I was born in 1913 on the island of Hainan, China. I was the eldest child in my family. We went on a long sea voyage to Malaya, a then-British colony in Southeast Asia. My parents settled in a small community near the sea called Kuantan. I grew up there, helping my mother care for my six younger siblings and playing with the neighborhood children.
I remember how loud and chaotic our games were at the neighbor’s home. We would sleep and eat together, sometimes forgetting to go home for several days. We all lived so close together that our parents didn’t mind.
The simplicity of my childhood did not carry into my teenage years.
My father worked many jobs when I was growing up. He was finally able to settle down running a convenience shop and overseeing a plantation on top of it. From the money he earned, Father bought a piece of land and built a home.
I got married at the age of 17 and the carefree life I led stopped. I was separated from my friends because I had to follow my husband who traveled often, producing coal. During this period, the influence of communism from China was growing. Although we lived far away from China, it was assumed that your loyalty was to the motherland. This created an atmosphere of fear. People were forced to join because the communist party wanted to grow in numbers. They were bullying, demanding and when opposed, made life very unpleasant. Everyone was afraid, and many ran away.
Unfortunately, those who ran owed money to Father and since he could not collect the debts, the shop shut down. Mother became very sick then. With no doctors nearby, she went to Kemaman. Around the same time, I gave birth to my first son. We found out that my mother wasn’t recovering from the medication and she could hardly sit up! My husband brought her to our home and not too long after, she passed away.
This was a difficult time in my life. Losing Mother was hard on me, especially when I was just beginning my marriage and parental journey. Father was busy trying to make ends meet because my siblings were still young. I could not afford to grieve the loss of my mother for long; many people needed me. My husband and I decided to move home to help Father with the housekeeping. We lived there until we had Betty, my third child.
When I was around 30 years old, the rumors of war came to us. Our family-owned shop was on the intersection that led to the main township. We began seeing British managers, over-seers and other Western residents passing our doors. They were heading to the city where the main army was posted. I knew that was a bad sign. The workers stood at the door of the shop, joking that the Westerners were “running away.” I told the them, “This is not the time to watch the parade!” If the Westerners were leaving, it meant that the Japanese were coming. We had to prepare to run too.
It was 1941 when the Japanese invaded Malaya. As they came in batches on feet and bicycles, they grabbed anything they could get their hands on. Livestock, rice, sugar…anything they could eat. We sold all kinds of things including cloth. I remember packing the cloth into empty biscuit tins, so it wouldn’t get wet. We then loaded as many supplies as we could onto the boats and rowed into the jungles to hide them there. My husband didn’t know, but I had instructed the workers one night to hide the supplies among the thick foliage where tigers liked to make their home. No one would dare look there. We crawled in the dark, covering everything with planks and tarps.
We knew we could not fight against the Japanese soldiers when they came to our shop. They took away everything else we had left. My father and father-in-law kept an eye on the shop during that time, two old men keeping up with pretenses while we escaped. We were so scared. When the full force arrived in our village, we were about to have dinner. We heard them coming, and without thinking about our food, we ran to hide in the jungles. We forgot to bring torches; we were that afraid, losing all sense of thought!
We stepped into a lot of thorns that night, but we didn’t care! We stayed under the cover of the jungle for several months. We were lucky we had supplies, many other people had nothing. Our workers at the shop came with us, and by that point we had five children to take care of. In total, there were around twenty of us. When we needed meat, the men would hunt for cockles by the sea or sometimes they would catch a turtle, and we’d live off its meat for a long time.
In time, the Japanese declared that the war was over, and we came out of hiding. The British returned and there was talk about independence for Malaya, but that was negotiated in the capital city Kuala Lumpur. Since we were far away, with a small patrol of police, we lived in fear of the Chinese communists. They fashioned themselves as guerrillas in the jungles, determined to win Malaya from the British. They claimed that the land should belong to China. To claim control, the British government sent Oversights and started jailing people for allegedly helping the communists.
My husband was nearly sent back to China because the police suspected that he was a part of the communist party. At the time, he was driving a truck to deliver food to his workers in the coal mines. But they suspected he was aiding the “guerrillas.” Our family had so many mouths to feed, and if they sent him away, what would happen to us?
