My grandmother’s peace was to be shattered permanently not by the violence of Mr. Houten temper but the violence of an entire nation. Not long after the boy’s first birthday, the Japanese staged a surprise attack on the American navy in Pearl Harbour. Though Japan had nominally been at war with China since their invasion of Manchuria four years earlier, it was the attack on America that kick started their unchecked aggression in the Pacific.
Initially the Japanese Imperial army invaded and occupied British, Dutch, and U.S. colonies that now make up the present-day countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and closer to home, Hong Kong. The British forces were soon overwhelmed by the speed and ferocity of the Japanese attack and were forced to surrender on 25th December 1941, Christmas Day to Isogai Rensuke, the first Japanese governor of Hong Kong. Chinese and British alike called that day ‘Black Christmas’.
To the occupying Japanese, Chinese life was effectively worthless. One of the first things the new administration did was to cut rations for civilians to near starvation levels in order to conserve food for their own soldiers. It became unlawful to own Hong Kong Dollars, which were replaced by the Japanese Military Yen, hyper-inflation and economic hardship became the norm of daily lives
Japanese cruelty towards captured civilians was infamous. Lilly witnessed prisoners being beaten, tortured and executed. They were punished in an especially brutal manner for alleged escape attempts or the suspicion of espionage. Almost 300,000 Chinese were massacred and than 80,000 women were raped.
People barricaded themselves in their houses only coming out for food rations. Desperate for food, Tai Po began exchanging Hong Kong Dollars for a handful of rice.
However, it was business as usual for the Van Houten family. The Dutch and the Japanese had a long trading history dating back to the 17th century. As a result Holland continued to trade with Japan until their invasion of the oil rich Dutch East Indies a year later.
Despite the chaos and brutality around them, the Van Houtens remained unaffected and would sail from Hong Kong to Japan to do business by helping to satisfy the troops’ sweet tooth by supplying chocolate for their rations.
My grandmother was expected to go with them. Still a young amah she was terrified of the prospect of going to the enemy’s heartland. To clam her fears she focused on looking after their baby boy. Her mother, Tai Po, was very beside herself. Like most Chinese, she had been brought up on horror stories told about the barbarism of the Japanese. She wanted my grandmother to quit her job, a request that would only have been made in the most serious of circumstances. But my grandmother knew that the family did not have time to conscript any other amah and that they relied on her. Moreover she had formed a personal attachment to the youngest Van Houten and feared that his safety could only be assured by her presence.
In the course of the journey my grandmother was press-ganged into service by the Japanese militia and forced to become a translator. As she had been in the service of the Van Houtens and they had assumed that since she could speak English, Cantonese and some Dutch, she must be good with languages.
She was forced to learn Japanese, taught by a bilingual woman who was half Japanese and half Chinese by birth. The teaching methods of the Japanese were harsh, and students who received bad results in Japanese exams risked corporal punishment. The woman had grown up in Japan and had originally wanted to become a geisha but had been denied due to her tainted Chinese blood. She became my grandmother’s personal tutor not just in Japanese but in history and traditions of Japan.
Even today my grandmother has no doubt that her new role probably saved her life on more than one occasion. Following her intensive training, she was considered at least useful by the Japanese soldiers. She could translate simple messages for them as they sailed. Many were the forced confessions of prisoners.
On the boat the Japanese continued the brutality perpetrated on a huge scale in Hong Kong. Through the time she spent with the guards, my grandmother had managed to develop their trust despite being Chinese. As often as possible, she used this position of influence to persuade the guards to spare people’s lives. One day, she came across some guards, who were about to rape a female prisoner. She cried out in Japanese:
“Imagine if that was your sister or wife. Save your dignity. This is a war between men.” It was enough to bring the soldiers to their senses and, after a few minutes of discussion, they even apologised to the half naked woman who was frozen in fear on the deck.
While doing her translation work or in service with the Van Houtens, my grandmother was relatively safe but on the streets of Hong Kong or Tokyo she was just another Chinese prey to Japanese aggression. Once while out walking, she found herself held at gun point by some Japanese soldiers. Fearing the worst, she cried out in Japanese:
“I am a translator for your people and am useful only if I live. Please spare my life. I need to get back to work for your officials.” The soldiers were so shocked at this small Chinese woman speaking their language that they spared her. Others were not so lucky. A colleague of Lilly’s, an elderly Chinese seamstress who had
worked for another family in the Peak, failed to bow when passing by a Japanese sentry in the street. The solider screamed at the frightened worker and beat her with a stick until she lost consciousness. She died of a heart attack during the assault. It was an incident that sent fear through amahs across the whole of Hong Kong.
Excerpt from Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse. Published by Random House in 33 countries. Available to download on Kindle.