fallen and he had struggled to lift her. “I’m growing old, too” he said, the first time he uttered those words to me, almost in defeat. “I can’t look after her any more.” We put her in a nursing home, but he missed her. She passed away soon after (February 2008) and he missed her even more. He would never be the same again.
As he too slowly faded into the night, he kept a radio by his side, with Bach, Schumann, Dvorak and the familiar voices of BBC News bringing the world to him. There was not a lot that I could tell him about what’s going on that he did not already know, so I didn’t need to say very much. I would quietly hold his hand, and he would gently squeeze mine.
Au Keng Chu, 27 October 1921 – 16 June 2013.