I was pregnant with my ninth child then, and when they jailed my husband, I went to see the chief of police to explain the misunderstanding. After two days, they released him. Many other men weren’t so lucky and were sent back to Guangdong, China.
My husband might have been released, but our country still wasn’t safe. Our elderly neighbors faced danger after the old man bad-mouthed the “guerrillas” at the markets one day. He said that it was the communists’ fault that people in town were getting into trouble. That night, the communists came, strung him and his wife up in the trees and stabbed them to death.
We were scared witless! At night, we were so afraid, we didn’t dare sleep. We were worried they would come to kill us just for talking about them! Even if you didn’t, anyone who accused you of saying the wrong thing could result in your whole family dying. We were so frightened that we finally moved to another town. It was slightly safer there. That was a fearful time; lots of people went missing, disappeared or were killed.
After a few years, things settled down. Malaya was on its way to independence when we rented a piece of land and built a house with a coffee shop below. We ran that business for many years and my children grew up, studied and lived a stable life there. Other people noticed where we had set up business and joined us, including a man who ran an ice cream business at the back of our coffee place.
I ran the coffee shop alone while my husband continued to travel to several towns for the coal mining business. Sadly, the landlord had a disagreement with my husband, so we were evicted. Luckily, we had bought some land a few years prior and were already building a new house. We sold the coffee business to the ice cream man and prepared to move there.
My friends asked me if I was afraid of the uncertainty, but I wasn’t afraid of anything anymore! I had 11 children and a husband to care for. During the construction of the new house, we needed more money, so I reluctantly sold my father’s land. In 1957, the year Malaya gained its independence and became Malaysia, we settled into our new home.
After that, life was easier. The older children got married, pursued their careers, and some went overseas. In 1980, my husband and I moved to live with my third son and his family. He and his wife were busy running a printing business, so I took care of my three granddaughters.
That kept me busy for many years! I trained the in-house help on their cleaning duties and taught them how to cook. My other children would visit often, bringing their spouses and kids with them. My husband and I traveled too to spend time with our children and to see the world in Singapore, Australia, Canada and the US before he passed away in 1995.
As I got older, I stayed at home most of the time. I was updated on everyone’s lives via the telephone, an amazing luxury! Like many large families, there was always something happening. The world kept changing. It was really a little bewildering, but I lived my life being an adaptable woman. When your environment changes, you have to keep an open mind and sometimes there are situations that you cannot change, you learn to weather those times instead.
After so many experiences, near death shaves and losing dear ones, I think I became rather fearless. I have come to understand that fear only paralyzes me but if I take action, no matter how small, I could rise above that fear. When I have loved ones to protect, shrinking back isn’t an option. I did everything to survive, to care for my family and when there is no way, one simply has to get the courage, take the opportunities that come along and make the most of it. During the chaotic times, women weren’t seen as strong leaders, but I defied that stereotype and did what I had to do. That was what helped me survive.
This is the story of Lee Swee Yoke
Lee lived in Malaysia and watched her 11 children grow up and find success in life. Born during a dangerous time in Malaysia before it reached independence, Lee had to be resilient and do what needed to be done to survive against the Japanese and the Chinese communists invading her country. Once the nation found its independence, she was able to settle down and enjoy her life. In a time when women were not considered leaders of their households, Lee defied the norms and set a legacy for her family that now consist of many strong and capable women.
Lee spent her later years enjoying Chinese Operas and romantic television series. She had 14 grandchildren and met 12 of her great-grandchildren. An unparalleled green thumb, she spent many evenings pruning ferns, orchids and petunias while keeping a watchful eye on her grandchildren. She lived as a great example of feminine strength. She passed away peacefully in 2010 at the age of 97, surrounded by her family. Greatly respected, and loved, she continues to be a symbol of tenacity, resourcefulness and wisdom to those who knew her. Her story is one of overcoming the odds through strife and danger.
Life Log #138
This story first touched our hearts on July 25, 2018.
Read the story on our website: https://ourlifelogs.com/2018/08/28/the-will-to-survive/