Remembering the Nanyang volunteers
WHEN THE SECOND Sino-Japanese war between China and Japan reached its height after July 7, 1937, China’s ports were blockaded by Japanese forces, forcing China to transport military supplies by a land route to support their war efforts. At this point China’s General Long Yun proposed The Burma Road project in August 1937.
The Burma Road was a passage from Kunming to Lashio in Burma (Myanmar). Built with the sweat and hard work of 200 engineers and about 200,000 labourers, the Burma Road was officially put to use on January 10, 1939, but not without constant modifications and repairs.
The Burma Road spanned over 1,146km and involved crossing 289 bridges and 1,959 treacherous bends to navigate.
In 1939, a total of about 3,400 volunteers were recruited to deliver medication, war ammunition and supplies through the Burma Road.
According to the documented lists, not all were Chinese. There were 100 non-Chinese volunteers; 55 Indians, 18 Malays, 11 Burmese, 2 Indonesians and others whose nationalities were unknown.
The war supplies for China were sent to Yangon port and then transported to Lashio by rail, from which the Nanyang Volunteers took over the transportation from Lashio to Kunming with US Dodge trucks.
The drive to Kunming was not a short trip; it would take about one week to drive through the mountainous trail.
A monthly average of about 600 vehicles with a combined capacity of 10,000 tonnes were used the Burma Road by 1941.
Fu Cai Qi was one of the Nanyang Volunteers. Born in 1909 in Kuching, at the age of 30, Fu volunteered for the China Relief Fund which was formed by expatriate Chinese in neighbouring countries to support China in its war against Japan.
As a volunteer during the war, Fu served as a driver and a clerk at the Southwest China-Burma Transport Company in Kunming.
Once the war ended, however, Fu failed to return to Sarawak due to insufficient identity and travelling documents. So he stayed in China working at a factory producing machine parts until his retirement.
He also married a local woman named Zhang Ju Hua. They both had a daughter named Fu Ze Xiu.
Throughout his lifetime, Fu hardly reminisced about his work as a military driver during the war, his thoughts mostly on his family back in Sarawak where he left behind his parents, a wife and two children.
In 1983, Fu passed away in Chongqing without the chance to visit his family in Sarawak. His last wish was that his daughter Ze Xiu would unite with her half-brother and sister in Sarawak.
It was not until 2005, more than 20 years after Fu died that the Fu siblings were united, fulfilling their father’s wish.
Fu’s story is only one of the many moving stories in a book called ‘The Intrepid Sarawak Volunteer Mechanics 1937-1945’ by Dr Julitta Lim Shau Hua and her late husband Fong Hon Koh.
‘The Intrepid Sarawak Volunteer Mechanics 1937-1945’ is the new edition of the 1998 version which is now out of print.
The book captures the stories of the volunteers, otherwise known as ‘Nanyang Ji Gong’ or overseas Chinese mechanics that were recruited from Southeast Asia.
Finishing the Story
Dr Lim, 72, was the woman behind several publications including ‘From an Army Camp to a Teachers College’ and ‘Pussy’s in the Well – Japanese Occupation of Sarawak 1941-1945’.
Her work on the Nanyang volunteers was started back in 1997 together with her late husband who sadly passed away on November 21, 2010.
“My husband and I thought it our mission to leave this part of the history to the younger generation of Sarawak.
“Unfortunately when we came up with the little bilingual book in 1998, the Heroes Story, my husband regretted not able to interview Thomas Liaw Ping in Canada,” said Dr Lim.
Liaw, 94, migrated to Canada in the 1970s, and is one of the four surviving Sarawak volunteers.
After Fong passed away, Dr Lim managed to go to Toronto, Canada and interview Liaw on June 23, 2012.
The interview turned out to be a success because Liaw did not only provide an almost detailed experience of the war but also photos and documents which is now included in the book.
“When I came back, there was more material and there were requests from the descendants from the former volunteers to look for their relatives in Sarawak.”
Dr Lim was sure there were many other channels for these volunteers to go to China in helping the war besides through the recruitment centre in Kuching.
“For those Sarawakians who went to Kunming to help in the war as mechanics and drivers, they entered China through different channels. Some of them went through recruitment centre in Kuching.”
But according to Dr Lim it is safe to say that 100 volunteers were from Sarawak, many were from Kuching and others from Sibu, Miri, Engkilili and Bintulu.
“At the moment, I still couldn’t find a lot of them who are from Sarawak.”
She is now continuing her search for these former Nanyang volunteers to document their experience for future generations and help reunite Sarawak Nanyang volunteers left behind in China with their relatives here in Sarawak.
“We are hoping that the young people to know this part of the history. It is not just China’s history; it is a history of Sarawak as well as the history of Malaysia.”
