Harrowing hosp journey for Tawau patients in 1940s
Published on: Tuesday, June 23, 2020
By: Nicholas Chung
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IN THE immediate aftermath of the war, the cottage hospital had yet to be rehabilitated and the Japanese hospital was no longer operational. By early 1946, father’s condition was deteriorating by the day. When news reached us that the hospital was ready to treat patients, father had become bed-ridden and was engulfed in pain. 

Now the problem of transport arose. There was no public transport of any kind in service, no bicycle, let alone motorcycle or motorcar, available for hire, so mother assisted by her younger brother, built a contraption resembling a wheelbarrow with length-wise wooden planking long enough for one person to lie in. 

They put father flat on his back on this stone-age mode of transport. With her brother pulling from the front while mother pushed at the back. They set off on the long road to seek medical help for father. When we bade him farewell that morning, neither I nor my siblings realised that it would be the last time we would ever see our father. 

Apas Road, after years of neglect and war damage, was badly rutted and full of potholes. Bombed-out Japanese trucks littered the roadside, and bridges had been precariously repaired. For father, lying on his solid-wheeled carriage, every inch of the journey was torture; he could feel every bump and jerk, causing him to scream out in pain. 

Family picture taken in 1952: Mother and stepdad (seated in front) with sister Fong. (Back row from left) Brother Thiam, the 

author, sister Ying, sister Len, sister Kiun, brother Sing, cousin Hui and brother Yu. 


Foot by painful foot they plodded on, with several enforced stops on the way. After what seemed like eternity, they finally reached the hospital. In all, it took five hours to travel five and a half miles. After arranging father’s admission and leaving uncle behind to tend to him, mother had to walk all the way home to us. 

During father’s hospitalisation, mother could visit him only once a week due to the distance. She usually went alone, and would say very little about father’s condition to anyone. One morning in early May 1946, mother asked me to accompany her to see father. On arrival, we saw father lying on a wooden bed in a thatch-roofed makeshift ward crammed with sick people. He was emaciated and could only talk in a whisper. When he saw me, he gestured for me to come near him and he put his hand on my head. 

I could see he had a bandage around his ribcage which was bloodstained. He told mother he had endured an operation in which the doctor had removed part of his liver without anaesthesia, but he was hopeful that he would make a recovery. 

When it was time for us to leave, he again held out his hand to touch my head. I noticed mother was crying as we made our way to the exit. 

A few days later, before mother’s next visit to the hospital, my uncle came to announce that father had passed away two days earlier, at the age of 36. Uncle could not inform us as soon as he died – which would have enabled us to attend the funeral – because the hospital authorities in those days carried out the burial of destitute people immediately after death, using prisoners to take the body to the nearest cemetery. 

Pre-war house which survives to this day. The house is similar 

in design to the one we rented from Habib Ali in 1948. 

In my father’s case, he was taken to the Anglican Church cemetery at Tanjong Batu. On the day of father’s death, an old woman also died. The prison burial gang took the two bodies, and had wanted to dump them into the same grave. After uncle protested, they relented and reluctantly dug a fresh grave close by and put father into it. 

Now, whenever I go and pay my respects to father at the cemetery, I cannot help but recall this incident and feel great indebtedness to my now-departed uncle whose tenacity not only gave father his own separate identity after death, but also enabled us to pay our respects to him for certain rather than having to pray at a multiple grave. 

Father’s death dealt a severe blow to our family as mother, widowed at 32, had lost a companion and her main source of moral support. She grieved for him for months, and her depression was often aggravated by a feeling of guilt and regret for not being at his side when he died. Despite that, she had to be at home tending to the children, especially as there had been the addition of my younger brother Yu, born in 1943. 

With a young infant to nurse and a growing family to feed, the dawning of peace did not spell an end to mother’s single-handed struggle to provide us with a decent minimum standard of living. If she had sometimes been in despair, I was too young to know. But we can sense that in us she saw her own future and, at some point, she must have determined that, come what may, she would do her best to raise us and get on with life. When stock was taken of the family fortune, the assets consisted of five acres of coconut trees, a ramshackle house, and not much else. 

Mother’s option for outside employment was limited. The old rubber plantation had not been rehabilitated, and the miso factory was no more. The immediate course of action was to mobilise us to collect coconuts. From them, she made cooking oil, a commodity in reasonable demand among the rural neighbourhood. 

This cottage industry required everyone to work long hours, but at least it took care of our immediate livelihood. However, things were not getting better. More and more of our neighbours were beginning to move into town in an effort to search for better job opportunities and to be closer to the food distribution centres. 

Mother and I (being the eldest boy) were now finding it harder and harder to sell our oil as we had to carry our loads and travel a longer distance before we would make a sale. By then, the government had started a road maintenance programme and had begun recruiting Chinese female labourers to do the job. 

Some of mother’s friends were advising her to give it a try. She consulted my maternal grandmother (grandfather had passed away shortly after my birth), who gave her permission to sell our land and to move in with her. We then relocated and moved to within two miles of town. Grandmother’s house was the same one she had been living in when, years before, a crocodile had taken the lives of two of her children. 

Sin Hwa School sports day in the early 1950s. 

She now lived with her two sons and their families. The house was a modest building on stilts with timber walls and flooring. Her brothers helped mother by erecting a lean-to against the outside of one wall. This was to become our humble dwelling, still an attap and kajang structure partitioned into sleeping quarters, a washroom, kitchen, and a living area set on packed-earth flooring. 

Mother started work at the road repair site, where her routine was demanding. The work entailed balancing heavy loads of gravel on two wicker baskets hanging on a pole supported by her slender shoulders to be dumped some distance away. 

She had to work under the hot tropical sun from early morning until two in the afternoon. With mother at work, my sisters and I collected coconuts from grandmother’s land and we continued making our cooking oil. The combined family income barely managed to keep us from starvation. 

One day around the middle of 1948, mother told us that we would be moving to town to live as she had met a man, had been seeing him for some time and had decided to marry him. 

Our stepfather’s name was Lee Chung Yung. Before the war, Lee had been working at the Japanese Kubota estate as a clerk. Being English-educated, he had set up an office to handle the preparation of Customs declaration forms on behalf of importers and exporters; he was the only one authorised to do this at the time. 

Lee was a widower with two children – a boy and a girl - and lived in a clustered neighbourhood of houses built on the edge of a mangrove swamp which was subject to the tidal action of the sea. This area had survived the Allied bombing, and pockmarks made by machine-gun bullets dotted the front wall of some houses. 

Our house was rented from Habib Ali, a textile merchant and father of Balung Assemblyman Syed Abas Ali. The exact location of this house is the site of the present community centre. In those days, whenever the spring tides came in (twice every month) we would set traps for crabs and lay nets (pukat) across the stream and wait for fish (frequently ikan belanak) that became trapped. We had become a family of nine. Mr Lee had a regular income, and could provide for us and he enrolled us in school. 

In retrospect, I think this may well have been one of the reasons for mother’s decision to marry him. I was enrolled in the Sin Hwa Chinese Primary School in 1948. I was then nine years old and too old for Primary One, so the headmaster put me directly into Primary Two. The school was literally a stone’s throw from the house. The main hall of the school was a handsome two-storey timber and zinc structure which stood out against the backdrop of flimsy attap houses located in the vicinity. Sandwiching this building were two less impressive attap-thatched structures which each housed two classrooms. That year, there were only five teachers besides the headmaster. 


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December 20, 2014