Bahau, the Elephant and the Ham - Sample Chapter


Floating Pork!


After several long stops, it was dawn and still dark when we finally reached our destination. Arriving in Bahau was just as chaotic a scene as when we had left Singapore. It was a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’. All this was made worse for us when we discovered that Kenny, who had been playing with some of the other children earlier, had lost one of his shoes on the train. As people were busy gathering their things to leave the carriage, I was on my hands and knees trying to locate that missing shoe. I eventually found it and soon we too had all our bags unloaded.

Our settlement was still eight long kilometres away from Bahau town located deep in the jungle. Lorries were arranged to take us the rest of the way to our new home which was called Fuji-go meaning Fuji Village after the sacred Japanese mountain.

However the dirt road to our settlement was mired in thick mud and after just three kilometres, the vehicles could go no further. We had to walk the remaining five kilometres carrying all our worldly possessions. Luckily we were able to hire a bullock cart for Mum who was carrying Roy and we loaded our little mountain of belongings onto it.

The land around Bahau was very hilly and we were constantly going up the side of one hill and down the other. As the eldest, it was my responsibility to keep the rest of the kids together and I kept a special eye on Kenny making sure he didn’t lose another shoe along the way!

On both sides of the dirt road stood the dark and imposing Malayan jungle and we could hear the calls of monkeys in the distance hidden by the thick canopy. We were told that herds of wild elephants were living there along with deer, wild boars and snakes of all description. Even the odd tiger or two was said to roam between the vine-covered trees. It seemed to me that we weren’t just travelling down a little country road but we were going back in time as well and suddenly the bright lights of Singapore felt so very far away.

I’m not sure how long it took us to walk those last kilometres but we finally made it to Fuji-go. It was really in the middle of nowhere and the tiny crude settlement with its rough timber huts and thatched roofs was an extremely depressing sight. This was far from the rosy picture of country bliss that the Japanese had painted.

At the centre of this little village was the administrative office. There was a small sentry outpost that housed a few Japanese soldiers but they never bothered us much. One cluster of buildings was designated as a convent for the nuns and another was home for the Catholic brothers and priests. There was even a small clinic. I didn’t notice it then but there was an open area just behind the clinic. This empty plot of land was reserved as a cemetery and it would soon be filled with little white crosses.

Locals from Bahau and Kuala Pilah, another town further away, were there to greet us or so I thought. Many had parked their old cars and rusty pick-up trucks by the side of the road ready to sell vegetables, chickens and just about anything else one might need.

While they seemed friendly enough, I wondered what they thought of us. Behind the broad smiles, I’m sure they felt that none of us, refugees from the big city down south, were ready to face the challenges of surviving out here in this desolate wilderness.

Maybe they just saw us as an economic opportunity – the chance to make a quick buck or two and who could blame them? Everyone was struggling just to get by and our struggle had barely begun.

We were moved into communal longhouses called bangsals which would be our temporary accommodation until we were processed. We also had to wait for our house to be built on the plot of land that we had been given.

Uncle Orgie, the family patriarch at the time, had already made arrangements with some local Chinese carpenters from the village to build our new home. Work had been underway for some weeks and the wooden house was almost completed by the time we arrived in Bahau.

He would not be staying with us as he held a good job in Singapore. Still, in the months to come, Uncle Orgie would visit us often bringing up some much-needed food, crop seeds and cash to keep us going. He was in essence, our only lifeline to the outside world.

Just like the situation on the train, the longhouses were packed with people and you had to sleep head to head with total strangers. Each longhouse could take about 50 people.

Like other families, we arranged our bags around us to form a mini-wall of sorts, guarding the precious little space we each had. With so many young boys around, Mum made sure us girls, my sister Noreen and I, stayed well protected in the middle of the family huddle as we slept at night.

One of our neighbours in the longhouse was a very nice family, the Oehlers. He was a dentist and they had a baby with them along with their two pet dogs which were well-behaved. Despite the cramped conditions, everyone tried to get along as best they could. I remember one of the young boys there was called Andrew Deans and he helped us out running little errands for Mum.

With the longhouses packed so tightly, there was no room for families to prepare and cook their meals so food was provided by the Japanese. At mealtimes, we would sit in rows while someone would dish out some food on our plates. It was mostly rice in watery soup and if you were lucky, you had a little bit of pork thrown in. It was just a thin slice of meat attached to a thick glob of tasteless fat.

Someone would inevitably yell out: ‘Eh! Floating pork’ and we would all laugh. It seemed quite funny at the time but little did we realise then that any form of meat, even ‘floating pork’, was soon to be a luxury.

Rainwater collected in large hand-dug ditches was all we had for bathing. Whilst Fuji-go did have some wells with clear water, these were used strictly for drinking.

Junior told us about an amusing encounter he had heard regarding the drinking wells in our little village. “No one enjoyed bathing in the muddy water because you end up feeling even dirtier than when you started. There was one chap, Roland Cornelius, who decided one night to use the water from a well outside the home for the brothers and priests. With no one around, he stripped down and was happily soaping himself when of all people, the bishop himself walked by. Roland kept bowing to the bishop and apologising profusely while trying to cover himself at the same time. Still, he got a ticking off from the bishop for wasting precious drinking water!”

Thankfully we didn’t have to stay in the longhouse for very long as it was only about a week or so after we arrived that our house was ready. Finally, we were about to get the first glimpse of our new home and I couldn’t wait to settle into somewhere more permanent.

From the centre of Fuji-go, it was another 15-minute walk to our plot of land and then we were finally home at last!