Continuing the Legacy
Tan Kah Kee was born on October 21, 1874 in China and moved to Singapore at the tender age of 17 to help in his father’s rice store.
Along the way he ventured into rubber planting and manufacturing factories.
Eventually Kah Kee became a powerful entrepreneur, making his money in different parts of Southeast Asia.
On August 15, 1937 the Malaya/Singapore Overseas Chinese Relief Fund Committee would be formed to help China in the Sino-Japanese war and Kah Kee was elected as its chairman.
“He canvased, he sent word out. As a result of his canvasing they managed to gather were than 3,200 volunteers,” said Tan Dib Jee, 65, Kah Kee’s grandson, of his grandfather’s war efforts.
On how he got involved in telling his grandfather’s story on Nanyang volunteers, Dib Jee explained, “I went to China to attend an event in 1993 or 1994. From there, from the museum then I realised there was this group of volunteers, drivers and mechanics that helped out fellow Chinese.”
Dib Jee who was born and raised in Singapore said, “I started with Professor Chen Yi Ming. She was the curator in overseeing Chinese museum in Xiamen. After that, one project led to another, and I got to know more about my grandfather.”
Dib Jee never had the chance to meet his grandfather but remembered how his grandfather was mentioned during normal household conversation, “At that time, for my parents and my father’s siblings, every time talking about my grandfather was a sensitive issue.”
Clearing the air, Dib Jee explained that the colonial government at the time had treated his grandfather as a suspected communist.
Dib Jee then realised about five years ago how sensitive the topic of his late grandfather was when he went to London to check on the documents in the museum archives.
He saw reports on his grandfather, with ‘Potential Communist’ underlined in red. Dib Jee said, “Only 60 years later I realised how sensitive my parents’ conversations were.”
Out of the 3,200 volunteers, only about 1,200 came back to South-East Asia. One third of them perished in China due to accidents, disease and as casualties of war, especially when the Burma Road was air-raided by the Japanese.
“Literally we can say that for every kilometre of the route there would be one volunteer who had an accident or was killed,” said Dib Jee.
According to Dib Jee, as many of them were in different places and news was slow, many of them missed out on the window period of repatriation.
Hence he said, “Many of them were left behind at Yunnan province, some of them choose not to come back because they married local girls. Those who did not know, they were in Kunming city.”
The hardships of war did not just end there. According to him, some volunteers left behind were left with no other option but to become beggars.
“At that time, the Communist party said they were pro-Taiwanese, they couldn’t get work. When they went to the Taiwanese looking for work, the Taiwanese regarded them as communists. So they were caught in limbo.”
Dib Jee clarified, however, that the volunteers were not involved in any party. “They were independent bodies.”
Dib Jee was however grateful when in 2004, the Chinese government officially acknowledged the former volunteers who resided in China after the war, providing them compensation which includes healthcare protection.
Dib Jee believes their job is not finished yet, “After Dr Lim’s book, I’m sure there are still a lot of things behind. We’re still trying to dig out more information in East Malaysia because I’m sure there are a lot more in our list that have not been discovered.”
“In the Chinese media this is pretty well covered. However in the Western media, this is part of the history that they think has nothing to do with the colonial time. They know very little even up to this day,” he said.
“I started this work since 1994. I learnt a lot from nothing to something. Till now I’m still trying to canvas these volunteers.”
He said just as his grandfather canvassed these volunteers to help in the war, he is now canvasing these former volunteers to accord them recognition.
“We must also say deep inside in our hearts we are grateful and thankful for all of their hardship and hard work in order to give us this peaceful time,” said Dib Jee.
A Daughter’s Journey
Tang Xiao Mei was born and raised in China but her father was from Penang and one of the volunteers during the Sino-Japanese war.
According to Tang, 62, when the repatriation period was announced, Tang’s father was still on the road and did not receive the news of repatriation.
He ended up remaining in China and could not go back to Penang. Eventually he married Tang’s mother and settled down in China.
Inspired by her father’s past, Tang is now the Executive Vice President of Yunnan Voluntary Mechanics Historical Research Society.
Apart from tracing all the volunteers who settled in China after the war, Tang’s effort is also to fight for more recognition and better allowance from the Chinese government for these former volunteers.
To date, 14 of the Nanyang Volunteer Mechanics and Drivers are still living; 9 living in China, 1 in Perak, 3 in Sarawak and the fourth Sarawak volunteer, Liaw who is now living in Canada.
The other three surviving Sarawak volunteers are Lee Ah Liew, 94, from Lundu, Kho Hai Seng, 93, from Serian and Fong Chen Piao, 94, from Kuching.
Photo credits: Dr Julitta Lim Shua Hua